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Adoption is a legal act relating to childcare and the rearing of children, in which the parental rights and responsibilities of a child's natural parent(s) are terminated or set aside, and they are instead granted to an adoptive parent or parents. Usually such an order is granted by a court (or a similar body or office that may have been created to specifically oversee adoption matters in a particular jurisdiction). In previous years, adoption was seen as a single "once-off" event - once the adoption was granted, that was the end of the process. In recent years, however, thinking has changed, and adoption is now recognised as being an ongoing, possibly lifelong and evolving process for all those involved.

Note: Adoption laws can vary greatly between different jurisdictions, and in fact adoption remains illegal in some.[1] This article is intended to be a general introduction to the subject only.

Types of adoption

Various types of adoption exist. They are not mutually exclusive - a single adoption may be of several different types, and some adoptions may change over the lifetime of those involved. The various types are:

Open Adoption

An adoption in which the child (and/or the child's adoptive parent(s)) know the identity of the child's natural parent(s), and the natural parents also know the child's whereabouts and the identity of the adoptive parents.[2] In open adoption, provision may also be made for ongoing contact among any or all of the involved persons, possibly including unsupervised face-to-face meetings between the adopted child and the natural parents.

Semi-open Adoption

An adoption in which the natural and adoptive parent(s) may swap information such as general and medical information, possibly on an ongoing basis. Contact might be direct, or may be through an intermediary, such as an adoption agency.

Closed Adoption

An adoption in which there is no ongoing contact between the natural and adoptive families. In addition, the adoptive family may not know the identity of the natural family, or may have been given only general background and medical information.

Domestic Adoption

An adoption in which the child is adopted in his or her country of origin.

Familial Adoption

An adoption by a biological relation of one of the birth parents. In some cultures, for example, it may be conventional that the brother of a deceased father will adopt an orphaned niece or nephew. The impact of HIV-AIDS worldwide is placing strain on some of these traditional familial adoption practices in many countries of Africa and elsewhere. (See also Intra-familial below).

International Adoption

An adoption in which the child is adopted by parent(s) from a different country from where the child was born. In the U.S., for example, adoptions from Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Russia, and China and many other countries have been common at different times.

Transracial Adoption

An adoption in which the child is adopted by parent(s) of a different ethnic origin to that of its natural family.

Intra-family Adoption

An adoption in which the child is adopted by one or more natural relatives - for example, a child's grandparents may adopt if the child was orphaned. The term may also be used to describe step parent adoptions - e.g., where a mother's new partner may adopt the child in order to be accorded parental rights. (See also Familial above.)

Foster-care Adoption

An adoption which takes place after a child has already spent some time with the adoptive parent(s) in a fostercare arrangement.

Illegal Adoption

An adoption where a legal adoption order has not been granted. A de facto adoption is one such type, where the child's birth is illegally registered as being to the adoptive parent(s) rather than to the natural parent(s). There is therefore no paper trail of an adoption having taken place.


The adoption of children is an ancient practice, common in ancient Rome and Greece and referenced in the Bible. Modern forms of legal adoption, as we know it today, began to be introduced in the western world in the middle part of the nineteenth century. Adoption then was seen as an answer to, on the one hand, the problem of infertility experienced by some married couples; and, on the other hand, the problem of children conceived outside of wedlock. At that time in most societies, great stigma was attached to both the woman who conceived a child outside of marriage, and to the resultant offspring. Adoption therefore appeared to present an elegant solution to both "problems".

Prior to the introduction of legal adoption, both formal and informal fostercare arrangements were commonplace, as was the practice of informal adoption - where a child would be raised as if it was the child of adoptive parents, but without any legal arrangement in place. Children not accommodated by either option were often brought up in children's homes or orphanages.

The lack of a legal framework to give validity to informal adoption arrangements was perceived as a problem by many. Uncertainty over such issues as inheritance rights and custody, where a natural mother sought the return of her child, gave rise to groups who lobbied for the introduction of a formal, legalised system of adoption. Legal adoption was introduced to Massachusetts in 1851,[3][4] England and Wales in 1926, Scotland in 1930,[5], Australia in 1935,[6], and Ireland in 1952.[7]

Adoption laws in most jurisdictions, when introduced, were "open", in that the adoption records were not sealed and could be accessed by any party to the adoption and sometimes the general public.[8] In a minority of cases (e.g., Scotland), this remained the case, but in most western jurisdictions, legislation was introduced in the 1940s and 1950s that was designed to make adoption more secretive.[8] Pressure to change to closed adoptions came from various sources - mainly social workers in private adoption agencies, who wanted more control over the process, but also from some adoptive parents' lobbies, due to concerns about the natural parent(s) perhaps coming back, seeking the children they had placed. By the middle of the twentieth century, most jurisdictions in the west had changed to fully closed adoption systems.

