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Important Adoption Laws

Adoption is a deeply personal, and profoundly impactful decision with lifelong impact for all involved. It is vital that the adoption process is safeguarded by robust and appropriate laws and policies to protect the best interests of children first and foremost, as well as the parents involved.

Adoption is governed predominantly by state law.

There is not a uniform adoption code that governs all adoption law in the United States. Each state has its own set of regulations for intercountry adoptiondomestic adoption, and post adoption, to determine things like:

  • who may arrange an adoption (i.e. attorneys, facilitators, agencies, consultants)
  • qualifications to adopt a child domestically (USCIS and other entities also determine this for intercountry adoption)
  • home study requirements (these can also vary by agency and some sending countries have additional requirements)
  • interstate or inter-jurisdictional placement requirements and procedures
  • when a birthmother may consent to adoption and how long she has to revoke consent
  • the rights of unmarried biological fathers in cases where the mother wants to place a child for adoption
  • post adoption contact agreement enforceability for infant domestic adoption

In addition to state laws, there is federal legislation and even a global treaty that have created or significantly shaped adoption laws.

Domestic Infant & Foster Care Adoption Laws

State Statutes Governing the Information Adoptive Parents Receive about the Child and Birth Family

Child Welfare Information Gateway's 2020 resource summarizes state laws regarding the types of information that adoptive parents are provided about the background of the child they are hoping to adopt. The information generally relates to medical and genetic history, family and social background, and mental health history of the child and the child's birth family. For the adopted child or youth, it also may include placement history and any history of abuse or neglect. Exceptions for stepparent and relative adoptions also are discussed.

Safe Haven Laws

Safe Haven statutes allow birthmothers to relinquish their newborns legally and confidentially with authorized caregivers, in designated locations. Their purpose is to reduce the number of infant deaths and traumas through unsafe abandonment.

Once legally relinquished, the babies are placed for adoption. Safe Haven laws typically regulate the age a newborn must be to qualify as a newborn, the designated Safe Haven locations, and the nature of the protection afforded the birth mother.

All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have enacted Safe Haven laws. More information is available here.

Putative Father Registry Laws

Putative father registry (also known as paternal registries or paternal claim registrars) laws regulate the extent to which an unmarried, uninvolved biological father can influence a birthmother's decision to place a child for adoption. Generally, these statutes establish a timeframe within which a possible—or "putative"—father must register with an identified state agency to have any right to notice of proceedings to terminate parental rights or not to consent to placement of the child for adoption. Some statutes require the putative father not only to demonstrate that he is, in fact, the biological father, but that he is also committed to the birthmother's and child's best interests.

Putative Father Registry Information by State

Adoption and Safe Families Act

Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) is a federal law passed in 1997 which places time frames and requirements on states to move children from foster care and into adoption, when appropriate, in a timely manner.

  • Allows for concurrent planning, the simultaneous exploration of family reunification and other permanency options
  • Requires States to file for termination of parental rights (TPR) once children have been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, except in certain allowable circumstances, and encourages States to expedite TPR in specific situations of severe harm inflicted on children
  • Mandates States to document efforts to find adoptive or other permanent placements for children, including placements with fit and willing relatives
  • Gives preference when making placement decisions to adult relatives over nonrelative caregivers when relative caregivers meet all relevant State child protection standards
Interstate Compact on Placement of Children (ICPC)

Interstate Compact on Placement of Children is a statutory agreement between all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands. The agreement governs the placement of children from one state into another state. It sets forth the requirements that must be met before a child can be placed out of state. The Compact ensures prospective placements are safe and suitable before approval, and it ensures that the individual or entity placing the child remains legally and financially responsible for the child following placement.1

Adoption Advocate No. 165 "Understanding the ICPC"

The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act

The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) is a federal law that prohibits a federally assisted agency from categorically denying the opportunity for any person to become an adoptive parent or foster parent solely on the basis of race, color or national origin of the adoptive parent or child.

Adoption Advocate No. 162 "MEPA: Analysis and Trends After 25 Years"

The Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is federal legislation that stipulates which Native American children may be adopted. ICWA assures tribal involvement in all adoptions of children with Native American heritage. The legislation passed in 1978 preserves tribal sovereignty in matters of relinquishment and adoption, requiring that the appropriate tribe be provided notice to determine if the child qualifies for tribal membership. If a child is eligible for membership and the tribe elects to intervene, the tribe must consent to the adoption.

Intercountry Adoption

The Hague Convention

The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption is a multilateral treaty signed by the United States in 1994 which entered into force in April 2008. It was drafted for implementation by the Hague Conference on Private International Law on May 29, 1993. Individual countries, including countries that are not members of the Hague Conference, participated in the formation of the Convention and all countries were able to be contracting parties to the treaty. The Hague Convention sets uniform international legal procedures to safeguard the interests of children, birth parents, and adoptive parents in the intercountry adoption process. Under the Hague Convention, the U.S. State Department is the Central Authority in the U.S. for Intercountry Adoption. As of August 2020, 102 countries are contracting parties to the Convention.

The Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000

The purpose of this legislation was to implement aspects of the Hague Convention on Adoption by designating the Department of State as the U.S. Central Authority, setting requirements for accrediting entities to monitor adoption service providers, setting requirements for adoption providers to be accredited, and laying the foundation for promulgation of regulations governing intercountry adoption practices between the United States and other countries party to the Hague Convention on Adoption. The text of the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 (IAA) can be accessed here. It was signed into law on October 6, 2000 by President Clinton.

The Universal Accreditation Act

The Universal Accreditation Act of 2012 (UAA) was signed into law in 2013 and went fully into force in June 2014. It requires adoption services providers to follow the same requirements for accreditation and adoption practices in non-Convention countries as they would for Convention countries. In this regard, the UAA brought more uniformity to adoption practices, ending many of the distinctions between Hague and non-Convention countries (though some differences remain). What this means for adoptive parents is that their work with adoption service providers will follow the same training, preparation, and processes as families adopting from a Convention country. The U.S. Department of State has more information about the Universal Accreditation Act.

1. American Public Human Services Association.