Using an agency to manage your adoption can be helpful for a number of reasons. Agencies are experienced in finding children, matching them with parents, and satisfying the necessary legal requirements. Agencies will help adoptive parents with everything from finding a birth parent to finalizing the adoption papers. An agency will take care of many of the crucial elements of the adoption, such as conducting the home study, obtaining the necessary consents, and advising the adoptive parents on any specific state requirements.
The key advantage of a private agency adoption is the extensive counseling that agencies provide. Typically, counseling is available for adoptive parents, birth parents, and the children (if they are older). Careful counseling can help everyone involved weather the emotional, practical, and legal complexities that can arise throughout the adoption process. And it's particularly important for the protection it provides the adoptive parents. A birth parent who receives appropriate counseling early in the process is less likely to change her mind when it comes time to sign the actual consent forms after the baby's birth.
On the down side, private agencies are often extremely selective when choosing adoptive parents. This is because they have a surplus of people who want to adopt and a limited number of available children. Agencies weed out parents based on age, marital status, income, health, religion, sexual orientation, family size, and personal history (including criminal conduct).
Public agencies have many children ready to be adopted, but they are often older or special-needs children. If you want a newborn or an infant, a public agency may not be able to help you. And public agencies generally do not provide the many other services, such as much-needed counseling, that private agencies offer. Of course, along with offering fewer services, public agencies come at a much lower cost. It may cost you next to nothing to adopt through a public agency (and the agency may even provide a small stipend during the adoption process), whereas a private agency adoption will cost many thousands of dollars.
Even if you do use an agency, you will probably need to hire a lawyer to draft the adoption petition and to represent you at the hearing. Although there is no legal requirement that a lawyer be involved in an adoption, the process can be quite complex and should be handled by someone with experience and expertise. When seeking a lawyer, find out how many adoptions the lawyer has handled, and whether any of them were contested or developed other complications.
Private agencies charge fees to cover the birth mother's expenses as allowed by state law; these expenses may include medical costs, living expenses during the pregnancy, and counseling. Add to this the agency's staff salaries and overhead -- and charges can mount up quickly.
Many agencies charge a flat fee for adoptions, while others add the birth mother's expenses to a fixed rate for the agency's services. Some agencies use a sliding scale that varies with adoptive parents' income levels, usually with a set minimum and maximum fee. You can expect to pay $1,000 to $6,000 to adopt a young child, and $10,000 or more to adopt a newborn. Some agencies charge a lower rate for handling special needs adoptions.
Public agencies generally do not charge fees for placing children in adoptive homes.
Even if you use an agency, you may need to hire a lawyer to draft the adoption petition and to represent you at the adoption hearing. Although there is no legal requirement that a lawyer be involved in an adoption, the process can be quite complex. Attorney fees, of course, add to the cost of the adoption.
Agencies sometimes wait to place a child in an adoptive home until all necessary consents have been given and are finalized. Because of this, a child may be placed in foster care for a few days or weeks, depending on the situation and the state's law. The lag-time concerns many adoptive parents who want their child to have a secure, stable home as soon as possible. Some agencies get around this by placing infants immediately through a type of adoption known as a "legal risk placement." The risk is that the birth mother may decide she wants her child back before her rights have been legally terminated -- then the adoptive parents will have to let the child go.
There are an estimated 3,000 adoption agencies in the United States, public and private. If you live in a state like California or New York, you'll have more options than if you live in a less populated state. But wherever you live, you'll probably have to do some searching to find an agency that meets your needs and is able to work with you. You can contact a national adoption organization for referrals to get you started. One place to start is the Child Welfare Information Gateway at www.childwelfare.gov. Also, talk to anyone you know who has adopted children -- personal referrals are often the best way to find a good agency.
When considering an agency, check out the agency's reputation and accreditation. Start with the licensing department of your state. It can tell you whether the agency has been cited for licensing violations and whether the licensing office has received any complaints about the agency. You can request a copy of the state rules governing adoption agencies so that you understand the standards your agency must follow. Your state department of social services or your state or local department of consumer affairs may also be able to give you information about the agency.
You may adopt a foreign child through an American agency that specializes in international adoptions. (You can adopt directly, but most people use an agency because international direct adoption can be very difficult and the risk of problems is high.) An agency will know the U.S. immigration laws and the laws of the country of the child, as well as the adoption laws of your state.
U.S. immigration laws require that prospective adoptive parents be married or, if single, at least 25 years old. The adoptive parents must file an Orphan Petition (Form I-600) with the agency now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly called the INS), to show that the child's parents have died, disappeared, or abandoned the child, or that one remaining parent is not able to care for the child and consents to the child's adoption and immigration to the U.S. If there are two known parents, the child will not qualify as an orphan under any circumstances.
Along with the Orphan Petition, you will need to submit a number of other documents, including a favorable home study report from the agency you choose. If USCIS approves the petition, and there are no disqualifying factors such as a communicable disease, the child can be issued an immigrant visa.
Much of the paperwork for an international adoption can be completed even before you have identified a specific child to adopt. Advance preparation is a valuable option because the paperwork often takes a long time to process, and may hold up the child's arrival in the U.S. even after all foreign requirements have been met.
Finally, be sure you check your own state laws for any preadoption requirements. Some states, for instance, require you to submit the written consent of the birth mother before they approve the entry of the child into the state. Some experts recommend that parents who adopt overseas readopt the child in their own state in order to make sure that the adoption fully conforms to state law, and in order to get a birth certificate that is in English. Sometimes, readoption is a legal necessity -- required either by the state in which you live, or by the country in which you adopted.
No foreign countries allow the adoption of children by openly gay or lesbian parents. Nonetheless, many lesbian and gay parents adopt children through international adoption procedures, keeping their sexual orientation a secret from the foreign country.
If you want to adopt a child from another country, contact International Concerns for Children, www.iccadopt.org, 911 Cypress Drive, Boulder, CO, 80303-2821, 303-494-8333.
To learn more about adoptions, see Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, by Shae Irving and the editors of Nolo (Nolo), a handy, information-packed resource.