Agency Adoption - An Overview

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There are two types of adoption agencies - private and public. As the name implies, private agencies are privately-operated businesses (although most states require that they be not-for-profit). They are licensed by the state in which they operate to conduct adoptive parent home studies and/or place children for adoption. They are principally supported by the fees they receive from adoptive parents.

Public adoption agencies are operated by the county or state in which they are located and are supported by tax dollars. The main function of public agencies is to find homes for children for whom the county or state has assumed responsibility.

Private and public adoption agencies vary dramatically in what they do—as well as when, and how, they do it. They also do some of the same things. The book, ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year (revised edition) by Randall Hicks provides an excellent outline of the agency process, and permission has been granted to summarize selected sections throughout this article.

Eligibility requirements of adoptive parents.

Although private and public adoption agencies may differ greatly in some ways, they also have a great deal in common. Each agency will set its own eligibility requirements for adoptive parents who can apply to the agency. Let's first talk about what typical guidelines employed by many adoption agencies were, the we will talk about what they are. Traditionally, agencies required:

  • Both adoptive parents must be no more than 40 years of age older than the child they will be adopting. This means that many agencies will require those seeking to adopt a newborn to be under 40 years of age. If the child to be adopted were age 8, the adoptive parents must be no more than 48 years of age.
  • Be medically unable to conceive a child, or show it is physically unsafe to give birth.
  • Have no more than one child already.
  • Married at least three years without an excessive number of prior terminated marriages.
  • Live in a home suitable for a child. (Owning a home is rarely required—renting a house or apartment is usually acceptable as long as the housing is suitable.)
  • Be of reasonably good health to care for a child.
  • At least one spouse be securely employed, or otherwise have sufficient income to support a child. Most agencies do not require a full-time, stay-at-home parent once past the child's initial months in the home. It is understood in today's world it is often necessary for both spouses to be employed. However, a permanent stay-at-home parent is often encouraged by some agencies, as one of many factors contributing to the best interests of the child.
  • No criminal record or child abuse allegations.

Agencies have broadened quite a bit over the years. Although some agencies still use the guidelines above, most now offer great flexibility regarding the first three listed areas: adoptive parent age, proof of infertility, number of existing children. Many agencies are as flexible as independent adoption.

Pre-Placement Home Study Requirements.

All agency adoptions, whether they are through a private or public agency, require a home study of the adoptive parents. The home study is in two parts. Initially, there is a preplacement home study to determine whether it appears you would be appropriate parents based upon the agency's evaluation of you and your background. The satisfactory completion of the preplacement home study is a prerequisite to having a child placed in your home.

An agency caseworker will be assigned to do the preplacement home study and will want to have several meetings with you, some of which will be in your home. Home visits are normally required to see the potential environment for a child. Adoptive parents sometimes ask if they need to share every fact about themselves. They wonder, could it hurt their chances to admit something the agency may not otherwise discover? For example, a couple may ask, "Will it hurt our chances to adopt if we had marriage counseling to help us resolve conflicts, or deal with stress at work," etc.). Of course, everyone would agree complete honesty is best, yet the question is a common one. Fortunately, adoption agencies are normally realistic and don’t expect adoptive parents to be superhuman, rather good people who are going to be dedicated parents. With that thought in mind, honesty is not to be feared. This concern is address in the book BEATING THE ADOPTION ODDS, by Cynthia Martin and Dru Groves, which contains an interesting section on this very issue, entitled "How Honest Should You Be?" (FYI, our opinion is "completely honest." You want honesty from your agency and the birth parents - they deserve it in return.)

Because most agencies operate with almost unlimited discretion regarding with which of their waiting families they will place a child for adoption, it is important to show the agency you are the best waiting adoptive parents. You can do this by attending all their available seminars, even the ones which are not required, but which will be helpful in parenting and adopting. Also, your familiarity with the commonly read, and respected adoption books within the adoption community, show your agency you are more motivated and informed than other waiting adoptive parents. Key books to assist you are mentioned throughout the articles.

