Adoption in Missouri
Adoption is the process when a person legally becomes the parent of a child that was not biologically born to him or her. In Missouri, an adoption must be processed through the Court system. The process can take anywhere from 30 days to one year, but will generally take between 6 months and 8 months.
Adoption may be the happiest of all legal processes. And, we love handling adoptions.
When the adoption is complete, the rights and responsibilities of parenthood pass from the child’s biological parent or parents to a new parent or set of parents, along with the joys that come along with parenthood. And the child’s situation is transformed as it blends with the new family. That’s an exciting and monumental change.
So, if you’re here you want to learn more about adoption.
We can help.
Different Types of Adoption
There are a number of different avenues a client may take to adopt a child. These include:
- Agency Adoption
- Stepparent Adoption
- Grandparent Adoption
- Independent Placement Adoption
Agency adoptions occur when an adoptive parent engages an agency to help facilitate the adoption. These agencies can take many forms these days, as some are primarily match services and some are more involved in the whole process. The important question to ask if you decide to work with an agency is whether the agency is licensed in good standing. You should ask detailed questions about what their involvement will be and what all of the costs will be.
Stepparent adoptions are the most common type we see at our firm. A stepparent adoption happens when a spouse decides to formally adopt a partner’s children from an earlier marriage or relationship. It is not uncommon that the child has already been living with a stepparent for many years and may already view them as a parent. These adoptions also tend to be resolved on a bit quicker timeline. We will discuss that more later.
Similarly to stepparent adoptions, grandparent adoptions keep the child within the blood family. However, grandparent adoptions are also different because both biological parents will be replaced as the legal parents, whereas stepparent adoptions keep one of the biological parents as a legal parent. We commonly see these adoptions when a biological parent has not been involved with a child and a grandparent has taken over raising a child.
An independent placement adoption is an adoption where the parties found each other outside of the use of an agency or a third party intermediary such as the foster care system. These adoptions can be very technical, so you want to make sure the appropriate paperwork is in place prior to changing custody.
In essence, an independent placement adoption has little to no oversight until the case is filed. There is no agency involved and the State is not involved. This is why the Courts look at these adoptions a little more closely to make sure the rules were followed prior to filing. If you are moving forward with an independent placement adoption, then speak with an attorney now. Make sure and follow the rules before anything is messed up.
Any Other Differences Between Adoptions?
Yes, adoptions also are classified by where they are taking place and how many states or countries are involved in the process. All adoptions will fall into one of the following categories:
- Intrastate Adoption
- Interstate Adoption
- International Adoption
Intrastate adoption would be your average adoption where everyone lives in the same area. The adoption is started in the State where the parties live. The adoption is finalized in the State where the parties live. And no one is crossing state lines or international borders in order to process the adoption.
Interstate adoptions can be agency adoptions or independent placement adoptions. When an adoption qualifies as interstate it means that the child will be crossing state lines to reside in a different state upon completion of the adoption. The rules on these adoptions tend to be strict as you will not only have to comply with the Court rules but also the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children Office (ICPC) in both the sending state and the receiving state. Very few attorneys know how to handle these cases. Find one that does.
International adoptions involve a couple adopting a child that was born in and currently resides in another country. These adoptions are complicated as they not only involve adoption law, but they also involve immigration law due to crossing borders with a child and citizenship issues.
On a more local level, you will also need to determine what county circuit court to file the case in. In Missouri, you can file the case in the county in which:
- The person seeking to adopt resides
- The child sought to be adopted resides
- The child is located at the time of the filing of the petition; or
- Either birth person resides
This obviously provides a lot of options for the venue of the case so choose wisely. Also be aware of the preferences of the local judges. Some judges do not allow venue based on the location of the child at the time of filing, as that factor can obviously be manipulated a bit. This can also be an advantage in counties that accept where the child is located as a venue option, particularly in interstate cases when an adoptive family is staying in a hotel.
So what’s the Adoption Process in Missouri Anyway…
Adoptions have either one or two overarching paths that you must go down. The details of your case will determine your path.
Path 1 is the one step adoption.
A one-step adoption is an adoption where one or both of the parties looking to adoption already legally have custody of the child. One scenario where this occurs is a stepparent adoption since the biological parent married to the stepparent obviously is already on the birth certificate and naturally has custody of their own child. Another scenario would be grandparents that previously were granted guardianship through the Court for their grandchild and now want to adopt.
After filing the case, a one-step adoption just has the step of finalization to complete.
