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Companies increasingly offer adoption benefits

When Tim Huval and his wife decided to adopt, they got financial aid, moral support and legal counseling from a seemingly unlikely source: his employer.
Business of Life
In the end, $5,000 in financial aid from Cornell University helped Deborah Surine secure the adoption of her daughter, now 2.Kevin Rivoli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Tim Huval and his wife decided to adopt, they got financial aid, moral support and legal counseling from a seemingly unlikely source: his employer.

"Never once do you feel like you're in a separate bucket because you're adopting" rather than having a biological child, said Huval, a senior vice president of card services at Bank of America Corp. With company benefits to ease the way, Huval is now the adoptive father of a daughter and a son.

His case isn't unusual. Last year, 47 percent of about 1,000 major U.S. companies offered financial aid for adoption, up from just 12 percent in 1990, according to the human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates. As the prevalence of adoption grows in the United States, more companies are offering employees benefits to lessen the financial and emotional toll the experience of finding a child can take.

Other benefits commonly offered by employers include paid time off and referral services.

Companies that offer adoption benefits do so out of a sense of inclusiveness, and to make themselves more competitive employers. Federal law guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave, but there is little else mandating private employers to accommodate adoptive parents. Laws regarding additional parental benefits vary from state to state.

Offering generous adoption benefits gives a company a more family friendly image, even among those who aren't directly affected by adoption, said Rita Soronen, executive director of the Dave Thomas Foundation, which funds initiatives for and raises awareness about domestic foster care and adoption.

"A large percentage of Americans are touched by adoption; it's not an uncommon topic in employees' minds and hearts," Soronen said.

At the same time, less than half of 1 percent of employees take advantage of adoption benefits, Soronen said, making it an inexpensive way to boost a company's image.

Companies are also offering benefits as they become more aware about the difficulties of adopting. Costs for agency fees and travel can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. Tightening restrictions in countries including China, Guatemala and South Korea have further complicated the adoption maze. Regulatory hurdles and wait times for domestic adoptions can be just as straining.

The most adoption friendly companies offer benefits including financial aid and consulting services or free workshops, according to the Dave Thomas Foundation. Workshop topics might include how to broach the topic with family and friends or the issues that can come up when adopting a child of a different race.

At McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., financial aid for adoptive parents was doubled to $10,000 last year, and paid leave was extended to three weeks from one week. About 10 of the company's 13,000 U.S. employees take advantage of the adoption benefits each year, said spokesman Jason Feuchtwanger.

Since 2005, about 30 employees at Cornell University have taken advantage of the school's adoption benefits, which include $5,000 in aid per adoption and up to 16 weeks of partially paid leave. The university also offers workshops outlining the differences between foreign and domestic adoptions.

Starting next year, Bank of America plans to expand benefits for birth and adoptive parents-to-be to 12 weeks paid leave, up from the current eight weeks. Employees can also get up to $8,000 in aid for adoptions and can ask a free consulting service to help navigate legal and procedural issues free of charge.

Jim Huffman, Bank of America's senior vice president of benefits, said the $8,000 in financial aid for adoptive parents is akin to money that would go toward medical coverage for birth parents.

Despite the growing popularity of such benefits, many employers remain naive about the struggles adoptive parents face, said Dr. Robert Trumble, a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the Virginia Labor Studies Center. Some may not understand why adoptive parents need parental leave. Others may not be aware of the financial costs and regulatory difficulties facing adoptive parents.

The unpredictable timing of adoptions might present another problem for employees, Trumble said. Notice of a referral can come at unexpected times, up-ending workdays and schedules.

That's why it's important to keep supervisors updated on the process, Trumble said.

Adopting from Guatemala presented many unpredictable setbacks for Cornell employee Debbie Surine and her husband. One came while she was at work, when she learned a loan application had been rejected. Surine feared they wouldn't be able to cobble together the money to finalize the adoption.

In the end, the $5,000 in financial aid from Cornell helped secure the adoption of her daughter, now 2.

Another hiccup arose when a translation error was spotted in Guatemalan legal papers. The birth mother had to be tracked down again to clarify the error; Surine feared the woman might change her mind about the adoption. The support from her co-workers and supervisors during the ordeal was invaluable.

"We would maybe duck into the ladies room for a minute to recoup," Surine said.

A supportive environment at Bank of America was also one of the intangible benefits for Huval, too.

When he got the unexpected call one morning that a baby girl available for adoption had been born, his managers and co-workers rallied behind him.

Everyone at work was pulling "for us to go get that baby and bring her home," Huval said.