How to Adopt
The information below provides an overview of the steps involved in adopting a child from the United States foster care system. To request more information about other types of adoption or a list of local resources, send an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know the information you need. Please be sure to include your mailing address.
Of the estimated 408,425 children who have been separated from their birth parents and placed in foster care, about 107,011 can never return to their original home. They need the nurturing and support that a permanent family can provide, and deserve a chance to grow up feeling secure and loved. That is where special needs adoption comes in. It’s not so much about finding a child for a family, but instead finding the most suitable family for each waiting child.
Defining Special Needs
"Special needs" is a phrase used to classify children who, for various reasons, have a harder time finding families who are willing to adopt them. Often special needs include factors such as age, background, and physical, mental, or emotional challenges. Typically, children who have special needs have been separated from their birth families, live in foster care, are school-aged, and may have physical or mental disabilities.
Some children have physical or mental conditions that require special treatment; others have emotional scars from abuse or neglect. Children may also be classified as having special needs if they are part of a sibling group that is being placed for adoption together, or members of a minority group. Every state sets its own special needs definition. Visit our subsidy page to see how your state or province defines special needs. Open the relevant subsidy profile and look under item #1.
Step 1: Learn All You Can about Adoption
The Child Welfare Information Gateway. Formerly the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse and the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, The Gateway publishes a wide variety of adoption and child welfare fact sheets, many of which are free or very inexpensive. It also provides information about state and federal adoption laws, and tracks upcoming adoption conferences. The Gateway's web site includes a searchable collection of adoption-related articles and report abstracts, as well as a directory of public and private adoption agencies, support groups, and government officials. To learn more, contact:
- William Lewis Gage publishes an online Readers' Guide to Adoption-Related Literature that contains titles for adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, and others who have a tie to adoption. The online Guide also contains links to bookstores and other resources for information about adoption. Visit the list online at http://wmlgage.com/readersguide/.
- Some publishers and booksellers (including those listed below) produce and market child welfare and adoption-related materials. Below is a list of suggested adoption-related publications.
Child Welfare League of America
1726 M St., NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036
16 Mt. Bethel Rd., #219
Warren, NJ 07059
72 Spring St.
New York, NY 10012
800-365-7006 or 212-431-9800
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
400 Market St., Suite 400
Philadelphia, PA 19106
866-416-1078 or 215-922-1161
Louis & Company Publishing
541 E. Garden Dr., Unit N
Windsor, CO 80550-3151
888-924-6736 or 970-686-7412
(Adoption Today and Fostering Families Today magazines )
National Child Welfare Resource Center for Adoption
16250 Northland Dr., Suite 120
Southfield, MI 48075
P.O. Box 90318
Indianapolis, IN 46290-0318
P.O. Box 651
Ringoes, NJ 08551
Taylor & Francis Group
711 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017
Child Welfare Information Gateway
1250 Maryland Ave. S.W., 8th Floor
Washington, DC 20024
888-394-3366 or 703-385-7565
Don't forget your phone book. Adoption agencies, advocates, attorneys, support groups, and more can be found listed in the Yellow Pages under "Adoption."
- AdoptUSKids has developed a comprehensive list of state-specific adoption steps that can be accessed online through an interactive map. Click here to see the map (scroll to the bottom of the page).
Use your public library. Most libraries now have online access so you can use the Internet, find listings of periodicals, and do inter-library transfers. A wealth of free information can be located through these means.
The Internet is also a gateway to adoption information. Private and government sites provide page after page of pertinent information. In addition, video presentations related to special needs adoption can be found at www.videojug.com/tag/adoption-and-foster-parenting-basics.
Suggested Adoption-Related Reading
Publications listed below are available from local or online booksellers (such as www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com) or from the publishers listed with each entry.
- Alexander, Christopher. 2005. Welcome Home: A Guide for Adoptive, Foster, and Treatment Foster Parents. Denver, CO: Mountain West Publishing.
- Blomquist, Barbara Taylor. 2009. Insight into Adoption: Uncovering and Understanding the Heart of Adoption. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd.
- Brodzinsky, David. 2008. Meeting the Mental Health and Developmental Needs of Adopted Children. New York: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
- Duxbury, Micky. 2006. Making Room in Our Hearts: Keeping Family Ties through Open Adoption. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
- Forbes, Heather. 2009. Dare to Love: The Art of Merging Science and Love into Parenting Children with Difficult Behaviors. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.
