Independent Adoption

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independent adoption

Nonagency adoption, usually handled through attorneys but sometimes physicians or other intermediaries, refers to nonrelative adoptions. At least half of all healthy infant adoptions nationwide are independent adoptions.

State Laws Governing Independent Adoption

Independent adoption is legal in most states but not in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and North Dakota.

It is important to note, however, that birthparents in every state except Michigan may choose nonrelative adoptive parents for their children and plan an adoption. (It is unclear whether or not Michigan citizens may choose direct placements; apparently, courts have interpreted the statutes differently, allowing DESIGNATED ADOPTION in some cases and disallowing it in others.) Presuming the laws of the states have been followed, the adoptive parents selected by the birthparents will be approved by the court.

In those states that prohibit nonagency adoptions the assistance and approval of an adoption agency is required if birthparents and prospective adoptive parents wish to arrange an adoption between themselves, and an agency must counsel the birthparents and adopting parents and conduct a HOME STUDY of the prospective adoptive parents before they may adopt. As a result, the adoption agency could disapprove the prospective adoptive parents.

Some states require a preliminary home study prior to the placement of a child in an independent adoption. A preliminary home study is always required in an interstate or international adoption.

Now most independent adoption practitioners recognize the importance of a preplacement home study as reflected in the requirements of the UNIFORM ADOPTION ACT, promulgated by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and endorsed by the American Bar Association.

Nonagency adoptions are sometimes called "gray market" adoptions, a term which connotes unsavory, unethical or questionable practices; however, this is unfair since independent adoptions are legal in most states. Many ethical attorneys or intermediaries handle independent adoptions. ("Black market" adoptions, also known as BABY SELLING, are illegal adoptions whether arranged by agencies or attorneys.)

Several studies of the outcome of independent adoptions have been performed in the past. In 1963, the findings of a study of 484 children placed with 477 families in Florida was reported by Helen L. Witmer, Elizabeth Herzog, Eugene A. Weinstein and Mary E. Sullivan in their book Independent Adoptions. About two-thirds of the adoptions were rated "excellent" to "fair," while one-third were rated "poor."

A study by William Meezan, S. Katz and E. Manoff-Russo published by the Child Welfare League in 1978 found most independent adoptions had a good outcome; however, concern was expressed about the lack of background information provided on the birthmother. In addition, some adoptive parents reported extremely high amounts paid to adopt the child.

Many adoption agency social workers disdain independent adoption, just as some who manage independent adoptions believe agency adoptions are inferior. Many social workers see independent adoption as a form of competition, a method to "beat the system" and an approach that often avoids important aspects of sound adoption practice. Concerns about independent adoption are part of the reason some social work organizations, such as the CHILD WELFARE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, call for an end to independent adoptions.

Conversely, those who support independent adoption may view agencies as antiquated, judgmental bureaucracies and perceive agency social workers as intrusive, cold busybodies who ask far too many irrelevant or personal questions. Worse, some agencies and social workers are seen as "anti-adoption."

Reasons for the Choice

People who adopt independently usually adopt infants, and those who wish to adopt older children usually contact the state public agency or a private, nonprofit agency for assistance. Occasionally, people adopt toddlers through attorneys when mothers voluntarily place them.

The primary reason people choose independent adoption over agency adoption is that independent adoption offers them more of a sense of control. For instance, they can actively try to find a birthmother themselves. Independent adoption is often a much faster process than through an agency. However, increasing numbers of agencies are involving adopting parents in the recruitment of birthmothers.

Individuals who choose to adopt independently may fit most adoption agency's criteria for their own applicants: under age 45, married for at least three years, infertile and other criteria a large percentage of agencies apply. On the other hand, independent adopters may be over 45, already have several children and be married for a short period.

Pregnant women choose independent adoption over agency adoption for several major reasons. Many prefer private medical care over Medicaid, and in most states laws allow adoptive parents to pay for prenatal care and delivery.

If state law allows, the pregnant women may also receive support money (including wage replacement) from the adoptive parents through the attorney or intermediary. Many agencies cannot afford such support money or refuse, on principle, to provide such money.

Risks of Independent Adoption

Just as independent adoption has its advantages, so also it has risks, including major financial and emotional risks.

In many states, adoptive parents may pay for private prenatal care, legal fees, and support money for the pregnant women. If the woman changes her mind before or after the baby is born and before signing any formal consent papers, she has the right to parent the child.

Any money the prospective adoptive family may have paid will probably be lost, because most pregnant women considering adoption for their children are indigent and cannot repay money expended for medical care, food and other necessities. In addition, most state laws preclude the money being legally recovered. Some prospective adoptive parents purchase ADOPTION INSURANCE to defray expenses should the adoption not go through.

