A Note on Adoption Terminology

Below are definitions of terms central to this series of blog posts. While not a comprehensive list of adoption terminology, these particular terms are key to the topics and ideas I’ll discuss throughout this month.

Domestic or In-Country Adoption: adoption involving adoptive parents and child who reside within the same country

Intercountry, International, or Transnational Adoption: adoption involving adoptive parents and child residing in different countries

Transracial Adoption*: adoption involving adoptive parents and child of different racialized group membership, commonly white adoptive parents adopting non-white child.

Adoptee, Adopted Person: a person who joins their family through adoption

Birth family, First Family, Biological Family: adopted person’s relatives by birth

Adoptive Family: person(s) who become permanent, legal parents through adoption

Adoption Triad: the three main persons in adoption – birth parent(s), adopted person, adoptive parent(s)


* While transnational adoption is predominately also transracial adoption, the term transracial adoption has historically been used to refer to the adoption of Black children by white adoptive parents. By confining the designation of transracial to describe domestic Black-white adoption only and not transnational cross-racial adoptions, the role of race and racialization of transnationally adopted children is minimized. However, as detailed by more contemporary research and adoptees’ personal accounts, the transracial nature of transnational adoptions has implications for transnational transracial adoptees’ identity formation and mental health, among other personal, family, and community-level outcomes, some of which I’ll discuss in upcoming posts.


For a more comprehensive list of adoption terminology, see:



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A Brief Timeline of Adoption in the U.S.

According to an Adoption Attitudes Survey, 40% of Americans know someone who is adopted.  Adoption is a legal practice that transfers parental rights of an adopted child from biological (or legal) parents to adoptive parents. U.S. Census data estimates that 1 out of every 25 families with children have an adopted child.  Formal, legalized adoption has been ongoing in the U.S. since the 1850s when Massachusetts passed the first modern adoption law. While early adoptions adhered to strict “matching” procedures meant to conceal adoption, in the 1950s transnational transracial adoption from Korea facilitated changes to matching procedures and preferences, popularizing adoption across racial, religious, and national lines while also providing a model for the international adoption industry we see today. In fact, the U.S. is the leading receiving country of internationally adopted children, adopting nearly half a million children since the 1940s.

Below I offer a brief timeline highlighting some of the key events in domestic and international adoption.

1854-1929 Orphan Trains – Approximately 250,000 children of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants from New York and the Eastern seaboard were sent to be raised in Anglo-Protestant farming families across the Midwest.

1940s-1970s Irish adoption to the U.S. – About 2,000 children were adopted to the U.S. from Ireland, facilitated by Catholic orders in Ireland and the U.S. Many of these children were born to unwed mothers in homes run by the Catholic church.

1948-1953 German, Greek, and Japanese adoptions after WWII – Close to 6,000 European children were adopted, primarily from Germany and Greece. About 2,400 children were adopted transracially from Asia, primarily from Japan, to white families.

1953 – after 2011 Adoption from Korea – Adoption from Korea began in 1953 with the end of the Korean War. After the very public adoption of 8 Korean children by Harry and Bertha Holt in 1955, adoption from Korea gained popularity. The creation of the Holt Adoption Program in 1956 help institutionalize international adoption. South Korea became known as the “Cadillac” of adoption programs. Adoption from Korea peaked in the 1980s. Over 100,000 Korean children have been adopted to the U.S., primarily transracially to white families.

1955-1962 Hong Kong Project – Over 500 Chinese children abandoned by Chinese parents, who had fled communist mainland China to Hong Kong, were adopted to the U.S.

1958-1967 Indian Adoption Project – Approximately 395 Native American children from 16 western states were sent to be raised in white families in Eastern and Midwestern states.

1970 African American transracial adoptions – Overall, the number of African American children placed with white families is small, and these adoptions reached their peak around 1970, when approximately 2,500 African American transracial adoptions took place.

1972 National Association of Black Social Workers’ “Position Statement on Trans-Racial Adoption” – Vehemently opposed the transracial adoption of African American children to white families, citing the damage to African American children’s sense of self.

1975 Operation Babylift – Following the Vietnam War, approximately 2,500 Vietnamese children were adopted to families in the U.S. and allied countries.

