“The report of my death was an exaggeration” — Mark Twain
I participate in several adoption discussion groups on the internet. Typical topics include adoption
laws and changes to make adoptions more secure and efficient, litigation strategies, etc. Lately,
however, there is a lot of discussion about the decline in adoptions domestically and worldwide.
The numbers are irrefutable. Adoptions have been declining across the board – so much so that they
are hard to even accurately track. The decline has hit certain categories of adoptions harder than
others, but why?
Let’s start by looking in our own backyard.
Domestic Adoptions – Private
Recently LDS (a large Mormon affiliated adoption agency with nearly 70 offices) announced that
it was shutting its doors and getting out of the adoption business. They claim that not enough young
women are willing to relinquish babies for adoption, making their business model incapable of
turning a profit.
The numbers back up their decision, but why are fewer young women entering into adoption plans?
The first reason is quite simple – there are fewer young women entering into adoption plans simply
because there are fewer pregnant young women. Teenage pregnancies are down across the country.
The decreasing rate means far fewer babies are being born to American teens now than at any time
in the past 75 years. In the 1970s, teenagers gave birth to around 650,000 babies each year. Last
year, that number was closer to 275,000.
You have to go back a little further to appreciate the significance of these numbers. In 1957, there
were 96.7 births to teenage mothers per 1000 teens. That number has dropped to 26.6 per 1000 in
From the 1950s through the 1970's, millions of women relinquished children based on perceived
social stigma that attached to being an unwed mother. However, in the 1970's abortion laws were
liberalized and acceptance of single parent families grew. Consequently, the number of Caucasian
unmarried women who relinquished for adoption went from 20% in the early 1970's to around 1%
today. That is not a typographical error.
Compounding this issue is that many pregnant women considering their options are more likely
today to have access to the experience of women who have been in their shoes in the past. In fact,
over 40% of all children born in the US today are born to single mothers. Historically, that would mean
adoptions should be going up, but the perceived stigma attached to having children out of wedlock
is either much less or non-existent in 2014 compared to the decades leading up to the 70's.
Abortion would seem a likely culprit for why there are less adoptions today, but the statistics do not
bear that out. While adoption is often presumed to be the pro-life alternative to abortion, the
numbers indicate that it is the greater acceptance of single parenthood, rather than abortion, that is
driving adoption numbers down, as abortion rates have fallen along with adoptions. From 1991 to
2009, the pregnancy rate fell 44% and the birthrate dropped 39%. But during that same time, the
abortion rate also fell 56%.
And births are down across all age groups, not just teenagers. In 2007, the trend in the number of
births in the United States hit a historic high. However, births have declined since then, and now
in just 7 years the birth rate in the U.S. is at a historic low.
On a final note, I have noticed another trend. When I first came out of law school in the late 90's,
the average ages of birth mothers was around 15 to 22 years old. In recent years, however, I
have seen that number creep up, and we now see more 25 to 36 year old birth mothers. At the same
time, however, while many teens decide to keep their babies initially, these children all too often
enter into the foster care system later at age 1 or 2.
The number of Foreign adoptions has dropped even more dramatically in the past few years, and
over the last ten years foreign adoptions are down 65%. There is a lot of debate in the adoption
community as to the cause.
The easy and popular answer is the ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption,
which establishes ethical standards for international adoptions. An explanation of the Hague, what
it does, and how it impacts foreign adoptions is beyond the scope of this article. But suffice to say,
the Hague’s emphasis on best practices to avoid child trafficking and other evils comes at a price:
more time and money involved in adoptions for adoptive parents and agencies. Ironically, in a result
that probably was not contemplated by lawmakers, the countries that have not adopted the Hague
are now more valuable to some adoptions agencies for foreign adoptions, and the non-Hague
counties seem to be seeing an increase in adoptions.
Blaming the Hague, however, oversimplifies the issue and ignores other dramatic recent changes.
Like the U.S., most countries are experiencing declining birth rates. Second, birth control and
education about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases is working and gaining acceptance
in many countries. Third, like the US, there is not as much shame as their once was in being a single
parent. Finally, nationalism is increasing around the globe, and countries do not like to see their
The difference between the foreign adoption decline, as compared to the decline in domestic
adoptions, is that the need for foreign adoptions has not declined. The numbers of unparented
children in foreign countries in need of nurturing homes has been growing and will continue to grow.
The current numbers are enormous, with some 8-12 million children living (and dying) in
orphanages, and hundreds of millions on the street. Available adoptive homes in-country can serve
no more than a tiny fraction of all those in need.
Are Any Adoptions Increasing?
Adult adoptions and step-parent adoptions seem to be slightly increasing, as the aforementioned
external factors do not influence those adoptions. Also, anyone who has been to one of my seminars
or talked with me about adoption knows that when I counsel couples interested in adoption, I give
foster care a strong push. Adoption through foster care has some advantages for the adoptive parents
(as well as a direct impact to the community), and as it relates to the topic today, adoptions through
foster care seem to be slightly increasing each year. I do not believe that will changes anytime in the
near future (the reasons why could be the subject of a whole other blog).
Adoption is not dead, nor is it dying. There are ebbs and flows in any industry, but if you are
considering adoption, you cannot ignore the current numbers.
If you intend to adopt from a foreign country, you need to consider the added expense and time that
may come from a Hague country, or the uncertainty that could come from a non-Hague country.
Adopting a newborn child may be more difficult due to the time involved in processing the adoption
(depending on the country), and so adoption of children one year or older might be more realistic.
If you intend to adopt domestically, you need to consider that it will not get cheaper adopting through
an agency as agencies close. As competition decreases, and the number of adoptable children
decrease, the expense of adoptions will go up. On the bright side, social media has given potential
adoptive parents new avenues of getting their names and profiles to birth parents at little or no cost
at all. Furthermore, in Missouri, there may be changes in the law on the horizon that may make
adoption an easier choice for biological parents (subject of another blog).
Finally, many of the reasons people tell me they would not consider adopting a child in foster care
are based on anecdotes or simply misunderstandings about the system and process (at best) to
uneducated generalizations about foster children (at worst). If you have not considered foster care,
or dismissed it as something you would not consider, maybe it is time you took another look.
Joe Hensley is an attorney with offices in Joplin and Carthage, Missouri, and was just recently elected as the Associate Circuit Judge . His practice includes civil trials and litigation, with an emphasis on adoptions. He is the former Chief Legal Counsel for the Jasper County Juvenile Office and is a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.