If the pregnant woman was on MEDICAID when she entered the hospital, Medicaid will cover the cost of the hospital bill and delivery. In addition, even if the birthmother follows through with the plan to place the baby for adoption, Medicaid will still pay for the delivery and the mother's medical bills.

Although the financial risk may be troubling, most adoptive parents agree the emotional trauma of a birthmother changing her mind is far worse than the money they've lost. And, of course, the euphoric adoptive parents who succeed consider the emotional roller coaster well worth the ride.

Most birthmothers who do change their minds about a private adoption do so just before or immediately after the birth and before signing consent to the adoption, however, in some states, the birthmothers may change their minds after placement.

Even if the birthmother never considers changing her mind, the adoptive parents are greatly stressed by the knowledge that she may do so, and this fear can potentially affect and inhibit the bonding process and hence feelings of ENTITLEMENT.

Many adoption agencies may not inform a prospective couple about a child until all consent papers have been signed. Then they call and give the couple days to arrange to pick up their child. As a result, the couple avoids the stress-filled months of anxiety; conversely, they are also deprived of months of active fantasizing before the child's arrival.


Pregnant women find intermediaries through the INTERNET, Yellow Pages advertisements, classified ads and networking with their friends (which is also the way prospective adoptive parents find their attorneys.)

Some physicians serve as intermediaries. A woman's obstetrician is likely to know infertile couples or can easily identify several through his or her own contacts.

Adoptive parents may also find a pregnant women on their own through networking or advertising and then contact the attorney and ask him or her to facilitate the adoption.

It is still extremely advisable to rely only on experienced and ethical attorneys, even if the adoption appears very straightforward and simple.

Neither a pregnant women nor prospective parents should accept any pressure from an attorney or other intermediary to accept a particular situation such as adoptive parents who don't sound like the type of family the birthmother was looking for or a birthmother who doesn't resemble what the parents want. If either party begins to feel pressured, they should leave and contact another intermediary or an adoption agency.


The cost of an independent adoption varies greatly from state to state, and may be less than $10,000 or well over $20,000 depending on the individual case and the state laws. In addition, obstetrician fees and hospital expenses vary from area to area. If the birthmother must have a Caesarean section and the adoption parents are paying the medical bills, this will increase costs by several thousand dollars.

If the baby is not healthy and suffers from a range of disabling diseases, the couple may choose not to adopt the child. However, they will probably lose any money they have paid for prenatal care, attorney's fees and other expenses.

Birthmothers and pregnant women should never pay attorneys to arrange an adoption, and any attorney who asks a pregnant woman for a fee should be avoided. Adoptive parents pay all legal fees.

Before giving an attorney thousands of dollars, prospective adoptive parents should understand exactly what the lawyer is promising, the timeframe involved, what losses they could incur and so forth. State laws on adoption are available at most large public libraries, and a reference librarian can direct readers to their exact location.

In many instances because of ethical considerations and American Bar Association guidelines the adopting parents will be represented by one attorney, and they will hire a different attorney to represent the birthmother.

Interstate Independent Adoptions

Many independent adoptions occur across state lines; for example, the birthmother may reside in one state, and the adoption parents may live in a neighboring (or faraway) state. It's important to understand that the provisions of the INTERSTATE COMPACT ON THE PLACEMENT OF CHILDREN must be followed. This is a sort of treaty between states that regulates interstate adoption, and each state has a compact administrator headquarters at the state public welfare office.

Generally, the laws of the "receiving" state, or the state where the child is placed, prevail; however, compact administrators strive to ensure that the laws of both states are complied with. Adoptive parents should not remove a child from another state without the permission of the compact administrator because by doing so they risk having the adoption overturned. This has happened, although rarely. (See INTERSTATE ADOPTION.)

Most independent adoptions are lawful and probably successful, and the prevailing number of attorneys and other intermediaries engaged in facilitating independent adoptions appear to be ethical. (See also AGENCIES; ATTORNEYS; PHYSICIANS.)

Adoption Factbook (Washington, D.C.: National Council For Adoption, 1989).

Christine Adamec, There ARE Babies to Adopt. A Resource Guide for Prospective Parents (New York: Kensington, 1996).

William Meezan, S. Katz and R. Manoff-Russo, Adoptions Without Agencies: A Study of Independent Adoptions (New York: Child Welfare League of America, 1978).

Helen L. Witmer, Elizabeth Herzog, Eugene Weinstein and Mary E. Sullivan, Independent Adoptions: A Follow-up Study (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1963.)

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