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Adoption: Where Do I Start?


Adopting a child can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. However for adoption beginners, the adoption process can seem overwhelmingly complicated, time consuming, and frustrating--especially if you are eager to get started. This factsheet provides some basic information about possible adoption alternatives and is designed to give you an understanding of the adoption process. This factsheet is one of a series of 35 adoption-related factsheets produced by the Clearinghouse, so please check the listing of other factsheets at the end for more detailed information on related topics.

Adoption at the end of the 1990s is very different from what it was even 10 years ago. Prospective adoptive families can feel vulnerable as they attempt to learn as much as possible in the shortest period of time to become informed consumers of adoption services.

The first step is to read and to educate yourself about adoption in general, the types of children available to adopt, and the various avenues to adoption. There are many informational resources available--guidebooks are listed at the end of this factsheet along with an annotated list of national adoption organizations. Adoptive parent support groups throughout the United States have members willing to assist those who are considering adoption. State Adoption Specialists in each state can send you information to help get you started. As you learn more, you will become better prepared to make the choices that are best for you.

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What Kinds of Children Are Available for Adoption?

Families of all kinds adopt children of all kinds, from newborns to teenagers, of every race and ethnicity, and from many countries around the world.

U.S.-born Infants

Many prospective parents seek to adopt healthy infants, often of a background similar to their own. In the United States, a relatively small percentage of healthy, Caucasian infants are placed for adoption. Most Caucasian infants are placed through agencies and independent adoptions.

African-American, Hispanic, and mixed-race infants are available both through public and private adoption agencies. The adoption of American Indian children (of all ages) by non-Indians is strictly limited by the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act (P.L.95-608). Fees and waiting times for infants vary tremendously, depending on the type of adoption involved.

Children with Special Needs

Many children with special needs are available for adoption. These children may be older (grade school through teens); may have physical, emotional, or mental disabilities; or may be brothers and sisters who should be adopted together. Usually, these children are in the care of a State foster care system. Both public agencies and some private agencies place children with special needs.

In addition, national, regional, and State adoption exchanges will assist in linking prospective parents with these children. Adoption exchanges and agencies usually have photolistings and descriptions of available children, and many now provide information about waiting children on the Internet. In many cases, financial assistance in the form of adoption subsidies is available to help parents with the legal, medical, and living costs associated with caring for a child with special needs.

Intercountry Adoption

Many children from other countries are available for adoption. Russia, China, Korea, India, and countries in Eastern Europe, Central America, and South America are the source countries for most foreign-born children adopted by Americans. More than 700 U.S. private agencies place children from foreign countries, and a few countries allow families to work with attorneys rather than agencies.

There are strict immigration requirements for adopting children from other countries, as well as substantial agency fees and transportation, legal, and medical costs. It is important that you choose a licensed, know- ledgeable organization, because the intercountry adoption process is lengthy and complex.

As a prospective parent, you should carefully consider the emotional and social implications of adopting a child of a different nationality. Just as in transracial adoption of a U.S. child, you are adopting a culture as well as a child. Agencies seek families who will help a child learn about and appreciate his native culture because it is part of who he or she is.

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What Options Are Available?

People considering adoption have a range of options:

  • Agency adoptions (permissible in many States)

through the local public agency

through liscensed private agencies(includes both domestic and intercountry programs)

  • Independent agencies

identified adoptions (allowed in most States)

using attorneys or other intermediaries defined by State law

using adoption facilitators (allowed in only a few States)

Since adoption laws in the State where you live govern your options, it is essential that you know what types of placements are allowed or not allowed by your State's laws. If you pursue an adoption across states lines, you must comply with the laws in both States before the child can join your family. All 50 States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enacted legislation (called the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children) that governs how children can be placed across State lines.

In weighing your options, you should evaluate your ability to tolerate risk. Of the options outlined above, agency adoptions provide the greatest assurance of monitoring and oversight since agencies are required to adhere to licensing and procedural standards. Independent adoptions by attorneys at least provide assurance that attorneys must adhere to the standards of the Bar Association and some attorneys who specialize in adoption are members of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, a professional membership organization with standards of ethical practice.

