Adoption in the UK vs the US

Adoptions work very differently in the UK and the US. Here are 7 differences between adoption in the UK and adoption in the US.


We aren’t legal experts; this is what we have managed to piece together from research. If anything isn’t quite right, please email us as we are always learning too and we will update this blog.


1.  Who you adopt through


In the UK there are no private agencies, you can only adopt through your local council agency or a non-profit voluntary adoption agency (specialising in children with special needs; ‘priority children’).


In the US private adoption agencies are prevalent, though you can adopt through state run public agencies (usually older children, those with special needs and siblings).


2.  Taking your baby home directly from the hospital


In the UK a birth mother cannot give consent to adoption until her child is at least six weeks old. In most cases where the birth mother plans to have her baby adopted, the baby is initially placed with a foster family. This is because the local authority is under a duty to do whatever it can to ensure that children are brought up within their birth family if at all possible. Also, they are often not informed early enough in the birth mother’s pregnancy. Plus previous experience shows that many mothers change their mind about adoption once the child has been born. A placement order is an order made by the court authorising a local authority to place a child for adoption with any prospective adopters who may be chosen by the authority.


In most US states the birth mother cannot consent to her child’s adoption before birth. But it is common for expectant mothers not planning to keep their baby to opt for voluntary relinquishment and then for the prospective adopting parent(s) to take the baby home from the hospital until the adoption is finalised.


3.  The process


In both countries the background checks, references, training, home studies and assessment processes are very similar in their rigor.


The UK process:  As an adopting parent you contact the agency, ready to prove you can provide a permanent, stable and caring home. The agency meets you and you agree you’d like to work together. You make a formal application. The agency compiles a report on your adoption and submits it to their independent adoption panel. The panel decides whether to progress your application and, if they do, you then have a face-to-face meeting with them. Approval takes around 6-months. After approval you are matched with a child. Birth parents can choose to be involved in deciding on the adopting parents. There follows a period of planned introductions lasting up to a couple of months. Then the child moves in.


The US process:  You decide if you want a domestic or international; from birth or foster care; open, semi-open or closed adoption. You research the different agencies, some handle the entire process, some don’t. You need to make sure you get an accurate layout of all the costs you will incur. Once you have agreed that you will work together, you complete an application, create your adoption plan and your adoptive parent profile (which is shown to potential / existing birth parents). If adopting an older child, you will likely be able to view a list of waiting children. In a newborn, domestic adoption, once a birth parent selects a hopeful adoptive family, this adoption opportunity is presented to the adoptive family who is then given the choice to move forward with or decline the opportunity. If accepted, the adoption process moves on to the next steps of the process prior to the placement of the baby.


4.  Open or closed adoption


There is currently no legal requirement in the US or the UK for adoptive families to maintain contact of any kind with their child's birth family after the adoption order has gone through. It remains a matter of choice for both the adopting and birth parents.


In the UK, when a child turns 18 (16 in Scotland) they have the option of seeing their birth certificate, which will show their birth mother’s name. With this information and more details from the adoption agency they can, if they wish, try to find their birth mother and other members of their birth family: this is called "tracing". Birth mothers have the option of letting their child know through an intermediary that they would welcome this.


Similarly, in the US, when an adopted child turns 18 years old, they have a legal right to request information about their birth family, so may make direct contact on their own.


The meaning of open typically in both countries just means that the birth parents and the adoptive family have contact prior to and after the adoption. This could include anything from periodic pictures and letters to monthly phone calls, to weekly emails, to annual visits. No two open adoptions are quite alike, and this relationship can be whatever both parties want it to be.


However, in the UK less than 15% and in the US less than 5% of adoptions are completely closed. In almost all closed adoptions this route is chosen because contact is deemed harmful for the child.


