For the past two years, every time Amy Nutig heard that a children’s store was having a sale, she bought baby clothes, toys and decorations for the nursery. “We have several hundred size one diapers,” she said, glancing at her husband, Henry Nutig, who sat next to her with his head lowered. “But he kept telling me, ‘You need to slow down with this stuff.’”
At first, Amy thought Henry disapproved for financial reasons, but she later realized it was because he was losing hope of becoming a father. “Every time he walked past the nursery with this pile of stuff, it reminded him that we still weren’t parents,” she said.
Amy and Henry Nutig began the process of adoption over two years ago after struggling with infertility and four years of failed IVF treatments. The Queens couple, who met in 2003 and got married two years later, were first approved for adoption in late 2018, but had to reapply in June 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when their application expired.
The already long and strenuous process became even longer and harder because of the pandemic, which added “more layers of frustration,” said 46-year-old Amy Nutig.
The couple are among many New Yorkers whose dreams of having a baby have been prolonged by the pandemic. The adoption process already comes with an inevitable waiting period. But during the pandemic, the waiting and anxiety for prospective adoptive parents reached new heights, said New York adoption attorney Faith Getz Rousso.
Adoption experts cite several reasons: A decline in the number of young women giving up their babies. Family courts operating in limited capacity for months — due to the lockdown — unable to process as many applications or finalize adoptions. And a halt in international adoption, as countries keep their borders closed during the pandemic, increasing the demand for domestic adoption.
Couples and individuals seeking domestic adoptions have two options — independent adoptions, also known as private adoptions, where prospective parents hire a lawyer and go through all the steps of finding a baby on their own, and adoption through an agency that facilitates the matching process and assists prospective parents with everything they need before, during and after the adoption.
The Nutigs, who chose independent adoption, have heard from no expectant mothers in months. Other prospective parents have had a similar experience.
“My clients have barely received any phone calls from expectant mothers during the pandemic,” said adoption lawyer James Greenberg.
Greenberg and other adoption lawyers attribute the silence to a side effect of the lockdown: fewer unplanned pregnancies. With bars and clubs closed for the past year and with most college and high school classes held online, Getz Rousso surmised that fewer “young women found themselves in situations where they had to consider giving up their unplanned babies for adoption.”
Some adoption agencies have seen a similar slowdown. Adoption STAR, a nonprofit agency, saw a decline in infant adoptive placements that began in the fall of 2020, though executive director Michael Cleveland Hill said the impact of the pandemic has started to wear off and numbers are picking back up during 2021. Similarly, Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children said they saw a decrease in adoptions during the pandemic, particularly international ones, due to reduced staffing in many offices worldwide and delays in court finalizations.
It doesn’t help that the lockdown has allowed some couples and individuals who had been considering adoption to finally begin the process. “They’re not doing anything anyway, so they might as well have a family now,” said Getz Rousso, adding that she currently has about 35 couples waiting to adopt, which she said is a significantly higher number of clients than before the pandemic.
One key factor affecting adoptions has come from the courts. In New York, depending on the county, either the Family or the Surrogate’s Court decides adoption cases. These courts, which Getz Rousso described as “traditionally very slow,” postponed all non-essential functions in March 2020 when the pandemic started and only recently began accelerating operations.
Approximately 712 adoptions were finalized in New York City Family Court in 2019 and only 237 in 2020, a near 70 percent decline during the pandemic, according to the court’s public information office. In 2019, 2,563 adoption cases were filed in Family Court statewide, while only 1,487 were filed in 2020. And 192 adoption certifications, in which a family is granted approval to adopt, were handed out in 2019 while only 122 were granted in 2020, according to the court system’s annual reports.
One couple, Vidya, 40, and Stanley, 44, began their adoption journey in the summer of 2019 after years of trying to conceive naturally and several rounds of failed IVF treatments. The two Queens lawyers have been waiting for the phone to ring ever since they were approved by the court in January of 2020, after completing the rigorous home study: a required overview of the prospective parent’s life that includes criminal background checks, submission of financial statements, home visits by a social worker and personal references.
The couple, who asked to keep their last name private to avoid adoption scammers, have been married since 2010 and had always planned to have their own child and also to adopt. They didn’t expect that adoption would be their only option.
They recently decided to increase their chances of becoming parents by applying to become foster care parents. They are both from India and also are pursuing international adoption there. “The problem with international adoption is you’re working with another country, so they could just change the laws on a whim,” said Vidya.
The couple attended 30 hours of Zoom training and workshops, a requirement for foster care certification that is meant to prepare them for the challenges that come with fostering a child. They spent months gathering all the required financial and medical clearances and paperwork, which took significantly longer because most government agencies were shuttered and operating in limited capacity.
If they are matched with a baby in India, they may have to develop the initial relationship with their child over Zoom, and their travels might be halted or postponed due to international travel restrictions. They are currently nearing the end of their application process, after facing significant delays since India “closed everything down,” said Stanley, due to a severe spike in COVID-19 cases.
The adoption process just began for John DeLamar, 39, and Mark Kanter, 38, a Queens couple who are hopeful about their chances. The two teachers were certified by the court for adoption three months ago and immediately launched an adoption website and began regularly posting on social media, crucial steps for all individuals and couples who opt for independent adoption.
Hopeful parents create elaborate websites and come up with a social media strategy, posting cheerful family photos every few days, accompanied by captions and hashtags that reflect a picture-perfect life, said Getz Rousso. Some even pay for Google advertisements in hopes of standing out in a pool of adoption websites. Their online presence is their best way of appealing to an expectant mother during the pandemic.
“If an expectant mother sees our website, that’s like seeing us in black and white,” said Kanter. “Then when she sees our social media, that should start to color it in.”
As New York expands its vaccine distribution and life in the city continues to reopen, prospective adoptive parents are hopeful they can begin reaching out in person to find expecting women who might consider adoption.
“We plan to print flyers and hand them out in churches and community centers,” said Vidya.
Hopeful that the phone might ring soon, DeLamar said: “Our future baby might have been made during spring break, who knows.”
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.