When you hire an electrician or an accountant, you know what skills they offer and what type of service to expect. Friends or family can share their experiences, and maybe provide a recommendation. Doing your homework helps you feel comfortable with your selection.
How can you find that same comfort level when you hire an adoption professional? You probably have not done that before, and you may not know anyone else who has, either. You may not know what to ask for or how to get what you need.
Asking the Right Questions
The primary adoption professionals are agencies and attorneys. Some agencies have attorneys on staff or on contract, and some attorneys run their own agencies, so the first step is to understand exactly which services your professional will provide. Attorneys and agencies are both bound by licensing standards, so you are entitled to expect a certain level of skill from both. Asking a few careful questions up front should give you confidence that your professional has the appropriate respect for you and for the process. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Could you explain your fee structure? You need to know exactly which services your professional provides, and what you are expected to pay for each of them. Look beyond the number itself. If you work with an agency or an adoption law center that requires a lump-sum payment, find out how much of that is applied toward general operating expenses, birth mother outreach, birth mother support, and legal services. There is nothing wrong with a flat-fee arrangement, as long as you know the portion of your fee that is going toward actual legal services. It is wrong to imply that costs associated with birth mother location or support are legal fees.
Attorneys are bound by ethical rules that require them to charge reasonable fees for legal services. If a lawyer quotes an hourly rate, you can easily compare it with other attorneys in the area. Ask how much time the lawyer usually bills for preparing finalization paperwork or terminating parental rights when both birth parents consent. These are relatively straightforward tasks that should not require more than a few hours’ time. If a lawyer charges a flat fee, make sure you understand which services that fee covers. For example, is there an additional charge if the birth father is unknown and must be located, or refuses to consent? Any lawyer should be willing to give you an engagement or retention letter explaining the fee arrangement clearly and in detail.
Likewise, any agency should provide you with a written explanation of its fee structure. Make sure you understand which fees are refundable and under which circumstances. If there are non-refundable amounts, make sure you are satisfied with the justification for this practice. If you are quoted an amount of money to cover “legal fees associated with the adoption,” find out exactly what that means. It may include only legal fees associated with an uncontested adoption, meaning that, if the birth father is unknown or does not consent, or if there are multiple birth fathers, you may be charged more.
Most attorneys will request a retainer or pre-payment of fees, probably in the range of $1,000 to $5,000, and some will refund any portion that is unused if you decide not to proceed with them.
Some agencies have no up-front fees, but collect money when you “match” with an expectant mother. Because a match may be defined as any contact, such as an initial phone call, prospective parents may find themselves having to decide whether to pay a non-refundable $8,000 fee based on very limited information. If an agency or other service provider does not charge an up-front fee, be sure to ask when payment is due, how much, and what happens if the “match” does not lead to placement. Even though adoption agencies aren’t in the business to make tons of money, they still have to be financially sound, which means they have to use a model that is profitable. The fact that you aren’t paying up front just means that you will pay at a later time, and you may find that an up-front payment results in better service and more information from the beginning.
How often should I expect to hear from you? Some families want their attorney or their agency to check in regularly, even if there is nothing new to report, while others operate on a need-to-know basis. Your professional should be willing to accommodate either approach. Ask up front how often you should expect to hear from your attorney or agency. If you don’t like the answer, say so, and if you do not like the response, move on. If you are working with an agency, ask who your primary point of contact will be, what hours she will be available, whom to call if she is unavailable, whether she will be working with you through the entire process or just certain phases, and whether she is also the primary point of contact for the birth mother.
You should expect the same level of professionalism from an adoption attorney that you would get from any lawyer, including responses to your calls or e-mails within 24 hours, and a clear explanation of work performed and time spent. In my opinion, adoption attorneys should be available whenever you need them, and it’s a problem if you do not have your lawyer’s cell phone number.
How will you protect my interests? At its best, adoption is a collaborative process, with all parties working toward the same goal. From a legal and ethical perspective, however, the adoptive parents’ interests are opposed to the biological parents’, and you should steer clear of any adoption professional who fails to acknowledge this. For example, although they are hired by adoptive parents, most agencies give priority to the birth mother. If there is a conflict about living expenses or the hospital plan, for example, an agency will likely side with the birth parents. This is appropriate, but I do not recommend working with an agency that is vague or misleading about where its priorities lie. Find out whether your agency rep or attorney recommends hiring a separate attorney for the birth mother (she should). What is the process for paying living expenses, and what are the limitations on these? What happens if two birth mothers select the same adoptive parents? Can adoptive parents choose where to finalize the adoption (if there can be a choice)?
Be sure you understand the financial ramifications of a failed adoption. When an independent adoption fails, the adoptive parents usually remain responsible for all legal fees they have incurred. Depending on the contract, some agencies or other professionals keep working, without additional payment, until there’s a successful match. It’s important to note that adoptive parents are virtually never able to recover living expenses paid to an expectant mother.
Often, adoptive parents think it is in their best interest to work with some combination of agencies and/or attorneys, in the hopes that this will increase their chances of adopting sooner. There is no prohibition against working with multiple adoption professionals. Indeed, anyone adopting through an agency will need an attorney to finalize, and it is common for families pursuing private adoptions to provide their profiles to agencies, as well. The only limitations on this practice are your time, your money, and the various professionals’ willingness to be a “non-exclusive” resource. If you sign up with multiple professionals, be extra vigilant in your review of fee agreements, and confirm that the agency or attorney does not prohibit your association with other professionals.
May I speak with one of your current clients? Asking for references is always a good idea, but most professionals are not likely to volunteer the names of unhappy clients, and families who have recently completed an adoption will be overflowing with warm fuzzies. If possible, a conversation with a family who is still in the process will provide a realistic picture of the experience you are likely to have. The Internet has its place as a research tool, but the people who are motivated to post reviews tend to be those who are unhappy. A complaint may be 100-percent legitimate, but remember that you are getting only one side of the story. If you post a specific inquiry in an adoption forum, like adoptivefamiliescircle.com, you will probably receive more objective responses.