The State of Adoption in America

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On September 30, 2016, 117,794 children were waiting for adoption, and 273,539 children entered the foster care system. For the past few years, these numbers have been growing consistently. The adoption process is complex and faces unique challenges – challenges that social workers and child welfare professionals must address and overcome to support healthy children and healthy families.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Regis College Online Master of Social Work program.

The factors that impact foster care and the adoption process.

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Adoption Statistics

To better understand the state of adoption in the U.S., it’s important to consider the statistics, why parents choose to adopt, and the impact of adoption on children.

Children in Foster Care as of September 30, 2016

The median age of children in the foster care system as of 9/30/16 was 7.8 years old. Their stay in foster care lasted 12.7 months on average. The percentage of boys was slightly higher than the percentage of girls (52% to 48%). 45% of the children were fostered by nonrelative families, and 32% of the children were living with relatives. Whites made up most foster kids at 44%, followed by African American children (23%) and Hispanic (21%).

Neglect was the main reason for kids being in foster care by a wide margin. 61% of children were in the system due to neglect; the second biggest reason, parental drug abuse, was the cause of 34% of the foster cases. A caretaker’s inability to cope, physical abuse, and child behavioral problems rounded out the top five reasons at 14%, 12%, and 11%, respectively.

The main reason for foster care discharge was due to reunification, as 51% became reunited with either their parent(s) or primary caretaker(s). Adoption caused discharge for 23% of the kids, while 10% terminated foster care due to guardianship.

Racial Disproportionality and Disparity

Compared with their representation in the general population, African American and Native American children are overrepresented in the child welfare system. The Children’s Bureau reports that “studies have shown that racial disparities occur at various decision points in the child welfare continuum.”


American Indian/Alaska Native children represent 0.9% of the U.S. population, but 2.4% of children in foster care. In the case of African American children, they represent 13.8% of the American population, but represent 24.3% of the children being fostered.

These numbers show a grave discrepancy when compared to Asian and white children. Asian children represent 4.8% of the American population but make up 0.5% of children in foster care. White children make up 51.9% of the U.S. population, and represent 43.4% of the children being fostered.

Possible Causes

There are numerous possible causes for these discrepancies. These include racial bias and discrimination by child welfare professionals, child welfare system factors such as a lack of quality assurance mechanisms, geographic context, and higher rates of maltreatment of children of certain ethnicities – an aspect that tends to correlate with low socioeconomic status.

Solutions and Strategies

Several strategies can be deployed to counter these causes. These can include taking proactive measures to prevent negative issues, becoming more aware of certain cultural practices, the development of standardized definitions of maltreatment, and communal partnership to ensure equal access to service.

The Impact of Adoption on Parents

Prospective parents take years navigating the complex adoption process. Before considering adoption, they should carefully consider their reasons for adopting and prepare themselves for the impact of welcoming a child.

The Decision to Adopt

Some of the main reasons parents choose to adopt are infertility, religious or ethical reasons to save a child’s life, a lack of an appropriate partner (e.g., same-sex relationships), and stepparents adopting the birth children of their partners. Before acting on these reasons, the Children’s Bureau recommends potential adoptive parents contemplate several vital questions. Some of these questions relate to determining how a child would affect their life and family dynamics, how they would feel about welcoming a child who may have experienced abuse and neglect, what their expectations of the future with a child involved, and how they would feel about preserving positive cultural and racial identity if they adopt a transracial or transcultural child.

A new Phase

After completing the adoption process, adoptive parents will go through a period of adjustment and experience highs and lows. Most stressors are short term, but some require long-term periods of adjustment to overcome.

For instance, parents may develop post-adoption depression, where feelings of inadequacy or being overwhelmed by new responsibilities may make it difficult to form an attachment to the child. In this case, it’s important to seek support and resources to boost confidence in parenting.

Another stressor may stem from struggling with a new identity. They could question whether they really love their child or struggle embracing their new role. For this issue, it’s best to connect with other adoptive parents, embrace the child’s birth culture, or establish a routine and family traditions.

A third issue may relate to the child’s biological parents. Adoptive parents may feel the consequences of the child’s connecting with their birth family. To overcome this it’s important to realize that connections with the biological family are likely to support the child’s long-term well-being.

Finally, some adoptive parents may struggle to understand the impact of childhood trauma on a child’s behavior. Instead of criticizing their own parenting skills, it’s important to get a grasp on the impact trauma can have on a child.

The well-being of the child should be the primary concern of child welfare workers during the adoption process. Racial disproportionality and disparity among U.S. adoptions is an unfortunate, but not impossible, challenge to overcome. Social workers and child welfare professionals serving vulnerable communities should recognize the value of cultural competence and take steps to protect children and support families of all ethnicities.