Adoption Definition and Terms

Our use of the terms “putting up” or “giving up” does not reflect how we feel about adoptive placement. These terms remain the most widely used search terms for those who are considering adoption for their baby, and we wish to reach all who seek this important information.

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Over the years, there has been increased sensitivity to the impact of adoption terms and definitions and of damaging words surrounding adoption. Often reflecting negative stereotypes, unpopular adoption terminology can be misunderstood and prove to be hurtful. Hearing descriptions such as careless, impulsive, and disgraced can lead to birth parents feeling hurt, unvalued and forgotten. Unwanted, given away and second best are all labels that can lead adoptees to feel rejected and angry while sterile, barren and the second parent can make adoptive parents feel unworthy, sad, and frustrated. While these descriptions, labels and very hurtful adjectives are used by those who are less informed, they are not adoption definitions, and they certainly do not define the members of the Adoption Triad.

Positive Adoption Language is the movement to use words that sensitively recognizes everyone’s part in an adoption. It is important to recognize the power of an adoption definition and the following adoption definitions reflect this current trend.

Adoptee, Adopted Person or Person Who Was Adopted

Anyone who joins a family through a legal adoption process.


The process by which a legal and permanent parent-child relationship is created through a court process. Types of adoption are:

Domestic Adoption

In the U.S. domestic adoption refers to adoption of a baby or child born in the United States and pursuant to the laws governing U.S. adoption. Also see Private Adoption.

Foster Care Adoption

The adoption of child(ren) who are in the custody of a state’s department of social services or the licensed county authority, usually due to adverse parental behavior (abuse or neglect). Also see Public Adoption.

Intercountry Adoption

Sometimes referred to as International Adoption, Intercountry Adoption is an adoption involving two countries: the sending country where the child is born, and the receiving country where the prospective adoptive family resides. The adoption regulations and process of both countries must be followed, as well as compliance with immigration law.

Kinship Adoption

Adoption of a child by a family member.

Private Adoption

An adoptive placement of a child that is not a subject of the foster care dependency system. Some private adoptions are handled by attorneys, and some by private licensed child-placing adoption agencies. The court process for a private adoption varies from state to state.

Public Adoption

An adoption of a child in the foster care system that is conducted and supervised by a public agency, usually the state’s department of social services. Some private licensed child-placing adoption agencies act on behalf of the public agency by recruiting potential foster and adoptive homes and also performing the post-placement services. “Public” adoptions receive the same level of confidentiality as do those handled privately, and the process varies from state to state.

Adoption Agency

Adoption agencies are licensed in their respective states to conduct home studies and perform the services necessary to facilitate an adoption that is in the best interest of a child. Agencies can be not-for-profit or for-profit. It is important to know prior to starting an adoption if your state allows you to work with a for-profit agency. You should clarify which of the many adoption services are provided directly by the agency, and which you may need to obtain and pay for separately (example: fingerprinting fees, CPR and First Aid classes required for home study, post-placement supervision).

Adoption Attorney

A person licensed as an attorney, and who specializes in the field of adoption. Sub-specialties may include foster care advocacy, stepparent adoption or intercountry adoption.

Adoption Birth Plan

In preparation for their hospitalization and birth experience, expectant mothers who are considering adoption for their baby are encouraged to think though labor, delivery and transfer of the care for their newborn baby. Working with their legal representation or social worker, the adoption birth plan may include but is not limited to how they will get to the hospital, who they will call, if the prospective adoptive parents will be at the hospital, who will be in the delivery room, and more.

Adoption Decree/Adoption Order

The terms are synonymous. This is the legal document issued by a court of law during the finalization hearing which formalizes that the relationship between the adoptee and adoptive parent(s) is legally binding and to be considered the same as any parent/child relationship.

