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.
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.