- Gray, Deborah. 2007. Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience after Neglect and Trauma. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press, Inc.
- Greenwald, Ricky. 2005. Child Trauma Handbook: A Guide for Helping Trauma-Exposed Children and Adolescents. New York: Routledge.
- Keck, Gregory and Regina Kupecky. 2009. Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids. Colorado Springs: NavPress, Rev Upd edition.
- Keck, Gregory and Regina Kupecky. 2009. Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow. Colorado Springs: NavPress, Rev Upd edition.
- Kruger, Pamela and Jill Smolowe, eds. 2005. A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. New York: Riverhead Hardcover.
- MacLeod, Jean and Sheena Macrae, eds. 2006. Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections. Warren, NJ: EMK Press.
- Moore, Tonya. 2006. Black Children, White Parents: Putting the Pieces Together. Omaha, NE: MOMS Connected.
- O’Hanlon, Timothy. 2007 E-book. A Practical Guide to Adoption Subsidy for Adoptive Families and Advocates. Columbus, OH: Adoption Policy Resource Center.
- Orlans, Michael and Terry M. Levy. 2006. Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Love and Trust. Arlington, VA: Child Welfare League of America.
- O’Toole, Elisabeth. 2010. In on It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You to Know about Adoption. Fig Press, LLC.
- Pavao, Joyce. 2005. The Family of Adoption. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Pertman, Adam. 2011. Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families– and America. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 2nd ed.
- Prior, Vivien and Danya Glaser. 2006. Understanding Attachment and Attachment Disorders. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Pughe, Billy and Terry Philpot. 2007. Living alongside a Child’s Recovery: Therapeutic Parenting with Traumatized Children. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Riley, Debbie and John Meeks, M.D. 2005. Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens. Burtonsville, MD: The Center for Adoption Support and Education.
- Schooler, Jayne, Betsy Keefer Smalley, and Timothy Callahan. 2010. Wounded Children, Healing Homes; How Traumatized Children Impact Adoptive and Foster Families. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
- Siegel, Lawrence. 2011. The Complete IEP Guide: How to Adovcate for Your Special Ed Child (7th edition). Berkeley, CA: NOLO.
- Simon, Rita and Rhonda Roorda. 2007. In Their Parents’ Voices: Reflections on Raising Transracial Adoptees. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Smith, Susan Livingston and Debbie Riley. 2006. Adoption in the Schools: A Lot to Learn—Promoting Equality and Fairness for all Children and Their Families. New York: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
- Whiteman, Nancy J. and Linda Roan-Yager. 2007. Building a Joyful Life With Your Child Who Has Special Needs. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Whitten, Kathleen. 2008. Labor of the Heart: A Parent’s Guide to Decisions and Emotions in Adoption. M.Evans & Company.
Many national, regional, and local groups hold annual conferences with workshops geared toward new or prospective adoptive parents. Two of the longest running and largest adoption conferences are the North American Council on Adoptable Children's annual conference (held at different sites in the U.S. and Canada during late July or early August), and the Adoption Community of New England's annual conference (held in Massachusetts every spring--call 508-366-6812, or visit www.adoptionsommunityofne.org).
As mentioned above, CWIG maintains a list of upcoming conferences--call 800-394-3366 or 703-385-7565, or visit www.childwelfare.gov/calendar. To access another list of current national and regional conferences, click here.
Step 2: Complete a Self-Assessment
Children don't need perfect parents, just one or two individuals willing to meet the unique challenges of parenting and make a lifetime commitment to caring for and nurturing their children. One of the advantages of special needs adoption is that almost any responsible adult can become an adoptive parent. Prospective parents do not have to be rich, married, under 40, highly educated, or home owners to adopt. Far more important are personal characteristics like:
- a belief in adoption and an ability to commit;
- patience and perseverance;
- a good sense of humor and talent for keeping life in perspective;
- a love of children and parenting;
- the ability to roll with unexpected changes, stresses, and challenges;
- the ability to deal with rejection without taking it personally;
- the ability to accept without judging;
- tolerance and understanding for your child's conflicting feelings and your own;
- an awareness that healing doesn't come quickly, all wounds cannot be healed, and your child may not attach to your family;
- the strength to be consistent and set limits;
- a willingness to learn new parenting techniques and advocate for your children’s educational and medical needs; and
If you have all or most of those qualities, then ask yourself these questions:
- Do I clearly understand why I want to adopt?
