Why Adoption in the United States is so Expensive

The cost of an adoption in the United States can vary a great deal.  When you adopt a child from the foster care system, the cost is often zero or close to it.  However, independent, private agency, and international adoptions will rarely cost less than $5,000, and can occasionally cost upwards of $40,000.

Those figures come as quite a shock to many people, and in fact dissuade some potential adoptive parents.  In fact, when people find out how much adoption can cost, a common reaction they have, along with the surprise, is resentment: How dare parents be charged so much when they are simply trying to do good, trying to provide a loving home for a child who desperately needs one?  Shouldn’t such a deed be lauded rather than penalized?

Indeed, why is adoption as expensive as it is in the United States?

Let’s first dispense with the matter of why there is such a large discrepancy in cost between adoptions from the foster care system and other adoptions.  The foster care system is government run.  It is a public good funded by the government.  Which is to say the taxpayers fund it.  It’s not that the costs are somehow drastically less, it’s that far fewer of those costs are being passed on to the adoptive parents.

Part of the reason that adoptions in the United States are more expensive than in some other countries is that some countries subsidize adoption to a significantly greater degree, socializing the costs of far more than just the equivalent of the American foster care system.

So let’s turn now to these costs that the adoptive parents must pay for non-governmental adoptions (or that an adoption agency must pay, which it then passes along to the adoptive parents, which amounts to the same thing).

Some of the cost is labor.  A social worker spends weeks or months investigating the potential adoptive parents in order to write a report, called a “homestudy,” as well as then following up for a certain period of time after the child is moved into the adoptive home.  Meanwhile, other personnel from the adoption agency are dealing with the birth family and the child, and providing administrative support.

Needless to say, when we’re talking about social workers we’re not talking about big money.  This is one of those professions that has more love and sacrifice than monetary reward to it.  But even at a low rate of pay, it adds up.

Then there are the mundane costs that pretty much any business—including nonprofits—incurs, such as rent, utilities, maintaining a website, etc.

If the adoption agency maintains a facility or orphanage for children waiting to be adopted (as many international agencies do), then they need sufficient income to cover that as well.

Don’t forget also that the agency is typically paying certain expenses of the birth mother, which are then passed on to whoever ends up adopting the child.  This includes maternity care, medical costs of the baby itself once it’s born, and any travel costs if the birth family is not local.

Besides what the adoptive parents must pay to an adoption agency, they will incur various additional out of pocket expenses along the way for such things as obtaining a criminal background check.

Actually their biggest expense, other than what they pay the agency, is likely to be attorney fees.  Adoption is a complicated area of family law, and it is highly advisable to hire an attorney who specializes in this area of the law to handle finalizing the adoption legally.

Not to mention, the agency also has attorney fees as they must be especially meticulous about everything they do, and so they must generate sufficient income to cover those costs as well.

Once you consider all that goes into an adoption—all the labor, the legal procedures, etc.—it shouldn’t be surprising that it costs as much as it does.  If anything, it’s surprising that anyone makes it through this process paying less than five figures.

There’s also a psychological point to consider.  Even if an eccentric billionaire came along and gave an adoption agency sufficient funds that all adoptions were free, you can make a case that that would not be a wholly good thing.

When people pay for something, and pay enough that it even hurts a little, that’s more of a commitment, more an indication that this is something they’re taking seriously.  Even animal shelters that receive sufficient funds from elsewhere to not have to charge those who adopt animals often still have fees of, say $50, just for the psychological purpose of weeding out people who might pick up an animal frivolously if it were free.

Think of it this way: Even if a family pays $5,000, $10,000, or $20,000 to adopt a child, that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what it will cost to then raise that child.  If they balk at coming up with $5,000 now, how will they come up with the much larger amount as time goes on?

Still, one does not want to push that point too far.  Certainly there are Americans who would make excellent adoptive parents for whom the cost of an agency or independent adoption is too much for them to handle.

For them though, there is the option of adopting through the foster care system and paying very little.  There are also grants and loans available here and there to help with adoption costs, though not many and not easy to get.  And of course they also have the option of waiting to adopt until their financial situation makes it more realistic.


Carrie Craft, “How Much Does an Adoption Cost?” About.com.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett, “Why Does Adoption Cost So Much?” Uncharted Parent.

“The Costs of Adopting: A Factsheet for Families.” Adoption.com.