Monday, June 8, 2015

Choosing an ethical agency

      In the next few weeks, it's likely that I won't have very many updates on our adoption process. We are just waiting for a match, so nothing is really changing anywhere. So I wanted to go back and talk about something from the very beginning: how we chose our agency, and what made us comfortable with their ethics.
        Since deciding that we would begin the adoption process, I have actively sought out what many potential adoptive parents (PAPs) actively hide from: stories of bio-moms who regret the adoption (or the way the process unfolded), and reflections by adoptees who do not feel like their adoption was some amazing, beautiful, "best-life-you-could-possibly-have" situation. The first few weeks after our decision to move forward with adoption, I didn't want to go anywhere near any adoption story that wasn't totally positive. But after that initial period of trying to surround myself with blind optimism, I realize that "ignorance is bliss" isn't the perspective I want to take when living out a situation that will affect so many lives. When my husband found out I was reading these things, his first reaction was "WHY?! Why would you do this to yourself?!" To me, the answer had become simple: by knowing about situations that have gone wrong, we are better equipped to do everything in our power to help our situation be healthy. Without reading some of the heartbreaking accounts of bio-moms, it would have been easy for me to put my head in the sand and pretend that the practices of coercing and manipulating expectant mothers considering adoption was dead. I'd be able to have blind faith that any adoption agency, facilitator, or lawyer that claimed to be faith-based and included a few scriptures on their website would actually operate with Christian principles. It would be fine for me to just sit here in my privilege of "We are a happy couple, we are financially secure, we have a wonderful life," waiting and praying for someone not in a position of privilege to choose us as adoptive parents. But I can't do that. I want to make sure that we are not supporting any agency that would be coercive or manipulative towards pregnant women in difficult situations. If I use an organization that takes advantage of these women in such a way, am I any better than people who partake in baby-buying facilitated by trafficking? 

     In all honesty, the post that I used to form what ethics I was comfortable with in choosing an agency came largely from a site run by a birthmother (her own label) who had a terrible experience with the adoption industry and now advocates for adoption reform: Musings of the Lame. If you are a potential adoptive parent and have never visited this site, let me prepare you before you click that link. The content on the site is written (and commented on) by those who will often openly label themselves as anti-adoption. They are those who have been hurt by terrible, heart-wrenching experiences involving adoption, experiences typically fueled by coercive and unethical agencies or facilitators. Because of this hurt, many commenters on the articles and posts often come across as attacking towards any potential adoptive parents who try to ask questions about having an ethical adoption. The perspective of some of these posters is that the entire adoption system is corrupt and unethical, and anyone who seeks to adopt an infant rather than getting involved in the foster care system and potentially adopting an older child is knowingly participating in that unethical and corrupt system. There is a lot of hate. There is a lot of anger. There is a lot of hurt. As a potential adoptive parent who is hopeful for a happy ending, it is incredibly difficult to read. That being said, it is important to read.  We don't want to be a part of any unethical adoption practices, but we can't know how to avoid them if we don't know what they are, where they are, and how to see them.

The problem with facilitators

      I'm sure that there are many adoption facilitators out there who  are ethical, helpful, and truly seek to establish connections and build healthy relationships between expectant mothers interested in adoption and potential adoptive parents. I really hate to put an entire group of businesses into a box and label it as "problematic," but many negative adoption stories from both adoptive and biological parents involve the use of facilitators.
    Facilitators are defined as “unlicensed organizations or individuals offering adoption services." This type of organization is illegal in many states. Most facilitators focus solely on the matching process, and will then make referrals to adoption attorneys for the legal portion. One of the problematic things about facilitators is that they don't need any type of certification, training, or licensing-- they are essentially "matchmakers" for expectant moms and PAPs. Despite this, they often are not that much less expensive than using an agency. I have looked at websites of several facilitators, and many of them have fees of $20k+, easily approaching our agency's fee of $25k.
    When you look at the facilitation process of match and send to a lawyer, it is easy to see that one crucial piece is missing: counseling. I realize that I am completely biased based on my field of work, but I do not possibly see how someone could, in good conscience, arrange an adoption without making sure that the expectant mother has had at least one session with a social worker, therapist, or other form of professional counselor to assess her motivations towards adoption and detect potential coercion. Some facilitators do discuss providing counseling and support groups, but many don't.
    A huge issue with facilitators is that it could put the finalization of your adoption at risk if you are doing an inter-state adoption. In my post about revocation periods,  I had mentioned that there are 3 states that are significant for an interstate adoption, depending on which part of the adoption you are looking at: the PAP's state of residence, the state where the biomom gives birth, and the state where the baby was conceived/where the biodad lives. Using a facilitator could put you into a huge legal nightmare if paid facilitators are illegal in one of these states. The entire adoption could be in jeopardy, because it may not legally be able to be finalized.
     Here is another blogger's account of her experience using a facilitator, with links to still more stories: .

