There are two basic ways to pursue a private adoption in New Jersey. The first is to work with an approved private agency. The second is to adopt directly from the birth parents. There are a few important differences in the legal requirements and procedures applicable to each of these options, particularly with respect to surrender of the child by the birth parents and termination of parental rights.
Regardless of which route prospective parents choose, finalizing the adoption will require a home study, federal and state criminal background checks and child abuse registry checks, and a court judgment of adoption.
An adoption home study is an assessment of prospective adoptive parents by an approved adoption agency. The purpose is to ensure that the parents are ready and able to provide a child with a safe and nurturing environment. The agency interviews the parents and any other adults residing in the home. It also conducts health assessments of the parents, reviews their personal and employment references, and verifies their reported income
To finalize an adoption, the adoptive parents must file a “complaint for adoption.” The timing and location for filing will depend on whether the parents are adopting the child directly or through an agency, as well as on the status of the birth parent’s rights. The court will hold one, or sometimes two, hearings to finalize the adoption. The adoptive parents are generally required to appear in court only once. Children under 10 are not legally required to appear.
Once the adoption is final, the court issues a certified copy of the judgment to the adoptive parents. Approximately two to four months later, the State of New Jersey issues an amended birth certificate substituting the adoptive parents for the biological parents. The original birth certificate is sealed, along with the records of the court proceedings. Until recently this information could then only be accessed by court order. Beginning in 2017, however, an adoptive parent, adult adopted child, or other authorized person can obtain an uncertified long-form copy of the original birth certificate from the state registrar upon request. For more information on this topic, see Open Versus Closed Adoption.
Private Agency Adoptions
When adoptive parents work with a licensed agency, the agency conducts the home study before placing a child in the home. Agencies work with birth mothers who transfer or “surrender” parental rights to the agency following the child’s birth. Under New Jersey law, such surrenders are valid only if signed at least 72 hours following birth. The transfer of rights is then irrevocable.
After a birth mother transfers her parental rights to an adoption agency, the agency can legally provide her with certain financial assistance related to the birth and the adoption. The agency also becomes fully responsible for screening prospective adoptive families and supervising placement.
Birth parents working with agencies usually choose their child’s adoptive parents based on agency-approved profiles. These typically include letters and photos or videos. Some prospective adoptive parents prefer to locate birth parents directly, and then bring in an agency to finalize the process. This is sometimes called an “identified” agency adoption. As long as the birth mother legally transfers rights to the agency after identification, agency adoption laws will apply. Parents who diligently search for a birth mother independently can sometimes reduce their wait time. They must be aware, however, that New Jersey law prohibits paying any intermediary to help locate a birth mother.
In either type of agency adoption, the adoptive parents file a complaint for adoption in the county where the agency is located after the child has lived in the adoptive home for six months. The court schedules an adoption hearing between 10 and 30 days later. If there are special issues—for example, if there is a birth father who has not relinquished his rights—the agency may recommend an earlier filing so that the court can hold a preliminary hearing to resolve these issues.
Private Placement Adoption
When prospective adoptive parents residing in New Jersey locate a birth mother who also resides in New Jersey, they may agree on a direct transfer of the child to the adoptive parents. This is called private placement adoption, independent adoption, or direct domestic adoption. An adoption agency must still be involved, but only for oversight of the placement after the child is already residing in the adoptive home. Adoptive parents pursuing this route can expedite the process by choosing an approved New Jersey agency to conduct a home study as early as possible. They must also be very careful to commit to paying only for legally permissible expenses, such as the birth mother’s pre-natal and general medical expenses. An adoption attorney can provide further guidance.
In a direct private placement, the birth parents can sign surrender documents at any time following the child’s birth, but the surrender will remain revocable until the court terminates the birth parents’ parental rights or the birth parent voluntarily surrenders those rights in court. Within 45 days of receiving the child, the adoptive parents must file the complaint for adoption in their county of residence, or, if the child is less than three months old, in the child’s county of birth. The court will schedule a preliminary hearing for termination of the birth parents’ rights between two and three months after the complaint is filed, and a final hearing about six months later. During the interim period, an approved agency will conduct post-placement home visits.
The laws governing private adoption in New Jersey are complex. To protect yourself and your new family, it is essential to consult early in the process with an attorney who has experience and knowledge regarding adoption. Our New Jersey family law attorneys can help at any stage. Schedule an initial consultation today. Secure your family’s future. Call us today: 888-888-0919.