The new truth about adoption

Adopting has never been simple in America. It’s even less so in a post-Roe v. Wade America

Holly and Brian had been married for a year when they decided they wanted a baby. They were entering their 30s, had good jobs, owned a house and they were ready to start building their family. At first, they tried the old-fashioned way. Then they tried vitro fertilization. After three years of heartbreak — and some steep medical bills for treatments, which their insurance didn’t cover — they decided to adopt.

They picked an agency in Central Texas, where they live, filled out an application, paid a fee of more than $1,000 and attended a weekend long orientation in San Antonio. This was about four years ago, and they’d prefer we not publish their last names in order to protect the privacy of the other people involved. 

Not long after that orientation, they sent the agency even more money and dove into a river of paperwork. They paid for background checks, commissioned a home study to make sure they’d be able to safely care for a child and created an adoption profile book — what’s essentially a sales pitch deck about their family. They described themselves, mentioned their two dogs and the support network of family they had nearby. They included photos of everything, even the nursery they’d already assembled. A graphic designer in the family made it look sleek, elegant. Within a week they got a call from the adoption agency director saying they might have a possible match.

The next step was a long phone call with the pregnant woman who’d liked their profile. Holly wanted the woman to like her on the phone, too. She wanted this stranger to know that she and Brian would make good parents, that they’d provide the baby a good, safe home. But she also wanted to make sure to set expectations. The first mother’s profile said she’s religious, but Holly and Brian didn’t plan on giving the baby a religious upbringing, for example, and they didn’t want that to be a sticking point later. The woman told Holly why she was choosing to place her baby into adoption. She told them she had money troubles, already had a young child and the family didn’t always have a steady place to stay. 

Before they hung up, the woman told Holly that she thought they were perfect, and that she was planning to tell the agency that she’d found a match. 

Holly cried.

They signed what amounted to a good-faith contract with the agency and the woman. Holly and Brian agreed to pay the woman’s medical bills, to send her a stipend for food and pay for her to live at an extended stay hotel. They bought her maternity clothes. The woman, in turn, agreed that Holly and Brian would become the parents of the child she’d give birth to. 

Holly and Brian were optimistic, but they understood that these things don’t always work out. There are some cases of fraud — people who string along hopeful couples, with no intention of ever signing over parental rights — but some people also just change their minds. 

“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Holly says now.

While every adoption is unique, Holly and Brian’s story is pretty typical. A website or brochure can outline the process, the laws, the fees — from start to finish, the average domestic agency adoption costs between $20,000 and $45,000 — but nothing can prepare someone for the anxiety experienced by everyone involved, the merry-go-round of hope and fear, love and dread.

The process of adoption is getting more attention these days, as abortion laws around the country are shifting. At least in the national discourse, abortion and adoption are inextricably linked. In the Supreme Court’s historic June 2022 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Samuel Alito directly referred to the availability of adoption as an option for pregnant women.

“A woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home,” Alito wrote. He cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that mentioned the nearly one million Americans waiting to adopt.

Twice during oral arguments in that case, Justice Amy Coney Barrett — who adopted two children from Haiti — suggested that safe-haven laws that allow women to drop their newborns at fire stations and other approved locations would shield anyone who might be seeking an abortion from “the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy.” 

Adoption has become a regular abortion-linked talking point for conservatives especially. In May, before the Supreme Court ruling was official, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Houston, tweeted: “Less abortion, more adoption. Why is that controversial?” In late June, Mike Pompeo, former U.S. secretary of state, tweeted: “Adoption, not abortion. With Roe overturned, we should find ways to make the adoption process in our country easier and safer.”

Linking adoption to abortion so casually, with no further elaboration, reveals a particular view of the world. The logic seems so clear: Lots of parents want to adopt babies, the babies who will no longer be aborted could be those babies. Two incredibly complex social issues, one easy almost-beautifully reductive solution.

But of course, the reality isn’t so simple.

