Most of Origins Genealogy’s customers are adult adoptees from closed adoptions. The process of adoption has its own vernacular, so we thought we’d provide this handy glossary to orient you. Whether you just want to test your vocabulary, or need to understand a specific adoption term, enjoy the following adoption definitions!

We hope this glossary of adoption terminology is helpful to those choosing adoption, whether to dispel adoption myths, or to provide reliable information and resources to those seeking to understand adoption more fully.

Adoption is a complex process and impacts the lives of the adopted person, the adopting family, and the birth parents forever.

Adoption can take on many forms, such as:

  • domestic adoption
  • international adoption
  • transracial adoption
  • same-sex adoption
  • foster care adoption
  • military adoption
  • private adoption
  • unplanned pregnancy adoption
  • and many more permutations

Regardless of the type of adoption or the form it takes, the full impact of adoption is vast, so the more we can understand it and inform ourselves, the better! Especially for families looking to adopt or others considering adoption, the more adoption information you can consume, the more prepared you’ll be for the adoption process.

Note that this glossary is not intended to function as a legal dictionary, but more as a helpful guide.

Table of Contents

Common Adoption Terminology and Definitions

Adoption Definitions and Terms


Someone who’s adopted and was raised by adoptive parents. Also known as an adopted child or adopted person, the adoptee is placed for adoption by the birth mother or birth parents, and adopted by the adoptive parents during the adoption process.


The definition of adoption is a legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from one parent to another through a court order. Adoption practices differ somewhat from state to state for those who were adopted in the United States, and may differ significantly from country to country for those who came from an international adoption.

Adoption Agencies

Adoption agencies are state-licensed organizations, either non-profit or for-profit, that provide services, such as home studies, facilitation of adoptions, and family reunions for birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted individuals.

Adoption Assistance Program (AAP)

Subsidies from the federal or state government to help adopting parents raise children with disabilities.

Adoption Attorney

A licensed lawyer who focuses on adoption laws, as well as foster care adoption, stepparent adoption, and international adoption. Families looking to adopt a child should have an adoption attorney to guide them.

Adoption Birth Plan

A plan by the biological parents that lays out all of their preferences during labor and provides a road map for the adoptive family, as well as the adoption professionals and hospital staff, when the due date arrives.

Adoption Consultant

A professional with extensive experience in the adoption planning and process who can guide birth parents and adoptive parents through the maze of common questions about adoption, options for adopting children, benefits of adoption, costs of adoption, and more.

Adoption Order

Also known as adoption decree, this is an official court document that certifies that the adoptee’s relationship with their adoptive parents is valid and to be treated as any other parent-child relationship.

Adoption Disruption

Legally mandated termination of an adoption process due to miscarriage during the pregnancy, change of heart at the hospital, or the withdrawal of parental consent within a specified time period. The act or process of the adoption being aborted or terminated.

Adoption Dissolution

It refers to an adoption where the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and the adopted child is terminated, either voluntarily or involuntarily, after the adoption is legally finalized.

Adoption Home Study

Home study is the process whereby potential adoptive parents are educated about adoption and evaluated (through a series of interviews and with their financial, emotional, and medical stability) to see if they are suitable for adoption.

Adoption Options

It refers to the type of adoption arrangement, which can be open, semi-open, or closed adoption.

Adoption Records

A collection of adoption information, both identifying and non-identifying information, on the biological parents and adopted person, as well as details regarding the history of adoption, which can be found from the state courts and adoption agencies. Records can be sealed or open to the public.

Adoption Search and Reunion

The steps taken by birth parents, adoptees, and other birth family members to reunite. Every state has its own laws on how adult adoptees or biological parents can obtain adoption records.

Adoption Service Provider (ASP)

A state-certified agency or individual that assists biological parents and adoptive parents with the placement of a child in an independent adoption.

Adoption Symbol

The adoption symbol reflects the three sides of every adoption, as well as the love that unites them. Each side of the triangle is made up of the birth family, adoptive family, and adoptee. The heart that connects each side of the triangle symbolizes the love that goes into adoption.

Adoption Tax Credit

Reduction in federal taxes due by adoptive parents who claim reimbursement for adoption costs (attorney fees, court fees, travel expenses, and more) through a nonrefundable credit.

Adoption Triad

Adoption triads are made up of three distinct groups of people—the biological parents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee—whose lives have been intertwined through the process of adoption.

Adoptive Homes

Any home where a child lives as a household member and has been placed for the purpose of adoption or where a child has been legally adopted by another member of the household.

Adoptive Parent Profiles

Also known as birth parent letters, these profiles let adoptive parents use them as a window into their lives to tell prospective adoptive parents about themselves (images of their family, home, lifestyle, community, and more) and the life they want to provide a child.

