Blogging about life in Minnesota, raising our six kids with Down syndrome while battling Breast Cancer.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Serbian Adoptions: The 411

So you're wondering about adopting from Serbia. Is it for you? Will it work for your family? How much does it cost? What types of children are waiting for families? What are the requirements? I hope I can answer some of your questions, or point you in the direction of someone who can.

Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia) is located in the Balkan region region of Europe. It is a small country, covering 34, 116 square miles. You can find out a lot about Serbia's history by reading here.

You can go to the Department of State's website for more details, but here are the basics:

Serbia is not party to the Hague Convention.

Who can adopt? Serbia requires that parents not be more than 45 years older than the child they are adopting. Parents must be married, but a common-law marriages can qualify. Single parents are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you're single be prepared to explain how you will care for a child with special needs.

What children are available?  There are currently more than 500 families in Serbia waiting to adopt healthy infants. While Serbia is slowly making progress in the area of services and acceptance for those with disabilities, they still have a long way to go. Because of this, the only children available for adoption from Serbia are those with physical or mental impairments who's needs can be better met in a country such as the U.S. There are currently approximately 50 children who are registered for international adoption in Serbia. Their needs vary from Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Cleft lip/palate, Autism spectrum disorders or sibling groups. (keep in mind that except in the case of Down syndrome where a chromosome analysis can be done, diagnosis, particularly of Autism Spectrum Disorders, are not always accurate.) It is important to keep in mind that some things seen as "severe" in Serbia are diagnosis that are "no big deal" here in the U.S. This is mostly do to the services, both educational and medical, available in the U.S. Historically, children in Serbia born with obvious differences are usually institutionalized at birth. Although current laws state that children without parental care be placed in foster care at birth and that those currently residing in institutional care also be moved to foster care, the fact is there is a shortage of foster families willing to take the children with special needs. While education and public service announcements are becoming more common (I just saw some AWESOME t.v. commercials including many adults with Down syndrome during my most recently stay!) change takes time. While the children wait for change, they do just that....wait....

With the exception of sibling groups, families are only allowed to adopt one child at a time from Serbia.

Now that you have some background, let me explain the adoption process.

What are the agency requirements? At the moment Serbian adoptions are independent. While you need to work with a licensed homestudy agency to complete the homestudy process, you do not need to work with an adoption agency. You can make all your own arrangements for travel, lodging, translation etc. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, and would like more of a "hand holder", you can contact Cherish Our Children International. They are a US based 501c3 NGO registered with the US Embassy in Belgrade. (I'll cover this more later in the post.)

I want to know more. What is my next step?

1) Contact the Serbian Ministry directly. (email me and I can send you the email address) This should be a formal email in biography format. Include information about your family, your background, your income, etc. If you have a child with a disability already, include that as well as why you feel you can handle another child with special needs. Also include information about your relationships with extended family and what support systems you have in place should you adopt a child with special needs. In other words, what makes YOUR family a good candidate for a child with special needs from Serbia. List the criteria for a child who would fit into your family. For example, we were willing to adopt a child, either boy or girl, between the ages of 6-12 with Down syndrome or any other special needs. If you are specifically requesting a child with Down syndrome, you need to be open to all the medical diagnosis that are possible with Down syndrome because many of the issues are not diagnosed in Serbia. I also included photos of our home, our yard, the bedroom the child would sleep in, as well as some pictures of Angela participating in some of her many activities in the community. I explained how normal life for is for Angela in our community.

2) The Ministry will respond to your inquiry. Please be aware the "adoption unit" is run by a group of people who wear several hats, and adoption is just one of their many responsibilities. There are also only two English speaking contacts in the office. While people often receive a response with a couple of business days, there are odd holidays thrown in there and there, not to mention it's a very busy office. Please be patient. If you don't receive a response within two weeks, contact them again. When they do respond to you, it will be with additional questions, and/or requests for more information. At some point the ministry will request your dossier.