In the UK ‘Letterbox contact’ is the most common form of contact and is where the adoptive and birth family exchange a letter or card and photographs every year. This correspondence is monitored by a third party – normally the adoption agency or local authority – who can make sure that no contact details are revealed, and any inappropriate content is removed. Adoptive families will normally send details of the child’s achievements and milestones, physical health and progress at school, while birth relatives will tend to write about events in their lives. This is an adult-to-adult correspondence – adopters have the right to decline a letter they feel is inappropriate and they can choose whether or not to reply or share it with their child.


In both countries adoptees will often have direct contact with siblings who have been adopted to other families where the children cannot be placed together. In some cases, the child may also have face-to-face contact with a grandparent or other birth relative who is supportive of the adoption, or a former foster carer.


Social media has had major implications for contact. It allows young people to trace their birth families more easily and from an earlier age, and birth families can also make contact this way. Adoption UK research revealed that almost a quarter (24%) of survey respondents’ children had experienced direct birth family contact outside of a formal agreement – often via social media.


The use of private profiles and shared passwords can help but families may be better off preparing young people to manage unsolicited contact, rather than hoping it can be avoided. Open and honest conversations about birth family and the child’s history are important, as is making sure adoptees feel supported in their decisions regarding contact, so they don't try to manage it all by themselves.


Update October 2023: Since publishing this blog, we have received this very brave letter from a US adoptee – these are her opinions – we aren't familiar enough with the US adoption landscape to agree or disagree with them, but feel her views deserve sharing. Please get in touch with your thoughts too.


Hi, there.

I'm an American adoptee. I enjoyed very much reading this blog! I'm so glad adoption in the U.K. is through the government and not commercialized, as in the U.S., treating we adoptees as commodities to be sold.

I do have a difference of opinion with you regarding this sentence from the article: "Similarly, in the US, when an adopted child turns 18 years old, they have a legal right to request information about their birth family, so may make direct contact on their own."

This is very untrue for most American adoptees, actually. In only 14 U.S. states do adoptees have the legal right, at the age of 18, to obtain our original birth certificate which gives us the names of our birth parents.

19 U.S. states offer the OBC, but with restrictions. A state may provide a copy of the original birth certificate without requiring a court order, but only if certain discriminatory conditions are first met.

States, for example, may limit rights based on specific dates of adoption, with those adopted before a certain date having greater rights than those adopted after that date. Other restrictions include the removal or redaction of information on the OBC, or the use of search registries or intermediaries to obtain an OBC. Compromised may also include states where a required fee greatly exceeds the fee normally paid to obtain a government vital record, such as the states of Tennessee and Arkansas.

18 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, require court or birthparent permission for the adult adopted person to obtain a copy of their own original birth certificate.

Here is a website for The Adoptee Rights Law Center, run by an attorney who is an adoptee, where one may learn more information about this.

Most U.S. adoptees are still met with huge obstacles in obtaining our original birth certificates. The adoption agencies close down (like mine did) and don't have the records anymore, or they claim a fire, or a flood destroyed the records. For many or most of us, our adoptive parents don't want us to search, and some will threaten to cut off the adoptee from the family if we search for our birth parents. They feel that they paid good money for us to be in their family, and that they have the right to order us not to search. (My adoptive parents were very unusual in that they did support my search, even though they were afraid.)

The United States is horrible regarding adoption and reunion. We need complete reform of the adoption system. Our type of adoption basically amounts to child trafficking. The birth mother is subject to all kinds of coercion and duress in order for the adoption agency (which is no government agency at all, but is a for-profit business) to get its hands on the "product" it sells, babies. In fact, we have pricing lists showing different prices for white babies than Black babies, healthy vs. those with disabilities, etc. They sell the baby depending upon the baby’s particular value to prospective adoptive parents.

Here are the conclusions of various researches about birthmother coercion in the U.S. and here are the ways birthmothers in prenatal crisis are coerced to surrender their babies in the U.S.

