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Part Two: Picking an Agency for the Home Study (or Why We Reluctantly Decided Against International Adoption)

21 Nov

Photo courtesy of
‘Strange street sign’
courtesy of ‘quinn.anya’

Don and I started preparing for our adoption well over a year ago, in July of 2010. When we started to investigate what we had to do to get started, we quickly discovered that the home study was our first big hurdle and that picking the agency to conduct the home study was very important.

The agency that does your home study will be very involved in the early stages of your adoption, and will probably conduct your post-placement visits as well. Therefore it’s really important that you feel comfortable with your choice.

I’ve previously mention that we wanted to be able to pick the agency based on facts and figures – we both like to research and gather information. However, since this process is as much about personalities as anything else, you really do have to base some of the decision on a gut reaction.

Luckily, we had some friends who adopted recently and they gave us lots of great advice (in this post our friend is offering advice to someone else who is adopting and it showcases why we found their advice so valuable).  

We started by investigating the agencies in our area that conduct adoption home studies. We picked three we wanted to visit at the advice of our friends.

At first we didn’t know what kind of adoption we wanted to pursue – domestic or international – so we picked two agencies that specialize in both types, and one that only works internationally (with a stronghold in Russia).

First up was the agency that specializes in international adoptions. They have programs in several countries, but it was their strength in Russia that appealed to me.

A word about my interest in Russia. It was completely arbitrary. I had long heard stories about the conditions for Russian children waiting for adoption and I felt drawn to the country. My mother visited before the collapse of the Soviet Union and I knew she would enjoy going back with us for the visits before and during the adoption. Since she was then approaching retirement (and is now retired!), I thought she might like to take on the role of the Cultural Attaché for our family – seeking out ways we could include our child’s biological background into our decidedly non-Russian traditions.

The agency’s website listed the days and times it would hold open houses or informational meetings. We selected a day and signed up online. As it turned out, we were the only folks who attended that night so we got lots of attention (and subs and cookies from Subway). The administrator carefully went through their programs with us and walked us through the home study materials. She also showed us a video made by one of the families that chronicled their journey to adopt in Russia – including both trips to the country, the interpreter’s role, meeting the local doctor, etc. I have to admit that I cried a little bit when the mom got to hold her little boy for the first time  – he was about 14 months old.

She also went through average wait times for international adoption and I was astounded. I had it in my head that international adoption was easier in a lot of ways. I assumed there might be more up front paper work. But once you got through that, wouldn’t the wait time be less? These babies were living in orphanages for goodness sake. They should try to place them as quickly as possible. Sadly, that is not the case. International adoption is very rewarding, but it can be very difficult.

Even before that meeting, Don had expressed his interest in adopting a child as young as possible so that we could bond and be responsible for his or her earliest influences. We learned at that first informational meeting that if we decided to pursue an international adoption, there was virtually no chance to get a child under 12 months. There are lots of complicated reasons for this, but basically no one wants to exile their own citizens so it’s important to make sure no one in the country wants to adopt the child first. It might sound simple, but honestly it had never occurred to me before.

So even though we initially were skeptical that attending these open houses would give us a feeling about the agency that was right for us, we did get a feeling after that first visit. And our feelings told us that we probably didn’t want to pursue international adoption.

If I am honest, I still think about those kids in Russia and other Eastern European orphanages a lot. Don and I are only planning to have one child, but if something ever changes, I would maybe re-consider an international adoption. It’s true that there are lots of kids right here in America who need to be adopted into loving families, but there also are plenty of families waiting to welcome them. For me, it was a very tough choice.

The next agency we visited was the one we ultimately decided to work with for our home study. Such a good choice for us.

How did you decide between domestic and international adoption?  

We’re going to name the agency that conducted our home study when we get to that section, but keep the names of other agencies off the blog since our experience at one was so negative and we don’t think that it’s indicative of services they normally provide. However, if you would like to know more, please send us an e-mail.

Where to Locate Agencies that Conduct Home Studies

20 Nov

Photo courtesy of
‘Edward Nigma Was Here’
courtesy of ‘swanksalot’

We went to an open house for a large national placement firm over the weekend (more on that later) and there were lots of people who had not started their home study process. We shared the name of our home study agency with them (and will do so with you as well), but here are two resources you might find helpful to begin your own study:

1-800 Home
A stupid name name for a nice listing of licensed home study agencies. Here’s how they describe themselves: is the definitive resource for adoptive families who are looking for qualified and reliable adoption home study professionals. Our knowledgeable adoption home study affiliates have completed thousands of approved home studies for hopeful adoptive families in every state.

State Department
This is a listing of the agencies licensed to conduct home studies for international adoptions, but many can do domestic as well if that’s what you’re planning.

