The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Terms

Adoption terms can be confusing so I decided to create an ultimate guide to help.

These terms will be very helpful to know as you start your adoption research. You may come across many of these words on your own as you’re reading. Or, you may hear them used by a particular social worker, attorney, or agency. I hope you find this ultimate guide to adoption terms very useful!

Adoption Terms

Part 1: The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Terms 


A person who was adopted. Some people prefer the terms “adopted child” or “adopted person.”

The complete transfer of parental rights and obligations from one parent or set of parents to another. A legal adoption requires a court action.

Adoption agency
An organization, usually licensed by the state, that provides services to birth parents, adoptive parents and children who need families. Agencies may be public or private, secular or religious, for profit or nonprofit.

Adoption agreement
The agreement in which the adoptive parent(s) and birth parent(s) put into writing their understanding of the terms of an adoption. This can include the degree of communication and contact they’ll have with each other and with the adopted child.

Adoption assistance
Monthly federal or state subsidy payments to help adoptive parents raise children with special needs.

Adoption attorney
A lawyer who files, processes, and finalizes adoptions in court. In some states attorneys may also arrange adoptive placements.

Adoption consultant
An individual who helps would-be adoptive parents decide on an adoption path, and assists in choosing an appropriate agency or attorney.

Adoption facilitator
An individual whose business involves connecting birth parents and prospective adoptive parents for a fee (allowed in only a few states). In international adoption, a facilitator may help adoptive parents complete an adoption in the child’s country of origin.

Adoption Order
The document issued by the court upon finalization of an adoption. This documents states that the adoptee is the legal child of the adoptive parents.

Adoption plan
Birth parents’ decision to allow their child to be placed for adoption.

Adoption tax credit
Nonrefundable credit that reduces taxes owed by adoptive parents who claim adoption expense reimbursement on federal taxes (and, in some states with similar legislation, on state taxes). The credit calculation can include adoption expenses, court fees, attorney fees, and travel expenses..

Adoption triad (or triangle)
The three major parties in an adoption: birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted child. You may also hear this called “adoption triangle” or “adoption circle.”

This is what inspired my logo ❤


Adoptive Parent(s)
A person or persons who become the permanent parents with all the social, legal rights and responsibilities incumbent upon any parent.

Agency adoption
Adoptive placements made by licensed organizations that screen prospective adoptive parents and supervise the placement of children in adoptive homes until the adoption is finalized.

At-risk placement
The placement of a child into the prospective adoptive family before the birth parents’ rights have been legally extinguished.

Adoption Terms


Birth certificate
When a child is born a certified document indicates the birth information of a person including mother’s and father’s name and the name given to the child at the time of birth. Once the adoption is finalized, the original birth certificate is amended reflecting the adoptive parents as the child’s parents and the original birth certificate is sealed and in many states remains confidential.

Birth parent
A child’s biological parent who has signed a consent to adoption. A pregnant woman who is considering adoption should not be called a “birth mother,” even if she has indicated her intent to place the child for adoption.


Certified copy
A copy of an official document, like a birth certificate, marriage certificate, or divorce decree, that has been certified by an official to be authentic and bears an original seal or embossed design.

Closed adoption
An adoption that involves total confidentiality and sealed records.

The legally required process of keeping identifying or other significant information secret. Also, the principle of ethical practice that requires social workers and other professionals not to disclose information about a client without the client’s consent.

Consent to adopt or consent to adoption
A birth parent’s legal permission for the adoption to proceed.


Decree of adoption
A legal order that finalizes an adoption.

Designated adoption or identified adoption
An adoption in which the birth parent(s) choose(s) the adoptive parent(s) for the child.

An adoption process that is halted after the prospective adoptive parents have taken custody but before legally finalization.

An adoption in which the parent-child legal relationship is severed after finalization.

Domestic Adoption
An adoption that involves adoptive parents and a child that are permanent residents of the United States.

A set of legal documents used in international adoption to process a child’s adoption or assignment of guardianship in a foreign court.

