The process of becoming an adoptive parent is a long and involved one. Potential adoptive parents are screened very carefully. A social worker will be assigned to write an assessment of your fitness called a “homestudy,” which will typically take between three and six months. The homestudy is based on extensive interviews with you, observation of your home where the adopted child would live, and a review of documents you are required to produce. One of the key documents you will be required to obtain is a criminal background check.
There is a federal law-the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, as amended in 2004-that pertains to background checks for foster and adoptive families, but adoption is primarily regulated at the state level.
The state laws differ from each other and from the federal law in certain details, but the basic idea is very similar. We’ll look at the federal law more closely as an example, but for more specific information you’ll need to consult your state’s laws.
The federal law requires a fingerprint-based criminal background check for all prospective foster or adoptive parents, and for any other adults who will be living in the same household. Their prints must be run through a national crime information database, and also checked against all state registries for child abuse or neglect in any state in which the person has lived in the last five years. Applicants will be denied if they have ever been convicted of a felony including child abuse, child neglect, spousal abuse, child pornography or other crime against children, rape, sexual abuse, or homicide. Applicants will be denied if they have been convicted within the last five years of a felony of physical assault, battery or a drug offense.
Again, state laws are similar but not identical to the above. They have such variations as:
Some state laws require only a state or local criminal record check; some require a federal one as well.
Some require fingerprint-based criminal record checks; some only name-based.
Some require additional checks against state registries for child abuse, child neglect, and/or sex offenses; some do not.
Some require the criminal background check for the prospective parents only; some add other adults living in the same household; some add other adults and older children living in the same household; some add everyone living in the same household regardless of age.
States vary in which crimes disqualify a person for life, and which crimes disqualify a person if they’ve occurred within a certain number of years.
The criminal background checks have relevance beyond what the law mandates however. The law will disqualify certain people for certain reasons, but that doesn’t mean that everything’s fine for the applicant otherwise. The social worker producing the home study will still use the criminal background check along with all other information they gather in coming to their recommendations.
So let’s say an applicant was convicted of attempted murder five and a half years ago, and state law disqualifies anyone from adopting who has been convicted of that crime within the last five years. The law, then, does not require that the adoption agency turn the applicant away. But it’s highly likely that the homestudy will be unfavorable and the agency will choose to do just that.
Therefore it isn’t just a matter of satisfying the law’s minimum requirements, but also of how the social worker will assess the prospective adoptive parents in light of all this information.
Furthermore, the social worker will not just be looking at the background check, but will also be discussing all these matters in the interviews with the applicants. It is usually strategically very damaging to hold back anything in these interviews. Applicants are expected to get everything out on the table and explain.
For example, let’s say four years ago during a bitter divorce, your ex-husband made allegations that you abused your children, these allegations were investigated, and no charges were pursued. There was no conviction, so the law does not require that you be disqualified. But if the social worker finds out about this incident-from the background check, from interviews with other parties, or through whatever other investigative means-and you never mentioned it, that looks very bad and you probably just cost yourself a chance to adopt.
Whereas if you volunteered that information, explained that it was a vindictive, false allegation that was investigated by the authorities and found to have no merit, you’re probably fine.
So the general advice on these matters is not to cover up anything.
In fact, as a side note, you really want to talk these matters over in full with your spouse before you ever decide to attempt to adopt. Relationships have been severely damaged when the first inkling a spouse gets of the fact that her husband was convicted of indecent exposure when he was 19 is when she hears him reluctantly admit it to an adoption social worker, or when it shows up on a criminal records check.
If there are skeletons in your past that you don’t want your partner and/or an adoption agency to know about, you really need to think twice about even initiating this process.
Also note that some states take very long to produce criminal background checks, even several months. So order yours as early in the process as you’re allowed.
Anna Glendenning, “State Adoption: Fingerprinting and Criminal Background Checks.” Families.com.
“Criminal Background Checks for Prospective Foster and Adoptive Parents: Summary of State Laws.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.