Although adoption is today practiced globally, the United States has the largest number of children adopted per 100 live births. The table below provides a snapshot of Western adoption rates. Adoption in the United States still occurs at nearly three times those of its peers although the number of children awaiting adoption has held steady in recent years, hovering between 133,000 and 129,000 during the period 2002 to 2006.[52]

Several factors affect the decision to release or raise the child. White adolescents tend to give up their babies to non-relatives, whereas black adolescents are more likely to receive support from their own community in raising the child and also in the form of informal adoption by relatives.[118] Studies by Leynes and by Festinger and Young, Berkman, and Rehr found that for pregnant adolescents, the decision to release the child for adoption depended on the attitude toward adoption held by the adolescent's mother.[119] Another study found that pregnant adolescents whose mothers had a higher level of education were more likely to release their babies for adoption. Research suggests that women who choose to release their babies for adoption are more likely to be younger, enrolled in school, and have lived in a two-parent household at age 10, than those who kept and raised their babies.[120]

Social workers and other professionals in the field of adoption began changing terms of use to reflect what was being expressed by the parties involved. In 1979, Marietta Spencer wrote "The Terminology of Adoption" for The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA),[184] which was the basis for her later work "Constructive Adoption Terminology".[185] This influenced Pat Johnston's "Positive Adoption Language" (PAL) and "Respectful Adoption Language" (RAL).[186] The terms contained in "Positive Adoption Language" include the terms "birth mother" (to replace the terms "natural mother" and "real mother"), and "placing" (to replace the term "surrender"). These kinds of recommendations encouraged people to be more aware of their use of adoption terminology.


The practice of closed adoption (aka confidential or secret adoption),[74] which has not been the norm for most of modern history,[75] seals all identifying information, maintaining it as secret and preventing disclosure of the adoptive parents', biological kins', and adoptees' identities. Nevertheless, closed adoption may allow the transmittal of non-identifying information such as medical history and religious and ethnic background.[76] Today, as a result of safe haven laws passed by some U.S. states, secret adoption is seeing renewed influence. In so-called "safe-haven" states, infants can be left, anonymously, at hospitals, fire departments, or police stations within a few days of birth, a practice criticized by some adoption advocacy organizations as being retrograde and dangerous.[77]

Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction. Historically, some societies have enacted specific laws governing adoption; where others have tried to achieve adoption through less formal means, notably via contracts that specified inheritance rights and parental responsibilities without an accompanying transfer of filiation. Modern systems of adoption, arising in the 20th century, tend to be governed by comprehensive statutes and regulations.
There is limited research on the consequences of adoption for the original parents, and the findings have been mixed. One study found that those who released their babies for adoption were less comfortable with their decision than those who kept their babies. However, levels of comfort over both groups were high, and those who released their child were similar to those who kept their child in ratings of life satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and positive future outlook for schooling, employment, finances, and marriage.[121] Subsequent research found that adolescent mothers who chose to release their babies for adoption were more likely to experience feelings of sorrow and regret over their decision than those who kept their babies. However, these feelings decreased significantly from one year after birth to the end of the second year.[122]
These differences in development appear to play out in the way young adoptees deal with major life events. In the case of parental divorce, adoptees have been found to respond differently from children who have not been adopted. While the general population experienced more behavioral problems, substance use, lower school achievement, and impaired social competence after parental divorce, the adoptee population appeared to be unaffected in terms of their outside relationships, specifically in their school or social abilities.[117]
The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. The Netherlands passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germany enacted its first laws in 1977.[49] Additionally, the Asian powers opened their orphanage systems to adoption, influenced as they were by Western ideas following colonial rule and military occupation.[50] In France, local public institutions accredit candidates for adoption, who can then contact orphanages abroad, or ask for the support of NGOs. The system does not involve fees, but gives considerable power to social workers whose decisions may restrict adoption to standardized families (middle-age, medium to high income, heterosexual, Caucasian).[51]
Adoption practices have changed significantly over the course of the 20th century, with each new movement labeled, in some way, as reform.[152] Beginning in the 1970s, efforts to improve adoption became associated with opening records and encouraging family preservation. These ideas arose from suggestions that the secrecy inherent in modern adoption may influence the process of forming an identity,[153][154] create confusion regarding genealogy,[155] and provide little in the way of medical history.
Ad hoc studies, performed in the U.S., however, suggest that between 10 and 25 percent of adoptions through the child welfare system (e.g., excluding babies adopted from other countries or stepparents adopting their stepchildren) disrupt before they are legally finalized and from 1 to 10 percent are dissolved after legal finalization. The wide range of values reflects the paucity of information on the subject and demographic factors such as age; it is known that teenagers are more prone to having their adoptions disrupted than young children.[91]

Externally focused theories, in contrast, suggest that reunion is a way for adoptees to overcome social stigma. First proposed by Goffman, the theory has four parts: 1) adoptees perceive the absence of biological ties as distinguishing their adoptive family from others, 2) this understanding is strengthened by experiences where non-adoptees suggest adoptive ties are weaker than blood ties, 3) together, these factors engender, in some adoptees, a sense of social exclusion, and 4) these adoptees react by searching for a blood tie that reinforces their membership in the community. The externally focused rationale for reunion suggests adoptees may be well adjusted and happy within their adoptive families, but will search as an attempt to resolve experiences of social stigma.[167]


The next stage of adoption's evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States. Rapid immigration and the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding of orphanages and foundling homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister became appalled by the legions of homeless waifs roaming the streets of New York City. Brace considered the abandoned youth, particularly Catholics, to be the most dangerous element challenging the city's order.[26][27]
As the idea of institutional care gained acceptance, formal rules appeared about how to place children into families: boys could become apprenticed to an artisan and girls might be married off under the institution's authority.[19] Institutions informally adopted out children as well, a mechanism treated as a way to obtain cheap labor, demonstrated by the fact that when the adopted died, their bodies were returned by the family to the institution for burial.[20]
Infertility is the main reason parents seek to adopt children they are not related to. One study shows this accounted for 80% of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care.[79] Estimates suggest that 11–24% of Americans who cannot conceive or carry to term attempt to build a family through adoption, and that the overall rate of ever-married American women who adopt is about 1.4%.[80][81] Other reasons people adopt are numerous although not well documented. These may include wanting to cement a new family following divorce or death of one parent, compassion motivated by religious or philosophical conviction, to avoid contributing to overpopulation out of the belief that it is more responsible to care for otherwise parent-less children than to reproduce, to ensure that inheritable diseases (e.g., Tay–Sachs disease) are not passed on, and health concerns relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Although there are a range of possible reasons, the most recent study of experiences of women who adopt suggests they are most likely to be 40–44 years of age, currently married, have impaired fertility, and childless.[82]

Adoptions can occur either between related family members, or unrelated individuals. Historically, most adoptions occurred within a family. The most recent data from the U.S. indicates about half of adoptions are currently between related individuals.[78] A common example of this is a "stepparent adoption", where the new partner of a parent may legally adopt a child from the parent's previous relationship. Intra-family adoption can also occur through surrender, as a result of parental death, or when the child cannot otherwise be cared for and a family member agrees to take over.
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