Adoption in the United States

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In the United States, adoption is the process of creating a legal parent-child relationship between a child and a parent who was not automatically recognized as the child's parent at birth.

Most adoptions in the US are adoptions by a stepparent. The second most common type is a foster care adoption. In those cases, the child is unable to live with the birth family, and the government is overseeing the care and adoption of the child. International adoptions involve the adoption of a child who was born outside the United States. A private adoption is an adoption that was independently arranged without the involvement of a government agency.

About two million Americans are adopted. About 150,000 adoptions happen each year, including about 50,000 foster-care adoptions.

While most adoptions involve minor children (under the age of 18), adult adoption is also possible.


Adoptions in the United States may be either domestic or from another country. Domestic adoptions can be arranged either through a state agency, an adoption agency, or independently.[1]

By family members[edit]

In the US, most adoptions involve a child being adopted by a person who is married to a birth parent, or by another existing relative.[2] Adoption by a stepmother or stepfather is called a stepparent adoption. If the child is adopted by a person who lives with, but is not married to, a birth parent, then it is called a second-parent adoption.[3] More broadly, these may be called known-child adoptions, which includes adoption by family members, family friends, or other people previously known to the child.

Generally, stepparent adoption requires consent from all living, legally recognized parents.[2] The process usually terminates the rights of the non-custodial parent.[2] The parent whose rights are terminated will no longer need to pay child support or have any other responsibilities for the adopted child.[2] In most, but not all US states, the child's right to inherit property after the death of the birth parent is also ended.[4] Older children are normally expected to give their consent as well.

Through the foster care system[edit]

A young girl is adopted out of the foster care system

The United States foster care system enables adults to care for minor children who are not able to live with their biological parents.

If a child in the U.S. governmental foster care system is not adopted or returned to the custody of their birth parents by the age of 18 years, they are aged out of the system on their 18th birthday. To help encourage the adoption of children presently in foster care, adoption exchanges were created, so the county adoption agencies around the country could have a central data base to help waiting children find homes. This allows prospective adoptive parents to not only see children waiting for adoption in their own region, but throughout the nation.[5] The central adoption exchange is, created through a grant of the Children's Bureau, U.S. Office of Administration of Children and Families.[6]

International adoption[edit]

Prospective American adoptive parents may use international adoption (also called intercountry adoption) to adopt a child from another country. American citizens, including American citizens who have emigrated from countries they wish to adopt from, represent the majority of international adoptive parents, followed by Europeans and those from other developed nations such as Australia.[citation needed] The laws of different countries vary in their willingness to allow international adoptions. Some countries, such as China, Korea and Vietnam, have very well established rules and procedures for foreign adopters to follow, while others, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for example, expressly forbid it. International adoptions by Americans became much more common after the Korean War when American servicemen fathered interracial children with Korean women. China is the leading country for international adoptions by Americans.

The U.S. Department of State has designated two accrediting entities for organizations providing inter-country adoption services in the United States that work with sending countries that have ratified the Hague Adoption Convention, which specifies by international treaty requirements for adoption between countries that have ratified the treaty. They are the Council on Accreditation and the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services. [1] The U.S. Department of State maintains a list of all accredited international adoption providers.


There are also individuals who act on their own and attempt to match waiting children, both domestically and abroad, with prospective parents, and in foreign countries provide additional services such as translation and local transport. They are commonly referred to as facilitators. Since in many jurisdictions their legal status is uncertain (and in some U.S. states they are banned outright), they operate in a legal gray area.

Where the law does not specifically allow them to, all they can do is make an introduction, leaving the details of the placement to those legally qualified to do so. But in practice, their role as gatekeepers can give them a great deal of power to direct a particular child to a particular client, or not, and some have been accused of using this power to defraud prospective adoptive parents.

Number of adoptions[edit]

Independent adoptions are usually arranged by attorneys and typically involve newborn children. Approximately 55% of all U.S. newborn adoptions are completed via independent adoption.[7]

In fiscal year 2000, 150,703 foster children were adopted in the United States,[citation needed] many by their foster parents or relatives of their biological parents. The enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 has approximately doubled the number of children adopted from foster care in the United States.

