Deciding to welcome a child into your heart and home is one of the most important choices you'll ever make. Sometimes it comes only after you've tried for years, unsuccessfully, to have a child. Sometimes it comes after you've discovered the joy of raising children and have decided to enrich your family with a "waiting" child. Today, marriage is no longer a prerequisite for parenthood, and many single people also adopt. People in stepfamilies often adopt a spouse's child. Whether you are married or single, you have options that include agency, independent and open adoptions.
Agencies can be public or private. Public agencies are run by states, often through a department of social, human or family services. These agencies rarely have healthy infants available. Children adopted through state agencies are mainly of elementary or high school age and have often spent years in foster care. At state agencies social workers usually determine who adopts a child. Private agencies have more infants available. Some agencies have religious affiliations, but this doesn't always mean that they work exclusively with people of that religion. At private agencies it has become standard for birth parents to have a say in who adopts their child.
One advantage of working with agencies is that they have systems in place to identify children who need loving families. This means that if you choose the right agency, it is likely that the agency will identify a child for you. Another advantage is that agencies require counseling for prospective parents, which can help you address any questions you have about adoption. At most agencies the birth parents also receive counseling. In any case it's important to choose an agency carefully. Get as many recommendations as you can from friends who have adopted and attend orientation meetings at several agencies to gain a sense of the range of services you might expect from each.
Especially if you are new to a community and don't have word-of-mouth recommendations, you may want to call the department that licenses adoption agencies in your state and request a copy of adoption agency regulations so you'll know which practices are standard in your area. You may be able to get more information by calling your state's department of social, human or family services to see whether complaints have been filed about agencies you're considering. Even if an agency has done nothing illegal the department may have received reports of questionable ethical or business practices.
Independent adoption is non-agency adoption. It's very common and legal in almost all states. Prospective parents often pursue independent adoption through an intermediary, such as a doctor or lawyer. Lawyers who specialize in independent adoptions may be able to both find a child and provide the required legal services.
You may also adopt independently by using your own resources and networking skills to find a child. You may advertise in newspapers or magazines likely to be read by people sympathetic to your concerns, such as alumni magazines. You may also scan newspapers for birth mothers' ads, speak with parent groups to find out how others adopted or pass out printed cards to acquaintances. Your cards might say, "Choose adoption. We will provide a loving home for your infant. Call Sue or Jim collect any time, 1-801-555-2323."
Some people prefer independent adoption because it gives them greater control over the process of finding a child. Instead of waiting for an agency to call, they can actively pursue promising leads. If prospective parents advertise widely or have a broad circle of acquaintances, they may be able to find a child more quickly (though the time saved may amount to only a small fraction of the time it takes to adopt a child legally). Other people prefer independent adoption because they may learn more about the birth mother that way, especially if they have made the initial contact.
An identified adoption is a blend of independent and agency adoptions. As in some independent adoptions, the prospective parents conduct their own search for a child. Once they locate a birth mother, the agency steps in to counsel the birth mother and adoptive parents. Some people like this option because it gives them some control over finding a child, but also provides the protection and support of an agency.
In an international adoption, a citizen of one country adopts a child who is a citizen of another. This option has become so popular that parents who choose international adoption can find many groups to help them understand and appreciate the unique cultural or ethnic background of their child.
Every country has its own adoption guidelines and many of them are complicated. The range of guidelines makes it extremely difficult for people from the United States to adopt a child from another country without going through an agency that specializes in international adoption. As a start, you can obtain country-specific information by visiting the Department of State's Intercountry Adoption website.
In 2008 the United States became a member of the Hague Convention, which governs adoptions between participating countries. Convention rules spell out the guidelines for children eligible for adoption, as well as requirements for agencies handling Hague Convention adoptions. The Hague Convention is designed to both protect the children and provide safeguards for adoptive parents. The procedures for Hague Convention adoptions, along with a list of participating countries, can be found on the U.S. Department of State website.
If you are considering international adoption, you must meet the guidelines set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the Department of Homeland Security. Parents adopting from Hague Convention countries must file an I-800A (Application for Determination of Suitability to Adopt from a Convention Country) if the child has not been identified. Parents who have identified a child from a Hague Convention country will file form I-800 (Petition to Classify Convention Adoptee as an Immediate Relative). If you are adopting from a country not party to the Hague Convention, you must file form I-600A or I-600.
Formal adoption used to be shrouded in secrecy. Birth parents and adoptive parents had little or no information about each other, and records were sealed. Now the trend is toward openness. "Open adoption" is a catchall phrase meaning that there is some communication between the adoptive parents, the birth parents and the child.
Often birth mothers choose an adoptive parent from a book of photographs and descriptions. Other times, they meet. In some open adoptions only non-identifying information is shared, and after the child is placed, communication either ends or is conducted through an intermediary. Under some arrangements adoptive parents may attend the birth, and the birth mother becomes a member of the child's extended family. In most open adoptions the amount of contact is somewhere in the middle, determined by the wishes of the adoptive and birth parents. The adoptive parents often agree to send the birth mother annual letters and photos describing the child's progress. In some states agreements about communication between the adoptive and birth parents are informal and not binding.
Birth parents' rights
The rights of birth parents vary from state to state. All states insist that birth parents cannot relinquish a child before birth. Most also give birth parents the right, during a specified time after the birth, to change their minds. Even after a child arrives in your home, the birth parents may have the right to change their minds during a set period that varies by state. This rarely happens if the birth parents have received the appropriate counseling and have made a voluntary decision to give up a child.
Still, you must go to court to finalize your adoption. In most cases, the court will require an investigation before the adoption becomes legal. If you have adopted your child through an agency, the agency will help you assemble the documents that the court will want to see. If you have adopted independently, your lawyer will help. The finalization usually occurs about six months after the birth. If you have been careful to select an experienced and reputable agency and lawyer, this process generally goes smoothly. Finalizing the adoption in court is the last, joyful step you take toward becoming the legal parent of the child.