Adoptive Parents

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adoptive parents

People who lawfully adopt children. (This entry concentrates on nonrelative adoptions. See GRANDPARENT ADOPTIONS or RELATIVE ADOPTION for information on those topics.)

Most adoptive parents are married couples; however, single people may also adopt children. If singles are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual, they may adopt in some states, while in others it is prohibitive or difficult. (See GAY, BISEXUAL, LESBIAN, TRANSSEXUAL ADOPTION.)

Age of Adoptive Parents

Most infertile couples who seek to adopt infants range in age from their twenties to late thirties or early forties. Many adoption agencies will not accept applications for an infant from prospective adoptive parents under age 25. Some agencies have an upper age limit and will not accept applications from those over 45 (or some other age cutoff.).

Adoptive parents who adopt internationally may be older than those who adopt domestically because guidelines on age may be less strict: some Latin American countries will accept adoptive parents up to age 55. Other countries, however, have age guidelines as strict or even stricter than U.S. adoption agencies have for infants born in the United States.

There are several reasons for this less restrictive policy, but probably the paramount reason is the fact that in some countries numerous babies and toddlers are residing in orphanages and need parents. As a result, their need for families overrides considerations such as age and marital status of the adoptive parents. Another reason is a differing cultural attitude toward age. In some countries, people are esteemed because they have more life experience. Thus, if the health of the adoptive applicants is good, they may be able to adopt children well beyond the age of 45 years.

There are also political reasons for international adoption policies, and some extremely poor countries severely restrict adoptions by individuals in other countries or ban them altogether.

Couples or singles who seek to adopt "hard to place" children, also known as children with SPECIAL NEEDS, or WAITING CHILDREN, range in age from about 25 to late forties or even sixties. As with other limiting criteria, age limits are relaxed when a child is considered to fall into a special needs category by virtue of race or ethnicity, age, sibling group membership, handicap or other category.

Marital Status

Many agencies limit applications for healthy infants to couples and may require the couple to have been married at least two or three years. Singles are often referred to "waiting children"; however, many singles adopt infants from other countries and some succeed in adopting U.S. babies. Data from a 1997 National Center for Health Statistics report indicated 4% of adoptive mothers were never married.

Race and ethnicity.??Adoptive mothers who had ever adopted represented about 1.3% of all women reported on in the 1995 Family Growth Survey, which was analyzed in 1999 by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Racial data was not available for about 20% of the adoptive mothers. Of all adoptive mothers, non-Hispanic blacks represented about 38% of the total. They were followed by non-Hispanic white adoptive mothers, or about 28% of the total. Hispanic adoptive mothers were about 12% of the total.

These findings apparently disprove a popular belief that few blacks adopt children. It is important to emphasize that the National Center for Health Statistics report covers all adoptions and not just those of nonrelative infants. It also needs to be noted the biracial and interethnic parents may self-identify as "non-Hispanic white" or one of the other racial categories, due to the wording of categories.

Education. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics reported in 1999, of the adoptive women ages 22-44 at the time of interview who had ever adopted, about 33% were college graduates or higher. Another 27% had some college although no degree. Thus, a majority, 60%, were either college graduates or had some college education. About 24% of the adoptive mothers were high school graduates or had their GED. Only 16% of the adoptive mothers, ages 22-44, were not high school graduates. (Because women ages 18-21 were not included in this calculation, the percentage of high school/college graduates might have been even higher.)

Income Level

Income data was not available for all the women in the data from the National Center for Health Statistics reported in 1999. But of the data available, more than half (about 55%) of the married adoptive mothers ages 22-44 were at an income level of 300% or more above the poverty level. Only 15% were at the 0-149 percent poverty level.

Adoptive parents who have adopted their foster children generally are blue collar or working class, primarily because most foster parents tend to fall into these categories. Increasingly, relatives are being encouraged to adopt children in the foster care system, and this population of parents is older and has fewer financial resources than the non-related family adopting foster care children. Fees involved in adopting a former foster child are usually nonexistent, and subsidies may be available to parents who adopt children with special needs from the public child welfare system.

Children Born to Adoptive Mothers

Contrary to what one might expect, only about 62% of the adoptive mothers had no other children born to them at the time of the interview. About 14% had one other child born to them ("parity") and about 24% had two or more children who had been born to them when interviewed. (We don't know if the other children were born before or after the adoptions occurred.)

