I’ve often thought that a home study is the social service equivalent of a roller coaster ride at a theme park. Like a roller coaster, the home study process begins with anticipation and continues with lots of excitement, ups and downs, twists, and turns, surprises, and a few scary parts. However, in the end, you’re thinking, “Hey that wasn’t so bad. Let’s do it again.” The emotional toll a home study takes is well worth it in the end, if it results in a foster or adoptive child being placed in your home.

That’s the way it was for me and my wife, Cindy. We have completed the home study process three times in our lives and felt like it was a roller coaster ride each time. But we didn’t give up, took advice, and trusted the process each time. The first time we entered the home study process was scary because we didn’t know what to expect. But by the third time, I had become a foster care licensed professional as well as an adoption social worker. So, I was writing home studies myself. I knew what it was like on the other side of things, and I knew what to expect. Like a person who rides roller coasters dozens of times, we knew when to expect the long drops. And when each study was finished, we were proud that the process was complete.

What is a home study?

A home study is a written summary of an investigation of a prospective foster or adoptive family. A social service agency or adoption agency is hired to write the actual home study. A good home study will give a snapshot of the background, lifestyle, and values of the family, as well as the health and safety of the physical home and property. In short, a home study shows whether a family is suitable to be a foster or adoptive family, and if so, it shows what type of child the family can best care for.

Depending on the purpose, a home study can take anywhere from 4 to 9 months to complete. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It will require lots of patience, transparency, growth, and flexibility. You will come into the process ready, willing, and able to learn about the foster and adoption process, but you will conclude the process by learning lots more than you ever wanted to know about yourself and your spouse if you are married.

Why do I need a home study?

“I have a nice home. I have the money. I live in a nice neighborhood. Why do I need a home study?” Good question. Imagine this: God forbid, you get into a horrible accident where you are no longer able to care for your children. If their caretakers are strangers, what would you want to know about them?

“What do they do for a living? How much do they earn? Are they in good health? What is their religion? Do they have experience with children?”

These and a host of other questions are ones you would want to know the answers to. Those are exactly the types of questions that are asked in a home study. Since many foster children have endured abuse, neglect, and abandonment, and because many international children who are adopted have endured war, poverty, and homelessness among other things, agencies want to ensure that their next home is absolutely safe. That takes time, effort, and due diligence. A home study is a perfect tool to summarize that due diligence.

A Full Quiver

For over 25 years, my wife and I adopted 6 children by various means in two different states. We have adopted through a private Christian agency, through foster care adoption, and privately. In each case, our home study was conducted differently. Let’s look at each path. When we first got married, we decided to adopt first and then to have biological children afterward. We thought that about three children in total was a good round number. Little did we know we would end up with eight children altogether, six adopted and two biological. Our quiver is certainly full.

Private Christian Adoption We started out getting certified to adopt through a local Christian Agency in New Jersey. Christian agencies differ from non-sectarian agencies in that they have a Christian staff and slightly different application standards. But the pool of children who are available to adopt is open to all who are certified to adopt. This agency completed one home study that required an update with each adoption. During this home study, we did not have a specific identified child, so it was open-ended. However, in the following two adoptions, we did have specific children in mind. Therefore, the home studies got more specific as we went along. We adopted 3 children through this agency before moving to Arizona.

Private Adoption Our 4th adoption was a surprise. It was a child who came for respite and stayed for good. We were blessed to give her a forever home. This was a private adoption that was completed by the county courts because we could not afford to hire a private attorney. The county court was more than willing to complete the home study. The home study process was pretty simple and straightforward. The courts used the previous home study as a reference to complete this home study. The result was that we were approved to adopt a pretty little 7-year-old girl.

Foster Care Adoption Finally, we adopted a sibling group of two from Arizona. The adoption home study process started as a foster care home study. Our 5th and 6th adopted children were first placed as foster children. Over the course of time, parental rights were severed and adoption by us became the plan. We were ecstatic when our home study was approved by the courts. It was like the end of a marathon race. We were exhausted but satisfied we had reached our goal.  

What ingredients go into a home study?

Before you bake a cake, you need to know what ingredients go into it. Otherwise, your masterpiece could turn out to be a disaster. The ingredients for a home study may vary depending on the state or municipality you are adopting through, and they will depend on whether you are completing an adoption or foster care home study.

