Guides to Adoption: Credentials and Qualifications by Patricia I. Johnston

Body: 

Understanding the Qualifications of
Businesses Which Offer Adoption Services

What Is an Adoption Agency?

An adoption agency is a business entity which is licensed, regulated and monitored by a state to provide adoption services, including options counseling for pregnant people considering adoption, and homestudies and parent preparation for those who want to adopt. Adoption agencies bring together these two types of clients and offer post-adoption services for all. States set minimum standards for how agencies are to be staffed and how they are to operate, and rules vary from widely state to state. Almost always those standards require that a person with a master’s degree in social work supervise the work done by all other casework employees of the agency.

States monitor adoption agencies at regular intervals to be certain that they are following the financial standards, employee credentialing and training standards, and homestudy standards that the particular state requires. Because they are licensed, agencies are regulated, and that means that when something goes wrong because of suspected misbehavior, consumers can file a complaint with the state’s licensing body and expect that that complaint will be thoroughly investigated.

There are both public agencies and private agencies. Public agencies are supported by the tax dollars of a state, province, county, or municipality and may also receive federal funds. Often these agencies carry names such as Whatever County Department of Family and Children’s Services, This State Children's Services, Anywhere Department of Human Services, or Someplace Children's Aid Society. Public agencies serve the public at large, but this does not mean that they do not have requirements and prerequisites for adopters. Those prerequisites, though, are generally more flexible than those of many private agencies. Though public agencies rarely directly accept applications to adopt from people who are not legal residents of their tax-based service area, they do work cooperatively with agencies in other geographic locations to arrange placements of children with special needs outside of their service areas when necessary or appropriate.

Private agencies are supported by funds other than tax dollars, obtaining their financial support from sources such as adoption fees, private donations, United Way or a religious, fraternal, or family foundation benefactor (for example--Jewish Social Services, Latter Day Saints Social Services, Lutheran Family Services, Salvation Army Adoption Services, Spence Chapin Agency, The Cradle). Sectarian private agencies are religiously connected and may or may not serve only clients of a particular faith. Nonsectarian agencies have no connection with a specific religion. Many private agencies are supported by a combination of the above types of funding.  Private agencies do not have to serve the public at large, but most often do serve a rather large pool of people who meet requirements set by their boards of directors. These agencies, like public agencies, are licensed by the states in which they operate, and must follow the same kind of minimal rules and regulations about how they operate. Their licenses to operate as agencies do not extend beyond the borders of any single state. A few agencies choose to be licensed in more than one state.

A license granted by a state assures that an adoption agency is qualified to provide full services. This means that an ethical full-service agency can

  • advertise their services widely and in as many ways as they possibly can—yellow pages, display ads in newspapers and magazines, TV and radio commercials.
  • provide counseling to families experiencing an untimely pregnancy—and they do so face-to-face, not over the phone—or, if the client is geographically distant, make sure that this service is provided to the client face-to-face in their location. This service may include counseling and even mediation services with the pregnant mother, the baby’s father, and even the baby’s grandparents. When agencies are doing their job ethically, such counseling is objective—offering these families information about all of their options, including both adoption, in all its detail, and parenting, as well as ways to find support for doing that.
  • conduct the legally required investigational process which is called a “homestudy,” and in addition provide many hours of parent preparation education--often accompanied by a variety of reading material such as books and photocopied articles. Their social workers visit client homes and offer workshops for groups of clients.
  • offer ongoing supportive counseling, mediation, and education for their birthparent clients, their adopting parent clients, and their adoptee clients throughout their lifetimes-- much of this at no additional fee.

Sometimes (though far less often than they did a generation or more ago) agencies provide housing for expectant parents. They may help them with other costs and expenses. Most of these family clients cannot afford to pay for these services, so the agency does not charge them—whether they choose to plan an adoption or not. Indeed, it is not unusual for an ethical full-service agency to provide some level of counseling services to 100 families and have 5 or fewer actually follow through with an adoption plan. The financial investment in the services to those 95 families comes from somewhere—much of it from the fees charged to families who adopt those five children.

Agencies, public or private, set their own policies about openness, and there is a wide variation among these policies, some of which are influenced by the laws of individual states. Some agencies facilitate open adoptions and some agencies continue to provide for full confidentiality—though these numbers are shrinking rapidly.

