The law in every state requires anyone looking to adopt a child to participate in a home study. A home study typically takes between 3 and 6 months to complete. The home study process has 3 purposes: to educate and prepare the adoptive family for adoption, to gather information about the prospective parents that will help a social worker match the family with a child whose needs they can meet, and to evaluate the fitness of the adoptive family.
There are several elements to the home study process:
- TRAINING: Many agencies require trainings for prospective adoptive parents prior to or during the home study process. This helps prospective parents gain a better understanding of the needs of children waiting for families and it helps families decide what type of child or children they could parent most effectively.
- INTERVIEWS: You will probably be interviewed several times by the social worker. These interviews help you develop a relationship with your social worker that will enable him or her to better understand your family and assist you with an appropriate placement. You will discuss the topics addressed in the home study report. You will likely be asked to explain how you handle stress and past experiences of crisis or loss. In the case of couples, some agency workers conduct all of the interviews jointly, with both prospective parents together. Others will conduct both joint and individual interviews. If families have adult children living outside the home, they also may be interviewed during this process.
- HOME VISIT: Home visits serve to ensure that your home meets State licensing standards (i.e., working smoke alarms, safe storage of firearms, safe water, adequate space for each child, etc.). Some states require an inspection from your local health and fire departments, in addition to the visit by the social worker. The agency will generally require the worker to see all areas of the house or apartment,including where the children will sleep, the basement, and the back yard. He or she will be looking for how you plan to accommodate a new family member (or members, if you are planning to adopt a sibling group). Social workers are not typically inspecting your housekeeping standards. A certain level of order is necessary, but some family clutter is expected. Some agencies would worry that people living in a "picture perfect" home would have a difficult time adjusting to the clutter a child brings to a household.
- HEALTH STATEMENTS: Most agencies require prospective adoptive parents to have some form of physical exam. Some agencies have specific requirements (such as confirmed infertility for a couple adopting an infant). Other agencies just want to know the prospective parents are essentially healthy, have a normal life expectancy, and are physically and mentally able to handle the care of a child.
If you have a medical condition that is under control (high blood pressure or diabetes that is controlled by diet and medication, for example), you may still be approved as an adoptive family. A serious health problem that affects life expectancy may prevent approval, however. If your family has sought counseling or treatment for a mental health condition in the past, you may be asked to provide reports from those visits. Many agencies view seeking help as a sign of strength though and should not prevent you from adopting. You should remember that each family's situation is unique, so check with the agencies or social workers you are considering if you have concerns.
- INCOME STATEMENTS: You do NOT have to be rich to adopt a child but you must show that you can responsibly manage your finances. Other countries might have specific income requirements however. Prospective parents are usually asked to verify their income by providing copies of paycheck stubs, W-4 forms, or income tax forms. You might also be asked about savings, insurance policies (including health coverage for the adopted child), and other investments and debts.
- BACKGROUND CHECKS: Most States require criminal and child abuse record clearances for all adoptive and foster parent applicants. In many States, local, state, and Federal clearances are required. While the majority of prospective adoptive parents have no criminal or child abuse history, it is important for children's safety to identify those few families who might put children at risk.
Public and private agencies must obey state laws and policies concerning how the findings of background checks affect eligibility for adoptive parents. Agencies are looking not just at your past experiences, but at what you've learned from them and how you would use that knowledge in parenting a child. Agencies in some states may be able to work with your family, depending on the charge and its resolution. If the social worker feels that you are being deceptive or dishonest, however, or if the documents collected during the home study process expose inconsistencies, the social worker may have difficulty trusting you.
- AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STATEMENT: Many adoption agencies ask prospective adoptive parents to write an autobiographical statement. This is basically the story of your life and its purpose is to help the social worker better understand your family and assist him or her in writing the home study report. If you are working with an agency that practices openness in adoption, you also may be asked to write a letter or create an album or scrapbook about your family to be shared with the expectant birth parents to assist them in choosing a family for their child.
-REFERENCES: The agency will most likely ask you for the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of 3 or 4 individuals to serve as references. References help the social worker form a more complete picture of your family and support network.
References should be individuals who have known you for several years, who have observed you in many situations, and who have visited your home and know of your interest in and involvement with children. Most agencies require that references be people unrelated to you. Good choices might include close friends, an employer, a former teacher, a co-worker, a neighbor, your pastor, rabbi, or leader of your faith community.
While having 1 negative reference will probably not hurt you, if several references were negative or the negative reference was part of a series of other negative factors, that might be a problem.
THE HOME STUDY REPORT: Once you have completed the process of a home study, your social worker will compile a home study report, based on her findings. Home study reports are often used to "introduce" your family to other agencies or adoption exchanges to assist in matching your family with a child.
All of the factors listed above will be part of the home study report, as well as the following items:
- Family Background: Descriptions of the applicants' childhoods, how they were parented, past and current relationships with parents and siblings, key events and losses, and what was learned from them.
- Education/Employment: Applicants' current educational level, satisfaction with their educational accomplishments, and any plans to further their education, as well as their employment status, history, plans, and satisfaction with their current jobs.
- Relationships: If the applicants are a couple, the report may cover their history together as well as their current relationship (i.e., how they make decisions, solve problems, communicate, show affection, etc.). If the applicants are single, the report will contain information about their social life and how they anticipate integrating a child into it, as well as information about their network of relatives and friends.
- Daily Life: Routines, such as a typical weekday or weekend, plans for child care (if applicants work outside the home), hobbies, and interests.
- Parenting: Applicants' past experiences with children (for example, their own, relatives' children, neighbors, volunteer work, babysitting, teaching, or coaching), in addition to their plans regarding discipline and other parenting issues.
- Neighborhood: Descriptions of the applicants' neighborhood, including safety and proximity to community resources.
- Religion: Information about the applicants' religion, level of religious practice, and what kind of religious upbringing (if any) they plan to provide for the child.
- Feelings About/Readiness for Adoption: There may be a section on specific adoption-related issues, including why the applicants want to adopt, feelings about infertility (if this is an issue), what kind of child they might best parent and why, and how they plan to talk to their children about adoption-related issues. If the agency practices openness, there may be information about how the applicants feel about birth families and how much openness with the birth family might work best.
- Approval/Recommendation: The home study report will conclude with a summary and the social worker's recommendation. This often includes the age range and number of children for which the family is recommended.