Scrutinizing Would-be Parents

Originally Appeared in Washington Blade

Lev, A.I. (2004) Homestudies: A Primer in Surviving the Adoption Test
And Baby Magazine, April/May.

Homestudies are to adoptions like homework is to school; you can’t get through school without doing your homework, and you can’t complete an adoption without having a homestudy. The value of a homestudy is rarely evident while you are doing it, but like homework, you sometimes realize, in the end, that surviving the process has made you more competent and wiser than you were at the beginning.

For better or worse, homestudies are an indispensable part of any adoption process. Homestudies are clinical evaluations that involve anywhere from one to three long visits with a social worker with at least one of these visits taking place in your home. The purpose of a homestudy is to evaluate whether your family and home will be a safe and healthy environment in which to place a child. The actual regulations for the homestudy vary from state to state and agency to agency. According to a recent study, 60% of adoption agencies surveyed currently work with LGBT families.

Cliff Schlosser and Conio Loretto from Glen Spey, New York, were leery in beginning their adoption process because of the stories they had “heard about home safety checks, grueling separate interviews, ‘white glove’ tests, and personality tests.” As soon as the word adoption is spoken, people start recounting horror stories about agencies that stole money, or disrupted adoptions that left families broken hearted. However, over 100,000 adoptions are finalized each year in the U.S. and it is doubtful that most of these are horror stories. The reality is that adoption is not unlike pregnancy and birthing children — it can be expensive and prolonged and there are sometimes tragic outcomes. However, the end result more commonly is a healthy happy child being placed with a loving family.

Adoption is the process of taking a child into one’s family through legal means and raising this child as one’s own. The mythology about how hard the adoption process can be does an injustice to prospective adoptive parents. Nearly, 100 million Americans have adoption within their immediate families — nearly 1 out of 3 families!

Unlike birthing a child, adoption requires — requires, not just involves — the investigation and scrutiny of outside authorities. It is hard to be free of anxiety when you are being judged on your ability to be a parent. As one mother of a now five-year old child adopted from Russia said, “The whole process was generally unnerving because of the “under the microscope” element, and the idea that so much was riding on it.”

Homestudies involve extensive documentation. First of all, you will need to provide proof or your identification and assets, as well as fill out considerable amounts of paperwork about your history and childhood. You will need to provide copies of your birth certificate, marriage and divorce paperwork, proof of income, savings, investments, mortgages, and tax information. Additionally, there is a criminal background check including fingerprinting to prove that you have never been found guilty of child abuse or neglect. Your will need a physician’s statement that you are in good health and references from 3-5 people. As one woman said, ” It was excessively long and time consuming to prepare. The legal process required many duplicates of original documents and some seemed ridiculous – It was very awkward to ask my employer for a letter stating my future job stability.”

Finally, you will need an extraordinary memory and the ability to reiterate your entire childhood history, including your grandparent’s discipline strategies, and the address of every home you’ve ever lived in. You will be asked about your parenting philosophy and your future childcare arrangements.

Homestudies often feel invasive, and are designed to be. You are, after all, being examined for your worth as a prospective parent, a procedure that is, obviously, not required of families who birth children. One woman joked that if the social worker had to approve a homestudy for her family of origin, they would not have passed. She shared a room growing up with five siblings in a two-bedroom apartment. Most social workers are not, however, looking to disqualify potential adoptive parents; their job is to advocate for you.

Nonetheless, we worry about whether we will be rejected for being bisexual, or for being single, or for having been adopted ourselves. As Nadya Lawson, JJ’s mom, says, “The hardest thing for me was overcoming the sense that I was starting out at a deficit — that I had to prove myself worthy of being a parent because I was defective. Even though I understood the reason for it — to protect children who have been harmed already from future harm — I resent the fact that I had to work so hard to prove myself.”

The first decision you must make in preparing for an adoption involves deciding whether you are interested in domestic or international adoption. Domestic adoption means that the children needing homes are born and living in the United States and are available for adoption through a public agency or foster program, or a private agency or attorney in the U.S. Children are available for adoption from birth through adolescence. The cost of private agency adoptions can range from $5,000 to approximately $30,000.

Domestically adopting a child from a public agency is financially feasible for almost every family. In addition, the state will often pay a stipend to help support a special-needs child and the homestudy is included as part of your participation in the program. Depending on the state in which you live, the Department of Social Services offers educational and training programs for prospective foster and adoptive parents called The MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting Program) or PATH (Parents as Tender Healers) Programs. Through a series of meeting, these programs are designed to help you make informed decisions about your ability and readiness to adopt.

