How to Adopt a Child in 7 Steps

We broke down the process of adopting a child into simple steps so you know exactly what to expect and how to get started.

little girl holding parents hands
Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

After five years of struggling with infertility, Kelly and Tom Vandergriff, of Louisville, Kentucky, decided they wanted to adopt a baby. They started working with an agency in April 2002 and were amazed to get a call in July that a birth mother — who was almost nine months pregnant — was interested in meeting them. They flew to Oregon to meet her, and two weeks later, they were at the hospital when their healthy son, Landon, was born.

"It was amazing," Kelly says. "We were with Landon the entire time, we bonded with his birth mother, who is wonderful, and the whole process only took four and a half months."

Certainly, not every adoption is that quick. But for the majority of couples adopting domestically and internationally, the process is not nearly as daunting — or expensive or time-consuming — as they expect. "There are many myths about adoption that may scare couples away from even considering it," says Susan Caughman, editor and publisher of Adoptive Families magazine.

To demystify the process, we broke it down step by step for parents considering adopting a child for the first time. In addition to the basics described below, other steps may be necessary (it depends on your particular needs and those of the child and the birth parents), but overall, here are the steps you will need to complete to adopt a child:

Step #1

Do Your Research

Read voraciously, join a local support group, and start networking with other adoptive parents. Here are the biggest questions you will have to answer for your family off the bat:

  • Do you want to adopt a newborn or an older child?
  • Do you want to adopt domestically or internationally? (Most children adopted internationally are at least a year old)
  • Are you willing to adopt a child of a different race?

To help you get started, here are a few go-to adoption information resources:

Step #2

Decide Who You Want to Work With

Both agencies and attorneys help couples prepare the paperwork and fulfill the legal requirements, such as a home study — an evaluation of your home life and background by a social worker. For domestic adoptions, both screen prospective birth mothers and provide counseling to both sides. The biggest difference between agencies and attorneys is how they find birth mothers.

Pregnant women who are interested in placing their children for adoption go to agencies, whereas attorneys and their clients generally advertise and network to find birth mothers. (States have varied laws governing who is allowed to place ads.) Agencies handle almost all international adoptions. When it comes to agencies, you'll choose between a private agency and a public one. Each option has its benefits, so do lots of research before making your final decision. Make sure you find out about the agency's fees and what the schedule is for paying them.

To help you make a decision, talk to a few agencies and a few attorneys to see whom you feel most comfortable with.

Step #3

Select an Adoption Agency or Attorney

In general, an attorney should be a specialist who has handled hundreds of adoptions, says Mark McDermott, past president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.

When evaluating an agency, make sure it's state-licensed and ask questions: How long has it been in business? What programs and support services does it offer? What are the various fees, and when are they due? How diversified are the agency's services? For example, if adoption from one country is suddenly prohibited, as happened with Vietnam in 2003, does the agency have resources in other countries?

Although adoption scammers aren't the norm, they're far from uncommon. Ana and Johnny Strickland discovered this the hard way after finding an adoption facilitator online. She introduced them to two fraudulent birth mothers and billed the Stricklands $3,000 for "living expenses." Finally, the couple adopted their son, Johnathan, with the help of a lawyer. To protect yourself, Nathan Gwilliam, founder and CEO of Adoption Media, producers of, suggests these guidelines:

  • Be wary of unlicensed facilitators who promise to find you a baby. They are not well regulated and are illegal in many states. Check their references carefully.
  • Ask agencies how potential birth mothers are screened. Is proof of pregnancy required? Will the biological father have terminated his rights?
  • An immediate request for money from a birth mother should be a red flag. Many birth mothers need help, but transactions must be handled by an agency or an attorney, who will know whether assistance is legal in your state. (Make certain the agency or attorney is licensed according to state law.)
  • Be cautious about working with women who have only been pregnant for a few months. They may not have had time to absorb the implications of placing a child for adoption and are more likely to change their minds.
  • Check online forums often as they tend to alert their members of scams.

Step #4

Complete the Application and Home Study

When you contact an agency, you may be invited to attend an agency-sponsored orientation session. You and the other applicants will learn about the agency's procedures and available children, and you'll receive the application forms. The agency will review your completed application to determine whether to accept you as a client. If they accept you, you'll probably have to pay a registration fee at this point.

Next comes the preplacement inquiry, also known as the "home study" or the "family assessment." The home study (required by state law) evaluates you as a prospective adoptive family, and it evaluates the physical and emotional environment into which the child would be placed. It's also a preparation for adoptive parenthood. You'll have a series of interviews with a social worker, including at least one interview in your home.

During this process, the social worker will help you consider all aspects of adoptive parenthood and identify the type of child you hope to adopt. Some agencies use a group approach to the educational part of the adoption preparation process, creating a built-in support group among adoptive families.

Step #5

Be Prepared To Wait

Adopting a child always requires a waiting period. But the time frame can depend on many factors, including prospective parents' ages, family structure, and state legal requirements. International adoption is more predictable, usually taking less than two years. But couples seeking to adopt a newborn domestically need to wait to be chosen by a birth mother — and it can take three months or three years.

This may account for the rise in international adoptions; there were more than 20,000 in 2001, as compared with 6,500 a decade earlier. Experts estimate there are between 19,000 and 25,000 infants adopted domestically each year. "Don't get desperate and panic," Caughman says. "Adoptions happen every day."

Step #6

Complete the Legal Procedures

After a child is placed with you, you must fulfill the legal requirements for adoption. You might need to hire an attorney at this point if you've chosen to use an agency.

Usually a child lives with the adoptive family for at least six months before the adoption is finalized legally, although this period varies according to state law. During this time before the adoption is finalized, the agency will provide supportive services.

The social worker may visit several times to make sure the child is well cared for and to write up the required court reports. 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 international 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 international adoption. You must also fulfill the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's requirements and then proceed to naturalize your child as a citizen of the United States.

Step #7

Prepare Your Home

Once it appears certain that a baby or toddler will be joining your family, you'll want to prepare your home for his or her arrival. Here's a suggested list of things you may need to buy (or borrow) for children of various ages.

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