The 2000 census was the first census in which adoption statistics were collected. The estimated number of children adopted in the year 2000 was slightly over 128,000, bringing the total U.S. population of adopted children to 2,058,915.[8] In 2008 the number of children adopted increased to nearly 136,000.[9]

International adoptions in the United States by country of birth 1999 − 2014:
Country Female Male Total
China 64,903 8,769 73,672
Russia 22,891 23,222 46,113
Guatemala 15,725 14,065 29,790
South Korea 7,936 11,803 19,740
Ethiopia 7,461 7,339 14,800
Ukraine 5,070 5,173 10,243
Kazakhstan 3,475 2,946 6,421
Vietnam 3,321 2,256 5,578
India 3,818 1,575 5,393
Colombia 2,238 1,855 4,093
Other countries 21,435 18,854 40,289
Total 158,271 97,858 256,132

Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs[10]

Organizations involved[edit]

Adoption agencies must be licensed by the state in which they operate.[11] The U.S. government maintains a website, Child Welfare Information Gateway, which lists each state's licensed agencies. There are both private and public adoption agencies. Private adoption agencies often focus on infant adoptions, while public adoption agencies typically help find homes for waiting children, many of them presently in foster care and in need of a permanent loving home.[12] To assist in the adoption of waiting children, there is a U.S. government-affiliated website,, assisting in sharing information about these children with potential adoptive parents.[13] The North American Council on Adoptable Children provides information on financial assistance to adoptive parents (called adoption subsidies) when adopting a child with special needs.[14]

Social and psychological results[edit]

Because of changes in adoption over the last few decades – changes that include open adoption, gay adoption, international adoptions and trans-racial (racial transformation) adoptions, and a focus on moving children out of the foster care system into adoptive families – adoption has had a large impact on the basic unit of society and the family.[15]

Adoption research scholars have reported seven core issues to consistently be associated with the unnatural processes of adoption. Problems with loss, grief, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, and control uniquely affect each member of the adoption triad. It is important to be mindful of the realities of adoptions as they permanently impact those involved.[16]

Trans-racial adoption[edit]

The adoption of children of one race by parents of another race, which began officially in the United States in 1948, has always generated controversy.[17] The argument often comes down to opposing views as to who gets to decide what is the "best interest" of children. Critics of transracial adoption question whether white American parents can effectively prepare children of color to deal with racism. Others wonder where the children raised by white parents will find social acceptance as adults. Testimony from many transracially adopted adults who grew up in white families illustrates the "in-between" status many adoptees feel, not belonging to or feeling comfortable in communities of color or among white society.[18] Another source of controversy is the history of the widespread removal of children from families and communities of color, which has been shown by historians to have been a tool to regulate families and oppress communities, dating back to slavery times and during the now-discredited Indian Boarding School movement of the early twentieth century.[19] Given this history of child removal, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) condemned transracial adoptions in 1972 in their historic Position Statement. In that paper, the NABSW equated the removal of African American children from their families of origin—and their placement in white homes—with "cultural genocide."[20]

Pro-transracial adoption advocates argue that there are more white families seeking to adopt than there are minority families; conversely, there are more minority children available for adoption. For example, in 2009, 41% of children available for adoption were African American, 40% were white children, and 15% were Hispanic children.[21] This disparity often results in a lower cost to adopt children from ethnic minorities - usually through special adoption grants rather than fee discrimination. Many critics decry the exchange of money for children, whether as "fees for service" or otherwise, arguing that no children of any race should ever be for sale. Proponents point out practicality in the current systems. This situation is morally difficult because the adoptive families see adoption as a great benefit to trans-racially adopted children, while some minorities see it as an assault on their culture. In 2004, 26 percent of African-American children adopted from foster care were adopted trans-racially.[22] Government agencies have varied over time in their willingness to facilitate trans-racial adoptions. "Since 1994, white prospective parents have filed, and largely won, more than two dozen discrimination lawsuits, according to state and federal court records."[22] There is also a great need to place these children; in 2004 more than 45,000 African-American children were waiting to be adopted from foster care.[22]

In 2013, 7,092 kids were adopted from foreign countries down from 22,991 in 2004.[22] This trend has helped lower the resistance to trans-racial adoptions in the United States, at least for Asian and Hispanic children, although there is still high demand for Caucasian children, who usually come from Eastern Europe.

As the children adopted in the early days of the transracial adoption experiment have reached middle age, a growing chorus of voices from adult transracial adoptees has emerged. Their collective experience can be found in films,[23][24] scholarly articles, memoirs,[25] blogs,[26] and numerous books on the subject.[27][28]

Cost of Adoption[edit]

Prohibitive Cost[edit]

Adoption costs can range from almost nothing for foster care adoptions to over $50,000 for international adoptions, in 2015 U.S average adoption costs is $37,000.[29] High costs negatively impact the demand for adoption, as fewer prospective adoptive families can afford to adopt, but the number of children that need to be adopted stays the same or increases. As a result, prospective adopters may seek less cost prohibitive alternatives to adoption like fertility treatments or privately arranged adoptions.[30]

Source of Costs[edit]

The cost of adoption varies widely based on the method of adoption. Almost all the different forms of adoptions have costs related to home study, documentation, adoption agency fees, consultant fees, attorney fees, travel expenses, birth family expenses, foster care costs, early childhood medical costs, and relocation costs.

