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GLOSSARY of adoption terms
  Glossary of adoption terms
Family Helper editor

This glossary covers common terms used in domestic and international adoption, with the exception of those referring to the various special needs, disabilities and disorders.

Included are usage notes and commentaries from the Canadian perspective. The usage notes are intended as a guide to the correct use of adoption language, while recognizing that usage does change over time.


Person who was adopted. Frequently refers to an adopted person who is now an adult.
Legal transfer of parental rights and obligations from birth parent(s) to adoptive parent(s). The adoptive parents become the legal parents of the child. It's a permanent, legally-binding arrangement by which a child or teenager becomes a member of a new family. In Canada adoption falls under provincial jurisdiction. Usage: You can join a family through birth or adoption. Adoption is a way of arriving in a family, not a medical condition or a disability. Say "Maria was adopted", not "Maria is adopted." Journalists should refer to the fact of having been adopted only when relevant to the story.
Adoptive parent.
Person who legally assumes the rights and obligations of parenting an adopted child. The adoptive parent becomes the permanent parent through adoption, with all the social and legal rights and responsibilities of any parent. Usage: It is preferable to use "adoptive" parent only when needed to distinguish between birth parent and adoptive parents. A standalone reference, for example in a news story ("Sean's adoptive father ... "), should not refer to "adoptive parent" or "adopted child" unless relevant to the story, to distinguish between two sets of parents.
Approved adoption practitioner.
See Practitioner
Assistance, adoption.
See Subsidy.
Authority, adoption.
See Hague Convention.

Benefit, adoption.
(1) A government benefit to help people to adopt children or to raise them. The benefit may take the form of paid leave from work, payment (see Subsidy), medical help and post-adoption services.
(2) A company benefit, such as a payment made to an employee through an employer-sponsored program to help pay for adoption expenses. The company may also grant paid or unpaid leave.
Birth family.
The birth family is composed of those sharing a child's genetic heritage. See also birth mother.
Birth mother / father / parent.
The birth (or biological) mother is the woman giving birth to a child who is subsequently placed for adoption.
Usage (1): Avoid the terms "real" or "natural" mother; these imply the existence of an "unreal" or "unnatural" mother. Similarly, prefer "birth father" and "birth parents", not "natural father" or "natural parents". However, some advocates promote the terms "natural mother" (Canadian Council of Natural Mothers) or "first mother".
Usage (2): Writers need to be careful when referring to a pregnant woman or a mother as a "birth mother". Strictly speaking, she becomes a birth mother only after her child is placed for adoption.

Certificate / decree / order (adoption) .
At the end of the finalization process, the court issues a document stating the adoptee is the legal child of the adoptive parents.
Child profile.
Document written by a child's caseworker to provide a prospective adoptive family with comprehensive information about the child, including family history; medical, psychological and educational assessments; history of previous placements; and daily routines.
Children's aid society (CAS).
In Ontario, a public child welfare agency funded by government and responsible for protecting Ontario children, finding foster homes, and finding permanent families for children in its care who are available for adoption. There are 52 in Ontario, licensed and funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Also called Family and Children's Services (FACS).
Circle / constellation.
See Triad.
Closed adoption.
See Openness.
Concurrent planning.
In social work, making plans to reunify a child with the birth family, while at the same time making a back-up plan for permanency. One back-up plan would be to place the child in the home of a foster family or family member who could become the child's adoptive family if the birth parents fail to regain custody. Another is to start recruiting for an adoptive family before the child is legally free. The aim is to reduce the time a child spends in foster care before being placed with a permanent family.
Custom adoption.
Form of adoption specific to aboriginal peoples, taking place within the aboriginal community and recognizing traditional customs. Also, "customary adoption". Commentary: In Alberta (e.g. Yellowhead Tribal Services), bands place native children with families on the reserve, using custom adoption ceremonies which recognize traditional practices, while also conforming with provincial law. In the Canadian north, strong traditions of custom adoption have helped Inuit keep their children in their communities. Aboriginal custom adoption has been recognized in the Northwest Territories since 1995. NWT uses the definition, "Custom Adoption is a privately arranged adoption between two aboriginal families. There are no social workers or lawyers involved in a custom adoption." Such an adoption is legal if an Adoption Commissioner, chosen by the community, says it was done in the traditional way, following aboriginal custom. In Nunavut, the Department of Health and Social Services oversees custom adoptions.
Custom care.
Form of kinship care specific to aboriginal communities. In custom (or customary) care, native children are cared for by relatives, members of their tribe or clan, stepparents, godparents or any adult with a kinship bond. The child maintains a connection with extended family and community, when not able to live at home.