Check out the agency's website

     The first thing to look at on an agency's website is the language that they use. I'm going to copy over what Claudia over at Musings of the Lame said about this, because I wouldn't be able to word it any better: 
      "I bet they have an area on their main navigation bar for “Birthmothers”. Right there they have seriously made a huge ethical error. A woman who is facing an unplanned pregnancy and considering adoption is NOT a birth mother. She is a woman facing a crisis pregnancy and considering adoption. She cannot become a birthmother until AFTER she has first become a mother and given birth and second, signed the parental relinquishment forms. This is a subtle form of mental preparation that allows a woman to think of herself AS a birthmother before she truly is one. It also makes it harder for her to change her mind after birth."
   Our agency does have the term "birthmother" on their webpage one time, but that is all-- in every place except for this one instance, she is referenced as someone considering her options for an unplanned pregnancy or an expectant mother. And the place where birthmother is used is not at the navigation to that part of the webpage; it is in an area where they talk about support services.
      The next thing to check for is if the agency appears to be sending the underlying message that once the expectant mom begins the process, she will place the child.  Do they offer her support if she decides to parent? Will they help her get in touch with community resources for parenting? Do their counseling and other supportive services stop if she changes her mind? Do they acknowledge that she has the right to change her mind until the final papers are signed? If they speak with a sense of finality about her decision or only offer adoption support services, that is a red flag that their caseworkers may use coercive language and methods when communicating with the expectant mothers. I actually saw a case listing on an adoption listserve just this week with the wording "This is a good placement for someone, she will place." As far as I'm concerned, any agency, lawyer, or facilitator that makes any type of guarantee like this is unethical.
      Along the same idea of wording and language, how do they talk about the biodad? Do they minimize his role, or point out that he has rights and should be included in the decision? Every child has two biological parents, and both of them should be on-board with the adoption, unless there are extenuating circumstances. If the agency gives any other impression, seriously question their ethics.
     The last place to check on the website is the testimonial and/or FAQ page on the expectant mom section of the site. Do they include testimonials that talk about how difficult the placement was, or is it all sunshine and roses and "my baby has such a beautiful life now"?  Yes, many of the testimonials that talk about the difficulties will include a happy ending-- that they realize they made a decision that was beneficial for themselves and/or their baby-- but it is important that the agency is upfront with the expectant mom about the reality that this will be hard.

At what point in the pregnancy do they match? 

    Adoption should be a decision that was carefully considered with plenty of time to process and realistically weigh alternatives. If an agency is matching a woman who is 8 or 10 weeks pregnant, that could be a red flag about how they deal with expectant mothers who approach them. Our agency rarely matches someone who is in the first half of her pregnancy for two reasons: 1) They want to make sure that she has had time to carefully consider her decision to place and the type of family she is looking for, and 2) they are willing to help with some of her living expenses (as well as help her get set up with government aid if she is eligible), and they want to make sure that she is not choosing to place solely for the financial aid she could get from it or that she will feel pressured to follow-through with the adoption based on having received financial aid.
   Obviously we don't want to biomom who chooses us to change her mind about the adoption, but we definitely don't want to adopt a child who was coerced or manipulated away from his or her biological mother. We know that there is no way for any expectant mother considering adoption to be 100% certain of her decision before the baby is born. That being said, we are optimistic that by having a longer period before matching and receiving unbiased counseling and support during that period, she will enter into our matching being fairly confident that she is making the decision that is right for her present situation.

Do they offer housing for the expectant mother?

     It wouldn't be fair to say that any agency that offers housing should automatically be considered as having unethical practices or being coercive-- this is largely dependent on how they advertise it to the expectant mothers and how they explain it to you as the potential adoptive parent. What is their motivation for offering housing? Are they located in a state that has adoptive laws that are more favorable for the adoptive parent, such as a short window between birth and termination of parental rights (TPR) or a minimal/non-existent revocation period ? Do they imply that being around a support group of other women who are going through the same experience will be more beneficial than the support system of their own friends and family who may not understand all of the intricacies of what they are going through? Do they advertise perks and activities of living with them, such as field trips and luxury amenities? Or, is housing motivated by a concern for the especially difficult cases: a non-supportive or hostile family, an abusive relationship, a pregnancy that was the result of a rape where she doesn't want memories of that pregnancy associated with the people and places where she will continue to live her life (our social worker told us of such a case at our agency recently)? Maybe they offer housing for cases where it is an inter-state match, and the expectant mom has voiced a desire to spend more time getting to know the potential adoptive parents and include them in doctor's appointments. Ask the agency you are looking at what their reasons are for offering housing. If they say something related to lower rates of "failed adoption" or shorter TPR/revocation windows, there is a good chance that their decision to offer housing plays into coercive and manipulative methods of dealing with expectant mothers.

