Common adoption terms used in Canada
The Adoption Council of Canada hopes this glossary will clarify the various
terms used in our documents, and also offer a helpful guide to usage. The
glossary takes the best from existing Canadian and U.S. glossaries and adds
usage notes and commentaries from the Canadian perspective. It includes some
terms not defined elsewhere, for example, custom adoption. The usage notes
are intended as a guide to the correct use of adoption language, while recognizing
that usage does change over time.
This glossary covers common terms used in domestic and international
adoption in Canada, with the exception of those referring to special
needs. For terms in special needs adoption, disabilities and disorders,
see the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse "Glossary", naic.acf.hhs.gov/admin/glossary.cfm.
The ACC Adoption Glossary was compiled by content specialist Robin
Hilborn and approved by an editorial board composed of ACC board
members, staff and outside adoption experts. A reference to "provinces" is
meant to include both provinces and territories.
ACC ADOPTION GLOSSARY
- Person who was adopted. Frequently refers to an adopted person
who is now an adult.
- Legal transfer of parental rights and obligations from birth
parent(s) to adoptive parent(s). The adoptive
the legal parents of the child. It's a permanent, legally-binding arrangement
which a child or teenager becomes a member of a new family. In Canada adoption
falls under provincial jurisdiction. Usage: You can join a family
through birth or adoption. Adoption is a way of arriving in a family, not
condition or a disability. Say "Maria was adopted", not "Maria is adopted." Journalists
should refer to the fact of having been adopted only when relevant to the
- Person who legally assumes the rights and obligations
of parenting an adopted child. The adoptive parent becomes the permanent parent
through adoption, with all the social and legal rights and responsibilities
of any parent. Usage: It is preferable to use "adoptive" parent only when
needed to distinguish between birth parent and adoptive parents. A standalone
reference, for example in a news story ("Sean's adoptive father ... "), should
not refer to "adoptive parent" or "adopted child" unless relevant to the
story, to distinguish between two sets of parents.
- Approved adoption practitioner.
- See Practitioner
- Assistance, adoption.
- See Subsidy.
- Authority, adoption.
- See Hague Convention.
- (1) A government benefit to help people to adopt
children or to raise them. The benefit may take the form of paid leave from
work, payment (see Subsidy), medical help and post-adoption
(2) A company benefit, such as a payment made to an employee through an employer-sponsored
program to help pay for adoption expenses. The company may also grant paid
or unpaid leave.
- Birth family.
- The birth family is composed of those sharing a child’s
genetic heritage. See also birth mother.
Birth mother / father / parent.
- The birth (or biological) mother is
the woman giving birth to a child who is subsequently placed for adoption.
Usage (1): Avoid the terms "real" or "natural" mother; these
imply the existence of an "unreal" or "unnatural" mother. Similarly, prefer "birth
father" and "birth parents", not "natural father" or "natural parents".
However, some advocates promote the terms "natural mother" (Canadian Council
of Natural Mothers) or "first mother".
Usage (2): Writers need to be careful when referring
to a pregnant woman or a mother as a "birth mother". Strictly speaking,
she becomes a birth mother only after her child is placed for adoption.
- See Hague Convention.
- Certificate / decree / order (adoption) .
- At the end of the finalization process,
the court issues a document stating the adoptee is
the legal child of the adoptive parents.
- Child profile.
- Document written by a child's caseworker to provide a prospective adoptive
family with comprehensive information about the child, including family
history; medical, psychological and educational assessments; history of
previous placements; and daily routines.
- Children’s aid society (CAS).
- In Ontario, a public child welfare agency funded by government and responsible
for protecting Ontario children, finding foster homes,
and finding permanent families for children in its care who are available
for adoption. There are 52 in Ontario, licensed and funded by the
Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Also called Family and Children's
- Circle / constellation.
- See Triad.
- Closed adoption.
- See Openness.
- Concurrent planning.
- In social work, making plans to reunify a child with the birth family,
while at the same time making a back-up plan for permanency.
