Choosing an adoption agency is one of the first decisions a hopeful adoptive parent will make, and often it is also one of the most difficult ones.

The choices can seem overwhelming, with each agency operating much differently from the next. Infant adoption in America is vastly underregulated, and state laws vary. Far from the charitable process that some might imagine it to be, domestic infant adoption has become big business, generating millions of dollars in profit each year.

In light of this, how can adoptive parents ensure their process is an ethical one?

1. If the agency is a non-profit, look up the organization’s Form 990, or annual tax form.
Adoption agencies either operate as a for-profit company or non-profit organization. One is not inherently better than the other – “non-profit” does not mean the agency does not make a profit (it has to in order to stay in business!), it only means that their profit does not benefit any shareholder or individual but remains in the organization to further fund its mission.

A non-profit is held to a higher standard of financial transparency and their tax Form 990 is available to the public. Websites such as Guidestar.org will allow you to create a free account and view a PDF of this document. A Form 990 will tell you things like how much the organization has spent in advertising and how much its top employees and directors are compensated. If you are unable to find this form online, you have a right to contact the organization and request a copy.

2. Ask how the agency handles the rights of biological fathers.
Biological fathers have rights, and barring any extreme or unusual circumstances, I believe a known father should always be notified of both the pregnancy and adoption plan (including what action they need to take if they do not consent). Because state laws vary, sometimes an expectant mother is allowed by the agency to withhold the name of a known father. Even when this is legal, it is almost always not ethical (again, barring extreme circumstances).

Ask the agency how they ensure the rights of biological fathers are honored and properly terminated. If an expectant mother is not sure who the father is, for example, do they take any steps to ensure this is the case? The purpose here is twofold – first so as not to jeopardize your adoption situation, but also so you can look your child in the eye one day and be able to tell them that their adoption process was done ethically.

3. Read the section of the agency’s website meant for expectant mothers.
In my time researching adoption agencies, I spent plenty of time reading information meant for potential adoptive families – but never did it occur to me to read what they were saying to expectant moms. If an agency’s website has separate navigation for adoptive parents and “birth parents,” closely read both.

Some actual phrases I’ve read on agency websites include, “You don’t need to sacrifice your youth by parenting this baby.” “Adoption is the loving, brave choice.” “We pay rent and utilities!” These are mere examples of language meant to communicate that adoption is always the best solution for an unexpected pregnancy or (often temporary) financial concern.

In contrast, I would rather see things like, “Should you explore adoption and realize it is not right for you, we will help guide you to the necessary resources to assist with your parenting plan.” “Our relationship isn’t over once you have your baby.” “Parenting a child may seem overwhelming, but it’s a choice to consider.”

4. Be on alert for potentially coercive actions.
Coercion in adoption can be overt or subtle, and involves anything that (intentionally or unintentionally) places pressure or manipulates a parent to place their child for adoption.

Even calling a woman a “birth mother” prior to placement can apply subtle pressure by prematurely assuming her decision to place. Before placement she is an expectant mother making an adoption plan that she may or may not continue with.

Specific examples are varied. A few things to consider are how the agency handles the payment of living expenses, often called “birth mother expenses.” Ask the agency about the timing of such payment. Are vendors paid on behalf of the expectant mom, or is cash given to her directly? What sort of accounting is provided when funds are distributed? Is any portion of living expenses “reimbursed” to her after consent is signed (essentially paying her for placing)?

Ask the agency if they have expectant mothers sign something promising to repay anything if they decide to parent. You might be surprised how many agencies do this as a normal practice. A hopeful adoptive family paying living expenses for an expectant mom should be done as a gift and nothing else, with absolutely nothing expected in return. If you cannot do this, then do not pay them. If a mother believes that she will be on the hook for potentially thousands of dollars in expenses if she has a change of heart and decides to parent, that is extremely unethical and you should find another agency.

While not an exhaustive list, I hope that these are practical suggestions that inform your search for an appropriate agency (or agencies) to work with for your family’s adoption. In closing, here is a quotation from an online article written by adoptive mother Leah Campbell that I believe summarizes the overarching spirit hopeful adoptive families should always bear in mind:

“With adoption, there is always loss. And barring concerns of true neglect or abuse, a biological family who wants to raise their child should be supported in doing so; not coerced, guilted, and forced into placement through legal measures they don’t have the means to combat. Adoption should always be about finding a home for children who need them; not about supplying babies for families who want them.”