Adoption might not be top of mind for your average high school senior headed off to college. But for Felicia Curcuru, who was a teenager twelve years ago when her older sister was struggling to adopt children, the experience made a lasting impression
“It was like a nightmare,” Curcuru recalls of her sister’s efforts. “There was just an unending amount of paperwork. She would think she was done, but then there would be some mistake, or she would discover later that she had missed something.” She remembers thinking at the time that the system must be purposefully designed to be challenging because there weren’t enough children to go around. “But then when my sister finally made it to the orphanage in Russia, there were 300 children waiting to be adopted. She and her husband were the only couple to have visited in three years,” Curcuru says. “It seemed like there were 100 parents trying out for every kid, but it was really the other way around. I was just so upset. I was shocked.”
Curcuru’s sister ultimately got a happy ending when she adopted a pair of siblings during that trip to Russia, but even a decade later, hopeful parents face a long and challenging process that leads to a high attrition rate—up to 90 percent of families who initiate the adoption process will drop out without adopting a child.
They cite a trio of common roadblocks: Paperwork that can include up to 200 forms—birth certificates, immunization records, background checks, financial statements, character references, fingerprints, etc—submitted via email, mail or fax; a lengthy timeline of between one and three years before a match might be made; and the cost, which hovers around $30,000 (and can go as high as $50,000) for domestic adoptions.
To many, the process seems designed to weed out prospective parents, and the result is an utter mismatch between the large numbers of children who need a home and the adoptive families who seek them. “We have these two separate groups—the parents who want the children and the children who want the parents, but they’re not coming together,” says Curcuru.
“Basically, it boils down to the fact that if you don’t grow up with a family, you just don’t have opportunities in life. These children desperately need families.”
Curcuru’s sister’s experience reflects the broader state of adoption today. Internationally, millions of children await adoption from orphanages, but each year, there are always more kids in need of homes than parents who make it through the process to provide them. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 children per year are waiting to be adopted from foster care, which is intended as a temporary living arrangement for dependent, neglected, or abused kids that can’t be cared for by their parents or other relatives.
The hope is that many will be adopted into permanent new homes, but although hundreds of thousands of inquiries by prospective parents flood child welfare centers throughout the country, and the cost of a foster care adoption is relatively low at just a few thousand dollars, fewer than half of those kids end up getting placed.
The social cost of this discrepancy is high. Kids who age out of the foster system and reach legal maturity with no permanent home are disproportionately more likely to become homeless, pregnant, dependent on social assistance programs, or to end up in detention centers.
“Basically, it boils down to the fact that if you don’t grow up with a family, you just don’t have opportunities in life,” Curcuru says. “These children desperately need families.”
Twelve years after she watched her sister barely make it through the adoption process, Curcuru noted that the methodology hadn’t changed much. It typically comprises four steps: The initial outreach and education of prospective parents, the paperwork, the home visit with a social worker, and the final matching of a child with a family.
But because The United States doesn’t have a national adoption system, adoption restrictions and requirements vary widely from state to state, as do the documents needed for getting through the paperwork and home visit. These two steps are collectively called a home study, which qualifies a family for placement.
The challenge of getting to this stage presents a major hurdle for many prospective parents. So armed with an economics degree from University of Pennsylvania and a background in technology, Curcuru resolved to do something about it.
“We want people to think that maybe they have one biological child and one adopted child. We want adoption to be a mainstream option.”
Enter Binti, the company that Curcuru launched in April to exponentially reduce the confusion and complexity of the adoption process. She and her co-founder, Julia Chou, worked with 250 families to examine what prevents them from getting to the point of matching with a child. “They find out what the cost is and it’s too much for a young family, or they just get really overwhelmed with what they need to get ready, and they’re like, ‘We’ll have to do this later,’” Curcuru says.
Binti went to work on a single hurdle—the paperwork problem—and digitized the forms for each state in order to build a logical, step-by-step process that would guide families through the forms and documents. “It’s kind of a TurboTax-like experience,” says Curcuru. It speeds up the process by an order of ten, by her estimate.
“On average, people take months to finish the paperwork, but most of our families complete it within just a few days,” she says.
