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Normally, when people think of adopting they initially think of adoption agencies. Fortunately for adoptive parents, traditional agency adoption is not the only route toward adoption. In fact, the world of adoption has changed so dramatically in the last two decades independent and agency adoption are each responsible for about half the newborn adoptions within the United States. In some states, the majority of newborns adopted are not adopted through an adoption agency, rather through independent adoption. In other states, it is the reverse and agencies are the most popular option.
Which states permit independent adoption?
Only five states do not permit independent adoption (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and North Dakota - although they do offer a form of direct adoption via agencies which is close to independent adoption). Among the 45 states that do permit independent adoption, each state has different laws regarding how the home study must be done, when the birth parent signs their consent and how much time, if any, they have thereafter to change their mind. For a state-by-state review of the details of each state’s laws and procedures, read THE COMPLETE ADOPTION BOOK by Laura and Raymond Godwin or ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year (new revised edition) by Randall Hicks. (Almost half of the 362 pages of Hicks' book is dedicated to a very helpful review of each state's unique laws, a listing of every licensed agency in each state and their phone/website, and a detailed biography of each states' members of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.)
How is independent adoption different from agency adoption?
Despite the largely unfounded reputation of independent adoption being expensive and unreasonably risky, it continues to grow in popularity, so much so that some agencies have begun to alter some of the ways they do adoptions to be more similar to independent adoption. Its popularity with both adoptive parents and birth parents is based upon several factors:
1. It is very flexible, allowing both the adoptive and birth parents to create the type of relationship and adoption they want, without what some may perceive as unnecessary bureaucratic interference.
2. It allows the birth mother to personally meet and select the adoptive parents, rather than relinquish that decision to an adoption agency, thus increasing her confidence in the adoptive placement.
3. The adoptive parents can use their own initiative and enthusiasm to locate and meet a birth mother, rather than perhaps wait several years or more for an agency to do it for them (although more and more agencies are now permitting adoptive parents to "network" for a birth mother).
4. The child can be placed in the home of the adoptive parents immediately after the birth, rather than be temporarily placed in agency foster care with strangers.
Independent adoption is different from agency adoption in many ways. Some differences are quite subtle, while others are very significant. It has few eligibility requirements, as usually it is up to a birth mother (not an adoption agency) to determine what qualities it is important for the adoptive parents to have (religion, age, length of marriage, employment, other children, etc.).
The home study. Of course, even in an independent adoption, a home study is required. A typical home study involves a home visit (by appointment - "surprise visits" are a myth), to be sure the environment is appropriate for children, a fingerprint clearance to verify there is no criminal history not conducive to parenthood, and to be sure there is nothing indicating it would be inappropriate for a person or couple to become parents. A family need not be rich or "perfect" to adopt. Things like a prior marriage, a distant bankruptcy, a DUI many years ago that "taught you a lesson" and won't be repeated, a new job, are rarely factors by themselves.
Each state varies regarding who may perform an independent adoption home study. In some states a special state adoption office has been staffed to perform all home studies. Other states allow private entities to perform the home study. These may include licensed social workers, licensed private adoption agencies, or other persons approved by the local court.
Some states perform the home study for a relatively small fee, often under $1,000, while others allow private entities to charge what they feel is appropriate. This amount may be as high as several thousand dollars or as inexpensive as several hundred. If a private adoption agency is hired to perform an independent adoption home study, the agency fee is normally significantly less than if the same agency were performing a full traditional agency adoption (where it would be performing more services).
The time frame of independent adoptions is also different from agency adoptions. Unlike agency adoptions, where a home study is required both before and after the placement of the child, some states only require a home study after the child's placement into the adoptive parents' home in an independent adoption. The fact no preplacement home study is required by these states allows adoptive parents to adopt immediately, rather than wait for an agency to schedule a preplacement home study which must be completed before even being considered for an adoptive placement. Not all states waive a pre-placement home study in independent adoption, however, as some require a home study to be completed prior to the placement of the child. ADOPTION: The Essential Guide to Adopting Quickly and Safely gives a state-by-state breakdown regarding if a home study is required before the child’s placement with the adoptive parents, who may perform it, and the average cost.
Why are agency and independent adoption home studies so different in many states? The answer likely lies in who is officially placing the child for adoption. In a traditional agency adoption, the birth mother normally relinquishes the child to the adoption agency. The agency in turn then officially places the child with the adoptive parents. Because the birth mother is trusting someone other than herself - the agency - to make this tremendously important decision for her, extra scrutiny of the adoptive parents is deemed appropriate.
As in all types of adoption, there is no guarantee of adopting quickly in an independent adoption. A large number of adoptive parents pursuing an independent adoption, however, report they successfully adopt within as short a time period as a few months, to several years, with most falling in the middle, about four to fifteen months. Although children of all ethnic groups are available, a high percentage of independent adoptions involve caucasian newborns. Agency adoptions often involve a higher number of minority placements, particularly public agencies.
Why is independent adoption often called "open" adoption? Independent adoption is often referred to as "open" adoption in many states. Unfortunately, open adoption is a vague term and can mean many things. When used to describe independent adoption, it usually refers to the fact many adoptive parents and birth mothers share full or partial identities and become personally acquainted before the birth. For the birth mother, this can be rewarding as she can develop complete confidence in the adoptive parents, greatly enhancing her likelihood of placing the baby for adoption as planned. She can also take pride in her active role in personally selecting the adoptive parents, rather than relinquishing that role to an agency.