Adoptive Parents

Also known as adopting parents, they are parents who have the full parental and legal custody of an adopted child through adoption. They are individuals to whom the birth mother relinquishes legal authority.

Definition of Birth Certificate

Birth Certificate

Often referred to as Certificate of Live Birth, birth certificates are vital records issued at the time of birth. Adopted children have two birth certificates: their original birth certificate, which is sealed at the time of adoption, and a new birth certificate issued in their legal adopted name.

Birth Family

The biological parents and genetically-related siblings of the adopted child.
Birth Father
The biological father of the child who has been or will be adopted.

Birth Father

The biological father of the child who has been or will be adopted.

Birth Mother

The biological mother of the child who has been or will be adopted.

Birth Parents

Birth parents are biological parents who have signed an adoption consent form and have sent their child to adoption.

Child Abuse

Mistreatment or neglect of a child by caregivers or other adults. Child abuse can take on many forms, such as neglecting to properly feed and bathe a child, physically harming them, or psychologically harming them.

Child Welfare Information Gateway

A division of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Child Welfare Information Gateway “promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more.”

Closed Adoption

A type of adoption in which birth parents and adoptees have no contact or information about each other. A third party, such as an adoption agency or an adoption attorney, is in charge of keeping track of their information.


The process of enforcing a legal obligation to keep sensitive information private. A social worker and other professionals involved in the adoption must adhere to the ethical practice of not sharing identifying and non-identifying information about a client without the client’s permission.

Consent to Adopt

Consent to adoption is a birth father’s or birth mother’s legal consent to the adoption.

Decree Of Adoption

A judge signs a Decree of Adoption to complete an adoption. In this way, the adoptive parents and their adopted child are able to establish a parent-child relationship, as if the child were born to the adoptive parents as their biological child.

Designated or Identified Adoptions

A process allowing the biological parents to decide who will adopt their child and where, while still benefiting from an agency-assisted adoption process.


Based on state regulations, the sharing of personal information regarding the adoptive and birth families is prohibited. Some states require that specific information about prospective adoptive parents be disclosed to expectant parents so that they have personal knowledge about them. In post-adoption, in some states, only non-identifying information, such as age, may be provided directly to the adoptee. Other states permit disclosure of identifying information as authorized by the birth parent, once the adoptee reaches the age of majority, and some states permit adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates without restriction.

Domestic Adoption

Domestic adoption is a type of adoption in which all parties in the adoption triad (biological parents, adopting parents, and child adoptee) live in the United States.


A collection of legal documents used in international adoption to complete the adoption or guardianship of a child in a foreign court.

Emergency Placement

Also known as hospital match, stork drop, or baby-born situation, emergency placement refers a placement for adoption or foster care without prior planning. 

Employer-Provided Adoption Benefits

The benefits, such as financial assistance and paid leave, provided by an employer to an employee who has adopted a child.

Expectant Mother

A pregnant woman.


A person who acts as a liaison between potential adoptive and birth parents. For example, some states require a facilitator to have a license and/or bond, while others do not. They may also regulate what services can be performed and what fees can be charged.


The final legal process in adoption when a judge signs an order making the adoptive parents the child’s legal parents.

Foster Care Adoption Definition

Foster Care Adoption

A type of adoption in which a child is placed in an approved foster home with the expectation that the child will be legally adopted by those fostering them. Also commonly known as public adoption.

Genetic Genealogy

Genetic genealogy, also known as genetic ancestry testing, explores genetic differences in order to identify linkages between families, individuals, and groups.

Gotcha Day

More known now as Family Day or Adoption Day because of positive adoption language, Gotcha Day marks the moment when the adopting parents and adopted child first met or the moment when the adoption is finalized.

Hague Convention

The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is a law that is designed to combat child abduction, exploitation, trafficking, and resale and has been signed by 80 countries, including the United States.


Children who are considered difficult to place by child-placement agencies for a variety of reasons, including mental or physical health issues, age, race, family structure, and more. They may also be referred to as special-needs children.

Identifying Information

Identifiable information about the biological parents such as their names, birth dates, and addresses. Some states require a court order for this kind of information to be released, while other states only need a request from the adoption agency or reunion registry.

Independent Adoptions

Also referred to as private adoptions, independent adoption is a method in which the biological parents choose the adoptive parents and place the child with them directly without the help of a child-placement agency.

Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by the United States government in 1978 to place limitations on how American Indian and Alaska Native children could be placed for adoption. ICWA was passed as a family preservation measure to combat the rampant placement of Native children at much higher rates than non-Native children.