At one time all licensed agencies offered all of the services listed above. Recently, however, some agencies have chosen to devote almost all of their time to doing assessments and preparation—homestudies. These agencies do most or all of their business working with attorneys doing independent adoption, or with agencies in others states who have clients in need of a domestic or intercountry homestudy.

These agencies do not have their own programs in other countries, rarely if ever are contacted directly by an expectant parent exploring adoption, and less often actually make matches. These agencies, while licensed as full-service agencies, bill for the services they actually perform for clients—the homestudy and parent preparation process, counseling to a birthparent brought to them by the would-be adopter or an attorney. Perhaps (but not always) they provide post-adoption education and support. Most of these agencies have a menu of flat fees for services, and while they sometimes are able to make exceptions and lower fees in exceptional situations, their profit margin is very close to the wire.

Consulting/Matching/Facilitation Services

Any adoption business which is not licensed as an agency by the state in which they operate is a facilitator—that includes agencies licensed in one state which are doing business in another state where they are not licensed. If you are thinking about using an adoption facilitator as your intermediary, know that it is not currently considered a quantifiable professional field and that in some states these businesses are illegal—whether they are located in the state, or advertising and accepting clients from a home base outside that state. Instead, people from all sorts of educational and vocational backgrounds who have a strong interest in adoption issues simply set themselves up as adoption consultants. Consultants are often people who have adopted themselves and who wish to pass on their knowledge and experience about networking to find a baby, about how to write a resume, and about what books and articles will provide useful information to prospective parents. They do not make matches.

These can be very useful services. However, it is important for consumers to understand and be cautious concerning the entrepreneurial nature of such a profession. One cannot take courses to qualify for such a position. There is no degree. There is no licensing. There is no specific form of continuing education. The result of this is that there is even more variation among consultants than there is among social workers and attorneys. Consultants, however, do not run agencies and therefore don’t have lists of qualifying factors for their clients, so the choice to use or not to use a specific consultant is perhaps much clearer and more easily made than the choice to use a particular agency.

Additionally, while shopping for service providers, it is very easy to make the mistaken assumption that a facilitation service or consultation service is a licensed agency. No law says that only licensed agencies can use the word agency in their names or in describing their services in brochures or on websites, and few consultants and facilitators go so far as to state up front that they are not an agency and are working without any licensure.. Many licensed agencies forget to include the fact of their own licensure (and in what state or states) in their marketing materials.

Many people make the deliberate choice to use facilitators and consultants in planning fully independent adoptions, but others do so out of ignorance. Be sure that you know, when choosing any adoption service provider, just what licenses and credentials your chosen business has or does not have, as well as whether or not you even need the service being advertised or offered.

How Businesses Are Organized: For-Profit vs. Not-For Profit

Until quite recently all licensed adoption agencies were also registered with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as not-for-profit (501c3) organizations, though now in the U.S. a few states do provide for the licensing of for-profit organizations as adoption agencies. On the surface, the difference between for-profit and nonprofit agencies may seem to be that donations of money and in-kind services to for-profit organizations are not deductible. But the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit businesses are much more complicated than that, and the differences change perspective. These two types of businesses are simply by nature (and by regulation) operating under differing goals.

  • A nonprofit is driven by its service mission philosophy rather than by the profit motive.
  • A nonprofit serves those who cannot afford to pay full costs.
  • In nonprofit, excess revenue over expenses is used to further the organization’s exempt purpose.
  • A nonprofit likely will remain in the community even if it suffers financial losses.
  • A nonprofit is more accountable to its board and the public than are for-profit organizations.
  • A nonprofit looks for ways to respond to community needs without regard to profit.
  • A nonprofit may not compensate its employees higher than “reasonable” rates.
  • A nonprofit’s board of directors is typically made up of unpaid community leaders motivated by public service.
  • A charity attracts thousands of hours of volunteer time and philanthropic contributions. [i]

Here’s another view. I was inspired by and so adapted the following table, a board training handout developed by Dr. Robert Andringa for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. It compares the roles and goals of boards of for-profit and not-for profit organizations.[ii]

Are We Confused Yet?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell, on the surface, whether a business is a licensed agency or an unlicensed entrepreneur, whether an agency is public or private, whether an organization is for-profit or nonprofit. Public agencies and private agencies both facilitate the domestic adoptions of babies, older children, and children with special needs; although some private agencies do specialize in one of these types of adoption placements (for example the private, nonprofit Aid to Adoption of Special Kids focuses on special needs placements and the private nonprofit Homes for Black Children recruits minority adopters for minority children). Increasingly, the majority of agency-arranged infant placements are occurring through private agencies (which are often able to offer an expectant mother more financial support and/or private medical care as opposed to clinic care) and fewer infant adoptions are handled through public agencies. Facilitators, consultants, coaches, and law firms are almost always set up as for-profit businesses.

