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Lesson 3 of 7

The Domestic Adoption Process

Video Lesson

Written Lesson

Getting Started

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.

Adoption Process Overview

Establish Preferences for the Adoption Arrangement

A critical first step in the “Getting Started” phase is to establish your preferences for the adoption. While these can (and likely will) evolve, knowing your goals going in will help you think through what kinds of professionals you want to work with.

Getting Started Adoption Process

Similarly, knowing your goals will help you calibrate, early on, the amount of time and money the process may require. Below are some common criteria adoptive parents often use to narrow their preferences. In later lessons, we’ll also spend significant time on “Level of Openness” and the steps that can be taken to help transracial adoptions go as smoothly as possible.

Select a Path and Partner

Once you’re clear on your goals, you can better-determine whether you want to work with an agency or attorney – and which specific one to choose. For example, some focus on or specialize in working with LGBTQ adoptive families, or adoptive families of a certain religion, or expectant parents of a specific race or with specific characteristics.

Nearly all will market themselves as having exceptional access to expectant parents, providing an expeditious but ethical process, and experiencing 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 work with and to ensure that you feel comfortable that all parties involved will be 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 adoption practices and can help you steer clear of common pitfalls in the process.

Becoming Eligible to Adopt

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.

If you work with an agency in New York State, for instance, the agency is authorized by law to 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 pre-adoptive parents to be screened by a social worker, working with a state-licensed agency or independently.

That person’s job is to determine if you’re medically, financially, and emotionally prepared to love and raise a child. All in all, this process takes three to six months and requires a fair amount of organization.

Typically, you’ll want 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 in sufficiently good financial shape to support a family.

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 eight to 10 items, namely:

Creating a Book or Website

The next major phase in the adoption process is “Outreach,” which typically involves creating a profile of yourself for expectant parents to consider.

Outreach In Adoption

Unless you have a direct, pre-existing relationship with the expecting parent, you’ll create a physical “book” (also sometimes called an album) or website that uses writing, photos, and other media to profile you and 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, that many expecting parents will be handed five to 15 such “books.” Some will be given as few as two or three. There’s also an evolution occurring from making and providing “books” to telling your story via a website you set up for this purpose instead or in addition.

Doing a great job here is critical.

As you’ll see in Ashley’s interview, she distills the thought process of many expectant parents into three steps or components: visual connection, emotional connection, and X factor.

Visual Connection

First, expectant parents are going to look at your pictures or videos. It’s crucial that these visuals represent who you are and your real life. Include a mix of high-quality, professional images, along with candids and selfies. The person viewing them is likely not looking for “who are the best-looking people” but, instead, is asking herself a tough but essential question: “Can I picture my child in your family?”

Emotional Connection

Next, expectant mothers are going to focus on your “letter.” Most profile books or websites will include a brief introduction that you write to her. As you’re drafting that letter, remember that the expectant mom is in a very vulnerable position, and she is making a life-altering decision.

The best letters aim to build a connection with the expectant mom and express empathy for her, as opposed to focusing on how hard your journey has been or how much you’re counting on her “to make your dreams come true.”

An expectant mother wants to know whether you can appreciate her situation: a pregnant woman who is trying to make the most difficult decision of her life. The bottom line is that this phase of the journey is and should be mostly about her, though that may sometimes be hard for pre-adoptive parents to remember because they are also going through a challenging time.

The X Factor

Once an expectant mother feels a visual and emotional connection to a pre-adoptive parent’s profile, there is often one factor that pushes her one way or another – and it’s pretty much impossible to predict 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 prospective dad wearing a college sweatshirt of her own father’s alma-mater. In other words, she’s likely going to connect with something, whether it’s a small connection or something big – like a reminder of a positive experience during her own early years or an indicator that her child could get a better life than the one 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 don’ts that can guide your process of putting together a profile.

Locating Expectant Parents

People seeking to adopt can locate expectant parents in any number of ways. They may find a pregnant woman on their own through an existing relationship, a mutual acquaintance, or by placing an advertisement on an online portal. Or they may use a professional such as an agency or attorney, or a third party such as a facilitator or online entity that focuses on making matches.

To the extent that you utilize someone other than yourself, you may still want/need to place ads or try to harness your own network of doctors, clinics, or people in your community. It's also becoming increasingly common for expecting and prospective parents to connect on their own via social media and to form an online relationship, and then engage an agency or attorney to provide additional services for a private adoption.

Should you employ a third party, as we’ll discuss below, a key question is how that individual decides which clients they present to which expectant parents. In other words, simply because a third party has located a potential match doesn’t mean they’ll prioritize you.