We’ll tell you more about how we picked our home study agency based on a gut reaction soon, too.


16 Nov

Yesterday we went to the county courthouse to get fingerprinted. Cameras and cell phones aren’t allowed inside so I couldn’t document the visit, but here is the proof we did it.

Arlington County (VA) is inkless, meaning they scan your fingerprints. No alarms went off and bars didn’t slam down around us, so we must not be on any major Wanted lists. Phew.

I thought we’d be able to take funny photos of our hands after the process, but thanks to technology the shot I hoped we’d get was not possible. Don, ever the sport, did pose for the series below for me, though. Here he is doing his best to look like a hardened criminal. I’m not sure it’s very convincing.

The fingerprints are required to obtain state police and FBI clearances for all adults living in your house. Our home study agency provided the cards for us (there were a couple of pieces of information we had to fill in) and we had the scans taken at the Sheriff’s office (which in our town is at the courthouse, but it might be different for you). We paid $10 each for the imprinting.

The next step is to send them off to our agency, along with a cashier’s check for $50 for the processing made payable to the state. Again, the exact procedure may be different in your state, but here in Virginia the home study agency will forward them to the Background Investigation Unit in Richmond and the results will be sent back to them.

To find out where to be fingerprinted in your area, type the name of your city and state (or county and state) and fingerprints into Google and it should be fairly evident.  

So, did you have to get inky for your fingerprints?


Adoption Letters of Reference, Part Three: Asking our References

1 Nov

As I have discussed, we had a lot of questions about who to ask and how to write to our adoption letters of reference. Once we had chosen our references and basically figured out what was in them we still wanted to know how much instruction we should provide.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘George Eastman House’

I put myself in their shoes. If someone asked me to write such an important letter, I would want a couple of things:

  • Guidance on what the letters are. Sure, I can use Google but it would be nice to hear from the person asking me to do them a big favor
  • Specifics on anything required (like how to address the letters and the proper way to get them notarized)
  • An easy out. Maybe I don’t want to write this letter but now I feel pressured and I don’t want to say, “Well, I don’t think you’ll be good parents so I’m not comfortable writing this letter.” I mean, I’m going to assume you’ve picked people who won’t have that reaction, but you never know.

So, we put together a thank you letter with a couple of bullet points and when we asked our references to write the letters (two in person and one via e-mail), we gave them the letter. Here’s a copy for you to read (PDF). Like everything else on this blog, it’s not the necessarily the right way or the only way to do it, just an example of what we did.

I also googled around until I found a couple of fairly simple sample letters of reference and gave them a copy in the event they wanted confirmation about how these letters are supposed to read. Here are the two sample letters we provided our references (PDF). These were not letters I wrote about us, since it was important that the letters be genuine and we wouldn’t have wanted any duplicate language to appear. The samples I found came from a forum on (from 2003 mind you) and I especially like that they listed the exact language necessary for the notary to sign.

Now that I have reviewed our whole process for obtaining the letters of reference, I’d love to hear abut your experience. Who did you ask? How much or how little guidance did you provide? Did you need more than three (we’re looking at a couple of agencies for placement that have indicated they will need five letters!)? Did reading a copy of our request letter and the sample letters help you at all?

Letters of Reference, Part Two: More about the actual letters

31 Oct

Yesterday I wrote about how we chose the people we asked to write our letters of reference, but we still had lots of questions once we decided on our three references. 

What should the letters say?
Are you allowed to read them? Are you allowed to make suggestions? Are you allowed to answer questions? Can you provide samples?

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘mpclemens’

The rules may be different from state to state or even agency to agency, but our letters of reference had to be sent via USPS to our home address. They were to be sealed and addressed to “Social Worker”.  They also had to be notarized.

Note that the letters are to be sealed. If it’s important to you that you get to read them first, discuss it with the people you ask to submit them. Perhaps they won’t mind sharing with you. This might not honor the intent of the agency’s request, but nothing in our paperwork specified that the prospective parents could not read them. So, give it some thought … but do what feels right to you.

We didn’t ask to read them, but we did say that if the letter writer wanted us to read them that we would. Two of references sent them to us in advance, and one did not.

We did answer questions for all three of our references. They were simple questions (like, “What year did you meet?”), though. I’m not sure what we would have done if the questions were harder (like, ”What should I say are the qualities that will make you good parents?”). We thought a lot about who to ask so we were pretty confident we wouldn’t get questions like that, but I guess we would have given some vague ideas and hoped for the best. Remember, you want the letters to be heartfelt recomendations – not boiler plate language that will sound like you wrote them yourself.