These basic suggestions toward establishing a beneficial relationship with your agency may seem absurdly simple. Surprisingly, however, many caseworkers complain that many of their agency's waiting families fail to show their sincerity and readiness to adopt by such simple acts. Remember, an agency's goal is to find the best homes for the children they place. The more educated and prepared you show yourselves to be can only serve to impress your agency. Make their discretion benefit, not hurt, your chances to adopt quickly.

Of course, there is more to your preplacement home study than visits from your caseworker and the verification of your application information (marriage, employment, health, etc.) The following will also be done in most agency home studies:

  • Your fingerprints will be taken and processed through the child abuse registry and federal or state crime index.
  • Letters of reference from friends regarding your good character and ability to be excellent parents will be requested.
  • You will usually be asked to provide a written biography describing: your childhood; your relationship with your parents; the strengths of your marriage and how you resolve conflicts within the marriage; how your extended family feels about your plans to adopt; how you plan to parent your child and how you will discuss adoption with your child.

Post-placement procedures.

Once the child is born, some agencies will require the child to be placed in a foster care home until the birth parents have relinquished the child by signing a Consent to Adoption (often called a relinquishment or surrender), or the child is otherwise freed for adoption. This foster home period may be days, weeks or even months, depending upon the circumstances. Once the child is legally free for adoption, the child is then placed with the adoptive parents. To learn how much time your state requires to pass before the Consent to Adoption can be taken, and if there is a time period thereafter in which a birth mother can change her mind, consult the state-by-state legal review found in either ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year (revised edition), or THE COMPLETE ADOPTION BOOK. Every state has different laws.

Over the last ten to twenty years, an overwhelming number of private adoption agencies have rejected the historically common practice of using a foster home until the child is completely free for adoption legally, before placing the child in the adoptive parent home. Technically this is usually done by making the adoptive parents the child's "foster parents" until the child is technically relinquished for adoption, at which time they officially become "adoptive parents." This new agency option is often called fost-adopt. Some agencies refer to these immediate placements as "at risk placements," due to the window of risk which exists until the Consent to Adoption forms have been signed by the birth parents. The practice of placing babies directly with adoptive parents from the hospital is a traditional element of independent adoption, a procedure now duplicated by many agencies.

Regardless of whether the placement is by the traditional delayed method, or the newer fost-adopt method, there will usually be several post-placement home visits by the agency caseworker to monitor the child's progress in the adoptive home. Usually six months after the child's placement with you the agency is ready to recommend the adoption be granted, allowing a local court to permanently approve the adoption.

Of course, how you arrive at that moment of completing your adoption will depend upon the type of agency you select: private or public, domestic or international, non-profit or for profit, denominational or nondenominational, open or closed, identified or non-identified. It is easy to see that when you select an agency, there are many decisions to make and a lot to learn. Let's get started!

Private Adoption Agencies

Private adoption agencies have widely different policies and services. In fact, some agencies will differ from other agencies so much the entire nature of the adoption will seem different. This is true even of agencies located in the same city and operating under the same state's laws, as there is much room for flexibility in how adoptions are arranged. Accordingly, it is very important to realize not all adoption agencies are "created equal." The services of one particular agency which are ideal for one couple may not meet the needs and desires of another.

The agency's licensing status.

An initial inquiry to make of any agency is to determine exactly what it is licensed to do. For example, some agencies are only licensed to do home studies of adoptive parents hoping to adopt. They are not licensed to place children for adoption, meaning the adoptive parents must look to another agency for the actual placement of a child. Other agencies are licensed as full service adoption agencies and are permitted to perform adoptive parent home studies, as well as place children for adoption. Some are licensed as foster family agencies and work with public agencies to help make placements of waiting children (those is foster placement waiting for an adoptive home).

It is also critically important to verify the agency you are considering is licensed as an actual licensed adoption agency by the state in which it operates. Some individuals or organizations use names which sound like adoption agencies when in fact they are not. They are generally referred to as facilitators. Facilitators are those who render the limited service of finding a baby for a fee, and should be viewed with caution.