In some states you can hire an independent social worker to complete a homestudy for approximately $500 to $2000, and the homestudy can then be used with an agency of your choice. Depending on the laws of each state, “adoption facilitators” can help find and match children to prospective parents. It is possible when adopting domestically to arrange an “open” adoption, meaning that the child will have information, and/or contact with their birthparents, and therefore access to medical information.

International adoption means that the child is born in another country and becomes available for adoption by families in the United States; nearly 20,000 children were adopted from other countries in 2002. International adoptions rarely cost less than $10,000 and can be as high as $50,000. International adoptions are virtually always “closed adoptions” permanently suspending contact with birth parents; this can also serve to protect the adoptive family for complications in the adoption process.

Currently, there are no countries that will knowingly place a child with a lesbian or gay family; lesbian and gay people must apply as a single person. It is important to note that the effort of being closeted throughout the process can be extremely stressful for some families. Leslie and Marty, parents of a child born in another country, said, “The hardest part of the homestudy process was that we could not be open about our family. We are out in every aspect of our lives — it was challenging finding ways to explain our lives and yet not jeopardize our adoption.”

This also places social workers and agencies who work with LGBT families in a complex position advocating for our families. One single lesbian was told that if she didn’t bring up her sexual orientation, nobody would ask, but if the agency knew they would have to report it. She said, “I was also nervous that the social worker would ask a question that would require me either to lie or to come out to her.” This obviously creates stress for both the social worker and the prospective parent, and it is preferably to work with agencies and social workers with whom you can be out and open with about your family.

The next step is finding a social worker, agency, facilitator or attorney best suited to your purposes. Choose who you will work with carefully, and do not be afraid to ask questions about their placement history, costs, and the time it will take to place a child. Always, carefully examine an agency’s history of successful placements as well as pending legal problems. Make sure that the adoption experts you chose to work with are comfortable with LGBT families and will advocate for you. You should not have to educate them about gay issues; they should have experience working with and placing children with LGBT people.

Some agencies are willing to do the homestudy, but may not ever place an actual child in your family as Chris Harris from Nashville, Tennessee found out. He worked with an agency for over a year that stated they were comfortable working with gay families, but continued to stall the paperwork process. Chris eventually adopted his daughter Maria through another agency. He says, “I would have rather been rejected completely and quickly rather than being kept in limbo for over a year.”

Esther, single mother of adopted twin boys, suggests that the most important thing to look for in an agency or social worker is their references. She says, “Talk with others who have used them, and get personal feedback.”

Dr. Dean Kirschner, a Maryland-based Clinical Social Worker, Psychologist and adopted dad, specializes in adoption and has completed over 370 homestudies. Dr. Kirschner suggests that you pay attention to the feeling you get when you first meet a social worker. “Does the social worker talk to both of you? Does the social worker ask questions about your relationship i.e., commitment ceremonies, in a welcoming or judgmental way?”

Dr. Kirschner asks questions about extended family and whether a couple shares finances because he is trying to ascertain the stability and health of the family. “If lesbian and gay couples are keeping their relationship a secret, then the child needs to keep the secret too.” He thoughtful asks the question, “Does this mean that adoption will become another secret in the family?” Although becoming parents may be a very mainstream decision, it will paradoxically force us to be very out, perhaps more out than we’ve ever been.

Starting out on the adoption journey is often confusing; we may have misinformation about the process, for instance, Barbara Gross thought she had to have a homestudy before she could begin working with an agency. Other times the experts may be misinformed. Kathy and Lisa Kelly wanted to be out in their homestudy but their social worker refused, hoping the document could be used in more conservative states. “The end result is a homestudy that doesn’t even make sense since it says we are roommates, but in other places it is clear that we are in a relationship.” Their social worker was correct that being out might limit their adoption options, however she might not have realized that sometimes birthparents are specifically looking for lesbian and gay couples.

Often we are needlessly on the defensive assuming that our being gay will automatically disqualify us. The Knott family from Washington, D.C. was intimidated about having to hide gay-related books and photos but found the visit to be relaxed and the social worker supportive. John and Ed Chaplain of Plano, Texas, were waiting for some kind of “official approval” after meeting with the social worker. They were surprised when the completed, and supportive, homestudy arrived in the mail. They learned through adopting Jack that “instead of hurdles to jump, we actually had positive encounters; we met incredibly generous and positive people who encouraged us and championed us on.”

Indeed many people baked bread before the home visit to make the house smell “homey,” a practice which does little to convince social workers of your parenting ability, although your enthusiasm and attention to detail might impress them. Sarah Dowling and her partner, of Freeport Maine, adopted Maya from Vietnam, and coined the term, “home study clean,” –“a state” she jokes, “we have not managed since.”