One back-up plan would be to place the child in the home of a foster family
or family member who could become the child's adoptive family if the birth
parents fail to regain custody. Another is to start recruiting for an adoptive
family before the child is legally free.
The aim is to reduce the time a child spends in foster care before being
placed with a permanent family.
- Consent to adoption.
- Legal permission by a birth parent for an adoption to proceed.
- Custom adoption.
- Form of adoption specific to aboriginal peoples, taking place within
the aboriginal community and recognizing traditional customs. Also, "customary
adoption". Commentary: In Alberta (e.g. Yellowhead Tribal Services), bands
place native children with families on the reserve, using custom adoption
ceremonies which recognize traditional practices, while also conforming
with provincial law. In the Canadian north, strong traditions of custom
adoption have helped Inuit keep their children in their communities. Aboriginal
custom adoption has been recognized in the Northwest Territories since
1995. NWT uses the definition, "Custom Adoption is a privately arranged
adoption between two aboriginal families. There are no social workers or
lawyers involved in a custom adoption." Such an adoption is legal if an
Adoption Commissioner, chosen by the community, says it was done in the
traditional way, following aboriginal custom. In Nunavut, the Department
of Health and Social Services oversees custom adoptions.
- Custom care.
- Form of kinship care specific to aboriginal
communities. In custom (or customary) care, native children are cared for
by relatives, members of their tribe or clan, stepparents, godparents or
any adult with a kinship bond. The child maintains a connection with extended
family and community, when not able to live at home.
- In the field of adoption search and reunion, the release from government
files of previously confidential or unshared information, such as identifying
information. A disclosure veto is a notice held on file which blocks
release of identifying information. In some jurisdictions, adult
adoptees and birth parents who want to preserve their privacy can file
a disclosure veto with a reunion registry.
- Failure of an adoption before finalization, through
a decision of the birth parents, adoptive parents or agency. The child
leaves the prospective adoptive home and returns to foster care or goes
to another adoptive parent. Also, "failed placement". In foster care, a
change in foster home. "Provincially, Crown Wards in foster care experienced
a placement disruption on average once every 23.4 months." --OACAS Journal,
- Failure of an adoption after finalization, through
a decision of the adoptive parents or the courts. The child leaves the
adoptive home and returns to foster care or goes to another adoptive parent.
Also, "failed adoption".
- Domestic adoption.
- Adoption of a child living in the same country as the adoptive parent(s).
- (1) An event bringing together public adoption agencies and people seeking
to adopt, e.g. Ontario's twice-yearly Adoption Resource Exchange. Prospective
parents can meet adoption workers and learn about children waiting to be
(2) In the U.S., an organization recruiting families to adopt children.
Exchanges are usually state or regional, and supply information (by
web, print, radio and TV) to help match people wishing to adopt with
children waiting for adoption within a state or region.
Failed adoption / failed placement.
- See Disruption and Dissolution.
- The final legal step in the adoption process: at a court hearing an
adoptive parent(s) becomes a child’s legal parent(s).
- Financial aid.
- See Benefit and Subsidy.
- Follow-up report.
- See Report.
- Foster care.
- Temporary parental care by non-relatives. The arrangement could be informal
but is usually formalized through a public child welfare agency. The agency
takes legal custody of children who are unable to live at home because
their parents were deemed abusive, neglectful or otherwise unable to care
for them. (Some foster children are voluntarily placed in agency care while
others are in foster care by court order.) The agency screens, trains,
licenses and pays foster parents who will provide a caring temporary home.
The agency usually aims to reunify the child with her family, but otherwise
will consider adoption for her. Commentary: Care by foster parents is not
supposed to be permanent (unlike adoption), but children can end up spending
years in the foster care system. A young person reaching 18 (and so no
longer eligible for adoption) is said to "age out" of the system. In Ontario,
foster care is the responsibility of children's aid societies.
- Foster-adoption / fost-adopt / fostering with a view to adoption.