Locating Expectant Parents


If you, your agency, or your attorney plan to advertise, you’ll want to understand both your state's relevant laws and those of the state from which you’re hoping to adopt. If you break either state’s laws, your adoption could be put in jeopardy.

For example, some dictate that only licensed state agencies (or other specified parties) can advertise, while others prohibit advertising altogether. 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 regulated, especially if it mentions potential inducements that in themselves aren’t legal in the state. Offering certain forms or levels of compensation to a pregnant woman, for instance, may be a violation that could create problems for the adoption.

If you, or someone on your behalf, plans to advertise, a licensed attorney should review the laws in all states in which you plan to do so, as well as the content of any potential advertisement.

Finally, as many adoptive parents will tell you, placing an advertisement can elicit a response not only from expectant parents, but also from third parties hoping to collect a fee by putting you in touch – and, sometimes, can even draw in scammers. The bottom line is that it’s very important to do due diligence to discern who is credible and ethical, and who is not.

Doctors or Clinics

Many agencies and attorneys have relationships with doctors, family-planning clinics, or other medical facilities that see patients who may be weighing whether complete their pregnancies and if so, whether to parent their baby.

Previous Adoption

A large number of adoptions are known to 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 circumstances similar to those you’re now experiencing.

The Introduction

While agencies, attorneys or other third parties can find expectant parents who are potentially a great fit, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually show them your book or website.

Because they may be simultaneously handling many clients like you (among other reasons), some professionals limit the number of profiles they show to a pregnant woman who is considering placing her child. It’s the decision of these third parties whether you’re on the short list for any specific expectant parent.

Agencies and attorneys use any number of considerations to prioritize clients; among them are: their judgment of who would be the best match, who has been waiting the longest, who has had a “broken” match, or even whose fees would have to be refunded if an adoption isn’t completed.

Many adoption professionals we’ve spoken with advocate against limiting the number of profiles offered to a prospective parent, emphasizing that the decision of who to place her child with is hers to make, so she should be presented with as many options as possible.

Matching and Due Diligence

Once the expectant parents have selected a family, and the hopeful adoptive parents have expressed mutual interest, there’s a process to ensure that it’s a good match and that both parties agree on the costs the adoptive parents can legally cover.

During this stage of the process, the expectant parents are still very much in a “decision-making mode” and maintain their right to change their minds at any time.

Even after everything is agreed upon, the arrangement is not legally binding; that is, 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.

Matching Adoption Process

Verifying the Pregnancy and Social Medical History

Occasionally, someone who says they are pregnant in fact is not, possibly due to an error in diagnosis, a miscarriage, or some other factor (rarely including fraud). It’s therefore critical to receive a record from an OBGYN that there is indeed an ongoing, viable pregnancy.

Another step is for the expectant parents to provide a social and medical history report which summarizes diagnoses given on both sides of the parental tree.

Below is a rundown of questions that should be asked. Yes, all this information is self-reported, and much of it is simply meant to confirm what the pre-adoptive parents have already been told.

Some of these questions, especially relating to Native American heritage and the birth father’s role/intentions, are critical because they surface possible impediments to the adoption.

If pre-adoptive parents are concerned that the expectant mother may have used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, they can ask her to be tested, but there is no guarantee she will comply. If they’re nervous about complications during a previous delivery, they may be able to ask for additional medical paperwork. In some private adoptions, attorneys and agencies like to conduct a background search for any possible legal issues in the past.

Again, expectant parents are still the decision-makers here, so you have to balance the need for relevant information with the delicacy or implications of making the request.

Building a Relationship

In parallel, in a high percentage of cases, pre-adoptive and expectant parents will get together in person, sometimes just once and sometimes more frequently, essentially to assess each other (in a good way) and start building a relationship. Many hopeful parents will tell you these visits feel like a “tryout” at first, and they spend hours obsessing over how to come across. Most agree, however, that the awkwardness tends to dissipate as the meetings or days roll on.

It’s during this “get-to-know-you period” that the expectant mother may bring up sensitive and critical subjects such as what the relationship – among the adults and, eventually, with the child – will look like in the long term.

As you'll see in the coming chapter on openness, building a warm, on-going relationship can be beneficial for all involved, particularly the child, over the course of time.

Placing a child for adoption carries a heavy toll on birth/first parents. They generally experience grief, loss, and other difficult emotions for the rest of their lives, even when they genuinely feel they’re doing the right thing for themselves and their child.

As you can see in the data below, collected by researchers at the University of Minnesota, most birth parents retain some level of grief even decades after the adoption. For this reason, it’s critical for expectant parents to receive counseling/support to help them through the process as it unfolds, to prepare them for the realities that they’ll face over time, and to ensure that they are thoughtfully and realistically weighing the short- and long-term implications of their decision.