Foster Parent Status

Some adoptive parents were previously foster parents to the children they subsequently adopted, and in some states, 50% or more of the children adopted through the state social services department were adopted by their foster parents. (See FOSTER PARENT ADOPTIONS.) In such cases, when the court terminated parental rights, the foster parents requested permission to adopt the child.

Foster parents are by no means guaranteed the right to adopt the child they are fostering. Social workers first strive to reunite a child with his or her birth family or family of origin. As a result, a child could live with a foster family for a year or longer and then leave it; however, there is a movement toward encouraging foster parents to adopt. In addition, experts urge social workers to place children with families who would be appropriate to adopt them should reunification with the birth family not be possible. Such placements are often called "foster/adopt" or sometimes "at risk" placements.

Studies by Richard Barth and other researchers have revealed foster parent adoptions of children from the public child welfare system disrupt at a lower rate than "new" adoptions, and various states have begun instituting programs to train people who wish to become foster parents about adoption as well, sometimes combining classes for adoptive parents and foster parents. (See DISRUPTION and DISSOLUTION.)

A possible reason for this success is that foster parents have had ongoing in-service training opportunities and also ongoing social work postplacement support. Adoptive parents who were not foster parents receive counseling and assistance to the point of finalization, when services stop. (See POST-LEGAL ADOPTIVE SERVICES.)


Infertility is a prerequisite to apply to most adoption agencies placing babies, and the applicant may be required to provide medical proof of infertility.

Most adoptive parents have a primary infertility, which means they are childless and have never borne a child. Others face secondary infertility, which means they have had one or more children but are now infertile.

The agency social worker seeks to determine if the couple has successfully resolved most of their conflicts and anxieties about their infertility so they will be able to fully accept an adopted child.

It appears that adoptive mothers of today are more likely to be infertile than adoptive mothers in the past. The National Center for Health Statistics has provided data on "parity" or childbirths of their adoptive mothers samples in 1973, 1982, 1988 and 1995, and we see an upward trend of adoption among infertile women. For example, in 1973, only about 56% of the adoptive mothers had no childbirths. This number of infertile adopters increased to nearly 62% in 1982. For some reason, this number dropped to 52% in 1988 (possibly because of an increase in international adoptions, in which case agencies accept families with children already, or possibly because of improvements in overcoming infertility, although we don't really know the reason) and then increased to 62% again in 1995.

Fertility or infertility is generally not an issue when a special needs adoption is being contemplated, and infertility is often not an issue in international adoption. As a result, optional adopters or preferential adopters are individuals who are fertile but prefer to adopt rather than reproduce.

Health Issues

In a study reported in 1994, the National Center for Health Statistics reported on a variety of health issues according to family structure status. In looking at the percentage of children ages 0-17 who were in excellent health and with no limiting conditions, the adopted children scored best, at about 56%, followed by children with both biological parents at 55%. The children with the worst health status were those living with their biological mother only-at 42% in excellent health.

Adoptive parents also had the highest rate of children with developmental delays, at 8.5%, followed by children living with a biological father and stepmother, at 5%, and biological mother only at 4.5%. The high rate of developmental delays in adopted children is undoubtedly due to the adoption of children with special needs. The adoptive parents also had the highest percentage of children with learning disabilities, at about 16%.

In looking at children ages 3-17 with emotional problems, however, adopted children did not have the highest percentage. Instead, the category "biological father and stepmother" had the highest level of children with emotional disorders, at 31%, followed by adoptive parents at 27% and biological mothers and stepfathers at 22%.

Adoptive parents scored well in a variety of areas. For example, in looking at the "percent of children 0-17 years of age who have no form of health insurance," only 8% of the adoptive parents had no health insurance on their children, compared to the next best score of 13% for "both biological parents." Stated another way, 92% of the adoptive parents had health insurance, vs. 87% for "both biological parents."

In looking at children ages 0-17 who had no regular source for routine medical care, again, the lowest score was adoptive parents, at 7%, followed by children living with both biological parents, at 8%. (The lowest score was 19% for children living with a biological father and stepmother. Thus, this group had the least likelihood of a source for regular medical care for their children.)

Adoptive parents were the most likely to have children who wear seatbelts-only 21% of their children rarely or never wore seatbelts, compared to 26% for children living with both biological parents. Adoptive parents were the most likely to take their children to dentists. Only 10% had children who hadn't seen a dentist in the past two years, compared to the nearly 20% for children living with a biological mother only.