 – Background checks Before the home study process has started, the agency who is writing your home study will want to see if you have a criminal history. The most basic foundation of a forever home is the safety of the children and background checks assure that. Three different types of background checks may be performed in order to complete your home study:

1) Criminal background check – Every adult in your household will need to be fingerprinted to determine if there is any significant criminal history. This is only par for the course since most adoption agencies want to determine if the home they are placing the child in is safe.

2) Child Protective Services (CPS) check – Your social worker will want to know if you have ever had any substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect. You cannot proceed if you do.

3) Driving record – Foster/adoption agencies do not really need to know if you have a parking ticket. But, they do need to know if each adult household member is a safe driver. You, as an applicant may be above reproach, but is your roommate? Is your spouse?

Pre-Service Training Perhaps you’ve thought, “I’ve already raised kids. Why do I need more training?” Good question. The fact is that kids who need to be fostered or adopted have experienced things that normal children have not including war, death of a parent, illness, abuse, or neglect. The parents need to be trauma-informed. They need to be prepared to deal with behaviors such as headbanging, self-harm, and running away. They also need to learn about diagnoses such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Autism. Even if you adopt an infant, have you been trained on how to care for Substance Exposed Newborns? You would do well to become as informed as possible. Be flexible, be available, and be teachable. It will come in handy later.

Interviews Your social worker will interview you and your household members to ensure they have an accurate picture of the lifestyle, culture, values, heritage, culture, and principles that your family lives by. Biographical background information is collected. Marriage and relationship information is collected. Discipline may be discussed. It is important for applicants to understand, the interviewers are not looking for perfect families. They are not looking for flawless homes. They are looking for strengths as well as things that can be improved. Therefore, be open and honest. Every couple who has been married for any length of time disagrees with one another. So be candid about that. The more transparent you are, the better the adoption home study will look.

Home Inspection This is not exactly a “white glove” test because social workers know that any home with kids is going to be messy. As a matter of fact, I would have red flags about any home that has kids in it and is without a mess. What a home inspector is looking for is health and safety. For example, to be in the middle of laundry is one thing, but to have moldy laundry is another. To have dirty dishes in the sink is one thing, but to have dishes that haven’t been washed in days is a health issue.

Financial records You do not have to be rich in order to foster or adopt, however, you should be in good financial health. Be prepared to show pay stubs, bills, bankruptcy discharge papers, and/or foreclosure statements. This may seem very intrusive, but wouldn’t you want an adoptive child placed in a financially stable home? It would send up red flags if a child were placed in a home that was on the verge of eviction.

Reference letters Your agency will need 3-5 people who know you that you can use as references to include in the home study. These people should be trustworthy and be prepared to complete the reference quickly. They should know you personally and should have been able to observe you interacting with children.

Physician’s Statements Some states and/or agencies have age restrictions, but another restriction that states can have is health restrictions. In other words, age doesn’t matter but they must be in good health. This is important because a child’s well-being is connected to the health of their parents. Be cautioned that questions about mental illness, prescription medications, and treatment for substance abuse may be asked.

What are the possible home study results?

What are some of the possible home study results during the foster or adopt process?  Well, results may vary from state to state and from agency to agency.  See below:

Approved The most widely accepted result is approved. This means that the applicant has met all requirements, passed all background checks, and completed all training. It also means that the agency gives its stamp of approval to the applicant to be a foster/adoptive parent. The magnitude of receiving approved home study results cannot be understated because the agency is putting their reputation on the line. This also means the applicant can now move to the next steps which are child matching and placement of a child, developing and placing an online adoption profile, or transferring the home study to another agency if necessary.  Approved home study results are magnificent.

Approved with revisions The most common result is approval with revisions. This means that there may need to be corrections or additional investigation needs to take place.

Denied A rare result is the “denied” home study. This rarely happens because it is usually determined early on in the home study process whether an applicant qualifies or not. For example, criminal history, a negative reference, or an unsafe or unhealthy home facility are all reasons why an applicant may not pass a home study. In some cases, a home study may not be denied, it may simply be placed on hold until personal circumstances can be resolved. Consult with your agency representative in case you run into roadblocks in order to brainstorm various options.

We’ve always had positive results from our home studies. Each time our social worker informed us that our home study was approved, we were elated,  We felt an overwhelming feeling of joy and pride and of relief. The reality is that an approved home study is not the end but the beginning. It marks the beginning of your foster or adoptive journey and could lead to a lifelong relationship with a child who needs you. I cannot overstate the enormity of that accomplishment.  Yes, the home study process is a roller coaster ride, but it is well worth the ride.