An adult assumes the role of parent for a child other than his or her own biological offspring in the process of adoption. 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 adopted singly or as sibling groups; and they may come from the local area or from othercountries. Adoptive parents may be traditional married couples, they may also be single men or women, or they may be non-traditional couples. Parents maybe childless or already have children.

Adoption is a practice that dates to ancient times. The 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.

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. The move to open records led to an increase in open adoptions in which information is shared fromthe beginning. Open adoptions may be completely open, as is the case when thebirth parents (usually the mother) and adoptive parents meet beforehand andagree 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 lesscontact, or periodic letters sent to an intermediary agency, or continued contact with some family members but not others. It can be a complex issue.

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. This involves placement in the prospectiveadoptive 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.

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. 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.

Estimating the total number of children adopted in the United States is difficult because private and independent adoptions are reported only voluntarilyto census centers. According to the National Committee for Adoption, there were just over 100,000 domestic adoptions in the US 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% byprivate 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 theUS 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 below.

Characteristic Percent of Total Adoptees

  • White, 60%
  • Black, 23%
  • Hispanic, 9%
  • Adopted by foster family, 40%
  • Adoptedby unrelated families, 37%
  • Adoptees with special needs, 60%
  • Adoptees median age, 4.8 years

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 theother hand, have children as their clients and the procurement of parents astheir primary mission.

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 isnot 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 likelyto 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 haveconducted a series of studies from which they conclude that adopted infants and toddlers generally do not differ from non-adopted youngsters, but greaterrisks for problems such as aggression or depression emerge as the 5- to 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.

Problems associated with adoption may not always be the result of psychological adjustment to adoption status or a reflection of less than optimal familydynamics. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was found to be more prevalent in adoptees than non-adoptees, both among children adopted as infants and children removed from the home at older ages. C. K. Deutsch suggeststhat ADHD in children adopted as infants may be genetically inherited from the birth parents. In the case of children who have been removed from the homebecause 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.

These are complex issues and adoptees are a heterogeneous group. One certainty is that it is as important to understand their individual differences as itis their commonalities.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

The Content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of Content found on the Website.