How To Recognize Red Flags In An Adoption Agency

Written and Photos by Kortni ( )

Written and Photos by Kortni (

Ten years ago we adopted our son through an agency. We were chosen by his birth mother just two weeks after deciding to adopt and then he was in our arms two weeks after that. We weren’t around long enough to see the ethical lines being crossed just below the surface of their non-profit facade. And our longing for a baby naively blinded us to the reality of what was happening.

There were red flags everywhere.

One year later they called to tell us she was pregnant again and our son’s biological brother would be born very soon. She wanted them to be together. Our love for her opened our eyes to the reality of what was happening just under the surface of that agency.

It was a long and messy process with mistakes made on all sides and ended with us being sent a cease and desist letter from the agency’s attorney. We were cut off from communicating with her and while we were fighting hard for him, she was being told we didn’t want him. We contacted the Better Business Bureau and let them know of the red flags we were seeing. She chose another family and without any way to communicate with her, besides an agency that would not deliver our letters and pictures, she spent the next ten years wondering if she had made the right decision for both of her boys.

It turns out we were not the only family bringing the misconduct of that agency to light and the director was investigated shortly after. He was sent to prison on several charges and violations, leaving behind him a trail of broken-hearted families and birth mothers.

Since then I’ve learned how much the walls of an agency with good and ethical practices can and should be protecting expectant parents and adoptive families. I’ve also learned how much damage can be done within those walls when only a profit is seen and not a baby.

I’ve always known that if we ever wanted to attempt the emotional ride of adoption again I would need to be better prepared. I wanted to make sure I knew what questions to ask and understand how I had perpetuated unethical and coercive practices simply by not doing my research first. The reality is that although the vast majority of adoption agencies that you’ll come across are practicing good ethics and doing things the right way, unethical adoption agencies do exist. As engaged parents in the adoption process, when working with agencies, we have to know the difference.

As a potential adoptive family, you will play a role in either propelling or ending unethical adoption practices. The major way we as potential adoptive families can support good adoption practices is by only utilizing ethical agencies, asking questions and finding the ones who are committed to doing this hard and holy work well.

Despite my rocky beginnings with agencies and the lack of trust I developed over the years, I knew the best way to learn from my mistakes and theirs was to go to work for an agency who was practicing good ethics. I’ve still got an under construction sign hanging over my heart when it comes to the business side of adoption, but as far as good practices go these are the flags you WANT to see raised high when it comes to choosing an agency:

1. Treatment of Expectant Parents:

One of the first signs of a questionable agency is how they talk about the expectant mothers in their care. You want to see directors and staff who love expectant parents and are fiercely protective of them and their rights.

To call a pregnant woman a birth mother before she has relinquished her parental rights–even before she has given birth–is a form of coercion because it subtly distances her in her own mind from the possibility of parenting her baby. Adoption professionals should be referring to pregnant women working with them as just that–pregnant mothers or expectant mothers. These women may be considering adoption, but they are not “birth mothers” until they have legally placed their child in the arms of another.

You may want to find an agency whose staff has experience with adoption themselves. For instance, I work for an agency that only allows birth mothers, adoptees or adoptive mothers to work on their phone lines. They want the very first person that an expectant mother talks to to be someone who understands their situation and already loves and respects them deeply.

You can know an agency highly esteems expectant and birth mothers by how they treat them. If they talk about your adoption plan in a way that focuses on you and “your” baby, there is a chance there is a birth mother within those walls who is being treated as a business transaction rather than the mother she already is. An agency with good practices in place will make sure an expectant mother is in complete control of her adoption plan. She will get to decide how open or closed she wants the adoption to be and the agency will present her with families that fit her level of comfort, not the other way around.

Her delivery and time spent in the hospital will be catered to her. Whether your state gives her 24 hours or 24 days before relinquishment, every minute of that time she is still the mother of her child and should get to decide how she wants to spend it. If the state allows, an agency who cares about birth mothers will encourage them to spend the entire duration of her hospital stay with her baby, even if she has already signed. Even if she is calling her baby yours, you and an agency should let her decide when and how she wants her baby’s new adoptive family to be a part of that special time. I spent exactly zero hours with my firstborn in the hospital and only one hour with my second. And I would never change it. I would every time want the first woman to ever love them keep those three sacred days of their lives to herself, after what she has given me for the rest of mine. These women are preparing to lay their baby in another mother’s arms forever, the least they deserve is to be given as much time as they need before saying goodbye.

2. Legal Action:

You want an agency that is up to date with licensing requirements and who hasn’t had any legal action taken against them. Even if you don’t find anything, don’t let them off the hook so easily. They may be really good at hiding their motives. Do your homework. Research every agency carefully. Put each one through your own personal vetting process. No question is too dumb; no level of detail is too specific. Consult the Better Business Bureau, look at reviews online, check discussion boards and find people who have used the agency you are considering to see what experiences they have had. Before handing over any amount of money, be sure you know the people and business it is going to.