- If applicable--Do my partner and I work as a team? Are we both committed to adoption?
- Does my lifestyle allow me the time necessary to meet the needs of a special child?
- Am I willing to change my lifestyle to accommodate the needs of a special child?
Think carefully about your answers to these questions. You may decide to pursue a different type of adoption, investigate foster care, or realize that adoption really is not for you. Take the time to make a good decision, because it is a decision you and your adoptive child will live with for life.
To go through a more structured and detailed self-assessment, try out the Iowa KidsNet Foster Care and Adoption Self-Assessment Guide. The guide is a useful tool to help individuals make better-informed decisions about fostering or adopting a child.
In addition, before seriously contemplating special needs adoption, prospective parents must honestly evaluate their desire and ability to successfully parent children who have troubling pasts and uncertain futures. Many children who become available for adoption at older ages have not received the early care that kids need to develop a strong sense of security, trust, and self-esteem. Many also suffer from conditions caused by past trauma, or prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs. Children whose backgrounds include traumatic experiences, abuse, and/or neglect may exhibit symptoms of distress such as:
- attachment disorders or issues
- attention deficits and hyperactivity
- bed wetting
- learning disabilities
- low self-esteem
- poor peer relationships/social skills
Fortunately, through therapy, medication, and consistent specialized care, children can also find ways to overcome or at least better cope with many of these challenges.
Almost every child will put his or her new adoptive parents through a period of testing to see if the parents are truly committed or just waiting for an excuse to desert the child as others have before.
To improve your chances of successfully adopting a child who has special needs, be prepared to offer a home environment that combines extra love, support, and attention with clear structure and consistent limit-setting. Parents should also be ready to actively advocate for their child at school, with peers, and within the community. It can be immensely helpful for parents to have a support network or belong to an adoptive parent support group.
NACAC maintains a listing of adoptive parent support groups, as well as other good sources of information about special needs adoption. To find a support group in your area, visit our parent group section.
Step 3: Decide What Type of Adoption You Want to Pursue
Even if you have already decided to adopt a child who has special needs, you must still make a number of choices about your adoption. Most importantly, you need to decide what type of child you are willing to bring into your family. What disabilities and challenges (physical, mental, emotional, or behavioral) can you comfortably handle? What age range, background, and ethnicity would fit best within your household and community? Are you open to helping your adopted child maintain contact with some of his or her birth relatives? Can you welcome a group of two or more siblings into your home?
Next, you should consider whether you would rather work through a public or a private adoption agency. Though most children who have special needs become available for adoption through the public foster care system, both public and private agencies can help you locate a child or sibling group to adopt.
In general, the differences between public and private agencies can be summarized as follows:
- charge nothing or very little for adoptions;
- may respond more slowly to inquiries;
- place mostly children who have special needs;
- typically have flexible eligibility requirements for adoptive parents.
- usually charge more than public agencies;
- may respond more quickly to inquiries;
- have access to diverse populations of available children;
- may target specific groups of parents for adoption (based on factors such as age, race, religion, etc.).
Step 4: Investigate Ways to Cover Likely Adoption Expenses
Many agencies do not charge service fees to families who adopt children with special needs. However, you will need a home study, and because adoption is a legal process, you may need an attorney. The cost of a home study can vary from $0 to $4,000. Attorney fees and court costs can range from $1,000 to $6,000, and special needs adoptive families often incur additional costs for medical services, counseling, etc.--costs that may continue throughout the child's lifetime. Fortunately, due to federal and employer-initiated programs, parents have several options for covering the cost of special needs adoption.
Many loans are project- or item-specific, but some can be used for whatever the borrower wants. Two such flexible loans are home equity loans (money borrowed against the value of your house) and insurance loans (money borrowed against the value of your life insurance policies). These loans come with relatively low interest rates and a choice of payment terms. To learn more, contact a bank or mortgage broker, or your life insurance company.
