Sunday, January 25, 2015

Very first steps

     I would consider us having been "in the process of starting the process" for just over one month now. As I mentioned in my introductory post, we had our first meeting with our social worker yesterday. I am going to use this post to recount the steps that have led up to that. We are doing a domestic adoption of a newborn not through the foster care system, so if you are considering international adoption or foster-to-adopt, this process will likely be a bit different.

Step 1: What type of adoption do we want? 

   This seems obvious, but in order to select an agency that was a good fit for us (we will get to that in a minute!), we had to know what we wanted. Domestic or international? Gender preference? Closed, open, or semi-open? The answers to those questions greatly narrowed down which agencies we seriously considered.

     Speaking of types of adoptions, a quick introduction/clarification to some terminology is in order. A closed adoption is one where there is no contact between the bio parent(s) and the adoptive parent(s). You won't know them, they won't know you. A semi-open adoption involves communication between the bio parent(s) and adoptive parent(s), but that communication goes through the agency. So, for example, instead of the bio mom having your contact information and your address where she can send Christmas presents, she would send things to your agency, and they would forward them along to you. Same thing for going the other direction when it is time for you to send updates/pictures to the bio parent(s): you will send them to the agency, and they will forward them to her. It is possible for there to be in-person visits with a semi-open adoption, but they would never be at either person's home-- you would meet at a park, restaurant, the agency, or some other pre-arranged place. An open adoption cuts out the agency as the go-between. Everyone has everyone's contact info. Bio mom can call you directly. You have her address where you can send pictures. The amount or type of communication (phone calls, emails, letters, visits) isn't necessarily different between a semi-open and open adoption, it is just the process of that communication that is different.

Step 2: Picking an agency 

Why did we pick our agency before doing our homestudy? 

      Many people say that step 2 is doing your homestudy (which is a perfectly valid option) but we picked our agency first. There were a couple of key reasons that we did this:

a) Many adoption agencies have relationships with homestudy agencies, or have ones that they particularly recommend. If they have some form of partnership, that could benefit us in terms of our timeline (they've worked together before and are efficient about getting your documents and approvals to your agency). Or, it could just reduce the headache to have a homestudy agency that comes highly recommended, has a good reputation, and has experience working with our adoption agency.

b) Some agencies have in-house homestudy social workers. If this is the case, this is homestudy option you want to pursue! There are two huge benefits for your adoption agency having their own homestudy division. First, they often prioritize their clients who did their homestudy in-house. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense because they have gotten to know us (someone in their office has spent several hours in our home with our family) and are better able to advocate for us or talk to about us with a bio-mom. Second, this method is going to end up saving us a few hundred dollars. Homestudy agencies have 2 fees: the fee to actually do the homestudy, and the fee to send the homestudy report to your adoption agency. If the homestudy is done in-house, that second fee (the reporting one) isn't there, because the adoption agency already has the report.

Considerations for picking an agency:
1. Would the agency accept us and our preferences?
    If an agency wouldn't accept us as a client or wouldn't be willing to work with us on the specifications we established with the questions we asked ourselves in step 1, there was no point in considering them. Here are some limitations that I came across while researching agencies that could narrow down the choices (not all of these applied to us, but for the purpose of sharing information with anyone who is looking for it, I am trying to be thorough). Some agencies will not allow you to state a gender preference. Others will only do semi-open or open adoptions. Are you a heterosexual married couple? If not, there are some agencies that will not accept you. If so, how long have you been married? Some agencies require you have been married at least 5 years. Are you over age 30? Under age 40? Some agencies do have age requirements, especially if you are wanting to adopt a newborn. Do you already have children? Some agencies specialize in working with those who are childless, and will not accept applicants who already have a child (or only will in extremely limited, unique circumstances). If you are currently doing fertility treatment, are you willing to discontinue treatment until you have finalized a successful adoption? There are agencies that require that before they will move forward with your plans to adopt. Are you a Christian? If so, are you actively involved in a church? Some agencies require a statement of faith and a personal letter of support from your pastor. Most agency web pages will have an "About Us" or "FAQ" or "For Potential Adoptive Parents" tab that can give you the information you need to determine if you meet the basic criteria to be their client, and if they are willing to work with your preferences for an adoption situation.

