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 most 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 adoption 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 One: 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 Two: Decide Who You Want to Work With

Both agencies and attorneys help prospective parents to fulfill the legal requirements, such as preparing essential documents and conducting a home study, which is an evaluation of your home life and background by a social worker.

For domestic adoptions, agencies and attorneys each screen prospective birth parents and provide counseling to both sides. The most significant difference between agencies and attorneys is how they find birth parents.

Pregnant people interested in placing their children for adoption go to agencies, whereas attorneys and their clients generally advertise and network to find birth parents. (States have various 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 to find out about the agency's fees and the payment schedule.

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

Step Three: 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 lots of questions. Here are few important questions to include:

  • 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?

Beware of adoptions scammers

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 parents 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, 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 parents are screened. Is proof of pregnancy required? Will the biological father have terminated their rights?
  • A birth parent's immediate request for money should be a red flag. Many birth parents 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 those 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 such as the Child Welfare Information Gateway often, as they tend to alert their members of scams.

Step Four: 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 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 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 Five: 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 tends to be more predictable, partly because domestic adoptions can be stalled if a birthing parent changes their mind or take a long time to choose who the adoptive parents will be.

You should talk to your agency or attorney to know how long your family will have to wait for the adoption process to proceed from start to finish. Since each case is unique, there may be details that are specific to you, your chosen birthing parent or the laws in your state that can help you figure out the timeframe.

Step Six: 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 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 completed, the agency will provide supportive services.

The social worker may visit several times to ensure the child is well cared for and write the required court reports. After this period, the agency will submit a written recommendation of approval of the adoption to the court. You or your attorney can then file with the court to complete the adoption.

For international adoptions, the 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 Seven: Prepare Your Home

Once it appears certain that a child will be joining your family, you'll want to prepare your home for their arrival. What you buy and how you set your child's space will depend on their age and needs. For example, are you setting up a crib or a toddler bed?

There is no doubt that you will need plenty of things to welcome your new child; here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  • A car seat and other travel gear
  • Clothing, including diapering if your child is a baby
  • Stock your food pantry
  • Safety gear such as baby gates, cabinet locks, etc.
  • Stock your medicine chest

You can find a detailed shopping and preparation list for adoption and foster parents at the link below.

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