In the field of adoption search and reunion, the release from government files of previously confidential or unshared information, such as identifying information. A disclosure veto is a notice held on file which blocks release of identifying information. In some jurisdictions, adult adoptees and birth parents who want to preserve their privacy can file a disclosure veto with a reunion registry.
Failure of an adoption before finalization, through a decision of the birth parents, adoptive parents or agency. The child leaves the prospective adoptive home and returns to foster care or goes to another adoptive parent. Also, "failed placement". In foster care, a change in foster home. "Provincially, Crown Wards in foster care experienced a placement disruption on average once every 23.4 months." --OACAS Journal, Spring 2004.
Failure of an adoption after finalization, through a decision of the adoptive parents or the courts. The child leaves the adoptive home and returns to foster care or goes to another adoptive parent. Also, "failed adoption".
Domestic adoption.
Adoption of a child living in the same country as the adoptive parent(s).

Exchange, adoption.
(1) An event bringing together public adoption agencies and people seeking to adopt, e.g. Ontario's twice-yearly Adoption Resource Exchange. Prospective parents can meet adoption workers and learn about children waiting to be adopted.
(2) In the U.S., an organization recruiting families to adopt children. Exchanges are usually state or regional, and supply information (by web, print, radio and TV) to help match people wishing to adopt with children waiting for adoption within a state or region.

Failed adoption / failed placement.
See Disruption and Dissolution.
The final legal step in the adoption process: at a court hearing an adoptive parent(s) becomes a child's legal parent(s).
Financial aid.
See Benefit and Subsidy.
Follow-up report.
See Report.
Foster care.
Temporary parental care by non-relatives. The arrangement could be informal but is usually formalized through a public child welfare agency. The agency takes legal custody of children who are unable to live at home because their parents were deemed abusive, neglectful or otherwise unable to care for them. (Some foster children are voluntarily placed in agency care while others are in foster care by court order.) The agency screens, trains, licenses and pays foster parents who will provide a caring temporary home. The agency usually aims to reunify the child with her family, but otherwise will consider adoption for her. Commentary: Care by foster parents is not supposed to be permanent (unlike adoption), but children can end up spending years in the foster care system. A young person reaching 18 (and so no longer eligible for adoption) is said to "age out" of the system. In Ontario, foster care is the responsibility of children's aid societies.
Foster-adoption / fost-adopt / fostering with a view to adoption.
A foster placement intended to result in adoption. The child welfare agency places a child in a foster home, expecting that the foster parents will adopt the child if and when she becomes legally free for adoption (when parental rights are terminated). Commentary: One advantage of such a placement is that it spares the child a move to another foster family or to an adoptive family.
A guardian is a person who is legally responsible for a child. In kinship care, guardianship may serve as an alternative to adoption, when the child's relative assumes a parental role but prefers not to adopt. Guardianship is subject to ongoing supervision by the court and ends by court order or when the child reaches the age of majority.

Hague Convention.
The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, inaugurated in 1993, is an international treaty setting the framework for the adoption of children between countries. The aim is to protect the best interests of adopted children and prevent abuses such as trafficking in children. The Convention standardizes procedures between the adoption authority in the child's country of origin and the corresponding authority in the receiving country. Each country which has ratified the Convention designates a central authority to regulate requests for intercountry adoption and accredit adoption agencies. In Canada each province has its own central authority: the provincial ministry responsible for adoption.
Hard-to-place children.
Some children are harder to place for adoption, for reasons such as special needs, age, race and being in a sibling group.
Home study.
Professional assessment of a prospective parent's suitability to adopt. A social worker conducts interviews to assess reasons for wanting to adopt, preferences in types of children, and strengths and skills in parenting. The process includes education about adoption and parenting issues. The home study document summarizes the applicant's family life, education, employment, personality, marital history and medical history. The social worker states what type of child the applicant is approved to adopt. The home study must be updated annually. Public agencies provide home studies at no cost.

