Section 26 of the Alabama Code of Laws outlines adoption laws as stipulated by the state. As a legal catch-all for Alabama adoptions, Section 26 stipulates exactly what is required for a lawful adoption. This included chronicling the process that potential adopters (“petitioners”) must go through before a final decree is made. One step in this process is a pre-placement investigation. A pre-placement investigation is when a representative from DHR, a licensed child placing agency, or a private independent practitioner examines the petitioners to determine suitability for adoption. But what exactly determines suitability? Perhaps a more pressing question is what are some signs that a petitioner is unsuitable for adoption?
To uncover the answers to these questions, it is pertinent to call upon the expertise of someone who is intimately involved in the pre-placement process. In other words, a social worker. Dana Wilkes serves as the Adoption Services Manager at United Methodist Children’s Home. She has worked in the field of adoption for a number of years, and is very experienced with the process. Mrs. Wilkes was able to provide wonderful insight into what this process really looks like, and what social workers conducting these home visits and interviews are practically looking for in potential adoptive parents.
In Alabama, the first step in the pre-placement investigation is a comprehensive background check on the petitioner through both the Federal and Alabama Bureaus of Investigation. Following the acquisition of background clearance, the social worker will then conduct the home study. Alabama code does not specify requirements for the home, however, many agencies will use the same minimum standards that DHR requires for foster care homes. Depending on the particular situation, there are often other standards that must be met (other states, other agencies involved, ICPC etc.). If the home study is successful, paperwork concerning the medical history, insurance, and financials of the petitioner(s) will be collected. This will be followed by very intense physical evaluations and individual interviews of each person currently residing in the home.
There are a variety of warning signs that could appear to a social worker during every step of this process. According to Mrs. Wilkes, the most common factor that renders a petitioner unsuitable to adopt is a criminal history. Technically, the state determines if a criminal history is enough to keep a person from adopting. However, even if a petitioner meets the state’s requirements, it is still the discretion of the social worker to clear the petitioner or not. This is especially true if the agency conducting the investigation is a private or nonprofit agency. To this point, Mrs. Wilkes stressed the importance of the ability of social workers to trust their gut instincts and diligently investigate, so that they may feel confident about leaving a child in a home. Though a petitioner may technically “qualify” for suitability, there is a certain level of intuition that must go into the decision of allowing a petitioner to move forward in the adoption process.
An example of this intuition is if a social worker is conducting a pre-placement interview, and the petitioner says something that is just “off” enough to be of concern. Even if a petitioner passes the criminal background check and the child abuse and neglect check, there can still be things in their past that they were not required to disclose. Past events such as these may still be noteworthy and impactful when judging suitability. Mrs. Wilkes comments on this by saying “if you don’t ask the right questions then you won’t get the answers that you need”. Another example would be if the petitioner’s house appears to be unable to comfortably and adequately house the entire family plus a new child. Neither DHR nor the state really has concrete minimum housing standards, so once again it is the jurisdiction of the social worker to interpret the situation and rely on their instincts.
Section 26-10A-19 of the Alabama Code lists specific considerations to determine suitability in a home study. The eighth item on this list talks about the cost associated with adoption. The Alabama Department of Human Resources Administrative Code Chapter 660-5-22 stipulates that there is no minimum income required to be eligible to adopt. However, it does say that the petitioner should have sufficient financial means to provide for the child without difficulty. Mrs. Wilkes clarified the ambiguous meaning of this text by saying that it is up to the agency/social worker to determine what is meant by “sufficient”. If the child is already in the home being investigated, it becomes easier for a social worker to evaluate if they are being adequately financially supported. If a child has yet to be placed in the home then the social worker will tend to rely on financial records and types of insurance held by the family to make this evaluation.
Mrs. Wilkes commented on financial sufficiency of a family saying, “It’s not about what you make, but more about what you do with it.” What social workers are really looking for is to see if a family can maintain their monthly budget while simultaneously having money left over for child related needs and emergencies. A social worker or DHR agent does not turn families away because they do not fall into a certain socio-economic bracket. However, to qualify for suitability a petitioner must be able to show an adequate management of finances. In an effort to preserve the family, child placing agents will want to avoid placing an undue financial strain on a family.
In conclusion, even though the Alabama Code and DHR have guidelines on both the pre-placement investigation process, and the requirements of suitability, much of those guidelines are vague and not specific. In cases where the state has left suitability open to interpretation, it becomes the prerogative of the social worker to make a judgement call. This should give a renewed appreciation for the void social workers fill when conducting home studies and interviews. The responsibility of determining suitability is great, and something not to be taken lightly. Determining petitioner suitability airs more on the subjective side rather than the objective. This allows for a holistic judgment of suitability, and can be a blessing in the pre-placement process.
Like a General Contractor whose level of excellence is, in a large degree, dependent on vetting and hiring competent sub-contractors, The Adoption Law Firm has gone to great lengths to vet and retain a broad range of highly proficient social workers to help you with you home study. We would love to help you with this phase or your journey.
Rachel Dees is from Hoover, Alabama and is currently a senior at Auburn University. She is majoring in Global Studies with minors in Political Science, Philosophy, and Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies. Rachel has a passion for helping people that stems from devotion to the Lord. She hopes to attend law school in order to further the Kingdom through the practice of law.