President, National Center on Adoption & Permanency
Lawyer, Rumbold & Seidelman
Founder of Lifetime Healing Foundation, Birth Mom
The adoption process can be complex and to oversimplify, we think of it unfolding in four phases: “Getting Started”, “Outreach”, “Matching & Due Diligence”, and “Hospital Plan & Post Delivery”.
Some of these steps will look different depending upon whether you pursue an agency or private adoption and the laws in the state where you live or the birth parents live.
A critical first step in the “Getting Started” phase is to establish your preferences for the adoption arrangement. While your preferences can (and likely will) adjust, knowing what your preferences are will help you think through which agency or attorney to work with to locate expectant parents.
Similarly, getting clear on this will help you calibrate early on the amount of time and money the process may require. Below are the common criteria adoptive parents use to narrow down their preferences, and we’ll spend significant time in later lessons on “Level of Openness” and the steps that can be taken to improve the odds transracial adoptions go as smoothly as possible.
Once you’re clear on your adoption goals, you can determine which type of agency or attorney with whom you’d want to work.
Many have a focus or specialty in working with LGBTQ adoptive families, adoptive families of a certain religion, or expectant parents of a specific race or profile.
Nearly all will market themselves as having unique access to expectant parents, running an expedient but ethical process and with very few “broken” matches. While such claims are virtually impossible to verify, it’s crucial that you perform your own due diligence to understand the philosophy of the professionals you are working with and to ensure that you feel comfortable that all parties involved are being treated in a fair, ethical, and non-coercive way.
Adoption professionals often recommend working with legal representation who are members of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys organization (also known as AAAA or “Quad A” Attorneys). These attorneys often have additional legal experience and qualifications in ethical adoption practices and can help you steer clear of common pitfalls in the adoption process.
Every state will require you to become eligible to adopt before actually doing so. Depending upon the state you live in and the path you pursue, there will be differences.
For instance, in the State of New York, if you work with an agency, the agency can deem you eligible. If you don’t work with an agency, a court will make that determination.
A central feature of this process is the home study. Every state requires adoptive parents to be screened by a social worker or a state-licensed agency.
That person is trying to determine if you’re medically, financially, and emotionally prepared to love and raise a child. All in all, this process will take 3–6 months and requires a fair amount of organization.
Typically, you’ll want to have a note from your doctor that indicates you’re in good medical health. You’ll also want to be prepared with W-2s, bank statements and tax returns, largely to help the social worker ascertain if you’re financially sturdy.
These documents are collected over the course of a few visits during which the social worker will try to get to know you, your background, your history, your perspectives on parenting, and to ascertain whether the home itself is safe and suitable for a child.
In the end, the social worker is responsible for turning in a report with a recommendation. The report tends to chronicle 8–10 items, namely:
The next major phase in the adoption process is “Outreach”, which typically involves creating a profile of yourself for expectant parents to consider.
Unless you have a direct and pre-existing relationship with the expecting parents, you’ll make a “book” or website that profiles you, your family, and why you’d be great adoptive parents.
As you’ll see in our interview with Ashley Mitchell, a birth mom and advocate, most expecting parents will be handed 5–15“books”. Some will be given as few as 2–3. Doing a great job here is critical.
As you’ll see in our interview, Ashley distills the thought process of many expectant parents into three steps or components: visual connection, emotional connection, and X factor.
First, birth parents are going to look at your pictures. It’s crucial your pictures represent who you are and your real life. Include a mix of high-quality, professional photos along with candids and selfies. The expectant mom is likely not looking for “who has the best looking profile?” but instead she is asking herself a tough question: “Can I picture my child in your family?”
Next, birth mothers are going to focus on your “letter”. Most profile books (or websites) will include a brief introduction letter you write to the expectant mother. As you’re writing your letter, remember that the expectant mom is in a vulnerable position, and she is making a life-altering decision.
The best letters focus on building a connection with the expectant mom, as opposed to how hard your journey has been or how you’re counting on them “to make your dreams come true”.
An expectant mother is looking for clues whether you can appreciate her situation: a pregnant woman who is trying to make the most challenging decision of her life.