Identifying information.
Information which reveals a person's identity, such as last name, address, phone number and detailed family history. In the field of adoption search and reunion, information allowing a triad member to be identified and located. Commentary: When families are recruited for a child available for adoption, identifying information about the child is typically kept private. Families initially get non-identifying information of a general nature which does not reveal identity, such as physical descriptions and medical history.
International (intercountry) adoption.
Adoption of a child living in a different country from the adoptive parent(s).

Kinship adoption.
Adoption of a child by a grandparent, aunt, uncle, other member of the extended family, godparent or someone considered kin. In kinship adoption, as opposed to kinship care, the child is adopted legally. See also custom adoption and relative adoption.
Kinship care.
Method of providing children with care by relatives or extended family. Also called relative placement. The arrangement may be informal; a formal foster care placement; or a pre-adoption placement. The court may award relatives custody, or guardianship. In a formal foster care placement, the relative may receive the same benefits and supports as other foster care parents. See also custom care.

Leave, adoption.
Government benefit by which workers get paid leave from work when adopting. Under Canada's Employment Insurance program, women who give birth are due 15 weeks of maternity leave and 35 weeks of parental leave. Adoptive parents get only 35 weeks of parental leave.
Legally free.
A child is legally free for adoption when the birthparents' parental rights have been terminated in a court of law. See Relinquishment.
Licensed adoption agency.
An agency to whom the provincial adoption ministry has granted a licence to place children for adoption in the province, and to manage the adoption process during the probation period. Commentary: The process of licensing is governed by provincial regulations. Ontario is the only province allowing individuals to be licensed, and uses the term "licensee" to mean either a licensed person or a licensed agency. See also Practitioner
Life book.
Scrapbook, journal or photo album chronicling a child's life story, created by social workers, birth, foster or adoptive parents, or the child, when she is older. It may contain pictures, writing and souvenirs. Commentary: A life book helps a child make sense of her unique history. It also provides a way to share parts of a child's life not spent with the current family. It could serve as a therapeutic tool to help in identity formation and the understanding of adoption.

Process of finding a prospective family suited to the needs of a waiting child. Usage: A match may refer to a family that a child's worker is strongly considering, or to a family that the family's worker is suggesting to the child's worker. Not to be confused with placement. Commentary: In international adoption, the method of matching varies by country. Some countries select a child for you and send your agency a proposal. Some have a central registry you choose from.
Maternity leave.
See Leave.

Non-identifying information.
See Identifying information.

Open adoption agreement.
See Openness.
Open records.
In the field of adoption search and reunion, records in government files, such as an original birth certificate and adoption papers, which are open for the inspection of triad members. Conversely, sealed records deny adoptees access to their adoption files (which would identify birth family members). Commentary: Information in open records cannot be kept private by a disclosure veto. The trend in progressive jurisdictions is to give triad members the right to access adoption records.
Openness in adoption.
Birth parents and adoptive parents often agree to have an open adoption, with ongoing contact between their families. Their open adoption agreement may be verbal or written, but it is not legally binding. It spells out how much contact, perhaps specifying the frequency and manner of contact between adoptive and birth families, or between siblings placed separately. The families could exchange letters and photos, either directly or through an agency, or schedule phone calls and visits.
(1) In an open adoption, the families exchange names and addresses, and have a full and ongoing relationship.
(2) In a semi-open adoption, the families exchange non-identifying information, such as messages and photos, through an intermediary. They don't know each other's last names or addresses.
(3) In a closed adoption, confidentiality is the rule. The families do not share identifying information and have no contact. The adoptive family usually receives non-identifying information about the child and the birth family before placement. After finalization, records are sealed and unavailable to the adoptee. Commentary: The legacy of closed adoptions, which were common in the past, is that adoptees and birth parents are unable to locate each other later in life, to exchange medical information or to renew connections. See Search and reunion.

