You may have found yourself unexpectedly expecting. You could be looking for answers and wonder about the adoption process and how it works. It can seem overwhelming, but it does not have to be unbearably stressful or daunting. Getting answers to your question, how does the adoption process work, can make this time in your life less overwhelming. It can make the idea of exploring placing your child for adoption a lot less overwhelming. You will continue to feel many emotions along this journey, but knowledge is power, and it is especially important in this season of yours and your baby’s life.  

“How does the adoption process work” is a very broad question with varying answers depending on the type of adoption you wish to pursue when making an adoption plan for your baby. As a former professional in the adoption field, I would often be asked this question by both prospective adoptive parents and birth parents. As the former Executive Director of Joint Council on International Children’s Services and a program director for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, my best advice for expectant parents on how does the adoption process work is to start at the very beginning. The process is different for every person and every adoption, but doing your research and understanding the steps will make it much easier to consider as an option for you and your baby.

Deciding to place your baby for adoption is a big decision. Understanding the important role you play as the birth mother and/or birth father is the highest priority in the process. Any adoption agency or adoption attorney you choose must also understand this. It is also important to understand the various steps you will take as an expectant parent and the regulations and requirements the respective prospective adoptive parents you choose for your baby will need to complete. Understanding what options you have as a birth parent will help you take the first step.

What Does the Process Look Like?

The decision to place your baby for adoption is one of the most important decisions you will make. It will not necessarily be an easy one, but you will have support along the way to help you decide if it is the best decision. The first step in your journey is just that, a first step. All you need to do is take that step, learn as much as you can, and take the next right step for you and your baby. Each of those steps and what is best for you and your baby may be very different than what is best for another birth parent and that baby.  No two people are alike and no two adoptions are alike. That understanding is helpful. Know that you are in control of the decisions made during this process. You can stop at any time before the adoption is finalized. A great agency will also make any important information very clear to you. So, understand that after this first decision is made to discuss and ask questions about how does the adoption process work, the next steps can vary from adoption to adoption.  

Your next likely decision after deciding to speak with an adoption agency is what type of relationship you would like to have with your baby and the adoptive family as your child grows up. Understanding the difference between the types of adoption and deciding the relationship you have with your child is the next step and whatever you decide is right for you.

Every adoption triad and the relationships shared between those individuals are unique.  If you choose to place your child for adoption, the relationship you decide to have with the adoptive parents and your child is entirely up to you. The birth mother and/or father steer the decision on how much or little relationship to have with the adoptive parents and the birth child. There is also a lot of room within that decision to create a dynamic and paradigm that works for you. While all adoptions are different and entirely unique to the triad of birth parents, adoptive parents, and the child, there are some characteristics that set them apart from one another. You may decide to have a closed adoption, open adoption, or semi-open adoption.  Whatever you decide is what is right for you and your baby.

How Does the Adoption Process Work with Each Type of Adoption? 

May birth mothers and/or fathers wonder what is an open adoption? Open adoption is the most common type of private domestic adoption. Currently, over 95% of private domestic adoptions in the United States are open adoptions. Open adoption is when the birth mother and/or birth father and even birth extended family have a relationship with the child placed for adoption and the adoptive family.  There is a spectrum as to how open it is and how much communication you choose to have with the adoptive parents and birth child, but all open adoptions include the birth mother and/or father, the adoptive parents, and child all having a relationship. The extent of this relationship is usually decided at the start of the adoption process by the birth mother and/or father. The amount of communication can vary greatly among the birth mother who chooses an open adoption and the adoptive parents who also make that choice to have an open adoption.  Open adoption can range from a scrapbook or photos sent once a year to often and open in-person communication and visits between the child, birth parents, and adoptive parents. 

While 95% of adoptions in the United States are open, close to 40% are semi-open adoptions. A semi-open adoption can mean different things to different people. Usually, it means that communication between the birth parents and adoptive parents and child are facilitated through the adoption service provider, which can be an adoption attorney, social worker, or adoption agency. The agency acts as a mediator and shares information about the child and adoptive family with the birth mother or father directly. The birth parents can also share information about the family with the agency to be shared with the adoptive family.

5% of all domestic private adoptions are closed. Most adoptions between the 1930s and 1970s were closed. Closed adoptions were originally enacted so birth mothers could remain anonymous and have identity protected. This meant that many children were placed shortly after birth and the birth records were closed. Birth records and certificates were also known to include wrong identifying information to protect both the birth mother and adoptive parents. Due to social stigma at that time, many women kept the pregnancy and birth a secret and even some adoptive parents shared that the adopted child was a birth child.

It was not until the 1990s that a majority of adoption service providers offered open adoption as an option. Societal views towards adoption have continued to evolve until this day. More education on the psychological effects on both the birth child and birth parents from closed adoptions, an adopted person’s “right to know,” and the loss of stigma toward adoption brought a change in tide toward more open adoptions today.