Adoption Terms


Emergency placement
An adoption match that is made after the child has already been born. Also referred to as a “baby-born situation,” “hospital match,” or “stork-drop.”

Employer Adoption Benefit Package
Adoption benefits provided to employees as part of an employer-sponsored benefit program, which are included within their employment compensation package.

Expectant mother
A woman who is pregnant and considering adoption for her child after she gives birth.

The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Terms You Need to Know


An individual that is not licensed as an adoption agency or licensed as an attorney, and who is engaged in the matching of biological parents with adoptive parents.

The final legal step in the adoption process; involves a court hearing, during which a judge orders that the adoptive parents become the child’s legal parents.

Foster parents
State- or county-licensed adults who provide a temporary home for children whose birth parents are unable to care for them.


Hague Adoption Convention
The Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, an international treaty to improve accountability, safeguards, and cooperation in inter-country adoption. Its terms govern adoption among almost 80 countries, including the U.S.

Children whom agencies consider difficult to place because of emotional or physical disorders, age, race, membership in a sibling group, history of abuse, or other factors.

Home study
A process through which prospective adoptive parents are educated about adoption and evaluated to determine their suitability to adopt.  A home study is a three-part process required before a child can be placed with a family for foster care or adoption: (1) Written portion includes autobiographies, references, medical reports, financial statements, child abuse and criminal clearances and other written materials; (2) Social work process includes a series of visits in the applicants’ home to discuss a variety of issues from the applicants’ backgrounds to their motivations to adopt and their understanding of adoption and parenting; (3) Educational process includes training in adoption and parenting issues. The end result of this process is a written document completed by a licensed agency giving a summary of the applicants’ family life. This document indicates approval of the applicants for adoption. In most states it must be updated annually.

The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Terms You Need to Know

Related: What Exactly Is an Adoption Home Study?


The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) is statutory law that establishes uniform legal and administrative procedures governing the adoption of children between states within the U.S.

Identifying information
Information on birth parents or adoptive parents that discloses their identities.

Independent (or private) adoption
An adoption arranged privately between the birth family and the adoptive family, without an adoption agency.


Kinship adoption (aka Relative adoption)
Adoption by a biological relative of the child.

Adoption Terms


Legal guardian
A person who has legal responsibility for the care and management of a person (such as a minor child) who is incapable of administering his or her own affairs.

Legal risk placement
Placement of a child in a prospective adoptive family when the child is not yet legally free for adoption.


Match or Matching
The process of bringing together qualified prospective adoptive parents and willing biological parents, who by choice choose to explore the compatibility of each other and who can agree on the terms under which the adoptive parents can adopt the child.


Non-identifying information
Information that allows the birth and adoptive families to learn pertinent facts about each other without revealing who they are or how they can be contacted.


Open adoption
An adoption that involves some amount of initial and/or ongoing contact between birth and adoptive families, ranging from sending letters through the agency to exchanging names and/or scheduling visits.


Photo listings
Photos and descriptions of children who are available for adoption.

The point at which a child begins to live with prospective adoptive parents; the period before the adoption is finalized.

Post-placement services
A variety of services provided after the adoption is finalized, including counseling, social services, and adoptive family events, and outings.

Private agencies
Nongovernmental adoption agencies licensed by the state.

Public agencies
Social service agencies run by state or county governments that deal mainly with children in foster care.


For a child adopted in another country, a second adoption in a U.S. court.

The document that identifies a child available for international adoption.

Voluntary termination of parental rights. Some prefer the phrase “making an adoption plan.”

A meeting between an adopted person and birth parents or other birth relatives.

The legally specified period in which a mother who has consented to adoption may revoke that consent and regain custody of her child. The revocation period varies from stte to state—in some, parental rights are terminated upon relinquishment and there is no revocation period, in others, the revocation period is 30 days.

Adoption Terms


An attempt to locate and/or make a connection with a birth parent or a biological child.

Semi-open adoption
An adoption in which a child’s birth parents and adoptive parents may meet once or twice, but exchange only nonidentifying information.