Parental leave.
See Leave.
Parental rights.
See Relinquishment.
Arrangement which assures lasting care and parenting of a child and eliminates the need for further moves. In permanency planning, systematic efforts are made to find a child a safe and nurturing family setting expected to last a lifetime. Some options are: adoption, reunification with the birth family and guardianship.
List of children available for adoption, usually through public child welfare agencies, including photos and descriptions. It may be printed in a book or newspaper, shown on TV or posted at a web site. Commentary: Photolistings are used to recruit adoptive parents for specific children. Photolistings respect the privacy of the child by not using last names, restricting the detail in the descriptions and arranging contact through an intermediary -- the social worker handling the child's file. Web sites may also require visitors to register for a password before viewing the list. Some Canadian provinces, and most U.S. states, have photolisting services online. The Adoption Council of Canada's photolistings are at
Act of physically placing a child in a foster or prospective adoptive home.
Usage: "Placement" also covers the state of being placed in a home, e.g. "The social worker supervised the placement." In adoption, "post-placement" usually refers to the period after placement and before finalization.
Plan, adoption.
(1) The birth parents' plan to allow their child to be placed for adoption. Usage: "Birthparents make an adoption plan for a child and subsequently place the child for adoption." Avoid the negative phrases "give up a baby" and "put up for adoption."
(2) The plan or agreement which birth parents and adoptive parents make together regarding contact between their families, e.g. semi-open or open adoption. See Openness.
Post-adoption report.
See Report.
Post-adoption services.
Services provided after adoption finalization. Service may be provided to both birth and adoptive families, and adoptees, by a public agency, private therapist or community organization. Services may consist of providing subsidies, respite care, counselling, day care, medical equipment, support groups and peer support programs such as an adopted teens group.
Practitioner, approved adoption.
In Ontario, a professional, usually a social worker, with experience in adoption or child welfare, whom the provincial ministry responsible for adoption has approved to conduct home studies and supervise placements in prospective adoptive homes.
Private adoption.
(1) An adoption arranged by a privately-funded, licensed adoption agency. See also Private agency. Commentary: Most provinces allow private adoption. All private adoption is regulated by the provincial ministry responsible for adoptions. Ministries license individuals and agencies to place children privately, approve the social workers to conduct homestudies and monitor the performance of licensees and social workers. In some provinces, such as British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario, agencies are licensed to place children not only in the province (domestic adoption), but also into the province from abroad (international adoption)
(2) In the U.S., private adoptions, also called independent adoptions, are arranged through a facilitator such as a lawyer, rather than through a licensed adoption agency. In contrast, an agency adoption is arranged through a public or private adoption agency.
Private agency.
Non-government adoption agency licensed by the province the agency operates in. Private agencies charge fees for their services.
Probation period.
Time between placement of a child with the adoptive family and finalization, when the adoption is legalized in court. It varies by province but is at least six months. This applies to both domestic adoptions and international adoptions not finalized abroad. During the probation (or probationary) period, the licensee monitors the adoptive family and adopted child. See Supervision.
Progress report.
See Report.
Document giving you information on a specific child you might adopt, such as background, family history and any special needs. Commentary: In international adoption, the foreign authority sends your adoption agency a file on the child matched to you. This proposal may contain a child's description, photograph or video, medical history and information about special needs, social environment and family history. You accept or reject the proposal.
Public adoption.
(1) An adoption arranged through a provincial ministry or agency funded by government. See also Public agency.
(2) In the U.S., public adoptions are arranged through a public child welfare agency, such as the Department of Social Services, or a private child welfare agency, such as Lutheran Children's Services.
Public agency.
Government-funded adoption agency, usually providing services at no cost, e.g. Children's aid society. Public agencies are responsible for placing with adoptive families the waiting children in their care.

Relative adoption.
Legal adoption of a child by a biological relative, such as a grandparent, uncle or cousin.
Relative placement.
See Kinship care.
Voluntary surrender by a birthparent of legal rights to parent a child. It's a legally binding process involving the signing of documents and court action. If birth parents don't voluntarily surrender their rights, the court may act to terminate those rights. Usage: "Relinquish" is not a preferred term for placing a child for adoption. Better is "birthparents choose adoption" or "make an adoption plan" for their child.
Report, follow-up / post-adoption / progress.
A follow-up or post-adoption report details how an adopted child is doing in her new home in the period after finalization. A progress report tells how a child is adjusting in an adoptive home in the period before finalization. In international adoption, some countries require one or more follow-up reports after you return home. Countries want to know that their children are doing well with their new families. Your adoption agency submits the post-adoption reports to the adoption authority abroad.
Respite care.
Temporary care provided for a child in order to give birth, foster or adoptive parents relief from parenting.
Reunion registry.
In the field of adoption search and reunion, a service allowing adult members of the adoption triad wishing to learn about birth relatives to register personal data and ask to be notified if other parties in that adoption also register.
See Search and reunion.

