Monday, January 26, 2015

Homestudy Part 1

     On Saturday, we had our first official step in the adoption process: the first homestudy meeting! I had mentioned in my last post that, for us, it worked out well to pick our agency before we did our homestudy. One thing I failed to say, though, is that you probably won't actually be able to apply to your agency until your homestudy is done. Every state is different, but just to give you an idea, our state requires that a social worker spend a minimum of 4 hours in your home (with everyone present who lives there), spread out over 2 different meetings.
      Several times last week, I was online searching different variations of the question "What to expect during your first homestudy meeting." I wasn't able to find very much! That is part of why I am doing this blog-- there isn't much information out there on what to expect in the very beginning stages of adoption. So, this post will be about what to expect during your first homestudy meeting, and how you can prepare for it.

Scheduling your homestudy

      Some agencies have a pretty long wait between the phone call saying "I need to do a homestudy" and the actual appointment they set up. We were worried that we would have a long wait because (due to my husband's schedule), we needed evening or weekend visits. This was especially significant for us because our second homestudy visit needs to be about 3 hours long, but this will depend on your state's policies. We got lucky with this! By coincidence, it ends up that one of the social workers in our homestudy group lives a just a couple of minutes away from us. Since she is so close, she was willing to work with my husband's crazy schedule and come out on a Saturday morning. It is looking like our part 2 will probably be on a weekend, as well. For anyone going through this process, your homestudy fees will likely be due at the time of the first visit, so if you need time to save this up (usually $1,000-$2,000), keep that in mind when you call to schedule. It is still a good idea to go ahead and call, because it is not uncommon for an agency to have a 6-8 week wait to schedule the homestudy.

Between scheduling and meeting/Gathering materials

      Your agency or social worker will send you a very large packet that you will need to complete. This is not due at your first meeting, so if you schedule a meeting for 2 days after you call the agency, don't feel like you need to stay up all night getting all of the paperwork done. Our agency's homestudy packet was 32 pages, plus gathering many supplemental materials (more on that in a minute!). Our time between scheduling and meeting was about a week and a half, so I was able to have the majority of our packet finished for our first meeting. We actually ended up having even more forms than our original 32 pages, because we had lived in a different state in the last 5 years. There was special background check information from that state needed, which resulted in more paperwork. Your agency likely won't just have that paperwork sitting around for all 50 states (ours didn't!), so it is possible that there could be a delay between your social worker requesting that paperwork and you actually getting it, just as a head's up.

       Every state is different in terms of what materials they require. Here is a list of the additional paperwork we needed to gather:
    1. Copies of birth certificates for everyone in the home
    2. Copies of social security cards for everyone in the home
    3. Copies of driver's licenses
    4. Copy of health insurance card
    5. Copy of marriage license (if applicable) 
      • If you have been divorced, you will also need a copy of the divorce decree  
    6. A copy of the first 2 pages of your tax return (the 1040 pages) for the past 2 years (some states/agencies may require 3 years)
    7. Employment verification for both spouses (a letter from your boss, basically)
    8. Fingerprint clearance cards (more on that later)
    9. Medical exams (more on that later) 
    10. Pet records (proof of current vaccinations and a copy of county pet registration, if your county does this)
    11. Personal references (more on that later)
    12. Miscellaneous personal questions (more on that later)
Fingerprint clearances
    I have never worked for a state or government agency before, so this was a total mystery to me. In case you are as new to this area as I am, here is a quick overview of the purpose of a fingerprint-based background check rather than just a name-based scan of criminal records: What is the purpose of a fingerprint clearance? You will get a card (your homestudy agency will probably mail this to you) that needs to be taken to a police station or UPS store (yes, oddly enough many of them do fingerprinting!) and they will fingerprint you. Make sure you call ahead! There is no way for me to convey the depths of frustration that this thing that should have been a very easy caused! Some police stations only have certain time windows (often very small!) for fingerprinting. It is not uncommon for a police station to only do printing on Thursdays from noon-3, for example. And sometimes the people working there don't actually know what they are talking about. After 3 phone calls and 2 trips to our police station, and getting totally different information about when I could get prints done in each of those 5 interactions, I gave up on our police station and went to a UPS store. Not all UPS stores do this, so call ahead. And some of them have limited schedules for when they do it, as well. I ended up calling 3 UPS stores and going to 2 (because the first one I went to apparently ran out of something they needed to do the printing in the 10 minutes between my phone call and when I got there). The UPS store charged right around $15 per person to do fingerprints. There are also private businesses that do fingerprinting. If you just Google your town + fingerprint card (or fingerprint clearance), you should get the results of some private agencies.
  You will also need a cashier's check. The cards will be mailed to your state's equivalent of Department of Public Safety, and you will need to get a cashier's check made out to them. The clearances cost about $70 per person to process.
   What your agency/state will do with your fingerprint-based background check has quite a bit to do with what type of criminal history your state allows you to have while still being eligible for adoption. In our state, the same crimes that would exclude you from being allowed to work for a state or government agency disqualify you for adoption. So, you actually have to successfully obtain a fingerprint clearance card as a result of your fingerprint-based background check. In other states, you just have to have a fingerprint-based background check (versus a name-based check), but don't have to go as far as getting a clearance card.

