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Agency vs. Independent Adoption

The numerous venues for adoption can be overwhelming for people just starting to consider adopting. Here's a breakdown of the range of options:

Agency adoptions

  • Through the local public agency
  • Through licensed private agencies (includes both domestic and international programs)

Independent adoptions

  • Identified adoptions
  • Using attorneys or other intermediaries defined by state law
  • Using adoption facilitators (allowed in only a few states)

Since adoption laws in the state where you live govern your options, it's essential that you know which types of placements are allowed in your state. If you pursue an adoption across state lines, you must comply with the laws in both states before the child can join your family. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enacted legislation (called the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children) that governs how children can be placed across state lines.

Think about how much risk you can tolerate. Of the options listed above, agency adoptions provide the greatest assurance of monitoring and oversight since agencies are required to adhere to licensing and procedural standards. Independent adoptions by attorneys provide assurance that attorneys must adhere to the standards of the Bar Association, and some attorneys who specialize in adoption are members of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, a professional membership organization with standards of ethical practice. Adoptive placements by facilitators offer the least amount of supervision and oversight. This doesn't mean that facilitators are not ethical professionals with good standards of practice! It simply means there are few or no oversight mechanisms in place at this time.

There are both private and public adoption agencies. A private adoption agency is supported by private 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 international adoptions.

Using a private agency

To obtain the names of local private agencies, look under "Adoption Agencies" or "Social Services" in the yellow pages. You can get a free copy of your state's agency listing from NAIC. (Visit the NAIC Web site at http://www.calib.com/naic to access the National Adoption Directory online.) Check with your state adoption specialist, the Better Business Bureau near the agency, and the state attorney general's office to see if other adoptive families have lodged any complaints. You can check with local adoptive parent support groups for their recommendations of reputable agencies.

Private agencies handle both domestic and international adoptions. You will need to decide which kind of child you want to join your family. Fees charged by private adoption agencies range from $5,000 to more than $30,000 for both domestic and international adoptions.

Ask any agency you might work with what its fees are and what the schedule is for paying them. You should also ask what services are and are not covered by the fees. 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, any 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." 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 families wanting to adopt older children, sibling groups, or children with special physical or psychological needs. Many of the children waiting for placement through public agencies are children of color. 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. Federal or state subsidies are sometimes available to assist families adopting a child with special needs. Even 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.

Children in the custody of a public agency were either abused, neglected, or abandoned by their birth parents. Abuse and neglect can leave physical and emotional scars. It's 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 a child with a traumatic history.

Foster parenting

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. Federal legislation has mandated courts to seek termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months unless there are extenuating circumstances. More and more foster parents are adopting their foster children. This is particularly true for foster children of color or those with special needs. In almost all states, the vast majority of children adopted from the public foster care system were adopted by their foster parents or by their relatives.

Recently, some states have changed the way they organize their parenting programs. They consider foster parenting and adoption to be a continuum of service, rather than two separate functions. As a result, 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 child's 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 may be given priority consideration as his or her potential adoptive parents.

It'll take some soul-searching on your part to decide whether foster parenting is a good option for you. If you can stand some uncertainty, it's a viable option, especially if you have your heart set on a young child and you don't 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 prepared to handle the grief that would accompany such a loss.

If you're considering this option, discuss becoming a foster/adoptive parent with the agency social workers and other foster parents who have adopted their former foster children.

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. Independent adoption is legal in all but a few states, but you'll need to find out about the specifics of the law in your own state.

If you pursue this approach, retain an experienced adoption attorney to explain your state's adoption laws. Talk to other adoptive parents. Become familiar with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC), because in interstate adoptions you will be required to comply with the adoption laws of both states. You certainly don't 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's 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. Some families have even advertised on the Internet.

Simply locating a birth mother is only the first step. You also need to know about the birth father. States have recognized the rights of birth fathers to be involved in decisions about their children, including adoptions. Many states have established registries (putative father registries) as a way for birth fathers to register their intention to support and be involved in their child's life. Several high-profile lawsuits have involved contested adoptions where birth fathers were not notified of the adoptive placement of the child and subsequently objected.

Expenses involved in an independent adoption vary. It's 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 parents so that the court can be satisfied that they both fully comprehend what they are planning to do. A home study, for which there is a fee, conducted by a certified social worker or a licensed child-placing agency, is usually required. In some states, the adoptive parents may also help out with the birth mother's living or clothing expenses. Again, with each of these issues, you must know your state adoption laws and what they allow or prohibit in an adoption.

Identified adoption

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. (In a few states, this is the only type of independent adoption allowed.) The agency conducts the home study for the adoptive parents and counsels the birth mother. All the 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 carefully about her decision. As in any adoption, however, a birth mother may still change her mind about placing the child.

Many couples who have adopted infants independently found it was the right solution for them. It may be the solution for you; however, it's not for everyone. Some adoptive parents who have adopted independently say later that it might have been nice to have had the emotional support and thoughtful preparation for adoption that an adoption agency provides. Most parents want to be well prepared to help their children deal with adoption issues they will face at different points in their lives. Some parents seek support before and after adopting independently by joining adoptive parent support groups.

Adoption facilitators

A few states permit adoption facilitators to act as "matchmakers" who recruit and counsel birth parents and then make introductions to prospective adoptive families. The facilitators charge families for their services and allow the birth parents and the adoptive family to make the rest of the placement arrangements.

Each potential independent adoption situation is different, and this method can be expensive. It's 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. Since many birth parents change their minds after the child is born, prospective adoptive families must often deal with the loss of funds paid for the birth parents' expenses in addition to the loss of the anticipated baby. Some adoptive parents purchase adoption insurance as a way to guard against such financial risks; insurance underwriters require that families work with preapproved agencies or attorneys in order to purchase this insurance.

Source: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.