Adoptive placements by facilitators offer the least amount of supervision and oversight. This does not mean that there are not ethical professionals with good standards of practice; it simply means there are few or no oversight mechanisms in place at this time.

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Who Can Adopt?

Adoptive parents may be married or single, childless or already parenting other children. Having a disability does not automatically disqualify you from adopting a child; rather agencies will want to ensure that you can care for a child and meet his or her needs throughout his or her childhood. Divorce or a history of marital or personal counseling does not automatically eliminate you as a candidate. You are not required to own your own home or to have a high income in order to give children what they need--permanence, stability, a lifetime commitment, and a chance to be part of a family. Children do not need "perfect" parents--they need one or more caring and committed individuals willing to meet their needs and to incorporate them into a nurturing family environment.

Increasing numbers of agencies and some foreign countries are now placing children with single applicants. Follow-up research studies of successful single parent adoptions have shown single adoptive parents as mature, independent, and having a wide and supportive network of family and friends. In fact, single adoptive parents are often the placement of choice for children who have trouble dealing with two parents due to a history of abuse or neglect.

For many infant adoptions in the United States, however, agency criteria for applicants are more restrictive. Often agencies will only consider couples married at least 1 to 3 years, between the ages of 25 and 40, and with stable employment income. Some agencies accept applicants who are older than 40. Some agencies require that the couple have no other children and be unable to bear children. Some agencies require that one parent not work outside the home for at least 6 months after the adoption. Agencies placing infants will discuss their specific eligibility regulations and placement options with you.

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Steps in Agency Adoption

There are several steps you must complete for any type of adoption through an agency. In addition to the four basic procedures described below, other procedures may be necessary, depending upon your particular needs and those of the child and the birth parents.

(1) Select an Adoption Agency

There are both private and public adoption agencies. A private adoption agency is supported by private funds and should be licensed or approved by the State in which it operates. A public agency is the local branch of your State social service agency. Most public agencies handle only special needs adoptionsnot infant or intercountry adoptions. Below are descriptions of both types of agencies.

Using a Private Agency

To obtain the names of local private agencies, look under "Adoption Agencies" or "Social Services" in the Yellow Pages. You can obtain a free copy of your State's agency listing from NAIC. If you have Internet access, you can visit the NAIC Web site at to access the National Adoption Directory online. You should check with your State Adoption Specialist, the Better Business Bureau local to the agency, and the State Attorney General's office regarding any complaints that might have been lodged by other adoptive families. You may also wish to check with local adoptive parent support groups for their recommendations of reputable agencies.

Private agencies handle both domestic and intercountry adoptions. You will need to decide which kind of child you want to join your family. Fees charged by private adoption agencies range from $5,000 to more than $30,000 for both domestic and intercountry adoptions. Make sure you ask any agency you might work with what its fees are and what the schedule is for paying them. You should also ask what services are and are not covered by the fees. Most will allow you to pay fees in installments due at particular points during the adoption process. If the fee policy is clear from the beginning, any misunderstandings about payment will be less likely.

Using a Public Agency

You can find an appropriate agency listed in your telephone book in the government section under a name such as "Department of Social Services" or "Department of Public Welfare." Each State organizes its agencies somewhat differently. They may be organized regionally or by county. To begin, call your county office and ask to speak to the adoption specialist. If the county office cannot help you, ask to be referred to the regional or State office.

In general, public agencies will accept adoption applications from families wanting to adopt older children, sibling groups, or children with special physical or psychological needs. Many of the children awaiting placement from public agencies are children of color.

Adoption services through a public agency are usually free or available for a modest fee, since the services are funded through State and Federal taxes. As mentioned earlier, Federal or State subsidies are sometimes available to assist families adopting a child with special needs. If a child has no special needs, adoptive parents may only be asked to pay legal fees, which are often quite reasonable. In some cases, subsidies may even be available for the legal fees, too.

Children in the custody of a public agency were either abused, neglected, or abandoned by their birth parents. Abuse and neglect can leave physical and emotional scars. It is important to discuss all aspects of a child's history with the agency social workers and to discuss the availability of counseling or other services, just in case they might be needed, before deciding to adopt a child with a traumatic history.

