I’m Ready to Adopt, but Where Do I Start?
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A guide to picking your adoption attorney or agency
From legal fees to paperwork, from meeting a birth mother to bringing your baby home, adoption has many moving parts. And with laws varying from state to state, getting an attorney on board at the start—whether the prospective parent wants a private adoption or an agency adoption—is the best way to avoid common pitfalls and expensive mistakes.
“Your attorney is your advocate,” advises Robin Fleischner, an adoption attorney with offices in New York and New Jersey. “There’s so much out there, and you want to make sure you can bring your baby home safely and legally.”
Fleischner has been on both sides of the parent-attorney relationship. She was working in a different area of law when she adopted two children domestically within 18 months of each other. After becoming involved in the adoption community, she steered her law practice toward adoption, specifically. She’s been advising and representing families for 30 years, and currently, about 25% of her clients are Solo Moms.
When people decide they want to adopt, most people head online to read and do research. Some sites will even give you a template for filing your own adoption petition, but Fleischner says that “when you’re talking about life and death decisions . . . you don’t want to get your information purely through the Internet,” adding that a prospective parent’s best bet is to find an attorney who is a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (sometimes called “Quad A” by lawyers). Typically, these attorneys have deep knowledge of adoption and are most likely to be experienced when it comes to important adoption considerations, such as expenses that will be covered for a birth mother or what needs to be done about the birth father’s rights.
In the case of expenses paid on behalf of the birth mother—for things such as medical care, rent, and transportation—most states allow adoptive parents to make these payments, but each state has varying laws and regulations. “These are highly regulated by the courts, and all of the expenses in adoption have to be disclosed to the court,” Fleischner says, adding that, “you don’t want to be in a situation where you make an illegal payment without consulting with an attorney [as] that could prevent you from finalizing your adoption.”
To start, meet with several attorneys and gauge which one is the best fit. Although prospective attorneys will ask you many questions to get to know you and understand your adoption plans, you should come prepared with a list of your own questions. Fleischner advises that “experience and personality” should be the two factors that help you find the right fit.
Questions to ask an adoption attorney
1. How many years of experience do you have?
Fleischner says this is a good question to judge how knowledgeable a person is about adoption laws and how experienced he or she is should any complications arise.
Clients should also ask what types of adoption the attorney routinely handles—some attorneys specialize in trials and contested adoptions; some handle only private, uncontested adoptions; and others work closely with agencies.
2. What are your fees?
This figure will include not only the attorney’s cut but also what the prospective adoptive parents can expect in terms of court filing costs and what types of services the attorney provides.
3. Are you a hands-on attorney?
Some attorneys, such as Fleischner, say they are all hands-on, answering prospective parents’ and birth mothers’ questions themselves. Other attorneys use a paralegal who may be doing more of the hand-holding during the process.
4. Aside from the legal work, what is your philosophy on adoption?
Fleischner says this question is important to ask to make sure the attorney is a good fit with the client.
“Some attorneys might have more of a bent toward a semi-open adoption, where there isn’t a lot of openness; others advocate more openness,” she says.
So if you only want to send pictures and updates with no in-person visits, an attorney who believes strongly in visits with the birth family may not be the best match.
Questions to ask an adoption agency
When seeking out an agency to work with, the questions you should ask are a little different. Agencies often will help prospective parents advertise, be matched with a birth mother, and communicate with her. Depending on state laws, attorneys may be legally barred from those services, but even if you use an agency, you will still need an attorney to finalize the adoption.
1. How many parents are waiting to be matched with a birth mother?
This question should go hand in hand with another: “You want to find out, in the last six months, how many placements [the agency has] done,” says Fleischner. The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how active the agency is in placing babies with families and also how large a pool of parents you will join in waiting.
2. What money do I pay up front?
Always, Fleischner says, find out what the agency charges in up-front costs and what you get for that money. Use that information, she says, to judge your financial risk if you do not receive a placement within a certain time frame or if a potential match falls through.
3. Ask questions about race.
Don’t be afraid to ask an agency or an attorney about this issue, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to you. If you want to adopt within your own race, you need to ask about how the agency will assist you with that. If you are willing to adopt transracially, you should be able to talk openly with the agency about that also.
Along with race, health is also a major issue that prospective parents shouldn’t shy away from.
4. Of the kids you’ve placed in the last six months, how many kids were born addicted to drugs, and how many birth mothers were mentally ill?
“Generally birth mothers are placing kids for adoptions because they are in financial stress,” Fleischner says. And often the reason for that financial stress is health related, whether the mother has mental or physical illness or a drug or alcohol problem.
Prospective parents also should get an idea from the agency what kind of background information they will get on the birth mother’s medical history, whether it’s physician reports, blood tests, or drug screenings. Fleischner also suggests getting references for both attorneys and agencies and speaking with adoptive parents who have already been through the process.
No matter the avenue you choose to finalizing an adoption, remember that attorneys are there to protect both you and the birth family.
“Adoptive parents are vulnerable. They long to have a child. They are desperate. They feel desperate,” Fleischner says. “Your attorney is there to keep it safe and legal, to keep your head on straight.”
Check out ESME’s confidential Sister Chat to talk to and connect with Solo Moms who’ve made a family through adoption.
Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy and two neurotic Italian Greyhounds. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.