adopting a child in California

9 Things To Know About Adopting a Child in California

 A lot has changed when it comes to adopting a child in California. In 1980, I was adopted from foster care in California. Directly through the state, the adoption cost was $500. My adoptive parents, who had previously adopted a little boy 4 years before, put in the paperwork for me immediately upon finalizing the adoption of the little boy (he was an infant at the time) who would become my older brother.  They waited for about three and a half years for me. They wanted an infant, a girl, and had a few other things on their list that they were (and weren’t) prepared to deal with. I was born in a hospital in San Diego, California, and I was immediately relinquished to the state for placement. I went to a foster home for six months. Then, my adoptive family brought me home. Four months later, the adoption was finalized and I officially and legally became a member of my new family. In the 1980s nearly all adoptions were still closed. Though the fee to adopt through the state has not changed, most adoptions are now open. 

Many consider California to be one of the most challenging states to adopt a child in. In this article, we’ll explore why that may be. We will also go over strategies for how to handle the unique obstacles that could come into play when adopting a child in California.

1. Marriage Requirement

There is no specific marriage requirement for adopting a child in California. Most agencies, however, service several states. These are private entities that are often more strict than California’s regulations. It’s common for agencies that facilitate adoptions in multiple states to require two years or more of marriage for prospective parents. This can be an obstacle for single people looking to adopt; however, the state itself does not require marriage to adopt from foster care or through a private adoption that is not facilitated by an agency.

2. Age Requirements for Prospective Adoptive Parents

While there is no minimum or maximum age requirement for adopting a child in California, all adopting parents must be a minimum of 10 years older than the child they intend to adopt. Now, that doesn’t mean that California is facilitating teenagers to adopt very small children. There are, of course, other qualifiers for adopting a child in California.  But, this is an interesting one. Note that this is often stretched in cases of kinship adoption. Kinship adoption is a type of adoption that takes place within the same family (such as a stepparent, aunt or uncle, etc.).

3. Public and Private Adoptions

Private adoption in California can happen a few different ways. If, for example, a stepparent is adopting a stepchild, that process would be considered a private adoption. Most likely, it wouldn’t be handled through an agency. It would likely be performed through a family law attorney. Another form of private adoption available in the state of California is through an agency or other adoption law centers. These agencies help the biological parents match with prospective adoptive parents to find the best home for their child. These types of adoptions in which both parties agree and there is an identified placement for a child are also considered private adoptions. 

Public adoption in California occurs when prospective adoptive parents choose to adopt from the foster care system. That can be facilitated through an agency or directly through the state. Either way, the state works alongside the prospective adopting parents to find the best placement for each child’s unique needs. This can be especially challenging.

4. What makes public adoption more challenging?

In California, each county has its own foster care program. This can make the search for the right placement from foster care challenging. Counties rarely communicate their foster care situations. Because of this, having an agency caseworker to advocate for a prospective adoptive parent can be beneficial. Although there may be more fees involved going through an agency, the state offers an affordable option. Working directly with the state, adopting a child in California may cost no more than $500. However, prospective parents will be doing a lot of leg work to make that happen. Wait times can be long (especially for single applicants). Most adoptions take between six months and a year to complete. (The national average is about 2 years.)

5. California’s Cooling-Off Period

California has a revocation period of 3 days; however, the biological parents’ rights are not terminated until the adoption has been finalized. This means that there is a vacate or annulment clause that can be enacted (though it rarely is). Biological parents making the difficult decision to place their child for adoption may find this specific law to provide a sense of comfort. If it seems like the separation will be too great to handle and/or someone changes their mind, the courts can be petitioned to reverse the temporary surrendering of parental rights. The same assurance is provided to the adoptive family as well. If something were to cause the adoption to fail, they may be able to petition the court for a reversal to help the child find a better forever home. 

6. Open and Closed Adoptions

California used to be a default, closed-adoption state. That means that unless it’s specifically stated, once the adoption is finalized, the record is closed. That said, closed adoptions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Most adoptions nowadays are open. Open adoptions allow all parties to have some resources for contact or information about the other. From a medical perspective, this is highly valuable information for the adoptee. There are also several studies showing that understanding personal history and family background can help an adoptee build stability through the potential trauma of adoption. It can also help build healthy relationships between the members of the adoption triad. 

Many prospective parents feel that adopting an infant means they have a clean slate, but even in the best of circumstances, the infant’s life is different from most of their peers. Peers usually look like someone in the family. Recognizing the situation that each child finds themselves in allows for deep bonding and the foundation of resiliency necessary to pursue healthy development, childhood experiences, and a lifetime of happiness. 