1978 Indian Child Welfare Act passed by Congress – This Act seeks to keep Indian children with Indian families.

1989-2001 Adoption from Romania – The fall of the Ceauşescu regime revealed that over 170,000 Romanian children were in state-run institutions. Approximately 10,000 Romanian children were adopted to the U.S. and European nations. A moratorium on adoption was enacted in 2001 due to black market adoptions, and international adoption was banned 4 years later.

1995-2008 Adoption from Guatemala – After Guatemala’s civil war, countless Guatemalan children were orphaned or separated from family. Over 22,000 Guatemalan children adopted to the U.S. In 2008 adoptions from Guatemala closed due to child trafficking.

1991 Adoption from China – Since 1992, over 85,000 Chinese children, mainly girls, have been (predominately) adopted transracially to white U.S. families. China’s one-child policy and patrilineal society led to the abandonment of baby girls. Adoption from China peaked in 2007. Over 85,000 Chinese children have been adopted to the U.S., primarily transracially to white families.

1994 Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) – Stated that organizations and agencies that receive federal funds could not “categorically deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent solely on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child involved.

1996 Inter-Ethnic Placement Act (IEPA) – Prohibited State agencies and other entities that receive Federal funding and were involved in foster care or adoption placements from delaying, denying or otherwise discriminating when making a foster care or adoption placement decision on the basis of the parent or child’s race, color or national origin.

2000 Child Citizenship Act – Granted automatic U.S. citizenship to children internationally adopted to U.S. citizenship-holding parents. This Act covered future children adopted to the U.S. and internationally adopted children under the age of 18 at the time it was enacted (children born no earlier than February 27, 1983).

2008 Hague Adoption Convention – The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention) is an international agreement to establish safeguards to ensure that intercountry adoptions take place in the best interests of the child.

2016 Adoption by same-sex couples legal in all 50 U.S. states


U.S. adoption raises questions about:

  • The relationship between U.S. global relations and adoption
  • Immigration policy
  • What comprises the “best interests” of the child
  • The role of consumerism in adoption
  • Shifting definitions of ‘family’
  • The role of race, class, and gender in who can adopt, who is adopted, and who relinquishes their child (whether by choice or force)


For more detailed history on U.S. adoption, see:

  • Berebitsky, Julie. (2001). Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas
  • Choy, C. (2013). Global Families : A History of Asian International Adoption in America. NY, NY: NYU Press.
  • Dorow, Sara K. (2006). Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship. NY, NY: NYU Press.
  • Fessler, Ann. (2007). The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. NY, NY: Penguin Books.
  • Herman, Ellen. (2008). Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Jacobs, Margaret D. (2014). A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press
  • Jerng, M. (2010). Claiming Others Transracial Adoption and National Belonging. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Johnson, Kay Ann. (2016). China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Oh, Arissa. (2015). To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption . Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Roorda, Rhonda M. (2015). In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption. NY, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • The Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon





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National Adoption Awareness Month – What’s at stake?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known I was adopted.

This sentiment is shared among transracial adoptees (i.e., those of us who are adopted to families of a different race than our own). After all, we can’t hide the obvious physical differences between ourselves and the people we call family. It’s apparent, noticed, questioned.

Is that your dad? Your mom must be Chinese.
Is that your daughter? Where did you get her from?

Extended family, friends, and strangers feel that it is their right to know private details about your family, about your fertility, about your reason for being. From a young age, we learn to be ready for this interrogation.

So while I knew my parents loved me unconditionally and accepted me wholeheartedly, I received conflicting messages from those around me, from the news, and from media. In short:

Was I just like one of the family? or Was I unwanted, unloved, and abandoned?

Even now, I can’t escape those questions. Although I know the answers, questions like these, and many others, continue to play out on TV, in the news, and among the public. These questions about what family is and who are family members touch on something deeply personal and important. And, not just for adoptees. When adoption crosses color lines, as it does in transracial adoption, questions of identity, community, and what’s best for the child take on another dimension. And, when you add in national citizenship, as is the case with transnational adoptees, this idea of who is included and what that means becomes even more complicated. The idea of belonging is both personal and political. There is something at stake.

