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Types of adoption, Who gets adopted?, Outcomes of adoption

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

An adult assumes the role of parent for a child other than his or her own biological offspring in the process of adoption. Informal adoptions 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, occasionally, an older individual) to adoptive parents. Specific requirements for adoption vary among states and countries. Adoptions can be privately arranged through individuals or agencies, or arranged through a public agency such as a state's 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 non-traditional couples. Parents may be childless or have other children.

Adoption is a practice that dates to ancient times, although there have been fundamental changes in the process. Ancient Romans, for example, saw adoption as a way of ensuring male heirs to childless couples so that family lines and religious traditions could be maintained. In contrast, modern American adoption laws are written in support of the best interests of the child, not of the adopter.

Modern American adoption laws evolved during the latter half of the 19th century, prompted by changes due to the Industrial Revolution, large numbers of immigrant children who were often in need of care, and a growing concern for child welfare. Because of the poor health conditions in the tenements of large cities, many children were left on their own at early ages. These dependent children were sometimes placed in almshouses with the mentally ill, and sometimes in 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. Between 1854 and 1904 orphan trains carried an estimated 100,000 children to the farms of the Midwest where they were placed with families and generally expected to help with farm work in exchange for care.

Massachusetts became the first state to pass legislation mandating judicial supervision of adoptions in 1851, and by 1929 all states had passed some type of adoption legislation. During the early part of the 20th century it was standard practice to conduct adoptions in secret and with records sealed, in part to protect the parties involved from the social stigma of illegitimate birth. After WWI two factors combined to increase interest in the adoption of infants. The development of formula feeding allowed for the raising of infants without a ready supply of breast milk, and psychological theory and research about the relative importance of training and conditioning in child rearing eased the concerns of childless couples about potential "bad seeds." Because of the burgeoning interest in infant adoptions, many states legislated investigations of prospective adoptive parents and court approval prior to finalization of the adoption.

Until about mid-century the balance of infant supply and parent demand was roughly equal. However during the 1950s 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 on items such as appearance, ethnicity, education, and religious affiliation. By the 1970s it was not uncommon for parents to wait 3-5 years after their initial application to a private adoption agency before they had a healthy infant placed with them. These trends resulted from a decrease in the numbers of infants surrendered for adoption following the increased availability of birth control, the legalization of abortion, and the increasingly common decision of unmarried mothers to keep their infants.

In response to this dearth of healthy, same-race infants, prospective adoptive parents turned increasingly to international and transracial adoptions. Children from Japan and Europe began to be placed with American families by agencies after WWII, and since the 1950s Korea has been the major source of international adoptions (except in 1991 with the influx of Romanian children). The one child policy of the Chinese government has provided a new source of infants to American families, and recently many adoptees have come from Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, the Philippines, and India.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was accompanied by an increase in the number of transracial adoptions involving black children and white parents. These adoptions peaked in 1971, and one year later the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement opposing transracial adoption. They argued that white families were unable to foster the growth of psychological and cultural identity in black children. Transracial adoptions now account for a small percentage of all adoptions, and these most frequently involve Koreanborn children and white American families.

While healthy infants have been much in demand for adoption during the last 50 years, the number of other children waiting for adoptive homes has grown. 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 that typically make a child hard to place. Although individual states may define the specific parameters, these characteristics include older age, medical disabilities, minority group status, and certain physical, mental, or emotional needs.

Types of adoption

Adoption arrangements are typically thought of as either closed or open. Actually, they may involve many varying degrees of openness about identity and contact between the adoptive family and the birth family. At one extreme is the closed adoption in which an intermediary third party is the only one who knows the identity of both the birth and adoptive parents. The child may be told he or she is adopted, but will have no information about his or her 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 has been promoted by groups of both adoptees and by some birth mothers. Currently about half of the states allow access to sealed records with the mutual consent of adoptee and birth parent, and others have search processes through intermediary parties available. Why search? Some research and clinical observation suggests that, especially during adolescence, healthy identity formation depends on full awareness of one's origins (Where do I get my freckles? Why do I have this musical ability? Why did they give me up?). Other important medical history may be critical to the adoptee's health care planning. For birth mothers, sometimes they simply want to know that their child turned out okay.

The move to open records lead to an increase in open adoptions in which information is shared from the beginning. Open adoptions may be completely open, as is the case when the 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. 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, it may be decided that periodic visits between the the children—once every few months, perhaps—should be maintained, but that contact with the abusive parents should be terminated until the child reaches adulthood and may choose to search. 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 he or she 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.

Children removed from families for protective issues are sometimes reunited with their parents after a stay in temporary foster homes and after the parents have had the chance to rehabilitate and are able to care adequately for their children. On the other hand, it may be decided that reunification is not a feasible objective for a particular family and a permanent home is then sought. The foster family then plays a major role in the child's transition to his or her "forever family." The desire to provide children with permanent homes and the resulting sense of security and attachment as soon as possible gives rise to another type of adoption, the legal risk adoption.

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 is the risk that the adoption may not be finalized and that the child will be returned to his or her birth parents, social service agencies generally do not recommend such placements unless, in their best judgments, 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 disrupt, that is, 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. Interestingly, 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 instituted 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?