Adoption Disruption

The stopping of an adoption process. Some use this term to describe the end of an adoption opportunity at any point in the process, while others reserve it to define the end of an adoption process the occurs after the child is born and has been placed with the adoptive parent(s) but prior to the finalization of the adoption. An adoption disruption may take place for a variety of reasons which may range from miscarriage during the pregnancy, to a change of heart at the hospital, to revocation of consent during a legally prescribed period of time, or somewhere in between. The result is the same: the child identified for adoption is not adopted by the prospective adoptive parents.

Adoption Dissolution

Adoption dissolution may also be known as adoption “set-aside”. The voiding of an adoption order by a court after the legal finalization. This request for reversal of an adoption order is governed by the laws of the state(s) involved in the adoption. When permissible pursuant to state law(s) an adoption “set-aside” action may be initiated by either the birth parent or the adoptive parent(s) but only if certain circumstances are applicable, and only within specific timeframes.

Adoption Home Study

A narrative report written by an independent licensed social worker or one who is working on behalf of a licensed adoption agency after conducting a series of interviews and investigative steps. The home study process includes interviews with all household members and an on-site visit to inspect the home for safety and suitability. The adoptive parent(s) evaluation to adopt includes an assessment of their medical, emotional and financial stability. There are also child abuse and criminal clearances, medical reports and educational training in adoptive parenting. State requirements will vary however federal requirements, such as compliance with the Adam Walsh Act must also be met.

Adoption Search

An action taken by birth parents, adoptees or other family members to locate one another. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides resources and suggestions and there are also professionals who can assist with the search. This is a rapidly changing field with the advancements in DNA testing and creation of resulting databases.

Adoption Social Worker

A person licensed as a social worker who performs counseling, home study, post placement and referral services with birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees. Some social workers also have administrative responsibilities.

Adoption Symbol

The adoption symbol represents the 3 sides of every adoption and the love that binds them together. The Birth Family, the Adoptive Family and the Adoptee each make up one side of the triangle. The heart intertwining each side of the triangle represents the love involved in an adoption.

Adoption Tax Credit

The Federal Adoption Tax Credit allows for certain adoption related expenses to be credited on your tax return. The expenses may be for international, domestic private, and public foster care adoptions, but not stepparent adoption. Specific expenses may be claimed and there are income limits. For the current status of the tax credit, see here  and here.

Adoptive Parent

The person, who after finalization of the adoption through legal court process, assumes the responsibilities associated with being a parent.

Birth Certificate

The vital record that is issued to record a birth. Document may also be called Certificate of Live Birth. Issued at the time of birth, this document contains the parent(s) names, child’s name and birth information. Upon the finalization of an adoption, a new birth certificate is issued which reflects the names of the adoptive parent(s) and the child’s post-adoptive legal name.

Birth Parent

Referred to as the “natural” parent in court proceedings, and first parent by others, a birth parent is one of the two biological parents of a child.

Closed Adoption

Also called a Confidential Adoption, there is no contact between the birth and adoptive parent(s). Information is maintained by a third party, often an adoption agency or adoption attorney.


Based on state regulations, the sharing of personal information regarding the adoptive and birth families. Pre-placement, some states require that specific information of prospective adoptive parents be disclosed to expectant parents so that they have personal knowledge about them. Post-adoption, in some states only non-identifying information, such as age, may be provided directly to the adoptee, other states permit disclosure of identifying information as authorized by the birth parent, once the adoptee reaches the age of majority, and some states permit adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates without restriction.

Employee Adoption Benefits

Forms of Employee Adoption Benefits are usually parental time granted to an employee after the arrival of a child and sometimes financial compensation to offset adoption costs that are offered as part of a company’s employee benefit package.


A person who arranges the introduction of prospective adoptive and birth parents. State laws vary and may or may not regulate whether or not licensing or bonding is required, what services may be performed and what fees may be charged by a facilitator.

Federal Acts Affecting Adoption

There are federal laws and regulations which apply to adoptions within the United States, as well as adoptions involving the immigration of a child.


A court process, usually requiring the presence of the adoptive parent(s) and child, whereby the adoptee becomes the legal child of the adoptive parent(s).