Lastly, adoptive parents were the least likely to smoke, at about 32%, compared to 39% of parents of children living with both biological parents, and 61% of parents of children living with a biological mother and a stepfather.

Good Character

Most agencies require at least three written references of the applicants' good character; hence, presumably most adoptive parents have good characters. In addition, in the case of an independent adoption, there is usually a home study made of the adoptive family. Part of that HOME STUDY is to determine if the prospective family is of good character. In addition, police checks may be run to ensure the applicant has no criminal record. Agencies operated under religious auspices may require a reference from a member of the clergy of the applicants' faith group.


United States citizenship may be required by agencies or attorneys arranging the adoption of children in the United States; hence, most adoptive parents are U.S. citizens. If a couple in the United States wishes to adopt a child from another country, at least one of them must be a U.S. citizen, based on U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service requirements. If a single person wishes to adopt a child from another country, she or he must be a U.S. citizen.

Number of Children in the Home

Agencies that place infants may restrict applications to childless couples or couples with one child. Some agencies will accept an application from a family with one adopted child only if that adopted child was adopted through their agency. As a result, many families adopt only one or no more than two children (unless they adopt a sibling group, which is considered one category of "special needs").

When agencies place children with special needs, the number of children already in the home is not usually seen as a barrier, but the ages of the children in the home may be a determining factor in the age(s) of the child or children placed in the home by the social worker. For example, the social worker may not wish to place teenagers with a family who has preschoolers.

Psychological Adjustment to Children

Infertile couples may have undergone years of physically and psychologically painful fertility tests and procedures. When a couple decides to adopt a child, they must then undergo a home study, which is generally perceived as threatening no matter how positive and supportive the social worker is.

As a result of this insecurity, some researchers have hypothesized that adoptive parents are far more insecure than biological parents. This view is based on anecdotal literature rather than studies. A doctoral dissertation by Thomas Cook in 1988 revealed that adoptive parents can be well-adjusted and even more well-adjusted than first-time biological parents.

According to Cook's data, biological parents faced more difficulty than their "adoptive counterparts." Cook compared first-time biological parents with adoptive parents who adopted children of the same race and adoptive parents who adopted transracially.

He found biological parents experienced the most adjustment difficulties, followed by the transracial adopters. The adoptive parents of children of the same race experienced the least difficulty. Parenthood was not perceived as a crisis event for parents in the three groups. Adoptive parents were married almost twice as long as biological parents, which probably contributed to their stability.

Cook stated, "Another consideration is that adoptive parenthood is a highly desired and voluntary status for those choosing to be adoptive parents." He speculated some of the biological parents may have had unplanned pregnancies.

Attitudes of Others

Studies have also revealed that support or the lack of support for an adoption is important to adoptive parents. Charlene Miall reported on the "stigma" some adoptive parents feel and the impression they have that adoption is perceived as "second class." (See ATTITUDES ABOUT ADOPTION.)

Working Mothers

Some adoption agencies require adoptive mothers to take an extended maternity leave. But the number of all mothers working outside the home has increased in the past 10 years along with the number of adoptive mothers working outside the home.

According to an article by Christine Bachrach in a 1986 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, only 35% of the adopted children in 1976 had mothers who worked outside the home. By 1982, 51% of the adopted children had mothers who worked outside the home. That figure is probably greater today.

As a result, agencies that require one parent to leave work may find some resistance from adoptive parents. Each state has its own laws on parental leave, although the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child. The law specifically includes adopted children as well as nonadopted children. In addition, EMPLOYMENT BENEFITS, including leave, adoption reimbursements and other benefits, vary by employer. Generally, larger employers are more generous with adoption benefits than are small employers.

Reasons for Adoption

Most people report they wish to adopt a child because they love children and feel something is missing in their lives without a child. Families who already have children place a greater emphasis on what they can give a child, for example, a stable and happy family life.

A dissertation by Barbara Moulden Reid at the University of Texas at Austin in 1983 revealed a difference between how adopters of children with special needs and adopters of healthy infants perceived themselves and traits important to adoptive parents.

Both groups wished to create families or enlarge their families. But the healthy white infant adopters stressed spousal relationship, love of children and desire for parenthood as most important parental traits, while the adopters of children with special needs stressed flexibility and patience.

Adoptive Parents Evaluating Adoption

A British study of adult adopted persons and their adoptive parents by Lois Raynor yielded valuable information. Raynor reported her findings in The Adopted Child Comes of Age.