Despite the altruistic reasons for the introduction of legalised adoption, it was open to abuse. Commercial opportunities were seen and a market soon developed, resulting in some places in what came to be known as "baby farming",[9] and coercion of mothers to place their children for adoption.[10] Laws prohibiting black market adoptions were introduced (such as in New York in 1949),[4] but often proved to have little effect.

The latter part of the twentieth century saw three new major issues emerge. The first was the advent of international adoption, which really began to increase post-World War II. As social mores changed and as single parenthood became acceptable (with, in some cases, financial assistance becoming available for the first time), the numbers of children available for adoption began to decline. This coincided with an increase in infertility rates in the west. However, the demand for adoptable children had not abated. The solution was international adoption. In the United States of America, legislation was passed in 1955 to allow the adoption of Korean orphans.[11] In the nine-year period from 1953 to 1962, Americans adopted 15,000 foreign children. Not all international adoptions were above board, however. An illegal scheme saw over 4,000 Irish children adopted to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, from the 1950s to the 1970s.[12] Despite the introduction of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in 1993,[13], concerns over corruption and malpractice in international adoption continue to the present day.

The other two inter-related issues were that of open records and open adoptions. In 1971, Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), which had as its aim "“to abolish the existing practice of sealed records” and advocate for “opening of records to any adopted person over eighteen who wants, for any reason, to see them.” Most adoption records had been open until around 1945, but were subsequently closed. The campaign to open records in the United States was resisted by some adoption agencies and organisations such as the National Council for Adoption.[14] Although some jurisdictions such as England and Wales did begin to open records in the 1970s, ALMA's campaign in the United States bore little fruit, even though they were joined by other organisations such as Concerned United Birthparents (CUB).[15] This was to change when, in 1996, a more militant campaign group, Bastard Nation (BN), was founded.[16] BN refused to engage in compromise, rejecting, for example, mutual contact reunion registries, in favour of full and unconditional access to adoption records.[17] A concerted campaign led to the passage of Ballot Measure 58 in Oregon, in 1998, which unsealed the adoption records that had been closed in 1957.[18] Following unsuccessful challenges, the law came into effect in 2000. Soon, other U.S. states and Canadian provinces followed suit - though legislation for open records is still in the minority.

Alongside the debate on open records, adoptions began to change in the 1970s from purely closed models to encompass - at least for domestic adoptions - a range of open adoptions. The move to open adoption was precipitated by research showing that open adoptions - carried out without confidentiality and secrecy provisions - were generally more successful and led to better outcomes for all parties to the adoption - child, adoptive parent(s) and natural parent(s). It had once been assumed that a child - especially a newborn - was a tabula rasa - a blank slate - who would easily bond with adoptive parents without suffering any ill effects. Research showed that this was not the case.[19][20][21] Many adoption agencies began to specialise in open adoptions, although, in the absence of legislation, open adoption agreements may not be legally binding. As of December 2005, for example, only 22 U.S. states have legal provisions for enforceable open adoption contact agreements.[22]

Current issues in adoption

Search and reunion

When legal adoption was first introduced, despite being "open" in regard to records, it was never envisaged that adopted people would want to trace their original parents or family. When records closed, the point was largely moot, as searching for original family without access to the adoption records can generally be very difficult. However, beginning in the 1970s, adopted people did commence tracing and reunions began to occur.

There are many reasons why an adopted person may want to trace. Foremost among reasons stated by adopted people is a need to know their origins. Adopted people speak of an emptiness, a "piece of the jigsaw is missing", and similar.[23][24] The need for current medical and genetic information, for themselves and their own children, is another common reason stated by adopted people seeking their origins. Similar statements have since been advanced by now-adult children conceived by anonymous sperm donation in assisted human reproduction. Nonetheless, many adoption agencies initally opposed attempts by adopted people and natural parents to trace, often citing confidentiality concerns - sometimes even where both parties had independently contacted an agency about tracing.

Searching began to become easier in the 1980s as media coverage of adoption reunions began to portray adoption search and reunion in a positive light, and increased again in the 1990s with the advent of the internet. Usenet groups such as alt.adoption and mailing lists began to be used to disseminate methods of tracing and as a means in themselves to find family members. Over time, many agencies have changed their policies and now permit and even encourage search and reunion.