Another parenting option available through public agencies is foster parenting. Children are placed with foster parents to give birth parents a chance to improve their situations. Birth parents are offered counseling and services during this time. Foster parents receive a monthly stipend for a child's living expenses. In general, the goal of the foster care program is to reunite the child with his or her birth parents if at all possible. However, there is a growing trend toward freeing children for adoption (that is, terminating the parental rights of the birth parents) as quickly as possible to prevent years of drifting in foster care. Recent Federal legislation (Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 - P.L. 105-89) has mandated courts to seek termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months unless there are extenuating circumstances.

More and more foster parents are adopting their foster children. This is particularly true for foster children of color or those with special needs. In almost all States, the vast majority of children adopted from the public foster care system were adopted by their foster parents or by their relatives.

Recently some States have changed the way they perceive their parenting programs. They consider foster parenting and adoption to be a continuum of service, rather than two discrete functions. As a result, agency personnel may ask you at the time of application if you want to be only foster parents, only adoptive parents, or foster/adoptive parents. Foster/adoptive parents are willing to be foster parents while that is the child's need and understand that the agency will make all efforts to reunite the child with the birth parents. However, if the child is freed for adoption, the foster/adoptive parents may be given priority consideration as his or her potential adoptive parents.

It will take some soul searching on your part to decide whether foster parenting is an appropriate option for you. If you can stand some uncertainty, it is a viable option, especially if you have your heart set on a young child and you do not have the funds for a private agency or independent adoption. You must be able to maturely face the prospect of a child being reunited with birth parents, feel sincerely that reunification is indeed in the best interest of the child at that time, and be prepared to handle the grief that would accompany such a loss.

If you are considering this option, discuss becoming a foster/adoptive parent with the agency social workers and other foster parents who have adopted their former foster children.

(2) Complete the Application and Preplacement Inquiry

When you contact an agency, you may be invited to attend an agency-sponsored orientation session. Here you and other applicants will learn about the agency's procedures and available children and receive the application forms. The agency will review your completed application to determine whether to accept you as a client. If accepted by a private agency, you will probably have to pay a registration fee at this point.

The next step is the preplacement inquiry known as the "home study" or the "family assessment." The home study is an evaluation (required by State law) of you as a prospective adoptive family and of the physical and emotional environment into which the child would be placed. It is also a preparation for adoptive parenthood. It consists of a series of interviews with a social worker, including at least one interview in your home. During this process, you will, with the social worker's assistance, consider all aspects of adoptive parenthood and identify the type of child you wish to adopt. Some agencies use a group approach to the educational part of the adoption preparation process because it creates a built-in support group among adoptive families.

Many of the questions asked in the home study are personal and may seem intrusive if you are not expecting them. These questions are necessary for the social worker's evaluation of you as a prospective parent. Some of the questions are about your income, assets, and health and the stability of the marriage (if married) and/or family relationships. Physical exams to ensure that you are healthy are usually required. Some States require that prospective adoptive parents undergo a fingerprint and background check to ensure that you do not have a felony conviction for domestic violence or child abuse. A home study is usually completed in a few months, depending upon the agency's requirements and the number of other clients.

(3) Be Prepared to Wait

Adopting a child always requires a waiting period. If you want to adopt a Caucasian infant, be prepared to wait at least 1 year from the time the home study is completed, and more frequently 2 to 5 years. It is difficult to estimate the waiting period more specifically because birth parents usually select and interview the family they wish to parent their child. Applicants wishing to adopt African-American infants may have a shorter wait, probably less than 6 months. If you want to adopt a child with special needs, you can begin now to review photolistings to learn more about waiting children and to look for children who might be right for your family. Intercountry adoptions, on the other hand, may take a year or more but the wait and the process will be somewhat more predictable. For any type of adoption, even after a child is found, you may have to wait weeks or months while final arrangements are made.

(4) Complete the Legal Procedures

After a child is placed with you, you must fulfill the legal requirements for adoption. Hiring an attorney may be necessary at this time, if you have not already retained one.

