Adoption Terminology

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When the Johnsons started telling their family and friends that they were thinking about adopting a child, it seemed that everyone had a different story to tell or questions to ask. Their neighbors, Henry and Linda Rivera, also have expressed an interest in adoption, since they have not been able to become pregnant. But Henry has been hearing that adopting a child is very expensive. He's concerned about this cost, particularly since they have spent so much money on doctor's visits and procedures in an effort to become pregnant. Being practical folks, both couples decided to find out if what they were hearing about the high cost of adoption was, in fact, true.

Very quickly, the Johnsons and Riveras discovered that they must learn a whole new vocabulary to fully understand what adoption professionals and adoptive families are talking about. Learning the vocabulary will help them ask the right questions. Here are some terms you're sure to encounter.



State and county agencies (known variously as departments of social services, human services, children and family services, and so on) that are responsible for placing waiting children from foster care or institutional settings with adoptive families.


Non-profit or for-profit agencies licensed by the state that depend on fees and donations, rather than tax dollars, to operate. Some are private agencies that place infants or children born locally or from other countries, though some work with public agencies to place children who are in foster care.


These children also are referred to as children with "special needs." (NOTE: Internal Revenue Service [IRS] publications use the term "special needs.") The large majority of children adopted through state or county adoption agencies are considered waiting children. They come into the public welfare system (foster care) because of parental abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Many of these children have emotional and behavioral difficulties as a result of their experiences. Some also have physical and developmental disabilities. The majority of these children are school aged, some are brothers and sisters who need to be adopted together, and more than 50 percent are children of color.


Same as the above definition for "waiting children." This book uses the term "waiting children"; however, the IRS and some state agencies use the term "special needs" in their publications.


Different agencies or organizations may have varying interpretations of the following terms. The definitions here are meant only to provide a general overview and may not match completely how a particular agency uses a specific term.

An OPEN ADOPTION is one in which last names, addresses, and telephone numbers typically are exchanged and the birth parent/s, the adoptive family, and, in some cases, the child may visit on a regular basis. In a fully open adoption, the birth parent/s and the adoptive family know each other and have ongoing communication about the child.

In a SEMI-OPEN ADOPTION, communication is more limited. Last names, addresses, and telephone numbers usually are not exchanged, sharing of photos or other information is less frequent, and all communication takes place through a third party, usually the adoption agency.

In a CLOSED ADOPTION, no identifying information about the birth family or the adoptive family is shared, and the families do not communicate. The adoptive family usually receives non-identifying background information about the child and the birth family before placement. After adoption, the records are sealed and typically are not available to the adopted child. For more information about the availability of adoption records, refer to the "Birth Parent Search" section under Planning for Your Child's Future later in this book.


In this type of adoption, the birth mother has identified the family whom she wishes to adopt her child.


These adoptions are arranged through an intermediary, such as a lawyer or a physician, rather than through a licensed adoption agency. The intermediary may find the birth mother, who plans to place her child for adoption, or may help the birth mother locate a family interested in adopting her child. NOTE: Independent adoptions are not legal in all states; check with your state department of social services.


These are adoptions of children who were born in or are nationals of other countries.


A home study, also called an adoption study, is a written description of you and your family prepared by an adoption agency or private adoption professional. It is used to determine which child would best fit into your home. The home study process should be an educational and enlightening experience for the prospective adoptive family.

Having a study performed by an adoption agency or licensed social worker often is the best way to proceed. The type of adoption likely will influence who should perform the home study. It is important to choose the appropriate adoption agency or licensed social worker to do your study so it will be accepted by the court. Check with your state or county department of social services for guidance in this area. You can expect some or all of the following to be part of the process.

- interviews with the parent/s individually and together (if a couple)
- group meetings involving several applicant families
(many agencies do this)
- autobiographies written by each parent
- a home visit
- medical reports from your physician
- references from friends and associates
- proof of employment
- investigations into any criminal record, including
the state's child abuse registry
- participation in adoption information training classes
- personal finance information
- copies of tax returns
In the course of the home study process, you will have the opportunity to talk with your social worker about the following topics:

- why you want to adopt
- your readiness to parent
- your family's values
- your hopes and expectations for the adoptive child
- your family's strengths and weaknesses
- how your family handles crises and change
- where you'll get support or professional help, if needed
It's quite possible that, as you move through the adoption process, you'll be working with more than one social worker.


This is the period of time after your home study is completed and before your child comes home.


Placement occurs when the child you plan to adopt moves into your home.


A child is placed with the foster/adopt family before the birth parents' rights have been legally terminated so there is still a possibility that the child may be reunited with his or her birth family. If the birth family's parental rights are terminated, the foster/adopt family will be considered the adoptive family for the child.


This is the time after the child has been placed in your home and before finalization. The social worker doing post-placement supervision will visit your home several times during the 6 to 12 months between placement and finalization to provide support for you and your child and to help you get other professional assistance, if needed, to make the placement successful. A certain number of visits are required by the courts before the adoption can be finalized.


This is when the court takes the necessary action to make the child a legal member of your family. Usually, your whole family will go to court with your adoption worker or lawyer.


This is not a specific period of time; instead, it is the active, rewarding, and challenging process of living as a family after the adoption has been legally finalized.


These organizations are designed to provide connections between prospective adoptive parents and adoption agencies that place children. Many states have their own state-operated exchange that keeps a listing of adoptable children waiting in their foster care system, as well as families who have completed their adoption home study with a state agency. Many states publish a photolisting book of the children waiting in their state.

Regional, national, and international exchanges are non-profit organizations that serve waiting children and families in more than one state. They often publish in print or on the Internet a photolisting of waiting children, provide other services to help recruit adoptive families, make connections between prospective adoptive families and the agencies who have custody of the waiting children, and provide adoption information to prospective families. Some exchanges also list families who have completed home studies and are waiting to adopt.
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