To further complicate issues, as some states privatize their social services, many private agencies have taken on contracts with individual states to provide recruitment, fostering, homestudy, parent preparation, post-adoption support, and other services for the families of waiting children who are wards of the state.

Most intercountry adoptions are done through private agencies. While a public agency could do a homestudy for an intercountry adoption, few do, as they are kept busy by their mandate to deal with children born locally who are in need of services. But U.S. licensed private agencies working in intercountry adoptions are not necessarily working with similarly well-trained and accredited business people in the countries from which they place children. Those countries themselves determine whether or not people who make money (often at fees substantially above the norms within their culture) need any training, licensure, or government oversight. Those sending countries alone police local service providers to ensure that they are operating legally and ethically. Each U.S. agency determines whether to hire and train its own in-country staff to work with government agencies, courts and orphanages or foster parents, or whether to use local “freelancers.”

Although all agencies are licensed to offer a full range of services, not all do. There is a small but growing number of private agencies whose primary work is to assess and prepare adoptive parents whose adoptions are arranged independently or internationally. Most of their domestic adoption clients are being matched through a facilitator or a large adoption law practice. Those same services are doing most of the marketing that recruits expectant parents, so the agency does little to no recruitment of birthparent clients. They do, however, provide counseling for the expectant parents recruited by the facilitator or attorney. These homestudy-only agencies also forge relationships with out-of-state agencies which have programs in several foreign countries. The “placing agency” handles everything for the would-be adopter except local preparation and assessment, and post placement follow-up provided by the homestudy-only agency. Depending on the agencies and the relationship, there may or may not be available long term post-placement education and support available

Intercountry Agency Adoption

Choosing service providers for intercountry adoption is becoming increasingly difficult. That’s because there are so many agencies working in intercountry adoption today and most of them work in just a handful of countries while advertising their services nationwide. There is a mixture of for-profit entities and not-for-profit businesses marketing intercountry adoption services, and many agencies are not completely open about how their placements and referrals come to them.

I have some strong recommendations about choosing intercountry placement agencies. After very careful research has helped you to weed out all agencies that do not have squeaky clean reputations among parents who have used them, with the professional organizations with whom they may network (such as JCICS) and with consumer groups such as the Better Business Bureau and their home state’s agency licensing and attorney general’s offices, consider that the fewer processes and bureaucracies between you and your child, the less financially and emotionally risky your adoption. With this idea in mind, the following is recommended.

  • Whenever possible, avoid using businesses which piggyback on, partner with, or umbrella under another agency. Using reputable placement agencies that have established their own programs on the ground--using local employees that they hire, train, pay (fairly), and supervise and/or agencies which build careful ethical relationships directly with local agencies or orphanages in the countries in which they work will eliminate several layers of emotional and financial risk
  • The fewer layers that must be gone through between you and your child, the less risky your process. When possible use the same agency for both homestudy and placement.
  • Never use an agency which suggests that you lie by omission or commission on an application or to a foreign court. Run, don’t walk, from a program which suggests that you identify yourself as a client of an agency other than theirs.
  • The cultures and layers of some countries take for granted and encourage bribes and payoffs. Consider carefully whether you are willing to participate in a system which violates your own personal principles. Someday you may be called upon to explain this to your child.

Successful adoption is to a large extent dependent on finding the right resources to support a growing family. Your experience with other professionals in other fields has no doubt demonstrated for you that not all professionals are good at what they do—despite education and training, despite fulfilling licensing or specialization requirements. It is important that you, as prospective adoptive parents, understand and take hold of your power and responsibility if you choose this path to parenthood.


[i] Nelson, Betty “For-Proft vs Nonprofit” for Greater Knoxville SCORE http://www.scoreknox.org/library/versus.htm

[ii] Andringa, Robert, Ph.D. “Profit vs Nonprofit Boards” http://www.cccu.org/resourcecenter/resID.1937,parentCatID.162/rc_detail.asp

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