Adoption is the practice in which an adult assumes the role of parent for a child who is not the adult's biological offspring. The process usually involves some legal paperwork.


The ancient practice of adoption was a way of ensuring male heirs to childless couples in order to preserve family lines and religious traditions. In the 1850s the Children's Aid Society of New York City began to move dependent children out of city institutions. Between 1854 and 1904 orphan trains carried an estimated 100,000 children to families on farms in the Midwest; these children were to provide farm work in exchange for care.

Modern U.S. adoption laws are designed with the best interests of the child in mind, not the best interests of the adult who intends to adopt. Throughout most of the twentieth century, adoptions were conducted in secret, and records were often sealed to protect those involved from the social stigma of birth out of wedlock. After World War I, the advent of commercial formula facilitated raising babies without their being fed by breast. Adults were trained in parenting, and childless couples became interested in adopting. Because of the rapidly increasing interest in infant adoptions, many state laws demanded investigations of prospective adoptive parents and court approval before the adoption could be completed.

In the early 2000s, state laws on adoption vary. Adoptions can be conducted privately between individuals, between independent agencies and individuals, and between public agencies (such as a state's child protective services) and individuals. Adoptees may be infants or older children, they may be adopted singly or as sibling groups, and they may come from the local area or from other states or countries. Adoptive parents may be married couples, single men or women, or nontraditional couples. Adoptive parents may be childless or have other children.


In the 1990s, roughly 120,000 children were adopted annually in the United States. This number remained proportionate to the U.S. population throughout that decade and into the early 2000s. During this period, nearly 10,000 children were adopted from abroad.

Types of adoptions

PUBLIC ADOPTIONS In 2000 and 2001, about 127,000 children were adopted annually in the United states. Since 1987, the number of adoptions annually has remained relatively constant, ranging from 118,000 to 127,000. Adoptions through publicly funded child welfare agencies accounts for about 40 percent of all adoptions. More than 50,000 public agency adoptions in each year (2000 and 2001) accounted for 40 percent of adoptions, up from 18 percent in 1992 for 36 states that reported public agency adoptions in that year.

PRIVATE ADOPTIONS In a private adoption, children are placed in non-relative homes through a non-profit agency licensed by the state in which it operates. In an independent or non-agency adoption, children are placed in non-relative homes directly by the birthparents or through the services of a licensed or unlicensed facilitator, certified medical doctor, member of the clergy, or attorney.

About 40 percent of the 127,000 adoptions in 2000 and 2001 were primarily private agency, kinship, or tribal adoptions. There were 58,420 adoptions (46%) private adoptions reported in 2000–2001. With the available data, it is not possible to separate figures within this group for types of adoptions. However, in 1992, for example, stepparent adoptions (a form of kinship adoption) alone accounted for 42 percent of all adoptions.

Informal adoptions occur when a relative or stepparent assumes permanent parental responsibilities without court involvement. However, legally recognized adoptions need a court or other government agency to award permanent custody of a child to adoptive parents.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families Interim Estimates for 2000 as of August 2002 reports 30,939 foster parent adoptions and 10,612 relative adoptions through the foster parent system. (Relatives who were also foster parents were counted as relatives.)

The U.S. Census is the principal source of data on adopted children and their families on a national level. The report for 2000 presents information on 2.1 million adopted children and 4.4 million stepchildren of householders, as estimated from the census sample, which collected from approximately one out of every six households. Together, these children represented approximately 8 percent of the 84 million sons and daughters of householders. In 2000 there were more than twice as many stepchildren as adopted children in U.S. households, with stepchildren representing 5 percent of children in the household. While these data are non-specific, it is safe to say that a significant number of the stepchildren were neither kinship nor stepparent adoptions. Since almost all adoptions by related applicants are independent, it is likely that most independent adoptions were by relatives.

TRANSRACIAL In transracial adoptions, children are placed with an adoptive family of another race. These adoptions may be through public and private agencies or be independent, but most transracial adoptions take place through the public child welfare system. The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to an increase in transracial adoptions involving black children and white parents. This practice peaked in 1971, and one year later the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement opposing transracial adoption. The association argued that white families were unable to foster the growth of psychological and cultural identity in black children.

An estimated 15 percent of the 36,000 adoptions of foster children in 1998 were transracial or transcultural adoptions. Many Americans continue to be troubled by these adoptions. The National Association of Black Social Workers called them a form of cultural genocide. That point aside, there are in fact not enough African American adults willing to adopt to fill the need of African American children in need of adoption.

INTRANATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL In response to a shortage of healthy, Caucasian infants, prospective adoptive white parents started adopting children from Japan and Europe. In 2003, approximately 21,616 children were adopted through international adoption. International adoptions accounted for more than 15 percent of all U.S. adoptions, an increase from 5 percent between 1992 and 2001. This practice showed a dramatic increase between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.

Between 1999 and 2004, international adoptions grew in popularity in the United States as more families recognized the global humanitarian need to provide homes for waiting children. Besides this pressing need, international adoptions have proven to be safe and successful, so they provide an attractive option for people who have been trying without success to adopt within the United States.

Though U.S. citizens adopted children from 106 different countries in 2001, nearly three-fourth of all children came from only five countries: China (25%), Russia (22%), South Korea (10%), Guatemala (8%), and Ukraine (6%). The Chinese government's population control policy, which penalizes families who have more than one child, and the greater value placed on male heirs in Chinese culture have led many families to abandon female Chinese infants. These babies constituted a bountiful source of adoption candidates for American families. In 2003, U.S. interest in adopting from Kazakhstan also grew as many U.S. families reported a fast, smooth adoption experience there. Americans adopt children from Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and the Philippines. Some adoptions come from Vietnam. Adoption from India, however, is difficult for non-Indian parents. In 2002, Cambodia and Romania stopped international adoptions.

SINGLE PARENT According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 33 percent of adoptions from foster care are by single parents. Most of these single parents are women. Single women are more likely to adopt an older child than an infant. Single men adopted some children, and unmarried couples adopted some children in the same period. As one-parent households increase in number and become more acceptable, adoptions in these households also become more common. More than one half of African-American children, nearly one third of Hispanic children, and one fifth of Caucasian children live with a single parent because of divorce and unmarried mothers. This prevalence gives adoption agencies a more open-minded approach toward single parent adoptions. Also, the issue of personal finances and single income families has become less important since adoption subsidies are available nationwide.

Treatment of adoption information

Through most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, adoptions were often informal and unofficial. Agencies, counselors, doctors, and private attorneys were generally not involved. If a young woman was pregnant out-of-wedlock, the baby's adoption might be arranged by the mother's parents with the help of the head of her extended family. Some family member or close friend took in the child. The child might refer to the adoptive parents as aunt and uncle, but people in the immediate social circle might know the child's biological parent.

In the early twentieth century, as governmental and independent agencies became involved with adoption, information about the individuals involved tended to be restricted. Decisions about who could adopt which baby were often made solely by agency personnel. In closed adoptions, mothers gave up parental rights immediately after birth. They did not see or hold their babies.

In the later twentieth century and in the early 2000s, information about adoptions is open to the participants. The birth mother may room in with the baby in the hospital. The birth mother and adoptive parents may have a contract before delivery and a formal or informal agreement about shared responsibility for the baby. The birth parent may have visitation rights after adoption takes place. This arrangement often occurs between a teenage birth parent and grandparents who become the legal parents through adoption. Open adoptions may also take place between surrogate and adopting parents.

Fraud by adoption agencies

Adoption fraud may involve the misrepresentation and fraudulent concealment of a child's pre-adoption history. Some state laws require full disclosure in good faith of information pertaining to the child's health. This information helps adopting parents anticipate any special needs the child may have. Full disclosure by

Parents with their adopted children. (Photograph by John Hart. AP/Wide World Photos.)
Parents with their adopted children.
(Photograph by John Hart. AP/Wide World Photos.)
the adoption agency facilitates the child's receiving appropriate intervention and treatment as needed.

Parental concerns

Adoptions are expensive. Most of the financial expenses are attorney or court fees, and the cost of preparing the home for a new child. Expense results from parents' lost wages for time off to meet with social agencies or to have their homes inspected. Adoptions are emotionally taxing as well. The adoptive parents deal with uncertainty, and if there are other children in the household already, the parents deal with those children's responses and feelings as everyone involved prepares for the possibility of a new family member. Time must be spent with a social worker whose task it is to evaluate the home.

In some cases, the adoptive child is placed in the adoptive home before the legal termination of parental rights has freed the child for adoption. In these cases, child protective services are fairly certain the courts will decide in favor of the adoptive placement, but this tentative situation imposes a potentially uncomfortable arrangement on the adoptive family and their household.