Sealed records.
See Open records.
Search and reunion.
"Search" is a process whereby either a birth parent or an adoptee seeks information about, or contact with, the other. The search process may also involve adoptive parents, volunteers and paid consultants. One result of a search is a "reunion", when adoptee and birth parent (or other birth relatives) meet. Commentary: When adoptions are closed (see Openness), adoptees and birth parents cannot find each other later in life. It's not unusual for an adopted child to search for his birth parents when he becomes an older adolescent or adult.
Semi-open adoption.
See Openness.
Service provider, adoption.
In Ontario, any of the entities which the ministry approves or licenses to provide adoption services, such as approved adoption practitioners, licensees and children's aid societies.
Sibling adoption.
Adopting two or more brothers and sisters at the same time. Commentary: Many adoption professionals believe that, whenever possible, siblings should be placed together, or stay in touch through open adoption arrangements.
Special needs.
Conditions in a child which are particularly challenging to adoptive parents, such as physical, emotional and behavioural disorders, and a history of abuse or neglect. Common disorders and disabilities include attachment disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental disabilities, fetal alcohol syndrome, learning disabilities and oppositional defiant disorder. Adopting a child with special needs generally means a more extensive training process. When fees are charged, these may be lowered or waived for a special needs adoption. In the U.S., a special needs adoption qualifies for a state subsidy. The definition of "special needs" varies by state.
Step adoption / step-parent adoption.
Adoption of a child by the parent's new spouse.
Subsidy, adoption.
Government benefit to offset the costs of adopting and raising a special needs child. The benefit may take the form of one-time and monthly payments, medical aid and post-adoption services. Commentary: In Canada, parents adopting children with special needs may get a payment to defray unusual expenses, such as medical and dental expenses, counselling services and therapy not covered by health insurance, availability of social workers for advice and respite care. Amounts and types of subsidies vary by province. In the U.S., a one-time payment can cover homestudy fees, court costs and attorney fees. Monthly payments are based on a child's needs or eligibility (not family income) and continue until the child is 19 (sometimes 21).
Process whereby the licensee visits the adoptive home during the probation period, to see if the child is adjusting well and to give advice and support.
Support group.
Group of people sharing a common concern or experience who provide support for each other. Adoptive parents use adoption support groups for information, educational activities and seasonal events.

Transracial adoption / Transcultural adoption.
Adoption of a child of one race by a family of a different race. In the converse, "same-race adoption", child and parent are the same race. A related term is "transcultural adoption", in which child and family differ in culture or ethnic group. Most transracial adoptions are also transcultural. Commentary: The adoptive family needs to be sensitive to racism and to respect their child's ethnicity and culture of origin. Living in a diverse community helps build a child's positive attitude toward her birth culture and racial background. In Canada aboriginal communities encourage the adoption of native children by native families, so that the children continue to grow within native culture and retain their connections to family and community.
Triad, adoption.
In the field of adoption search and reunion, the three parties involved in an adoption: birth parent, adoptive parent and adoptee. Some use the term "adoption circle" or "adoption constellation", to include other parties such as adoption professionals.

See Disclosure.

Waiting children.

Children who are waiting to be adopted, that is, children who are legally free for adoption. They are in the care of the public child welfare system, cannot return to their birth homes and need permanent families. (Waiting parents are those seeking to adopt.) Commentary: According to the May 2002 "Report Card on Adoption" by the Adoption Council of Canada, there are over 66,000 Canadian children in foster care. About 22,000 are permanent wards of the provincial governments and await adoption, but fewer than 1,700 of them are adopted annually across the country.
Ward / Crown ward / Permanent ward.
Status of a child declared by the court to be in care of the state. Commentary: If parents are unable to care for a child, she may be admitted into the care of a child welfare agency. If efforts to reunite child with family fail, the court may make the child a ward of the province, giving parental rights to the state. Then the agency develops a permanency plan. Because the parents have lost their parental rights, a ward is eligible to be adopted. The term is "crown ward" in Ontario, "permanent ward" elsewhere.

Based on the glossary of the Adoption Council of Canada,, compiled by ACC's content specialist, Robin Hilborn


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Updated Oct. 10, 2006

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