Usually a child lives with the adoptive family for at least 6 months before the adoption is finalized legally, although this period varies according to State lawunlike some intercountry adoptions, however, where the adoption is completed before the child leaves his country. During this time before the adoption is finalized, the agency will provide supportive services. The social worker may visit several times to ensure that the child is well cared for and to write up the required court reports. After this period, the agency will submit a written recommendation of approval of the adoption to the court, and you or your attorney can then file with the court to complete the adoption.

For intercountry adoptions, finalization of the adoption depends on the type of visa the child has, and the laws in your State. The actual adoption procedure is just one of a series of legal processes required for intercountry adoption. You must also fulfill the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's requirements and then proceed to naturalize your child as a citizen of the United States.

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Independent Adoptions

Adoptions can sometimes be arranged without an agency. Initial contacts can be made directly between a pregnant woman and adoptive parents or by the pregnant woman and an attorney, depending on State law. Independent adoption is legal in all but a few States, but there are significant variations regarding specific aspects of adoption laws of which you should be aware.

If you pursue this approach, retain an experienced adoption attorney to explain the adoption laws in your State. Talk to other adoptive parents. Become familiar with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC), because in interstate adoptions you will be required to comply with the adoption laws of both states. You certainly do not want your adoption to be challenged because of failing to comply with the relevant adoption laws.

To initiate an independent adoption, you must first locate a birth mother interested in relinquishing her child. In the States where it is legal, advertising in the classified section of local newspapers has proven to be a successful method for bringing birth parents and adoptive parents together. You can advertise on your own or use a national adoption advertising consultant. Another way to locate a birth mother is to send an introductory letter, photo, and resume describing your family life, home, jobs, hobbies, and interests to crisis pregnancy centers, obstetricians, and all of your friends and colleagues who might possibly lead you to the right person. Some families have even advertised on the Internet.

Simply locating a birth mother is only the first step. You also need to know about the birth father. States have recognized the rights of birth fathers to be involved in decisions about their children, including adoptions. Many States have established registries (putative father registries) as a way for birth fathers to register their intention to support and be involved in their child's life. Several high-profile law suits have involved contested adoptions where birth fathers were not notified of, and subsequently objected to the adoptive placement of the child.

Expenses involved in an independent adoption vary. It is customary for adoptive parents to pay for the birth mother's medical and legal expenses, in addition to their own. Some States also require the adoptive parents to pay for counseling for the birth parents so that the court can be satisfied that they both fully comprehend what they are planning to do. A home study, for which there is a fee, conducted by a certified social worker or a licensed child-placing agency is usually required. In some States, the adoptive parents may also help out with the birth mother's living or clothing expenses. Again, with each of these issues, you must know your State adoption laws and what they allow or prohibit in an adoption

A few States permit adoption facilitators to act as "matchmakers" who recruit and counsel birth parents and then make introductions to prospective adoptive families. The facilitators charge families for their services and allow the birth parents and the adoptive family to make the rest of the placement arrangements.

Each potential independent adoption situation is different, and this method can be expensive. It is not uncommon for the expenses in an independent adoption to equal those of a private agency adoption, unless the birth mother has health insurance or is covered by medical assistance. Since many birth parents change their minds after the child is born, prospective adoptive families must often deal with the loss of funds paid for birth parent expenses in addition to the loss of the anticipated baby. Some adoptive parents purchase adoption insurance as a way to guard against such financial risks; insurance underwriters require that families work with pre-approved agencies or attorneys in order to purchase this insurance.

Identified adoption is a form of independent adoption in which a birth mother and adoptive parents locate one another, but then go together to a licensed adoption agencyin a few States, this is the only type of independent adoption allowed. The agency conducts the home study for the adoptive parents and counsels the birth mother. All the parties know that the birth mother's baby will be placed with that couple. This process combines some of the positive elements of all types of adoption: the birth mother can feel confident that her child will have a future with an approved, loving family, and the adoptive parents can feel confident that the birth mother has thought through her decision carefully. As in any adoption, however, a birth mother may still change her mind about placing the child.

Many couples who have adopted infants independently found it was the right solution for them. It may be the solution for you; however, it is not for everyone. Some adoptive parents who have adopted independently say later that it might have been nice to have had the emotional support and thoughtful preparation for adoption that an adoption agency provides. Most parents want to be well-prepared to help their children deal with adoption issues they will face at different points in their lives. Some parents seek support before and after adopting independently by joining adoptive parent support groups.

