Adopting a baby or toddler is much more difficult than it was a few decades ago. Of the nearly 4 million American children who are born each year, only about 18,000 are voluntarily relinquished for adoption.
Though the statistics are unreliable, some estimates suggest that dozens of couples are now waiting to adopt each available baby. Since the mid-1970s—the end of the so-called baby-scoop era, when large numbers of unmarried women placed their children for adoption—the percentage of never-married women who relinquish their infants has declined from nearly 9 percent to less than 1 percent.
In 2010, Bethany Christian Services, the largest Protestant adoption agency in the U.S., placed more than 700 infants in private adoptions. Last year, it placed fewer than 300. International adoptions have not closed the gap. The number of children American parents adopt each year from abroad has declined rapidly too, from 23,000 in 2004 (an all-time high) to about 3,000 in 2019.
At a glance, this shortage of adoptable babies may seem like a problem, and certainly for people who desperately want to adopt a baby, it feels like one. But this trend reflects a number of changing social and geopolitical attitudes that have combined to shrink the number of babies or very young children available for adoption.
For much of American history, placing a child for adoption was an obligation, not a choice, for poor, single women.
As international adoptions have declined, parallel cultural changes have led to a reduction in American babies who would, in an earlier era, likely have been relinquished.
To adoption reformers, the practice is now largely seen as a way to provide families for older, special-needs children rather than a way to provide healthy babies to people who want to parent. The result is often a difficult, expensive process for couples who want to adopt a baby or toddler. Adopting a newborn can cost $45,000 or more.
And in addition to rethinking international adoption, some groups are also reconsidering whether single, poor American women should be encouraged to place their babies for adoption. They seemed to have absorbed the growing concern that people of color are surrendering their children to white adoptive parents, the bad press about families who weren’t equipped to raise their newly adopted children, and the idea that “families belong together” should apply to poor people too.
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