Once you have arranged to work with an international adoption agency, the agency will assign you a licensed social worker to begin your home study. A home study is required for all international adoptions and is valid for one year from the date it is approved. (If a year passes and you have not completed your adoption, your home study must be updated.)
Few things about the adoption process make prospective parents more nervous than the idea of the home study. People spend days in a cleaning frenzy, convinced they will never become adoptive parents if the social worker finds so much as one dust mote. Prior to our home study, we spent an exhausting weekend repainting our basement and the inside of our garage a cheery shade of sunshine yellow. Well, guess what? Our social worker never visited our basement or our garage– not even for a second!
What is a Home Study All About?
Basically, a home study involves assessment and education. The social worker, on behalf of the adoption agency, wants to make sure of two things:
- You are suited to be an adoptive parent, and
- you have an appropriate place to raise a child.
This doesn’t mean that you have to transform into Ward and June Cleaver overnight. (If you did, you’d probably scare the daylights out of your social worker!) The home study lets the adoption agency get to know you while you learn more about the adoption process. The entire home study process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on how quickly the meetings with your social worker can be arranged and how quickly you can gather all the necessary information.
What Happens During a Home Study?
During a home study, you will meet with your social worker several times. A home study usually includes separate interviews for you and your spouse in the social worker’s office. At least one meeting with the social worker happens in your home– the dreaded home visit. The home visit gives the social worker a chance to see where your child will be living. (It’s important to remember that everyone living in your home will be interviewed for your home study.)
Other basic ingredients of a home study include:
- Family financial history;
- Criminal background check;
- Complete physical exam;
- Written references.
Your social worker will explore the following topics during your discussions:
- The family background of you and your spouse;
- Your approach to parenting and discipline;
- Marital and other relationships;
- Any divorces in your past;
- Infertility (if applicable); and
- Type of child/children you wish to adopt and why.
Forms, Forms, Forms
During your first meeting with your social worker, you will receive a huge bundle of forms to fill out. Included in this stack of stuff will be the I-600A and I-600 forms from the USCIS (formerly known as the BCIS, which was formerly known as the INS), forms for personal and financial disclosures, and fingerprint cards. Try not to be overwhelmed! My first reaction to seeing this mountain of paperwork was to stuff it all back in the envelope it came in and ignore it for a week– a bad idea, since no one was going to come in and fill out those papers for me. There are lots of forms to complete (and some of them seem redundant!), but you can do it. Take a nice, deep breath and go forward one step at a time. Remember that this path will lead to your child!
Ask your social worker to go through everything with you and explain the purpose of each and every form. Bring a notebook along to your meetings with the social worker so you can take notes. Your social worker will even help you complete the more confusing forms.
Below are lists of the documents you will need to gather so your social worker can complete your home study.
If you already have multiple certified copies of birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, well, good for you! Most of us don’t have multiple certified copies of everything laying around the house. Here’s a time-saving idea: To make your home study process go faster, start gathering these documents before you decide which country you want to adopt from and before you choose an adoption agency to work with. You are going to need these documents anyway, so you’ll be that much ahead of the game when the social worker asks you for them.
The following are the documents you’ll need. The number of copies of each document that you will need varies according to which country you adopt from. Ask your social worker for advice on how many certified copies to obtain. Keep in mind that the state and/or country requirements will vary, so your list of documents may look a little different from the list below.
- Certified copies of birth certificates for you, your spouse, and any children already living in your home;
- Certified copies of adoption decrees for any adopted children already living in your home;
- Certified copies of your marriage certificate;
- Certified copies of any death certificates for former spouses; and
- Certified copies of any divorce decrees for you and/or your spouse.
- Verification of employment on company letterhead (even if you are self-employed);
- Income verification (usually copies of your federal tax returns for the last three years);
- Proof of life insurance, including the names of beneficiaries;
- Proof of health insurance;
- Verification of all monetary assets on institution letterhead (including checking account, savings account, 401K balance, stocks, money market accounts, mutual funds, etc.);
- Debt information (balances on your credit cards, cars, house, etc.);
- Mortgage or rent information (amount of monthly payment and amount of equity you have if you own your home).
Other Information You Will Need for Your Home Study
- Results of a recent physical exam;
- Results of a criminal background check;
- Public health inspection if your home has a septic system;
- Fire safety inspection;
- Letter from your veterinarian stating that all your pets are healthy and current on their vaccinations;
- Photographs of you, your spouse, and any children already living in your home;
- Photographs of the front, back, and inside of your home;
- Copy of any previous home study (if applicable);
- Written references.
