The assessment and preparation process a prospective adoptive family undergoes to determine, among other things, whether they should adopt and what type of child would best fit the family. Some agencies refer to this process as the "family study" or "preadoptive counseling" or other phrases that are considered more accurate and descriptive.
The home study includes the entire process of evaluation and instruction about adoptive parenting and is not limited to visits to the residence of the family. (See EDUCATION OF ADOPTIVE PARENTS.)
Prospective parents initially fill out application forms for agency adoption, and agency criteria are applied to determine whether the parents fit the primary criteria, for example, age, length of marriage, number of children in home, religious affiliation (if it is a sectarian agency), infertility and other factors.
Many adoption agencies accept applications to adopt healthy infants only from couples who have been married at least three years, are childless or have only one child, are medically infertile and are under 40 years of age.
The criteria and application process vary from agency to agency. Some agencies may accept applications from couples who are in their mid-forties or older or who have been previously divorced. In addition, single applicants may also be accepted, although married couples are much preferred by most agencies.
The criteria to adopt a child with SPECIAL NEEDS are usually different from those for a healthy infant, and often agencies will accept applications from prospective adoptive parents who are well over age 40, already have children, are still fertile and so forth. This does not necessarily mean the home study will be easier.
Because children with special needs themselves need adoptive parents who can cope with whatever their special needs are, the social worker will carefully evaluate the family to ensure it is within their realm of coping to raise a child with special needs.
After initial screening, the couple or single person's name may be placed on a WAITING LIST until the agency decides it is ready to begin the home study process with the individual(s).
If the prospective parents are adopting a child through INDEPENDENT ADOPTION, the home study may be performed by a state or county social worker or by a licensed adoption agency or private social worker, depending on the laws of the state where the adopting parents reside.
The home study process often includes one or more group orientation classes in which prospective parents learn about the agency and its policies. These classes may occur prior to the application process to provide general information or after initial acceptance of the applicants by the agency as a beginning step to the home study process.
Agencies may rely on individual conferences with prospective parents, or they may offer classes or a combination of the two in the assessment process.
For those seeking to adopt healthy infants, many agencies will discuss subjects such as coming to terms with infertility, birthmothers and their feelings and reasons for placing the child for adoption, when and how to tell the child he or she was adopted and a variety of other topics that will improve the parent's ability to successfully rear the child.
The social worker may bring in a panel of adoptive parents, adopted persons or birthmothers to share their feelings with the group. An interchange of questions and an ongoing dialogue between the adopting parents and the social worker is usually encouraged.
Parents who plan to adopt children with special needs will often learn about physical and sexual abuse and neglect, developmental delays, problems that may be exhibited by newly adopted children and other topics.
Whether the group or individual home study approach is used, the adopting parents are always interviewed privately to obtain certain personal information from them.
The social worker will ask them together and individually why they want to adopt, what their expectations are in adopting, the type of child they hope to adopt, how their extended family feels about the adoption, whether the mother intends to work outside the home after the placement of a child and many other questions, including sensitive questions about their marital relationship, drug and alcohol use and philosophies about discipline for a child.
These questions are asked not only to help the social worker with the assessment of the family but also to help the family explore issues they may not have fully examined or understood.
If the prospective adoptive family already has children in the home, the children may be interviewed on their feelings about the introduction of a new sibling to ensure they are emotionally prepared for such a change.
A background investigation is also conducted to determine if the prospective adoptive parent has a criminal record or has ever been charged with child abuse or neglect. References are almost invariably requested by the social worker, and these may be written or verbal, depending on the agency, although most are written.
The agency will discuss management of the family finances, including a verification of the applicants' wages and income, to verify there will be sufficient income in the family to support the child. The social worker may also request copies of the previous year's income tax returns and request banks or other financial institutions to provide written verification of current balances.
A home study for an INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION will also include the requirement for the applicant to be fingerprinted, often by local police. Additional paperwork is usually required in an international adoption, and the international adoption agency or adoption lawyer should be able to assist the applicants if they have difficulty completing forms.
International adopters will often need visas to travel abroad, particularly if the child to be adopted resides in South America. They should obtain their visas well ahead of the time they need to travel to the country where their child awaits them.