2. How much money is due up front? How much money is at risk?

         Adoption through an agency is usually expensive. Like "I could have bought a starter house in my hometown for that money" expensive. But, there are big differences in when the agency requires that money. Some agencies want several thousand dollars ($8,000-$10,000 or more) upfront to activate your profile with them. If you have found an agency that you love and don't plan on looking at situations listed outside of that agency, great! Sign with them and pay the money upfront. That wasn't the case with us. We actually did find an agency that we really liked that was set up this way, but the thought of giving someone $10,000 upfront  was just not something we were comfortable with. We are not wealthy, and this would have been a huge chunk of everything that we have. After some preliminary conversations, we decided we wanted to sign with multiple agencies to increase the chances that we are matched more quickly. Another thing that could motivate this decision is if you are open to more "difficult" situations (such as a bio mom who used substances throughout pregnancy, has a family history of significant mental illness, or has a chronic illness/disease that will likely impact the health of the baby) and plan to keep an eye on the unmatched situations that many adoption agencies will publish on their websites. There are some agencies who are more understanding to the fact that many families want to list with multiple agencies, so they keep their application and activation fees minimal (usually $100-$200).  Usually, these agencies will require half of the balance at the time of your accepted match, and the other half at the time the paperwork is signed after the baby is born.
         The other thing that we asked about with money is how much of our payment is at risk. Many agencies will roll over what you have paid for one adoption into your next match situation if the bio mom decides to parent, or you end up not being a good fit after the match and she wants to look for a different match. Others won't, or will only credit you a percentage (especially if some of that money has gone towards paying the bio mom's medical bills and/or helping with her living expenses). We had to honestly evaluate if we had the finances to be prepared for this, and if we would be able to recover (financially) from a failed adoption match and be able to move forward. If the cost for a specific adoption situation would have been $40,000 (for example) and our agency required half of that balance at the time of match, but the bio mom changed her mind about the situation a week before her due date, we could potentially stand to lose up to $20,000 based on the agency's policies. If we lost $20,000, we wouldn't be able to continue with the adoption process-- we just wouldn't be able to afford another match. Again, most agencies do have some sort of policy in place to protect your payments-- just make sure to ask! We found an agency that has a roll-over policy that we are comfortable with, and that puts fairly little money at risk.

3. Does the agency require education hours? 

         Some agencies require that you complete a certain number of education credits relating to adoption. This is often determined by what state the agency is located in-- even if it is a nationwide agency, it will have a home office in a specific state. Different states have different educational requirements. The great thing about nationwide agencies is that they often make any required credits available as online courses, or they have a list of books for you to read. However, some agencies require actual in-person attendance at a set number of seminars or meetings. We had to rule out all of the agencies that did this due to my husband's work schedule, which is totally unpredictable. Whether he gets home at 6pm or 3am varies day to day, week to week. We simply could not commit to being at an adoption education course every other Thursday from 6-9 pm for 2 months. Since we are not in a situation where we could attend a class, we had to look for agencies that either do not require it or would allow us to do an online course and read some books.

4. Does the agency have an office or representative in our area? If not, are we okay with that? 
         Many of the large, nationwide agencies have representatives throughout the country, but that didn't mean that there was one near us. For example, one of the agencies that we really liked didn't have an office or representative in our state, and the nearest one was about a 6 hour drive from us. For some people, that isn't a problem-- you have no issue handling all of your business through phone calls and emails. For others (like me!), the idea that you would need to spend half a day in the car to be able to talk to someone face to face should a situation turn difficult isn't a great option. I want to at least have the option of talking to someone in person.

5. Does the agency have a good reputation, and are we comfortable with their ethics and policies?
         This is the most subjective of the questions to ask. When we had made a list of the agencies we were considering, we did a simple Google search of their name. There are many message boards and online forums where people (both adoptive parents and bio parents) will discuss their experiences with various adoption agencies. We were able to find conversations about all of the agencies we were considering, and did end up ruling some out (and moving others higher up our list!) based on what we read.

Step 3: Scheduling the homestudy 

      Since the agency we picked has its own homestudy team, this step was very straightforward for us-- ours took one email and a 5 minute phone call. But, I'm going to mention a few notes that I have from researching various situations that we did not end up pursuing.
         If your adoption agency does not have homestudy services, ask them if they have a homestudy agency they recommend in your area. If the agency you chose is located in your state, they definitely should have a recommendation for you. If it is a national agency that doesn't have a branch/representative near you, you may be on your own. A simple Google search of your city + adoption homestudy (Oklahoma City adoption homestudy, for example) should get you some results. If you are considering international adoption, you must do what's called Hague approved homestudy. Plan for the homestudy to cost $1000-$4500. If your homestudy agency is not affiliated with your adoption agency, make sure to ask what they charge to send your packet to your agency (this is usually around $250-$400). Your state will also have requirements for post-placement (i.e., post-adoption) homestudy visits-- the number and spacing vary state to state. These are usually an additional charge, so you will also want to ask about that. Post placement reviews are usually somewhere in the range of $300-$500.
   I also found out that you will want to wait to schedule your homestudy until you are actually ready to start the adoption process. If we had needed  2 years to save up enough money to adopt, we wouldn't be doing the homestudy right now. The reason is that most states only allow homestudies to be valid for 1 year. After this, we would have to renew it, which costs several hundred dollars. You also do not want to do a homestudy yet if you see yourself moving into a different home before you adopt-- when you move, you have to get it renewed.

Tomorrow, I will post about what the first meeting of our homestudy was like, and what you can start doing now to prepare for your homestudy! 

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