There are a couple of key elements that should be included in each of the letters. I found this summary on The Labor of Love:

An adoption recommendation letter should include information about how you know the person that you are recommending. It should tell how long you have known them, and in what capacity. It should talk about the person’s strengths, qualifications, and any other skills that you have observed. You should discuss their character, their contributions to the community, their accomplishments, their dependability, and their consistence. You should summarize the types of interactions that you have seen the person have with children, whether they are your children or whether they are other children. You should also discuss the persons temperament and attitudes about child rearing. Finally, you need to summarize the adoption recommendation letter with why you recommend the person, and how fully you recommend them.

Even after all that, we still wondered about two things: could we provide sample letters and should we share some instructions (like the description above) in order to make it easier for people to start the task?

Letters of Reference, Part One: Tips for Selecting Your References

30 Oct

Like most things, I wanted someone to provide a formula for us when it came to selecting the folks we were asking to write our adoption letters of references. I also wanted to be able to provide a sample for them in order to allay any fears they may have about what exactly was expected.

And of course, I learned that there is no formula.

That doesn’t mean however, that there aren’t best practices to keep in mind. Here are some of the questions I had, and the answers I found as we researched how to select our references.

Photo courtesy of
‘C’è posta per te – A letter for you’
courtesy of ‘RaSeLaSeD – Il Pinguino’

Who should you select?
Does it matter if you your references live close to you? Does it matter if they have kids? Does it matter if they know one person in the prospective adoptive couple better than the other person?

The simple answer is that you should select people who like you a whole lot. It doesn’t matter so much if they are parents themselves, or if they live near or far (as long as they really know you), or if they have known one of you since childhood and the other for the three or six or 10 years you’ve been a couple.

We needed three references in our home state of Virginia. We asked my boss of 13 years to write one letter. As the parent of two grown children herself, we know she’s really pulling for us. We also know she’s a good writer and we knew she could attest to the fact that our office is extremely family friendly. If you have a good relationship with your boss or another co-worker consider asking them – especially if you think you might continue to work after baby comes home. It takes a village and most of us spend more hours during the week with our co-workers than with our partners.

We asked my friend from elementary school and her husband to write the second letter. We spend a lot of time with their kids and we knew they could talk about us from that perspective. As an added bonus, my friend coordinates a program to help people learn parenting skills so we knew she could articulate the ways in which she thinks we will be good parents. Our social worker and our lawyer both said that it doesn’t matter if your references have young children or not, but we knew it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Consider asking someone whose kids know you pretty well. Also, if you know someone who works with children or families (like a teacher) think about whether or not they will offer a unique perspective.*

Our final reference was written by my college roommate and closest friend. Although she’s married, the reference was only submitted by her. That’s because at the time we asked her to write the letter, we had not known her husband for two years which is required for references in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Your own state may have different laws about that so just make sure you know what is required. We chose her because she’s the closest thing I have to a sister and her family is going to play a huge role in our lives and that of our child. We thought she was the best person to write about what we’re like every day and what being part of our family is like. Who knows you best? Would they be a good choice for one of your references?

Other good picks would be someone you know through church (or your preferred place of worship or fellowship), someone with whom you have volunteered or who is a member of the same civic or charitable group, neighbors with whom you are close, or siblings if that’s allowed in your state.

*We briefly flirted with the idea of adding a fourth non-required letter from a kid who knows us. We quickly discarded the idea because we thought it might be too cutesy, wouldn’t actually help and might even be annoying for the social worker who has to go through all the paper work.

Picking an Agency for the Home Study

24 Oct

Don and I got married in May of 2009. On the day of our wedding, we already had decided that if we were to expand our family, it would be via adoption.

However, I was determined that before we would pursue adoption we would first buy a house. It might seem silly, so please try not to judge me, but I just feel more secure in a house we own and pay for ourselves. I got all nervous thinking about bringing home a baby and then finding out three days later our landlord wanted to sell the house or move back in.

I know it’s crazy – plenty of families live in rental units AND plenty of people have moved with small infants. But once I get an idea in my head, I can’t shake it.

Red Sold Sign by Diana Parkhouse (Flickr, Creative Commons)

We spent over a year looking at houses and therefore had lots of time to think about adoption and talk to people who had recently adopted or were in the process of adopting.

We read up on home studies and made a short list of agencies we wanted to learn more about, but we really wanted hard facts that weren’t available online.

We wanted to know, how many families do you have waiting and how many will have babies by the end of the year? What is your success rate? How many did you place last year?

So we started asking around. And we still didn’t get answers.

Apparently, the process of picking an agency for your home study doesn’t work like that. The home study can be done by any state-licensed agency so it’s not unusual for couples to select an agency for their home study, but find a child through a different source.

