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Domestic Adoption: Perception & Reality

Adoption in the United States has undergone a seismic shift in the last 30 years. How long will it take for popular perceptions to catch up with the new, healthier reality?

by Eliza Newlin Carney

When Katie and Jeffrey Davis set out to adopt a baby domestically, everyone close to the couple assumed they were in for an excruciatingly long wait. As it turned out, the Davises, who live in Baltimore, Maryland, were matched with a birthmother less than a month after their adoption agency started presenting their paperwork. Their daughter, now five, was placed in their arms just seven months after they started the adoption process.

“People think that adoption takes five years, just forever and ever,” says Katie. “They were shocked that we adopted a baby in the U.S., and that the process went so smoothly.”

Domestic adoption reinvented

The Davis family’s story is not particularly unusual. While international adoption has commanded the limelight for the last two decades, domestic adoption has remained an untold story. Despite persistently negative and sensational media coverage, domestic adoption today is more transparent than ever before, and increasingly defined by healthier choices for birth families and adoptive families alike.

The fact that more than 18,000 American families successfully adopt newborn babies in the United States every year belies the widespread misperception that domestic adoption is a difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and risky process. The truth is that most families successfully adopt within two years of beginning the process. The cost of a domestic adoption varies widely, from under $10,000 to more than $40,000. According to surveys conducted annually by Adoptive Families, the median total cost of a domestic adoption is $20,000 to $35,000, which tends to be considerably less than that of a typical international adoption.

The most damaging, and most deeply entrenched, conviction--that birthparents return after relinquishing parental rights to try to reclaim the baby--virtually never comes to pass. “People watch TV and read the newspapers, and they are scared to death,” says Mark T. McDermott, an adoption attorney in Washington, D.C.

Domestic adoptions outpace international

Although fewer adoptions currently take place each year within the U.S. compared to 35 years ago, domestic adoption is far from dying out. In fact, more U.S. families adopt domestically than internationally each year.

To be sure, the number of infant placements in the U.S. has dropped in recent decades. In the mid-1970s, as many as 49,000 American infants were placed for adoption each year. In 2007, the most recent year for which accurate numbers exist, there were an estimated 18,078 domestic newborn, non-relative adoptions.

The drop in the number of newborn adoptions since the 1970s coincides with a decline in the percentage of single mothers placing children for adoption, down from nine percent in the 1970s to 1.4 percent in 2002, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. As the stigma against single parenthood has diminished over the last 35 years, so has the number of children placed for adoption.

Despite the tenacity of myths and stereotypes, domestic adoption has quietly redefined itself over a generation. Adopting parents, once resigned to a lengthy wait at their local adoption agency, now have more options and more information. Birthparents, once shamed and almost completely shut out of adoption decisions, are now involved in the process. Independent adoptions have increased in number and, by some accounts, now represent the majority of domestic adoptions. The Internet has made it easier for like-minded birthparents and adopting families to find one another over geographic distances.

From secrecy to transparency

While almost every aspect of adoption is different than it was in the past, it is within the family matching process that the most change has occurred. In private and agency adoptions, rather than merely being assigned a baby to adopt without any background information to share with the child as he or she grows, adopting parents now usually meet or talk with the birth family. Birthparents, by the same token, are empowered to choose which family will adopt their child. Birth families are more likely to have access to counseling and independent legal representation, and, together with the adopting family, determine the nature of contact after the adoption.

Almost everyone involved in adoption today--adopting parents, birthparents, and adoption professionals--embraces this new transparency as an antidote to the confidentiality of the past. Birth families are reassured that their child will be well cared for; adopted children have the answers to questions that arise over the years.

Today, families who’ve adopted domestically often say that any initial concern about the role of birthparents has been replaced by gratitude for the opportunity to know their child’s family of origin. They note the positive aspects of adopting domestically: the opportunity to parent a newborn, and the medical and social history they have for their child.

