Adopting a Child in United States: – How Does it Work?

By Babygest Staff
Last Update: 10/29/2019

Adopting a baby, whether through international or domestic adoption, is an option for many heterosexual or gay couples, as well as single people, who cannot have a child naturally, either because of fertility problems or because of their personal situation.

In this article we are looking into the conditions and requirements for adoption, either nationally or internationally, as well as into the waiting times and the current situation in the United States.

Concepts about adoption

Adopting means creating a new permanent relationship between an Adoptive Parent and a child. Once this happens, there is no legal differences between a child who is adopted and a child born into the family. Before explaining how adoption works, it is necessary to explain some concepts that are useful to understand an adoption process.

Foster Care
is a system in which a minor who has been made a ward is placed in an institution, group home or private home of a "foster parent".
Kinship care
family or friends who could take custody of the child.
TPR (Termination of Parents Rights)
when birth parents have been identified, notified of their legal rights and given possibility to participate in the court process but do not want to bring back their child.
ICPC (Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children)
legally binding agreement between States regulating the placement of children across State lines.

Who may adopt?

In general, any single adult or a married couple (US citizen) maybe eligible to adopt. However, it depends on every States' laws.

Age eligibility

Concerning age eligibility, every States has its criteria:

  • In approximately seven States (Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Washington) and Puerto Rico, prospective parents must be age 18 to be eligible to adopt.
  • Three States (Colorado, Delaware, and Oklahoma) and American Samoa set the age at 21.
  • Georgia and Idaho specify age 25.

Residency eligibility

  • Approximately 17 States (Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming), Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands require that petitioners for adoption be State residents. The required period of residency ranges from 60 days to 1 year. There are exceptions to the residency requirement in some of these States. For example, in Indiana and South Carolina, a non-resident can adopt a child with special needs.
  • In Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Rhode Island, a non-resident may adopt through an agency.

Adoption by Same-Sex Couples

Before various U.S. Supreme Court decisions, adoption laws varied considerably from state to state. While some states granted full adoption rights to same-sex couples, others totally prohibited it or only allowed the partner to adopt the other partner's biological child.

First, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court struck down all prohibitions on same-sex marriage in the United States.

Then, on March 31, 2016, a federal district court overturned adoption ban on same-sex couples in Mississipi.

Finally in June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court and ordered all states to treat same-sex couples equally with opposite-sex couples regarding the issuance of birth certificates.

These court decisions have legalized adoption by same-sex couples in all 50 states.

Now, every married couple that meets the state requirements can adopt jointly in any state. It is more complicated for unmarried (LGBT or heterosexual) couples because in some states, it is not possible to adopt jointly without being married. In order to have the same rights as parents, it is necessary to complete a second-parent adoption.

However, second-parents adoption is only available in these states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Colombia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Even if second-parents adoption is not allowed in your state, it is always possible to provide a degree of legal security through wills or guardianship agreements.

Who may be adopted?

First of all, it is important to say that all States permit the adoption of a child. Still, not every States have the same requirements:

  • Three States (Colorado, Indiana, Rhode Island), American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands specify that the child to be adopted must be under age 18.
  • Five States (Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, Texas, Wisconsin), American Samoa, and Guam specify in statute that the child must be legally free for adoption.
  • Six States (Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming), American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands require that the child to be adopted must be present in the State at the time the petition is filed.
  • Iowa requires that the child must have resided for a minimum of 180 days in the home of the prospective adoptive parents.

Adoption process, step by step

Adopting in the United States is allowed in every States, but depending on the type of adoption and the place where it occurs, the requirements may change.

Type of adoption?

The first thing to do when considering adoption is to select the type of adoption:

Domestic Adoption
also known as national adoption, involves for a US citizen to adopt a child from the United States. It may be from Foster Care, from the same or another State.
Intercountry Adoption
also known as international adoption, it means for a US citizen to adopt a child from a different country to the United States.
Open Adoption
allows Adoptive Parents, and often the adopted child, to interact directly with Birth Parents. This type of adoption can help children and parents minimize and resolve the change or loss of relationships (according to
Semi-Open Adoption
Birth Parents and Adoptive Parents share non-identifying information and communication is handled by their adoption agency or professional.
Closed Adoption
Adoptive Parents and Birth Parents do not share any information or contact.

Agency or Private Adoption?

In the adoption process, most prospective parents have to choose between independent or agency adoption. Adoption is for the most part, controlled and authorized by States laws, aspects of Agence or Independent Adoption vary from State to State.