Binti also matches families with its network of local social workers and adoption agencies, which are licensed and regulated on a state-by-state basis, and perform the in-person home studies and actual child placements. Getting local adoption professionals signed on was a crucial step, says Curcuru, who contacted nearly 100 agencies before she found someone willing to experiment with her digital format.
She finally found Rebecca Conner Dollar, an Alabama-based social worker who provides home studies through her one-woman firm, Conner Adoption Support Services. As the first to sign on, Conner Dollar worked with Curcuru and a small handful of potential parents to smooth out any kinks in the process, and Binti operated solely in Alabama for the next three months.
But it is expanding at an increasingly rapid pace, and is now active in 20 states, including its home base of California, where the Binti team operates out of Curcuru’s one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. It currently covers 65 percent of the American population, and that number will climb to 90 percent by mid-November. “Within a few months, we’ll be the largest home study provider in the country,” Curcuru says.
“Binti has been a godsend for me and my families.”
“Binti has been a godsend for me and my families,” says Conner Dollar. “Before, families would either give me a pile of paperwork or would scan and email me multiple files with forms and reference letters. It got to be very confusing and frustrating at times, and it was challenging making sure that I didn’t ‘lose’ emails because there were so many.”
But in her current flow, Conner Dollar sends prospective families to the Binti site and receives a single email when the paperwork is complete. So far, 10 of Conner Dollar’s families have used the service (five to completion), and only one has decided to postpone the adoption process until a later date.
The increased efficiency frees her to spend more time counseling prospective families, and she is still working with Binti to develop powerful new features, such as multi-group access to each individual family in the process. Social workers and adoption agencies often require the same information, and before, the onus was on the family or office to copy and share overlapping forms or documents.
“This lets adoption professionals focus on helping families and birth parents with counseling, education, advocating, et cetera instead of spending endless amounts of time on paperwork collection and organization,” Conner Dollar says.
She believes Binti will ultimately attract more people to the option of adoption. “It makes it so much easier for a family to get everything together and to focus on other aspects of their lives.”
For Carrie of New Jersey, being able to focus solely on the end result keeps her going. The adoption process has been grueling––especially in her case. Two years ago, her fiancé passed away one month before their wedding. “I never thought my life was going to end up as me being someone who wasn’t having my own babies and married for the rest of my life,” says Carrie, who is 43. “Parts of this can be so devastating. I never thought I would have to adopt.”
After testing the waters with a few agencies in her area, Carrie chose Binti partner Family Options to facilitate her paperwork and home study. Somewhere amidst the state-mandated educational training and fingerprinting, she started to feel the pressure of the process, but she praises Binti’s new system with making it manageable. “When it comes to the normal way, don’t know how anyone with a full-time job gets through it,” says Carrie, who is director of admissions for New York state’s post-secondary school system. “It’s just overwhelming, and paperwork should not take 3 months to complete. But the Binti process was so simplified.”
With this major step behind her, Carrie is awaiting a call from her social worker to schedule a home visit. She’s relieved that she can focus on what’s important, rather than panic over any small details that she might have missed. “I’m in the frame of mind that I want to love and raise a baby. I want to have a family. I want to go to the beach and pick shells with my child. And everything else has to be put aside at this point,” says Carrie.
Having demolished certain operational inefficiencies, Curcuru has set her sights on reducing adoption’s high cost as well. “That’s the next chapter,” she says. “We’re going to start experimenting on that in the next few months. Right now, we don’t impact adoption’s cost at all. We’re making adoption easier, but we’re interested in ways to improve the process of the actual placement, and also potentially to reduce the cost. A lot of the price stems from project management, which can be automated.”
Currently, Binti helps some of Conner Dollar’s families with online fundraising campaigns—something that each group hopes to formalize in the future. “There are so many families that would create a wonderful home for a child in need. They can afford to raise a child, however they don’t have the amount to complete an adoption,” says Conner Dollar.
Curcuru’s efforts are all aimed at keeping prospective parents in the process of providing a home for the kids that need it. “I think a lot of people who might be interested are discouraged from even starting. That’s really what we want to change. We want people to think that maybe they have one biological child and one adopted child.” Curcuru says. “We want adoption to be a mainstream option.”
In the United States, there are three types of adoptions—foster care, domestic infant or international—and each comes with it’s own set of rules and costs. Curcuru and her staff put together some guides for prospective parents to orient themselves.