The ‘orphan train’ and ‘Baby Scoop’ eras

Interestingly, society has been trying to use various forms of adoption as a prescription for other social issues for centuries. In the mid-1800s, when tens of thousands of children in New York City were homeless or parentless or both, a Congregational minister named Charles Loring Brace established the Children’s Aid Society, a philanthropy funded by some of the wealthiest families in the city. In 1854, the organization started sending these orphans on trains to small towns across the country. Over the next eight decades, about 250,000 children ages six and older — that was considered working age at the time — were relocated to America’s farmlands.

Boys at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City, in the 1890s, about to embark on a trip west, with hopes of being adopted. | Getty Images

A Children’s Aid Society agent would accompany each group of children and was responsible for picking the towns where the children might have the best chance of being adopted. The agent would flood the local newspapers, taverns and general stores with notices announcing the orphans’ arrival. Interested families would gather at courthouses or town halls to inspect the children. The potential adoptees were placed on a stage or platform — literally put up for adoption — where families would poke and prod them, assessing their health and ability to perform manual labor. 

There was no vetting process for the families, but the men and women who opened their homes to one of these “orphan train” children were told that they’d be expected to raise them as they would their natural-born children, providing food, clothing, a “common” education and $100 when the child turned 21. Boys were expected to work in the fields and the girls would help with all manner of housework. Children were told to write letters back to the society twice a year, and representatives were supposed to visit each family once a year to check conditions, but there weren’t many agents and the society placed thousands of children a year.

Finding homes for kids in foster care is one of the few things that belies the traditional battle liens in America’s culture war.

Most of the children lost all contact with siblings. They were given new names and new religions and told to forget about the lives they’d had in New York. Two of the boys from these trains grew up to become governors. Others became mayors, congressmen, local leaders. Plenty, though, became drifters and thieves. William H. Bonney, better known today as Billy the Kid, reportedly rode west on an orphan train. By the end of the 1920s, the need for farm workers had diminished and many states had established child labor laws and regulations regarding legal adoption. The last Children’s Aid Society train departed for Texas in 1929. 

After World War II, America had a new way of rehoming children, a period now referred to as the “Baby Scoop Era.” Between 1945 and 1970, millions of children entered the adoption system. Changing social views about sex, combined with restricted access to birth control, led to an increase in premarital pregnancies. Social workers at the time believed that unmarried mothers were better off being separated from their newborn babies. Women were sent to maternity homes, where they could get through pregnancy, give birth, then return to their lives and pretend nothing happened.

The three types of adoption in America

Today there are three main types of adoption in America: international adoption, domestic adoption and foster care adoption. Though intercountry adoption gets a disproportionate amount of attention and usually costs the most, these adoptions account for a tiny sliver of all placements, and the majority of them involve children with medical needs. While there are hundreds of thousands of children in orphanages around the world and tens of thousands of parents who would love to open their homes to them, there were fewer than 3,000 international adoptions by American parents in each of the last three years. 

The number of international adoptions dropped about 87 percent between 2004 and 2019. Part of that decline is a result of countries around the world eliminating or significantly limiting adoptions by Americans. It’s also partly a result of changes in the priorities of adoption groups, which now often seek to keep children in their home countries, to be raised in their own cultures. 

Domestic infant adoption, the route that Holly and Brian took, can be done through an agency or privately, through a law firm that specializes in the practice. The numbers are impossible to track with precision, but there are reportedly between one million and two million prospective parents hoping to adopt in any given year. In 2020, though, only about 20,000 domestic infants were relinquished in private adoptions that didn’t involve a stepparent, according to the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that does adoption research. (That’s down from the peak of roughly 89,000 nonrelative adoptions in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide.) A million parents, and 20,000 babies. So for every baby placed into adoption, there are dozens of hopeful families waiting. 

There are several reasons that the number of American babies who might have been relinquished in an earlier era has dropped. Teenage mothers have traditionally accounted for a lot of the babies entering adoption, but teenagers are getting pregnant at the lowest rates on record. The American birthrate overall is at an all-time low. Plus, single motherhood is less taboo, which has led to more unwed women choosing to raise children.