- A foster placement intended to result
in adoption. The child welfare agency places a child in a foster home,
expecting that the foster parents will adopt the child if and when she
becomes legally free for adoption
(when parental rights are terminated). Commentary: One advantage of such
a placement is that it spares the child a move to another foster family
or to an adoptive family.
In Quebec, "fostering with a view to adoption" [accueil en vue d'une
adoption] means the same as mixed bank
adoption. However a "foster-adoption" [adoption par une famille
d'accueil] is an adoption by a foster family in which there was no plan for
adoption at the start of the foster placement but the family later adopts
- Foster parent.
- See Foster care.
- A guardian is a person who is legally responsible for a child. In kinship
care, guardianship may serve as an alternative to adoption,
when the child's relative assumes a parental role but prefers not to
adopt. Guardianship is subject to ongoing supervision by the court
and ends by court order or when the child reaches the age of majority.
- The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, inaugurated in 1993, is
an international treaty setting the framework for the adoption of children
between countries. The aim is to protect the best interests of adopted
children and prevent abuses such as trafficking in children. The Convention
standardizes procedures between the adoption authority in the child’s
country of origin and the corresponding authority in the receiving country.
Each country which has ratified the Convention designates a central authority
to regulate requests for intercountry adoption and accredit adoption agencies.
In Canada each province has its own central authority: the provincial ministry
responsible for adoption.
- Hard-to-place children.
- Some children are harder to place for adoption, for reasons such as special
needs, age, race and being in a sibling group.
- Home study.
- Professional assessment of a prospective parent's suitability to adopt.
A social worker conducts interviews to assess reasons for wanting to adopt,
preferences in types of children, and strengths and skills in parenting.
The process includes education about adoption and parenting issues. The
home study document summarizes the applicant's family life, education,
employment, personality, marital history and medical history. The social
worker states what type of child the applicant is approved to adopt. The
home study must be updated annually. Public
agencies provide home studies at no cost.
- Information which reveals a person's identity, such as last name, address,
phone number and detailed family history. In the field of adoption search
and reunion, information allowing a triad member
to be identified and located. Commentary: When families are recruited for
a child available for adoption, identifying information about the child
is typically kept private. Families initially get non-identifying information
of a general nature which does not reveal identity, such as physical descriptions
and medical history.
- International (intercountry) adoption.
- Adoption of a child living in a different country from the adoptive parent(s).
- Adoption of a child by a grandparent, aunt, uncle, other member of the
extended family, godparent or someone considered kin. In kinship adoption,
as opposed to kinship care, the child is adopted legally. See also custom
adoption and relative adoption.
- Kinship care.
- Method of providing children with care by relatives or extended family.
Also called relative placement. The arrangement
may be informal; a formal foster care placement;
or a pre-adoption placement. The court may award relatives custody, or guardianship.
In a formal foster care placement, the relative may receive the same benefits and
supports as other foster care parents.
See also custom care.
- Government benefit by which workers get paid leave from work when adopting.
Under Canada's Employment Insurance program, women who give birth are due
15 weeks of maternity leave and 35 weeks of parental leave. Adoptive parents
get only 35 weeks of parental leave.
- Legally free.
- A child is legally free for adoption when the birthparents' parental
rights have been terminated in a court of law. See Relinquishment.
- Licensed adoption agency.
- An agency to whom the provincial adoption ministry has granted a licence
to place children for adoption in the province, and to manage the adoption
process during the probation period. Commentary:
The process of licensing is governed by provincial regulations. Ontario
is the only province allowing individuals to be licensed, and uses the
term "licensee" to mean either a licensed person or a licensed
agency. See also Practitioner
- Life book.
- Scrapbook, journal or photo album chronicling a child’s life story,
created by social workers, birth, foster or adoptive parents, or the child,
when she is older. It may contain pictures, writing and souvenirs. Commentary:
A life book helps a child make sense of her unique history. It also provides
a way to share parts of a child's life not spent with the current family.
It could serve as a therapeutic tool to help in identity formation and
the understanding of adoption.