Estimating the total number of children adopted in the United States is difficult because private and independent adoptions are reported only voluntarily to census centers. According to the National Committee for Adoption, there were just over 100,000 domestic adoptions in the U.S. in 1986, roughly an even split between related and unrelated adoptions. Of unrelated domestic adoptees, about 40% were placed by public agencies, 30% by private agencies, and 30% by private individuals. Almost half of these adoptees were under the age of two, and about one-quarter had special needs. There were also just over 10,000 international adoptions, the majority of these children under the age of two and placed by private agencies.

The American Public Welfare Association has collected data through the Voluntary Cooperative Information System on children in welfare systems across the U.S. who are somewhere in the process of being adopted. Of children in the public welfare systems, about one-third had their adoptions finalized in 1988, one-third were living in their adoptive home waiting for finalization, and one-third were awaiting adoptive placements. Key statistics on these adoptions appear in the accompanying table.

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, on the other hand, have children as their clients and the procurement of parents as their primary mission.

Outcomes of adoption

There is general agreement that children who are adopted and raised in families do better than children raised in institutions or raised with birth parents who are neglectful or abusive. Compared to the general population, however, the conclusions are less robust and the interpretation of the statistics is not clear. Adopted adolescents, for example, receive mental health services more often than their non-adopted peers, but this may be because adoptive families are more likely to seek helping services or because once referring physicians or counselors know that a child is adopted they assume there are likely to be problems warranting professional attention.

When adjustment problems are manifested by adoptees, they tend to occur around school age or during adolescence. D. M. Brodzinsky and his colleagues have conducted a series of studies from which they conclude that adopted infants and toddlers generally do not differ from non-adopted youngsters, but greater risks for problems such as aggression or depression emerge as the 5-7-year-old child begins to understand the salience and implications of being adopted. Still, it should be noted that the absolute incidence of adjustment problems in adoptees is low even though it may be statistically higher than the corresponding figures for non-adoptees.

In the course of normal development, adolescence is seen as a time of identity formation and emerging independence. Adopted adolescents are faced with the challenge of integrating disparate sources of identity— their biological origins and their family of rearing—as they establish themselves as individuals. For some this is a difficult task and may result in rebellious or depressive behavior, 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 child will experience an especially 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. C. K. Deutsch suggests that ADHD in children adopted as infants may be genetically inherited from the birth parents and perhaps reflected in the impulsive behavior that resulted in the child's birth in the first place. In the case of children who have been removed from the home because of the trauma of abuse, the hypervigilance used to cope with a threatening environment may compromise the child's ability to achieve normal attention regulation

Many of the studies addressing the outcomes of adoption fail to consider important factors such as the pre-placement history of the child, the structure and dynamic of the adopting family, or the courses of individual children's development. Many studies are cross-sectional rather than longitudinal by design, meaning that different groups of children at different ages are studied rather than the same children being followed over a period of time. It is also difficult to establish what control or comparison groups should be used. Should adopted children be compared to other children in the types of families into which they have been adopted or should they be compared to children in the types of families from which they have been surrendered? These are complex issues because adoptees are a heterogeneous group, and it is as important to understand their individual differences as it is their commonalities.

Doreen Arcus, Ph.D.

Further Reading

Brodzinsky, D. M., and M. D. Schechter, eds. The Psychology of Adoption. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Brodzinsky, D. M. "Long-Term Outcomes in Adoption." The Future of Children 3, 1993, pp. 153-66.

Caplan. L. An Open Adoption. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1990.

Deutsch, D. K., J. M. Swanson, and J. H. Bruell. "Overrepresentation of Adoptees in Children with Attention Deficit Disorder." Behavior Genetics 12, 1982, pp. 231-37.

Lancaster, K. Keys to Adopting a Child. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 1994.

Melina, L. R. Making Sense of Adoption. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

National Committee for Adoption (NCFA). 1989 Adoption Factbook. Washington, DC: National Committee for Adoption, 1989.

Stolley, K. S. "Statistics on Adoption in the United States." The Future of Children 3, pp. 26-42.

Tatara, T. Characteristics of Children in Substitute and Adoptive Care: A Statistical Summary of the VCIS National Child Welfare Base. Washington, DC: American Public Welfare Association, 1992.

Further Information

AASK (Adopt A Special Kid). 2201 Broadway, Suite 702, Oakland, CA 94612, (510) 451–1748.

Adopted Child. P.O. Box 9362, Moscow, ID 83842, (208) 882–1794, fax: (208) 883–8035.

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

American Adoption Congress. 1000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 9, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 483–3399 (Public information center.)

Child Welfare League of America. P.O. Box 7816, 300 Raritan Center Pkwy, Edison, NJ 08818-7816, (800) 407–6273.

National Adoption Center. 1500 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102 (Provides information especially with regard to special needs adoption.)

National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. 11426 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852, (202) 842–1919 (Resource for information and referral. Maintains copies of all state and federal adoption laws, including Public Law 96-272, The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.)

National Council for Single Adoptive Parents. P.O. Box 15084, Chevy Chase, MD 20825, (202) 966–6367.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development