Adoption establishes a legal parent-child relationship between a child and one or two adults who are not the child’s biological parents. Once finalized, adoption affords adoptive parents rights and responsibilities identical to those of biological parents. Except for children in step-family adoptions, who are not examined in this Chartbook, children who have been adopted all share the experience of being raised by parents who are not their biological parents. Adoptive parents also share common experiences such as having a judge legally establish the adoptive placement. Adoption is a complex process—in terms of the paths through which children come to be adopted, the various processes by which parents can adopt, and the laws that govern those processes.
Prior to adopting, prospective adoptive parents undergo an assessment, often called a home study. The purpose of this assessment is to identify families’ appropriateness and readiness for adoption. Specific requirements vary across jurisdictions and depend upon the type of adoption, but often involve training, individual and family interviews, home safety inspections, and reviews of records (such as health evaluations, child abuse and criminal clearances, and driving records).1
(Note to reader: Footnotes are denoted using roman numerals, renumbered in each section of the chartbook. Endnotes are denoted using cardinal numbers running consecutively throughout the chartbook.)
Several distinct situations underlie adoption. Children in foster care in the United States— that is, children under the legal guardianship of a public child welfare agency following maltreatment or abandonment by their birth parents—can be adopted if reunification with their birth parents is not in the child’s best interests. Public child welfare agencies oversee adoptions of foster children, either directly or through contracts with private licensed agencies.
Other U.S. children are adopted after their parents voluntarily make an adoption plan for their child.2 Prospective adoptive parents seeking to adopt domestically from sources other than foster care can either use a licensed agency or adopt independently. In a licensed agency adoption, agencies work with both prospective adoptive and birth families, and often facilitate matches between them. Prior to adoption finalization, birth parents relinquish their parental rights to the adoption agency. Licensed agencies must adhere to licensing and procedural standards; unlicensed agencies are sometimes used as well. With independent adoption, prospective adoptive parents and birth parents identify each other independently of an agency, for example, through relatives or mutual acquaintances, word of mouth, or through advertisements. Attorneys may facilitate such adoptions.3
Americans can also adopt children from other countries. The eligibility of these children for adoption is governed by the laws of children’s home countries. Following the adoption, children must legally immigrate to the United States (unless the parents choose to live elsewhere). Internationally adopted children subsequently need to be naturalized in order to become American citizens.
As of April 1, 2008, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption governs adoptions from approximately 75 countries that, like the United States, are parties to it. The Hague Convention determines which children are eligible for adoption and immigration. Its purpose is to protect children and to ensure that placements made are in the best interests of children. For adoptions from countries not party to the Hague Convention, U.S. law dictates that children must have been orphans in order to immigrate into the United States. U.S. law defines an orphan as a child who has no living parents or a child whose single parent cannot care for the child and has provided written relinquishment of the child for emigration and adoption.4
In some instances, adoptive parents and children choose to end the relationship with the child and do not proceed with finalization, i.e., legalization of an adoption, following the child’s placement in their home. This scenario is referred to as “disruption.” Legally ending an adoption following finalization is referred to as “dissolution.” Dissolution is particularly difficult to study, but existing research suggests that it is rare.5
Children in these situations enter (or return to) foster care or are placed with new adoptive parents. The NSAP does not include information on the incidence of disruption or dissolution. The sample only includes children with finalized adoptions living with their parents at the time of the survey. The survey did ask parents if they had ever considered dissolving the adoption and positive responses were so rare that a reliable percentage estimate could not be generated.
Among all adopted children in 2007—with the exclusion of those living with at least one biological parent (i.e., in step families)—one out of four was adopted from other nations; of the remaining children adopted domestically, half were adopted from foster care and half from private sources; see Figure 1. For more information see Appendix Table 1 on page 53.
Figure 1. Number and percentage distribution of adopted children by adoption type