Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Q & A about Home Studies

This is my second Q&A installment for Joy in the Journey. You may have even seen a question posted last week asking what questions you have about domestic adoptions. Not surprisingly, a question immediately popped up about the “Home study” (which can be known by a variety of other names, i.e. Homestudy, Adoption Report, Investigation and Assessment, Adoptive Home Assessment). It is one of the most common questions that come up on the Journey.
Question: What is involved in a home study and how extensive is it?
Answer: A “home study,” in most respects, is a misnomer. It is a study of your home in the sense that it talks about the physical structure of the house.  You will give a tour of each room and the author will be looking for safety issues, bedrooms, bathrooms, yard space, etc. However, that is a very small portion of the home study. The home study is more about you and your spouse: how and where you each grew up; your childhood memories, good and bad; your education; your religion, then and now; your prior relationships, divorces, etc. You will need to describe your family tree. There will be questions about how and where you met your spouse, and how and why you fell in love. You will need to answer questions about how you plan to raise your child(ren), from discipline to religion to education. You will need to answer questions about your finances, including your income and expenses, and be prepared to back it up with tax returns, pay check stubs, etc. Your general health and medical conditions are fair game. Virtually nothing is off limits, and even things you did as a juvenile will need to be disclosed. You will also have to provide references and criminal background checks.  So yes, it is extensive.
Question: How much does the home study cost?
Answer: Fees vary widely. I’ve seen agencies charge as much as $5,000.00, and I’ve seen them cost as little as $400.00.
Question: We want to adopt. Should we go out and get a home study done?
Answer: Not so fast. Before you answer this question, you need to ask yourself what road you are going to travel in your domestic adoption journey. I do several adoptions each year where people are just in the right place at the right time and “know someone who knows someone who is pregnant and considering adoption.” Are you going to try to utilize social media and your friends and family network and see if you “get lucky,” or are you going to sign up with an agency? If you are going to sign up with an adoption agency, then you need to check with the agency as to whether they will do your home study and/or if it is already included in your agency fee. Is it something you can order “ala carte” or will the agency use your own home study if you have one? Will the agency insist you use their home study author before they will consider matching you with a biological mother?
Keep in mind that according to the statute, the Court is supposed to direct who does the home study, and it is supposed to be “requested,” either by the Court or the adoptive parents (the statute does not clarify which). Thus, read strictly, the argument could be made that you should not have your home study even started until after you file the petition for adoption.  This is impractical, however, and I have never been in front of a Judge in any county (yet) that interprets the statute that strictly. Considering the time and effort that goes into a home study, it can take several weeks for one to be put together properly, and Courts realize an infant should not be left without a family while the report is prepared. As long as your home study is relatively current (some courts say one year, some say six months), and you haven’t moved or had any major life events since the home study was prepared, then you should be able to use it.
Question:  Do I need to have a home or is an apartment or duplex acceptable?
Answer:  Apartments or duplexes are fine, provided there are no red flags (read on).
Question: What should my home have (or what do I need to get rid of?)
Answer: Your home should be in good repair. If your home is in the process of being remodeled, you need to reschedule your home study. You should have a fire extinguisher and if you are adopting a newborn or small child, baby-proof your home before the home study. Electrical plugs covers are cheap and a good idea. You need smoke alarms, and they need to work. Your kitchen needs to have food. Alcoholic beverages in the refrigerator are acceptable, but make sure there is healthy food in there too. Remember your fridge in college? Basically the opposite of that.
Then there are areas that are OK, provided you’ve taken appropriate steps. Firearms are acceptable, just be ready to show how you store them and keep them locked up. Animals are another issue. If you have a dog, it needs to be present for the home study. If it is aggressive with the person doing your home study, that does not bode well for the child. You may be asked to make a difficult choice before you receive a stamp of approval.
Finally, there are definite problems, such as exposed wiring, broken glass and dangerous conditions such as dilapidated automobiles or other junk. Other potential problems are easily accessible prescription drugs and homes heated solely by space heaters (or not at all).
Question: I have a [DWI/Shoplifting/passing bad check/assault (etc)] on my record. Will I fail the home study?
Answer: Probably not, provided 1) it did not happen often and/or 2) it happened a long time ago. There are a few lines in the sand here, however. If you are a registered sex offender, or have ever been convicted of a Chapter 566 crime (essentially a sex crime), then you will not pass a home study. Further, if you have someone living in your home who has been convicted of any of these crimes, then you probably will not pass your homestudy.
Question: I was hotlined once but nothing came of it. Do I have to report that? Will it prevent me from adopting?
Answer: Yes, you should report it. It probably will not prevent you from passing your homestudy (the answer to the criminal question regarding time and frequency applies here)
Question: We met a biological mother on our own and she chose us for adoption. We need to get a home study started. Who can do it?
Answer: This is a complicated question. The statute says the home study is to be done by “the division of family services of the department of social services, a juvenile court officer, a licensed child-placement agency, a social worker, a professional counselor, or a psychologist licensed under chapter 337 and associated with a licensed child-placement agency, or other suitable person appointed by the court.” Does that last part mean your neighbor or your sister can do the home study for you? Not really. Most home studies are prepared by adoption agencies, social workers, and attorneys (particularly attorneys who have Guardian ad Litem training). In other words, people who have experience working with families and working in court. Provided you stick with someone in one of those categories, and you clear it in advance with your attorney, you should be fine.
Question: We had a home study done this year when we were becoming licensed to be foster parents. Can we use it for our domestic adoption?
Answer: This is a controversial question. If you ask someone who works for the State, they will tell you your licensure home study absolutely cannot be used for any other purpose than a subsidized adoption. Judges and GAL’s, however, take a more pragmatic approach. You certainly should have a new home study prepared, but your state-prepared home study usually is more than sufficient to cover what you need as long as it is updated and made current. Some of the best home studies I have ever seen were not expensive adoption agency studies, but the “free” home study prepared by the State of Missouri for foster care purposes. While I would never recommend simply trying to pass off your foster parent home study in your private adoption, it can be the meat and potatoes of your new home study with very little effort.
Question: Our home study is done. Is that all?
Answer: No. You also have to do a “Post Placement Assessment” prior to finalizing your adoption. It is typically shorter, and in private adoption situations, it is essentially an update of your first home study that talks about how the child is progressing and growing in your home over the last several months. In most cases, efforts should be made to try to have the same person who did your home study do your Post Placement Assessment.  Therefore you will want to discuss if there is an additional fee for the Post Placement Assessment or if it is included in the fee you will be paying for the Home Study.

Joe Hensley is an attorney with offices in Joplin and Carthage, Missouri.  His practice includes civil trials and litigation, with an emphasis on adoptions.  He is the former Chief Legal Counsel for the Jasper County Juvenile Office and is a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.

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