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U.S. Adoption Options Dwindling?

Social and political factors are contributing to a steady decrease in both domestic and international adoptions, which hit a 15-year low in 2010.

By Elisa Rosman, PH.D.

To many Adoptive Families readers, it seems that adoption is becoming harder to accomplish, that options are narrowing. Do the numbers support this? How many non-relative adoptions take place each year in the United States? Are adoptions increasing or decreasing?

In fact, it is quite complex to answer those seemingly straightforward questions: Because no federal authority tracks all adoptions and because the three main forms of adoption—private domestic newborn adoption, foster adoption (or public adoption), and intercountry adoption—take place under different legal auspices, it takes some sleuthing to determine trends in adoption.

Total Adoptions Remain Fairly Stable

What is known is that, according to Adoption Factbook V, recently published by the National Council For Adoption (NCFA), there were 153,179 adoptions in 2007, the most recent year for which the NCFA presents data. This number, however, includes 57,248 domestic adoptions in which at least one parent is related to the child, often step-parent adoption. Thus, excluding relative adoptions, a total of 95,931 adoptions took place in the U.S. in 2007. In 2002, there were a total of 151,332 adoptions, including 54,256 relative adoptions. Thus, overall, the numbers appear to be remaining fairly steady. To discern the trends within these numbers, we need to use data from various sources and various years.

The Adoption Numbers 

2010: 52,891
2009: 57,466
2008: 55,000

2009: 12,782
2008: 17,229

U.S. Infant
2007: 18,078
2002: 22,291
1996: 23,537

Sources: Foster/AFCARS reports, FY 2008-2010; International/Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008-2010 editions; U.S. Infant/NCFA surveys, reported every five years.


Infant Domestic Adoption: A Gradual Slowdown

Every five years, NCFA hires a researcher to survey state administrators in order to determine the total number of infant domestic adoptions in the U.S. As reported in Adoption Factbook V, there were 18,078 infant domestic adoptions in 2007, down from 22,291 in 2002, the last year in which the survey was conducted. The first NCFA survey (1982) identified 17,602 infant domestic adoptions. Since the peak year of 1992, when 26,672 adoptions were identified, the number of private domestic adoptions has dropped each year.

One of the reasons for the decreasing number of domestic adoptions may be a parallel decrease in the percentage of unmarried women relinquishing children for adoption. According to data from the National Survey of Family Growth, relinquishments have declined from nearly nine percent in the 1970s to under one percent of births to never-married women by 1995 (the last available data year). Reasons offered by researchers include an increased social acceptance of single motherhood, and a higher number of unmarried mothers in their 20s rather than their teens.

Foster Care Adoption: On the Rise Until 2010

The adoption picture is somewhat brighter in the foster care system. Data is collected each year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). Although the 52,891 children adopted from foster care in 2010 represent a decrease from the previous year's 57,466 adoptions, each successive year before 2010 has seen a steady but slow increase in the number of children adopted from foster care. Next year's numbers will tell us whether 2010 represents an unusual decline or the beginning of a downward trend.

Intercountry Adoption: Steadily Decreasing

The number of intercountry adoptions each year is reported by the Department of Homeland Security in its annual edition of Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. In 2010, only 11,100 children were adopted internationally by Americans, a 15-year low. What’s more, intercountry adoptions have been steadily decreasing in recent years, from 19,471 in 2007 to 17,229 in 2008 to 12,782 in 2009. Policy changes in two of the top sending countries, China and Russia, have caused the number of adoptions to the U.S. to decrease steadily in recent years. Only Ethiopia has seen increased numbers in the past five years, from 1,254 children in 2007 to 2,513 in 2010. Ethiopia, however, recently announced a slowdown in adoption processing, which may well cause the number of adoptions from there to decrease in 2011.

Overall, it is difficult to predict the future on the basis of these numbers. On the one hand, positive attitudes toward adoption are on the rise in this country; and, until this year, there has been an annual increase in the number of children adopted from foster care. On the other hand, unless there are policy changes in countries abroad and changes in the percentage of mothers relinquishing children for adoption in the U.S., it is unlikely that intercountry and domestic adoptions will increase in the near term.

Elisa Rosman, PH.D., is a consultant on early childhood and adoption issues. She is a mother of four, including three children from China.


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