Many adoptive parents only consider adoption agencies located within their home state. This can be short-sighted, however, as you may be legally permitted to adopt a child born in another state. Some states even permit you to complete the entire adoption in the state where the agency is located and the child was born, even if you live in another state. This little known type of adoption is called " non resident adoption." ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year lists each state which permits non-residents to adopt in its detailed state-by-state review. (Non-resident agency and independent adoption is discussed in the article "Keys to Success in Adoption."

The agency's religious affiliation.

Private agencies can be divided into denominational and nondenominational categories. Denominational agencies are those affiliated with a particular religious faith. Generally, these agencies are easy to recognize based upon the agency's name (i.e. Jewish Family Services, Christian Adoption Services, Latter Day Saints (LDS) Social Services etc.). Be aware, however, some private agencies employ religiously-oriented names with no official association with that faith. For these reasons it is necessary to look beyond the name and question individual agencies to determine their status.

An important fact about denominational agencies not known by most people is that some denominational agencies do not require adoptive parents to be of the faith with which the agency is affiliated. This may be beneficial when the adoptive parents live in a region where there are few agencies from which to choose, or if they find the policies of one particular agency match their desires, even though the agency is affiliated with a different religion.

Fees and Costs.

Like other businesses, private adoption agencies offer services for a fee and must make a sufficient profit to remain in operation. Most agencies are non-profit agencies. Non-profit agencies often receive financial assistance from charitable entities, such as a religious institution or the United Way. A very small number of states permit that agencies be operated on a for-profit basis. As long as the agency is licensed by the state as an adoption agency, there is usually little difference between the services of a non-profit and for-profit agency, although some view non-profit agencies as more altruistic and reliable. Often, for-profit agencies charge higher fees, as they are solely supported by the fees earned from adoptive parents. Many states require all agencies to be non-profit.

Fees can vary tremendously among private agencies. Depending upon the type of agency, the services being offered, and the state in which it is located, fees may range from approximately $500 to $25,000. The low end is when the agency is retained for a limited function, such as making a limited number of home visits, perhaps reporting to an out of state agency working together in an interstate placement. The high end is when the agency is assisting with all aspects of the adoption, including matching with a birth mother. Some agencies have a predetermined set fee while others use a sliding scale based upon the adoptive parents' income. This sliding scale fee may vary from 8% to 12% of the adoptive parents' joint pre-tax annual income. These fees are usually for "full service" adoption, as described below. If the agency is only doing a home study, the fees are substantially less in most cases.

If the private adoption agency is acting as a foster family agency, basically doing the services of the county under their guidance, the agency may have no fees at all when you are adopting a waiting child (mirroring the lack of any fee by the county agency), or you may pay a fee but have some or all of it refunded to you upon your completed adoption of a waiting child.

The "full service agency" fee usually covers the adoptive parent preplacement home study, adoption education and counseling for the adoptive parents and birth parents, relinquishment-related services to the birth parents, and post-placement evaluation of the adopted child's progress in the adoptive home. Not all agencies offer these complete services, however, so each agency you are considering must be questioned. Usually a portion of the agency fee is paid when the preplacement home study is started, with the balance due when the child is placed in the adoptive home. Some private agencies request additional funds from the adoptive parents if the birth mother needs assistance with her medical expenses or other birth-related costs. Other agencies may include such costs in their agency fee and forbid any such expenditures by the adoptive parents.

Make sure you read our article, The Adoption Tax Credit, detailing the $13,570 federal tax credit for 2017. Most adoptive parents will find they are eligible for the full credit, sometimes paying for most or all of their adoption.

The children available.

The children available for adoption through private adoption agencies handling domestic adoptions range in age from newborns to older children and are of all ethnic groups. Many agencies also handle the adoption of waiting children, which includes special-needs children. A special-needs child is usually a child the agency feels may require extraordinary parenting due to a physical, emotional or mental disability. Special-needs children may also include children without disabilities, but who fall into a category the agency believes will make an adoptive placement difficult.

