Adoption 101: The Home Study Process

Photo credit: Flickr user Tony Kwintera


This is the second installment in my series on adoption for military families. In the first installment, we talked about the four kinds of adoption to choose from when a family decides to adopt. If you missed Part 1, you can view it by clicking here.

No matter what adoption path you may choose, the journey always starts in the same place: the home study. Every state in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, requires a home study of any family interested in adding children to their home through adoption.

What is a Home Study?

A home study is exactly what it sounds like—it’s an evaluation of the home in which a child may be placed. The home study serves three main purposes:

1. It evaluates the fitness of the family to adopt;

2. It educates the family about adoption, and also seeks to prepare the family for adoption; and

3. It gathers the information needed to connect the family with the child(ren) whose needs the family can best meet.

When you’re going through the home study process, it feels a little bit like being put under the microscope. The first time around, I found it to be very intimidating. But it’s important to remember this: the purpose of the home study is not to find perfect homes (there’s no such thing). The purpose of the home study is to make a good match between child(ren) and family.

As with most things in the adoption journey, the home study varies with the adoption path you choose. For information about home studies for international adoption, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has a good checklist of items you will need. For domestic adoption, the home study requirements vary by state; a good list of state-based requirements can be found at the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Individual agencies may also impose additional requirements on families that utilize their services, such as orientation or educational requirements. When choosing an agency, it’s important to ask each organization you meet with about their particular process so you know what to expect.

The home study process takes an average of 3-6 months to complete, depending on how long it takes to compile the necessary documents. Fees for a home study vary widely. For families adopting out of the foster care system, sometimes agencies do not charge for home studies. For agencies that do charge, the fees average between $300-$500, although sometimes those fees are reimbursable once the adoption from the foster care system is complete. For private agencies, the average cost of a home study is $1,000-$3,000, but that often includes additional pre-placement and other services.


What Happens in the Home Study Process?

There are essentially four components of the home study process: (1) paper submissions; (2) any required evaluations; (3) interviews; and (4) home visits. There are points in the adoption journey where the home study must be updated, and these same four components makeup home study updates as well.

The paper submissions required for a home study are intended to illustrate a family’s fitness to care for an adopted child or children. This includes all kinds of fitness—health checks for all family members, background checks for all adults in the family, veterinary checks for any pets, income and financial information, autobiographical statements, and references from people who know the family well. The paper submissions are designed to help social workers learn the family history, and identify early on any issues that might slow the family in the process, or prevent the family from adopting.

Certain states and countries require particular evaluations of the family as part of the home study process. For instance, for my family adopting from the Philippines, my husband and I were required to submit to psychological evaluation. The results of any such evaluations become part of the home study, and are incorporated into the Home Study Report.

Each member of a prospective adoptive family must be interviewed as part of the home study process, usually annually. Or, I should say, each member old enough to understand the process is interviewed. When we started this journey, my son Howie was two year old and was not interviewed. This year, at four, he is being interviewed as part of our process. The interviews are one-on-one chats between a social worker and each family member. There are certain questions the social worker is required to ask, such as whether the family member has ever committed a felony. But otherwise, it’s simply a discussion about life, the family dynamic, and how adoption fits in.

The home visits required by the home study process provide the social worker an opportunity to view the home and ensure that it is a safe environment in which to place an adoptive child. The social worker is not looking for a perfect Stepford home in these visits—don’t stress over a little clutter. Rather, the home visit is to ensure that the home is comfortable, and that safety precautions have been taken appropriate to the age of the child(ren) the family hopes to adopt.


What’s in a Home Study Report?