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Openness in Adoption

An increasing number of adoption professionals feel that openness between the birth parents and adoptive parents benefits the child. Information about both parties can be exchanged directly. The birth parents can do some anticipatory grieving for their loss, while the adoptive parents can prepare to bond immediately with their baby. In this approach, it has even been known for a birth mother to use the adoptive mother as her labor coach when delivering the baby.

Follow-up research on families who have open adoption placements suggests that there are several important benefits to openness. Adoptive families generally report that they do not fear the birth parents (who know them and the child) will return to claim the child. In addition, parents report that their children do not display confusion about who is the parent. Children can ask the difficult questions directly about the reasons they were placed for adoption. Birth parents report a confidence in the rightness of their very difficult decision when they have the security of knowing the adoptive parents and knowing how the child is doing.

Researchers plan to continue their follow-up studies of open adoption placements and to continue to report their findings to professionals and families alike.

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How You Can Learn More About Adoption

This factsheet gives a basic overview of the steps and issues involved with becoming an adoptive parent. For more in-depth information, you should read adoption guidebooks that are available at your public library or book store. Some of these publications are listed on the following page. If you have Internet access (most public libraries are connected), you can find adoption resources online but verify their credibility by cross checking

Various organizations offer educational programs on adoption. Community colleges, adoption agencies, hospitals, religious groups, local YMCAs and other organizations may offer adoption preparation programs in your community. You can also call a local private or public adoption agency to find out about their parent preparation programs or to obtain informative publications produced by the agency.

Related Clearinghouse Factsheets

The Clearinghouse factsheets identified in the text are as follows:

Clearinghouse Services Online

Factsheets: If you have internet access, you can find the factsheets listed above online at

State Adoption Law Summaries: Summaries of several elements of State adoption laws are found online at

Agency & Adoptive Parent Support Group Listings: Find state-specific listings of agencies, attorney referral organizations, and adoptive parent support groups at


_________. AFA's Guide to Adoption. St. Paul, MN: Adoptive Families of America, annually updated.

Alexander-Roberts, Colleen. The Essential Adoption Handbook. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing, 1993.

Beauvais-Godwin, Laura and Godwin, Raymond. The Independent Adoption Manual, From Beginning to Baby. Lakewood, NJ: The Advocate Press, 1993.

_________.The Complete Adoption Book. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1997.

Bolles, Edmund Blair. The Penguin Adoption Handbook. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Craig-Oldsen, Heather L. From Foster Parent to Adoptive Parent: Helping Foster Parents Make An Informed Decision About Adoption. Atlanta: Child Welfare Institute, 1988.

Gilman, Lois. The Adoption Resource Book. New York: Harper and Row, 1992.

Johnson, Patricia. Launching a Baby's Adoption: Practical Strategies for Parents and Professionals. Indianapolis, IN: Perspective Press, 1997.

Marindin, Hope. Handbook for Single Adoptive Parents. Chevy Chase, MD: Committee for Single Adoptive Parents, 1992.

Rosenthal, James A. and Groze, Victor K. Special-Needs Adoption: A Study of Intact Families. New York: Praeger, 1992.

Schooler, Jayne E. The Whole Life Adoption Book. Colorado Springs, CO: Piņon Press, 1993.

Sifferman, K.A. Adoption: A Legal Guide for Birth and Adoptive Parents. Hawthorne, NJ: Career Press, Inc., 1994.

Walker, Elaine L. and Walsh, Teresa, illustrator. Loving Journeys: Guide to Adoption. Peterborough, NH: Loving Journeys, 1992.

Wirth, Eileen M. and Worden, Joan. How to Adopt a Child From Another Country. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.


National Adoption Directory. National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. Updated annually. Cost is $25.00, including postage. Prepayment is required.The Directory is available online at the NAIC website at

Adoptive Organizations

Web site:
(information service of US DHHS Children's Bureau)

Revised 1999 by NAIC.

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This material may be reproduced and distributed without permission; however, appropriate citation must be given to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.

For more information, contact the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse at .