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by Moira Szilagyi, MD, PhD

Adoption is the legal process of adding a person to an existing family. Adoption, unlike foster care, is meant to be permanent. The goal of adoption is to provide lifelong security to the child and the adoptive family.

Children who are orphaned are obvious candidates for adoption. In the United States, children can be adopted if the parents give up the child voluntarily or if the child is freed involuntarily through the court process known as termination of parental rights. International adoption (adoption of children from other countries, for example, from foreign orphanages) is also often possible.

Depending on the type, adoption can sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars. Having experienced legal representation, often from a lawyer, helps the adoptive parents regardless of the type of adoption.

Sometimes, adoptive parents connect with birth parents. The parties may already be related in some way. For example, a stepparent can adopt a spouse's birth child or grandparents can adopt their grandchildren. In other cases, parents may connect through word of mouth or newspaper advertisements.

In some cases, birth parents may appreciate the chance to visit the child. A positive relationship with the birth parents may make adoptive parents less likely to worry that the birth parents will try to reclaim the child. Maintaining a relationship with the birth family usually benefits the child. All such issues are often best discussed with an expert (such as a mental health professional and a legal professional) before deciding whether or not to have an open adoption.

Did You Know...

  • Children should be told, ideally at or before age 7, that they were adopted.

  • Some states have a web site that enables birth parents and adopted children to connect with each other if both parties want to.

Most adopted children, including those previously in foster care or foreign orphanages, adjust well and develop few problems. However, as children age, they may develop feelings of rejection because they were given up by their birth family. During adolescence and young adulthood, in particular, adopted people may be very curious about their birth parents, even if they do not ask about them. Some adopted people seek information about, or seek out, their birth parents, and some birth parents seek out their birth children.

Not telling children they were adopted can hurt them later. Children adjust best if told at or before age 7. If asked, adoptive parents should tell the child about the birth parents in a comforting manner. For example, if the child was abused or neglected, parents can say the child was removed because the birth parent had problems or was ill and could not provide proper care. Alternatively, adoptive parents may say that the birth parent was not able to care for the child and gave the child to the adoptive parents so they could love and take care of him or her. Children need reassurance that they are loved and always will be loved. If children have contact with their birth families, it helps for parents to tell the children that two sets of parents love them.

If birth parents request anonymity, there is controversy about whether children should be able to find information about them. Some states provide a web site for birth parents and children to post their identity. If both do so, then they will be placed in touch with each other. Contact cannot be initiated unless both parties agree.

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