Once an expectant mother feels a visual and emotional connection to a profile, there is normally one thing that pushes her one way or another—and it’s pretty much impossible to know what that is going to be. It could be as simple as the family having the same type of dog she had growing up or the dad wearing a college sweatshirt of her dad’s alma-mater. She’s likely going to be connecting with something that reminds her of her own childhood or is completely different than the life she had growing up.
While it can be easy to obsess over every detail, Ashley’s advice boils down to a handful of do’s and dont’s that can guide your decision process.
Adoptive parents can locate expectant parents in any number of ways. They may find birth parents on their own through an existing relationship, a mutual acquaintance, or by placing an advertisement on an online portal.
To the extent you rely upon an agency, attorney, or facilitator, they themselves may place advertisements or harness a network of doctors, clinics, or people in the community.
Should you rely upon a third party, as we’ll discuss below, a key question is how that third party decides which clients they present to which expectant parent. Simply because a third party has located a great match, doesn’t mean they’ll prioritize you.
If you, your agency, or your attorney plan to advertise, you’ll want to understand both your state's laws on the subject, as well as the state’s laws in which you’re hoping to adopt from. If you break either state’s laws, your adoption could be put in jeopardy.
In some states, there is sensitivity over who can advertise. In some states, advertising is illegal outright while in others only licensed state agencies can place an advertisement. Which means if you, your attorney, or a facilitator placed an advertisement, you’d be breaking the law.
In other circumstances, the content of the advertisement may be problematic. Offering certain forms or levels of compensation may run against state law and create problems.
If you, or someone on your behalf, plans to advertise, be certain to have a licensed attorney review the laws in your state, the states in which you plan to advertise, as well as the content of the advertisement to be placed.
Finally, as many adoptive parents will tell you, placing an advertisement can elicit a response not only from expectant parents, but also those hoping to collect a fee by putting you in touch. This can beget a bigger project of trying to discern who is credible and who is ethical.
Many agencies and attorneys have relationships with family planning clinics or doctors who see a high percentage of women who are weighing their options whether to deliver or not, and if so, whether to parent the child.
A large percentage of adoptions involve expectant parents who have placed a child for adoption before. As a result, many agencies, lawyers, and expectant families have worked together before under similar circumstances.
While agencies and attorneys may find expectant parents who may be a great fit, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually show them your book or profile.
Some attorneys and agencies believe in limiting the number of candidates they’ll put in front of the expectant parents, and it’s their decision whether you’re on the short list.
Agencies and attorneys can use any number of methods to prioritize clients: the best match, prospects who’ve been waiting the longest, those who’ve had a “broken” match (and where presumably the agency must complete an adoption or provide a refund).
Adoption professionals we’ve spoken with advocate against limiting the number of profiles offered to a birth mom, emphasizing that the decision of who to place her child with is her choice, and she should have all the options available presented to her.
Once the expectant parents have selected a family, and the hopeful adoptive parents have expressed mutual interest, there’s a process to ensure this is a good match and both parties agree on the costs the adoptive parents will (legally) cover.
During this stage of the process, the expectant parents are still very much “in the driver’s seat” and maintain their right to make a different decision at any time.
Even after everything is agreed upon, the arrangement is not binding, and expectant parents do not sign documents obligating them to place their child for adoption. Official paperwork is not signed until after birth, and even when this stage is completed, there is still a chance that the adoption will not be finalized.
Occasionally, an expectant parent won’t be pregnant (possibly due to an error in diagnosis, a loss, or some other factor). It’s critical for the agency or attorney to receive a record from an OBGYN that the expectant mother has an ongoing, active pregnancy.
Another step is for the expectant parents to provide a social medical history report.
Below is a rundown of the questions asked and yes, all of this information is self-reported. Much of this is meant to confirm what adoptive parents have already been told.
However, questions around Native American heritage and the birth father’s role/intentions are critical to surface possible adoption impediments.
If adoptive parents are concerned about drug usage during pregnancy, they may be able to ask the expectant mother to agree to a test. If they’re nervous about complications during a previous delivery, they may be able to ask for additional medical paperwork. In private adoptions, some attorneys also like to conduct a background search for any possible legal issues in the past.
Again, expectant parents are still the decision makers here and so one needs to balance the need for this information with the delicacy (or implication) of the request.
In parallel, and in many cases, adoptive parents and expectant parents will get together in person. Many adoptive parents will tell you this visit feels like a “try out”, and they spend hours obsessing over how to come across. Most describe an initial awkwardness that tends to dissipate as the meeting or day rolls on.