Adoption is challenging for the adopting parents, for other children if they have them, and for the adopted child. Soon after the new child arrives, the adoptive parents should schedule a medical exam. Adopted children from other countries may be at greater risk for certain illnesses or conditions related to possible substandard care they received before their arrival in their new home. Medical evaluation may identify special needs the adoptive parents can then address.

Adopted children should be told early that they are adopted. Knowing from early childhood of the adoption is better for children than learning about it later. Three-year-old children can understand the story of their adoption.

Adolescents may have questions about identity that are connected to their not knowing their biological parents. It is common for them to spend time tracing records and trying to find their birth parents. This activity does not necessarily constitute a rejection of the adopting parents. Children seek out their birth parents because they need information about themselves in order to shape a sense of who they are and where they belong in the world.

Sometimes the adopted child will feel loss, abandonment , and resentment toward the birth parent and the adopting parents. For a period, the adoptive family may not be able to compensate the child who faces the loss of the birth family.

Parenting the adopted child

Adopting parents who intuitively understand the sense of loss and separation anxiety experienced by an adopted child and communicate with their child about the adoption can develop closeness. Even tiny infants have a bond with their mother before birth. A child knows his mother and instinctively wants to be with her. Even babies may experience loss of the natural mother and a sense of confusion regarding the stranger who assumes the role of mother. Parental separation from the child can also be traumatic. The adoptive parents need to be attuned to the child's emotional responses to loss.

In the absence of genetic markers (facial features, gestures, body language, basic personality, interests, and talents) both adoptive parents and the adopted child must learn how to communicate. The adopted child may have trouble fitting into the adoptive family when genetic traits are not mirrored or reflected.

There are many ways for adoptive parents to help an older child deal with sorrow, anger, anxiety , and low self-esteem caused by separation from the biological parents:

  • Celebrate birthdays a week or so before the birthday, if the birthday is really the date of separation from the natural parent.
  • Take extra time to prepare the child for changes in routine, a new school, and family life.
  • Listen more and talk less to the adopted child.
  • Respond to painful feelings with support, rather than by discounting them in any way.
  • Respect and value the differences between the child and other members of the family.
  • Encourage the child's talents and interests, even if they are different from the adoptive family.

Parenting an adopted child is parenting plus. But with intuition, information, understanding, and empathy, it can be a rewarding experience.


Abandonment —Legally, the refusal to provide adequate financial support for one's dependent child; the failure to maintain a parental relationship with one's dependent child.

Adoptee —A person who has been adopted.

Adoption subsidy —A short-term or long-term financial payment, either in the form of cash or services, to help an adoptive family provide for the on-going care of an adopted child. A subsidy can be medical insurance for the child, counseling services for the family, respite care for the adoptive parents; or a monthly cash allowance to help cover other extraordinary expenses and services associated with the adoption.

Birth parents —The biological parents of a child.

Custody —The care, control, and maintenance of a child, which in abuse and neglect cases can be awarded by the court to an agency or in divorce to parents. Foster parents do not have legal custody of the children who are in their care.

Disclosure —Release of information.

Relinquishment —Giving up parental rights to a child, so someone else can adopt the child.

Severance of parental rights —The end of parental rights; the involuntarily removal of parental rights of a parent that has abandoned a child; has without just cause failed to support a child; has neglected or abused a child or has stood by and allowed others to neglect or abuse a child; or who because of extended incarceration in prison, is unavailable to parent or nurture the child. Once the parental rights of both parents of a child are removed the child will become available for adoption by another family.

Trans-racial adoptions —Adoption in which a family of one race adopts a child of another race.



Adamec, Christine. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Adoption. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Group, 2005.

Rothman, Barbara Katz. Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2005.

Volkman, Toby Alice. Cultures of Transnational Adoption. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

Wolfe, Jaymie Stuart. The Call to Adoption: Making Your Child Your Own. Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2005.


Craft, Carrie. "Developmental Grieving." Available online at (accessed December 12, 2004).

——"Teaching Foster/Adoptive Children How to Respond to Common Questions." Available online at (accessed December 12, 2004).

Rapport, Bruce M. "Open Adoption History." Independent Adoption Center (IAC). Available online at (accessed December 12, 2004).

Schlossberg, Patty D. "Helping Your Older Child Adjust." Available online at (accessed December 12, 2004).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Available online at (accessed December 16, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, R.N., DPA, FACHE

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