Path 2 is the two-step adoption.
A two-step adoption is necessary when the adoptive parents don’t have legal custody yet. The first step would be a transfer of custody portion of the case, which happens up front. And in Missouri, the second step, finalization, cannot occur until six months after the transfer of custody occurs.
Adoptions are very procedural and it is important that your attorney properly file the correct initial pleadings with the Court, including:
- Petition for Adoption
- Affidavit for Expenses
- Consent of Natural Parents (if available)
- Certificate of Decree of Adoption
- Adoption Filing Certificate
- Copy of the Birth Certificate
- Consent of the Child (if over the age of 14)
The Petition is the backbone of your pleadings. The Petition formally requests the adoption and also includes any other facts and allegations that are necessary for the adoption to be granted. Depending on the type of adoption, there will be specific requirements to be met. For example, in a stepparent adoption, you will need to state the date the natural parent and stepparent were married.
Sometimes the birth certificate is not available right away. If that is the case, then you can generally request the Court allow you to file it later in the case.
Is that All We Have to Do…
No, once the case has been filed with the Court, there are other steps that must be taken care of as well to have your adoption approved by the Judge. These include:
- Meeting with the Guardian ad Litem (GAL)
- Home Study
- Background Checks
- Service on any non-consenting parties
- Schedule the transfer hearing (if necessary) and the finalization hearing
A Guardian ad Litem is a third party attorney that represents the child in the case. The Guardian is required to be appointed in all adoptions under Missouri law. A Guardian will generally meet with the adoptive parents, meet with the child if old enough, investigate any problems or issues, and make a recommendation to the Court at the finalization hearing.
A Guardian will also be involved if either of the natural parents is under the age of 18. This is required in Missouri so that the natural parent is aware of the rights they have.
The better you get along with the GAL, the better for your case.
Some Courts also have the Guardians complete the home study to reduce the cost of adoptions. For example, in St. Louis County the Guardians can complete the home study in stepparent adoptions. A licensed social worker must complete the home study in non-stepparent adoptions in St. Louis County. Other counties have different rules. Some counties, such as St. Charles, even waive the home study in certain scenarios.
If a home study is going to be required by someone other than the GAL, then you will generally be allowed to choose the social worker or agency to complete the study. The main portion of the study will be done up front around the time of filing and then there will be follow up interactions with the worker. If you are in the middle of a two-step adoption, then the social worker will technically be “supervising” the adoption.
Pick a good social worker or agency. These people are generally very nice and can be extremely helpful to your case. A good adoption social worker that has been handling adoptions for a while may catch things your attorney does not.
What About My Background?
The background checks are initiated by your attorney or by your social worker depending on the type of case you have. At the very least, you will need the Missouri State Highway Patrol background checks and the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect check (CAN). Some social workers will even do an FBI background check to make sure the Court has a thorough record.
If something turns up on the background check, then it does not necessarily make the adoption impossible. It really depends on the nature of the crime. A felony charge/conviction does not mean you cannot adoption. Writing a bad check twenty years ago will probably not be held against you by the Judge. However, a prior felony conviction for child abuse will likely keep you from adopting.
In an adoption case, the Court is really just looking at what is in the best interest of the child. If you are an involved potential parent that makes the child’s life better while keeping them safe, then you are in good shape. If your background puts the child at risk, then your case will be looked at more closely.
Any Other Steps?
Remember that if you do not currently have custody of the child, or have recently taken custody, it is critical to properly handle the following:
- Transfer of Custody Hearing
- ICPC Compliance (if interstate adoption)
- Power of Attorney (for independent or private adoptions)
The transfer hearing can generally be scheduled very early in your case. You will want to schedule it as soon as possible if it is required in your case so you can start the six-month clock. Many Judges will let you transfer custody with consent from only one of the birth parents even if you have not been able to serve the other parent yet.
What if the Birth Parents Don’t Agree or Change their Minds?
This is obviously a huge fear of adoptive parents and rightfully so. Adoptions are granted in one of three ways in Missouri:
- The natural parents consent to the adoption
- The adoptive parents prove the natural parents have abandoned the child
- The State initiates the adoption due to a neglect and abuse case
The best option, of course, is when the natural parents are consenting to the adoption. The natural parents fill out a consent form that agrees to the adoption, terminates their parental rights, and generally waives formal service of the pleadings in the adoption case. This form can be signed with the help of an attorney or on their own. If you are the adoptive parents, you should insist that an attorney review the consent form with the natural parents before signing.