Of the adoptive parents who were interviewed, 85 percent reported their overall experience with their child had been "very satisfactory" or "reasonably satisfactory." Of the families who had been disappointed in the adoption experience and their child, several were unhappy because of severe health problems experienced by the child.

One family was very negative about ILLEGITIMACY, considering it a "curse." Raynor believed their child ultimately disappointing them was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

She also found molding the child was important to adoptive parents. Those who were most dissatisfied felt they had failed to "mold" the child.

According to Raynor's study, the adoptive parents' perception of similarities between themselves and the child was critically important to parental satisfaction: 97% who thought the child was like them in appearance, interests, intelligence or personality were happy with the adoption, while about 62% were satisfied when the child was perceived as different.

The child didn't necessarily actually resemble adoptive parents nor was he or she very similar to them when observed by an outsider-it was the adoptive parents' perception of the similarity that was key.

Overall Impact on Their Children: Nature vs. Nurture

Numerous studies have been performed both on twins separated at birth and on adopted children and adults to determine the effects of genetics and the environment. (See ENVIRONMENT; GENETIC PREDISPOSITIONS; INTELLIGENCE.) A wide array of effects have been observed by researchers, who have noted disparities and similarities in personalities, physical abilities and many other aspects of life. Most researchers believe both heredity and environment play important roles in a child's life.

A study by T. W. Teasdale and T. I. A. Sorensen found a tendency for male adopted persons to enter the same career field or trade as their adoptive fathers.

Other researchers have noted personality differences between adoptive parents and their children; however, the authors of one study made an important and highly perceptive point. In their study, authors Sandra Scarr, Patricia L. Webber, Richard A. Weinberg and Michele A. Wittig stated, "Adoptive parents, knowing that there is no genetic link between them and their children, may expect less similarity and thus not pressure their children to become like the parents." (The researchers did find a "modest degree of personality resemblance among biological relatives," which "exceeded the minimal similarities of adopted relatives.")

Adoptive Parents of Large Sibling Groups

Social workers are often reluctant to place sibling groups with families who have never parented and are inexperienced at rearing children.

Said Margaret Ward, an instructor at Cambrian College in Ontario, Canada, "Adoptive parents who eagerly anticipate an intimate parent-child relationship could be bitterly disappointed. A couple with no children or only one or two may also find it difficult just to manage the number of newly placed children. In addition, if the parents have little experience with groups of children, they may have problems understanding and thus dealing with the existing patterns of interaction among the siblings." (See also ADULT ADOPTED PERSONS; EMPLOYMENT BENEFITS; ENTITLEMENT; LARGE FAMILIES; PARENTAL LEAVE; SIBLINGS; SPECIAL NEEDS.)

Christine A. Bachrach, "Adoption Plans, Adopted Children, and Adoptive Mothers," Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (May 1986): 243-253.

Christine A. Bachrach, Ph.D., Patricia F. Adams, Soledad Sambrano, Ph.D. and Kathryn A. London, Ph.D., "Adoption in the 1980's," Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics of the National Center for Health Statistics, January?5, 1990.

Anjani Chandra et al., "Adoption, Adoption Seeking, and Relinquishment for Adoption in the United States," Advance Data Number 306, National Center for Health Statistics, May?11, 1999.

Thomas F. Cook, "Transition to Parenthood: A Study of First-time Adoptive and Biological Parents," Ph.D. diss., University of Alabama, 1988.

Katherine A. Nelson, On the Frontier of Adoption: A Study of Special Needs Adoptive Families (New York: Child Welfare League of America, 1985).

Lois Raynor, The Adopted Child Comes of Age (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980).

"Fertility, Family Planning, and Women's Health: New Data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth," National Center for Health Statistics, Series 23, No. 19, May 1997.

"Health of Our Nation's Children," National Center for Health Statistics, Series 10: Data from the National Health Interview Survey, No. 191, 1994.

Sandra Scarr, Patricia L. Webber, Richard A. Weinberg and Michele A. Wittig, "Personality Resemblance Among Adolescents and Their Parents in Biologically Related and Adoptive Families," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40 (1981): 885-898.

T. W. Teasdale and T. I. A. Sorensen, "Educational Attainment and Social Class in Adoptees: Genetic and Environmental Contributions," Journal of Biosocial Science 15 (1983): 509-518.

Margaret Ward, "Choosing Adoptive Families for Large Sibling Groups," Child Welfare, 66 (May-June 1987).

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