Getting to know one another

Another misperception about open adoptions is that they constitute virtual “co-parenting.” In most cases, before the child is born or the adoption is finalized, the families agree to a mutually acceptable level of contact--though there is no “typical” scenario, and many let their contact evolve. Some birth and adoptive families correspond directly; some exchange updates through an intermediary. Some use special e-mail accounts; others are friends on Facebook. Some see each other frequently; others don’t meet face-to-face. On the whole, however, there seems to be a movement toward greater openness by all parties.

Adoption professionals report that, after the initial reassurance of letters following a child’s birth, some birthmothers move on with their lives. In these cases, contact often diminishes. Dawn Smith-Pliner, executive director of adoption agency Friends in Adoption, reports that contact is sometimes renewed in later years, by either the adoptive family or the birth family.

Adoption is forever

The fear that domestic adoptions are legally risky remains widespread. While there are no data on how many adoptions land in the courts, experts estimate that less than one percent of domestic adoptions are legally contested after the relinquishment of parental rights.

Kirsten Wilkerson and her husband, Pete, adopted their daughter, Meghan, less than a year after they began the process. At the beginning, the Wilkersons had fully expected to adopt a child from China or South Korea. That plan was driven, in part, by “the belief out there that birthparents would come back to reclaim their child,” explains Kirsten, a psychologist who lives in Edwardsville, Illinois.

But chance--or, as Kirsten says, fate--intervened. Her doctor told her about a pregnant patient who was considering placing her child for adoption. The doctor wanted to know whether Kirsten and Pete were interested in adopting the baby.

As it turned out, that call never came--but the experience did get Kirsten thinking. Soon afterward, a fateful conversation led her to another pregnant woman interested in making an adoption plan. As soon as she met Meghan’s birthmother, recalls Kirsten, her fears about a birthmother’s change of heart melted away. Three months later, she and Pete were parents.

Breaking down birthmom stereotypes

Even as domestic adoption evolves, negative stereotypes of birthmothers refuse to die out. Most damaging are those portrayals of birthmothers heartlessly “giving up” their children. In reality, most of them have made a painful, but loving, choice--one for which there is very little societal support.

Despite the perception that most birthmothers are irresponsible teenagers, many are single mothers in their twenties or thirties who already have a child, and who face economic pressure to place a child. “They are mothers who want the best life possible for their unborn child,” says Steven Kirsh, an adoption attorney in Indianapolis.

Understanding is growing

Adopting a newborn domestically is eminently doable, say professionals. Nonetheless, waiting parents should educate themselves about the process, and about all their options. It’s not uncommon for waiting parents to pursue more than one route at a time, filing paperwork with an agency and also networking independently.

Wait times are shortest for parents who place the least restrictions on the description of their “dream” child.

Many families have already discovered what the rest of America has yet to figure out: that the real story of domestic adoption has thousands of happy endings.

Journalist Eliza Newlin Carney and her husband live in Maryland with their daughter, adopted domestically.

PHOTO: Cohen (3 days, U.S.) gets kisses from his mom, Nicole (left), and his birthmom.

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©2014 Adoptive Families. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.


We had a wonderful experience adopting domestically. After years of infertility I didnt want the chance of a birth parent changing their mind months after placement so I checked each states laws very carefully and selected a state that 1. allowed the birthparents to terminate 48hrs after birth, and 2. that the termination was 100% irrevocable. We paid only a small administrative fee when we applied to the agency and then paid the adoption fee when our beautiful perfect newborn boy was legally placed with us. We met our birthmother and father via the agency and had calls and webcam chats. The situation just felt right and they are amazing people who made us feel like parents even in the hospital! We know people from our adoption classes that had bad experiences (fake pregnancies, gave money to the girls and then ended up with no baby etc) A lot of that I chalk up to 1. poor agency assistance (some agencies just give the adoptive couples contact info and leave the chatting up to them!) 2. State laws (some states actually allow for the birth parents to come back after months and have a strong legal case to take back custody) 3. Sometimes birth parents change their minds..... It is their legal right untill they sign the termination papers, so as long as you pick a state that has a short wait perior to sign, and an agency that doesnt require money upfront or that will reimburse you if the adoption fails due to the birth parents changing their minds prior to signing termination papers then you are pretty safe in those terms. It was a wonderful time for us and we are forever grateful that we have our son, now almost 1yr! I wouldnt have changed anything and we will probably go the domestic route again when we are ready for him to become a big brother. Good luck!