Public foster care adoptions frequently incur zero costs, though the U.S. average is $2,622 according to a 2015 survey done by Adoptive Families Magazine. Independently-arranged adoptions, orchestrated by a private attorney, can vary greatly in costs. The arrangements are generally setup between prospective adopters and an expecting mother. While some independent adoption arrangements may stay low cost due to nature of the agreement, costs still average $31,890. Independent-arranged adoptions can defer costs by staying in-state, sharing prenatal and child birth medical costs with the birth parents, finding a birth parent by word-of-mouth or by offer to avoid "shopping" for an adoption-willing parent. Private adoption agencies are the most expensive option, with an average cost of $42,337. Out-of-state adoptions can drastically increase adoption costs due to complex legal challenges and travels costs. Costs vary between states due to differing regulations and fees that can cause additional expenses. Medical costs were also frequently cited as an unexpected expense for both the birth mothers and the children. "False starts," when a mother decides not to give up their baby after it is born, can cost up to $2,500 each time.[29]

International Adoption Costs[edit]

International adoptions can vary in cost, depending on the country, and average between $30,000 and $50,000 dollar. In some countries, costs can be equivalent to domestic adoption. According to Adoptive Families Magazine, Ethiopia to U.S. adoptions in 2015 averaged $30,633, while South Korea to U.S. adoptions averaged $40,000 to $50,000. Disparities in country's adoption costs can be attributed by the differences in their regulation and requirements. Both Ethiopia and South Korea require two trips by prospective adopters, which increases overall costs. South Korea's advanced pre-adoption care and medical system costs can also increase costs passed down to adoptive parents.[29] Due to the potential of challenging political and cultural climates of adoption origin countries, undisclosed costs such as "required donations," facilitating or origin country agency fees, and other extrajudicial pay-offs to the children's guardians or origin country.[31]

Physical Characteristics as a Cost Factor[edit]

The physical characteristics of children being considered for adoption; such as race, age, and physical or developmental disability; can cause a 74% variation in adoption costs. Adopting parents may have a desire for specific characteristics in their adoptive child, for which they are willing to pay extra costs to obtain. In international adoptions, children with brown skin color cost $8,200 less to adopt, and dark skin color $14,700 less to adopt, compared to Caucasian children. In domestic adoptions, adoptions cost $600 less per every additional year of age. Additionally, African American children cost $4,400 less than their Caucasian counterparts to adopt. Children with physical disabilities cost $4,000 less.[32]

Subsidies and Tax Credits[edit]

Adopters can claim most expenses through the adoption tax credit. For foster system adoptions, the adoption tax credit may cover the entire cost of adoption. Foster children may also qualify for monthly government stipends, Medicaid health insurance, and even college tuition.[29]

Adoption reform[edit]

No sooner were US adoptions made secretive with original birth records sealed, than those adopted began to seek reform. Jean Paton, author of Breaking Silence and founder of Orphan Voyage in 1954, is regarded as the mother of adoption reform and reunification efforts. Jean Paton mentored adoptee Judith Land, "Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child" during her adoption search. Florence Fisher organized The ALMA Society (Adoptees Liberation Movement Association) in 1972, Emma May Vilardi created International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR) in 1975, Lee Campbell and other birthmothers joined the fight for Open Records forming Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) in 1976, and by the spring of 1979 representatives of 32 organizations from 33 states, Canada and Mexico gathered together in DC to establish the American Adoption Congress (AAC). The Triadoption Library began keeping records in 1978 showing 52 search/support/reform organizations, by 1985 there were over 550 worldwide.[33]

Adoption Reform encompasses family preservation, adoptees' access to original birth certificates, birth and adoptive families having direct access to each other (open adoption) and all related records (open records).

The Adoption Triangle by Annette Baran, Reuben Pannor and Arthur Sorosky; Twice Born and Lost and Found by Betty Jean Lifton; I Would Have Searched Forever by Sandra Musser; The Adoption Searchbook: Techniques for Tracing People by Mary Jo Rillera; The Politics of Adoption by Mary Kathleen Benet; Dear Birthmother by Kathleen Silber and Phylis Speedlin; all published in the 1970s and still in print, were instrumental in examining and defining the foundation of reform.[34]

As of July 2014, 28 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legal provisions for enforceable open adoption contact agreements, and an additional six states have provisions for enforceable agreements with some limitations.[35] Each year additional states consider law changes that give persons separated by adoption access to information about themselves and each other.[36] As of 2013, over 85% of adoptions in the US are either semi- or completely open.[37]

Search and reunion[edit]

Many adopted children who were separated from their birth parents by adoption have a desire to reunite, and most would like family medical history information and access to any documents where they are mentioned. Often, birth parents who placed their infants want to reunite as well. In states which practice or have practiced confidential adoption, this has led to the creation of adoption reunion registries, and efforts to establish the right of adoptees to access their sealed records (for example, the American Adoption Congress, Concerned United Birthparents, and Bastard Nation). Others join search and support groups, most of which are non-profit, or some hire investigative companies to locate birth families and adopted children.