A Few Words About References
Don’t be fooled: the written references you supply for your home study are not just an annoying piece of busywork– people really do read these references! Your references should attest to your fitness to become a parent of an internationally adopted child.
Before you list someone as a reference, be sure you ask first! You want someone who is willing to be your reference, not someone who will view the task of writing your reference as a burden. And it should go without saying that you should be sure of your references’ feelings about international (and transracial) adoption. You certainly don’t want a bigot venting ugly thoughts in what is supposed to be a tribute to your open-mindedness and fitness to parent a child born in another country!
And before you start asking people willy-nilly to serve as your references, stop and think about the type of reference you want. Do you want someone without children saying that you will be a great parent? Or would it be better if someone with parenting experience says this? Also, try to avoid using brief acquaintances as references. The reference will carry more weight if it’s from someone you have known for at least a few years.
One last word of advice: explain to your references that this is not a good time to play a practical joke. A bad reference can at best delay, and at worst completely derail, your international adoption quest.
The Social Worker is Coming to Visit!
Okay, so you’ve completed all of your forms and collected certified copies of everything. Now it’s time for the social worker to visit your home. Yikes! Okay, first: relax and take a deep breath. With a little planning, your home visit will be relatively painless.
During the home visit, the social worker is looking to see if your home is a safe place to raise a child. Most social workers don’t look to see if your dishes are neatly stacked in your cupboards, if you iron your underwear, or if you prefer aspirin to acetaminophen. The social worker wants to see where and how the child will live.
Several days before the social worker knocks at your door, do an inspection of your home. Look for things that could be dangerous to a child, such as cleaning supplies that are out in the open or frayed/exposed electrical wires. Lock up any unsafe objects, such as guns, knives, and medicines. Also, make sure you have working smoke detectors on every level of your house. If you find a problem area, fix it! It’s not only safer for a child, it’s safer for you, too!
A day or two before the social worker arrives, start tidying up your home. We all get busy and let things pile up occasionally. Now is the time to straighten up and make things look nice. There’s no need to hire a cleaning crew for an industrial-strength housecleaning. Just be sure your home is clean, tidy, and inviting. On the flip side, you may not want to make your home look too tidy. There are no two ways about it– kids are messy. Although a picture-perfect home looks fabulous, it may make the social worker wonder if you will be able to deal with the inherent messiness that comes with raising children.
During the visit to your home, the social worker will want to see the child’s room. It isn’t important if the room isn’t yet decorated for a child. As long as the room will provide a safe place for the child to sleep, you will pass the “room test.”
The bottom line: Yes, a home visit can feel like an intrusion, but it really isn’t. A good home study prepares you for adoption and helps you decide whether adoption is in fact the right choice for you. Try looking at it from this point of view: The home study helps protect the child by ensuring he is placed in a loving, healthy, safe environment. Accepting this premise makes it a lot easier to get through the home study. The home study doesn’t last forever. Remember to keep your eye on the goal: Try to view the home visit as a milestone on your international adoption odyssey; it brings you one step closer to your child.
What Will My Completed Home Study Be Like?
Your completed home study should give a clear picture of who you are. It must answer these fundamental questions:
- Who are the people who wish to adopt?
- Why do these people want to adopt?
- How have these people prepared for adoption?
- Are these people able to meet the physical, emotional, and financial needs of an adopted child?
I Don’t Have a Perfect Past – Is My Home Study Doomed?
Not all of us have led an Ozzie and Harriet life. In fact, for some it may be closer to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne! While having an interesting past may not help your home study, it does not necessarily doom it (and your adoption).
Honesty is absolutely the best policy if you have anything at all questionable in your past such as drug use, alcoholism, or an arrest. Tell your social worker about it– go into detail about what you have learned and how you have changed your life for the better. If these things are truly in the past, your social worker will understand. No one has a perfect past, and everyone has occasional lapses in judgment. (This does not hold true if you have been convicted of child abuse. Discovery of a child abuse conviction in your past will automatically bring your adoption odyssey to a screeching halt.)
Trying to hide unsavory things in your past will definitely ground your international adoption journey because chances are, the truth will come out anyway– either via your criminal background check or in your reference letters. And if you’re caught lying about something in your past you will most probably not pass your home study, because your social worker will not be able to trust anything else that you say or do.
In addition to criminal offenses, there are some noncriminal activities that can cause trouble for your home study; for example, a history of instability in either your work or personal life. Have you changed jobs frequently, bouncing from employer to employer? This may make the social worker think you have difficulty holding down a job, and thus would have difficulty providing consistent financial support for your child. Have you had several marriages and divorces? This is also a sign of an unstable lifestyle that will raise a red flag for the social worker.