If you’re looking into adoption for the first time, the process might feel overwhelming. Because adoption is a long journey and involves many steps, you’ll want to find the right people to help you find your way. You’ll want to pick the best program for your family. You’ll want to be sure you follow the regulations for your state. But before we get into the details of adoption, let’s answer a basic question first: How does adoption work?

The first step is to understand what adoption is. Adoption is a highly regulated process where birth parents choose to place a child for adoption and give up their parental rights. Once birth parents relinquish their rights, then the child becomes available for adoption. At that point, an adoptive family can become the legal parents for the child. The adoption process varies according to the state you live in. If you are adopting from another country, you also must abide by your child’s birth country laws.

The next step is deciding what type of adoption you will pursue: international, domestic, or foster adoption. Domestic adoption is the process of adopting an infant from the United States and involves being selected by a birth parent, who chooses you as the child’s adoptive family once she gives up her parental rights. Foster adoption involves adopting a child or teen out of the foster care system once the biological parent’s rights have been relinquished. International adoption involves adopting a child overseas, who is typically in an orphanage or foster care. Before beginning, you will be required to choose the type of adoption program you want to pursue.

Many personal factors go into deciding which adoption program is right for you. The qualifications for each type can vary, as well as the cost, timing, and what kind of child you are open to adopting. It can be helpful to talk with other adoptive parents about their adoption experience, as well as look through the information about domestic, international, and foster adoption. Finding out the challenges of each type of program will give you a better idea of what to prepare for and help you to understand the step-by-step process from start to finish.

How Does Adoption Work with an Agency or Attorney?

You will also need to decide whether you will use an adoption agency or adoption attorney. To make your selection, meet with some recommended agencies or lawyers beforehand and ask questions to see what services they provide. Many agencies have an informational meeting you can attend so you can get an overview of the process and ask questions regarding the types of adoptions they do. You may initially feel drawn to one program, but then realize that the process is not right for your family. Do your homework. Find out all you can. Then go with the best program for your family.

Be sure to check that your agency is licensed for the type of adoption you are interested in since not all agencies work with every type. Agencies generally provide more services than attorneys and walk you through the process step-by-step with adoption professionals. It may be helpful to get recommendations from adoptive parents to find adoption professionals.

You will also need a caseworker to do a home study. Often the caseworker is provided by the adoption agency, but in some cases, you will need to use a caseworker who is not part of your agency. If you go with an attorney, you will need to find your own caseworker.

Another aspect of adoption is meeting your state’s qualifications for adoption. These usually require you to be of a specific age and provide a safe home for a child. International adoption will also be affected by the birth country’s requirements. For instance, some countries require you to be of a specific age or to be married. Agencies sometimes have their own requirements, also, to the state and country requirements. Attorneys, on the other hand, typically follow the state’s requirements for adoption. If you go with an agency, you will still need an attorney to file your adoption petition in your state and finalize the adoption in court. Finding out these requirements ahead of time will help you determine which program is the best match for you.

How Does Adoption Work with a Home Study?

A home study is a thorough written report detailing your family’s history, background, employment, finances, health, and home. Although the home study is ultimately written by your caseworker, you will help prepare the information for the home study by completing the documents the caseworker provides. The caseworker will also interview each family member and visit your home to ensure that it has room for a child and meets all safety standards.

You will most likely need a criminal background check for the home study, which usually includes a fingerprint test and background checks for child abuse and neglect, as well as other crimes. Other requirements may include a health history from your doctor and reference letters from friends.

How Does Adoption Work when Adopting a Baby in the U.S.?

The process for each type of adoption is unique. Adopting a baby in the U.S. is also known as private domestic adoption. After you complete your home study, you will begin waiting for a match with birth parents. Some agencies work directly with birth mothers and will ask you to prepare a profile to show the expectant mothers. If you’re working with an attorney, you will need to find your own birth parents.

During this time, you may want to let friends and family know you are adopting. Word of mouth can be an important way of connecting with an expectant birth mom who is considering adoption. Our online profile is also a great way to increase your chances of being seen by a birth parent. Some people will hire an adoption consultant to help them find birth parents. Not all states allow you to use adoption consultants, so check your state regulations before signing with a consultant.