- Process of finding a prospective family suited to the needs of a waiting
child. Usage: A match may refer to a family that a child's
worker is strongly considering, or to a family that the family's worker
is suggesting to the child's worker. Not to be confused with placement. Commentary:
In international adoption, the method of matching varies by country.
Some countries select a child for you and send your agency a proposal.
Some have a central registry you choose from.
- Maternity leave.
- See Leave.
- Mixed bank adoption.
- Term used in Québec (adoption en banque mixte), equivalent to "fostering
with a view to adoption" (accueil en vue d'une adoption).
So-called because the Youth Centre chooses potential adoptive families from
a "bank" (list) of waiting families, and because the process is mixed: a
foster placement which is intended to result in an adoption. Families accept
that they will first act as a foster family for a child placed with them,
and then adopt the child when the court declares her legally free for
adoption (when parental rights are terminated).
- See Identifying information.
Open adoption agreement.
- See Openness.
- Open records.
- In the field of adoption search and reunion, records in government files,
such as an original birth certificate and adoption papers, which are open
for the inspection of triad members. Conversely,
sealed records deny adoptees access to their adoption files (which would
identify birth family members). Commentary: Information in open records
cannot be kept private by a disclosure veto.
The trend in progressive jurisdictions is to give triad members the right
to access adoption records.
- Openness in adoption.
- Birth parents and adoptive parents often agree to have an open adoption,
with ongoing contact between their families. Their open adoption agreement
may be verbal or written, but it is not legally binding. It spells out
how much contact, perhaps specifying the frequency and manner of contact
between adoptive and birth families, or between siblings placed separately.
The families could exchange letters and photos, either directly or through
an agency, or schedule phone calls and visits.
(1) In an open adoption, the families exchange
names and addresses, and have a full and ongoing relationship.
(2) In a semi-open adoption, the families exchange non-identifying
information, such as messages and photos, through an intermediary. They don't
know each other's last names or addresses.
(3) In a closed adoption, confidentiality is the rule. The
families do not share identifying information and
have no contact. The adoptive family usually receives non-identifying information
about the child and the birth family before placement. After finalization,
records are sealed and unavailable to the adoptee.
Commentary: The legacy of closed adoptions, which were common in the past,
is that adoptees and birth parents are unable to locate each other later in
life, to exchange medical information or to renew connections. See Search
- See Leave.
- Parental rights.
- See Relinquishment.
- Arrangement which assures lasting care and parenting of a child and eliminates
the need for further moves. In permanency planning, systematic efforts
are made to find a child a safe and nurturing family setting expected to
last a lifetime. Some options are: adoption,
reunification with the birth family and guardianship.
- List of children available for adoption, usually through public child
welfare agencies, including photos and descriptions. It may be printed
in a book or newspaper, shown on TV or posted at a web site. Commentary:
Photolistings are used to recruit adoptive parents for specific children.
Photolistings respect the privacy of the child by not using last names,
restricting the detail in the descriptions and arranging contact through
an intermediary -- the social worker handling the child's file. Web sites
may also require visitors to register for a password before viewing the
list. Some Canadian provinces, and most U.S. states, have photolisting
services online. The Adoption Council of Canada's photolistings are at www.canadaswaitingkids.ca.
- Act of physically placing a child in a foster or
prospective adoptive home.
Usage: "Placement" also covers the state of being placed in a home, e.g. "The
social worker supervised the placement." In adoption, "post-placement" usually
refers to the period after placement and before finalization.
- Plan, adoption.
- (1) The birth parents' plan to allow their child to be placed for adoption.
Usage: "Birthparents make an adoption plan for a child and subsequently
place the child for adoption." Avoid the negative phrases "give up a baby" and "put
up for adoption."
(2) The plan or agreement which birth parents and adoptive parents make together
regarding contact between their families, e.g. semi-open or open adoption.
- Plenary adoption.
- A term in French (adoption plénière) meaning an adoption which
terminates an existing legal parent-child relationship, the one between
birth parent and child. In Québec, and the rest of Canada, all adoptions are
plenary. The term serves to distinguish from a
simple adoption, as practised in
- Post-adoption report.
