Overview of the adoption process
As we go through this section, I refer to “parents” and “child”. This is only done for ease of usage. A single person can adopt. More than one child can be adopted at a time (my record is four (4) children adopted at once!). Parents can be one or both birth parents or one or both adoptive parents as the case may be.
There are several ways a child can be adopted in Iowa. The first is the traditional “stranger” adoption, so called because the adopting parents are not related to the child. Stranger adoptions include adoptions using the services of an adoption agency, an independent adoption or an adoption through the Iowa Department of Human Services. The second is the “step-parent” adoption where one spouse wishes to adopt the other spouse’s child so that the child will legally be the child of both of them. Finally, there is the relative adoptions, where the child to be adopted is related to at least one of the adoptive parents. Each of these adoptions have basically the same procedures and requirements with some slight, but significant, differences.
In all stranger adoptions, having a completed home study is the first step in the adoption process; generally before a child is identified as a potentially adoptable child. The process cannot proceed until the home study is completed and the parents are qualified to adopt, even if the adoptive parents have a specific child they would like to adopt.
Termination of parental rights:
Before any adoption can be finalized, the parental rights of the birth mother and father must be terminated. In a step-parent adoption, only one of the parents will have their rights terminated. Termination can be accomplished in several ways. The easiest is if the birth parents consent to the termination of their parental rights. There are very specific legal requirements that must be met before the Court will accept a voluntary termination of parental rights. If any step is not completed correctly, the court will not terminate parental rights; or, in the absolute worse cases, reverse the termination and adoption and return the child to the birth parent who’s rights were violated. (the “Baby Jessica” case). A court hearing is still required but, assuming the consents to termination are in order, the Judge will order the termination to occur.
The other method of termination of parental rights is contested. A case is contested if one or both of the birth parents object or if one or both of the birth parents cannot be located or even if one of them is not known. In this case a petition for termination of parental rights is filed by the potential adoptive parents. Generally the petition will allege the birth parents have abandoned the child by failing to have contact with the child for a set period of time or for failing to pay court ordered support. Notice of the petition is served on the birth parents preferably in person or by publication if they cannot be found and a trial date set. At trial, if the birth parents fail to appear, the potential adoptive parents win by default. Otherwise, the potential adoptive parents will have to prove their case to the Judge.
If the adoption is through the Department of Human Services, the termination of parental rights will have already taken place before the child is considered eligible to be adopted.
The “traditional” adoption process
The following describes the adoption process for the traditional “stranger” adoption process; either done privately or with the assistance of the Iowa Department of Human Services. Step-parent and relative adoption is discussed elsewhere.
1. The preplacement home study is completed.
2. A suitable child is located
3. The parental rights are terminated and the appeals period has passed.
Steps 1, 2 and 3 do not have to occur in this order. Often, the child to be adopted is known to the adoptive parents before the preplacement home study is even considered. The adoptive parents realize they want to adopt the child and everything flows from there.
4. The child is placed in the adoptive parents’ home.
The child can be placed in the home before the termination of parental rights has been completed; however, I strongly advise against this. If the termination of parental rights does not go through, for whatever reason, the child will be returned to the birth parent(s); or, at least, reunification will, once again, be the goal of the juvenile court system. The emotional toll on both the adoptive parents and, potentially, the child, is such, that I think it is better to avoid the risk.
If the child lives in another state, there is an additional step that must be accomplished. The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPA) requires that the state where the child lives and the state where the adoptive parents live must each approve placing the child in the adoptive parents’ home. This approval, from both states, must be given before the child can be placed in the adoptive parent’s home. There is a standardized set of forms that must be filled out and information that must be provided. Adoptive parents can expect an additional delay of several weeks.
5. After the child has been in the adoptive parents’ home for 180 days, the adoption can be finalized. Sometimes the adoption petition is filed before the 180 days has elapsed and sometime not until after the 180 days has elapsed.
a. Attached to the adoption petition is the child’s birth certificate, a copy of the court order terminating parental rights, the consent of the custodian of the child to the adoption, a copy of the expenses paid by the adoptive parents leading up to the time the adoption petition is filed and the preplacement home study plus any updates to the home study.
6. The post placement home study is completed.
7. The adoption hearing is held and the adoption approved by the court. The adoption decree establishes the adoptive parents as legal parents of the child and gives the child the name the adoptive parents want the child to have.
The step-parent and relative adoption process
The step parent and relative adoption process are essentially the same as the “traditional” adoption with two (2) major differences:
1. In a step parent adoption, the biological parent who is losing their parental rights, if that parent agrees and signs a written consent to the termination of their parental rights, the termination of parental rights hearing and the adoption hearing take place all at the same time, with only one court petition and only one court hearing.
2. In a step parent and relative adoption, the Judge has the authority, and often does, waive the need for a preplacement and post placement home study. The relatives must be fairly closely related to the child being adopted, generally siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. The technical term is “4th degree of consanguinity”, but that really means family.
Post adoption details
After the adoption hearing, the adoptive parents, now the parents of the child will receive a certified copy of the final decree of adoption. This can be used as a birth certificate until the new birth certificate arrives. In two (2) to six (6) weeks, a new birth certificate will arrive from the state where the child was born showing the adoptive parents as the birth parents and showing the child’s new, legal, name.
With the certified decree of adoption and new birth certificate, you can go to your local social security office, change the child’s name for social security purposes and, if you fear the child’s social security number is known by other people and are afraid of identity theft or the social security number being used to track the child down, you can request a new social security number.
An open adoption is where family members from the adoptive child’s former family maintain some kind of contact with the child. This contact can range from the adoptive child’s new parents sending pictures and a brief note to face to face contact between the child and the former family members.
Open adoption is not legally recognized in Iowa. Even if there is a written agreement to allow some sort of open adoption, the agreement is not enforceable and the Iowa courts will not legally recognize such an agreement. Once the adoption is final, the adoptive parents have the final say on who the child has contact with and on what terms, regardless of any agreement or promise made before the adoption.