3) Items that must be included in your dossier. All items must be certified, notarized an apostilled:
   1. Homestudy
   2. Birth certificates for all adults in the household
   3. Marriage License (and divorce decrees if applicable)
   4. Federal Criminal Backround check (this is not the same as the Adam Walsh)
   5. State Criminal Background check
   6. Local Criminal Background check
   7. Medical reports for both parents. This is very generic, and only needs to state that the individual is free          of serious or communicable diseases or psychological disorders. Must be on physical letterhead and notarized.
   8. The following financial records:
      a. Bank statement including account balance (checking and savings)
      b. copy of latest income tax return
      c. Letter from current employer which must include annual wages
      d. Mortgage certificate listing you as owner of your home, or a letter from landlord stating rent paid w/copy of your lease.
   9. Proof of US residency (copy of passport)
  10. Photograph

4. Your dossier must be translated into Serbian. You can contact the US Embassy, Belgrade to request a list of translators. Please note the Embassy cannot endorse any translator. They will only provide you a list of translators who are qualified to translate your documents. You can find the list here or contact the embassy directly.
US Embassy in SerbiaKneza MiloŇ°a 50
11000 Belgrade
Tel: (+381 11) 306 4655

Your other option is to contact COCI (Cherish Our Children International) and they will make translation arrangements for you. The going rate for translation is 10 euro per page. There is a 1900 keystroke per page limit, so some documents (such as your homestudy) will translate to several pages more than the original. (for example, my updated homestudy was 8 pages but translated to 14) When counting pages of your originals, be sure to count the appostille pages! (You may also contact COCI for information about walking you through the rest of  your in-country process. I have been involved with COCI for a little over a year  now and their staff is amazing! Please read more details about their work in Serbia by clicking here. COCI is a true example of what it means to work with a society for change!)

5. At some point in the process - it seems to be a little different depending upon the circumstances of certain children/families - the ministry will provide you with a list of children who are registered for international adoption who fit the criteria you have requested. When I adopted Axel, I had met him on a previous visit so I made my My adoption of Asher was the first truly "blind" adoption. Meaning I did not have any information on a child prior to my inquiry. At that time you may ask for further questions to help you make a decision. Please be patient with this process. The ministry (which is like the state) must contact the child's social center (which is like the county) who is responsible for the child. However, the child might actually be housed in a facility at the other end of the country from the social center so it can take a few days to get your questions answered. It is possible you will not receive a picture of the children! Due to the selling of information that happened in previous years, Serbia is extremely protective of the privacy rights of it's children. Please be respectful of us. We did not get a picture of Asher before we traveled. We could have chosen to wait for a picture, however Dean and I decided together that just like a pregnancy when we have no idea what our child will look like, this adoption was no different. We didn't care what he looked like. (and to be honest, Asher took horrible pictures and I think having his picture could have caused us to choose a different child.)

6. Both parents are required to travel. Once you have made your decision on a child, the ministry will give you a travel date. This is a FAST process! We were formally accepted for Asher on November 15th, and my meeting with the ministry in Belgrade was on November 22nd! The ministry will work with you on establishing a travel date that works for your family. We were prepared to travel quickly since we wanted our child home fast. In my opinion, if you're working toward completing an adoption, you know the travel is coming! With a Serbian adoption it's pretty easy to figure out a timeline.

7. Your first task in Serbia is to meet with the ministry. In attendance will be members of the Ministry, the child's legal guardian, social worker, and psychologist. If the child is in institutional care, a representative from the facility will be there was well. During this meeting they will go over the child's entire history with you, including social, medical, etc. You'll learn the circumstances that caused the child to come into state care. ( In both of my adoptions - both Asher and Axel were from the same birth city and represented by the same social center - I learned the names of the boys' birth parents, and that they were interested in contact.)

8. Immediately following the meeting you will go to meet the child. If your child is in Belgrade, it's a drive of just a few minutes. If the child is in another city you'll be driving there. Expect to stay in that city during the process of visitations with the child. For example, Axel was in a foster home in his birth city of Kragujevac. I stayed there for 9 days.

9. At some point in the visiting process two reports must be sent to the Ministry stating the social worker's opinion of how visits are going. If your child is in foster care, you will take the child into your custody much faster than if the child is in a facility. (In Axel's case I was granted custody on day 3, in Asher's case it was day 14. Even though I got custody of Axel sooner, the second report still had to be done, which was on day 6 or so.) The second report must be signed by the head minister of Serbia. Once you have a signature, hold on to your socks because things are going to move fast!

