Homestudies: The Inside Scoop

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Over the years in my representation of adopters and birth families, I found that while adoption agencies may sound similar in their promotional material, in fact they vary tremendously, and often actively compete with each other for clients. Some home study agencies are more comfortable assessing heterosexual couples; others are open to gay, lesbian and single adopters, for example. Some agencies are credentialed to supervise international placements; some are equipped to assist with public sector adoptions by virtue of contracts they have with the state, and some are able to support private sector newborn infant adoptions from within the U.S. Despite claims to the contrary, the agencies generally do not handle all three types of adoption equally well. And their fees can vary as much as their policies and skills do!

When it comes to private newborn placements from within the U.S., there are other variables to consider. Some private agencies do only home studies and later supervision of a completed adoption, called post-placement supervision. Some do those tasks and also claim to screen and counsel birth parents and place children. Some do all of the above and provide support to adopters with counseling before and after placement as well. It is essential from the outset that adopters learn precisely which services they are buying, and which services will have to be located and paid for elsewhere.

For example, in private newborn adoption, the strong likelihood is that the baby will be born outside the adopters’ state of residence. That means that the birth parent counseling will have to be provided where the birthparents live, and that professionals in that state will also have to be hired to ensure that the relinquishments are proper and the legal requirements are met to allow interstate adoption. These additional services are tacked on to the fees your home state/home study agency will demand. But the home study must satisfy both the court in the state where you finalize your adoption and the laws of the state where the child is born.

The international home study process requires additional record gathering, largely due to requirements imposed by federal immigration law and the law of the sending country. In many states, the public sector home study process also adds some requirements to the usual list. For example, in my state, parents must complete a parenting training course which is meant to prepare them for adoptive parenting.

Home study agencies almost always demand the expected pile of documents: birth and marriage certificates, tax returns, medical exams, tax returns, criminal record checks, references and recommendations, home safety inspections, at a minimum. They almost always require a series of interviews in the adopters’ home and the agency office, in which subjects such as plans for child care, discipline, education, family dynamics, etc. are discussed. This process is all to be expected, I suppose, although it goes without saying that it is a great deal more arduous than families formed the “usual” way, and can seem very unfair when we consider that adopters have one great recommendation going for them that many biological parents do not. They are serious and intent on being parents in the first place!

With that said, I always advise clients to disclose any issues they think may arise (that alcoholic aunt, that prior marriage, etc.) before they embark on the home study and pay their fees. I have found that if adopters present themselves as passive supplicants, too many agencies and attorneys will proceed to exploit that vulnerability; and if they fail to disclose possible issues at the outset, they are risking loss of the fees as well as outright rejection by the agency.

And agency fees vary. Please trust me when I say that paying top dollar does NOT ensure fair treatment; an easier adoption, or a healthier baby. Make sure you learn in advance what the overall agency fee covers, and to the extent you can pay fees for defined services, such as negotiating a separate fee for the home study, you will be more protected should the study turn out badly or you decide to change agencies for any reason. The social worker entrusted with completing your home study is very unlikely to be involved in any way with your search for a birthmother or child, so your job is not to make a new friend, but to prepare and present yourselves as suitable, thoughtful parents.

And I also advise clients to be honest with themselves about the challenges they can accept. One of the most painful stages of the home study process is being asked what limitations, disabilities or ethnicities you can accept as part of your new family. While this requires careful thought and an open heart, qualities many adopters share, please know that agencies may nonetheless present placement opportunities to you that fall well outside your stated parameters. This is your future, your family. Be honest with yourselves and the agency and do not feel pressured into an inappropriate placement.

In the unfortunate event that you are rejected in your home study, do not give up hope. Contrary to conventional wisdom, agencies are not generally united and identical in their subjective judgments. Indeed, it is more common that agencies who are often competitors for the adopters’ dollars, disagree on many issues and pride themselves on exercising independent judgment. However, with international adoption, be aware that you will be asked by immigration whether you have ever been rejected in a prior home study. If the answer is yes, you have to be prepared to provide an explanation and argument as to why the rejection was improper. In both domestic and international adoptions, please know that you can at any time prior to completion of the home study discontinue it, and move on to a more suitable agency. Just be sure you are prepared to address the issue that caused trouble in your first attempt and to pay a fair price for the time spent to that point by agency #1.

I have found that the capacity for adopters to change and learn is extraordinary. For example, many of the clients who at first are terrified of future contact with a birth family come to treasure that contact as they move along in the process. But please know that you are entitled to make these decisions and to stick to them, and that with the right guidance, you can complete this adoption process with your integrity intact.

Credits: Paula Mackin, Esq., retired after thirty five years of practice, twenty of which were devoted to advising birth and adoptive families on reducing risk in adoption. She is a fellow of The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, and now works on access to the courts for foster parents as a volunteer for the Massachusetts Supreme Court's Access to Justice Project.

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