Once you've decided to adopt, a process called the home study is the next step. A home study is a required step for any family wanting to adopt any child. It is used not only for private and public adoptions, but also for foster care, step-parent adoptions, kinship adoptions (when grandparents or other family members are raising a child), second parent adoption following a surrogate birth or sperm donation, and in some states, even frozen embryo transfers require a home study.
What is a home study?
The home study is a document that reflects your social worker's assessment and approval of you as an adoptive family, gathered from documents you've submitted, meetings with your worker, and personal references. It is also a vital tool in preparing your growing family for the questions and realities ahead: race, identity, belonging, grief, curiosity about birth family, answering nosy questions from strangers and teaching your child how to respond to racial bias are some of the common themes addressed during this process.
To accomplish this, you need an experienced, licensed social worker who can gently walk you through the topics you'd rather avoid, alert you to issues you may not even be aware of, and be your cheerleader through the preparation and placement process. To build that type of relationship, gay applicants should carefully screen their home study provider for inclusiveness and support of same-sex headed households or gay single parents.
Find an LGBTQ-friendly agency
There are still families in many parts of the country who struggle to find LGBTQ-affirming and inclusive practices; sometimes families find themselves working with an agency or social worker who is overtly homophobic or simply ignorant of how to appropriately address the unique aspects of being same-sex parents or a single gay parent. When contacting an agency, ask for references and inquire if the organization has experience and success working with the LGBTQ community. For example, The Human Rights Council recently introduced the "All Children – All Families" project, helping those agencies with a commitment to LGBTQ parents stand out in the adoption field.
Be an Active Participant
Once you have identified your home study provider, be prepared to be an active participant! In addition to the documents you will collect, you will be asked to read articles and books, take parent preparation classes at your agency or online, revisit your expectations, and openly discuss your upbringing, relationships, medical, mental health or legal history, employment, hobbies, interests, experience with children at various developmental stages, and even your plans for disciplining your future child. An experienced adoption professional will value this information to inform her or his practice, guide you through any rough patches, and ultimately write a 10- to 12-page document outlining everything she or he has learned about your family. The actual home study document must comply with local, state, federal, and in some cases, international document guidelines. This means your social worker may need to schedule additional visits, training hours, or include very detailed information about certain aspects of your life. It is common for families to feel this process is intrusive and takes too long, which is completely understandable. However, it can be helpful to remember that social workers are not in a position to bypass the legal requirements, nor would they want to, as these regulations are in place to protect the interests of children. Understanding these requirements can be a helpful tool. Most states have their adoption requirements posted for public access; agencies can provide these to families as well.
Through email, office meetings and home visits, you and your social worker will be creating a relationship that can carry you through this adoption. It can also be a post-adoption resource for you and your future child. You will be communicating with your social worker frequently over the three- to five-month time span that it takes to complete most home studies. While it's understandably anxiety-provoking to have a social worker in your home, it's important to keep in mind that adoption social workers should be approaching families from a "strength-based" perspective, meaning they look first for the strengths any family brings to the table, identify areas of growth, and provide education to make sure that your skills and expectations match what your child will need. They are in your home to make sure your child will be in a safe space, to get an idea of what life in your family will be like, and to simply talk in the comfort of your home about anything on your mind as you move forward. They are not there to judge the cleanliness of your closets, your particular decorating style, or how well you vacuum under the bed!
What Would Disqualify You
That being said, families still want to know what would prevent them from being approved for a home study. These issues include a criminal history of abuse or violence, especially against children, an untreated and severe mental illness, financial resources that place families below the federal poverty line, active and untreated use of illegal drugs, or a medical diagnosis that severely impacts the applicants' ability to raise a child to adulthood. In some cases, there may be presenting issues that will not disqualify applicants but may require more discovery and assessment. Examples of this may include a non-violent arrest history (such as DUIs), past mental health or medical history, or what is generally referred to as "readiness", meaning your social worker may have concerns about your expectations, ability to address issues of race or culture with your child, needing more preparation for an open adoption or parenting an older child, needing to make specific changes or upgrades to the home, or generally needing more time to be ready for adoption. These additional themes may add time to your home study, but it's important to remember these rarely occur, and when they do, your social worker only has your future child's best interest in mind. While adoptive parents are often functioning in the "here and now," your social worker's job is to think broadly and long term; she or he is thinking about your future child's needs now, through the teen years, and beyond. There are many adoptee voices in our community that taught all of us we must think long term, and a good social worker will do that for you and your family.
Once you have started your home study, the best thing you can do is approach the entire process with an open heart, patience, flexibility, and the knowledge that in the end (whenever that may be), you will be a parent!
Stella Gilgur-Cook was the director of the Modern Family Center at Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children in New York City.