Open Adoption

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Infant Adoption Cost Questions & Issues

(This article was written in March of 1996 and the figures must be corrected for inflation. Now, in 2005, there is a $10,390 Adoption Tax Credit available to anyone paying adoption fees. It will help significantly toward adoption expenses.)

By Bill Betzen, ACSW, LMSW

At the last agency I worked for (1990 through 1995), the average cost per adoption to the agency (when the adoption budget was divided by the number of adoptions) has been about $13,400 for the last several years. This cost includes maternity counseling costs for the 80+% of maternity clients who do not follow adoption plans for their child. Part of this expense was covered by United Way support and by donations to the agency. The average cost to the adopting family was about $12,000. The exact fee for a non-special needs placement was determined by a sliding fee scale based on the formula of $7,500 plus 10% of the families average annual income for the past two years with a maximum fee of $17,500. Since a credit of $1,000 was allowed for most outreach expenses, this fee also includes such expenses for more than 70% of all families.

However, this is a continually changing world and I am certain the above formula and fee system will be changing. I give it here as an example of the type of fee formulas that are used.

Please note that this fee covered almost all expenses related to the adoption. It covered application, seminar, home studies, maternity counseling, adoption preparation, pre-placement and delivery medical expenses, any birth mother's living expenses falling within agency guidelines, all legal expenses related to the termination of parental rights, agency overhead and public relations expenses. Once the adoption fee was established following the above formula it was applied to a placement within the following three years. During the six years I managed the agency no family waited more than 27 months for a placement. This adoption fee did not include the cost of finalization, the total cost of which usually ran from about $500 on up depending on the attorney you used to handle the finalization.

As to where the money would be spent in a full fee, open adoption, I estimate a general distribution with most agencies would be about 50% to staff costs, 5-10% for legal expenses, 15% for office and supplies, 20-25% for birth mother expenses and 5-10% public relations expenses. This distribution will vary widely from agency to agency, from region to region within an agency, and from year to year. This is only an estimate on my part after many years of managing such budgets. In an open adoption there is much more staff time spent in the education process. As open adoption becomes increasingly common in our culture, and we have relatives or friends we know of with such open adoptions and the educational component may become less of a factor.

If at all possible I strongly recommend that a family find an agency with an adoption fee that will not have what is called "pass through" expense added to it for maternity related medical, living, and legal expenses. Those expenses should all be included in the one adoption fee. There are many agencies that do not agree with this position. The reasons for this recommendation are as follows:

1) An agency generally can better take these risks than can an individual family.

2) The trauma of a parenting decision by a birth mother, with whom a family is matched, is always painful, even without the added loss of money spent by the adopting family on living or medical expenses.

3) The birth mother must feel free to parent her child and that freedom is easier to have if the birth mother knows that the adopting family she probably loves will not also lose money if she decides to parent.

4) In working with such an agency with a non-pass-through fee system, the full financial cost of adoption can be known and planned for by the family up front with no "surprises" along the way.

5) Involving money in the relationship between a birth family and an adoptive family may increase the chance of future requests for such assistance. We believe the birth mother and adoptive family relationship should not involve money, only the child they both love.

6) The birth mother needs to know that any assistance she received was from the agency and not the family. She needs to be personally comfortable to know that the adoption decision did not happen due to the money involved. Her relationship with the adopting family is not a financial one.

Just like you check with the licensing division in your state to check out one part of the professional record of an agency before you sign on with them, you should also call the local Better Business Bureau for one side of their financial record. In many areas of the U.S. the BBB has an automated voice information system with information about businesses in the community they serve. You must have the business phone number for the company you want to check up on. Hopefully they will be listed as these automated systems are growing rapidly.

Just because the founder of an agency has written a book about adoption, do not presume that the agency is in good standing with a good reputation. In about 1992 such an agency in the Southwest went bankrupt leaving 170 adoptive families who had paid fees but had not yet received placement. The adoption field is very dangerous, and has always had scandals brewing it appears. Look back at the history of the Tennessee Children's Home. As with any business decision, if the agency is in any way questionable you need to take extra time to check them out. You cannot check an agency out too carefully. I have a strong preference for agencies who have been in business for 50+ years, but that also is not a sure measure of solid adoption practice.

There is one final very delicate issue to be mentioned. Does the agency you are considering also serve the minority community? At an agency I was working for, I once received a call from a birth mother who was crying because she could not find someone who "wanted" her baby, as she tearfully put it. She had called several agencies, and some of the "baby wanted" ads in the newspapers, and had repeatedly been told they could not help her. She was expecting an African American child. The agencies would say "I am sorry but we have no families." Such calls are not unusual at agencies who have a reputation for serving all children.

I have been fortunate to have never worked for an agency who used the line that "I am sorry. We cannot help you as we have no families." At the agencies I have worked with we would always find a family if we did not have one at that time. When that "I am sorry ..." line is given it usually means that the agency has never tried very hard to recruit families for minority children, or that when they did the agency was asking too high a fee for the family to accept. This issue is the "soft underbelly" of the "adoption industry" in America. It is the best way to test the true motivation of an agency you are considering. Are they in business to make enough profit to cover the high salary for an executive director, or are they there to serve children? An agency must always balance it's budget, but not at a cost to children.

(I apologize if any anger on my part escaped in the above discussion of adoption fees. You may have noted elsewhere in these pages that one of my hobbies is breaking up charity scams allegedly helping children. Unfortunately I think there is much of that same thing happening in some adoption agencies who are allowed to operate in our country. We still have much work to do.)

I welcome your questions, especially in this area of fees and money. It is so delicate. You may send any comments or questions to me at

Thank you.
Bill Betzen, LMSW (Emeritus)
March 6, 1996

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