Here is a story about the "murky" private adoption industry in the U.S. I know Shynie personally, a birthmother who changed her mind and wanted her baby back, but the adoption agency sent their lawyer to threaten her that they would sue her for all the costs of labor and delivery and any other payments they had made for her along the way. They knew she didn't have the money, and she dropped her efforts to get back her baby. Turns out, this type of duress and threat-making is illegal in all U.S. states but Idaho - and Shynie lived and continues to live in California! But this illegal type of adoption agency duress has occurred also in other states besides Idaho and California. The agencies know it's illegal, but the birthmothers don't. They are taken advantage of.  See this Time article.

Thank you so much for listening. Thank you for writing about adoption.

We need the light of day to be shed upon what is happening, and has been happening for almost 100 years, in American adoption!


Antonia Ambuter


5.  The costs


UK adoptions cost nearly nothing (just a small court fee). However if you are adopting from another country costs are likely to be between £12,000 and £25,000 as you must pay for the assessment process and travel costs.


Private adoptions in the US cost between $20,000 to $40,000. Standard fees typically include: your adoption professional’s fees, marketing costs associated in achieving your highest chance possible in reaching potential birth mothers, birth mother pregnancy-related expenses, home study costs, travel and legal expenses.


6.  Financial compensation


UK Adoption:

If you don’t work you get nothing. If you do work pre adopting, you are most likely eligible for Statutory Adoption Leave of up to 52 weeks. The average amount in total of Adoption Pay is £8,000 (based on the average salary of £611 per week). It is 90% of your salary for the first 6 weeks, plus 33 weeks at £145.18 a week or 90% of your gross average weekly earnings, whichever is lower. If you are in a couple and both of you work, you may also share parental leave and pay.


If you are adopting a child with special needs you may qualify for an Adoption Allowance – lump sum or regular weekly or monthly financial support. This is designed to encourage adoptions of children who might otherwise not be adopted due to the extra costs associated with looking after them. The amount payable is determined and paid by the local authority looking after the child before adoption and is means-tested.


New adoptive parents may be eligible for a settling-in grant to help pay for large items such as a bed for your child's bedroom, or car seats. The settling-in grant is discretionary and you can ask your social worker how to apply for it.


Child benefit payments for people earning <£50,000: Eldest or only child £21.15 per week; additional children £14 per week (annual equivalents £1,100; £728).


There are also allowances for looking after children with disabilities and certain special needs. And there is an Adoption Support Fund for therapeutic services.


Most parents adopting a child they already foster will lose the money they were earning through being a foster parent.


UK Fostering:

The average foster carer receives a foster care allowance of £22,000 per year, tax free, to cover the cost of caring for a child. The minimum is usually between £134 to £235 per week (annual equivalent minimum is £6,900 to £12,200). The total amount depends on where you live, which fostering service you use, the child’s age, if the child has specific needs and your skills and experience. The average pay for parent and child fostering (taking care of a parent (usually a young mother) and her baby) is £700 per week. The average pay is £500 to £650 per week for therapeutic foster care (supporting young people and children who may have dealt with trauma, abuse or a severe disruption to their lives and requires special training).


US Adoption:

Adoption Assistance is only available for the adoption of ‘special needs’ children I.e. those deemed to be harder to adopt. The amount differs by State and by child age, ranging between $232 to $1,432 per month (annual equivalent of anything between $2,760 and $18,000).


The tax code provides an adoption credit (for non-stepchild) of up to $14,410 for qualifying adoption expenses in 2021 for families with income below the threshold. The credit is available for each child adopted, whether via public foster care, domestic private adoption, or international adoption.


An adopted child is like any other child and qualifies for the child tax credit ($3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for children aged 6 to 16).


US Fostering:

Foster Care Payment amounts differs by State ranging between $4,700 and $11,000 per year tax free.


You can deduct unreimbursed qualifying foster care expenses as a charitable donation if your child was placed by a charity.


You can add a foster child to your return as a dependent and claim the child tax credit ($3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for children aged 6 to 16).


7.  Numbers of adoptions and children in foster care



2,870 children were adopted in the year to 31 March 2021.