The way everyone involved treats the mothers giving birth has changed dramatically, too. The vast majority of modern domestic adoptions are open, meaning the first parents — the term birth parents is sometimes considered reductive — remain in the child’s life in at least some capacity. In most cases, the first mother actually picks the adoptive parents from a group of applicants. 

Agencies, like the one Holly and Brian contracted with, can charge would-be adoptive parents tens of thousands of dollars for the chance to be paired with a pregnant mother who’s decided to relinquish a newborn. That means more competition, more money spent on advertising to both prospective adopters and prospect mothers, which translates to even higher agency fees.

Some agencies cater specifically to couples who couldn’t conceive through IVF. Some firms appeal directly to same-sex couples who might be rejected by faith-based adoption groups. The process can be so competitive, and hopeful adopters can be so desperate, that an entire industry has sprung up to help families create and design adoption profile books like the one Holly and Brian had the graphic designer in the family put together. Some companies charge upward of $1,000 per couple. 

Children await adoption at the Children’s Aid and Adoption Society in 1928. | Getty Images

The situation is drastically different for foster care adoptions. Unlike with domestic infant adoptions, there are far more children in foster care than there are prospective adoptive parents open to taking someone in. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were more than 400,000 children in some form of foster care in 2020, the most recent year for which statistics are available. More than 100,000 were awaiting adoption, but only half of those kids listed as “awaiting adoption” were actually adopted. This is despite the fact adopting a child in foster care is usually much less expensive (or free) and often incentivized by various forms of financial support from the government — even in deeply conservative states. (Some states even promise to pay for the adopted child’s college.)

“In this highly partisan world that we live in, foster care and adoption is one of those areas where you get pretty much complete bipartisan support,” says Todd Gathje, director of government relations at The Family Foundation, a faith-based adoption advocacy group in Virginia. This issue — finding homes for kids in foster care — is one of the few things that belies the traditional battlelines in America’s culture war. 

In 2021, citing the need for an “all hands on deck” approach to matching children with parents, Bethany Christian Services, the largest Christian adoption agency in America, changed its long-standing policy and began placing children with LGBTQ parents for both foster care and adoption. That same year, the liberal and conservative justices on the Supreme Court found common ground, siding against the city of Philadelphia and with a Catholic foster care agency that wouldn’t place kids with same-sex couples. In the end, the court essentially agreed that the agency staying open and helping to get some foster kids adopted was in the public’s interest.

Ultimately, the numbers problem with foster care adoptions boils down to age preference. A lot of adopting parents want newborns and the chances of getting adopted go down significantly as a child gets older. The average age of a child awaiting adoption in foster care is roughly 8 years old. 

“Most families that are looking to adopt are looking to adopt younger kids,” Ryan Hanlon, president of National Council for Adoption, tells me. Families might also be hesitant to sign up to foster a child because, Hanlon says, “they don’t want to be in a situation where they’re getting attached to a child and then helping a child reunify with another family.”

The odds are the longest for teenagers, who are most likely to languish in the system until they age out — usually at 18 — at which time they’re largely left to fend for themselves.

Why parents choose adoption

A lot of parents choose adoption for reasons like Holly and Brian’s. The most recent surveys by the National Council for Adoption found that 37 percent of adoptive parents, in private domestic adoptions, said their primary motivation for adopting was infertility. Nearly half said their main reason for adopting was either wanting to expand a family or simply to give a child a home. 

There aren’t as many surveys exploring why first parents choose adoption, but you can get a sense of their motivations by watching the ads from agencies that target parents who might be considering the idea of placing a child up for adoption. These ads, which come up when someone searches online for information about adoption, feature first mothers talking about how, after being adopted, their sons and daughters get to go on elaborate vacations, play sports and have a better chance of going to college. Many include adoptive families playing lovingly with adopted children in large houses or on boats.