In Missouri, a consent to adoption is final upon signing and cannot be revoked unless the birth parent can prove that the consent was not freely or voluntarily given. This means they must prove to be clear and convincing evidence that they were forced to sign the consent form.
If consent will not be an option, then we turn to abandonment. Abandonment in Missouri is established if a natural parent has abandoned or failed to provide necessary care for the child for a period of six months for children over one-year-old and for more than 60 days for a child under one year of age.
Abandonment cases can become hotly contested. Even if a parent has abandoned, they must still be served with the adoption case. Once service occurs, the abandoning parent has the right to contest the adoption. If a case becomes contested, then the adoptive parents have the burden to show that abandonment exists.
More specifically, you will want to show that there has been no contact with the natural parent, that there has been no financial support received from the natural parent, and that the adoptive parents have not taken steps to block the natural parents from contacting the child. It is even helpful to subpoena phone records and child support records to support your argument for abandonment.
Consent or abandonment/failure to provide necessary care are the two main paths to adoption without involving State agencies. Adoption can also be initiated by the State when a family ends up in Juvenile Court and the State is involuntarily terminating the parental rights of the natural parents.
What if a Natural Parent is Unable to be Involved?
There are scenarios when a natural parent may not be able to stay in touch with their child as easily. These include being in prison or in the military, for example. In those situations, the key for the natural parent is to stay in touch anyway possible. If you are in prison, keep sending letters, cards, or gifts. If you receive some sort of wages, send financial support, no matter how minimal.
The key is doing the footwork up front, rather than trying to contest an adoption when you have not stayed in touch. If you are the adoptive parents, get the records showing that the incarcerated parent receives minimal wages, but has not sent any financial support.
Open or Closed
Some adoptive parents want to know about open or closed adoptions. In Missouri, honestly, it is something that really does not even come up in most cases. The average adoption either has consent from a birth parent that no longer wants any involvement or is granted based on abandonment by a parent that does not even show up to say they want involvement.
That being said, at times a birth parent will want to keep some contact and in those situations, it is best to sign a very specific agreement about the terms of that contact. Adoptive parents often feel conflicted on this issue because birth parents have a lot of leverage until the consent to the adoption is signed.
The Role of Money
Finances are tracked very closely in an adoption case. As we mentioned earlier, the Court requires an Affidavit of Expenses to be completed which discloses any funds spent in relation to the adoption. This includes attorney fees, court costs, hospital fees, agency fees, match services, medical expenses, and social worker fees. This also must include any fees paid to the natural parents.
Adoptive parents cannot just pay natural parents for their child. This is human trafficking. Do not do it. However, in Missouri, you can compensate/reimburse birth parents for things like medical expenses, transportation, and basic necessities during the pregnancy. This is such a delicate issue, you should absolutely discuss with your attorney before exchanging any funds.
Also, update your Affidavit of Expenses before the finalization hearing. Make sure to include all expenses and keep receipts for all your expenses. It may be tedious, but the more paperwork you have the better.
Finishing the Adoption
All cases in any court system have to be filed to initiate the case and generally have to be resolved either through dismissal, settlement, or a Court Order. In Missouri though, an adoption must be resolved through a hearing and a Court Order. This hearing is called the finalization hearing.
The finalization hearing will occur in the Courtroom of the Judge your case has been assigned to. If you are in Boone County, the Courtroom will be in the juvenile wing on the basement floor of the building. If you are in Columbia, then the hearing will occur at 705 E Walnut St, Columbia, MO 65201.
The finalization hearing can either be extremely short or much longer based on one key factor – whether the adoption is contested. If the adoption is not contested, then your hearing should take 10-15 minutes. Your attorney will ask you some quick questions, the Judge will ask any questions she has, and then if everything was properly handled, the adoption will be granted.
If the adoption is contested, which is not nearly as common as uncontested cases, then your case is set for a full trial, usually lasting at least half a day, and sometimes multiple days. The Court will potentially be terminating the parental rights of a natural parent who is fighting the adoption, so the Judge will generally want to provide plenty of time to hear the case.
As we mentioned, we love helping with adoptions. And it is a big help to have a lawyer who has been through every kind of adoption and is familiar with the paperwork. At the Law Firm of Lorri Kline, we help with every kind of adoption (except for international), including those occurring entirely within Missouri, and those that occur across state lines. Please feel free to call our office to talk through adoption.