As a general rule, any adult who is considered a "fit parent" may adopt a child, but some states have special requirements for adoptive parents. In a few states, adoptive parents must be a certain number of years older than the child. In others, adoptive parents must be state residents for a specified length of time before they are allowed to adopt. If you're adopting through an agency, you may also have to meet additional agency requirements, which are often stricter than state laws.
In addition, some individuals or couples are likely to have more difficulty adopting than others. For instance, a single man or a lesbian couple may have a harder time finding a placement than a married heterosexual couple will, even though technically they should be able to adopt. This happens because all states look to the "best interests of the child" when making a placement determination. Many state courts or agencies will use the "best interests" argument to judge a prospective adoptive parent or couple according to preconceived biases about who makes a good or a fit parent. And sometimes birth parents who are placing their children with an agency for adoption have some of the same biases. Below we discuss the issues or roadblocks some folks are likely to run into.
You do not need to be the same race as the child you want to adopt, but some states do give preference to prospective adoptive parents of the same race or ethnic background of the child. Adoptions of Native American children are governed by a federal law -- the Indian Child Welfare Act -- that outlines specific rules and procedures that must be followed when adopting a Native American child.
Only Florida and Utah specifically prohibit lesbians and gay men from adopting children, but that doesn't mean it's easy to adopt in other states. Even if sexual orientation is not specifically mentioned in a state adoption statute, it can become an issue in court. Some judges will use it to find a prospective adoptive parent to be unfit.
In addition, in some states it is difficult for a lesbian or gay person or couple to find an agency that will work with them.
On the other hand, gay men and lesbians all over the country do adopt children, and an increasing number of states are allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt jointly. However, lesbians and gay men will need an experienced attorney to handle an adoption. Do your homework: The National Center for Lesbian Rights at www.nclrights.org provides information for gay men and lesbians who want to adopt.
As a single person you may have to wait longer for a placement or be flexible about the child you adopt. Agencies often "reserve" healthy infants and younger children for two-parent families, putting single people at the bottom of their waiting lists. And birth parents themselves often want their children to be placed in a two-parent home.
If you're a single person wishing to adopt, you should be prepared to make a good case for your fitness as a parent. You can expect case workers to ask why you haven't married, how you plan to support and care for the child on your own, what will happen if you do marry, and other questions that will put you in the position of defending your status as a single person. To many single adoptive parents such rigorous screening doesn't seem fair, but it is commonplace.
Agencies serving children with special needs may be a good option for singles, because they often cast a wider net when considering adoptive parents. Being flexible about your choices will make it easier to overcome the resistance to single-parent adoptions.
There is no specific prohibition against unmarried couples' adopting children (sometimes called a two-parent adoption). Like singles, however, you may find that agencies are biased towards married couples. You may have a longer wait for a child, or you may have to expand your ideas about the child you are willing to adopt.
For more information on adoptions, see Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, by Shae Irving and the editors of Nolo.