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Domestic or International: Choosing an Adoption Path

Learn the facts about why children are placed for adoption here and abroad, and you’ll have tools to help you decide which route to adoption is best for you. by Carrie Howard

So many questions face families starting out on their adoption journey, and one of the central ones is, Where will you adopt? In the U.S. or abroad? In China or Ethiopia, South Korea or Ukraine? Each family must decide what’s best for them and for the children they will adopt based on their own experience, their connections with particular cultures or parts of the world, and their understanding of conditions in the places in which they’re thinking about pursuing adoption, among other considerations.

Learning more about the typical circumstances leading children to be available for adoption in the United States and around the world can help you decide where to adopt, and, later, allow you to bring vital information and sympathetic detail to your child’s adoption story.

United States: Hard Choices

Some 18,000 infants are adopted each year through private American adoption. (These numbers exclude foster and relative adoptions, in which the adoptive parents tend to be well acquainted with the birthfamily’s situation.) Dawn Smith-Pliner of Friends In Adoption has worked in U.S. adoption for more than 20 years. She identifies three distinct categories of birthparents who seek her agency’s support in placing their children. “First, we see many single mothers, usually from 19 to 24 years old, who are struggling to raise children alone,” says Smith-Pliner. “They say, ‘We love our kids and we know that we can’t bring another child into our family and be okay.’

"Second, we see married couples, usually with children already, who are struggling to keep their marriage and family afloat in the face of a variety of financial or emotional obstacles. They may already be working two jobs and are trying to be good parents to the children they have," she says.

A third U.S. adoption scenario often involves teenage birthparents with parents interested in open adoption placement. “The teens, like the vast majority of parents considering adoption, love the baby, and the ability to maintain contact with the adoptive family comforts them. But in our experience, it’s the grandparents, not the teens, who are likely to maintain a relationship after adoption.”

When a birthmother contacts Smith-Pliner’s office, staff members discuss parenting and make every effort to find resources to keep the child in the birthfamily. If the birthparents remain firm about the decision to place the child, the agency provides counseling to assist them.

The range of social service and financial support options available to U.S. birthparents may, paradoxically, increase the difficulty parents face in explaining to a child why he could not remain with his first family. “Even in open adoption, it can be painful,” says Smith-Pliner. “But it’s important for kids to know how they came into a family. The truth creates a strong base for children to grow into self-assured and healthy adults.”

Ethiopia: Poverty and High Mortality Rates

In 2012, American parents adopted 1,567 children from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the poorest nations in the world, and in addition, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates. Owing to droughts, floods, famine, and disease that have riddled Ethiopia in recent years, thousands of Ethiopian children are left orphaned due to the premature death of their parents. 

South Korea: Social Pressures

South Korea has perhaps the oldest and most stable international adoption program in the world. Today unmarried mothers place most infants for adoption: the stigma associated with pregnancy outside of wedlock is strong. Birthmothers who choose adoption receive housing, counseling, and medical assistance.

Typically, infants live with a foster family after birth, and background information on the birthfamily is usually available. Increasingly, older adoptees are returning to South Korea to search for their birthparents. Susan Spafford, a contestant in the 2000 Miss America pageant, spoke publicly about her emotional meeting in Korea with her birthparents, who’d subsequently married.

Not all reunions are as satisfying. One adult adoptee described a reunion with her Korean birthmother that took place in secret; her birthmother dared not reveal to her husband her long-ago relationship with a married man and the resulting daughter placed for adoption. Such a sense of shame continues to shadow unwed mothers in Korea today.

China: The “One-Son-Or-Two-Child” Policy

Thousands of children are abandoned in the People’s Republic of China each year. Although some abandonments occur because of poverty, the majority result from China’s population control policies.

Dr. Kay Johnson, professor of Asian Studies at Hampshire College, reported on interviews with Chinese families in “Infant Abandonment and Adoption in China,” published in the September 1998 issue of Population and Development Review. In what is called the “one-son-or-two-child policy,” rural families with a daughter are often permitted to “try again” for a son. Although many parents in China prefer to have both a daughter and a son, they face strong social pressure to have a son to care for them in their old age. In Johnson’s sample, few boys were abandoned, and most of those were disabled. Ninety percent of abandoned children were girls, the majority of them second daughters.

Babies are typically left in public places, at a police or train station, suggesting that the birthparents wanted them to be found and cared for. Many adoptive parents see this as evidence of the birthparents’ love for their baby.

Paula Overend’s daughter Olivia, adopted in 2001, was left with an unusually detailed note that included her date and time of birth, her original family name, and a message that “included the birthfamily’s gratitude to whoever might raise their daughter.”

Why It Matters

Your child’s history is not something he leaves behind once he comes to your home; it will be part of his life forever. What you know about your child’s origins will have a great impact on your parenting. Like Guibault, many parents find that learning about challenges faced by their children’s birthparents gives them greater empathy for them. Indeed, some adoptive parents feel moved to lend their support to humanitarian efforts or to form their own charitable organizations, as the Fillmons did.

Ultimately, by coming to terms with our children’s origins we can help them understand and claim their stories for themselves.

Carrie Howard writes frequently about adoption issues and is the mother of two daughters adopted internationally. She lives with her family in the Seattle area.

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