During a private domestic adoption (unlike when adopting a child from foster care), the adoptive parents are expected to pay the variety of expenses that arise. These might include agency fees, legal expenses, medical bills, and counseling.
In domestic infant adoption, when a pregnant woman is making an adoption plan for her unborn child, the hopeful adoptive parents will often pay certain expenses on behalf of the pregnant mother. These so-called “birth mother expenses” (I say “so-called” because a woman is not a birth mother until after placement) could include rent, utilities, maternity clothing, transportation, and food. Almost all states have laws to regulate these sort of expenses in some way, but these regulations vary greatly from state to state.
Paying living expenses for expectant moms is controversial in the adoption community, and for good reason.
Hopeful adoptive parents need to discuss their budget and convictions in this regard ahead of time, before they’ve received an adoption match, when emotions are heavy. Here are a few things to consider about the ethics of paying birth mother expenses:
1. How is your agency or attorney managing the payment of birth mother expenses? Some time ago I was put in touch with an adoption agency near my hometown who was searching for a caseworker for expectant moms in my area. After applying and speaking with the director, I felt it would be a good fit and was excited for the opportunity. I was soon given contact information for an expectant mom to meet with and provided a packet of paperwork to go over with her in person.
Included in the packet was a “contract” stipulating that should she not go through with her adoption plan and instead end up choosing to parent, she would be required to repay any living expenses provided her during this time and the cost of my time working with her. Her adoption plan was not legally binding and she would have every right to change her mind—but at great financial expense.
I spoke with the agency director about my objection to this agreement and quickly ended our professional relationship.
Hopeful adoptive parents should not pay a cent in birth mother expenses unless they consider it a gift with zero expectations or strings attached. If that cannot be done, then expenses should not be paid.
Ask your adoption agency or attorney if they communicate an expectation to repay expenses upon a genuine change of heart to expectant mothers. If they do, the ethical thing to do is not pay those expenses—or better yet, find a different professional.
2. Will this be helpful for the long term? Many women make their adoption plan in crisis, are supported financially during their pregnancy, then are back in crisis afterwards. Hopeful adoptive parents paying rent and utilities, simply because it is allowed, is not a sustainable solution. Women and families will need resources after the adoption is complete. How are they being provided with those?
There are certainly unique situations and no one-size-fits-all solution. It absolutely makes logical sense to alleviate the financial burden of anything directly related to pregnancy, delivery, and the adoption itself. But if you are paying rent for the duration of the pregnancy and 6 weeks afterward, what happens when that time runs out?
3. Will this create pressure of expectation to place? A popular adoption attorney regularly sends emails to his mailing list with potential adoption situations, and I signed up out of sheer curiosity. Of the perhaps ten or more situations I have received, the great majority of them involved birth mother living expenses in amounts exceeding $10,000 (twice the amount of the legal limit in that state, and judges routinely approve its increase). If you read the fine print, it says “the majority of expenses will be reimbursed post-placement.”
Do not be fooled—this means that women only receive “the majority” of that money if they place. When I replied requesting clarification, it was confirmed that yes, upon executing consent a woman will receive a check for the remainder of the funds. No consent, no money. While somehow legal, this is wildly unethical, and adoptive parents should not participate in this sort of transaction for a child.
Hopeful adoptive parents should consider how their payment of such living expenses might (even unintentionally) create pressure on a woman to follow through with her adoption plan despite having second thoughts. The decision to place is permanent, with lifelong consequences for everyone involved, and it should only be done freely and without coercion. Many birth mothers in online adoption communities have said that this expectation, while usually subtle, was felt.
Every adoption situation is unique, which is why hopeful adoptive parents need to be discerning in how they apply ethics to their unique circumstance.