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Positive Language in Adoption

Birth Mother, First Mother
Birth parent
Birth child
My child
Born to unmarried parents
Terminate parental rights
Make an adoption plan
To parent
Adoption triad or circle
Child placed for adoption
Child with special needs
Was adopted

Negative Outdated Language in Adoption

Real parent
Natural parent
Own child
Adopted child; Own child
Give up
Give away
To keep
Adoption triangle
An unwanted child
Handicapped child
Is adopted

Glossary of Terms


Adoptee, Adopted Person, or Person who was Adopted- A person who joins a family by adoption. 

Adoption Agency- An organization licensed by the state that provides services to birth parents, adoptive parents and children who need families. Agencies may be public or private, secular or religious, for profit or nonprofit. 

Adoption Order- The document issued by the court upon finalization of an adoption, stating that the adoptee is the legal child of the adoptive parents.

Adoption placement- The point at which a child begins to live with prospective adoptive parents or, in the case of foster care adoption, the point at which the status of the placement changes to adoption. 

Adoption Plan- The unique, individual plan biological parents make for the adoption of their child. Instead of saying “give child up for adoption, refer to the decision as “making an adoption plan”.

Adoption subsidies- Federal or state adoption benefits (also known as adoption assistance) designed to help offset the short- and long-term costs associated with adopting children who need special services. 

Adoption tax credit- The one-time credit per adopted child that applies to all types of adoption (except stepparent adoption), including international, domestic private and public foster care. Many states also have state adoption tax credits. Refer to IRS publication “Instructions for Form 8839,” available through IRS.GOV or consult your tax professional. As of 2019, the one-time credit is $14,300 per child. 

Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA)- Passed in 1997, ASFA (Public Law 105-89) clarified the importance of safety to child welfare decision-making and emphasized to states the need for prompt and continuous efforts to find permanent homes for children. Permanent homes might be with birth families, if accomplished safely, or with adoptive families or permanent legal guardians. 

Birth Parent or Bio-Parent- A child’s biological parent who has signed a consent to adoption. 


CASA- Court Appointed Special Advocate; a volunteer appointed by a judge to sever as the “eyes and ears” for the judge when a child enters the foster care system. 

Consent form- The legal document signed by birth parents that terminates their parental rights to their child. 

Closed adoption- An adoption that involves total confidentiality and sealed records.

Custody- The care, control and maintenance of a child that is legally awarded by the court to an agency (in abuse and neglect cases) or to parents (in divorce, separation or adoption proceedings). Child welfare departments retain legal custody and control of major decisions for a child in foster care. Foster parents do not have legal custody of the children for whom they provide care. 

Decree of adoption- A legal order that finalizes an adoption. 

Disruption- When a child leaves the adoptive home prior to the finalization of the adoption. This can occur if the adoptive parents choose to return the child for reasons of their own, or if the agency disrupts the adoption when adoptive parents are not complying with post-placement requirements or are endangering the child in any way. 

Domestic adoption- The adoption of a U.S. infant through a licensed adoption agency or adoption attorney. 

DCFS- Department of Children and Family Services

DSS- Department of Social Services

Facilitator- An individual that is not licensed as an adoption agency or licensed as an attorney, and who is engaged in the matching of biological parents with adoptive parents.

Finalization- The court hearing which results in the adoption order. This is the moment when the adoptee becomes the permanent, legally adopted child of the adoptive parents.

Foster parent(s)- An individual or couple who has temporary care of a child but has no legal rights in determining certain aspects of a child’s life. 

Foster to adoption- In this type of placement, foster parents agree to adopt the child if and when parental rights are terminated. Social workers place the child with specially trained foster-adopt parents who will work with the child during family reunification efforts, but who will adopt the child if he or she becomes available for adoption. 


Home study- An in-depth review that prospective adoptive parents must complete to be able to legally adopt. A home study typically includes inspections of the adoptive parents’ residence; evaluations of their relationships, parenting ideals, medical history, employment verification and financial status; and criminal background checks. The process typically takes 2-3 months, and home studies need to be renewed after one year. 

Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC)- The legal agreement between the states concerning a child living in one state being adopted by parents living in another state. In addition to obtaining a home study and following their state’s adoption laws, prospective adoptive parents must comply with the adoption laws of the child’s state of residence. In an interstate adoption, the agency with custody of the child is responsible for processing the interstate paperwork.

Legally free for adoption- A child is legally free when the parental rights of both birth parents have been terminated by the court and all appeals have been exhausted. 

Legal risk placement- Placement of a child in a prospective adoptive family when the child is not yet legally free for adoption.

Life book- A pictorial and written representation of the child’s life designed to help the child understand his or her unique background and history. The life book usually includes information on birth parents and other relatives, birthplace and birthdate. It may be put together by social workers or foster or adoptive parents working with the child. 

Matching- The process of combining the best interests of the child with qualified adoptive parents. The best interests of the child are determined by social workers, advocates and, with older children, their wishes. In the case of private or independent adoptions, the birth parent may be involved in the matching process. 

Open adoption- An adoption plan in which identifying information about birth and adoptive families is openly shared. Both the adoptive parents and biological parents agree upon the amount of contact following the placement of the child.

Parental rights- All legal rights and corresponding legal obligations that come with being the legal parent of a child. 

Placement- The point in time when the child goes to live with his or her legal adoptive parents. This can also be a “pre-adoptive” placement for a six-month pre-finalization period. 

Post-placement supervision- Upon placement and prior to adoption finalization, a social worker will be assigned to complete post-placement supervision of the adoptive family. The social worker will visit the home during a set period of time (according to state or county requirements) to determine if adoption of the child is in the best interests of the child. 

Private adoption agency- An agency licensed by the state to facilitate domestic adoptions, international adoptions or both. 

Reunification- When birth parents have regained placement of the child, and Social Services has deemed the home safe for the child's return. Each foster care case begins with the goal of reunification.


Revocation- The legally specified period in which a mother who has consented to adoption may revoke that consent and regain custody of her child. The revocation period varies from state to state.


Semi-Open Adoption- The potential biological mother or biological families experience non-identifying interaction with the adoptive family. In most cases, the interaction is facilitated by a third party who is usually an adoption agency or adoption attorney.

Special needs children- This includes several categories relating to disabilities, age, sibling status and at-risk status. When a child is determined to be a member of a special needs group, he or she may qualify for adoption assistance payments (subsidies). Black children in foster care are deemed “at-risk” and qualify for adoption assistance.

Termination of parental rights (TPR)- The legal process that permanently severs a parent’s rights to a child. 

Title IV-E Funding- Federal foster care funds, authorized under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, are paid to states on an uncapped, “entitlement” basis, meaning any qualifying expenditure by a state will be partially reimbursed, or matched without limit. Definitions of which expenses qualify for reimbursement are laid out in regulations and policy interpretations. 

Trauma- Many children in foster care suffer a variety of traumatic events, such as physical and sexual abuse, witnessing domestic and community violence, separation from family members and revictimization by others. Complex trauma can have devastating effects on a child’s physiology, emotions, ability to think, learn and concentrate, impulse control, self-image and relationships with others. 

Waiting children- Children in the public child welfare system who cannot return to their birth homes and need permanent, loving adoptive families to help them grow up safe and secure. 


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