A social worker's visit to the home of the prospective parents is also an essential aspect of any home study. Despite the fears of nearly every adopting parent, the social worker is rarely seeking to perform a "white gloves" study of the home, despite the term "home study." The house simply should be normally clean.
The home may be the site for many personal questions asked of the adopting parents regarding how they plan to discipline the child, religious beliefs and so forth. The social worker will usually want a tour of the home and will ask to see where the child would sleep.
The adopting family should have a plan for how they will accommodate the child. They need not have the nursery or room completely set up and decorated, but they should have a room or a plan to create a room or plan to have the child share a room with another child.
Safety is another issue the caseworker will be checking: Is the area free of safety hazards? Do the adopting parents seem sensitized to the needs of the type of children they wish to adopt? (For example, if they have a swimming pool, do they have a plan to protect a young child from wandering into that area?)
The interaction between a married couple is also observed, and the social worker will attempt to determine if both parties are committed to adopting or if the adoption is primarily the idea of one person with the other reluctantly agreeing. Although often one person is the instigator of the idea to adopt, both parties should be enthusiastic about adopting a child.
After completion of the home visit and gathering information from references, police check and so on, the caseworker will write up preliminary findings about the couple. The social worker will then write a formal evaluation of the couple with a recommendation to approve or disapprove the couple for adoption.
In some cases, especially cases of an INDEPENDENT ADOPTION in which a lawyer, doctor or other nonagency person is involved in facilitating the placement of the child, the child may actually already reside in the home before the home study commences.
Ideally, however, the home study is completed prior to placement of the child so the family will be prepared for the adoption and any problems can be determined well in advance of the child's entry into the home. Such a step would markedly reduce the probability of a child being in the custody of inappropriate people.
At least one or two other visits to the home (or with the parents and child elsewhere) will ordinarily occur after placement to ensure the child and adoptive parents are happy and adjusting to each other.
After a waiting period ranging from weeks to months to as long as a year (six months on average), depending in which state the adopting parents live, the adoption will be finalized in a court. A new amended birth certificate will be issued to the adopting parents, with their names on the birth certificate as parents. The original birth certificate is "sealed" in most states, which means it cannot be reviewed by anyone without a court order.
Reasons for rejecting couples or singles who are studied vary. Although most people who pass the initial criteria set by agencies will ultimately be approved in the home study process, a small number of people will be disapproved.
The couple or single may be disapproved for adopting an infant if it is apparent they have not at all come to terms with their infertility and it is very unlikely they could accept an adopted child as "their own." (This does not mean that infertility must be completely accepted or never cause the adoptive parents pain again. See INFERTILITY.)
If their marriage appears to be in jeopardy, this marital discord would be another reason to deny a couple the opportunity to adopt a child of any age.
The couple may be disapproved for adoption if the home study reveals the couple has provided the caseworker with false or misleading information, for example, if the investigation reveals a felony was committed in the past, perhaps a drug abuse or alcohol conviction.
Most home studies take at least 30 days to complete and may take several months before all steps can be accomplished. Frequently prospective adoptive parents are placed on a waiting list to obtain a home study. Some adoptive parents call this "a waiting list to get on a waiting list."
After a couple or single has been approved, their names may be placed on a WAITING LIST until they are matched with a child. A couple may receive a child the day after their home study is approved or may not receive a child for several years.
If the parents feel able to adopt a child with special needs, this may also shorten the wait; for example, if white adopting parents are interested in adopting a biracial baby or child, they may receive their child more rapidly than if they stipulate they will only adopt a racially matching child.
Although the home study process may be perceived as nerve-racking to prospective adoptive parents, studies have revealed parents who are being studied or have been studied are significantly less anxious than couples who have not yet begun the home study process, probably because those who have begun or completed the process believe they will ultimately succeed at adopting their child.
Leah Vorhes Pendarvis studied anxiety levels of infertile couples who planned to adopt for her Ph.D. dissertation. According to Pendarvis, "The data showed that undergoing the adoption procedure results in lower but more fluctuating anxiety levels while waiting for the procedure results in higher but more consistent levels."
Leah Vorhes Pendarvis, "Anxiety Levels of Involuntarily Infertile Couples Choosing Adoption," Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1985.
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©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.
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