Medical exams
    Our homestudy agency had a form for this that we could just take to our doctor. Basically, they are wanting to make sure that we do not have any communicable diseases, health conditions that would significantly impair our ability to parent, or a shortened life expectancy. Since we already have a child, they also want verification that all vaccinations are up-to-date. Most agencies will allow your doctor to use a physical that has been done within the last 6 months (or the last year, sometimes) to fill out this form. But, if you are someone who isn't great about remembering to get a physical every year, you will want to go ahead and get that scheduled! Our homestudy agency specifically wanted information verifying a recent TB tests, a negative HIV and STI screening, information about any history of mental illness, and a clean drug screen.

Personal references/Letters of support
    We needed to request letters from various people expressing their support for us becoming an adoptive parent, and their recommendation that we be approved to adopt. Each homestudy agency is different in terms of how many of these letters they require. Ours required 5, with a maximum of 2 of those by family members (but none were required to be done by family). Some agencies only require 3, some say that none of them can be family, some require a minimum number to be family, and some require one to be from your pastor. I came across one agency that was very specific in its requirements for who needed to write the 5 letters it required: one family member from each side, one friend, one coworker, and one pastor. The other thing to be aware of is that the homsetudy agency may require fewer letters than your adoption agency-- it may be that you only need 3 letters for your homestudy, but 5 for your adoption agency. We did not need to have these letters gathered before our first homestudy meeting, but we will need to have them by our second one.
    We also found out that it is a good idea to check with both the homestudy agency and the adoption agency to see if there are any requirements they want to see included in a letter. This should prevent us from needing to go back to our letter writers after our homestudy approval asking them to revise because they didn't include something that our adoption agency wants to see. Our agency had 7 points that they wanted to see addressed (obviously this will vary greatly, but just to give you an idea of what some of the requirements might be):
  1. How long have they known you and how did you meet
  2. What they know about your experience with children
  3. What interactions they have observed you have with children
  4. How they see children fitting in your lifestyle and with your family dynamics
  5. What they know about your morals and ethics
  6. Comments about your community involvement and community service
  7. Anything they are aware of that would prevent you from being approved 

Miscellaneous personal questions
    My husband and I each had to type up a personal statement that addressed several questions about our childhoods, morals, and parenting philosophy. Many of them were questions that asked us to reflect on how we had been raised by our parents, what we would do similarly, and what we would do differently. There were questions about what morals are especially important to us to instill in our children, and how we will try to do this. There were also questions about our favorite childhood memories and our relationships with various family members throughout the years. Our social worker told us that these questions would play a big part in our personal interviews during part 2 of our homestudy.

The 1st homestudy visit

      Our first homestudy visit was actually pretty uneventful. Which is good, I guess! Our social worker introduced herself, had us introduce ourselves, glanced around our house (the thorough inspection is usually during part 2), and met our dogs. We sat down and she asked us why we were adopting, our timeline of making that decision (they want to make sure you didn't find out about infertility last week and just dive into this), and if we had thought about what types of situations we would consider. She explained the adoption laws in our state, and what some of the possibilities are if we ended up adopting from another state. Since our homestudy agency is a division of our adoption agency, she also gave us more information about the agency (average wait times, policies on openness, how they facilitate semi-open adoptions, payment schedules, and other logistical information).
   One of the benefits of having almost all of our packet completed by this first meeting was that we were able to go ahead and ask her questions. I had about 5-6 questions that came up as I was filling out paperwork that were much more easily explained in person with the paper in-hand than they would have been in trying to have a phone conversation. She was also able to look through everything and let us know if there was something we had filled out wrong or incompletely (when you are doing 30+ pages of paperwork, it is easy to overlook something!).  If it is possible, I would highly recommending getting as much done as you can before this first meeting!
  How quickly you do your paperwork also determines the homestudy timeline. Many caseworkers like to schedule the 1st and 2nd homestudy visit 2-3 months apart in order to give everyone plenty of time to do all of the paperwork and gather all of the materials. Because ours was 95% complete for our first meeting (we just need our medical forms-- our doctor's offices are spread all over town and we hadn't had time to get to that), she was able to schedule our second meeting for 2 weeks later!

