By David Hardy // Attorney
Early in my legal practice, a wise and seasoned mentor taught me about what it means to be an “expert” or a “specialist.” “If you have done something once,” he explained, with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, “you can call yourself an expert.” Within a matter of weeks, I found that I could proclaim my expertise in any number of subjects, from water rights to trademark infringement. Adoption came a few years later.
Such reasoning is not unique to the legal world, and adoption practice is no exception. Those who proclaim their expertise, or allow others to do it for them, may not actually have the background or experience that the term “expert” implies. It is advisable that those involved in an adoption engage professionals with sufficient knowledge and experience to avoid and address problems that may arise. Failure to do some homework and ascertain expertise may put parents, both biological and adoptive, in peril. On several occasions, I have become involved in cases in order to clean up a mess that an inexperienced practitioner with noble intentions created.
In considering professionals, a factor to consider is their license. Licensing is significant because obtaining a license requires satisfaction of threshold requirements to practice, compliance with governing standards of practice and competence, and oversight by state (or state-like) agencies.
The following professionals must be licensed:
Generally, only a licensed adoption agency (or the state acting in that capacity) can engage in the business of placing children for adoption. Agencies can operate only after satisfying state standards to obtain a license, and they are subject to regular audits by the state to ensure that they are complying with those standards. If a person or organization is operating as an adoption agency but does not have a license, they should be avoided.
The issuance of a license, however, does not guarantee a satisfactory relationship. Agencies, like people, are different and serve different types of people. It is advisable that parents meet with licensed agencies in order to evaluate whether the agency can serve their needs.
Social workers and other mental health professionals must be licensed by the state in order to practice or hold themselves out as professionals. Obtaining a license requires a showing of suitable education and experience. Once licensed, social workers must undergo regular training. Although mental health professionals are not regularly audited by state officials, if they engage in unprofessional or inappropriate conduct, they may be called upon to justify their actions. Failure to act in a suitable fashion may result in a loss of license.
Although a mental health professional’s license demonstrates certain competence, it generally does not reflect any adoption expertise. Thus, in working with a mental health professional, it is advisable to inquire about their experience. Some states have established a classification for “Adoption Professionals” that reflects experience and education specific to adoption.
Attorneys must be members of their state Bar Association in order to practice law. Membership in the Bar requires graduation from law school, passing the Bar Exam and a professional ethics exam, and a showing of good character. Attorneys must undergo regular training and are subject to disciplinary action for failure to comply with professional standards.
Like mental health professionals, however, a license to practice law does not reflect adoption experience. In choosing an attorney, it is advisable to inquire about their adoption practice and to establish that is a meaningful part of what they do.
Other professionals engaged in adoption work, such as coaches, facilitators, and marketers, are generally not licensed. Such individuals may do excellent work, but there is generally something missing from their background, education or experience that would qualify them for licensure as an adoption professional. If parents choose to utilize such professionals, additional efforts to verify competence, such as conferring with references and former clients, is advised.
The bottom line for parents is to ask some questions of adoption professionals that they are considering working with. Ask about their license. Ask about their experience. Ask others who have worked with them about their expertise. Asking such questions can allow parents to avoid difficult situations before they even arise.