Newer adoption-related foundations also offer financial assistance to those hoping to adopt. The organizations listed below (among others) allow or encourage parents who are hoping to adopt children from foster care to apply for assistance:
Brittany's HOPE Foundation
Fore Adoption Foundation (founded by professional golfer Kirk Triplett and his wife Cathi)
Gift of Adoption Fund
National Adoption Foundation (NAF)
Employers who offer adoption benefits may provide workers with:
- direct cash assistance for adoption expenses;
- reimbursement of approved adoption expenses;
- paid or unpaid leave (beyond federal leave requirements established through the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993); or
- resource and referral services.
To request a list of employers who provide adoption benefits or learn more about workplace adoption benefits, contact the Adoption Friendly Workplace Program, an initiative of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Call 800-275-3832, send an e-mail to email@example.com; or visit www.adoptionfriendlyworkplace.org.
Active-duty military personnel are eligible for a reimbursement of up to $2,000 per child adopted to cover one-time adoption-related costs such as application and court fees or travel expenses. No more than $5,000 can be reimbursed in any one year, and payments are only issued after adoptions are finalized.
Children who have disabilities may also be able to access up to $1,000 per month under the military's Program for Persons with Disabilities. Through the Exceptional Family Member Program, families with children who have special needs will be assigned to duty stations where the child's needs can be met. Learn more from the National Military Family Association.
Tax Credits and Exclusions
Since tax year 2003, parents who adopt children who have special needs from the U.S. foster care system (and whose annual adjusted gross income is less than $190,000) have been able to claim tax credits or exclusions to offset adoption costs without documenting adoption expenses. Families who adopted children without special needs could take the credit by documenting qualifying adoption expenses.
In March 2010, the adoption tax credit was updated and extended. Parents who finalized adoptions in tax year 2010 can claim up to $13,170 for each child they adopt. For adoptions finalized in 2010 and 2011, the credit is also refundable. That is, families can use the credit to offset taxes and then, if their tax liability is low, receive the balance of the credit as a refund.
For more information about the credit and exclusion, review IRS Instructions for Form 8839, "Qualified Adoption Expenses" or read NACAC's fact sheet on the tax credit. Learn more from the Internal Revenue Service; call 800-829-3676 or visit www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc607.html.
If you adopt a U.S. child who has special needs, he or she may be eligible for a federal or state adoption subsidy (also known as adoption assistance). Adoption assistance payments are designed to help offset the short- and long-term costs associated with adopting children who need special services. In general, children adopted from the custody of state or county child welfare agencies (or private agencies under contract with the state who provide services for foster children) are eligible for adoption assistance benefits.
Benefits available through subsidy programs vary by state, but commonly include:
- monthly cash payments--up to an amount equal to the foster care payment the state would have made if the child were still in basic family foster care.
- medical assistance--Medicaid benefits are provided through the federal program and some state programs. States must also provide health insurance for children whose parents have a signed adoption assistance agreement with the state if the children's special needs are based on a need for medical, mental health, or rehabilitative care.
- social services--post-adoption services such as respite care, counseling, day care, etc.; or
- nonrecurring adoption expenses--a one-time reimbursement (up to $2,000) for adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, physical or psychological examinations, and other expenses related to the legal adoption of a child who has special needs.
Before adopting a child who has special needs, ask your agency about federal and state subsidies. To learn more about federal and state subsidy programs, click here or contact NACAC's Adoption Subsidy Resource Center at 800-470-6665.
Step 5: Select an Adoption Agency
How to Find Agencies
To find as many agencies to choose from as possible:
- Contact your state's Department of Human Services--or Social Services, Child and Family Services, Health and Welfare, etc.--(look in the phone directory government pages or in CWIG's searchable database) and ask for the Adoption Specialist. He or she should be able to provide you with a list of licensed adoption agencies in your state.
- Investigate the U.S. State Department's Office of Children's issues (http://adoption.state.gov/) to learn more about international adoption and find lists of agencies accredited to operate in different countries.
- Look in the Yellow Pages under "Adoption" or "Social Services" for private adoption agencies. If you live in a small town, you may want to check in a phone book from a larger community nearby.
- Reach out to adoptive parent support groups or adoptive parents for suggestions. Both are a great source of information about agencies and adoption, plus they are usually eager to share what they know with prospective adopters. To obtain lists of parent support groups in your state, contact your state's Adoption Specialist, NACAC (parent group database or call 651-644-3036), or CWIG (searchable database or call 800-394-3366).
