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Adoption Agency or Attorney – Which One is Right For You?

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By Amanda Grant

Adoption may feel complicated but if you break it down to one decision at a time, it’s much more manageable.  One of the most critical decisions you will make is the type of adoption professionals you will entrust to partner with on your adoption journey.  Will it be an agency, an attorney, or both?

Who you work with is mostly your decision, unless that choice is governed by state law. For example, in Massachusetts, adoptions must be processed through an agency, so working with an attorney is not an option for managing your overall process.  You can, however, work with an attorney to guide you.

These are the types of intricate details that make adoption challenging, but also point to the reason you need to become well educated about your state laws before engaging any professional.  These days you have many choices, but it’s vitally important that you decide who will serve your specific adoption objectives best.

Let’s break this decision into three bite-size pieces.  Here are the three most important considerations that should guide your decision:

1)              Services

Whether you work with an agency or an attorney, the services you need are basically the same.  They typically include your: 

  • Home study (unless you are working with an agency out of state in which case a local agency or contracted social worker will conduct your home study).  Includes pre-placement visits, report, background check and documentation requirements.
  • Required adoption education
  • Counseling
  • Profile preparation
  • Birth mother outreach, advertising and counseling
  • Birth father notifications if applicable
  • Placement
  • Legal surrender
  • Post placement visits and report

Adoption agencies usually coordinate and provide these services all under one roof for their clients.  Some agencies also offer the legal services required for finalization but if they don’t it’s common practice for you to hire your own adoption attorney to finalize the adoption.

If you work with an adoption attorney the way services are offered is different but the content will be basically the same as the above list.  However, each attorney needs to be considered carefully because they do provide their services in unique ways. Attorney services are also guided, to a great extent, by your state of residence and the state where the birth mother resides, if they are different.

 For example, advertising laws are very state-specific so if you live in a state where attorneys are not permitted to advertise on behalf of clients, like New York, you will need to manage your own advertising until a potential match situation has been identified.  The laws are different in every state and you need to be aware of the laws in your state but also where the birth family lives. It’s often up to you, the adoptive family, to create and manage your advertising campaign potentially including print, on-line and community advertisements. There are a growing number of businesses that help you create and manage your advertising for a fee. 

Another difference between agencies and attorneys is that while agencies are working with the birth families that come to them, when you work with an attorney you are the person who will first screen birth families, either by phone or on-line, as they respond to your advertisements. Once a potential situation has been identified, your attorney can then get involved to help evaluate the situation and hopefully move the process and communication forward.  For some, the idea of being on the front-lines, the first point of contact with a birth family, is exciting.  For others, it may cause anxiety and discomfort. Only you know how you feel about your potential role in this process.

And then you have a third choice – the combined services of an agency and an attorney (where your state permits this).  First, you can start your journey by working with one of each.  Apply to an agency and go through their entire process to be matched with a birth family.  At the same time, you can work with an attorney (if your agency permits this - always double check before paying any fees or completing an applications) and manage an advertising campaign so you can search for potential birth family situations in addition to those the agency may find for you.  And if you do find a match through an attorney you can choose to have the attorney manage the adoption for you or you can take the situation (called an identified adoption) to your agency and they can then manage the process and placement for you.  

Finally, you also have the option to work with multiple agencies (where each agency involved permits it) so that you are being shown for potential matches in more than one agency, and possibly more than one state.

2)              Budget

Determine what your budget is for the overall adoption process.  Now evaluate your choices between agencies and attorneys in the context of your budget. 

If you are pursuing the adoption of a child in the foster care system, you will work with a state agency (little to no cost) or you can work with a private agency that has a state contract to place foster children. The fees for private agency foster adoption average about $7,000.

If you want to adopt a domestic newborn or infant and work with an agency you can plan to spend an average of $35,000. For an international adoption the average can easily move closer to $50,000 due to additional travel requirements, documentation and legal fees. 

Finally, if you want to pursue an independent domestic infant adoption with an attorney the fees can vary much more, anywhere from about $15,000 to well over $50,000.  Why such a spread in fees?  The cost of an adoption managed by an attorney varies greatly depending on the attorney’s retainer and placement fees but also based on your advertising costs.  Your advertising costs will vary based on where you advertise (print, digital, or both), the frequency of your ads and the duration of your advertising campaign.  Advertising is expensive no matter how you slice it so the longer you advertise and with more frequency, the larger your budget will need to be.

3)              Time

The third major input to your decision about working with an agency or an attorney is your time.  Adoption is another full time job.  The question is how many hours can you reallocate in your life to focus on your adoption journey?  Regardless of which professional(s) you work with, you will need to dedicate quite a bit of time to the front-end of the process before you are matched or find your own match.  This is where agencies and attorneys can differ most.

If you choose to work primarily with an attorney, you need to be prepared to self-manage a bigger part of your process. You will work with an independent contractor or partner agency for your home study, your education will likely be on line or in group courses that you need to attend, and you will often be required to design and manage your advertising campaign.  Also, because in many states your attorney cannot advertise for you, you will take the first calls or emails from potential match birth families.  Finally, you will work with your attorney to offer professional counseling and legal services potentially to the birth mother.

If your choice is to work with an agency, in the majority of cases the agency is doing the outreach, advertising and birth mother counseling. They will also provide your home study through an agency social worker and often will organize the education component of your process. 

In both cases, agency or attorney, the work you are required to complete for the home study is the same.  It’s how that work is guided and who you work with that will differ.

Importantly, you may hear that you will be matched faster if you work with an attorney or that you will be matched faster with an agency.  Every adoption is unique so there are no blanket results that conclusively and consistently show one to be faster or slower than the other.

Summary

Taken separately, the comparison of services, budget and time cannot make the decision for you about whether you will be best served by working with an adoption attorney or agency.  But taken together, your thoughts on each of the three components should give you a clear indicator of which direction is right for you.

Next steps

Once you decide that either the attorney, agency or combination route is right for you, you will be ready to take the final critical step of evaluating individual agencies or attorneys and deciding specifically which one you will choose.  As a result of the work you will have done to carefully weigh each of your decisions up until this point, you will feel confident as you interview professionals and compare them to each other and determine their fit with your specific adoption needs.

Amanda Grant is President of  USAdopt, LLC and a member of The AFA’s Adoption Advisory Council

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