Who Cares About Adoption Data? We do.

Deborah Smith, Knowledge and Information Services Senior Analyst, National Center for State Courts

Researchers analyzed data from the state courts, state child welfare agencies, state bureaus of vital records, and U.S. Department of State to develop adoption estimates for 2000 to 2009. A recent paper and webinar synthesized the data, explained why the data are needed, and provided recommendations for future research.


There is no single source of data for adoptions. States are mandated to report public-agency adoption data to the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting and Analysis System (AFCARS). The National Center for State Courts’ Court Statistics Project collects data on incoming adoption caseloads from states that are able to report such data. Unfortunately, we have less data today than we did 20 years ago. Public-agency data have improved, but private-agency and individual data have been lost. Because there is no single source for this data and no single agency charged with collecting the data, only estimates are available. Complex public-policy issues relating to adoption need to be based on data. These data are needed to better plan, fund, and understand adoption trends and practices.

While there are no complete data on adoption, estimates can be made based on data from the state courts, state bureaus of vital records, individual state and county court systems, public social-service agencies, AFCARS, and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs. For the purposes of analyzing and making estimates, adoption data are divided into three types: public adoptions (AFCARS); intercountry adoptions (U.S. Department of State); and other adoptions (all other types). The most recent data available are estimated for selected years between 2000 and 2009. In 2000 there were 139,163 total adoptions, while in 2009 there were 134,106 total adoptions—a 3 percent decrease.

So while the total number of adoptions has decreased, public-agency adoptions are on the rise, with a 13 percent increase between 2000 and 2009. During this same time period, there has been a drop in intercountry adoptions from 18,821 in 2000 to 12,716 in 2009, with the greatest decrease between 2008 and 2009. The drop from 2008 to 2009 represents 77 percent of the decrease from 2000 to 2009. The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption went into effect in the United States in April 2008, and so correlates with this steep decline.

Source: Child Welfare Information Gateway (2013).
“Who Cares About Adoption Data? We Do.” Webinar.

Again, all of these data are estimates since some adoptions may be counted in more than one location, and some may not be captured at all. Bureaus of vital records count changes in birth certificates, so the data may not correlate with the actual year of the adoption. Some adoptions may be counted in multiple data sources. One adoption might occur in one state but the child was born in another state, so that when the birth certificate is updated the adoption could be counted by both states. Most state courts are able to report on the number of adoption petitions filed with them but do not differentiate between public-agency, private-agency, stepparent, or intercountry adoptions.

Because most states are not tracking the type of adoption, all adoptions that do not fall under the public or intercountry category are counted as “other,” including tribal, private, facilitated, stepparent, etc. Tribal court adoptions may or may not be included in state adoption data. Other adoption data are estimated by subtracting the numbers of public and intercountry adoptions from the total number of adoptions. For this most recent study, researchers assumed that intercountry adoptions were not readopted in states that give full faith and credit to these adoptions. Therefore, those adoptions were not subtracted from the total adoptions. Each state collects data differently, and the data may not be in one place or may be collected by different methods, such as fiscal or calendar year, adding to the difficulty in aggregating the data.

The recent decrease in number of adoptions could have several possible causes, including the ratification of the Hague Convention, the economy, or improvements in infertility treatments. We do not know if the decrease in intercountry adoptions led to the increase in adoptions from the public child-welfare system, but that is another possibility.


Because there are no national data on the total number of adoptions, these estimates are vitally important for making policy decisions that focus on increasing placements, providing post-adoptive services, and determining future needs for funding and personnel. By comparing state-level data to state populations, information on which states or communities are more successful at placing children may also become apparent. Continuing to collect and verify national adoption data needs to be a priority for child welfare advocates, policymakers, and researchers alike.

For more complete information and data see the following resources:

  • Who Cares About Adoption Data? We Do.” This archived webinar provides the latest estimates on adoption data, sources for existing data, and difficulties in collecting and tracking the data. Presenters: Matt Shuman, M.S.W., Child Welfare Information Gateway; Gene Flango, Ph.D., National Center for State Courts (ret.).
  • Matthew D. Shuman and Victor E. Flango (2013). “Trends in U.S. Adoptions: 2000 to 2009.” 7 Journal of Public Child Welfare 329. Because there is no single source for adoption statistics, this study examined data from the state courts, state child welfare agencies, state bureaus of vital records, and the U.S. Department of State to develop national and state adoption estimates for 2000 to 2009. Abstract available online.

Reports are part of the National Center for State Courts' "Report on Trends in State Courts" and "Future Trends in State Courts" series.
Opinions herein are those of the authors, not necessarily of the National Center for State Courts.