Posted by: Chris at 4:35pm Feb 28

My husband and I adopted our 3 children domestically, from birth. For our first adoption, we were matched with a couple but before the baby was born they decided to marry and parent their child. We were disappointed in the loss of a chance for a baby, but were happy for them. We still keep in touch by facebook! Soon after, we were matched with our son's birthmother. When he was 15 months we started the adoption process again, thinking it would take at least a year, but 3 months later our daughter was born. When she was 15 months, our son's birthmother asked us to parent her 2nd baby. So we ended up with 3 kids under the age of 3, despite the fact that the average wait is 1 1/2 years -- know that it can go much faster than that! In our state (CA) and with our agency (Bethany Christian Services), the relinquishment period took about 10 days. Our children's birthmothers signed the relinquishment the day they left the hospital, it was sent the next day at 5:00, and then took 3-10 days for it to be filed. This short time period was very reassuring for us. We were also very glad that our agency provides counseling for all birthparents, so that they are sure of their decision. I would never want a birthmother to make a quick decision that she wasn't sure was right and then have no time to change her mind. From what we could see, our children's birthmothers were for the most part unwavering in their decision because they had thought it through very well and knew this was what they wanted for their child. We enjoy great relationships with our children's birthmothers and their families. They are very respectful and let us initiate contact, although sometimes I wish they felt more comfortable initiating it! We get together every 3 or 4 months and stay in touch by email or facebook. They've come to our kid's birthday parties and have even babysat our children! In front of our kids they refer to me as "mom." They're great girls and we're so lucky to have them as part of our family!

Posted by: Krista at 5:37pm May 6

When my husband and I decided to adopt, I sent off for informational packets from several adoption agencies. The first round of pamphlets that came in happened to be from international adoption agencies, which I brought to work. A co-worker of mine saw my literature, and asked me if I was open to a domestic adoption. I informed her that, in addition to a few local agencies I was waiting to get packets from, I had made several calls to our local Department Of Health and Human Services, and had received no call back. She then asked me about adopting "older" kids, or sibling groups. She asked if my husband and I had a preference of boys or girls. I told her that older kids were fine, we did not care if we got boys or girls, and that if we could get children that were biological siblings, that would be great! I did not know that she was a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and that she had a particular couple of siblings in mind. I called my husband to make sure that he was on board with meeting the kids, which we did the following week. 11 months and 14 days after that first meeting, we were standing in a court room finalizing the adoption of our 6 year old and 2 year old. Three years later, and I cannot imagine how we lived without them. :-) As crazy as it sounds, our adoption wound up costing us no money at all. When you take into consideration the fact that we received the customary board payment during our months of fostering, I think we actually came out ahead when all was said and done. The state required us to foster our children for 6 months before they would allow the adoption (in order to assure a "good fit") and the transition from fostering to adoption was paid for by our state (Arkansas); since our adoption was considered a "hard placement" (sibling group AND older child). We have several friends that have also gone the adoption route, and have referred a few of them to DHHS. One couple wound up meeting a child that had been fostered with our kids, and they wound up adopting him! Adopting through DHHS is not for everyone. The chances of getting an infant are slim, and many of the children come from pasts of abuse. In many cases, they will require intensive attention and work. It became abundantly clear shortly after the kids came to live with us that either my husband or I needed to stay home to address certain issues and to make our oldest feel more secure. I have been blessed in my ability to stay home and watch our kids grow, and especially to see my oldest gain confidence from the love drawn from our family. Like I said earlier, three years down the road, and I cannot imagine how we lived without them. :-)

Posted by: TLSF at 9:58am Mar 11

Hi Christina, I would recommend that you visit The Adoption Guide at, which offers comprehensive information for pre-adoptive parents on how to adopt. In addition, we have a list of adoption professionals that work in Arizona, as well as adoption resources specific to Arizona here: I hope this is helpful! Good luck. -Kate, Adoptive Families

Posted by: Kate at 11:32am Mar 12

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