Between the 1st and 2nd homestudy visit

     If you knew me this would come as no surprise, but one of my concluding questions at our first visit was "What do I need to make sure is done before our 2nd visit? What is the most common mistake people make?" You see, the second visit is much more intense. There will be personal interviews both as a family and with each person privately. There will also be a thorough home inspection. She told me that the biggest thing that gives people problems is the home inspection. Here were her tips for getting ready for the second visit:
  1. Pool: If you have a pool, it needs to have appropriate safety measures taken to keep kids away from water. She said this is one of the biggest problems she encounters for why someone has to redo the home inspection. We don't have a pool so I don't know the specifics, but if you have a pool it would probably be a good idea to blatantly ask what they will be looking for to determine that it is safe. Many states require there to be a fence with a locking gate around the pool in order to meet this criteria. I had friends who were going through the homestudy process and decided to move, and they specifically did not look at houses with pools because of how much would be involved in making their backyard "safe" by homestudy standards if they had one. Different states have different requirements for how tall the fence must be (4 feet is a common one), and also the amount of area that must exist between the pool's edge and the fence (the idea being that if a child manages to get through the fence, they won't fall into the water immediately). Some states require that the gate be self-closing and self-locking, with the locking latch on the inside (towards the pool) to make sure that it would be very difficult for a child to manage to open. Finally, some states require that your back door (if that is the door that would lead to the pool) have an alarm on it so that you will know if your child goes out into the yard without you realizing it.
  2. Guns: If you have guns, they also need to have appropriate safety measures. Apparently, guns and pools are usually what are responsible for people having to redo their inspection! We do not own guns, so again I can't personally comment on this, but I do have friends who have gone through the homestudy process with guns in the home. The requirements that they were given (again, this could vary depending on your state or agency) is that the firearm needs to be in a locked box or locking cabinet/case/safe, unloaded. The ammunition needs to be in a separate locked box in a different location than the box containing the gun. Both of these boxes need to be in a place where a child could not reach them (such as on a high shelf in a closet or the top drawer of a tall dresser). The box containing the ammo cannot be sitting right next to the box containing the gun (they were told it was preferable if they could be in totally different rooms, but one being in the dresser and one in the closet was fine if that was the best they could do). Something like this Quick Access Safe would be a good option.  
  3. Chemicals: Any chemicals (such as cleaning products) need to be out of reach of children. This means that if you store your cleaning products under your kitchen sink, you need to either find a different spot for them (a high shelf in the pantry or laundry room, perhaps) or put a lock on that cabinet. Make sure that you get the chemicals out from under your bathroom cabinets, as well! If you don't have any free shelf-space in your pantry or laundry room, I saw someone recommend getting one of those over-the-door shoe racks that you can clip onto the door like this or this . This provides a nice high spot for storing cleaning containers without taking up much space.
  4. Medication: Make sure any medications are out of reach (in the medicine cabinet instead of the bathroom drawer, for example)
  5. Smoke detectors: You need to have the appropriate number of smoke detectors/alarms based on the building codes of your state, and all need to be functional with working batteries. 
  6. Fire extinguisher: There needs to be a fire extinguisher stored in a reasonably accessible area. It doesn't have to be a full-sized one, something like this Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher is what we have that she approved. For us, she mentioned under the kitchen sink would be a good place. I didn't think to ask this, but wouldn't that contradict not having any chemicals where kids could reach? I think I'll move ours into our pantry on a higher shelf, just to be on the safe side. 

So, that was part 1 of our homestudy! I will update when we have part 2 completed the weekend after next!

[update: Are you worried you may be at risk for failing your homestudy? Check out this follow-up post about the most common reasons people are denied a homestudy approval!]

Do you have any questions about the first homestudy visit that weren't addressed in this post? Leave me a question in the comments section and I will do my best to answer it! 

1 comment:

  1. We just had our second home study. Our agency wants the fire extinguisher on the counter next to the stove, or at least easily accessible. We have all cupboards locked and outlets covered. We also have to write a letter of intent as well as an auto-biography. Very good information here, thanks!