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Adoption Glossary of Terms

There are different terms and acronyms used throughout adoption on a daily basis.  It may be difficult to understand a conversation about adoption if you are unfamiliar with these terms.  Below are some terms and definitions you may hear.

Adoption:  the legal relationship of raising a child not born to you.


Adoption Study: The process by which a family is interviewed, prepared and assessed for placement of a child for adoption. The finished product is a written document that is presented to the social service agency, the court and other parties to approve or deny the application for adoption. The adoption study can be used to introduce the prospective adoptive family to a child’s social worker.


Birth Parent:  The biological parent of the child who is adopted by another family or living in foster care.


Closed Adoption:  An adoption that is entirely confidential and the records are sealed.


Child Welfare – Child Protection System:  Government agencies (state or county) charged with protecting children from harm and neglect.  This system is made up of family intervention services, protective services, foster care, group care and adoption services. Public agencies may contract with private nonprofit organizations to perform adoption/ foster care services.


Disclosure:  The release of previously hidden or unknown information.


Disruption:  Those cases in which the adopted child is returned by the adoptive family to the agency’s care either before finalization, or when the child is living away from the family and without continued family commitment to the adoption.


Dissolution:  a legal termination of the parental rights of the adoptive parents.


Extended family:  A child’s relative (other than parent).  This can include aunts, uncles, grandparents, and sometimes even close friends.


Finalization:  The court hearing at which a judge terminates the agency’s custody and awards full and legal custody, including rights and responsibilities of the child to the adoptive family.  Under Minnesota law, finalization can take place after the child has resided with the prospective adoptive family for three months.


Foster Care: A licensed family that temporarily cares for a child who has been removed from their birth home.  In a foster care placement, the child welfare agency retains legal custody of the child and provides support services for foster caregivers.


Group home: A homelike setting in which a number of unrelated children live for varying time periods. Group homes usually have rotating staff that are specially trained to assist children with emotional and behavioral difficulties.


Guardian: Person who is legally responsible for the child.  Guardianship is subject to ongoing supervision by the court and ends at the child's majority or by order of the court.


Guardian ad litem (GAL):  A person who is appointed by the court to represent the interests of a child, a ward or an unborn infant in a particular court case.


Home Study: A process through which prospective adoptive parents are educated about adoption and evaluated to determine their suitability to adopt.


Identifying Information:  Information that discloses a person’s identity.


Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA): A 1978 federal law that protects the rights of Native American children, families, and tribes.  ICWA states that when placing a Native American child for adoption, preference should be given to extended family, tribal members, a Native American foster family or adoptive family, or a Native American Group Home.  The tribe has the right to make decisions regarding the Native American child's placement, and non-Native American families are considered for placement as a last resort.  ICWA adoption provisions do not, however, apply to every Native American child in foster care - especially in cases where the children's Native American birth parents are not registered tribe members, or the tribes have given up their claim on the child.  


Kinship Care: The care of a child by other person or family that is related to the child by blood.  This may also include those families who are given family membership status by culture or custom.


Legal risk placement: Placement of a child in a prospective adoptive family when a child is not yet legally free for adoption. Before a child can be legally adopted by another family, parental rights of his or her birth parents must be terminated.  In a "legal risk" adoptive placement either this termination of parental rights has not yet occurred, or it is being contested. 


Life book: A collection of pictures, stories and drawings that tell about the life of a child. This book is particularly important for children in foster care who have moved from place to place and have lost significant people in their everyday lives. A child's life book is an excellent therapeutic tool in addition to being a treasured keepsake.


Matching: The process of finding prospective families specifically suited to meet the needs of a waiting child, not to be confused with "placement".


Multi-Ethnic Placement Act: A federal law enacted in 1994 and implemented through State policy prohibits the delay or denial of any adoption or placement in foster care due to the race, color, or national origin of the child or of the foster or adoptive parents and requires States to provide diligent recruitment of potential foster and adoptive families who reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of children for whom homes are needed.


Non-identifying information: Facts about the birth parents or adoptive parents that would not lead to their discovery by another person.


Non-recurring adoption costs: One-time adoption expenses, which, through the provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, may be at least partially reimbursed by States up to a maximum limit of $2,000 to families adopting children with special needs. 


Open adoption: An adoption where there is some interaction between the birth family, adoptive family and the adopted child. Generally the adoptive family and the birth family agree to a level and style of communication that is comfortable for both parties and in the best interests of the child. Communication may be by phone, correspondence or personal contacts. In a semi-open adoption, contact may be maintained through an intermediary, usually the adoption agency.


Orientation meeting: An initial group meeting for prospective adoptive parents where information about the agency's procedures and policies are explained and questions about adoption may be answered.


Orphanage: Institution that houses children who are orphaned, abandoned, or whose parents are unable to care for them. Orphanages are rarely used in the United States, although they are more frequently used abroad.


Paternity Registry: Registration with the Bureau of Vital Records by which a person claiming to be a birth father of a child may claim paternal rights regarding the child and state his willingness and intent to support the child.


Photo listing book (Exchange book): A photo book of children and families listed with an adoption exchange. It will usually include a brief description of the child's background and what type of family is being sought, as well as a brief description of the family and the type of child being sought.


Placement: A child may have had numerous out-of-home placements after a social services agency has determined that a child is not safe in his/her current home. The agency may place a child with relatives, in an emergency shelter, foster home, group home, residential treatment center or psychiatric hospital. This term is also used to refer to the day when a child moves into an adoptive home.


Plans: Term used when an adoptive family has been selected for a waiting child. In most cases, the family is getting to know more about the child, but the child has not yet moved into the adoptive home. May also be used in reference to prospective adoptive families who are seriously considering a specific child for adoption. Some agencies and exchanges use "Hold" rather than "Plans".


Post-legal adoption services: Services provided by an adoption agency or other community resource to the adopted person, the adoptive parents and/or birth parents after an adoption has been legally finalized. These services may include counseling, support groups, and respite care.


Post-placement: The period between the time when a child moves into the adoptive family home and the finalization of adoption. A variety of post-placement activities may be offered by an adoption agency to an adoptive family, such as counseling, referrals, support and visits by a social worker.


Relinquishment: The voluntary act of transferring legal rights to the care, custody and control of a child and to any benefits which, by law, would flow to or from the child, such as inheritance, to another family. An adoption agency or lawyer must work with the court system to make a relinquishment legal. (See Termination of Parental Rights.)


Surrender: Voluntary termination of parental rights. An action taken by birth parents to voluntarily make an adoption plan for a child or relinquish a child for adoption.


Termination of Parental Rights (TPR): Legal action taken by a judge to terminate the parent-child relationship. This action ends the rights of a parent to the care, custody and control of a child and to any benefits which, by law, would flow to or from the child, such as inheritance. When the parental rights of both birth parents have been legally relinquished or terminated, the child is considered legally free for adoption.


Title IV-E: The Title IV-E Adoption Assistance Program is a federal program that provides assistance to families adopting qualifying children from foster care. Money through this program is distributed to adoptive families by each state.


Waiting child: Term used to identify a child, usually in the foster care system, who is waiting for adoption. These children generally are of school age, members of a sibling group, children of color, and have physical, mental/cognitive, and emotional problems that may be genetic or the result of experiences of abuse and neglect.