- See Report.
- Post-adoption services.
- Services provided after adoption finalization.
Service may be provided to both birth and adoptive families, and adoptees,
by a public agency, private therapist or community organization. Services
may consist of providing subsidies, respite care,
counselling, day care, medical equipment, support groups and peer support
programs such as an adopted teens group.
- Practitioner, approved adoption.
- In Ontario, a professional, usually a social worker, with experience
in adoption or child welfare, whom the provincial ministry responsible
for adoption has approved to conduct home studies and
supervise placements in prospective adoptive
- Private adoption.
- (1) An adoption arranged by a privately-funded, licensed
adoption agency. See also Private
agency. Commentary: Most provinces allow private adoption.
All private adoption is regulated by the provincial ministry responsible
for adoptions. Ministries license individuals and agencies to place
children privately, approve the social workers to conduct homestudies
and monitor the performance of licensees and social workers. In some
provinces, such as British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario, agencies
are licensed to place children not only in the province (domestic adoption),
but also into the province from abroad (international adoption)
(2) In the U.S., private adoptions, also called independent adoptions, are
arranged through a facilitator such as a lawyer, rather than through a licensed
adoption agency. In contrast, an agency adoption is arranged through a public
or private adoption agency.
- Private agency.
- Non-government adoption agency licensed by the province the agency operates
in. Private agencies charge fees for their services.
- Probation period.
- Time between placement of a child with
the adoptive family and finalization,
when the adoption is legalized in court. It varies by province but is at
least six months. This applies to both domestic adoptions and international
adoptions not finalized abroad. During the probation (or probationary)
period, the licensee monitors
the adoptive family and adopted child. See Supervision.
- Progress report.
- See Report.
- Document giving you information on a specific child you might adopt,
such as background, family history and any special needs. Commentary: In
international adoption, the foreign authority sends your adoption agency
a file on the child matched to you. This
proposal may contain a child's description, photograph or video, medical
history and information about special needs, social environment and family
history. You accept or reject the proposal.
- Public adoption.
- (1) An adoption arranged through a provincial ministry or agency funded
by government. See also Public agency.
(2) In the U.S., public adoptions are arranged through a public child welfare
agency, such as the Department of Social Services, or a private child welfare
agency, such as Lutheran Children's Services.
- Public agency.
- Government-funded adoption agency, usually providing services at no cost,
e.g. Children's aid society. Public agencies
are responsible for placing with adoptive families the waiting
children in their care.
- Legal adoption of a child by a biological relative, such as a grandparent,
uncle or cousin.
- Relative placement.
- See Kinship care.
- Voluntary surrender by a birthparent of legal rights to parent a child.
It's a legally binding process involving the signing of documents and court
action. If birth parents don't voluntarily surrender their rights, the
court may act to terminate those rights. Usage: "Relinquish" is not a preferred
term for placing a child for adoption. Better is "birthparents choose adoption" or "make
an adoption plan" for their child.
- Report, follow-up / post-adoption / progress.
- A follow-up or post-adoption report details how an adopted child is doing
in her new home in the period after finalization.
A progress report tells how a child is adjusting in an adoptive home in
the period before finalization. In international
adoption, some countries require one or more follow-up reports after you
return home. Countries want to know that their children are doing well
with their new families. Your adoption agency submits the post-adoption
reports to the adoption authority abroad.
- Respite care.
- Temporary care provided for a child in order to give birth, foster or
adoptive parents relief from parenting.
- Reunion registry.
- In the field of adoption search and reunion, a service allowing adult
members of the adoption triad wishing to learn
about birth relatives to register personal data and ask to be notified
if other parties in that adoption also register.
- See Search and reunion.
- See Open records.
- Search and reunion.
- "Search" is a process whereby either a birth
parent or an adoptee seeks information
about, or contact with, the other. The search process may also involve
adoptive parents, volunteers and paid consultants. One result of a
search is a "reunion", when adoptee and birth parent (or other birth
relatives) meet. Commentary: When adoptions are closed (see Openness),
adoptees and birth parents cannot find each other later in life. It's
not unusual for an adopted child to search for his birth parents when
he becomes an older adolescent or adult.