It’s during this “get to know you period” the expectant mother may bring up sensitive and critical subjects like how the relationship will look in the long term.
Placing a child for adoption carries a heavy toll on a birth parent. Expectant parents live with this decision for their rest of their lives.
As you can see in the data below, collected by investigators at the University of Minnesota, decades after the adoption, most birth parents retain some level of grief.
For this reason, its critical birth parents receive counseling to prepare them for this reality and to ensure their lucidly weighing the short- and long-term implications.
Similarly, it’s essential expectant parents have their own separate attorney (whose fees will be directly or indirectly covered by you) to explain the process and what rights they have, and will relinquish, in time.
During this stretch, lawyers for the adoptive parents and the expectant parents need to work together to consider a number of factors that could impede the adoption. Sticking points that tend to come up:
The rights of an unwed biological father vary from state to state. This is the reason the social medical history attempts to capture his knowledge of the pregnancy and role thereafter.
Often, an expectant mother needs to have made the biological father aware of the pregnancy.
In some states, the biological father must have played an active role in the pregnancy for his preferences to be considered.
In other states, the biological father merely needs to establish with a court that he is a birth parent. Thereafter, unless under extenuating circumstances, his consent is necessary.
As you saw in the social medical history form checklist, direct questions are asked of the birth mother and birth father as to whether they are of Native American descent.
To the extent either expectant parent is of Native American heritage, federal statute requires efforts first be made to place the child with family (regardless of their heritage) or other descendants of Native heritage.
If the work has not been done to characterize any Native connection, or placement alternatives, the adoption can be delayed or nullified.
In many infant adoptions, adoptive parents help cover medical or living expenses. In over 40 states there are both strict limits on what can be covered and a requirement to report to the court what was covered.
While most states require each line item’s dollar coverage be “reasonable and customary”, the reality is that can be broadly interpreted. When states do specify, the “temporary living expense” cap seldom exceeds $5,000.
Occasionally, states are specific when it comes to the period living expenses can be covered, often demarcated around the due date or delivery date.
Experts warn that when items like “temporary living expenses” become exorbitant, this smacks of coercion, and even if a court allows the adoption, you should wonder about whether the birth parent placed the child for adoption for the right reasons.
Once the matching and due diligence phase is done, thought needs to be given to the birth and post delivery steps.
Before the due date, adoptive parents, expectant parents, and their attorneys should craft a “hospital plan”.
These days in the hospital are the crucial period when an expectant mother delivers, holds her baby, and must make the agonizing decision whether to place the child for adoption.
Given the pressure placed on this moment, it’s important expectant mothers have the time and space to make their decision. As a result, it’s important to spell out everyone’s role on that day, though the mother is welcome to change the plan if she sees fit.
Adoptive parents need to steel themselves for the reality that all of their sacrifices may have brought them only to this point: for a new mother to hold her baby in her arms and ultimately decide to parent the child herself.
Make no mistake: this is an emotionally-charged period for everyone involved. Ultimately, someone will take home a baby and someone won’t. Seeing the agony the other person is feeling can be devastating. Feeling the responsibility you’re being entrusted with can be overwhelming. This is a delicate, and in many ways, sacred period.
Should the birth mother decide to proceed with the adoption, she’ll sign “relinquishment documents”. This signifies her intent to relinquish her parental rights to the child, opening the door for the adoptive parents to adopt the child.
Given the gravity of the decision, some states (e.g. California, Utah) require a waiting period between delivery and signing to help ensure parents make a lucid and balanced decision.
It’s worth noting that in some states (e.g. California) signing is pegged to the discharge (not birth) date, and so it may take longer for signing to occur if the child is born prematurely or requires more time in the hospital.
Once papers are signed, some states provide a period for birth parents to change their minds. For instance, in New York, birth parents have a 30–45 day window, whereas in Utah, there’s no revocation period (unless fraud’s been committed).
For this reason, states like Utah are considered to be more “adoptive parent” friendly. A state’s period of revocation may be a factor in which state your agency or attorney guides you to finalize the adoption.
Once the grace period has elapsed, the adoptive parents and their attorneys will submit paperwork to the state in which the adoption will take place to finalize the adoption.