7. Placing a Child for Adoption in California

Expectant mothers who are facing an unplanned pregnancy have a difficult decision to make. Sometimes, the decision to place a child for adoption doesn’t feel right at birth. Sometimes it happens weeks later after caring for the child at home. The biological parents can still create an adoption plan for the child even after the child is born. Agencies with experience navigating the legal issues involved are a great resource in this scenario. California’s Safe Surrender law allows for infants 3 days old or younger to be surrendered to a hospital emergency room. A 14-day cooling-off period begins once the infant is relinquished. Should biological parent change their mind, they can return to the hospital and pick the infant up. The infant should be surrendered to a hospital worker and as long as the baby is healthy (showing no signs of neglect or abuse), no contact information about the biological parents is collected. There will only be a medical history questionnaire the surrendering parent will need to fill out to help the hospital staff care for the infant, but identifying information will not be requested or shared. The surrendering parent will also be given a bracelet to identify them and match them to the infant should they choose to return during the subsequent 14 days. No charges are filed and there is no legal action taken against the surrendering parent. 

Once the cooling-off period is over, the child is taken to a foster or pre-adoptive placement home. As of last year, this process has saved the lives of nearly 1000 children since it was first introduced in 2001. Because of this practice, many infants were safely placed in homes. While nearly all states have similar Safe Haven or Safe Surrender laws, the amount of time a biological parent has to confidentially surrender a child can change. 

To adopt a Safe Surrender child, there is a rotating list of agencies that are contacted. It is next to impossible to ensure a prospective parent will take home a Safe Surrender child. However, if a prospective adoptive parent wants to adopt only a child surrendered through the Safe Surrender law, patience may be the best tool to overcome the hurdles involved. 

8. The Statistics of Adopting a Child in California

California is a large state with approximately 2,200 children waiting to be adopted via the public adoption structures (foster to adopt). Last year, over 5,500 adoptions were finalized (both private and public). The large population can increase the chances of finding a forever family for a child that may be able to reside relatively close to their biological family. This sort of preference and contact is part of many open adoption plans. There is a blend of Hispanic, Caucasian, and African American children in need of forever families. (My particular adoption, mentioned above, was nearly a 4-year wait as my parents were going directly through the county and waiting on a Caucasian, healthy, legally adoptable infant to become available.) The more specific the requests, the longer the wait may take to find a matching child. If the prospective adoptive parents are open to a variety of ethnicities, the wait may be significantly shorter. Because California is a bordering state to Mexico, the latest statistics show that the highest number of children awaiting adoption are of Hispanic/Latino origins.  

9. All the feelings

The process can feel long and drawn out, no matter how the adoption happens. Once the process is started, it is an ocean of emotions. Most parents, adoptive and biological, report feeling that they are holding their breath until everything is finalized. Then and only then are they free to grieve, celebrate, and truly adapt to the rush of changes. Even a child who has been fostered by their adoptive family will often have new emotions they didn’t express before once finalization occurs. Coming from the perspective of an infant adoption myself, I can say that birthdays always felt a bit odd. It was the first day I was placed in a hospital. Though I feel like I won the parent lottery and was raised as part of a wonderful family. Birthdays can be strange, as well as some holidays for older children. As an adoptee, asking me to do a family tree in school was a confusing nightmare. 

Adopting is a very difficult decision that is both traumatizing and a salve for healing at the same time. It takes a significant amount of time, resources, support, and research to complete for both expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents. It’s more than adding a crib to the guest room and waiting. The wait for an infant can be long and drawn out. Social workers may be overwhelmed and overbooked, depending on the county. Seeking out help and support from professionals may not be the least expensive route, but it can be the best choice for everyone. Everyone deserves someone who will listen and advocate for them. Biological parents making one of the most difficult decisions of their lives deserve as much support as they can find. Hopeful adoptive parents deserve as much support and advocacy to get through the process. Most of all, the children involved in the adoption process deserve all the love and support the world can offer. Finding the right path and agency will make the wait more tolerable and help everyone feel valued along the way.


The most difficult part about adopting a child in California is the county foster care system. Adopting an infant through a private adoption is about the same wait time as any other state. But, finding the right placement across counties is a true challenge. Funding varies by county as does staffing. What is quick and simple in one county may not be in another. California is home to 58 counties. That’s roughly 58 different offices, teams of social workers, and 58 different listings of children needing permanent home placement. The average length of time for adoptions may be published as 6-12 months, but it seems to be commonplace for the wait to be around the national average of two years. Finding someone who knows their way around the system, making calls, and looking at all the counties can help a waiting child find a great placement and hopeful adoptive parents find their forever families.

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Jaime Humenay

Jaime was adopted out of the California State Foster Care system, and currently resides in Poulsbo, Washington, with her husband and daughter. As an adult, Jaime is an Olympic Weightlifting athlete and coach at the YMCA and licensed foster parent. Jaime and her husband are planning to add to their family through adoption in 2020. She is a strong advocate for older child adoption and is excited to lend her voice as an adoptee and adopting parent to the complicated discussion of family building.