72% were adopted by hetero couples, 10% by male same sex couples, 6% by female same sex couples, 10% by single females and 1% by single males.


In 2021, the average time between a child entering care and being placed for adoption was 1 year and 4 months, it then takes a further 10 months for an adoption order to be granted and the adoption to be completed. The average age of a child at adoption is 3 years and 3 months.


At 31 March 2021 there were 80,850 looked after children in England.


Around 60,000 of these children were in foster and other placements; c6000 were with parents or persons with parental responsibility; c12,000 were in secure units; children’s homes and semi-independent living accommodation and the rest were recently placed for adoption, in residential schools etc.


There is capacity for around 70,000 children to be fostered (the listings show 86,000 places but 20% of these ‘not available’). These places are in 45,000 households (15,000 of which are single parents and 30,000 couples i.e. 75,000 carers). There were 11% more children being fostered in 2021 than the previous year.


27% of the fostering households (and 58% of all newly appointed households) offer placements for family or friends first, with many only permitted to foster specific children known to them. Of the current children being fostered, 18% are family or friends, 33% are permanent, 41% are non-permanent, with the balance short breaks, emergency fostering etc.


Most foster carers are white (82%, though this is declining), in their 50s (40%)



There are about 1.5 million adopted children in the United States, which is 2% of the population, or one out of 50 children. Which aligns with 2% of Americans have actually adopted (though > a third have considered it).


Overall, 40% of adopted children are of a different race, culture, or ethnicity than both of their adoptive parent(s).


6 in 10 Americans have had personal experience with adoption, meaning that they themselves, a family member, or a close friend was adopted, had adopted a child, or had placed a child for adoption.


Each year there are about 630,000 legal abortions. Less than 4% of women with unwanted pregnancies place their children for adoption.


Around 150,000 children are adopted each year. More than 50% of these are by a family member, mostly a stepparent. Around 50,000 children are adopted from foster care each year. 18,000 babies are adopted from birth (voluntary relinquishment) and there are less than 3,000 international adoptions.


On any given day, there are 400,000 to 450,000 children in foster care. 32% with relatives, 46% with foster families and 22% in institutions / group homes / supervised independent living. Of those in foster care only 100,000 to 120,000 have a plan for adoption (the rest have plans for reunification, emancipation or initialization). More than 60% spend two to five years in the system before returning to their birth parents (around half of these children) or being adopted. Almost 20% spend five or more years in foster care before being adopted. Many never get adopted.


Closing observations


Absorbing all of the above information it appears to us that, in spite of adoption being a better outcome for a child than fostering, the UK doesn’t appear to incentivise adoption over fostering. The most notable reasons for drawing this conclusion are:


On average UK foster parents earn £22,000 a year, but most adopting parents get nothing if they weren’t previously earning a salary (and those that did/do work get nothing after the first 39 weeks).


Most adopting parents want to adopt a baby from birth, but most babies born in the UK are placed into foster care before their adoption.


In the US the financial compensation for fostering a child (average $8,000 p.a.) is less than the adoption tax credits ($14, 410). Also, in the US more than 60% of babies in domestic infant adoptions are placed with their families directly from the hospital or within a month of birth.


This appears to be borne out by the numbers: In the UK adoptions as a % of children in foster care were just 4.8% in 2021 (2,870 adoptions, 60,000 children in foster care) whereas in the US this was 15.9% (70,000 adoptions excluding stepparent adoptions, 440,000 children in foster care).


This interesting article in the Guardian expands this theme.


Closing with a question: It appears a greater percentage of adoptions are by necessity closed in the UK versus the US – why could this be? We wondered whether it could be because in the UK extreme effort is placed on keeping children with their birth parents and only when the relationship is toxic are they removed, necessitating the need for a closed relationship to protect the child. Could an early adoption situation, with an open relationship with the birth parents, be a better outcome for the child?


If you have views on any of the above, please get in touch and we will add to this blog if you’re happy for us to do so