For all of you who might be wondering, no, I’m not trying to adopt. Maybe one day, but not today. I wanted to provide this info because I have heard how daunting the adoption process can be. Some day I will do another article about the emotional side of adoption or the different ways to find a baby to adopt. It is such a huge topic that I thought it best to stick with the legal side of it for this article.
Last year, more than 400,000 children were in the US foster care system. Thousands more were born into families where their parents were not equipped to care for them. The need is enormous, and adoption is part of the solution. If you are thinking about adopting, I hope that this information helps to take the mystery out of the process and that you might feel armed with info.
My cousin Michele has been an adoption attorney in Seattle for 30 years. She is a graduate of UW Law School and a fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. I recently asked her some questions about the legal aspects of adoption, and here is what she told me.
Q: It seems like there are different kinds of adoption. Can you tell me what they are?
A: There are three basic types of adoption. In Washington, the same law applies to all three types, and all three have the same basic requirements, such as the need for prospective adoptive parents to go through the process of completing a home study.
In a private agency adoption, you hire an agency that handles all aspects of the process, including hiring an attorney to handle the legal aspects of the adoption. (International adoptions fall under this category.)
In independent adoption, you locate a child to adopt through formal or informal networking, you hire an adoption social worker to do a home study for you, and you hire an attorney to handle the legal process. The attorney is sort of a “general contractor” who arranges all the pieces that need to come together.
Public agency adoption (in Washington) is adoption through DSHS, usually through a foster-adopt process. (DSHS often contracts with private agencies to handle some aspects of the foster-adopt process, so this can be a bit confusing.) A child is placed with the prospective adoptive parents, usually on a foster-care basis. If the child becomes legally free for adoption, and DSHS consents to adoption by the foster-adopt family, then the adoption can be finalized.
Q: How do I choose between them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
A: Private Agency Adoption
- Simplicity. All the services you need are bundled together and available to you through one provider.
- Agencies offer counseling to birth parents and social work services to you as part of the package you pay for.
- If you are matched with a birth mother but the placement falls through, most of the financial burden is typically borne by the agency.
- You need to work within the agency’s policy guidelines and, depending on the agency, you may have little control over the details of the process.
- This is typically the most expensive type of adoption.
- You can control how actively you network, and once you are matched with a birth mother, you and your attorney decide how to handle the details of the process. Your attorney can guide you through the process of hiring a birth parent counselor, a social worker, etc.
- An independent adoption that goes relatively smoothly and proceeds to placement can be considerably less expensive than a private agency adoption.
- If a placement falls through, you bear the entire financial burden of the work that has been done up to that point.
Public Agency Adoption
- You are providing a home for a child who definitely needs an improved situation.
- DSHS normally covers all the costs involved.
- You receive monthly payments for serving as foster parents (and may receive ongoing monthly payments and other financial assistance after finalization, depending on whether the child is considered to have special needs, which can be very broadly defined).
- Waiting for a child to become legally free for adoption can take anywhere from several months to several years.
- Not all foster children become legally free for adoption by their foster families. Some are returned to their biological parents, and some are placed with other biological relatives. Foster-adopt families can get some indication of how likely it is that a child will become legally free before they agree to have the child placed with them, but there are, of course, no guarantees.
- The process is entirely under the control of DSHS, and until the adoption is finalized, they call the shots.
- Some people also consider being subject to regulation as foster parents to be a disadvantage, or at least an annoyance.
Q: What is my first step if I decide I want to adopt through a private agency?
A: Your first step is to find an agency. A great informational resource if you are in Washington is the Washington State Adoption Council’s Adoption Information Exchange. The AIE is a comprehensive listing of adoption resources in western Washington, such as agencies, attorneys, and home study providers. A list of domestic adoption agencies licensed in Washington appears on pages 3 and 4 of the AIE. The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys also publishes an Agency Directory with information about adoption agencies affiliated with current AAAA members.
Q: What is my first step if I decide I want to adopt independently?
A: You will start by consulting with an attorney or an adoption social worker. A good way to find an experienced adoption attorney in your state is to go to the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys website and check listings for your geographical area. There is also a list of Washington adoption attorneys on pages 14 and 15 of the AIE. See pages 16, 17, and 18 for a list of adoption social workers (under Independent Providers of Pre- and Post-Placement Reports).
Q: What is my first step if I want to go the foster-adopt route?
Q: What does a home study involve?
A: The home study process is more about evaluating your readiness to be an adoptive parent than it is about giving the white-glove test to your home. Adoption social workers gather information from you about your personal history, health, financial stability, parenting philosophy, support network, etc. They suggest (and may require) classes and reading that can educate and prepare you for adoption. They ask you to provide health information from your physician and letters of reference from people who know you. Your fingerprints are submitted to the FBI, a state criminal background check is done, and state records are checked for any history of child abuse or neglect. A social worker will make a visit to your home. Adoptive parents do not need to be perfect, but issues that arise need to be addressed and evaluated. At the end of the process, the social worker produces a report, officially known as a pre-placement report, more commonly called a home study.
Q: Is there a way to get help with the cost of adoption?
A: There are several ways. For adoptions finalized in 2013, a federal adoption tax credit of up to $12,970 may be available. This credit is phased out for higher income taxpayers, and the amount of the credit is adjusted annually to reflect changes in cost of living. In addition, many employers, including the US military, offer assistance with adoption expenses as an employee benefit. As I mentioned, the cost of a public agency adoption through DSHS is covered by the government.
If you have adopted or are in the process of adopting, I would really love to hear your story. For those of you looking to adopt, I hope this is helpful, and make sure to let us know how you are doing on your journey.