Research has shown that in general, search and reunion is a positive experience for those who choose to undertake a trace. In one study,[24] 85% of adopted people reported that the contact and reunion experience was a positive experience for them; 50% of adopted people who had felt rejected for being placed for adoption reported that the feelings of rejection disappeared after contact; 68% said the same about experiencing feelings of loss 97% of adopted people said that meeting with their birth parents did not change they way they felt about their adoptive parents; and adoptive parents reported that contact and reunion had not affected their relationship with the adopted person.

Contact registers

As debate over privacy concerns with regard to searching continued, one solution which neatly sidestepped the issue was the introduction of adoption contact registers. Such registers allow those who are interested in contact and/or reunion to register that interest. Should a match occur between, e.g., a natural mother and a now-adult son that she placed for adoption, then the organisation running the register will put them in contact.

Some contact registers are run by government or state bodies, whilst others are run by adopted peoples' or natural parents' organisations. While some organisations, such as Bastard Nation, reject the provision of state registers in the absence of full access to adoption records, contact registers have been successful in bringing about many reunions. Many contact registers now exist. One of the oldest such registers (and one of the most successful) is the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR), founded in 1975.[25] The ISRR run an annual, highly publicised "Regday", or International Registration Day.[26]

Registers depend on publicity for success. The more people who hear about a register, the more people use it, leading to more reunions. In general, government or state-run registers have tended to be poorly advertised. For example, in the UK, the state register has been less successful than the private register, run by the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents (NORCAP). An exception was the National Adoption Contact Preference Register (NACPR), launched by the Adoption Board in Ireland in April 2005. The launch was accompanied by both radio and press advertising, combined with a leaflet and application form being posted to every household in the country. The result was over 6,000 registrations in the first year of operation (out of 42,000 registered legal adoptions).[27] While most registers allow registrants to only state that they are willing to be contacted (or, in some cases, to file a "contact veto", forbidding contact), the NACPR allows for a choice of options, ranging from "willing to meet" to "willing to share background and/or medical information", to "no contact at this time."

Current Debates

There are many important controversial issues surrounding adoption. Some of the most important of these are introduced and discussed on the Debate Guide page attached to this article. Be sure to check them out by clicking on the link in the previous sentence or at the top of this page.


  1. "Egypt says adoptive moms were human smugglers" Available: Accessed: 28th March, 2009. Per the text, "Adoption has long been illegal under Egyptian law as well as being forbidden under sharia, Muslim religious law."
  2. Wolfgram SM (2008). "Openness in adoption: what we know so far--a critical review of the literature.". Soc Work 53 (2): 133-42. PMID 18595447.
  3. Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, 1851. Available: Accessed: 29th December, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Timeline of Adoption History (United States). Available: Accessed: 29th December, 2007.
  5. Carole Smith and Janette Logan. (2004, Routledge) "After Adoption: Direct Contact and Relationships" ISBN 041528208X
  6. History of Adoption (Australia): Available: Accessed: 29th December, 2007.
  7. Adoption Board - Domestic Adoption in Ireland. Available: Accessed: 29th December, 2007.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Open Adoption. Available: Accessed: 29th December, 2007.
  9. Baby Farming. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  10. History of adoption in Ireland. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  11. International adoptions. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007
  12. Mike Milotte. (1997, New Island Books) "Banished Babies: Secret History of Ireland's Baby Export Business" ISBN 1874597537
  13. Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  14. National Coalition for Adoption, “Protecting the Option of Privacy in Adoption”. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  15. Concerned United Birthparents. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  16. Bastard Nation. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  17. Bastard Nation, Mission Statement, 1996. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  18. Oregon Ballot Measure 58, 1998. Available: Accessed: 30th December, 2007.
  19. Nancy Verrier. (1993) "The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child" ISBN 0963648004
  20. Betty Jean Lifton. (1988) "Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience" ISBN 0060971320
  21. Betty Jean Lifton. (1995) "Journey of the Adopted Self: A Search for Wholeness" ISBN 0465036759
  22. Postadoption Contact Agreements Between Birth and Adoptive Families. Available: Accessed: 31st December, 2007.
  23. David Howe and Julia Feast with Denise Coster. (2003, BAAF) "Adoption, Search and Reunion: the long-term experience of adopted adults" ISBN 978-1-903699-53-9
  24. 24.0 24.1 John Triseliotis, Julia Feast and Fiona Kyle. (2005, BAAF) "The Adoption Triangle Revisited - A study of adoption, search and reunion experiences" ISBN 978-1-903699-71-3
  25. International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR)- History. Available: Accessed: 3rd January, 2007.
  26. Regday - International Registration Day. Available: Accessed: 3rd January, 2007.
  27. National Adoption Contact Preference Register: Report on Launch and Operation of the Register, April 2005 – March 2007. Available (PDF format): Accessed: 3rd January, 2007.