Where Do I Start

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Adopting a child can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. However, the adoption process can be emotionally trying, time consuming, and frustrating. This factsheet provides some basic information about adoption alternatives to give you an understanding of the adoption process. (Because we cannot describe each facet of adoption in detail in this factsheet, throughout the text we have cited related NAIC factsheets that you can request by calling the telephone number on this page.)

Adoption in the 1990s is very different from what it was when most of today's adults were growing up. Now, for instance, relatively few Caucasian babies are available for adoption in comparison with the number of families who want to adopt. However, there are many children of color, older children, children with special needs, and children from other countries who need adoptive families. Adoption agencies are seeking families or single adults who can love, care for, and raise these children.

What Kinds of Children Are Available for Adoption?

American Infants
Caucasian American babies are the most sought after for adoption. A few are available, primarily through private agencies and independent adoptions. However, there are African-American infants available for adoption by African-American farnilies. Most agencies prefer to place children of color with parents of the same ethnic background.

Children with Special Needs
Many children with special needs are available for adoption. These children may be older (grade school through teens); have physical, emotional, or mental disabilities; or be brothers and sisters who should be adopted together. Usually, these children are in a State foster care system. Both public and private agencies place children with special needs. In addition, national, regional, and State adoption exchanges will assist in matching prospective parents with these children. The adoption exchanges and agencies usually have photolistings and descriptions of available children. In many cases, financial assistance in the form of adoption subsidies is available to help parents with the legal, medical, and living costs associated with caring for a child with special needs. (For more information, please request the NAIC factsheets "Adopting Children with Developmental Disabilities," "Adopting a Child with Special Needs," and "The Sibling Bond: Its Importance in Foster Care and Adoptive Placement.")

Intercountry Adoption
Many children from other countries are available for adoption. Korea, Russia, Eastem Europe, Central and South America, India, China, and the Philippines are the sources of most foreignborn children adopted by Americans.

There are strict immigration requirements for adopting children from other countries, as well as substantial agency fees and transportation, legal, and medical costs. Many private agencies place children from foreign countries. It is important that you choose a licensed, knowledgeable organization, for the intercountry adoption process is lengthy and complex.

As a prospective parent, you should carefully consider the emotional and social implications of adopting a child of a different nationality. In this situation, you are adopting a culture as well as a child. (For more information, please request the NAIC factsheet "Intercountry Adoption.")

Who Can Adopt?
The traditional eligibility requirements for adoptive parents are changing. However, for many infant adoptions, agencies will only consider couples married at least 1 to 3 years, between the ages of 25 and 40, and with stable employment income. There are a few agencies that accept applicants who are older than 4O. You just have to look a little harder for them. Some agencies require that the couple have no other children and be unable to bear children. Some require that at least one parent not work outside the home for at least 6 months after the adoption.

For children with special needs, some African-American children, and some intercountry adoptions, agencies are willing to consider single applicants, those over age 40, and those with other children. The adoption of American Indian children by non-lndians is strictly limited by the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Agencies will discuss the various eligibility regulations and possibilities with you. (For more information, please request NAIC factsheets "Adoption and the African- American Child: A Guide for Parents" and "Single Parent Adoption: What You Need to Know.")

Steps in Agency Adoption
There are several steps you must complete for any type of adoption through an agency. In addition to the four basic Procedures described below, other procedures may be necessary, depending upon your particular needs and those of the child and the birth parents.

    (1) Select an Adoption Agency
    There are both private and public adoption agendes. A private adoption agency is supported by pnvate funds and should be licensed or approved by the State in which it operates. A public agency is the local branch of your State social service agency. Most public agencies handle only special needs adoptions—not infant or intercountry adoptions. Below are descriptions of both types of agencies.
    Using a Private Agency
    To obtain the names of local private agendes, look under "Social Services" or "Adoption Agencies" in the Yellow Pages. Also, ask adoptive parents and your public agency for their recommendations. The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC) can identify agencies in your area, or you can purchase the National Adoption Directory (NAD) from NAIC. You might want to check with your State adoption specialist or local adoptive parent support groups (all listed in NAD) for their recommendations of reputable agencies. Private agencies handle both domestic and intercountry adoptions. You will need to decide which kind of child you want to join your family.
    Fees charged by private adoption agencies range from $8,000 to more than $20,000 for both domestic and intercountry adoptions. Make sure you ask any agency you might work with what its fees are and what the schedule is for paying them. Most will allow you to pay fees in installments due at particular points during the adoption process. If the fee policy is clear from the beginning, misunderstandings about payment will be less likely.

    Using a Public Agency
    You can find an appropriate agency listed in your telephone book in the government section under a name such as "Department of Social Services" or "Department of Public Welfare." Complete agency listings by State are also available in the NAIC National Adoption Directory.