Finding the Right Agency for You
To find a public or private agency that is a good fit for you, your values, and your unique situation, compare information from several agencies. Before selecting an agency, take the initiative to learn more about them by interviewing agency representatives by phone or in person. For example, you may want to ask:
- Who can adopt from the agency?
- What kinds of children does the agency place (ages, backgrounds, etc.)?
- Where do the agency's children come from, and how many are legally free for adoption?
- How long, on average, must one wait for a child? What is the time lapse between application and placement?
- What are the agency’s requirements concerning forms, classes, fees, and visits?
- How much does a completed adoption cost--in total and part by part?
- Can the agency help applicants locate sources of financial aid, including subsidies?
- What are the home study requirements?
- How many (and what type of) children has the agency placed in each of the past few years?
- Have any of the agency's adoptions fallen through or disrupted in the past five years? What does the agency do to make sure that adoptions don't disrupt after placement?
- What is the agency's policy toward applicants who do not accept the first child offered?
- What services--such as parenting classes, support group activities, access to therapy and counseling, and respite care--will the agency provide before and after a child is placed in your home?
- Can the agency provide references from parents who recently adopted from the agency? (Your state's Adoption Specialist may also know if complaints have been filed against the agency.)
Step 6: Let Your Agency Know You Are Serious about Adopting
When you call an agency to let staff there know you are interested in adopting, the person you talk to may ask a series of screening questions or simply volunteer to send literature about the agency. If you want to adopt relatively soon, find out how you can get the process started.
One common first step is an orientation meeting or training session for prospective adoptive parents. At the meeting or training you will likely:
- meet social workers and learn about policies and practices regarding adoption;
- learn what types of children are available for adoption through the agency;
- learn about foster care;
- be asked to examine your feelings about adoption, and judge if adoption is right for you;
- gain insight into the challenges and rewards of adoptive parenting; and
- obtain application materials.
Step 7: Complete an Adoption Application
If possible, attend an orientation session before filling out application paperwork so you are confident in the agency's ability to meet your needs. Application fees are often non-refundable, even if you decide to work through a different agency or change your mind about adopting.
If you find that the application process is hard to understand, ask the agency or another adoptive parent for help. Don't let the challenges of completing forms keep you from pursuing adoption.
Find out how long it will take for the agency to process your application once you have completed the forms and paid the fee. Ask when you should next expect to hear from the agency, and how you can schedule and prepare for a home study.
Step 8: Begin the Home Study Process
A home study can loosely be defined as an educational process designed to help your social worker learn more about your ability to parent and provide a stable home, to teach you about adoption and its affect on children and families, and to prepare you to parent a child whose experiences and history are very different from your own. Everyone who hopes to adopt must have a completed home study. Depending on the agency, the worker, and the prospective parents' cooperation, the process can take from two months to a year.
Items You May Need for a Home Study
Specific requirements for home studies vary by state and agency, so be sure to ask for a list of the items and information your agency needs.
The following items are commonly required during the home study process:
- an autobiographical statement--a statement you create about your life history;
- certified copies of birth certificates for you, your partner, and any children;
- a certified copy of your marriage license;
- certified copies of divorce decrees;
- the death certificate of a former spouse;
- certified copies of the finalization or adoption decrees for any adopted children;
- child abuse and criminal record clearances, or a notarized statement from the police declaring that you and other adults in your home have faced no felony convictions;
- income verification (may include tax returns, W-2 forms, and paycheck stubs);
- a statement of health provided by a physician, which might include lab test results;
- written references from friends, employers, neighbors, etc.; and
- finger prints.
At some point in the process, you may also need to pay for the home study. The cost through a public agency may be quite low or even free; other agencies typically charge between $1,000 and $4,000 for a completed study.
Questions You May Be Asked
During home study meetings with your worker, you can expect to answer questions about your background, your education, your job history, your marriage, your leisure activities, your religion (particularly for religiously affiliated agencies), and your experiences with children. For instance, the worker may ask:
- What is your family like, and how will you integrate a new child into it? How will your extended family treat an adopted child?
- How is your marriage? How do you make decisions, resolve conflicts, and share your feelings?
- Why do you want to adopt?
- What is your home like? Are there places for your child to play or spend time alone?
- What is your neighborhood like?
- How do you plan to address discipline issues with your new child?