- Semi-open adoption.
- See Openness.
- Service provider, adoption.
- In Ontario, any of the entities which the ministry approves or licenses
to provide adoption services, such as approved adoption practitioners, licensees and children’s
- Sibling adoption.
- Adopting two or more brothers and sisters at the same time. Commentary:
Many adoption professionals believe that, whenever possible, siblings should
be placed together, or stay in touch through open
- Simple adoption.
- A form of adoption in France (as opposed to plenary
adoption) which combines aspects of the status of birth
child and adopted child. The child keeps the rights she had in the
birth family and gains inheritance rights in the adoptive family. The
adoptive parents have parental authority, which may be revoked with
- Special needs.
- Conditions in a child which are particularly challenging to adoptive
parents, such as physical, emotional and behavioural disorders, and a history
of abuse or neglect. Common disorders and disabilities include attachment
disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental disabilities,
fetal alcohol syndrome, learning disabilities and oppositional defiant
disorder. Adopting a child with special needs generally means a more extensive
training process. When fees are charged, these may be lowered or waived
for a special needs adoption. In the U.S., a special needs adoption qualifies
for a state subsidy. The definition of "special
needs" varies by state.
- Step adoption / step-parent adoption.
- Adoption of a child by the parent's new spouse.
- Subsidy, adoption.
- Government benefit to offset the costs of adopting and raising a special
needs child. The benefit may take the form of one-time and
monthly payments, medical aid and post-adoption
services. Commentary: In Canada, parents adopting children
with special needs may get a payment to defray unusual expenses, such
as medical and dental expenses, counselling services and therapy not
covered by health insurance, availability of social workers for advice
and respite care. Amounts and types of
subsidies vary by province. In the U.S., a one-time payment can cover
homestudy fees, court costs and attorney fees. Monthly payments are
based on a child's needs or eligibility (not family income) and continue
until the child is 19 (sometimes 21).
- Process whereby the licensee visits the
adoptive home during the probation period, to
see if the child is adjusting well and to give advice and support.
- Support group.
- Group of people sharing a common concern or experience who provide support
for each other. Adoptive parents use adoption support groups for information,
educational activities and seasonal events.
- Adoption of a child of one race by a family of a different race. In the
converse, "same-race adoption", child and parent are the same race. A related
term is "transcultural adoption", in which child and family differ in culture
or ethnic group. Most transracial adoptions are also transcultural. Commentary:
The adoptive family needs to be sensitive to racism and to respect their
child's ethnicity and culture of origin. Living in a diverse community
helps build a child's positive attitude toward her birth culture and racial
background. In Canada aboriginal communities encourage the adoption of
native children by native families, so that the children continue to grow
within native culture and retain their connections to family and community.
- Triad, adoption.
- In the field of adoption search and reunion, the three parties involved
in an adoption: birth parent, adoptive
parent and adoptee. Some use the
term "adoption circle" or "adoption constellation", to include other parties
such as adoption professionals.
- See Disclosure.
- Children who are waiting to be adopted, that is, children who are legally
free for adoption. They are in the care of the public child
welfare system, cannot return to their birth homes and need permanent
families. (Waiting parents are those seeking to adopt.) Commentary:
According to the May 2002 "Report Card on Adoption" by the Adoption
Council of Canada, there are over 66,000 Canadian children in foster
care. About 22,000 are permanent wards of the provincial governments
and await adoption, but fewer than 1,700 of them are adopted annually
across the country.
- Ward / Crown ward / Permanent ward.
- Status of a child declared by the court to be in care of the state. Commentary:
If parents are unable to care for a child, she may be admitted into the
care of a child welfare agency. If efforts to reunite child with family
fail, the court may make the child a ward of the province, giving parental
rights to the state. Then the agency develops a permanency plan.
Because the parents have lost their parental rights, a ward is eligible
to be adopted. The term is "crown ward" in Ontario, "permanent