Common Adoption Terms You Should Know

Baby holding adult's finger

Whether you’re a pregnant woman considering adoption or a family hoping to grow through adoption, the process can be overwhelming at first. Chances are that this is your first direct encounter with adoption, and learning about the process is one of the first steps.

You’ll learn pretty quickly that adoption comes with its own jargon. And while Michael Belfonte is well-versed in adoption language and ready to help you understand it as well, it’s helpful to understand just exactly what you’re reading in your research.

With this in mind, we’ve put together a glossary of some of the terms you may come across. To get a better understanding of any of these phrases or to learn more about pursuing adoption in the Kansas City area, call Michael at 816-842-3580, or contact him online.


Adoption Agency: An organization that places children in homes under the jurisdiction of state laws.

Adoption Assistance: Subsidies provided by the federal or state governments to help make adoption possible for families, including those families who adopt children with special needs.

Adoption Attorney: A lawyer who arranges and specializes in adoption.

Adoption Petition: A legal document that prospective parents use to request the court’s permission to adopt a child.

Adoption Tax Credits: A non-refundable tax credit available to adoptive parents who claim adoption expenses reimbursements.


Birth certificate (amended): A legal document issued after an adoption is finalized that replaces an original birth certificate. The birth parents’ names are replaced by the adoptive parents’ names.

Birth certificate (original): A legal document issued when a child is born that includes his or her biological history as well as the identity of one or both biological parents.


CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates): People, usually volunteers, who ensure the needs and interests of kids in child protection judicial proceedings are fully protected.

Certification: The approval process that ensures adoptive or foster parents are suitable, dependable and responsible.

Child Protective Services: A social service agency that receives reports about child maltreatment, investigates and provides intervention and treatment.

Closed adoption: An adoption in which the confidentiality of the adoptive parents as well as the birth parents are protected by law, and all records are sealed.

Confidential Intermediary: An individual who has access to sealed adoption files to conduct a search. This person may be hired by the inquiring party to search for an adopted adult, birth parents or other relatives, to make contact, and to obtain either consent or denial for the release of that person’s information.

Confidentiality: Keeping identifying and other significant information a secret. Ethics require social workers and other adoption professionals to keep information about a client confidential unless the client gives consent for it to be shared.

Consent Form: A legal document that the biological mother and father sign to allow their child to be placed for adoption. The court can validate these consents without the biological parents’ signature if a biological parent is unavailable.

Custody: The protective care or guardianship of someone or something.


De Facto Adoption: A legal agreement that a family will go through the legal adoption process to adopt a child. This agreement allows individuals to circumvent adoption procedures for limited purposes and will become a de jure adoption when a petition for adoption is properly presented.

Decree of Adoption: The legal order that finalizes an adoption.

Dissolution: An adoption that fails after finalization, which results in the child’s legal custody going back to the agency or court that originally placed the child. The child will then go to foster care and/or other adoptive parents.

Dossier: In an international adoption, the collection of paperwork needed to complete the adoption.


Equitable Adoption: A legal process used to establish inheritance rights of a child when the prospective adoptive parents enter into an oral contract to adopt that child. If a parent dies after a child has been placed with the parent but before the adoption is finalized, the child may then still have inheritance rights.


Fictive Kin: Individuals who aren’t related to a child biologically or by marriage but still have an emotionally significant relationship.

Final Adoption Decree: The legal document issued by the court that legally completes an adoption.

Finalization: When a court grants legal custody to the adoptive parents.


Home Study: A study conducted on all prospective adoptive parents by authorized adoption professionals. Generally, a home study is completed before the placement of a child in the home and validates the suitability of that family to adopt. While negative home studies are rare, they usually mean an adoption will not be authorized.



ICPC (Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children): The legal compact between states that allows for the placement of children for adoption across state lines.

ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978): A Federal Act that was designed to protect the interest of Native American children and tribes and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.

Independent Adoption: An adoption that’s arranged privately by a third party, like a lawyer, or between the birth family and adoptive parents.

International adoption: The adoption of a child born outside of the United States.


Legal custody: Legal responsibility for a person. A guardian with legal custody makes decisions for a child.

Legal father: In adoption terms, the legal husband of a mother who may or may not be the biological father of the baby. He may also be referred to as the presumed father.

Legal guardian: Any person with legal custody who makes decisions for a minor.

Legal risk adoption: When an adoption process is started even though the prospective adoptive family can’t be guaranteed that the child is eligible for adoption. This may be because the biological parents still desire to parent, or there is a pending legal action that contests the validity of a surrender or of the court order that involuntarily terminated parental rights. One instance where an adoption may be a legal risk adoption is if there is an unknown birth father.

Legal Risk Placement: When a child is placed with a prospective adoptive family even though the child is not yet legally free for adoption. In this instance, either the parental rights of the birth parents have not been terminated, or the termination is being contested.


Multi-Ethnic Placement Act: A federal law enacted in 1994 that forbids the delay or denial of any adoption due to race, color, or national origin of the child or of the adoptive parents.


Open adoption: An adoption in which birth parents and adoptive parents meet and possibly exchange identifying information, although the exact terms of an open adoption vary depending on those involved. Communication may continue indefinitely.


Petition: A written request to the court for legal custody, guardianship, and/or the adoption of a child.

Putative Father Registry: Also known as the Birth Father Registry. A Stage registry where alleged paternity can be listed. Birth fathers have the opportunity to protest the birth mother’s adoption plan. Around half of the states have a putative father registry, including Missouri. Kansas has a similar system that allows potential fathers to voluntarily claim paternity.


Re-Adoption: The process by which international adoptive parents adoption their children a second time in front of a judge from the United States.

Relinquishment: When birth parents consent to adoption and give up all rights to a child. This may also be referred to as consent or surrender.

Revoke: When the birth parents take back consent to an adoption. Depending on where the birth mother lives, some states have a time limit while revocation while others don’t allow it at all.


Search and Consent Procedures: A process that authorizes an agency to help locate another party to the adoption to determine if the second party is willing for identified information to be released or to meet with the requesting party. If the second party is willing, the court may then authorize the disclosure of information.

Semi-open adoption: An adoption in which the birth parents and adoptive family exchange non-identifying information. After the child is placed, the adoptive family’s contact with the birth family might involve communication sent through an agency or attorney who helped with the child’s placement.


Termination of parental rights (TPR): The legal process that voluntarily or involuntarily terminates a parent’s rights to a child.

Transracial adoption: The adoption of a child who is of a different race than the adoptive parents.

Transfer of Custody: The legal process of terminating one party’s parental rights and awarding them to another party.


Voluntary Adoption Registry: A reunion registry system that allows adoptees, biological siblings, and birth parents to find one another if they wish to.


Waiting Period: The time period which must occur between birth and the time when the birth mother can consent to the adoption. This period varies on a state-by-state basis; in Missouri, it’s 48 hours. In Kansas, it’s 12 hours.