How to Adopt a Child

Adoption Isn't Always as Difficult as You Might Think

You might have heard that adoption can be very difficult, so you’re a little intimidated by the thought of wading into the process. You might be afraid of getting your hopes up, then having them dashed. Yes, adoption can involve several steps, but none are particularly prohibitive when you know what to expect. They can vary slightly from state to state. The whole process can take anywhere from three months to three years, depending on the type of adoption you choose.

Age and Health Concerns

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You must be at least 21 years old to adopt in most cases, but there’s generally no such thing as being too old, at least if you’re in good health. You’ll need a certified statement from your physician attesting to your ability to parent a child if you suffer from a chronic illness or a mental health condition, and you might need one that says you’re expected to live until the child reaches the age of 16 if you are a little up in years. Any household members who suffer from mental illness will need physicians’ statements as well.

Criminal Background Checks

Passing a criminal background check is required, and particularly screenings for instances of child abuse. Both the prospective parents and anyone else over the age of 18 who’s living in the household must typically undergo these reviews. Background checks are performed at both the state and federal levels.

Minor charges aren’t always a kiss of death for approval, although you’ll probably have some explaining to do, and supervised rehabilitation may be required for more recent offenses.

The Home Study

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A home study is mandatory. This involves a licensed and approved social worker coming to your home to meet with you and everyone else in your household. Don’t worry, she’s not going to run a finger over your tabletops or peer under your furniture in search of dust bunnies. She will keep an eye out for safety concerns, however, such as that swimming pool that’s not surrounded by protective fencing. She’ll also want to know about your family dynamics.

Other Basic Requirements

You don’t have to be married, and many states now permit same-sex couples to adopt. You don’t have to be wealthy either, although you should have sufficient income to provide for a child. You may have to show proof of medical insurance. Some states and agencies require that prospective parents attend training or educational programs.

Independent Adoptions

Some of the usual rules relax a little with independent or “identified” adoptions, while others may be stricter. These are adoptions in which you know the birth mother—she may be a friend or relative—or she’s otherwise selected you to raise her child after she’s made a search for the perfect adoptive parents.

The mother gets to set some of her own requirements in these cases. She might set a cutoff age at which she believes prospective parents are too old to adopt her baby.

These adoptions are typically accomplished without the participation of an adoption agency, but this means you’ll have to hire various professionals on your own to help you negotiate the process, such as an attorney. A home study will still be required before a court finalizes the adoption, so you’ll have to find your own social worker because one won’t be provided through an agency.

Even so, these adoptions can be less expensive overall because you’re handling so many of the details yourself. There are no agency fees. But it’s customary for adoptive parents to pay for the birth mother’s uninsured medical expenses, potential counseling costs and sometimes even living expenses on top of the usual adoption costs.

Adopting a Foster Child

You can usually adopt a foster child through a private adoption agency licensed in your state, or you can work with a public government agency that oversees kids in foster care. Even if you work with a private agency, state services will be involved.

Many states require that you first become approved and licensed as a foster parent. In fact, you might even have been fostering your child for a while before you decide you want to adopt him. Even if your state doesn’t require licensing, it can make the process move a little more quickly if you do it. A training or education program is still typically required regardless of whether you choose to first become licensed, as are the home study and criminal background and child abuse screenings. As with all adoptions, the child’s birth parents’ rights must first be terminated, either voluntarily or by the court, before a court will finalize the adoption.

The foster child’s state-appointed social worker might have to approve your application, particularly when multiple families are all interested in the same child. The final selection could come down to this individual’s opinion as to what placement is best for the child. If he hasn't already been living with you, the child is often placed in your home while the adoption process progresses through all necessary steps.

Adopting a foster child is comparatively inexpensive, and it may cost nothing at all if you use a public agency. State reimbursements can help, and there’s even a federal tax credit available to most adoptive parents whether they take in a foster child or adopt a child through other means.

International Adoptions

International adoptions have become increasingly popular over the years, but these are by far the most complicated and they’re usually much more expensive.

All the same U.S. rules apply, such as the home study, but the foreign government might have its own rules as well for things like age requirements. Some countries will not permit older parents to adopt infants or very young children.

You’ll have to deal with the U.S. federal government in addition to your state’s court system and the child’s country’s government. You’ll need the approval of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and your child must legally immigrate to the U.S.

Three separate adoption processes are available for foreign-born children. The “Hague” process and the “Orphan” process sometimes require that the adoption must be finalized before the child can immigrate, but in some cases, the child can immigrate first, then be adopted. The third option is adopting through an “Immediate Relative” petition if a relative is already living in and/or a citizen of the U.S.