Related legislation[edit]

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980; 113th Congress) passed the United States House of Representatives on July 23, 2014.[38] It is a bill that would address federal adoption incentives and would amend the Social Security Act (SSA) to require the state plan for foster care and adoption assistance to demonstrate that the state agency has developed policies and procedures for identifying, documenting in agency records, and determining appropriate services with respect to, any child or youth over whom the state agency has responsibility for placement, care, or supervision who the state has reasonable cause to believe is, or is at risk of being, a victim of sex trafficking or a severe form of trafficking in persons.[39][40] The bill H.R. 4980 passed the Senate on September 9, 2014, and President Obama signed it into law on September 29.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adopting in America: How To Adopt Within One Year, by Randall Hicks, WordSlinger Press 2005
  2. ^ a b c d "Stepparent Adoption: How to Start the Process". Parents. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  3. ^ "Adoption by Family Type: Second-Parent Adoption - Child Welfare Information Gateway". Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2019. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  4. ^ "Stepparent Adoption" (PDF). Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2013.
  5. ^ "Adoption from Foster Care". Adoption Exchange Assoc / Children's Bureau. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  6. ^ "Who We Are". Adoption Exchange Association. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  7. ^ Independent adoptions
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Adoption Statistics".
  11. ^ "Agency Adoption | Agency Adoption Information | Types of Adoption Agencies".
  12. ^ ADOPTION: The Essential Guide to Adopting Quickly and Safely, by Randall Hicks, Perigee Press 2007
  13. ^ "Adopt US Kids". Adoption Exchange Association. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  14. ^ "Adoption Assistance". 2017-01-19.
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-10-23. Retrieved 2005-12-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ "Core Issues in Adoption - Child Welfare Information Gateway".
  17. ^ H. Fogg-Davis (2002). The Ethics of Transracial Adoption
  18. ^ Simon & Roorda (2000).
  19. ^ Shin, Oparah, & Trenka (2006)
  20. ^ Source: Robert H. Bremner, Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, Vol. 3, Parts 1-4 (Harvard University Press, 1974):777-780.
  21. ^ Foster care
  22. ^ a b c d Overcoming Adoption’s Racial Barriers by Lynette Clemets and Ron Nixon, The New York Times, August 17, 2006
  23. ^ "Hoard, D. (1998) "Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption"
  24. ^ Bertelsen, Phil. Outside Looking In: Transracial Adoption in America
  25. ^ John. J/ Black Baby, White Hands: A View from the Crib
  26. ^ [John Raible Online], Harlow's Monkey, Twice the Rice
  27. ^ Shin, Oparah, and Trenka (eds.) Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption. Boston: South End Press.
  28. ^ Simon, R. & Roorda, R. In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories.
  29. ^ a b c d "How Much Does It Cost to Adopt a Child? Financial and Timing Report". Adoptive Families. 2017-02-21. Retrieved 2018-10-04.
  30. ^ Hansen, Mary Eschelbach (September 2005). "The Economics of Adoption of Children from Foster Care". S2CID 19656549. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  31. ^ Shura, Robin; Rochford, Elle; Gran, Brian K (2016-06-13). "Children for sale? The blurred boundary between intercountry adoption and sale of children in the United States". International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 36 (5/6): 319–334. doi:10.1108/ijssp-03-2015-0034. ISSN 0144-333X.
  32. ^ Skidmore, Mark; Anderson, Gary; Eiswerth, Mark (2014-11-12). "The Child Adoption Marketplace". Public Finance Review. 44 (2): 163–196. CiteSeerX doi:10.1177/1091142114547412. ISSN 1091-1421. S2CID 14797350.
  33. ^ TRIADOPTION Archives
  34. ^ Adoption Books Archived May 15, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ Siino, Jackie (11 July 2014). "5 Questions about Adoption Contact Agreements". Archived from the original on 2014-08-10. Retrieved 29 August 2014.
  36. ^ State laws
  37. ^ Grant, Amanda (2 August 2013). "Why You Should Consider Open Adoption". Adoptimist. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  38. ^ "H.R. 4980 - All Actions". United States Congress. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  39. ^ "H.R. 4980 - Summary". United States Congress. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  40. ^ Kelly, John. "House, Senate Committees Make Deal on Adoption Incentives". The Donaldson Adoption Institute. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  41. ^ "PREVENTING SEX TRAFFICKING AND STRENGTHENING FAMILIES ACT OF 2014". October 6, 2016. Retrieved January 2, 2018.

External links[edit]