How Are Public and Private Adoption Agencies Different?

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Public child welfare systems in the United States are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety and well-being of the children in their care. If social workers judge that children are at risk of harm in their families, they remove the children from the home while they work to rehabilitate the birth family so that children can safely return to their own family. If that does not work, then the most common back-up plan is placement with relatives, so the child does not lose contact with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other extended family members.

The public child welfare agencies will try to place children in foster homes that will work with the birth families if they are successful in completing the court-ordered treatment plan. This often means that foster families help children to visit with their birth parents: supervised visitation at first, then overnight and weekend visitation to help transition children safely back to their parents. These same foster parents usually are asked whether, if the treatment plan for the birth family does not work out, they will be available to adopt the child so that the child does not move again, since every move is traumatizing to a child. It is only when the birth parents cannot safely have the child(ren) returned to them, there are no relatives available for kinship placement, and the foster-adopt parents are unable to adopt that public agencies are then willing to place children with strangers.

If there are young children in the public child welfare system (infants, toddlers and preschoolers), the agency will generally place these children with adoptive families already approved and waiting in their own area. It is for children who wait for adoptive placement and for whom there is no family waiting that workers will look at adoptive placement with families in other areas. Adoption social workers will look for families in surrounding counties, in other parts of their state, in other states, and even with adoptive families outside the US. With their placement decisions, workers seek to find a family able to meet the child's unique needs while minimizing the numbers and types of major moves/changes for the child. At any given time, social workers are trying to locate adoptive families for an estimated 8,000 children who are legally free and waiting for adoption with no family readily identified.

With new federal legislation, called the Adoption and Safe Families Act, there is a requirement that workers, agencies, and courts work together to find permanent families in a timely manner and there is an emphasis on removing interjurisdictional barriers to the placement of children. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of children listed on photolisting services, both online and offline, and there have been increased efforts to place children who have been lingering waiting for adoptive placement.

Private agencies rarely take relinquishments of older children because they do not have the financial resources to assume legal custody of a child who may need counseling, treatment, and foster care placement while they find a family best suited to the child's needs. Many families infants, but not as many people are willing to take an older child. If a school-aged child becomes available for adoption, that child is usually in the custody of the county or state foster care system. Children who have experienced abuse and neglect do not emerge unscathed or unscarred from those experiences. They need adoptive parents who are ready and willing to work with them to help them deal with the pain of those experiences to learn to trust again.

If you are interested adopting a school-aged waiting children there is a Web site that lists more than 3,000 waiting children from all over the United States. That web site is called AdoptUSKids and is found at You can select the children you wish to learn about by age, by State, and other variables.

One other option may be international adoption. The children waiting for adoptive placement in foreign countries may be younger - from 6 months to 3 years and up - but there are special considerations in intercountry adoption as well. Certain health risks are inherent when adopting foreign children. Generally, children come into care because of abandonment, poverty, illness or death of parents, or family dysfunction (including alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse and/or neglect). Children may have experienced poor prenatal and/or postnatal care, early neglect, and a lack of health care services, including immunizations. Specific health problems may include malnutrition, parasites, minor congenital defects, developmental delay, tuberculosis, hepatitis (A, B, or C), and HIV/AIDS. There are many older waiting children featured on web sites such as Precious in His Sight at

Credits: Child Welfare Information Gateway (

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