Some people have gone so far to “hide” a pet, or send them to a friend’s house for the day; this might backfire if the social worker notices the dog’s leash or the cat fur and then wonders what else you are hiding. A social worker’s concern about your 15 large dogs is an opportunity to discuss the situation, not something that automatically disqualifies you. Even legal problems, or a mental or physical health difficulty that is receiving treatment will not necessarily prevent you from adopting, although it may prolong the process.

Parent-wannabee’s are often excessively concerned about what may be at worst an expensive, extensive, and exhausting bureaucratic process. At best, however, the experience of completing a homestudy has been enlightening and useful for many people. Daniel Rosenberg from Germantown, Maryland, said, “I went into the process with a positive outlook and the advantage of a Masters in child development. Yet, I still learned much about the many different kinds of children looking for a home. It’s important to realize that regardless of your expectations, you never know what you’ll learn when the reality of the adoption world becomes your own.

Often the things you walk into the homestudy being concerned about (rejection because of sexual orientation or a small apartment) are not the most significant issues of concern for your social worker. Your social worker will be concerned about the communication within your relationship, your childhood history of physical or sexual abuse, your current drinking habits, and your values about discipline. Cliff Schlosser and Conio Loretto said, “The most challenging part of the homestudy process also proved to be the most rewarding. We had to answer many questions that were not always easy. What if we had children and our relationship dissolved? What if one of us was to pass away? These questions forced us to look deeply at our relationship and at ourselves… our philosophies and beliefs.” One mom said, “The questions we were asked really got us to think about the way we communicate and resolve problems. It helped us verbalize our issues in a neutral unbiased setting before the child arrived.”

Homestudies involve an evaluation of your upbringing and family of origin. This can be a frightening process, as it was for Emily, who was concerned that her dysfunctional childhood might bias the social worker into thinking she would be a bad parent. Lois, who lives in Michigan with her seven children, says, “The adoption homestudy can bring up wounds that may not have healed and demands that you think about how you will prevent those wounds from happening again in the future.”

Even for those of us who had happy childhoods, and particularly if we’ve never been in therapy ourselves, it can be a frightening process to look at our own childhoods. Brian Frank and Steven Bush, prospective parents in Albany, New York said, “Looking at childhood issues through the lens of becoming a parent means confronting them in a whole new light. If you’ve never confronted family dynamics and how they are playing out in your own life and relationships, it can be a difficult and challenging process.”

By far the most difficult questions to examine are what kinds of children we are able to parent. Many of us initially feel we can open our home to any child, regardless of race, age or physical ability, but a deeper look may prove that raising a child with a history of abuse or neglect, or with significant health needs, requires more daily care than we can accommodate.

Transracial adoptions are now 15% of all adoptions and due to the complexities of racism, many of the children in need of adoption are children of color. For LGBT people of color this is a wonderful opportunity to expand your families but there are more children of color needing homes than are available within their own cultures.

Social workers are, or should be, asking very challenging questions about racial values and philosophy. Johanna Levy, said, “I was at first shocked by the questions the social worker asked. I thought ‘What a racist!’ But then I realized she was trying to discuss challenging issues that my children might face.” White people are sometimes ignorant about the realities of racism and assume that if they love their children deeply and raise them without prejudice, it will be enough to raise healthy children. However, it is an emotional handicap for a child of color living within a racist society to lack a positive sense of their racial identity and tools to cope with and address racial issues in their lives. Once a child is adopted trans-racially, it is not only the child who is living within a different culture, but the parents must also adopt the child’s culture.

Whether you are adopting domestically or internationally, in an open or closed adoption, remember that adoptive children always have a history that we do not, cannot, share with them. Adopted children arrive with the legacy of their birth histories. Adoption expert, Michael Colberg, J.D., C.S.W., has said, “Being adopted is not an event, but an ongoing process.” A good homestudy will encourage thoughtful introspection on many lifelong issues.

When a homestudy is done well, you should learn as much about yourself as your social worker learned about you. As one woman said, “The most important thing I learned is that I would walk through fire for my kids.”

Finally, a successful adoption depends on YOUR proactive advocacy; be the “squeaky wheel.” Surf the web, read adoption books, and join adoption list-serves. Adoption can be a frustrating bureaucratic process involving lost paperwork and professionals with a “hurry up and wait” attitude. Nonetheless, be assured that adoption is a marvelous way to build a family, and there is no shortage of children patiently awaiting your persistence.

Arlene Istar Lev CSW-R, CASAC is an adoptive mother and a social worker, who has been on both sides of the homestudy process. She provides homestudy evaluations for clients, and has survived three homestudies within her own family. She can be reached through 321 Washington Ave. Albany, NY, 12206; 518-438-2222