Adoption is not just about the family that is created but also about the family that is left behind. It’s not just about children that are taken from harm or relinquished willingly, it is also about ideas of who is fit to be parents, financial gain, and power. Adoption is not just about celebrity adoptions or the families portrayed on screen; it is about how adoption is crafted in the public’s imagination and by whom and then how that guides who is adopted, who adopts, and from where. When it comes to building families, there is something at stake.

Today starts National Adoption Awareness Month. While its purpose is to bring awareness to the thousands of children in foster care who are waiting for permanent families, this is also a time for adoptees to claim and amplify their voices. Voices that have historically been silenced or ignored. During this Adoption Month, I will explore the history of adoption in the U.S., how it has been portrayed in popular culture, and how adoptees have created and claimed space in this ongoing dialogue and portrayals of adoption. To be an adoptee and leave the story of adoption to adoption agencies, media, or the general public is not an option. There is indeed too much at stake.

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On Adam Crapser’s Deportation and Transnational Adoptees’ Belonging

Today we learned where we belong.

I read the news about Adam Crapser’s deportation with disbelief, with anger, with confusion. Adopted from Korea to the U.S., we Korean transnational adoptees were told we were home. We were the children of our (largely white) American adoptive parents. We were family, Americans, sold the lie that we are white and just like ‘everyone else,’ that our ethnicity doesn’t matter, our race does not exist. We transnational adoptees were marketed as ‘baggage free’ (not like those other orphan children), ‘clean slates’ (completely divorced from life, family, and country pre-adoption). The model minority child for adoption.

Yet we are deported.

To a home we do not know, a country that does not recognize us, family that we cannot locate, whose names we do not know, on paperwork we are not allowed to see.

Korean transnational transracial adoptees often feel this sense of in-betweenness – between countries, between cultures, between families. We often do not have any memories or ongoing connections to our birth country, yet we remain tethered to it, whether through our own longing and questioning or the expectations of others. And, it is often these expectations of others that keep us from feeling completely at home here. We are between Korean culture that we know little about but are assumed to know and American culture, which we are reminded isn’t really about us. We are haunted by a past that we are told doesn’t exist yet remains ever-present.

But we cannot be divorced from our past. It is on our bodies, etched into our collective memory.

Our past is that of the Korean War – a fight between world powers over the Korean peninsula. A battle that left our birth country ravaged. A battle that opened the door for Korean adoption and the international adoption industry we see today.

Our past is that of Korean children used as pawns in both U.S. and Korean political relations.

Our past is that of not being adoptable because we were not white and then becoming adoptable because we were not Black.

This is our past and it remains ever-present.

Adam’s case reminds me that we are never American. Never American enough. We can have American parents, American siblings, ‘American’ names, live in American homes, attend American schools, wear American clothes, eat American food, speak with American accents, but we will always be told to go back where we came from. And for the thousands of transnational adoptees whose parents never naturalized them, we are often sent back there.

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A Microaggression Microaggression

In a recent conversation with a Well-Meaning White Woman, who talked a little too loud and sat a little too close to me, I experienced a microaggression microaggression. Let me explain.

She adopted an Asian girl and being the Well-Meaning White Woman that she is became familiar with many of the ‘microaggressions’ (her words, not mine) that Asians face. As she interspersed commonly espoused ignorant phrases like “All Asians look alike” and “Asians must be smart” throughout our conversation, I felt the whole interaction turn into a farce.

Knowledge of stereotypes and racist assumptions are hardly admirable and doesn’t stop these interactions from happening, will not protect your Asian child, nor serve as a bonding moment between you and me. We cannot bond over our families not knowing which Asian we are in a photo, or how teachers treated us as if our intellect was inherent, or how we are relentlessly questioned about our right to be here in America, teased because of our eyes, our nose, our skin color, or generally and continually made to feel ‘other’ than. We cannot share a knowing look when a Well-Meaning White Woman interjects into a conversation among friends to say she has adopted an Asian girl and she’s doing it ‘right.’ Put simply, we cannot find refuge in each others presence.

I care little if you have knowledge of these demeaning insults or prejudiced beliefs because, as we all know, knowledge only takes you so far. It is what you do with this knowledge that matters.

So do not tell me how you know what it’s like to be an Asian and adopted woman in this world. Tell me what it’s like to be a white woman who interrupts racist talk, dismantles systems of power, and listens first and talks second. That is something we can bond over.

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