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Several routes available on the road to adoption

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For adoptive parents, the joys of raising children come only after many tough decisions. Probably the toughest, after deciding to adopt in the first place, is choosing how to adopt.

The routes to adoption are many, and the right one depends on how long you're willing to wait, how much you're willing to spend and - the hardest to gauge - how much disappointment you're willing to risk.- DOMESTIC ADOPTIONS. Parents who want to adopt a healthy infant in the United States can expect to be on a long waiting list - as long as seven years at some adoption agencies - and can expect to spend from $5,000 to $25,000. Public agencies and those with a religious affiliation, such as Catholic Charities USA or Lutheran Social Services, will be at the low end of that price range, but their waiting lists are among the longest.

An independent adoption, arranged through a private adoption agency or a lawyer, can be faster (typically nine months to two years) and usually costs from $10,000 to $15,000. Often arranged while the birth mother is pregnant, though, these can be less predictable. Depending on state law, birth parents may have anywhere from 24 hours to six months or more after the baby is born to change their minds.

- INTERNATIONAL ADOPTIONS. Adopting a child from overseas costs about the same amount but can shrink the wait to six to 18 months. Additional costs can include travel expenses and fees for a second lawyer or agency in the child's home country.

And there can be special risks. It's tougher to find out whether a child has medical or emotional problems, for instance, because you can't generally question the birth parents. And sometimes adoptions fall through when a foreign government changes its requirements for adoptive parents. Korea has weight limits for adoptive parents, for instance, and China requires that parents be over age 35.

With either a domestic or international adoption, you'll need to do your homework to find a reputable attorney or agency. Contact your state's adoption unit and adoption advocates in your community for suggestions, and check out several candidates.

The agency or attorney should allow you to contact previous clients, and it won't hurt to check consumer agencies for complaints. Also, ask lots of questions about what is and is not covered by the agency's or attorney's fee.

Here's some ideas about how to ease the financial burden of adoption:

- CHOOSE AN OLDER CHILD. Typically, costs are lower to adopt older children, and you get to meet them ahead of time. For a Denver family who adopted three schoolage children, legal and social-service-agency fees came to about $350 each.

Adopting a "waiting" or "special needs" child is also comparatively swift, taking an average of four to 18 months. (A "waiting child" is typically a school-age youngster who is in the public welfare system because of parental abuse, neglect or abandonment. Some may also have disabilities or illnesses.)

But older children come with more emotional baggage.

- TAKE A TAX BREAK. Whatever adoption path you choose, take advantage of financial incentives for adoptive parents. If you qualify, a federal tax credit knocks $5,000 off your tax bill for each child you adopt ($6,000 for a "special needs" or "hard-to-place" child). The credit is reduced for parents with a combined income of $75,000 or more and is phased out entirely for couples who earn $115,000.

- TAP YOUR BENEFITS. Many employers provide special benefits for adoptive parents, ranging from reimbursement of expenses (perhaps $2,000 to $10,000) to paid or unpaid leave. In independent adoptions, arranged through a private agency or a lawyer, many parents have been able to get the birth mother's medical expenses covered under their own health insurance.

Federal law requires most employer-provided health plans to treat adopted children the same as biological children; neither can be excluded from coverage for a preexisting condition as long as the child is added to the plan within 30 days of becoming eligible.

And the Family and Medical Leave Act gives you the right to take up to 12 unpaid weeks off work to tend to your new child without jeopardizing your job.

For more information on adoption costs, request the free booklet "How to Make Adoption an Affordable Option" from the Consumer Information Center, Item 602-E, Pueblo, CO 81009. Or visit the Adoption Exchange on the Internet at (www.adoptex.org).