    Each State organizes its agencies somewhat differently. They may be organized regionally or by county. To begin, call your county office and ask to speak to the adoption specialist. If the county office cannot help you, ask to be referred to the regional or State office.

    In general, public agencies will accept adoption applications from African-American or biracial families wanting to adopt African-American or biracial children, including infants, and from Caucasian families willing to adopt older children or children with special needs.

    Public agencies occasionally have some healthy Caucasian infants. It is worthwhile to inquire about them, but there will probably be a long waiting list.

    Adoption services through a public agency are usually free or available for a modest fee, since the services are funded through State and Federal taxes. As mentioned earlier, subsidies are sometimes available to assist families adopting a child with special needs. If a child has no special needs, adoptive parents may only be asked to pay legal fees, which are often quite reasonable. In some cases, subsidies may even be available for the legal fees, too. (For more information on financial assistance regarding adopting children with special needs, please request the NAIC factsheet "Subsidized Adoption: A Source of Help for Children with Special Needs and Their Families.")

    Children in the custody of a public agency were abused, neglected, or abandoned by their birth parents. Abuse and neglect can leave physical and emotional scars. It is important to discuss all aspects of a child's history with the agency social workers and to discuss the availability of counseling or other services, just in case they might be needed, before deciding to adopt such a child. (For more information, please request the NAIC factsheets "Providing Background Information to Adoptive Parents" and "Parenting the Sexually Abused Child.")

    Another parenting option available through public agencies is foster parenting. Children are placed with foster parents to give birth parents a chance to improve their situations. Birth parents are offered counseling and services during this time. Foster parents receive a monthly stipend for a child's living expenses. In general, the goal of the foster care program is to reunite the child with his or her birth parents if at all possible. However, there is a growing trend toward freeing children for adoption (that is, terminating the parental rights of the birth parents) as quickly as possible to prevent years of drifting in foster care. Eighteen months is often the cut-off time, that is, the amount of time given to the birth parents to solve their major problems.

    More and more foster parents are adopting their foster children. This is particularly true for foster children of color or those with special needs. Recently some States have changed the way they perceive their parenting programs. They consider foster parenting and adoption to be a continuum of service, rather than two discrete functions. As a result, the agency personnel may ask you at the time of application if you want to be only foster parents, only adoptive parents, or foster/adoptive parents. Foster/adoptive parents are willing to be foster parents while that is the need and understand that the agency will make all efforts to reunite the child with the birth parents. However, if the child is freed for adoption, the foster/adoptive parents are given priority consideration as his or her potential adoptive parents. All things being equal, you would be able to adopt that child.

    It takes some soul searching on your part to decide whether the foster parenting option is one you want to choose. If you can stand some uncertainty, it is a viable option, especially if you have your heart set on a young child and you do not have the funds for a private agency or independent adoption. You must be able to maturely face the prospect of a child being reunited with birth parents, feel sincerely that reunification is indeed in the best interest of the child at that time, and be able to handle your own grief that would accompany such a loss.

    If you are considering this option, it would be a good idea to discuss becoming a foster/adoptive parent with the agency social workers and other foster parents who have adopted their former foster children. (For more information, please request the NAIC factsheet "Foster Parent Adoption: What Parents Should Know.")

    (2) Complete the Application and Preplacement Inquiry
    When you contact an agency, you may be invited to attend an agncy-sponsored group educational session. Here you and other applicants will learn about the agency's procedures and available children and receive the application forms. The agency will review your completed application to determine whether to accept you as a client. If accepted at a private agency, you will probably have to pay a registration fee at that time. The next step is the preplacement inquiry, also known as the "home study."

    The home study is an evaluation of you as a prospective adoptive family and the physical and emotional environment into which the child would be placed. It is also a preparation for adoptive parenthood. It consists of a series of interviews with a social worker, including at least one interview in your home. During this process, you will, with the social worker's assistance, consider all aspects of adoptive parenthood and identify the type of child you wish to adopt. Some agencies use a group approach to the educational part of the adoption preparation process.

    Many of the questions asked in the home study are personal. This is necessary for the social worker's evaluation of you as a prospective parent. Some of the questions are about your income, assets, and health and the stability of the marriage (if married) and/or family relationships. Physical exams to ensure that you are healthy may also be required. A home study is usually completed in a few months, depending upon the agency's requirements and the number of other clients. (For more information on home studies, please request the NAIC factsheet "The Adoption Home Study Process")

    (3) Be Prepared to Wait
    Adopting a child always requires a waiting period. If you want to adopt a Caucasian infant, you will probably have to wait at least I year from the time the home study is completed, and more frequently 2 to 5 years. African-American applicants wishing to adopt African- American infants will have a shorter wait, probably less than 6 months. If you want to adopt a child with special needs, you can begin to review photolistings immediately to identify appropriate children. Intercountry adoptions, on the other hand, may take a year or more. For any type of adoption, even after a child is found, you may have to wait weeks or months while final arrangements are made.