Gotcha Day

Many adoptive families celebrate “Gotcha Day”, which for some commemorates the day the adoptive parents and adopted child first met and for others commemorates the day a child’s adoption is finalized. In an effort to introduce more positive adoption language, many families now choose to refer to this day as “Family Day” or “Adoption Day”.

The Hague Convention

The Hague Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is an agreement governing intercountry adoption procedures that was created to combat the abduction, exploitation, sale or trafficking of children. The United States signed the agreement in 1994 and it took force in the U.S. in 2008. A list of the 83 countries that participate in the Hague Convention may be found on the U.S. Department of State website.

Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC)

The ICPC is the formal agreement between all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands that governs how and when children may be moved across state lines for the purpose of adoption or foster care. There must be compliance with the laws and regulations of both the state of the child’s birth or residence (sending state) and those of the state to which the child will be moved. ICPCs are processed by Compact Administrators in each state, and the child may not be moved from one state to the other until clearance is received from the Compact Administrators in both the sending and receiving states.


The process by which birth parents who are looking for adopting parents and families looking to adopt are introduced for the purpose of adoption. Adoptive parents should be approved to adopt and birth parents should be making the choice to place their child for adoption. During the matching process and subsequent contact, the conditions under which the adoption would take place are discussed and agreed upon with the help of an adoption attorney or adoption agency personnel.

Open Adoption

The trend of open adoption has steadily increased throughout the years to such an extent that it is more the norm than the exception for newborn adoption in the U.S. Open adoptions provide for the expectant mother to select her baby’s adoptive family, as well as for the adoptive family to know more about their child’s birth mother than the non-identifying information that is standard.

There are varying amounts of contact that may take place before, during and after an adoption placement. A fully open adoption will include some level of ongoing contact between birth and adoptive parents, and the child. It is important to clarify with agencies and attorneys if there are state guidelines regarding the degree of openness may be established between birth and adoptive families, whether or not this should be documented and how, and to what extent any formal agreements are legally enforceable.

Parent Profiles

Also called Adoptive Parent Profiles or Birth Parent Letters. Prepared by the prospective adoptive parent(s) this window into their lives is the opportunity to share who they are and about the life they wish to provide for a child. Photographs of the family, their home, lifestyle and community are included. These profiles are shared with birth parents who are looking to find a family for their child. With advances in technology, hopeful adoptive families are now also able to include videos and social media and videos in their outreach efforts.


Placement is both the time of and the act of a child being formally placed into the care of the prospective adoptive parent(s).

Post Adoption Contract Agreement

Agreements, between birth parents and adoptive families that formalize the type and frequency of contact that will occur after adoptive placement and throughout the adoptee’s childhood. Because adoption laws vary from state to state so do the laws that govern these agreements.

Post Placement Supervision/Adoption Reporting

Once adoptive placement occurs, some form of post-placement supervision or visits take place to assure that adjustments are going well and the adoption is in the child’s best interest. Narrative reports are written by the social worker making the visits after a child is in the home and assess the child and family’s adjustment. The frequency and duration of visits varies from state to state and may be dependent upon the type of adoption involved.


Relinquishment is both the act of and the name of the legal document signed and executed by the birth parent(s) which transfers the custody of a child to the care and custody of another. Depending on the laws of the state involved, relinquishment may be made directly to the prospective adoptive parent(s) or an to a licensed child-placing adoption agency which then will place the child with an adoptive family. See also Consent and Surrender.

Revocation of Consent

The act of the birth parent(s) to request the reversal of the signed consent for the adoption and the return of the child to their custody. The circumstances, if any, under which a consent may be revoked vary by state law and should be fully understood by the placing parent before any document is signed.

Sealed Adoption Records

State regulations, determine the status and availability of adoption records.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)/the National Benefits Center (NBC)

Part of the Department of Homeland Security, USCIS/NBC provides regulations and procedures for international adoption. The center determines eligibility and suitability of prospective adoptive parents and the eligibility of a child to immigrate to the United States.

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