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Choosing an Adoption Agency

By Chuck Johnson, President and CEO, National Council For Adoption
Published in Resolve for the journey and beyond, Winter 2014

The most common question I receive from prospective adoptive parents is: “How do I know if an agency is the right one for me?” I know from experience that many families are so eager to adopt they might feel tempted to give an agency the benefit of the doubt. The decision to place a child or adopt one is a hugely important decision—with lifelong consequences. It should not be attempted without due time, consideration, and research. Prospective adoptive parents need to be able to trust and rely upon their adoption services providers.

Agency Licensing

Some people choose different agencies to complete different services. They might complete homestudy requirements with one agency and pursue placement through another. Others choose to work with adoption attorneys, and contract with agencies for homestudy and other requirements. Adopting through an adoption agency does not prevent you from seeking out separate legal counsel if you choose.

If you do adopt through an agency, you should always choose a reputable, licensed adoption agency. Licensing requirements vary by state, but every state does clearly define which entities can place children and what standards those agencies need to meet and maintain. Each state has a licensing division that oversees adoption, and drafts a set of minimum standards for child-placing agencies. These licensing divisions set criteria for agency staff: educational qualifications, training requirements, sometimes even office/administrative staff requirements, and regulations governing the storage of records. We strongly caution adoptive parents and expectant/birth parents considering adoption against working with any entities or facilitators other than licensed adoption agencies or full-service adoption attorneys.

For Prospective Adoptive Parents

Recently, when an acquaintance asked me about a particular adoption agency, I went to the agency’s website to learn more about it. I saw that this agency was advertising programs in countries that have either shut down their intercountry adoption programs or significantly slowed the rate of placement. I couldn’t find any statements on the agency’s website that made this fact clear to prospective adoptive families.

If the agency is working in other countries, it needs to be Hague-accredited. Any good agency or adoption attorney should be focused on finding the best possible family for a child, not finding a child for a family. All adoptive families should be concerned with the ethics of placement and should search for an agency that truly respects and tries to serve birth parents. Adoptive parents must understand that they, too, benefit when birth parents are well counseled, well treated, and well served. It is better for birth parents, adopted children, and adoptive families when birth parents receive the respect and support they deserve.

When I worked for a licensed child-placing agency, we spent an hour and a half, at minimum, with every prospective adoptive family before they even applied to adopt through our agency. We encouraged families to bring all of their questions, and laid out the agency’s requirements and expectations long before we moved to the official application phase. Those hoping to adopt should always have an opportunity to participate in a similar orientation/question-and-answer session before making any sort of commitment to the agency—and before they are asked to sign any papers or pay any fees apart from low application fees.

There is no set formula for choosing an agency through which to adopt; every adoptive family might have its own set of criteria. Prospective adoptive parents should look at what an agency has to offer in terms of quality of staff, and staff members’ degrees, training, and years of experience. Keep in mind that you might find a wonderful agency that simply is not the right agency for you—due perhaps to a personality mismatch or a difference in philosophy.

Some agencies are more structured, requiring scheduled appointments ahead of time. Others have more of an “open door” policy, allowing clients to call regularly or drop by if needed to talk or consult. It does not mean that the latter is better than the former—it all depends on what sort of agency a family is looking for.

A good adoption agency will have a philanthropic, community-minded spirit, but it should also be professionally competent. The best of intentions cannot ensure an ethical adoption process in which all parties are well served. Unless an agency is really able to provide supervision at every level, at every stage—unless they can provide all the oversight necessary before the placement and demonstrate their ability to provide support after the adoption—than they should not be doing something as complicated as providing adoption services.

The majority of adoption agencies are nonprofit. There are some for-profit adoption professionals as well, such as adoption attorneys and for-profit agencies.

Sample Questions for Prospective Adoptive Parents to Ask an Agency

  • What requirements does the agency have for prospective adoptive parents?
  • What is this agency’s experience and background in the type of adoption you want to pursue?
  • How quickly do agency staff respond to questions or requests for information? Is communication handled in person? By phone? By email?
  • How often do agency staff communicate personal and program updates to prospective parents?
  • What type of pre-adoption education does the agency provide?
  • What does the agency offer in terms of post-adoption support services?
  • How long has the agency existed, and how many placements has it made? How many does it typically make in a year, for example? How many waiting families are there?
  • What educational materials, books, websites, community organizations, etc. does the agency recommend to prospective adoptive parents? What fees does the agency charge, and what is the timeline for expected payment?
  • Can the agency provide references from several families that have adopted through the agency? Can they produce references for the type of adoption you are considering?
  • If you are pursuing intercountry adoption, can the agency account for and explain its activities and available support in-country? What are the state laws under which the agency must operate?

Recommendations When Selecting an Agency

Do your homework. Make sure the agency is licensed. What information can you find online about the agency? What have you heard from other adoptive families who used or considered using the agency? Agencies should also be forthcoming if you ask for references from other parents and families. Was this information easy to obtain, or was it a struggle to find answers? Are the fee arrangements (for prospective adoptive parents) transparent and understandable?

Look for experienced professionals. Agency staff should be able to readily provide their background, educational qualifications, years of experience, etc.

Expect high-quality pre-adoption orientation, education, and training. Expectant/birth parents and adoptive parents need and deserve quality pre- and post-adoption services and support, based on current research and best practices. The agency might need to refer you for some services, depending on your child’s needs, but necessary referrals and support should always be available, no matter how long ago you adopted or placed your child. The goal of adoption is not to place a child in a family, but for a child to thrive in a family. A good agency will always operate under this philosophy.

Look for an agency whose information you trust. The agency should always be forthcoming about your options, fully disclose the state of a particular country or program, provide estimates of the timetables involved, and list any and all fees and the timeline for required payment. Don’t leap for the first agency that makes pie-in-the-sky promises or guarantees an expedited adoption.

Pay attention to the level of responsiveness. How promptly does your agency respond to calls and emails? Do you feel agency staff expects and is prepared to meet the level and frequency of communication you desire?

Conclusion

Even a good, professional, licensed adoption agency might not be the best one for you. You must be prepared to do your homework, look at all the available options, and ask questions of the people and the agency with whom you might be working. This is the only way to make a smart and fully informed decision about which adoption agency is right for you.

Chuck Johnson serves as president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption. He is responsible for all aspects of NCFA, including management as well as implementing the organization's mission. He is an advocate for children, birthparents, and adoptive families, and is a frequent writer, speaker, and commentator on adoption policy and practice. Chuck currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Council on Accreditation (COA).