The issue of openness is an important one to be explored before meeting a birth mother, not after. Knowing how a birth mother often feels at that early stage of the adoption, and what she is looking for in adoptive parents, is necessary for adoptive parents who want their initial meeting with a birth mother to be a successful one. An excellent book on this subject is THE OPEN ADOPTION EXPERIENCE by Lois Melina and Sharon Roszia. It is a popular book, particularly among professionals in the adoption field. ADOPTION WITHOUT FEAR by adoption counselor James Gritter, takes a more basic viewpoint, and recounts real-life stories of adoptive parents completing their adoptions, and what they learned to assist you. Both will help you plan a successful open adoption.
Not only does a birth mother feel more confident by meeting the adoptive parents, the adoptive parents also benefit from becoming acquainted before the birth. They can learn more about their child's biological mother in person, rather than reading about her from an impersonal written analysis. (This is true of birth fathers as well, of course, but sadly most birth fathers wish to leave the process fully in the hands of the birth mother.) The adoptive parents will be able to share important information about how the adoption occurred and why the child's birth mother felt adoption was her most loving option for the child (an issue of great importance to be discussed with an adopted child as he or she grows). The most popular book helping adoptive parents understand a birth mother's emotions, and meet those needs, is DEAR BIRTH MOTHER, by Kathleen Silber and Phylis Speedlin. (This is critical reading for every person planning to adopt. For example, any adoptive parent, if asked their greatest fear about working with a birth mother, would almost surely answer that "she will place the baby with us, then change her mind." But birth mothers also have fears about adoptive parents. Wouldn’t it make sense for adoptive parents to know what most birth mothers are worried about, before they even have their first meeting, to make sure they don’t innocently derail their adoption before it ever got started? This issue will be discussed in more detail in the Adoption101.com seminar "Secrets to Success in Adoption.")
Some states allow for confidentiality in independent adoption, as is done in some agency adoptions. Usually this is done by the use of an intermediary, such as an attorney, who will provide information about the birth mother and adoptive parents to each other, allowing each individual to withhold their identities if they so desire. However, some states require a full and open sharing of identities in independent adoption.
The expenses of independent adoption. There are several areas of possible expenses in an independent adoption: attorney fees; home study fees; medical costs and pregnancy-related expenses for the birth mother.
An attorney is usually considered a necessity in an independent adoption as there is no adoption agency overseeing the entire process. Even if adoptive parents do not use an adoption attorney to help them quickly meet and be selected by a birth mother, there are many legal issues to be addressed requiring an attorney's skill and knowledge. Although the attorney's degree of involvement will vary from case to case, thus affecting the cost of the adoption, most adoption specialists charge between $4,000 to $10,000 to handle all legal aspects of an independent adoption. Because some adoptive parents wait years to be picked, that fee may represent several years of legal representation.
For this fee the attorney typically does the following: assists the adoptive parents to quickly locate a birth mother (if the state in which he or she is located permits attorneys to perform this function - a handful do not permit it); obtains necessary background and health information about the birth parents; provides physician and counseling referrals; examines the case for potential legal or practical difficulties; helps the assigned caseworker process the case; prepares the necessary legal documents and appears in court when required.
Make sure you read our article, The Adoption Tax Credit, detailing the $12,970 federal tax credit for 2013. Most adoptive parents will find they are eligible for the full credit, often paying for most or all of their adoption.
Selecting an adoption lawyer.
Adoption101.com has a detailed article regarding advice on selecting an adoption lawyer. Please visit it for more information. Excellent books on the subject are THE ADOPTION RESOURCE BOOK, by Lois Gilman, and ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year (revised edition) by Randall Hicks (who dedicates a complete chapter to the subject).
The post birth process.
Independent adoption procedures normally allow the adoptive parents to bring the baby directly from the hospital. Most states allow the birth mother to release her child directly into the adoptive parents' physical custody immediately upon the hospital's discharge of the baby, usually when the baby is one or two days old. This allows the adoptive parents to take the baby home right away, with no interim foster home placement.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to immediate placement. Every new parent, adoptive or otherwise, knows the early days of a child's life are precious and irreplaceable. Naturally, the child also benefits from being with his or her future parents immediately, rather than foster parents.
Of course, there is always a possibility the adoptive parents will bond to a child the birth mother has not yet permanently released for adoption. In fact, the desire to eliminate emotional risk to adoptive parents is the reason some agencies refuse to place the baby with them until the child is irrevocably surrendered for adoption. This protects the adoptive parents emotionally from a potential problem resulting in the removal of the child. However, the days, weeks or even months elapsing during this phase when the child and adoptive parents are separated is a great loss for the adoptive parents and the child.
The birth mother’s consent to adoption. A birth mother usually signs her consent from one day, to several months, after birth, depending upon the state in which she gives birth. Some states make the process very formal, and require a judge to witness the consent, but most states simplicize the process and only require a notary or social worker to act as the witness. Usually the consent is irrevocable once signed, but some states permit a legal challenge upon certain conditions, such as necessary to serve the best interests of the child. ADOPTION: The Essential Guide to Adopting Quickly and Safely, gives a detailed state-by-state review of every state (When is the consent signed? Can it be withdrawn? Who must act as a witness? Etc.) THE COMPLETE ADOPTION BOOK, by Laura and Raymond Godwin, also offers a helpful state-by-state review of each state's laws, covering some areas different than those addressed in ADOPTION: The Essential Guide to Adopting Quickly and Safely (including birth father's rights, which are often weaker than those of a birth mother when the birth parents are not married, and a summary of Canada’s adoption laws).
After the completion of the home study, adoptions are usually finalized by court hearing approximately 6-12 months later. A new birth certificate is then created naming the adoptive parents as birth parents, renaming the child as determined by the adoptive parents. (The original birth certificate is sealed and the new one takes its place.)
Adopting a baby (the legal and emotional side of things) is completely different than finding a birth mother who will select you as adoptive parents (the strategic side). This latter issue is discussed in the Adoption101.com article "Secrets to Success in Adoption."
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Some recommended websites on various adoption topics: