Adoption Overview

A Comprehensive Tour Through Modern Adoption

By definition, adoption is the process of transferring parental rights from one parent to another. But it’s also much more than that — adoption is a lifelong journey that forever changes the lives of adopted children, their adoptive parents and their birth parents.

The following provides an introductory tour of modern adoption, from the various forms it can take to the people it affects, the policy that governs it and the first steps for pregnant mothers and hopeful parents considering adoption.

Types of Adoption

To begin to understand adoption, it is important to first know the various forms adoption can take and the differences between them.

The circumstances of each adoption vary greatly, and no two adoptions look alike. However, most adoptions generally fall into one of five categories: domestic infant adoption (what American Adoptions provides), independent adoption, foster care adoption, stepparent adoption and international adoption. The different types of adoption vary in process, costs, wait times, advantages and challenges.

Domestic Infant Adoption

In domestic infant adoption, U.S.-born infants are placed for adoption by their birth parents, who legally consent to the adoption and select an adoptive family for their child. Hopeful adoptive parents are matched with a birth mother during her pregnancy, and they then adopt the baby when he or she is born.

National adoption agencies like American Adoptions specialize in domestic newborn adoption and offer services throughout every step of the adoption process, including adoption counseling and education, screening and matching services, arrangement and coordination of the adoption, contact with home study professionals (for adoptive parents), hospital plan development and coordination, general case management and adoption planning, and post-adoption support.

While domestic infant adoptions are usually facilitated by an adoption agency, some adoptive parents choose to pursue an independent adoption without the help of an adoption agency.

Independent adoption: An independent adoption is one that is completed without the use of an adoption agency. Adoptive families work directly with an adoption attorney to complete the adoption.

Because many adoption attorneys do not (or legally cannot) provide many of the same services as adoption agencies, including screening and matching, counseling and support services, adoptive families will often need to outsource these services from other adoption professionals at an additional cost.

Parents who choose to pursue adoption independently need to be comfortable navigating the adoption process on their own, communicating directly with prospective birth parents and coordinating the various adoption services they will need, including advertising, screening, counseling and support, insurance and hospital coordination and more.

Foster Care Adoption

When a child is placed in foster care and his or her parents’ rights have been terminated, that child is legally free for adoption. However, not all children in the foster care system are legally adoptable.

Currently, there are 400,000 children in foster care, and one-quarter of them — about 100,000 — are available and waiting for adoption. Some children are adopted by their foster parents, while others are placed with adoptive families who have not fostered before. Preference will often be given to a child’s current foster parents if that child becomes free for adoption while under their care.

Foster care adoption is often the least expensive form of adoption, with costs commonly ranging from $0–$1,000. In addition, some states provide monthly stipends to help support the child’s needs.

Infant adoptions through the foster care system are rare, with the average age of children in foster care being 7 years old, and because the state’s primary goal is to preserve families through reunification, adoption wait times can be considerably longer than for private adoption.

Stepparent or Relative Adoption

Stepparent adoption is the most common form of adoption in the United States today. In these arrangements, a stepparent or relative becomes a legal parent for his or her spouse’s or relative’s child.

There are many reasons a parent may choose to legally adopt their stepchild. Children who are legally adopted by their stepparents are entitled to that parent’s inheritance and are eligible to receive insurance benefits. Adoption also makes it easier for stepparents to complete everyday tasks, such as picking the child up from school and obtaining medical records. There are emotional benefits as well, as stepparent adoption can provide parents and children with a sense of permanence and family stability. 

In some states, the process for stepparent adoption is different than for other forms of adoption. For example, stepparents are not required to complete the adoption home study in certain states. Families should check their state’s home study requirements and speak with an adoption attorney to learn more about stepparent and relative adoption laws and processes in their state.

International Adoption

In international or intercountry adoption, parents adopt a child from a country other than their own and bring that child to live with them permanently in their country of residence. International adoptions are similar to domestic adoptions in that both forms of adoption involve the transfer of parental rights. However, international adoption differs in its expenses, wait times and legal processes — in most cases, the wait times are considerably longer and the legal process is more complex.

Adoption laws and processes will further vary based on the country adoptive parents are adopting from. For example, some countries have stricter age and marriage requirements for adoptive parents than others. State laws will also dictate the steps adoptive parents will need to make to finalize an international adoption.

For prospective adoptive families, choosing the type of adoption they’d like to pursue is one of the first decisions in the adoption process. The type of adoption each family chooses will depend largely on their adoption goals and the types of adoption situations they are open to, including the amount of contact they’d like to share with their child’s birth family.  

Openness in Adoption

Beyond the four types of adoption, adoptions may be further categorized by their level of openness. Openness in adoption refers to the amount of contact shared between a child’s birth parents and their adoptive family after the adoption.

Up until the 1980s, adoption was much more secretive and most adoptions were closed, meaning that no contact or identifying information was shared between the adoptive family and birth parents. This practice was detrimental to everyone involved in the adoption, especially the adopted child.

Since then, adoption has evolved to allow birth parents to determine the type of relationship they want to have with the adoptive parents and their child. This relationship can be thought of as on a continuum, with closed adoption at one end and open adoption at the other. In open adoption, adoptive families and birth parents openly exchange identifying information such as last names, hometowns and personal contact information. In these arrangements, adoptive and birth families will share direct communications, such as phone calls, emails or even visits.

Most adoptions fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum and are considered semi-open adoptions. In these arrangements, non-identifying information such as first names are shared, and contact, such as photos and letter updates, are mediated through an adoption agency.

Ninety-five percent of adoptions now involve some level of openness, and the benefits of these open and semi-open adoptions are widely recognized: continued contact can help birth parents cope with feelings of grief and loss, provide adoptive parents with important medical information that may impact their child, decrease adoption wait times and give adopted children a stronger sense of identity and self-confidence.

Research shows that most adoptive and birth families are happy with their open or semi-open adoptions. However, maintaining the birth parent-adoptive parent relationship can sometimes be challenging. Like any relationship, this relationship will likely change and grow over time. Working with an adoption counselor and openly discussing each parties’ goals for post-placement contact prior to the adoption can help facilitate these relationships.

Despite the occasional challenges of maintaining an open or semi-open adoption, experts agree that more open adoption arrangements are in the best interest of everyone involved in the adoption process, and birth mothers are increasingly requesting more open adoption arrangements.

The adoptive family can choose the level of contact they would like to share with the birth parents before and after the adoption, but many adoption agencies, including American Adoptions, require adoptive families to be willing to participate in semi-open adoption. Because more than 9 out of 10 women who choose adoption request some form of contact with the adoptive parents, parents who are only open to closed adoptions will often wait for a long time before finding an appropriate birth mother.  

To better understand the unique benefits and challenges of maintaining openness in adoption, it may be helpful to take a closer look at those involved in these relationships — the adoption triad.

The Adoption Triad

In many ways, the most important thing to understand about adoption is the people whose lives are affected through the adoption process. The “adoption triad” is a term commonly used to describe the three main parties involved in adoption: adopted children, their birth parents, and their adoptive parents. Each member of the adoption triad plays an important role, faces different challenges and ultimately benefits from adoption in their own way.

To truly understand adoption, it is necessary to understand each member of the adoption triad and the role adoption plays in their lives.

Adoptive Parents

Parents choose to start or grow their families through adoption for a variety of reasons. Adoption is a common choice for single people, LGBT couples and couples who have struggled with infertility.

For these parents, adoption provides the ability to become parents when they may not be able to have children otherwise. Adoption gives them the benefits of sharing their lives with a child and experiencing all of the joys of parenthood.

Adoption also presents some challenges for adoptive parents. Prior to adopting, many parents must overcome difficult losses and move past infertility. Once they finally become parents, they will face some challenges unique to parenting adopted children. Talking about adoption and family formation, addressing racial and cultural identity, blending adopted and biological children and responding to hurtful questions and comments are some of the challenges adoptive families sometimes struggle with.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources and support available to help adoptive parents address these challenges and share their adoption story. American Adoptions provides education and support throughout the adoption process, and the following resources can provide additional information about parenting adopted children:

Adopted Children

Adoption has a significant impact on adopted children. Research has suggested that overall, adopted children have significant advantages when it comes to factors such as health and school performance. They are more likely to be read, sung and told stories to every day as young children and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities.

Because adopted children are raised by parents who have been planning and preparing for a child for a long time, many adopted children have opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Adoptive homes provide children with a stable, nurturing environment in which to grow, and they are raised knowing that they have two sets of parents who love them: the adoptive parents who raised them and the biological parents who selflessly chose to place them for adoption.

While the benefits of adoption for adopted children are clear, adopted children also face some unique challenges. Adopted children may struggle with feelings of grief, separation and loss. Older children may suffer the loss of their birth parents, siblings and extended family as well as foster families, friends and familiar surroundings, and even children adopted as infants lose the legal connection to their birth families. Adopted children may additionally struggle with self-esteem and identity development, attachment issues and other mental health challenges. These challenges may be present throughout the child’s life, or they may surface only at certain milestones.

Despite the potential for these challenges, most adopted people have a favorable opinion of adoption, with more than 90 percent of adopted children age 5 and older having positive feelings about their adoption.

Open and honest adoption communication can be the most effective way for adoptive parents to help children manage these post-adoption issues. Experts strongly encourage adoptive parents to share their child’s adoption story from the beginning and to learn as much as they can about the child’s background so they are able to answer questions as they arise. Having contact with the child’s birth parents can also be beneficial for the child’s confidence and can help ease feelings of grief and loss.

Birth Parents

There are many myths and stereotypes surrounding birth parents in adoption. Adoption newcomers sometimes assume that birth mothers are “teen moms” or that they would have made unsuitable mothers. However, the brave and selfless women who choose to place their children for adoption come from all walks of life and have all different reasons for choosing adoption.

Most birth mothers do not fit the “teen mom” stereotype. Many women who choose adoption are older and already raising other children in their home. There are plenty of birth moms who are even married when they decide to place their baby for adoption. Most of them have completed high school, and nearly half have completed college.  

The reality is that these women, regardless of their age, background or circumstances, make difficult choices and sacrifices in order to give their children the best life possible — and that makes them great mothers.

In today’s adoptions, birth mothers have control over nearly every aspect of the adoption process. The choices a pregnant woman makes throughout the adoption process — from choosing an adoptive family to making a hospital plan to determining the amount of future contact she would like to share with her child — are known as her adoption plan.  

For prospective birth parents, adoption is an extremely emotional experience, and it is likely one of the most difficult decisions they will ever make. However, adoption does have major benefits for birth parents. It allows them to continue their education, careers and other goals, and it can relieve the financial burden and stress of raising a child, especially for mothers who do not have a partner to share parenting responsibilities with.

In addition, research has shown that women who choose adoption are often more successful later in life — birth mothers are more likely to finish school, less likely to live in poverty, more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than women who choose to be single parents. 

Parents who choose adoption for their children can take comfort in knowing their children will be raised in a stable and nurturing home and that they made adoptive parents’ dreams come true by completing their family. They may receive financial assistance, counseling and support throughout the adoption process. In open and semi-open adoptions, they have the option of remaining an important part of their child’s life.

While adoption has life-changing benefits for birth parents, it also presents some clear challenges. Birth parents often struggle with feelings of grief and loss, as well as the stress of handling an unplanned pregnancy and explaining their adoption decision to others. Many prospective birth parents worry about what their children will think of them for choosing adoption. While these feelings and uncertainties are difficult, the women who selflessly choose adoption do so because they ultimately believe that it is what is best for them and their baby.

To help navigate the challenges and difficult emotions of unplanned pregnancy and adoption, American Adoptions offers free counseling and support to women throughout every step of the adoption process.

For all members of the adoption triad, adoption is a lifelong process. Adopted children, birth parents and adoptive parents all play different roles in the adoption process, but when the three come together, adoption can provide all of them with new opportunities that they may not have otherwise.  

Adoption Laws

While adoption is an emotional journey for all members of the adoption triad, it is also a legal process. Viewing adoption from a legal standpoint adds another dimension to one’s understanding of adoption.  

Each adoption involves a legal process in which one parent’s rights are terminated, voluntarily or involuntarily, and transferred to the adoptive parents. The laws and processes for completing an adoption vary from state to state.

Laws for Adoptive Families

  • Eligibility: In general, adult individuals and married couples jointly may be eligible to adopt. Different states have different laws regarding age and residency requirements. Adoption by same-sex couples is currently prohibited in Mississippi.

  • Advertising: Each state has laws regarding the use of advertisements in adoption. In some states, only licensed adoption agencies and other professionals may place adoption advertisements.

  • Expenses: Most states allow adoptive families to pay reasonable birth parent expenses, legal and professional fees. Some states prohibit certain expenses or require adoptive parents to submit an accounting of all expenses paid throughout the adoption process.

  • Home Study: Home study requirements vary by state in terms of the required elements, the individuals who are investigated, the person or agency who conducts the home study and grounds for withholding approval.

Laws for Birth Parents

  • Consent: State laws determine when and how birth parents must consent to the adoption, as well as who must consent — often the legal parents, the adopting parent’s spouse (if married), and older children to be adopted, if they are of a certain age. In some states, consent is revocable for a period of time following relinquishment.  

  • Birth Father Rights: Each state has different laws for determining paternity and protecting birth fathers’ parental rights. Approximately 25 states have established putative father registries that allow men to voluntarily acknowledge paternity or the possibility of paternity and protect their right to notice of an adoption proceeding.

