Adoption Articles, Research & Resources

Kaia Koglin
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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How Does Adoption Work?

Adoption is a legal process that allows children who aren't raised by their birth parents to become full and permanent members of an adoptive family. In addition to the legal process of adopting a child, there are social and emotional steps that ensure the best outcomes for everyone in the family unit. Couples and single people can choose to adopt children, creating adoptive families of all sizes.

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How Does Adoption Work? Adoption is a legal process that allows children who aren't raised by their birth parents to become full and permanent members of an adoptive family... Read More

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How Does Adoption Work? Adoption is a legal process that allows children who aren't raised by their birth parents to become full and permanent members of an adoptive family... Read More

Types of Adoption

There are three main types of adoption in the United States:

  • Foreign adoption: Adopting a child or infant from overseas, also called international adoption.
  • Domestic adoption: Adopting a U.S.-based child or infant through an agency.
  • Independent or private adoption: Adoption that takes place independently, through private attorneys, rather than through an agency. (1)

Not all adoptions are of newborns. Domestic adoptions may include the adoption of children in foster care. Generally, specialized agencies like the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) or Child Protective Services (CPS) facilitate this process.

Rules and processes differ between the types of adoption and for different states. (2) However, some requirements for adopting a child remain the same. When applying, adults living in the potential adoptive home must undergo a criminal history and background check.

All prospective adoptive parents must have a home study. (3) Agencies evaluate the suitability of families during this study. It helps educate and prepare prospective parents and helps social workers place children in homes that best meet their needs. Following the placement of the child and a time of supervision, the family court legally finalizes the adoption.

How Much Does Adoption Cost?

The cost of adopting a child is significantly high, no matter what type of adoption is pursued. Costs may include:

  • Agency fees
  • Court costs
  • Attorney fees
  • Court-appointed guardian expenses
  • Home study costs
  • Parent preparation and training
  • Medical fees
  • Counseling
  • Postplacement supervision

The least expensive type of adoption is domestic adoption through state social service agencies. The Office of the Administration for Children & Families states that adopting a child from the child welfare system is “virtually free.” (4) This is because the state covers many of the fees involved. Prospective parents should still prepare to pay court costs and attorney fees, though there's also government assistance for these expenses.

The total cost of an independent adoption through a private agency is $30,000-$60,000. It’s important that parents clarify fees early in the process and understand what’s included. An independent adoption usually costs between $25,000-$45,000. (4) This can increase if there are complications during birth. The adoptive parents are generally responsible for the medical and legal costs of themselves and the birth parents.

Foreign or intercountry adoption is the most expensive option. The fees involved average $20,000-$50,000; however, parents may also have to pay for international travel, escort fees, translation fees, foreign attorney fees, and visa processing. (4)

How Long Does Adoption Take?

The adoption process can be lengthy, though exact times largely depend on the type of adoption. There are three parts to the process.


Preplacement is the steps taken before placement. It consists of the home study, evaluations, and adoptive parent training. Training is an essential requirement for adopting a child that helps parents understand the needs of the child they’re adopting.

It generally takes at least 6 months for agencies to place a child in a home. This can be longer for those who want to adopt an infant and shorter for people adopting older children or those with special needs.


Placement is when the child moves into the home. This occurs after multiple preplacement visits so the child and prospective parent or parents can get to know each other. It's important the child feels comfortable in their new surroundings.


After the placement, the agency or social workers supervise the new family. This gives support to everyone as they adjust to their new circumstances and ensures the placement is working out.
In most states, this supervision lasts at least 6 months. Once the supervision period is over, the adoption is finalized in the courts. Placement to finalization usually takes 9-12 months.

What Is an Open Adoption?

There are a few different types of adoption available. One such type is open adoption, where the adoptive parents and birth parents know each other, form a relationship, and share information about the child. Open adoption arrangements are unique to each adoption. For example, families may limit contact to a yearly email and photos. Alternatively, the birth parent could visit regularly and become part of the child’s life.

Open adoptions have many benefits for everyone involved. Studies have found that birth mothers experience less unresolved grief in open adoptions and remain reassured about their child’s well-being. (5) Adoptive parents report that the information they have about birth parents positively influences their perceptions of their child’s biological family. (6) Studies have also found that adopted children are less stressed when they have long-term direct contact with their biological family. (7) There are also practical benefits to open adoption, particularly regarding medical history.

However, open adoptions are not suitable for everyone. Birth and adoptive parents may want more privacy than open adoption offers and may experience tension if life circumstances change.

What Is a Closed Adoption?

Closed adoptions have a different philosophy than open adoptions. Details of all families are kept confidential, and there’s no contact after the adoption finalization. Before the 1970s, almost all adoptions were closed, as experts believed the birth mother would find it easier to move on without the knowledge of their child. Closed adoptions also made it easier to hide a birth at a time when society frowned upon premarital pregnancy.

Today, closed adoptions are rare, largely due to the benefits seen in open adoptions. Agencies may still organize a closed adoption for the child's safety if they're coming from an abusive or neglectful environment. Some birth parents also believe they’ll find it easier to heal and move on if they have no post-birth contact.

However, many adopted children want to know their story as they grow older. Knowing details about their birth family can help them find their own identity. It’s important for adoptive parents to understand how a closed adoption may impact their child in the future.

In-home DNA tests, social media, and other technologies have made it harder to keep an adoption closed. Birth parents should take this into account when deciding between an open and a closed adoption.

What Is a Semi-Open Adoption?

There is an intermediate option known as a semi-open adoption. This allows adoptive and birth parents to communicate through an intermediary like an adoption attorney. The intermediary can pass on medical history and other important information, and the families involved don’t need to build a full relationship.