No matter what circumstances led to an adoption, one thing is universal: As beautiful as adoption can be, every adoption also involves profound loss. Angela Braniff, an adoptive mother and popular YouTuber from South Carolina whose videos have been viewed more than 33 million times, has spoken about this particular form of trauma multiple times over the years.

One study that found that one week after being denied an abortion, because of a late-term pregnancy, only 9 percent of the participants who went on to give birth placed their newborns up for adoption.

“I obviously love adoption and I believe in it so much. It’s been such a beautiful way to grow our family,” she’s told her viewers. “But I think it’s so important to always realize that there’s some kind of loss at the root of it.” A child is losing their biological family. In some cases they’re losing their birth country and the culture in which they were born. “We need to go in understanding that as fully as we can, giving as much reverence and respect to that piece of the puzzle as we possibly can.”

The truth is, the world of adoption is constantly adjusting, trying to find the best practices for what experts in the field call “the triad” of adoption: the children, the first parents and the adoptive parents. Researchers have documented the trauma caused by decades of adoptions shrouded in secrecy and shame — and most people involved in adoption are trying to avoid as much of that as possible going forward. A lot of groups are shifting priorities to help more biological parents keep their children. Even the language has changed. Phrases like “real parents” and “put up for adoption” are all but gone in the segments of the population directly involved in adoptions.

The process of relinquishing or taking in a child, or being relinquished or taken in, results in a tangled ball of complex emotions — which makes some parents all the more uncomfortable when a politician brings up adoption in an off-handed effort to score political points in a conversation about abortion. 

It’s not even clear that there’s much of a link between a limit on abortion and an increase in adoption. Some experts told me that with abortion banned in some places, they expected to see a rise in the number of infants up for adoption, but most said they didn’t. One of the only studies on the topic, a five-year project at the University of California San Francisco, found that one week after being denied an abortion because of a late-term pregnancy, only 9 percent of the 161 study participants who went on to give birth — 15 women — placed their newborns for adoption.

“What we’re going to see, I think, is many more people parenting children that they did not intend to have,” Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and researcher on abortion and adoption in the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at UCSF, told The Washington Post after the Supreme Court’s decision.

It’s possible, researchers have pointed out, that new abortion bans and restrictions will actually increase the number of kids in foster care, a group for whom there already aren’t enough prospective adoptive parents.

‘She was meant to be with me’

A few weeks after their initial call with the woman the agency matched them with, Holly and Brian got another call — that the woman was going into labor. By then she and Holly had spent a lot of time together. She told Holly what she wanted the baby’s name to be. Holly, who’d tried to keep her own hopes in check throughout the process, had finally allowed herself to buy baby clothes. The call came early one Saturday and the couple scrambled to pack and get in the car. Brian equates the moment to the hurried, frantic-packing scene at the beginning of “Home Alone.” 

They arrived at the hospital just after the birth, in time for Holly to feed the baby girl her first bottle. “When I peeked into that bassinet,” Holly says, “she was literally the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”

Pei-Hsin Cho for the Deseret News

There was more paperwork, but the hospital let Holly and Brian stay there. Nurses even let them do skin-to-skin contact with the baby, something experts believe helps newborns bond. 

They were allowed to take the baby home from the hospital, but the adoption process went on for another eight months. There was another home study. People came out to see Holly and Brian interact with the baby, to make sure everyone was adjusting well. On the day it was official — when Holly and Brian were added to the baby’s birth certificate and they knew she’d be theirs forever — the couple went out to celebrate at a Mexican restaurant. The first mother came, too.

It’s been four years now. Holly and the woman stay in touch, exchanging text messages every few months and seeing each other two or three times a year. Holly says that as painful as their journey through infertility and IVF was, now she’s glad it didn’t work — because all of that led to what they have now.

“She was meant to be with me,” Holly says. “I wouldn’t change a thing, now.”

There are days when she doesn’t even think about adoption. She doesn’t think about the fear, the anxiety. It’s their normal. 

“She’s not just an adopted child, that’s not her full story,” Holly says. 

“She’s just my kid.”     

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.