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Authors: Roxana Ahmadian & Ames Smith

One of the first decisions couples or individuals face after they have made the initial decision to adopt is who to trust to handle the adoption process. In California, there are two main options for handling domestic adoptions: either the independent or agency route. Figuring out whether to go with an independent adoption or to an agency can be confusing and frustrating. However, by understanding what the differences are between the two types of adoptions, and learning the advantages and disadvantages each has to offer, adopting families can better make an informed decision and reduce at least some of the frustration and inefficiency.


Historically, most couples or individuals interested in adoption would adopt through an adoption agency. Adoption agencies are licensed by the State of California to place children with adoptive parents. There are “public” and “private” agencies. Public agencies are generally operated by the Department of Social Services of the counties they serve. Private agencies are privately funded organizations. The child is first “relinquished” to the legal custody of a licensed adoption agency. This terminates the parental rights of the birth parents. The child is then placed by the agency with an adopting family approved by the agency.

It should be noted that agency adoption is the only avenue available for families who wish to adopt a child with “special needs” if that family wants to benefit from the Adoption Assistance Program (AAP). Under AAP, in an adoption conducted at least in part by a licensed agency, if the child is deemed to have “special needs,” the adopting family may be eligible to receive federal subsidies from the government to cover costs incurred as a result of the child’s condition. Therefore, if the adopting family knows, or has reason to believe, that the child they want to adopt has “special needs,” it is strongly recommended that the family contact an adoption attorney for specific guidance and strongly consider adoption through a licensed agency rather than an independent adoption.

In addition to the financial advantage of possible government funding for parents seeking to adopt a special needs child, there are other advantages of agency adoption which apply to any adoption. A major advantage of an agency adoption is that the process is subject to licensing and regulation by the State. One benefit of this is that upon the “relinquishment” of the child to the licensed agency, the birth parents’ parental rights are terminated. Therefore, the transfer of rights regarding the child goes from the parents to the agency and then to the adopting parents. This middle step reduces almost entirely the issue of birth parents changing their minds before the child is placed with the adopting parents. Another benefit of agency adoption is that agencies pre-screen adopting families prior to placement and provide counseling for all parties involved, which can often result in a smoother process and reduce miscommunication among the parties.

However, agency adoptions are not without their disadvantages. The biggest downside for most people interested in adopting is that agency adoptions usually involve long wait periods. It is common for agencies to have waiting lists of potential adoptive parents, and the wait is typically a few years or more. Also, a pre-placement home study is required for agency adoptions, and this can be expensive. Also agency adoptions use more “off the rack” processes with formulaic methods designed to try and fit all situations. The agency process has been characterized by some critics as intrusive, stifling, and bureaucratic. In agency adoptions, the birth parents have very little say in matters of the adoption.


An independent adoption occurs when prospective adopting parents locate birth parents directly and arrange an adoption with the help of an attorney and without the use of an agency. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of newborn adoptions in California, as contrasted with adoption of infants and older children, are independent adoptions conducted by attorneys, with relatively few newborn adoptions conducted through agencies.

The chief advantage of an independent adoption is that both birth parents and adoptive parents have more freedom and control over the process. This is designer adoption which by its nature can be structured specifically to fit the needs and personalities of those involved. Many of the restrictions and red tape of an agency adoption can be avoided through an independent adoption. Among other things, this should result in substantial time saved over agency adoption -- independent adoptions generally involve far shorter waiting periods. Unlike agency adoption, independent adoption offers adoptive parents the option of having either a pre-placement home study through a private adoption agency or a post-placement home study through their state or county Department of Social Services.

Another major advantage of independent adoption is direct placement. Unlike agency adoption where birth parents relinquish their parental rights to the agency, an independent adoption allows the child to be directly placed with the adopting parents. Removing this middle step typically reduces or eliminates time in foster care. This is often very important to both sets of parents, who generally want to avoid exposure to the foster care system. Independent adoption also operates by “consent” rather than “relinquishment.” In agency adoptions, the birth parents “relinquish” their parental rights to the agency, making the agency the temporary “parents” of the child until placement. However, in independent adoptions, birth parents are required to “consent” to the adoption. This is good news for adopting parents who may want to avoid the child being placed in foster care, and can also serve the interests of birth parents, because it gives them a voice in the process and requires their agreement to the ultimate placement of their biological child.

Independent adoption has some disadvantages as well. Independent adoption is subject to regulation by the state, but because attorneys are not regulated to the same degree as agencies, the level of skill and professionalism varies from attorney to attorney. It is important to carefully consider the attorney you choose to conduct an independent adoption on your behalf. Additionally, unlike with agency adoption counseling is not going to be automatically available, so you should work with your attorney to make counseling arrangements.

Another major consideration of an independent adoption is that there is no agency serving to connect the prospective adopting parents with birth parents. Adopting parents must conduct their own search to locate a birth mother willing to allow adoption. The search for birth parents can be costly and time-consuming. Prospective adopting parents and their attorney must carefully screen responses to advertising to ensure that they are legitimate and that the birth parents are a good match for the adopting family.

For some, the lack of rigid structure and state regulation can be perceived as a disconcerting negative of independent adoption. Others may be wary of independent adoption because the birth parents have greater rights and more control than they otherwise would with an agency.

If you are considering adoption, you need professional advice from the start. Call us today!

Although agency adoptions have advantages, particularly for children with special needs, the vast majority of families adopting newborns choose to proceed with an independent adoption. With all of the concerns that come with the decision to put your child up for adoption, or to adopt a child into your family, most people want the most flexible, least costly, and overall parent-friendly approach to adoption. Independent adoption may fit those needs better than agency adoption. Protecting your child from being in foster care is reason enough for many to choose independent adoption. Avoiding the bureaucracy and red tape of agency restrictions may seal the deal for others.

No matter which method you choose to pursue for your family, it is always advisable to contact an adoption attorney for analysis and advice specific to your unique situation from the very start. If you would like to learn more, do not hesitate to contact us today via phone or email for a free initial consultation.

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