Adoption is a practice in which an adult assumes the role of parent for a child who is not his or her biological offspring.

Adoption is a process, either informal or legal, in which an adult assumes the role of parent for a dependent child other than his or her own biological offspring. Informal adoptions may occur when a relative or stepparent assumes permanent parental responsibilities without court involvement. However, legally recognized adoptions require a court or other government agency to award permanent custody of a child (or sometimes an older individual) to adoptive parents. Federal laws establish the overall requirements for adoption in the United States and the states must comply with these requirements to be eligible for federal funding. State laws regulate adoption and adoption laws vary among states and countries. Although federal and state resources are available for consultation about the adoption process, individuals wishing to adopt a child are advised to engage independent legal counsel with expertise in adoption law.

Adoptions can be privately arranged through individuals or agencies or arranged through a public agency such as state child protective services. 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 countries. Adoptive parents may be traditional married couples, but they may also be single men or women or nontraditional couples. Adoptive parents may be childless or have other children.

Adoption dates back to ancient times, although fundamental changes have occurred in the adoption process. Ancient Romans saw adoption as a way to ensure male heirs for childless couples so that family lines and religious traditions could be maintained. In contrast, modern U.S. adoption laws are written in support of the best interests of the child, rather than the interests of the adoptive parent or parents.

Modern adoption laws in the United States evolved during the latter half of the nineteenth century, prompted by changes that began with the Industrial Revolution. Concern for child welfare grew at that time because many immigrant children were poor and without adult care. These dependent children were sometimes placed in institutions with the mentally ill and sometimes in orphanages or foundling homes plagued by high mortality rates. In the 1850s, the Children's Aid Society of New York City began to move dependent children out of city institutions and place them with farm families in the Midwest where they were expected to help with farm work in exchange for care. However, by 1900, the concept of child-care institutions was declining, and in 1909, home life was described as the best environment for children. As a result, interest in legal governance of adoption grew. In 1851, Massachusetts became the first state to pass legislation mandating judicial supervision of adoptions, although it was more than 50 years before all states had passed some type of adoption legislation.

From that time forward, the demand for healthy white infants began to outweigh the supply. Agencies began to establish matching criteria in an attempt to provide the best fit between characteristics of the child or birth parents and the adoptive parents. Matching factors included appearance, ethnicity, education, and religious affiliation. By the 1970s it was not uncommon for parents to wait three to five years after their initial application to a private adoption agency before a healthy infant was placed with them. Decreases in the numbers of infants available for adoption were also the result of increased availability of birth control, the legalization of abortion, and the increasingly common decision of unmarried mothers to keep their infants.

In response to reduced availability of healthy, same-race infants, prospective adoptive parents turned increasingly to international and transracial adoptions. After World War II, children from Japan and Europe began to be placed with American families by agencies, and after the 1950s, Korea was the major source of international adoptions. After China enforced the onechild-per-family policy, China became the new leading source of infants for American families. Subsequently, adoptees also came from Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, the Philippines, and India.

An increase in the number of transracial adoptions involving black children and white parents began during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and peaked in 1971. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement opposing transracial adoption, arguing that white families were unable to foster the growth of psychological and cultural identity in black children. After that, transracial adoptions accounted for only a small percentage of all adoptions, and these most frequently involved Korean-born children and white American families.

While healthy infants were much in demand for adoption, many other children waited for adoptive homes. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the federal Adoption Assistance Child Welfare Act (Public Law 96-272) in 1980, giving subsidies to families adopting children with special needs who are harder to place. Individual states defined the specific parameters, but in general, these characteristics included older age, medical disabilities, minority group status, and certain physical, mental, or emotional needs.

Types of adoption

Adoption arrangements are described as closed or open. At one extreme is the closed adoption in which only an intermediary third party knows the identity of both the birth and adoptive parents. The children may be told that they are adopted but will have no information about their biological heritage. When the stigma attached to births out of wedlock was greater, most adoptions were closed and records permanently sealed; however, a move to open records was promoted by groups of adoptees and birth mothers. Varying degrees of openness exist regarding identity and contact between the adoptive family and the birth family. Since the early 2000s, about 50% of states allow access to sealed records with the mutual consent of adoptee and birth parent, and search processes may be available through intermediary parties. Research and clinical observation suggest that healthy identity formation depends on full awareness of one's origins, especially among teenagers. Important medical history may be critical to the adoptee's healthcare planning. Birth mothers sometimes simply want to know that their child turned out okay. Adult siblings may search for a sibling who was adopted before their own birth.

The move to open records led to an increase in open adoptions in which information is shared from the beginning. Open adoptions may be completely open, as in cases in which birth parents (usually the mother) and adoptive parents meet beforehand and agree to maintain contact while the child is growing up. The child then has full knowledge of both sets of parents.

Other open adoptions may include less contact or periodic letters sent to an intermediary agency or continued contact with some family members but not others. It can be a complex issue, sometimes based on the preference of the adoptive family and sometimes a legal issue resting with the adoptive agency or child protective services. In the case of an older child who is removed from the family by protective services because of abuse or neglect, the child clearly knows his birth parents as well as any other siblings. If these siblings are also removed and placed in different adoptive homes, periodic visits may be permitted between the children, but contact with the abusive parents is usually terminated. Siblings may know each other's placements, but the birth parents may have no knowledge of the children's whereabouts. However, if a child is ultimately adopted by the foster family with whom the child was initially placed prior to the termination of parental rights or visitation, then the birth parents might have knowledge of the child's placement and whereabouts even though continued contact may not be deemed in the best interests of the child.

Legal risk adoptions involve placement in the prospective adoptive home prior to the legal termination of parental rights and subsequent freeing of the child for adoption. In these cases, child protective services are generally involved and relatively certain that the courts will ultimately decide in favor of the adoptive placement. The legal process can be drawn out if birth parents contest the agency's petition for termination. Although there may be risk that the adoption may not be finalized and that the child will be returned to the parents’ home, social service agencies generally do not recommend such placements unless the potential benefits to child and family far outweigh the legal risk.

Whether the child is free for adoption or a legal risk placement, there is generally a waiting period before the adoption is finalized or recognized by the courts. Although estimates vary, about 10% of adoptions are disrupted, and the child is removed from the family before finalization. This figure has risen with the increase in older and special-needs children being placed for adoption. The risk of disruption increases with the age of the child at placement, a history of multiple placements prior to the adoptive home, and acting-out behavior problems. Many children who have experienced disruption go on to be successfully adopted, suggesting that disruption is often a bad fit between parental expectations, skills, or resources and the child's needs. Many agencies conduct parent support groups for adoptive families, and some states have training programs to alert prospective adoptive parents to the challenges—as well as the rewards—of adopting special-needs children, thereby attempting to minimize the risk of disruption.

Who gets adopted?

Private and independent adoptions are reported only voluntarily to census centers, making accurate estimates of numbers of adoptions difficult. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 135,000 children are adopted in the United States annually, with about 59% from child welfare or the foster care system, 26% from other countries, and 15% voluntarily offered for adoption by birth parents, usually the mother. The Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. State Department, reports that U.S. adults adopted about 13,000 children from 106 different countries in 2009, with the majority coming (in descending order) from China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, and Guatemala. The total of foreign adoptions decreased after that, and, in 2012, only 9,500 children were adopted in the United States from all countries.

The American Public Welfare Association collected data through the Voluntary Cooperative Information System on children in welfare systems across the United States who are in the process of being adopted, typically one-third with adoptions finalized, one-third living in their adoptive home waiting for finalization, and onethird awaiting adoptive placements.

Adoptions may be arranged privately through individuals or a public or private agency may be involved. Although adopting parents may have certain expenses if the adoption is privately arranged, adoptions are assumed to be a gratuitous exchange by law. No parties may profit improperly from adoption arrangements, and children are not to be brokered. The objectives of public and private agencies can differ somewhat. Private agencies generally have prospective adoptive parents as their clients, and the agency works to find a child for them. Public agencies, by contrast, have children as their clients and the procurement of parents as their primary mission. Adopting children from overseas has expenses related to adoption fees and travel and accommodations during the adoption process; adopting a child from China, for example, may cost as much as $25,000.

Outcomes of adoption


An adopted son or daughter, a foster child, or someone who was adopted as a child and not raised by their biological parents.
Adoptive parents—
Adults who have met requirements for raising a child who is not their biological child and have informally or legally assumed the role of parents.
Hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another person or persons that may include intention to cause pain, suffering, or damage to those persons.

In the course of normal development, adolescence is seen as a time of identity formation and emerging independence. Adopted adolescents face the challenge of integrating disparate sources of identity—biological origins and adoptive family—as they establish themselves as individuals. For some, this is a difficult task and may result in rebellious or depressive behavior, which are risks for all adolescents. Many adoption experts feel that families who do not acknowledge the child's birth heritage from the beginning may increase the likelihood that their adopted child will have a difficult adolescence.

Problems associated with adoption may not always be the result of psychological adjustment to adoption status or a reflection of less than optimal family dynamics. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was found to be more prevalent in adoptees than nonadoptees, both among children adopted as infants and children removed from the home at older ages. When children have been removed from the home because of trauma from abuse, the hypervigilance used to cope with a threatening environment may compromise the children's ability to achieve normal attention regulation.

See also Adolescent depression .



Kaskey Robert A., and Jeffrey A. Kaskey. 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Choosing Adoption. Florida, NY: 99 Series2012.


Crea T. M., et al. “Family Environment and AttentionDeficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adopted Children: Associations with Family Cohesion and Adaptability.” Child Care, Health, and Development 40 (October 2013): 853–62.


Adopt A Special Kid, 8201 Edgewater Dr., Ste. 103, Oakland, CA, 94612, (510) 553-1748

Adoptive Families of America, 3333 North Highway, Ste. 100, Minneapolis, MN, 55422, (800) 372-3300

National Adoption Center, 1500 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA, 19102, (215) 735-9988, Fax: (215) 735-9410, nac@, .