That made sense to us, but we were completely unprepared for the way in which we consistently were told to pick our home study agency. It turns out that prospective parents, at least in our area, attend several agency open houses and select the one that ”feels” right.

There’s no scientific method, no SWOT analysis, no lists of pros and cons. You make the decision based on a feeling.

That is so not our style.

But we decided we had nothing to lose by attending open houses, so we picked three agencies and gave it a shot.

In the end, we did get a feeling. It probably wasn’t the kind of feeling we were supposed to get, but it was very clear to us which agency we wanted to work with for the home study. I mean, it didn’t even require discussion it was so clear.

Stay tuned if you want to hear about the feeling we got that helped us pick a home study agency. I’ll give you a clue, it was disgust.*

*This was the first word that came to my mind, but I was afraid it was too strong a word. I looked over the top of my laptop and asked Don, “What word would you use to describe the feeling we had at XYZ agency?”. And he replied, “Disgust.” So there you have it.

The Application is in the Mail

10 Oct

Here it is: our home study application has been mailed

Here it is.

Our home study questionnaire has been completed, signed, addressed and stamped. The mailman picked it up a week and a half ago.

By now it will have arrived at our agency. Our next step will be to get assigned a social worker.

It’s happening people. It’s happening.


Online Dating for Babies

9 Oct

At one of the agency open houses we attended, a social worker offered several suggestions for creating a profile book or prospective parent website. She acknowledged that there’s no tested formula, but that there were several common themes she had observed in her years of working in the field of adoption.

We started thinking of these as the best practices and rolling them out at dinner parties to entertain our friends when they asked how our adoption was going. It occurred to us that preparing your online parent profile was a lot like making an online dating profile – both involve presenting the very best version of your personality and life in order to get someone to pick you for a long-term relationship. Essentially, we announced each time we rolled out these best practices, creating the profile was basically online dating for babies.

Though, technically, it’s more like online dating for birth moms … but you get the idea.

Here are two of the crazier suggestions she offered up. Remember – these are not my own suggestions. I’ve included our reaction below her advice. Do with them what you will.

  1. Social Worker: Do you have dog? Include him in the discussion of your family and home life and definitely include a picture.
    Don and Susan: We don’t have a dog. Susan is allergic.
    Social Worker: Can you borrow one for your photos?
    Don and Susan: …
  2. Social Worker: You should include a picture of the will-be nursery, but don’t have it set up as a nursery. In fact, don’t have it set up at all. It’s best if the room is empty.
    Don and Susan: Seriously?
    Social Worker: Well, maybe you could place a large stuffed animal in the corner. Oh – with a ribbon on its neck.  
    Don and Susan: …

She did have lots of other advice that seemed more reasonable, but these were among the ideas that made us laugh.

Did you get any funny advice about drafting your adoption profiles? How did you decide what photos to use and how much detail to provide up front?

Please look after this bear by gazzat

Yes, I Googled “Parenting Styles”

7 Oct

One of the questions on our home study form asked us to describe our parenting style. This was awkward for us because, uhm, we’re not parents. We have theoretical ideas of how we want to be as parents and how we want to raise our child, but we’re smart enough to know that actually becoming parents is what’s going to help us define our style.

Also, I had more of a philosophy or statement in mind and I wasn’t sure how to turn it into a style. Here’s where I started:

Your child is a small human being that will grow into a large human being and the things they learn when they are small will stay with them when they are large. Don’t raise good children, raise good grown-ups.

In other words, teach your kids to be adults you would respect.

But I had a hard time defining that as a style. So, I turned to Google. Of course.

And, not surprisingly, there were plenty of resources including this quiz from

Don and I both took the quiz, the results of which are explained in three categories: Shaping Character, Making Rules and Enforcing Discipline. We had the same results in Shaping Character (Involved, but Flexible), and Enforcing Discipline (Lenient). We differed in Making Rules (Susan is Authoritative, Don was the next step down but I can no longer remembered how it was titled). The only real surprise is that we’re both described as lenient in enforcing behaviors since I don’t tend to think of either of us in that way. However when I read the description, it made more sense.   It’s more about tolerance and letting children learn for themselves, even make their own mistakes from time to time. I’m okay with that description, but since we both trend in that direction, we’ll just need to be mindful that we’re not being too lenient.

We jotted down key points about each of the areas and developed this as our parenting style:

Set expectations, but don’t be too rigid. Encourage open discussion while still asserting authority on important matters. Display tolerance. Serve as good role models. Take a democratic approach, but understand that sometimes parents know best. Encourage creativity and thoughtful pursuit of interests.

What do you think – is this a reasonable answer to for wanna-be parents to describe how they hope to be as parents? What’s your parenting style? Did you take the quiz? What surprised you?