3. Pricing:

Why it costs some a full years salary to adopt through an agency when people all over through foster care and private adoptions are paying zero to minimal fees is still a question that weighs heavily on me. I don’t have all the answers, maybe you do. But what I do know is the heart breaking situations a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy can find herself in. For an agency, it takes an incredible amount of time, money, resources and overhead to find, house, feed, transport, care for and support a pregnant woman who has no means to support herself. I know because I did it on my own for months during a private adoption. And even though I work for an an agency now, I am only just beginning to wrap my mind around what it takes to do that for thirty to fifty women each year.

While it may be “normal” in America for adoption fees to be on the rise, there are still some things to be aware of that are far from normal or ethical when it comes to cost.

If an agency is offering you shorter wait times for a higher fee you may want to take your check book and run. There is no timeline in adoption. You could be matched very quickly or very slowly with an expectant mother. An agency can not predict how long that will take. Charging you more to be shown more is not only a really sketchy way to get more money from you, but an unjust service to the expectant women who will only be given a limited selection of profiles after being promised they will be in complete control of choosing the family they want.

Race based pricing. This is when an agency charges different fees for the adoption of different race children. While most agencies have removed this practice there are still some out there that claim “supply and demand” and that they are doing this so more African American and Hispanic babies will have a better chance at being adopted. Let the implications of having to tell your child of color that the fees for their adoption were considerably lower than the white babies sink in for just a moment. This is an unacceptable and unethical practice, not to mention the damaging role it plays in perpetuating racial bias.

If an agency informs you that their fees “are going up very soon” and that you should “act now” to initiate the adoption process with them, it’s definitely a sign that something within their business is going on.

This may seem obvious, but pay attention to the staff. Are they showing up in fancy cars or returning to nice homes. While this isn’t always an indicator that they are receiving large profits from their business, it should certainly be enough to make you ask some more questions about how much of your money is going to someone’s paycheck.

Most agencies are required to give you a cost breakdown of fees. If a general or vague line item comes up, ask them to break it down further. Pay attention to your intuition and make sure you are comfortable with where every dollar is going.

A good question to ask is what happens if an expectant mother decides to parent? What happens to her and what happens to the money you have already paid? An agency is not set up to offer government funding and in the end it is the adoptive family who is financially supporting an expectant mother. However, if she chooses to parent, a good agency will be supportive of that choice and connect her with the resources she needs to be able to raise her child and pay for her way home. She should not be required to pay back any travel or living expenses she incurred during her time with the agency. A good agency will make sure an expectant mother has thought long and hard about her decision and is as certain as she can be that adoption is right for her baby before bringing her into their care and putting her and a family at financial and emotional risk. They will clearly explain before joining their program that if she does choose to parent, she will be responsible for her child from that point on and will be required to pay her own medical expenses as there is no longer an adoptive family involved. Ask an agency about their practices in a situation like this. An agency should have the means to refund a family’s expenses already paid or roll them over into another adoption.

4. Pregnancy and post-placement counseling:

One of the best things about an agency can be your peace of mind in knowing the mother of your child was given the professional and objective counseling in helping her make her decision. It can also be one of the worst. No parent should have to wonder if their child’s birth mother was talked into placing her baby through agencies counseling. An expectant mother needs her own peace of mind knowing that she made the best decision possible for herself and her baby. She can’t do this without being provided with the right coping skills and an opportunity to work seriously with a counselor who has her best interests at heart. Find out more information about their counselors. Ask for their names and research them. Do they have a degree or are they working under the agency’s license? Ask specifically what counseling they give and then listen as if you were the one considering placing your baby. Is the counsel objective or coercive? An expectant mother should feel zero pressure to place her baby.

5. Long-term support for any member of the adoption triad:

Adoption is lifelong. You’ll need your agency’s support, particularly if you have a semi-open adoption and are using the agency as the go-between for long-term birth parent contact. What kind of support do they send a birth mother home with? Is she being offered more counseling free of charge? Is she being connected with support groups and other birth mothers who know exactly what she is going through? Did a portion of that large check you just wrote to the agency go to pregnancy related finances that will help her get back on her feet? Does the agency offer to pay for her education? Do they have programs set up to help her take online courses and get a GED?

For adoptive families, an agency should be offering required courses and resources to prepare you for the lasting commitment and emotional inheritance you will be bringing home with your child. If it is a transracial adoption there should be classes available that teach you how to take care of hair and skin that is different from yours, how to talk to your child and others about racial barriers they may experience and the opportunity to learn from the collective experiences of everyone in the triad. When a birth mother is promised the very best of families to choose for her baby, that includes a family who will have the education and resources needed to meet all of their child’s needs.

These are just a few of the things you can be looking out for in an agency. You may be aware of other red flags. But knowing the difference of what lies at the heart of “good” and “bad” agencies will make all the difference in yours and your child’s adoption. This process should be and feel like the holiest ground you’ve ever walked, not only because of an agency who is committed to facilitating this kind of experience for everyone, but because you are the one willing to do the hard work of learning, researching, and educating yourself in every way you can. This is the holy ground that will lead you through the heartbreak of hospital rooms, courtrooms, therapy sessions and the everyday moments in between that will make you a family.

At the end of the day and this process, you want to be able to tell your child that you know without a doubt their birth mother made her decision with a heart full of peace, love and understanding and that you are completely confident in how they came into your family.

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