As you’re waiting for the baby, you’ll want to discuss whether you are comfortable with an open adoption plan. Open adoption means your child will have contact with their biological parents (one or both) after the baby is born. Sometimes this contact involves pictures and letters only and other times it involves visits. If you’re concerned about open adoption and how it affects your family, it’s good to explore the benefits and challenges of open adoption before deciding.

Keep in mind that many birth parents prefer an open adoption as it gives them the chance to see their child’s development and maintain a relationship with them. Setting your expectations beforehand regarding open adoption and discussing them with the birth parents is an important part of your emerging relationship. It’s also good to be realistic as to what you’re able to handle in an open adoption. Communicating this ahead of time will help you to avoid hurt feelings on both sides later.

Parental Rights

After the baby is born, a birth mother will need to decide whether she will give up her rights as a parent. If she decides to give up her parental rights, we call this consenting to an adoption. Becoming matched with a birth mother is not a guarantee that your adoption will go through. Since birth mothers cannot sign consent forms until after the baby is born, they can change their minds at any point before consent forms are signed.

Once a birth mother signs the consent forms, a child can be placed with the adoptive parents. State laws vary as to when this can happen and some states do allow a period of time during which a birth mother can change her mind.

Also, many states have a putative father registry, which allows men who are the father of a child out of wedlock to claim paternity and be notified of adoption proceedings. It’s important to get consent from both birth parents before the adoption can take place. Contact your adoption professional to find out more details about parental rights and how that can affect adoption in your state.

Once consent forms have been signed, the baby will be placed in your care. Your lawyer will file a petition to adopt, which will lead to your adoption finalization in court. Your adoption professional will walk you through the process of post-placement visits and steps for finalization.

If you are adopting an infant outside of your state, you will need to carefully follow Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children, or ICPC, guidelines to receive permission to bring your child into your state.

How Does Adoption Work when It Comes to Foster Care?

A foster home provides temporary care for children who’ve been taken out of their biological family’s home as a result of abuse, neglect, or unsafe living conditions. Although the goal of foster care is reunification with parents, in some cases, parents have their rights relinquished. At that point, a child becomes available for adoption and may be adopted by their foster family.

If you’re interested in foster adoption, you will begin with a home study first and will also be required to complete pre-service training classes for foster care and a criminal background check. Your caseworker will let you know what requirements must be met to adopt from foster care. Children from foster care range in age, typically from toddler to teenager, and may be part of a sibling group. Because some children have trauma from abuse, neglect, or unsafe living circumstances, it’s important to get the help and support of others to work through these issues as you become a family.

Children in foster care whose parents have already relinquished their rights are known as waiting for children. These waiting children are available for adoption through your state’s foster care system or our online photo listings. Waiting children may be older, have special needs, or be part of a sibling group. Check your state’s Department of Human Services to find out more about waiting children in your state.

How Does Adoption Work with an Overseas Adoption?

International adoption, also known as overseas adoption, requires a home study to begin the adoption process. Due to the Universal Accreditation Act, your agency needs to be licensed to perform adoptions in your child’s birth country. Check with your adoption agency to find out about their licensing requirements. Once your home study is complete, your adoption agency will put together your dossier, which is a collection of documents that will be sent to your child’s birth country for approval. You will also need to complete paperwork in the U.S., including your eligibility for intercountry adoption, which confirms your eligibility to adopt from your child’s birth country.

Once your dossier is sent overseas, you will wait for a referral for your child. Every country has a different timeline regarding how long this takes. Some countries require that you travel to your child’s country and others may even require a residency of a specific number of weeks. These travel expenses are extra fees on top of the agency fees. International adoptions are often finalized in your child’s birth country. When you return, you will want to find out the next steps for getting your child a birth certificate and re-finalizing in your home state.

Your Adoption Network

Each adoption process is a unique adventure. When you meet families who have adopted, you will find many similarities between your adoption and theirs and yet every child’s story is different.

It’s important to get connected to other adoptive families so you can have the support you need as you go through your adoption and raise your children. One way to get support is to join our parent forums where you can ask questions and support other families going through the process.

You may have other questions regarding the adoption process not covered here. For instance, you might be wondering, “How does adoption work when I’m a stepparent? How does adoption work when I’m single? How does adoption work when I’m adopting out of state?”

Check our resource page for more adoption articles that will answer your questions and guide you on your adoption journey.


Do you feel there is a hole in your heart that can only be filled by a child? We’ve helped complete 32,000+ adoptions. We would love to help you through your adoption journey. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.