  • Termination of Parental Rights: Parents who choose to place their children for adoption voluntarily relinquish their rights. Each state also has provisions for involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR). Common grounds for TPR include severe or chronic abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, abandonment, long-term alcohol- or drug-induced incapacity and failure to support or maintain contact with the child.  

Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC)

In addition, any adoption that takes place across state lines is subject to the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC). ICPC regulates interstate adoption placements to ensure that all state requirements are met and the placement is in the best interest of the child.

For interstate adoptions, ICPC paperwork must be filed and approved by the baby’s birth state as well as the adoptive parents’ home state before the adoptive parents are free to return home with their new baby. The process takes about 7–10 days to complete once the baby is born, meaning that parents  should plan to stay in the baby’s birth state for at least two weeks.

Failing to comply with ICPC could put the adoption in jeopardy, so it is important for adoptive parents to talk with their adoption professional and ensure they understand their role in the ICPC process.

The laws and policies surrounding adoption are in place to ensure all parties are protected throughout the adoption process. American Adoptions works with the best adoption attorneys in the country to ensure that all aspects of each of our adoptions are handled legally.

Beginning the Adoption Process

The first step in any adoption journey, both for expectant mothers and adoptive families, is to determine that adoption is the right choice for them. Hopeful parents and pregnant women considering adoption should do their research and weigh their options before deciding to pursue adoption.

If you are an expectant mother or hopeful parent considering adoption, you are already on the right track. It is important to have all of the facts before deciding whether to pursue adoption, and taking time to learn about the types of adoption, adoption laws, and your role as a member of the adoption triad is a great place to start.  

Here are some additional suggestions for individuals and couples considering adoption.

Prospective Adoptive Parents

For adoptive parents, adoption is a big commitment. It is an emotional process that requires an investment of time and money. It takes thought, consideration, research and planning to determine that adoption it the best choice for each family.

If you are considering adoption for your family but are unsure if you’re ready to begin, take time to understand the process and  investment involved in adoption. In addition, consider your answers to the following questions:

  • If you have struggled with infertility, are you ready to move on and fully embrace adoption?

  • If you are part of a couple, do you both agree on adoption and your adoption goals?

  • Are you financially prepared for adoption?

  • Do you have the energy, patience and support you need for adoption and parenthood?

  • Are you ready to open your heart and home to a child that is not biologically related to you?

If the answers to these questions are yes, you are well on your way to being ready for parenthood through adoption. If you are nervous about beginning the adoption process or have additional questions about what to expect, talk with parents who have adopted before or reach out to an adoption specialist for more information.

Every year, thousands of families are created through adoption. While there are many factors to consider, these happy families generally agree that adoption is a positive experience and a worthwhile journey to parenthood.

Prospective Birth Parents

When a woman is faced with an unplanned pregnancy, she is faced with a difficult choice: should she choose parenting, abortion or adoption? Every expectant mother’s situation is different, and she is the only person who can decide what is best for her and her child.

If you are pregnant and considering adoption, you should consider all of the pros and cons of adoption and speak to an adoption specialist for guidance and support. In addition, ask yourself the following questions to help you determine whether adoption is right for you:

  • What kind of life do you envision for your child? Are you ready to provide this life to your baby?

  • Do you have the time and finances to properly provide for a child?

  • If necessary, are you ready to set aside your personal aspirations for the benefit of your child?

  • Do you have the support system you and your baby need?

  • If you are considering abortion, can you afford the procedure?

  • Do you understand the physical risks and emotional consequences of abortion?

  • Are you prepared to let another family raise your child through adoption?

  • Would you like to maintain a relationship with your child through an open adoption?

These questions are difficult to answer, but thinking about your current situation and the life you want for you and your baby can help you make your decision. For women who choose adoption, it is an opportunity to provide a better life for their children, reclaim stability in their own lives and pursue their dreams.

If you believe that adoption may be an option for you but are still unsure, consider speaking to a birth mom who has been in your shoes, read about others’ experiences as birth parents or contact an adoption specialist. American Adoptions’ specialists are available 24/7 to answer your questions and offer support.

Adoption Resources

Adoption is a complex topic, and this information covers only a fraction of the many aspects of adoption. Because each individual’s adoption experience is unique, adoption policies evolve over time and adoption research is ongoing, there is always something new to learn.

 Whether you are considering adoption for your baby, thinking of adopting a child yourself or simply trying to learn more about the world of adoption, the following resources can help you in your search:

American Adoptions’ adoption specialists are always available to answer your questions. Call us at 1-800-ADOPTION or request free adoption information today.




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