- What was your family like when you were growing up? How were you raised? Are you close to your parents?Where do you work? Is your schedule flexible enough to accommodate the responsibilities that come with parenting?
- What sort of child care arrangements will you make for your child?
The goal of home studies is to help agencies locate the best home for each child it places, and make good matches between parents and children. If you have questions about your study, ask your social worker or agency.
Step 9: Attend Adoption and Parenting Classes
Public agencies commonly require pre-placement training to acquaint prospective parents with issues that can arise after a child or sibling group is placed with them. School-aged adoptees bring not only unique special needs, but also a history of life experiences that will affect their interactions with adoptive parents, new siblings, schoolmates, and others. Issues related to disability, culture, early abuse, and a child's birth family should all be discussed before a child is placed in your home.
Even if your agency does not require training, learn all you can about adoption issues. The more you know, the better.
Step 10: Begin Searching for a Child
If you adopt through an agency, learn how the agency will conduct a search. What criteria do they use to match children with families? Are they willing to search outside your immediate area for a child or youth? If you become interested in a child or youth from another state, will the agency help you to move forward with adopting the child or youth?
The adoption exchanges listed below publish photolistings and provide other information about children who are available for adoption:
Adopt America Network
1500 N. Superior St., Suite 303
Toledo, OH 43604
800-246-1731 or 419-534-3350
Adoption Council of Canada
The Adoption Exchange
14232 E. Evans Ave.
Aurora, CO 80014
800-451-5246 or 303-755-4756
Children Awaiting Parents, Inc.
595 Blossom Rd., Suite 306
Rochester, NY 14610
888-835-8802 or 585-232-5110
The Collaboration to AdoptUSKids
A cooperative agreement with The Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children & Families, and the Department of Health and Human Services
c/o Adoption Exchange Association
8015 Corporate Dr., Suite C
Baltimore, MD 21236
www.adopte1.org (en español)
(photolisting of children from across the United States who are waiting for families)
Jewish Children’s Adoption Network
P.O. Box 147016
Denver, CO 80214-7016
National Adoption Center
1500 Walnut St., Suite 701
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Northwest Adoption Exchange
600 Stewart St., Suite 1313
Seattle, WA 98101
800-927-9411 or 206-441-6822
Click here for a state by state list of web sites that feature children who are waiting for permanent families in various states.
To keep the process moving, stay in close contact with your agency and offer to help in the search process by reviewing photolistings, attending matching parties, or updating your parent profile.
Step 11: Select a Child or Sibling Group to Bring into Your Family
Before agreeing to adopt any child or sibling group, learn as much as you can about the child--including prenatal care and exposure to drugs or alcohol, birth parents’ medical histories, attachments to foster families or other relatives, foster care placements, relationships with siblings, interests and talents, etc. Most agencies want adoptive parents to get to know children before agreeing to adopt. If the child has certain medical conditions or other disabilities, decide if your family is prepared to address issues that may arise from the child’s situation.
If you agree to adopt and accept placement of a child whose birth parents' rights have not been voluntarily surrendered or involuntarily terminated (known as a legal-risk placement), you must accept the chance that the child could be returned to his or her birth parents. Until birth parents' rights are terminated, the child cannot legally become a member of your family and must instead stay in your home as a foster child.
Step 12: Prepare for Your Child's Arrival
Anticipate how the addition of a new family member will affect your life and plan accordingly. Depending on your situation and the child you adopt, you may need to:
- Update the family's insurance. Group health insurance carriers must insure adoptees under the terms of their parents' policy and cannot deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Add a child to your health insurance plan within 30 days after he or she is placed in your home. If your child is eligible for an adoption subsidy (see subsidy section), he or she may be covered through Medicaid. Also change beneficiary designations on life insurance policies and update wills as needed.
- Get and keep a copy of the child's original birth certificate. Once the adoption is finalized, that document may be sealed and neither you nor the adoptee can access it. Without it, some adoptees have had trouble getting passports and applying for affirmative action status. With it, adoptees may have an easier time searching for their biological roots--if and when they decide to do so.
- Prepare to get a new social security number and birth certificate for your child that recognizes the child's new last name and family situation. To claim your child as a dependent for tax purposes, the child must have a social security number.