International Adoption

A type of adoption that involves two countries: the sending country, where the child is born, and the receiving country, where the potential adoptive family resides. Also known as intercountry adoption.

Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC)

A federal statute that creates uniform legal and administrative procedures for child adoption between states in the United States.

Kinship Adoption

A type of adoption in which the child is adopted by his or her biological relative.

Legal Guardian

A person who is legally responsible, in the absence of birth parents, for the care and management of a minor child who is unable to handle his or her own affairs.

Legal Risk Adoptive Placement

A form of foster care placement that involves placing a child for adoption with prospective permanent adoptive parents before the natural parents’ rights have been surrendered or have been terminated permanently.


The procedure by which biological parents seeking adoptive parents are introduced for adoption purposes.

National Adoption Day

National Adoption Day is a day dedicated to raising awareness of the over 100,000 children in foster care. The day before Thanksgiving, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, is dedicated to children who are waiting for permanent, loving families.

Non-identifying Information

Non-identifying information paints a broad portrait of someone (in the case of adoption, usually the birth parents) without revealing their identity. For example, demographic info such as health information, social status, level of education, financial conditions, and other generic information would all fall within non-identifying information.

Open Adoption

Open adoptions allow the expectant mother to choose the adoptive family for her baby, as well as the adoptive family to learn more about their child’s birth mother than the customary non-identifying information. Birth and adoptive families are able to communicate with each other in a variety of ways even after the adoption process, from exchanging contact information to organizing visits.

Original Birth Certificate

The adopted child’s first birth certificate, which is sealed at the time of adoption. The original birth certificate contains identifying information about the birth parents. Different states have different procedures for how an adult adoptee can access his or her sealed adoption records, including the original birth certificate.

Photo Listings

These images and descriptions of a baby up for adoption.


Refers to the period when a child is formally placed in the care of a potential adoptive parent.

Positive Adoption Language

Adoption language is the use of adoption terms that show respect for biological parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children. For example, adopting parents can simply be referred to as parents.

Post Adoption Contract Agreement

These are agreements between birth parents and adoptive families in open adoptions that formalize the type and frequency of contact that will take place after the adoptee is placed and throughout his or her childhood. Adoption laws differ from state to state, and the laws that govern these agreements do as well.

Post Placement Supervision

After the child is placed and before the adoption is formalized in court, the adoptive family receives a variety of therapy and agency services. Also known as adoption recording.

Private and public agency definition

Private Agencies

State-licensed nongovernmental adoption agencies.

Public Agencies

State or county-run social service agencies that primarily work with children in foster care.


A process of adopting a child again (initially adopted in another country), this time in front of a judge within the United States.


When a prospective adoptive family sees a child they are interested in, the family is then asked if they would like to adopt the child. It’s usually done for international adoptions.


Also known as the surrender of parental rights, relinquishment is the act of transferring custody of a child to the care and custody of another person, as well as the name of the legal instrument signed and completed by the birth parents.


The meeting between the birth parents or any birth family member and the adult adoptee. Some states legally allow adult adoptees to find their birth parents at the age of 18 or 21.

Revocation of Consent

The act of the birth parents asking for the adoption permission to be revoked and the child to be returned to their custody.

Samesex Adoption

A same-sex or samesex adoption is one in which a samesex couple adopts a child.

Sealed Adoption Records

The practice of sealing the original birth certificate and other identifying information following adoption or legitimation, making a copy of the record unavailable unless by court order.

Semi-Open Adoption

Biological parents and adopting parents are allowed to communicate non-identifying information, but their contact is normally handled by an intermediary, either an adoption agency or an independent adoption professional.


Your biological sister or brother. The person(s) with whom you share a biological parent(s).

Single Parent

Cornell University defines single parent as “(A) is unmarried or legally separated from a spouse; and (B) (i) has 1 or more minor children for whom the individual has custody or joint custody; or (ii) is pregnant.”

Social Worker

A person who uses counseling, advocacy, and reporting to birth parents and adopting parents about their adoption journey. For adoption questions, a local social worker is also reliable source for information

Transracial Adoption

Also sometimes called transcultural adoption, this is the placement of children from one ethnicity, skin color, or nationality, with parents of a different ethnicity, skin color, or nationality. In most cases, a transracial adoption consists of Caucasian adoptive parents adopting a child of color.

United States Citizenship And Immigration Services (USCIS)/The National Benefits Center (NBC)

USCIS/NBC is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for international adoption regulations and processes. The center analyzes if potential adoptive parents are eligible and suitable, as well as whether a child is eligible to immigrate to the United States.

Waiting Children

Children in the state child welfare system who are unable to return to their biological families and who require permanent, loving households to help them grow up in a safe and secure environment

Waiting Families

Refers to families who are in the process of adopting a child.