10. Usually the day after the signature, you will have the adoption ceremony in the child's birth city. If your child is over age 7, he or she must go with you because their finger print is needed to issue the passport. If your child is in institutional care and under age 7 he or she will not go to the birth city with you.

11. Once the ceremony is done, it takes 3-4 business days to complete the paperwork allowing the child to leave the country. Please allow yourself some room for error. Every adoption is different, and many cities have never processed an adoption before. I fly into Serbia on a one-way ticket and book my return flight 2-3 days before flying out.

What's the time frame? I have completed two Serbian adoptions. The timeline for each is included on the left sidebar of my adoption blog. Axel's adoption, from the time we started the homestudy until I traveled was 4 months. Asher's adoption was much shorter! More like 4 WEEKS. The ministry asks you to plan on 16-21 days in country. For Axel's adoption I came home on day 16 (we could have come home on day 15), and Asher's adoption I came home on day 18.

What's the cost? You can go to my adoption blog where you'll find a cost summary on the left sidebar. You'll notice a significant difference in cost between Axel and Asher's adoptions, where you'll Axel's adoption was significantly more expensive. There is a corrupt facilitator that has since been removed which reduced the cost by $5,000!!! Asher's adoption was completed after the removal of said facilitator, and before all my documents had expired. I had my original homestudy and Immigration approval written for two children from Serbia so I only needed to update a couple of things. The variable will be the cost of a homestudy in your state, where you stay while in-country, the location of the child's birth city, where the child is housed, etc. If the child is in another city your expenses will be at the higher end. If your child is right in Belgrade your expenses will be at the lower end. You can use my list of expenses as a guideline, then add/subtract what your own expenses would be. Currently, starting from scratch, a Serbian adoption will cost somewhere between $8,000-$13,500 dependent upon the variables I just listed.

I hope you've found this post helpful in understanding the process of adopting from Serbia. Please don't hesitate to contact me for the email address of the Serbian ministry!


And patiently waiting... said...

Great post Leah! That is the process we did the three times we adopted from Serbia. We found our own lodging/transportation and such the first two times. The last time we used COCI and it was great! Not only did we feel supported by the government completely...we had people from COCI who spoke English and supported us as well for what ever we needed!!! Even when I was SO sick they helped us out...knowing where a clinic was!
Adopting from Serbia is straight forward and a process that was followed the same way each time. Time in country was three weeks...all of our kids were in the orphanage in Belgrade...modern city with lots to do and see on the down times. Thank you Leah for a wonderful post about the Serbian adoption process!!

Line-Marie said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this post.
It is very informative and exactly what I was looking for :)

Tara said...

Thanks, Leah! I'll be memorizing this. :)

ivana said...

hi! I stumbled upon this blog while searching for information on my missing relative. If you have or are going to adopt a child from Serbia, please double-check the documents because Serbia is notorious for selling kidnapped babies for adoption. Doctors and social services are involved and this has been going on since the 70's. Here are a few links:
One more:

Leah Spring said...

Ivana, thank you for your comment. Several years ago there was an issue with babies who "disappeared" in Serbia, and it is widely known many were sold through the black market. Those were not legal adoptions. I do know the original adoption facilitator we worked with had some very questionable practices, and was investigated heavily. The investigation was just being re-opened when she died from cancer. That said, Serbia ONLY allows the adoption of children who have special needs. If someone promises you a "healthy" child with NO special needs, and does not allow you direct contact with the Serbian adoption authorities, then you NEED to contact those authorities and let them know.

ivana said...

Thank you for your comment, Leah. You are setting a beautiful example for others who are considering adoption. I can only offer information from a personal angle, and it only applies to completely healthy babies. My family member's baby girl was kidnapped at birth (in the 80's), and this was done by the responsible doctors in collaboration with the people from the social services. Such practises have been going on in Serbia to this day, and it is impossible to get insight into any documentation of the missing child. In our case authorities have been extremely unreliable and corrupt. My cousin may have been adopted in California or Germany - it is very hard to know for sure. We have done DNA tests on GEDmatch, but have not had any success yet. If you know of anyone who could help us search in the USA, I would be grateful for the info.

Leah Spring said...

There was an agency in the US....I forget the name and don't want to say the wrong one by mistake. They were advertising healthy children from Serbia and had may families pay more than $45,000 for the adoption of those children. Children who did not exist. Please feel free to contact me privately at deanleah at