Some agencies use the term "hard-to-place" interchangeably with "special-needs." Other agencies may use the term to describe children without disabilities, but who may be more difficult to place due to other factors (such as being over the age of six, being of a hard-to-place ethnic minority, being part of a sibling group to be adopted together). Accordingly, it is important to be sure you are using the same terminology as the agency. Special-needs and hard-to-place children are discussed in more detail in a separate article dedicated expressly to them.

In addition to the emotional rewards which can accompany adopting a special-needs child, adoptive parents usually benefit from the policy of most agencies to speed up special-needs adoptions. This is because many of these children are presently living in foster homes and awaiting an adoptive placement. To encourage special-needs adoptions, most agencies will waive many of their regular restrictions. For example, adoptive parents can often be more than 40 years of age older than the child, be unmarried, and need not be infertile. The agency's fees may also be reduced.

Waiting for a child.

Agencies vary in how they determine which child will be placed with which waiting adoptive parents. Historically, all agencies maintained a waiting list. Couples would simply wait their turn to reach the top of the list for their turn to adopt, and waiting several years was not uncommon.

Although some agencies still maintain waiting lists, most will now only consider which waiting adoptive parents could most effectively meet the needs of the child to be adopted. This evaluation may include judging the readiness of the adoptive parents, matching the religion, ethnicity and physical characteristics of the child and the adoptive parents, as well as respecting the wishes of the birth parents regarding the type of home they would like for the child.

Regardless whether or not a waiting list is used, or only the child's best interests are considered, one of the most important differences from one agency to another is the time the adoptive parents must wait for a child. Some adoptive parents report waiting five years or more, perhaps even with no results at the end of that time, while others find success within a year. Unfortunately, some agencies are so busy adoptive parents must wait years just to start their preplacement home study - then the waiting starts all over again - this time for a child.

Fortunately, some adoption agencies have changed their policies to allow adoptive parents to speed up the process using their own contacts and initiative. These agencies will allow waiting adoptive parents to use their own efforts to locate a birth mother to select them as the planned adoptive parents, then complete the adoption as an agency adoption, even though they met outside the agency.

These adoptions, called identified, designated or collaborative adoptions, involve both the services of the agency doing the home study and an attorney specializing in adoption (who may help "match" the birth mother to the adoptive parents, and do all needed legal work).

The openness of the adoption.

Years ago most agencies arranged only closed adoptions. A closed adoption is one where the adoptive parents and birth mother would never meet and identities were not disclosed. Although some private agencies still do closed adoptions, many agencies now arrange open adoptions. Although the term "open adoption" can mean many things, normally it refers to an adoption where the birth mother and adoptive parents personally meet and exchange personal information before the birth to be sure each wishes to go forward.

Selecting an Adoption Agency has a specific article on strategies to learn about and select an adoption agency  agencies: Adoption Agency - How to Select the Best One for You.

Public Agency Adoption

Each county or state has a government-operated agency to assist in placing children for adoption for whom it has assumed responsibility. These agencies, usually referred to as public adoption agencies, are often a branch of your local social services or child welfare office. Since public adoption agencies are too numerous to list, the books cited above do not list public agencies. However, THE COMPLETE ADOPTION BOOK gives you the specific contact person in each state’s adoption office from whom you can request a list or direct you to the public adoption agency serving your area. For an online list of licensed adoption agencies state-by state, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a federal government website.

Although public adoption agencies are usually licensed to accept birth mothers' relinquishment of newborns, one of their most important functions in recent years is to find homes for "waiting" children, sometimes called "special-needs" or "hard-to-place" children. Although some special-needs children are placed through private agencies, most often they are placed through public agencies. has a specific article regarding the adoption of waiting and special-needs children.

For those interested in adopting a special-needs child through a public agency, often there is a substantially shorter waiting period for the adoptive placement once the home study is completed, as many such children are awaiting an adoptive home. Many public agencies are also willing to waive some of their normal restrictions regarding adoptive parents.

An advantage to adopting through your local public agency is that there is very little cost. Usually, the total fee charged by the county does not exceed several hundred dollars. There are almost never any costs associated with a birth mother's medical or living expenses as most children come into the agency system after having been freed for adoption through the courts. For this reason most of these adoptions are closed, with no contact between the birth and the adoptive parents.

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