- Learn as much as you can about the child's habits and personality. Talk to the child's foster parents and worker so you can learn information that will help ease the child's transition into your family. What are the child's favorite foods and games? What is the best way to comfort the child?
- Keep items that tie to the child's past. Encourage the child to bring possessions from previous homes, and ask foster parents and workers for pictures they have of the child. Never throw away broken toys or worn out clothes unless the child wants to. Familiar objects and smells are comforting, and the child needs you to respect that he has a past and prior attachments.
- Make your house child-friendly. Modify, re-position or remove household objects that could be dangerous to your new child. Prepare the child's room to make it welcoming and to signal that the area belongs to her.
- Inform your other children about likely changes. Suggest how their roles may change when the new child arrives. Prepare them to share, adjust schedules, and withhold judgment during the transition. Include everyone in visits and trial weekends before the child is placed, and establish clear ground rules for behavior, interaction, and discipline.
- Negotiate an adoption assistance agreement. Parents who adopt an eligible child with special needs from a public or private agency can receive federal or state benefits for their child. Ask your agency what steps you must take to obtain a subsidy and negotiate an agreement.
- Line up services for your child and yourself. If you adopt a younger child, you may need to find day care. If you adopt an older child, you may need to enroll him or her in school; arrange for therapy, counseling, or tutoring; and identify respite care options. You might also want to join an adoptive parent support group. See Step 5 (under How to Find Agencies) for the names of organizations that can put you in touch with parent groups in your state.
Step 13: Bring the Child Home
Children who are placed for adoption through public agencies may move in with an adoptive family as soon as the parents complete required pre-placement visits and are approved to adopt--provided the timing is not unnecessarily disruptive to the child's schooling or other activities.
When a new child is placed in your home, you will assume temporary legal custody. For a few months, while your family undergoes the inevitable adjustment period, your agency will monitor how the placement is proceeding.
The monitoring period typically lasts about six months to a year. During this time, the worker may call or visit to assess how you and your child are adjusting, and to answer questions. If all goes well, at the end of the monitoring period the agency will recommend to the court that the adoption be approved.
Step 14: File a Petition to Adopt
An adoption petition is the document filed in court that initiates the legal aspect of adoption. Through the petition, adoptive parents formally request permission to adopt a specific child.
To file a petition you will likely need the following information and documentation:
- the child's birth certificate or birth date and place of birth;
- a written statement that confirms your desire and suitability to adopt, as well as your ability to provide financially for the child;
- a written declaration that the adoption is in the child's best interest;
- your name, age, and address;
- the date on which and from whom you received custody of the child;
- a statement of the legal reason why the birth parents' rights are being (or have been) terminated; and
- a disclosure of any relationship that you share with the child (other than as an adoptive parent)--such as being the child's aunt or uncle, grandparent, or stepparent.
Step 15: Make it Legal: Finalize the Adoption
Your adoption is not legally complete until your newly created family goes through the finalization process. Finalization hearings usually take place within a year after a child is placed in the home. Before scheduling a hearing, check with your agency to make sure you have completed the necessary paperwork. If you are missing required documents, the finalization could be delayed.
The finalization hearing is a judicial proceeding, sometimes held in the judge's chambers, during which adoptive parents are granted permanent legal custody of their adopted child. The hearing, which usually lasts only 30 to 60 minutes, is designed to establish the legality of the new family unit, and confirm that the adoptive parents are willing and able to provide for their new children.
Who Should Attend the Hearing
The following individuals generally attend the finalization hearing:
- the adoptive parents and adoptee(s);
- the adoptive family's lawyer; and
- the agency social worker who placed the child with the adoptive parents.
In a few cases, the child's birth parents may also appear, but only if their parental rights have not yet been terminated or if they are participating in an open or cooperative adoption.
What the Hearing Involves
To verify that the adoption should take place, the court will attempt to establish that the child has been placed in a safe, loving home. Expect to list all the identifying information included in your adoption petition and answer questions such as:
- Why do you want to adopt?
- How will you care for your new child?
- How will your family adjust to a new child?
- Is there anything the court should know before finalizing this adoption?
As soon as the judge signs the adoption order, you gain permanent legal custody of your child. Finalization is the last formal step in the adoption process and marks the official beginning of your new family. From this point, learn as much as you can about post-adoption services (like respite care, support groups, etc.) that can help you make the most of your new role as an adoptive parent.