    (4) Complete the Legal Procedures
    After a child is placed with you, you must fulfill the legal requirements for adoption. Hiring an attorney may be necessary at this time, if you have not already retained one.

    Usually a child lives with the adoptive family for at least 6 months before the adoption is finalized legally, although this period varies according to State law and the conditions of the child and family. During this time, the agency will provide supportive services. The social worker may visit several times to ensure that the child is well cared for. After this period, the agency will submit a written recommendation of approval of the adoption to the court, and you or your attorney can then file with the court to complete the adoption.

    For intercountry adoptions, finalization of the adoption depends on the type of visa the child has and the laws in your State. The actual adoption procedure is just one of a series of legal processes required for intercountry adoption. You must also fulfill the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's requirements.

Independent Adoptions

Adoptions can sometimes be arranged without an agency. Initial contacts can be made directly between a pregnant woman and adoptive parents or by the pregnant woman and an attorney, depending on State law. Overall, independent adoption is legal in all but a few States. However, there are significant variations regarding specific aspects of adoption laws of which you should be aware.

If you pursue this approach, retain an experienced adoption attorney to explain the adoption laws in your State to you. Talk to other adoptive parents and educate yourself about them. Become familiar with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) if you plan to go out of your State to locate a child. You certainly do not want your adoption to be challenged because of failing to comply with the relevant adoption laws.

To initiate an independent adoption, you must first locate a birth mother interested in relinquishing her child. In the States where it is legal, advertising in the classified section of local newspapers has proven to be a successful method for bringing birth parents and adoptive parents together. You can advertise on your own or use a national adoption advertising consultant. Another way to locate a birth mother is to send an introductory letter, photo, and resume describing your family life, home, jobs, hobbies, and interests to crisis pregnancy centers, obstetricians, and all of your friends and colleagues who might possibly lead you to the right person.

Expenses involved in an independent adoption vary. It is customary for adoptive parents to pay for the birth mother's medical and legal expenses, in addition to their own. Some States also require the adoptive parents to pay for counseling for the birth mother so that the court can be satisfied that she fully comprehends what she is planning to do. A home study, for which there is a fee, conducted by a certified social worker or a licensed child- placing agency may also be required. In some States, the adoptive parents may also help out with the birth mother's living or clothing expenses.

Each potential independent adoption situation is different, and this method can be expensive. It is not uncommon for the expenses in an independent adoption to equal those of a private agency adoption, unless the birth mother has health insurance or is covered by medical assistance.

Identified adoption is a form of independent adoption in which a birth mother and adoptive parents locate one another, but then go together to a licensed adoption agency. The agency conducts the home study for the adoptive parents and counsels the birth mother. All concerned parties know that the birth mother's baby will be placed with that couple. This process combines some of the positive elements of all types of adoption: the birth mother can feel confident that her child will have a future with an approved, loving family, and the adoptive parents can feel confident that the birth mother has thought through her decision carefully. As in any adoption, however, a birth mother may still change her mind about placing the child.

Some adoption professionals feel that openness between the birth parents and adoptive parents benefits the child. Information about both parties can be exchanged directly. The birth mother can do some anticipatory grieving for her loss, while the adoptive parents can prepare to bond immediately with their baby. In this approach, it has even been known for a birth mother to use the adoptive mother as her labor coach when delivering the baby. (For related information, please request the NAIC factsheet "Open Adoption.")

Many couples who have adopted infants independently (and who possibly were rejected byagencies due to rigid acceptance criteria) found it was the solution for them. It may be the solution for you. However, it is not for everyone. Some adoptive parents who have adopted independently admit later that it might have been nice to have had the emotional support and thoughtful preparation for adoption that an adoption agency provides. Some seek support after adopting by joining adoptive parent support groups. (For information on adoptive parent groups, please request the NAIC factsheet "The Value of Adoptive Parent Groups.")

How You Can Learn More About Adoption
This factsheet gives a basic overview of the steps and issues involved with becoming an adoptive parent. For more indepth information, you may want to request the related NAIC factsheets cited in the text or read adoption guidebooks that are available at your public library or book store. Some of these publications are listed below. Adoptive parent support groups also can be helpful. They are listed in the NAIC National Adoption Directory, along with other national organizations that can provide more information. Various organizations offer educational programs on adoption. Community colleges, adoption agencies, hospitals, some churches, local YMCAs and other organizations may offer such programs in your community. You can also call a local private or public adoption agency to find out about such Programs or to obtain informative publications produced by the agency.

Written by Debra G. Smith of
National Adoption Information Clearinghouse
5640 Nicholson Lane, Suite 300
Rockville, MD 20852
(301) 231-6512

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