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Adoption Terms

From "homestudy" to "legal risk placement," adoption has a language all its own. Use this cheat sheet to help decipher it.



Adoptee. A person who was adopted. Some people prefer the terms adopted child or adopted person.

Adoption. The complete transfer of parental rights and obligations from one parent or set of parents to another. A legal adoption requires a court action.

Adoption agency. An organization, usually licensed by the state, that provides services to birth parents, adoptive parents and children who need families. Agencies may be public or private, secular or religious, for profit or nonprofit. Search for an adoption agency in AF's national directory.

Adoption assistance. Monthly federal or state subsidy payments to help adoptive parents raise children with special needs.

Adoption attorney. A lawyer who files, processes and finalizes adoptions in court. In some states attorneys may also arrange adoptive placements. Search for an adoption attorney in AF's national directory.

Adoption consultant or adoption facilitator. Individual whose business involves connecting birth parents and prospective adoptive parents for a fee (only allowed in a few states). In international adoption, a facilitator may help adoptive parents complete the adoption in the child’s country of origin.

Adoption plan. Birthparents’ decisions to allow their child to be placed for adoption.

Adoption tax credits. Nonrefundable credit that reduces taxes owed by adoptive parents who claim adoption expense reimbursment on federal taxes (and in some states with similar legislation, on state taxes). Through the IRS program, in tax year 2012, adoptive parents could take advantage of up to $12,650 per child in tax credits to offset qualifying adoption expenses.

Adoption triad. The three major parties in an adoption: birthparents, adoptive parents and adopted child. Also called adoption triangle or adoption circle.

Agency adoption. Adoptive placements made by licensed organizations that screen prospective adoptive parents and supervise the placement of children in adoptive homes until the adoption is finalized.

Birthparent. A child’s biological parent.

Closed adoption. An adoption that involves total confidentiality and sealed records.

Confidentiality. The legally required process of keeping identifying or other significant information secret. Also, the principle of ethical practice that requires social workers and other professionals not to disclose information about a client without the client’s consent.

Consent to adopt or consent to adoption. Legal permission for the adoption to proceed.

Decree of adoption. A legal order that finalizes an adoption.

Dossier. A set of legal documents used in international adoption to process a child’s adoption or assignment of guardianship in the foreign court.

Employer benefits. Compensation to workers through employer-sponsored programs, e.g., financial assistance, reimbursement of adoption expenses and/or provision of parental or family leave. For a list of employers who provide benefits, visit Adoption-Friendly Workplace.

Finalization. The final legal step in the adoption process; involves a court hearing during which the judge orders that the adoptive parents become the child’s legal parents.

Foster parents. State- or county-licensed adults who provide a temporary home for children whose birth parents are unable to care for them.

Homestudy. A process through which prospective adoptive parents are educated about adoption and evaluated to determine their suitability to adopt. Learn how to survive the homestudy.

ICPC. The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) is statutory law that establishes uniform legal and administrative procedures governing the adoption of children between states within the U.S.

Identifying information. Information on birth parents or adoptive parents that discloses their identities.

Independent adoption. An adoption facilitated by other than an adoption agency.

Legal guardian. A person who has legal responsibility for the care and management of a person (such as a minor child) who is incapable of administering his or her own affairs.

Legal risk placement. Placement of a child in a prospective adoptive family when the child is not yet legally free for adoption.

Open adoption. An adoption that involves some amount of initial and/or ongoing contact between birth and adoptive families, ranging from sending letters through the agency to exchanging names and/or scheduling visits.

Photo listings. Photos and descriptions of children who are available for adoption.

Placement. The point at which a child begins to live with prospective adoptive parents; the period before the adoption is finalized.

Postplacement supervision. The range of counseling and agency services provided to the adoptive family after the child’s placement and before the adoption is finalized in court.

Private adoption. See Independent adoption

Private agencies. Nongovernmental adoption agencies licensed by the state.

Public agencies. Social service agencies run by state or county governments that deal mainly with children in foster care.

Readoption. For a child adopted in another country, a second adoption in a U.S. court. For more information, read U.S. Readoption Explained.

Relative adoption. Adoption by a biological relative of the child.

Relinquishment. Voluntary termination of parental rights. Some prefer the phrase making an adoption plan.

Reunion. A meeting between an adopted person and birth parents or other birth relatives.

Search. An attempt to locate and/or make a connection with a birth parent or a biological child.

Semi-open adoption. An adoption in which a child’s birth parents and adoptive parents may meet once or twice but exchange primarily nonidentifying information.

Special-needs children. Children whom agencies consider difficult to place because of emotional or physical disorders, age, race, membership in a sibling group, history of abuse or other factors.

Transracial adoption. An adoption in which the child and parent(s) are not of the same race. Visit AF's transracial adoption page to find resources and learn more.

USCIS. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, a federal agency under the Justice Department that oversees all visas issued to allow entry into the U.S.

U.S. State Department. Maintains extensive information about international adoption procedures around the world on its website.

Waiting children. Children in the public child welfare system who cannot return to their birth homes and need permanent, loving families to help them grow up safe and secure.

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