Price changes/Recruiting mode

     Have you ever seen that episode of Friends where Monica and Chandler are in the process of adopting, and they are trying to "sell themselves"? They lie about their professions (claiming he is a doctor and she is a minister), and suddenly people are very interested in them.
    Agencies know that there are certain "types" of couples who will probably be matched very quickly. I don't say this meaning to in any way imply that someone's career and bank account make them better parents, there are just some people who look great on paper. An agency might see these people as easy money: if we can sign them, we can match them quickly, and we are guaranteed our fee before they start thinking about going anywhere else. For us, we have taken it as a red flag if an agency seems to be trying too hard to get us to sign with them, especially if part of that technique is taking a used-car approach to fee reduction.
       There was one agency (at least we thought they were an agency, turns out they are a facilitator), that had several situations on their unmatched webpage that seemed like a good fit-- we were the type of family they were describing, they were interested in the same level of openness as we are. I later found out that this facilitator has a bad habit of leaving matched cases on their unmatched webpage to make it look like they are more active than they actually are, but that is a separate issue.  I emailed their office, and they said that I needed to fill out an application and be approved as a potential client before they could discuss the status of any cases with me. "There is no application fee, and you aren't committing to anything by filling out the application," they said, so I went ahead and did it. It wasn't very long, but it did contain questions about education and highest degree earned, current careers, and estimated adoption budget, among other things such as family structure and motivations towards adoption. When you reduce our identities down to those first 3 things, we look really fantastic on paper. In the email, I was advised that due to their high volumes of inquiries, it would be 5-10 business days before I could expect to hear anything back regarding whether or not we would be approved as potential clients.
   The first red flag was that I heard back within an hour after being told it would be at least a week.  They were in full-fledged recruiting mode. I was told that we are exactly the kind of family that many of the young women that come to them seem to be looking for, that they would be excited to represent us, etc.  The second red flag was that they wanted to go ahead and do a phone conference with me and my husband to begin initiating a contract, even though they hadn't answered my inquiry about if any the specific situations we had been interested in were even available. The third red flag was that we found out that once we had a contract with them, they needed over $19,000 upfront, with another $6,000 due at time of match. I told them that we simply were not comfortable paying that type of money upfront before anything had been done, and was very polite about appreciating their time.
   The next morning, I had an interesting email waiting for me in my inbox. Apparently, they had recently decided to reduce their overall fees, including significantly cutting the amount due upfront. They were excited to send me a packet with these new, corrected figures if we wanted to reconsider working with them. Maybe I'm over-reacting, but this actually made me really angry. Is there an oh-so-slim chance that the decision had just been made the day before and the person I was speaking with didn't yet have that updated information? Sure, maybe. But it seems more likely that this facilitation group handles adoption like a car lot handling used car sales: we'll give you a price, if you actually leave and don't come back, we will call you the next day after (what luck!) convincing the manager that we really should lower the price of that car a bit.
   I understand that quite a bit of money has to change hands with adoption, because many people have to be paid to do their jobs within an agency: office employees, social workers, counselors, lawyers, and on and on. I'm fine with this-- our social worker at our agency has been amazing and she deserves to be comfortably compensated for all the work she does. But when an agency starts getting close to a "let's haggle" approach to their fees, I become suspicious that their focus is largely the business of adoption, with little room for the people impacted by it.

     Finally, take a minute to Google the name of the agency you are considering, as well as checking review sites such as AdoptionAgencyRatings. If there are biomoms who say that they worked with this agency and felt pressured, coerced, or lied to about the process and legalities, take them seriously.


  1. This is a very informative post. I'm rather impressed that you're able to read Claudia's blog. Between the hatred and the writing errors, I just can't do it. Thanks for linking to me!

  2. Robyn- It has to be infrequently and in very small doses! :) I guess I just see it as another way to avoid some of the things that can cause so much hurt. I've really enjoyed reading your blog (especially your Robyn's Adoption Land series) as we prepare to go through this process.

  3. When investigating adoption agencies, are you also considering the rights of the father? It takes both a man and a woman to create a baby, and both should have an equal voice in what happens to the child.

    Are you dealing with an agency in a state (like Utah) that, in an effort to "streamline" adoptions, does its best to circumvent fathers' rights? Has the agency made sure that all potential fathers have been notified? Yes, each state has a Putative Father Registry, but do we really expect men to list the name of every sexual partner they've ever had, just in case one gets pregnant?

    "Ethical" goes beyond making sure the mother's rights are protected.

    1. Kaye-
      I absolutely agree. I do mention examining how an agency's website discusses the father to make sure that they aren't making him seem like an irrelevant figure, but you make a good point about some states having problematic policies as a whole. We personally chose to not consider any agency that operates out of Utah, and their reputation for mishandling paternity issues played a big role in that. I'm sure there are many adoption workers in Utah that are honest and ethical, but we just weren't comfortable with some of the reports of how multiple agencies there circumvent paternal rights. We believe that a child should have the opportunity to know both of their biological parents, so sending the message of "don't worry about him" when discussing the biodad is simply not something we want to support.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Kaye-
      I absolutely agree. I do mention examining how an agency's website discusses the father to make sure that they aren't making him seem like an irrelevant figure, but you make a good point about some states having problematic policies as a whole. We personally chose to not consider any agency that operates out of Utah, and their reputation for mishandling paternity issues played a big role in that. I'm sure there are many adoption workers in Utah that are honest and ethical, but we just weren't comfortable with some of the reports of how multiple agencies there circumvent paternal rights. We believe that a child should have the opportunity to know both of their biological parents, so sending the message of "don't worry about him" when discussing the biodad is simply not something we want to support.

      Thanks for the comment!

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.