Common issues in adoptions

With the new enactment of the Maine Parentage Act coming up in July 2016, we are looking ahead to some changes that will be happening with adoptions in Maine. Before talking about those, however, it is worth revisiting adoptions generally and some common legal issues and considerations if you are considering an adoption.

This article is designed to provide readers who may be considering an adoption with a basic understanding of the process.

(1)        Should you opt for an “open” adoption?

One of the first considerations that new parents will make in considering a prospective adoption is whether it should be “open” or “closed.” So what does this mean? “Open” adoptions refer to a process in which the adoptive parents meet and often stay in contact with birth parents. It is common in modern adoptions for adoption agencies to provide birth mothers with adoptive parent “profiles” and allow them to select the adoptive parents. This contact can take the form of anything from an annual letter or photograph to extended meetings between the adoptive and birth parents on a regular basis.

In contrast, “closed” adoptions take place when neither the birth parents nor the adoptive parents receive any information about the other. In those adoptions, the child may not even know that he or she was adopted. Neither the birth parents nor the adoptive parents will receive any “identifying information” about the other, including names, addresses, or other information that could lead to the identification of the birth parent or adoptive parent, although adoptive parents may receive non-identifying information such as genetic, medical history, or general information concerning the conception and birth of the child.

Whether to have an open or closed adoption is an intensely personal decision, but many parents find it useful to allow greater control over the decision-making process and can help the child adjust to being adopted. In open adoptions, adoptive parents should become aware immediately that the adoption is “open” and a good attorney will advise you of the special circumstances surrounding an open adoption, including how much contact is required, the type of contact expected, and how that contact should take place in practice.

(2)        Should you use an agency, or opt for a “private” adoption?

Private, or so-called “independent” adoptions, do not use an adoption agency for the adoption process.  Adoption agencies generally provide counseling and other services for birth parents, home studies for private adoptions, matching or placement of children of all ages, including children with special needs, and counseling for parties after adoption.

The benefits of having an independent adoption include greater flexibility and typically they have fewer requirements. Even independent adoptions must adhere to state law, but deciding whether a match is appropriate would be entirely up to you. This is in contrast to some adoption agencies that may have religious affiliation or other reasons to have requirements exceeding those under state law. Additionally, some adoption agencies have long wait lists.

On the other hand, having an agency involved in an adoption provides parents with greater access to services including counseling, training (such as raising children of a different cultural or racial background), and other important subjects. A list of adoption agencies in Maine is available from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child and Family Services.

There are many other types of adoptions that may not involve an agency, including kinship adoptions, adoptions of older children or foster children, and adoptions of children over the age of eighteen (this is common if a birth parent had refused to consent to an adoption while the child was a minor).

(3)        Steps of an Adoption:  How will you find the newest member of your family?

The adoption process can be broken down into several different steps to take place at various stages:

               1.   Find an Attorney.

Finding an attorney first can help you to identify the pros and cons of going through an agency adoption or an independent adoption, depending upon what suits your needs. Additionally, a good attorney will give you an overview of the process, caution you as to certain risks, and can identify certain issues that may disqualify you from adopting a child (such as the commission of certain serious offenses) before you get involved with an agency.

               2.   Select an Agency, if applicable.

If you elect to do an agency adoption instead of an independent adoption, your attorney can recommend suitable adoption agencies. Finding the right agency can make all the difference because, in the end, they may decide whether to approve adoptive parents and how the adoption will take place.

               3.   Complete a Home Study.

In any adoption, whether it is private or agency-driven, open or closed, adoptive parents must undergo a home study by either an agency employee or a social worker from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The home study will take place over a series of meetings with the social worker, who will ask for documents or contacts and will ensure that you are fully ready to undertake this responsibility.  Maine law requires home study participants to provide criminal history record information and undergo background checks. 18-A M.R.S. § 9-304(a-1), (a-2).

               4.   Find a Match

Depending on whether the adoption is independent or an agency adoption, the adoptive parents may put together a profile for a birth mother to select, or they may participate in the agency’s selection process and enjoy the benefits of the agency’s screening process for birth mothers. In Maine, you are prohibited from advertising for the purposes of finding or placing a child (or any other person) to adopt, so know before you post. 18-A M.R.S. § 9-313. (Luckily for us, that does not include attorney advertising or advertising by adoption agencies that complies with Department requirements).

The agency or the Department will obtain a medical, psychological, and developmental history of the child, including the child’s prenatal care and medical condition at birth, including the use of alcohol or drugs or other diseases the child may have experienced, or relevant medical, psychological and social background of the birth parents. 18-A M.R.S. § 9-304(b).

If the birth mother is still pregnant, adoptive parents may be required to pay for some or all of the birth mother’s medical costs associated with carrying the pregnancy to term.

               5.   Meet Your Child

Once you have been matched with a child, it is now time for you to have the first meeting with your child, followed by several visits over the first few weeks or months. The agency or the Department will work with you to arrange for visits and prepare you to take the newest member of your family home.

               6.   Obtain Court Approval

The final step will be to obtain court approval of the adoption. This may require certification of compliance with certain requirements for out-of-state or foreign adoptions. 19-A M.R.S. §§ 9-311, 9-312.

At the final hearing, the Court will ensure that all of the proper procedures have been followed and that adoptive parents have obtained a home study, that the best interests of the child have been served by the adoption, that all required payments have been made, and that all necessary consents, relinquishments, or termination of parental rights have been filed. 19-A M.R.S. §§ 9-308.

Once that step is completed, the adoption is final and you have (legally) added a new member to your family.

If you are interested in exploring adoptions or assisted reproductive agreements, or you have a question about parentage under Maine law, we encourage you to contact Brian Champion at (207) 985-1815.