Similarly, it’s best practice that expectant parents have their own, separate attorney. It’s not considered best practice to share the pre-adoptive parents’ attorney, since that person is hired solely to further the clients’ interests. The separate attorney (whose fees you likely will pay) needs to be there to ensure that his/her clients understand every step of the process and their rights, in the moment and after relinquishment.

Ensuring State Laws are Followed

During this stretch, lawyers for the adoptive and expectant parents need to work together to address a number of potential impediments to the adoption. Those can include:

Obtaining All Consents, Often from the Biological Father

The rights of an unwed expectant father vary from state to state. This is a major reason a social medical history attempts to capture his knowledge of the pregnancy and anticipated role thereafter, so that this information can be acted upon in the context of relevant state law.

In many states, a pregnant woman is required to make the expectant father aware of the pregnancy so he can decide how or whether he wants to be involved, from recusing himself from all decisions to helping choose an adoptive family to seeking to parent the child himself.

In some states, he must play an active role during the pregnancy for his preferences to even be considered. In others, he only needs to establish with a court that he is indeed the biological father. Thereafter, unless there are extenuating circumstances, his consent is necessary for any next steps to be taken toward an adoption.

Complying with the Indian Child Welfare Act

As you saw in the social medical history form checklist, direct questions are asked of the expectant parents as to whether they are of Native American descent.

If the answer from either of them is “yes,” federal statute requires that efforts first be made to place the child with family members (regardless of their heritage) or, if that’s not possible, with other families of Native heritage.

If the work has not been done to determine a Native connection, or where the child can be placed to maintain that connection, your adoption could be delayed or nullified.

Paying Some of Expectant Parents’ Expenses

Pre-adoptive parents often help cover medical or living expenses for the pregnant woman planning to place her child with them. In over 40 states, however, there are both strict limits on what can be paid for and a requirement to report to the court what was covered.

While most states require each line item’s dollar coverage to be “reasonable and customary,” that phrase can be broadly – and differently – interpreted. When states do specify an amount, the “temporary living expense” cap seldom exceeds $5,000.

Occasionally, states are specific when it comes to the period during which 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, the impact on the expectant parents can be coercive – that is, they can feel obligated to place their baby even if they believe it would be a bad decision. Even if a court allows the adoption to proceed in such a case, you should wonder whether you are receiving the child for the right reasons.

Making a Hospital Plan

Once the matching and due-diligence phase is completed, thought needs to be given to the steps everyone will take involving birth and post-delivery activities.

Hospital Plan Adoption Process

Before the due date, the prospective and expectant parents, along with their agency or attorneys, should craft a “hospital plan.” It's important to note that the decisions for this day ultimately lie with the only legal parents at that moment, the expectant mother and father (if he’s involved). That means you may or may not be invited to participate in the delivery or period just afterward.

These days in the hospital are a crucial period when a mother delivers and holds her baby, and then must make the agonizing, life-altering decision of whether to place her child for adoption.

Given the pressure of this reality, it’s critical that expectant parents have the time and space to make that decision. As a result, it’s important to spell out what everyone’s role will be on that day, though the mother is obviously entitled to change the plan at any time if she sees fit.

Pre-adoptive parents need to steel themselves for the reality that all of the emotions, expectations and dreams they now have (as well as their financial investment) do not guarantee a specific outcome. That is, ultimately, the new mother could decide she wants to parent her baby. That’s not what usually happens, but it certainly happens some of the time, so you have to be ready.

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.

Signing the Relinquishment Documents

Should the new parent decide to proceed with the adoption, she’ll sign “relinquishment documents.” These record her intent to relinquish her parental rights to the child, opening the door for the prospective parents to legally adopt.

Given the gravity of the decision, some states require a waiting period between delivery and signing to help ensure that parents make a thoughtful, informed decision. It’s worth noting that in some states (e.g., California) signing is pegged to the date of discharge, not birth, so it may take longer for signing to occur if the child is born prematurely or requires more time in the hospital for any reason.

Once papers are signed, some states provide a period for the first/birth parents to change their minds. For instance, in New York, they have a 30- to 45-day window, whereas in Utah, there’s no revocation period (unless fraud has been committed.

For this reason, states like Utah are considered to be more “friendly” to adoptive parents, though that obviously means the biological parents could feel their needs and desires aren’t adequately considered. The length of a state’s revocation period may be a factor in where your agency or attorney guides you to finalize the adoption.

Obtaining a Court Order of Adoption

Once the waiting or revocation 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.