What You Need to Know Before You Adopt

Expert advice for those considering adoption.

Gavin Owens
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Karen and Adam Owens never imagined they'd adopt multiple kids. But the death of their son, Gavin, dramatically shifted the lives of the 33-year-olds, who live outside of Reading, Pa.

Gavin, who would have turned 7 this year, was 3 and a half years old when he died from a degenerative mitochondrial disease – an experience that left the couple, along with their grief, aching for the chance to nurture other sick kids. "After Gavi died, we just really felt like we had all of these skills that we had gained from caring for him, and we wanted to put those skills to use again," Karen Owens says.

Three years ago, they adopted Angela, who suffers from the most severe form of cerebral palsy, and shortly after, Jayden, who endures the fallout of shaken baby syndrome – a severe brain injury due to forceful shaking as an infant or toddler. Angela, now 5, is learning to use a power chair, and Jayden, now 4, is learning how to walk, an achievement that was never thought possible. The Owens, who also have an 8-year-old biological daughter, Madison, are in the midst of adopting their third child, a 2-year-old with a genetic disorder who was also exposed to drugs and alcohol during pregnancy. None of the adopted children can eat on their own and are fed through a gastrostomy tube.

"Every single year, we look at our family, and it's like an 'aha moment,'" says Owens, noting the fourth anniversary of Gavin's death, which was last week. "Because of Gavin's life, these amazing kids are thriving. If it had not been for his life and the legacy he left, we would have never, ever found our children."

[Read: What do Happy Families Know That You Don't?]

Each adoption comes with its own set of circumstances. But often the process provides a renewal of life after loss – usually, after couples have struggled with fertility, says Susan Caughman, editor and publisher of Adoptive Families magazine and author of "You Can Adopt: An Adoptive Families Guide." That background explains some of the angst that routinely accompanies some adoptive parents, she explains. "They've had all these horrible disappointments, and they really find it difficult to put themselves again in an uncertain situation." Until recently, international adoption offered that certainty – the fulfilled dream of a child despite the hurdles involved (Caughman endured them personally in the early 1990s when she adopted her daughter from China).

As recently as 2005, Americans were adopting more than 22,000 children from abroad, a number that has dropped below 9,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State. That's, in part, because two of the largest providers of children for adoption – China and Russia – have restricted opportunities for Americans. At the same time, the Hague Adoption Convention, an international agreement meant to safeguard and promote adoption between participating countries, has slowed the process and made it considerably more costly as a result of bureaucracy.

That leaves most Americans with the option of domestic adoption. Experts advise working with a licensed agency or attorney and researching all your options – from foster care to working with a birth mother – as you embark on potential parenthood.

Among the 450,000 American kids living in foster care, 110,000 hope to be adopted, says Gloria Hochman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia-based National Adoption Center. Going this route might mean adopting a school-aged child or older and can involve siblings, since agencies prefer to keep brothers and sisters together, she says. Also, kids in foster care may come with problems related to abandonment or neglect. "If you're 14, and you're still waiting to get adopted, it's only natural you might have some emotional issues," Hochman says. The more open prospective parents are about the kind of child they are willing to adopt, the quicker the process is likely to be. Girls, for example, are more in demand than boys. "People have the idea that girls are easier," Hochman says. "I don't know where they get that idea."