Working to transform the child welfare system.


What Does Age Have to Do With Adoption?

Each year, more than 100,000 children are adopted in the United States. That’s more than 100,000 children who finally have a family to call their own, a consistent roof over their heads and a meal on their table.

The National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN), housed within Cornell University, publishes the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which tracks roughly 50,000 of those adoptions nationwide. The AFCARS adoption data only includes “case specific data on all adopted children who were placed by the state child welfare agency, by private agencies under contract with the public child welfare agency, or by private adoptions voluntarily reported during the given reporting period.” AFCARS does not include data on international adoptions, adoptions of children by stepparents and many other adoptions. Nonetheless, the AFCARS data is still a rich data set providing a lot of interesting information on nationwide adoptions.

We wanted to explore these data further. Our first question was: how does the age of birth mothers compare to the age of adoptive mothers?

Let’s take a look: the graph below displays the ages of biological mothers at the time that their parental rights were terminated and the ages of adoptive mothers at the time that the child was adopted.[1] As a whole, biological mothers tend to be younger, with a median age of 29, while adoptive mothers have a higher median age of 44 and a wider age range.


Given the age distributions of the adoptive and the biological mothers, the outcome appears consistent with what one might expect – 88% of adoptive mothers were older than the biological mothers, while 2% were the same age and 10% were younger.[2]

The next graph shows the percentage of adoptions by age of the child. One-, two-, and three-year olds are the most commonly adopted children, and make up about 37% percent of all total adoptions.


If we include all children under 5, we’re looking at almost half of all adoptions (49%). On the other hand, teenagers (13 – 17) account for less than 10% of all adoptions. While there are fewer teenagers waiting to be adopted, as a whole, they are less likely to be adopted than younger children.

Next up, we’ll explore the percentage of youth who are adopted by age relative to the number of youth available for adoption. We’ll also take a look at the average length of stay in care between the time a child is legally free and when they are adopted. Stay tuned!


Notes on the Data: AFCARS data, like many datasets, tend to have missing values and data that appears to be entered incorrectly. In order to address this issue, certain data were excluded from this analysis. The excluded data includes data with missing values in any of the fields that were used to create the graphs (birth year for adoptive and biological mothers, date of birth for children, date of termination of parental rights and adoption date). Data were also excluded based on the ages of the children and the ages of biological and adoptive mothers. Any child that did not fall between the ages of 0 and 17 were excluded. For biological parents, the youngest age allowed in the data was 13 years and the oldest age was 60 years. For adoptive parents, the youngest age that was kept was 18 years and the oldest was 80 years. In all three cases, very few cases had data outside of those ranges.