The end product of a home study is the Home Study Report (HSR). The HSR combines all of the four elements of the home study into a single written report and opinion about the kind of child(ren) the family is best suited to care for. The HSR is basically a paper depiction of your family, and is a key tool used by decision-makers in determining whether to match you with an adoptive child (or children), and which child/children you should be matched with. Although the HSR will vary slightly based on the requirements of the family’s chosen adoption path, most HRSs include the following:

  • Background narrative on the family and on individual members of the family
  • Education and employment information for each parent
  • Information about the family relationships and dynamics, including the relationship between spouses, and the relationship between each spouse and any children already in the home
  • Information about the family’s daily life, including what they enjoy doing together
  • Information about each prospective parent’s parenting philosophy, and any experience they might already have with caring for children
  • Information about the family’s neighborhood, including schools and community resources
  • Information about the family’s system of values or religious beliefs
  • An opinion about the family’s readiness for adoption
  • The Social worker’s recommendation, including number and age range, and any special needs of children the family is approved to adopt

Usually, the HSR prepared for a family is good for one year before it needs to be updated. However, if there are significant changes in the family—such as births, deaths, major health issues, changes in criminal record history—the family is required to update their home study when they occur.

It should be noted that although it is certainly a major change for the military family, deployment does not trigger the need for a new home study. However, sometimes it makes completing a renewal somewhat challenging.


What’s Unique for Military Families?

The home study process can be a strenuous one for any family, but especially for military families. Because we move frequently, there will be more information to gather. And there will be more explaining of the information once it has been gathered. The best way to keep from getting very frustrated with the process is to get organized and plan ahead. Here are some quick tips for doing just that:

  • Keep extra copies of all vital records for your family, preferably all in one secured place. This means birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, and divorce decrees. Keep multiple certified copies because usually that’s what’s required, and usually you don’t get them back. It’s also good to keep photocopies of Social Security cards, passports, and driver’s license, because some kinds of adoption require those documents as well.
  • Keep a running list of all the states and countries each family member has lived in, and the addresses they used. This one can be really hard for military families. However, this history is necessary to complete the background checks required for a home study. If you have all the information in one place, your work will be much easier, and your adoption agency will thank you.
  • Research what “evaluations” you need for your particular adoption path so you can find resources to help. For instance, as I mentioned, our process for the Philippines required us to undergo psychological evaluations. You can read all about it here. Suffice it to say, it was a challenge finding doctors to evaluate us off-post where we were located. Knowing about the challenge ahead of time meant we had the time to find the providers we needed.
  • Be very clear in your discussions and your autobiographies that you are a military family. Our adoption applications, especially the home study, can look a little haphazard—we jump geographies, we jump jobs sometimes, our income history can fluctuate. It’s good to be proactive explaining that service is the reason, because that explanation can be reflected in the Home Study Report. But only if the social worker knows it.
  • Over-communicate with your adoption agency and your social worker about any military events that may impact your home study. This is maybe the most critical point for two reasons:

First, deployments, TDYs, or shore tours can get in the way of certain elements of the home study, like the interviews, or fingerprinting in the case of international adoption. If you stay in communication with your agency and social worker about the scheduling of these things, they can help you sort out alternative ways of completing the required home study elements. For instance, last year my husband Jake was in Afghanistan when our home study renewal was due. So our social worker completed his interview update via Skype, and our agency helped us submit paper fingerprint cards from the military police office where Jake was deployed.

Second, your home study (and each update) must be completed in the state in which you reside at the time. Depending on the kind of adoption you choose, that probably means somewhere along the way you will need to transfer to a new agency, and/or a new social worker. Communicating about PCS moves with your current agency/social worker as early as possible can help smooth the transition, and make the transfer of documents easier.

The home study is perhaps the most time-intensive part of the adoption process. It’s where the adoption journey begins, it requires check-ins annually, and it continues for several months after placement of the child(ren) in the home. Planning ahead for the home study piece of the puzzle can save your family quite a bit of time and frustration along the journey.

In the next installment of Adoption 101, we will take a look at some of the resources available specifically for military families to assist with various aspects of the adoption process. In the meantime, if you have questions that I didn’t answer about the home study process, please feel free to include them in the comments.

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