Special needs child
A child with medical, mental, emotional, behavioral, or educational needs that could require extra on-going attention. Agencies may consider these children difficult to place because of emotional or physical disorders, age, race, membership in a sibling group, history of abuse, or other factors.

The legal document signed by the biological parents in which they place their child with an adoption agency who in turn places the child with the adoptive family that the biological parents choose. In some states this may be referred to as “relinquishment” or “consent.”


Termination of parental rights
The process by which a parent’s rights to his or her child are legally and permanently terminated, after which the child becomes eligible for adoption.

Transracial adoption
An adoption in which the child and the adoptive parent(s) are not of the same race.


U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Bureau (USCIS)
An agency of the federal government that approves an adopted child’s immigration into the United States and grants U.S. citizenship to children adopted from other countries.


Waiting children
Children in the public child welfare system who cannot return to their birth homes and need permanent, loving families to help them grow up safe and secure.

This ultimate guide includes the terms that you are likely to come across as you embark on your adoption journey. For a printable ultimate guide of 25 of the most used adoption terms, be sure to grab the free download.

Adoption Terms

Along with the terms above, there are some positive and negative wording.

I had to include this section to make the ultimate guide complete. When we become aware and make the choice to use positive adoption language, we help to educate others about adoption.

The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Terms You Need to Know

Here are some reasons why positive adoption language is so important.

  1. Positive adoption language honors the birth family. Birth parents make the most difficult decision of their lives when they choose to place their child for adoption.

    This decision is made out of love and should be honored.

  2. Positive adoption language also shows kindness and respect to the adoptive parents. For example, there is no reason to refer to an adoptive parent as the “real parent”.  Adoption is one way of creating a family.

    It’s no less important than building a family another way. 

  3. The use of positive adoption language can help build self-confidence and a true sense of worth in a child. All children are important and positive language helps reinforce that. For example, you shouldn’t ask things like where a child came from or why his or her parents abandoned them.

    This can greatly affect a child still learning who they are and where they fit in.

  4. Positive adoption language protects private information. Your decision to adopt is your own decision. You are their parent and you get to decide who you talk to about adoption.

    Not everyone is like me and feels the need to shout it from the rooftops 😉

  5. Positive adoption language helps to dispel myths and misconceptions about adoption.

Part 2: The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Positive Language

Positive Language in Adoption

Birth Mother, First Mother
My child
Born to unmarried parents
Terminate parental rights
Make an adoption plan
To parent
Birth parent
Adoption triad or circle
Birth child
Child placed for adoption
Child with special needs
Was adopted

Negative, Outdated, or Inaccurate Language in Adoption

Real parent
Natural parent
Own child
Adopted child; Own child
Give up
Give away
To keep
Adoption triangle
An unwanted child
Handicapped child
Is adopted

So, there you have it. An ultimate guide to adoption terms you need to know including positive and negative language. By educating yourself on these terms, you will not only be setting yourself up to better understand what you read and conversations that you have but you will also be helping to inform others.

The Ultimate Guide to Adoption Terms You Need to Know

If this ultimate guide helped you in anyway, please let me know! Leave a comment! I look forward to responding.

Adoption Resource Library


  1. September 2, 2020 / 1:13 pm

    I agree that it would b good to make sure that you use adoption positive language. My brother is considering adopting a kid, and I would want to make sure they all stay happy together if he does. I should recommend that they try and keep their language positive if they do end up adopting a kid.

    • Heather
      September 2, 2020 / 6:08 pm

      Absolutely agree! All the best to your brother!

  2. November 25, 2020 / 2:35 pm

    It’s great to learn that a lawyer can help finalize adoptions in court. My wife and I are wanting to start a family and we were wondering how we could adopt a child quickly. I’ll be sure to tell her that we should look to hire an adoption lawyer to make the process quicker.

    • Heather
      December 8, 2020 / 11:07 am

      Wishing you all the best with your adoption goals!

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