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When I adopted my oldest son from foster care in 2007, I was so full of emotion that I hugged the judge in the Camden County Hall of Justice. I also hugged my adoption attorney, Susan Dargay of Mount Holly. She was a funny, warm and wise resource as the complicated process unfolded. Even better, her adoption services didn’t cost me a cent. Because my son was in foster care, she billed the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency directly. When it comes to adopting a child (and adoption in NJ in general), knowing the law and getting a good attorney are key.

While it’s technically possible for adoptive parents to file the paperwork on their own, it’s not advisable. The paperwork is complicated and even if just one form is filed incorrectly, the adoption might be invalid. “It’s possible to remove your own appendix, too, but neither that nor self-adoptions are a good choice,” quipped one lawyer on an adoption resource page on avvo.com.

RESEARCH THE RULES IN YOUR STATE

Legal rules and requirements vary from state to state. For instance, for an adoption in NJ, the parent must be at least 18 and more than ten years older than the child. However, in nearby Delaware, the adoptive parent must be 21 years old. In Idaho and Georgia, the parent must be at least 25 years old.

A good place to start is the nonprofit National Council for Adoption (adoptioncouncil.org). There are other online resources, such as adoption.org and adoption.com. These have some good information, too—just know they’re run by a private adoption agency. The legal website FindLaw provides details for each state. Once you’re on the web page for New Jersey (statelaws.findlaw.com/new-jersey-law), search for NJ adoption laws.

PRIVATE AND FOSTER CARE ADOPTIONS

There are three types of adoptions: private, foster care and international. Each one has its particulars and peculiarities. In New Jersey, parents must wait at least six months to adopt a child. That includes foster children and private adoptions. The wait time is in case of issues with a birth father coming forward or in case the birth mother changes her mind. Even parents who work with a licensed private adoption agency and have had the child in their care since birth must wait six months. It can be nerve-wracking.

Sometimes, an adoption from another state requires the parents to go there and remain for a certain period of time. When Mark and Melissa (pseudonyms) of Philadelphia adopted their son in 2013 from South Carolina, they used a private adoption agency, which helped them select a South Carolina lawyer. Once their son was born, they put their 6-year-old daughter in the car, left Philadelphia and raced down I-95.

Because of the laws in South Carolina, the family had to stay in the state for more than a week until paperwork from the adoption agency in Pennsylvania was verified and filed to the South Carolina court. The couple also had to pay several hundred dollars for a social worker to show up in court as their “witness” to attest to their parenting abilities.

As they waited for the paperwork to reach the court, the new family of four stayed in a motel near the Georgia state line. Towards the end of their stay in South Carolina, they killed time in kitschy South of the Border gift shops waiting for the okay from their social worker to leave the state. When they got the go-ahead, the family wasted no time heading back to Philly. “We drove straight through the night because we were sick of hotels and gas station food,” Mark said.

INTERNATIONAL ADOPTIONS

Adoptions from abroad are the most complicated and expensive of all, and definitely require a lawyer. An attorney needs to navigate laws in the foreign country, the United States and the home state of the adoptive family. Each legal system requires different forms to be filed and procedures to be followed.

There are two kinds of international adoptions: Orphan Adoptions and Hague Adoptions. Currently, there are 100 countries whose adoptions are covered under The Hague Adoption Convention of 1993, including Guatemala, Haiti and Vietnam. These countries have particular sets of rules to follow. The US State Department has detailed and helpful information on its website about Hague adoptions at travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/Intercountry-Adoption/Adoption-Process.html.

Children adopted from countries not covered in The Hague Convention are covered under Orphan Adoptions. Specific forms must be filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in order to immigrate the child. Go to uscis.gov/adoption/immigration-through-adoption/ for details.

Whether a child is adopted from foster care in Camden, a courtroom in South Carolina or a foreign country, the end result can be the same: a happy family. But a good lawyer makes the process of adoption in NJ a whole lot smoother.

—Kathryn Quigley adopted twice from foster care in New Jersey. Her sons are now 5 and 13.

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