Agence and Department Adoption
Sometimes, like in Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia, States require all adoptive placements be made by the States' Departments of Human or Social Services or child-placing agencies. Adoption Agencies walk parents through every stage of the process. The attorney plays a limited role because when a child is placed, Birth Parents relinquish custody to the agency. Of course, there are costs and conditions associated with these services.
Independent Adoption
also known as private adoption, the prospective parents decide where and how to locate an expected mother and deal directly with her. The attorney plays the most significant role because he has to obtain the TPC, sometimes the ICPC. This type of adoption is controlled by the States, for example in Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Parents who wish to make private placements must notify the department or obtain the approval of the department or the court.

Home study

This step is required to ensure that you are fit to become parents. It consists in:

  • Providing State and Federal Criminal Backgrounds Checks
  • Producing financial Informations,
  • Giving medical informations;
  • Going through interviews,
  • Allowing Home Inspections.

Waiting for an adoption opportunity

Once completed the home study, it comes the moment to wait for an adoption opportunity.

  • In the case of Independent Adoption, the prospectives parents are advised by an adoption attorney.
  • In the case of Agency or Department Adoption, the prospectives parents are advised by the Agency or the States' departments of human or social services.

Bringing the child home

After that, depending on the circumstances of adoption, the prospective parents will:

  • in the case of an international adoption: prepare file for US visa paperwork
  • in case of interstate adoption: wait until Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC) paperworks clear (between 8 to 14 days)
  • ask for Petition to Adopt

The Post Adoption Supervisory Report

It usually lasts between 1 and 18 months depending on the legal state. This is a very detailed review of the child's health, development, and a review of adoption in general.

Final Court Hearing

It legally completes the adoption process. The proceeding lasts about 10 to 30 minutes. At this hearing, the Adoptive Parents obtain permanent legal custody of the adopted child.

Adoption costs

Adoption cost depends on the type of adoption:

Foster Care Adoption
between $0 to $2,811 (According to Adoptive Families Magazine in 2014/2015).
US New Born Adoption
an average cost of $41,532 via Adoption Agency and $34,594 via Independent Adoption (According to Adoptive Families Magazine in 2014/2015).
International Adoption
from $20,000 to $64,357(According to Annual Report Intercountry Adoption in 2017).

Situation of Adoption in the United States

Since 2004, the number of intercountry adoptions has been decreasing. For example, according to the data of U.S. State Department Intercountry Adoption Statistics, 22,989 children were adopted by International Adoption in 2004 compared to 4717 in 2017.

According to the data of US Department of Health and Human Services about Adoption and Foster Care:

  • in 2008, of 750,000 children in the Foster Care, 125,000 had been waiting for adoption and 55,300 were adopted.
  • in 2014, of 650,000 children in the Foster Care, 107,000 had been waiting for adoption and 50,700 were adopted.
  • in 2017, of 691,000 children in the Foster Care, 123,000 had been waiting for adoption and 59,300 were adopted.

As we can see, the number of Domestic Adoption is increasing after a fall in 2014.

FAQs from users

Is it necessary to be married to adopt?

By Natalia Álvarez (project manager).

In some case, like for example for private Newborn Adoption, some adoption professionals may require marriage. Nevertheless, for Foster Care Adoption, the marriage is not required.
For Intercountry Adoption, it will depend on the country.

Do you have to pay to adopt a baby?

By Zaira Salvador (embryologist).

It will depend on the type of adoption you choose.
For example, adopting a child from Foster Care involves very little expense thanks to the Federal and State adoption
assistance programs that minimize financial obstacles.
It will also depends if you take an agency, if you decide to adopt in another country... For example, 2015, the average cost of a US Newborn Adoption by agency was $41,532 and $34,594 without an agency.

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Adoption Laws State by State: [here]

About Intercountry Adoption on the website of US Department - Bureau of Consular Affairs

Statistics for Adoption and Foster Care from the US Department of Health and Human Services: [here]

Statistics for Intercountry Adoption from the US Department - Bureau of Consular Affairs:[here]

About Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) from Child Welfare Information Gateway (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services)

Adoption Guide by Adoptive Families: [here]

About adoption requirement and process on the Child Welfare Information Gateway: [here]

Adoption Options: Where Do I Start? by Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Who May Adopt, Be Adopted, or Place a Child for Adoption? by Child Welfare Information Gateway.

FAQs from users: 'Is it necessary to be married to adopt?' and 'Do you have to pay to adopt a baby?'.

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