Many women felt they had no choice but to place a child for adoption, some even forcefully. Today, closed adoptions continue but are much rarer. Studies and research show that open adoption, even just semi-open is a preferred adoption for everyone in the adoption triad—birth mother and/or father, adoptive parents, and child.  

In a closed adoption you also may realize at some point that you would like to be reunited. reunion registries are a way for you or your birth child to connect at some point in your lives. Understanding that you may not be able to keep your identity from your child and the reasons why people who are adopted search for birth parents is a consideration.

After deciding what type of relationship you would want to have with the child you place for adoption, your next steps are to decide if you would like to use an adoption service provider to complete. All adoptions will need the support of an adoption service provider. An adoption service provider can include an adoption agency or an adoption attorney. This organization or individual is a wonderful place to begin your process.  Whether you feel pretty certain of your decision to place your baby for adoption, or are still gathering information on all of your options, adoption agencies are a good starting point. You can research agencies and find ones in your state at the adoption agency directory. Deciding which agencies are best to interview can be a daunting step in the process. How to choose a great adoption agency can be overwhelming, but it does not have to be. Narrowing the list based on geography and services they provide birth mothers (and potentially prospective adoptive parents) is important. You can not call or meet with an infinite amount of agencies. Many people enter the adoption process for the first time with the misconception that all agencies are the same. They are not; so do your research and make sure your questions are answered during the interview.

Most adoption agencies also have a number of prospective adoptive parents with whom they are working who are looking to build a family through adoption. They may have profiles for you to view of prospective adoptive parents. They can organize in-person interviews and meetings so that you can personally choose the family with whom you place your baby. Those prospective adoptive will often provide a profile or even a photo album of photos and family history. Prospective adoptive parents will also go through a home study to ensure the home is safe and they have the proper education and preparation going into adoption. The home study needs to be done by licensed social workers or licensed adoption professionals in the prospective adoptive parents’ state in which they live. The home study is inclusive of all of the information you and the social worker will need to deem the couple as suitable future parents. The home study ensures the home and family are safe and prepared for adopting your baby. The prospective adoptive parents will need to complete parenting training, have interviews with the social worker and home visits to ensure it is safe and prepared for a child. The home study also includes recommendations from employers, friends, family, and teachers of children in the home. Every individual living in the home is interviewed and all go through an FBI live scan background check and check-in each county in where they have lived. Driving records, income levels, medical, education, and employment histories is also disclosed and included in the home study report. 

The adoption agency or adoption attorney can also work with you and the adoptive parents to determine what birth mother expenses will be paid for by the prospective adoptive parents. These expenses usually include legal fees, medical expenses during the pregnancy and postpartum period, counseling, rent or mortgage payments, utilities, maternity clothing and supplies, transportation, and food. Most states have regulations for these types of birth mother expenses. Your adoption service provider can help you understand what expenses can be covered.

Once your child is born, you will have time to bond, if you wish, in the hospital. You will work with the adoption agency to complete a birthing plan which will include how you would like the birth to take place, what will happen in the hours after your child is born and who you would like to have in the hospital room with you during labor and after the baby has been born.

After the baby’s birth, there are various steps in completing the relinquishment paperwork and finalizing the adoption. There will be time before you sign any paperwork relinquishing your maternal or parental rights. You can have as much time as you need with your baby alone after his or her birth. Some mothers want a few minutes alone, others many hours. There is no right or wrong decision; this is entirely your decision. 

Your baby is legally your child until you sign the relinquishment paperwork. The decision of when or even if you sign the relinquishment paperwork is up to you. You can change your mind. You can ask all of the questions you need, speak to your support people or social worker. You have the right to make sure this is the decision you still want to make—to place your child for adoption.  

After you sign the relinquishment papers and place your child with the adoptive family, there is a period of time between that placement and the finalization of the adoption.  This amount of time can vary by state, but usually most states require at least six months. During this time the adoptive parents will have visits from the home study social worker to ensure the child is safe and thriving in the family’s care. The child may be in legal custody or the custody of the adoption agency—this also varies by state.

During this time, and after the finalization, you will begin the open adoption communication upon which all parties agreed. You may receive calls or photos or even visit. You may feel a range of emotions during this time including sadness, grief, relief, confusion, or peace. Reaching out to your support system, friends, social worker, counselor and loved ones is important. Taking time for yourself as you go through the process is critical.  

Above all else as you begin this journey, conducting research, speaking with a social worker or adoption service provider on the options available to you, and understanding the steps involved in how adoption works will help you take this first step.

If you would like to speak confidentially with an adoption professional about your pregnancy options, click here.


Jennifer Mellon is the co-founder and president of Trustify, providing private investigators on demand to consumers and businesses. She has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving as the executive director and chief development officer at Joint Council on International Children’s Services. She also worked for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) and served on the board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro region. She currently serves on the development board for the National Council for Adoption and currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and five children.