Adoption is one option used to provide permanent care for children not able to live with their families. It is a process where full parental rights and responsibilities for a child are legally transferred from the child’s parents to their adoptive parents.

This page covers the latest data on adoptions of Australian children and children from overseas, and highlights important trends in adoption. Data cover characteristics of adopted children and their adoptive families, and include a national estimate of intercountry adoptees adopted since 1979–80 (AIHW 2021).

Types of adoption

In 2019–20, 334 adoptions were finalised in Australia. Of these, 297 (89%) were domestic adoptions of children born or permanently living in Australia.

The two types of domestic adoption of Australian children are: known child adoption—where the child and adoptive parents knew each other before adoption—and local adoption—where the child and adoptive parents did not know each other before adoption. Known child adoptions made up 75% of all adoptions finalised in 2019–20, while local adoptions represented 14% (Figure 1).

Australian adoptive parents can also adopt children from overseas through an official Australian intercountry adoption program. Adoptions of children from other countries are called intercountry adoptions. These children can legally be adopted but generally have had no previous contact or relationship with the adoptive parents. Intercountry adoptions accounted for 11% of all adoptions in Australia in 2019–20, with 97% of intercountry adoptees originating from Asian countries. The most common country of origin was Taiwan (43%), followed by South Korea (22%).

Adoptions by relatives or other known carers of children from other countries are termed ‘known child intercountry adoptions’. This type of adoption is not included in reported data on this page. Likewise, adoptions by Australian citizens or permanent residents living abroad for 12 months or more that occur through an overseas agency or government authority are also excluded. These adoptions are referred to as expatriate adoptions. See glossary for definitions of adoption categories.

The diagram shows an overview of the number and proportion of adoptions finalised in 2018–19, by the category of adoption. Overall there were 310 adoptions finalised in 2018–19, consisting of 82% domestic adoptions and 18% intercountry adoptions. Known child adoptions (68%) made up the majority of all adoptions, with local adoptions only making up 14%. Ten per cent of all adoptions were from countries which Australia had a bilateral arrangement, while 8% were from countries where the Hague Convention was in force.

Trends of adoption

Over the past two decades, the overall number of adoptions has fallen dramatically. In 2000–01, 514 adoptions were finalised. By 2015–16, this number had fallen to 278—a decrease of 46%. More recently, adoptions have begun to increase slightly. From 2015–16 to 2019–20, there was a 20% increase in the number of adoptions finalised (Figure 2).

These long-term adoption trends are due to factors such as:

  • changing views in Australian society on the circumstances in which adoption and parenthood are considered appropriate
  • changes in intercountry adoption programs and the capacity of overseas countries to provide domestic care for children unable to live with their biological parents. 

The recent increase in adoptions between 2015–16 and 2019–20 is due to the increase in known child adoptions. In 2019–20, there were 249 known child adoptions—an increase of 65% since 2015–16. The increase can be attributed to a policy change in New South Wales that has resulted in a higher number of adoptions by known carers, such as foster parents.

The stacked bar chart shows that, overall, there was a substantial decline in adoptions between 1998–99 and 2018–19. A decline occurred in both adoptions of Australian children and adoptions of children from other countries. From 2015–16, there has been a gradual increase in the number of adoptions due to an increase in adoptions occurring within Australia by known carers, such as foster parents. The number of intercountry and local adoptions have continued to decrease.

Adopted children and siblings

In 2019–20, 52% (174) adopted children were male and 47% (158) were female. Adoptees ranged in age from infants aged under 12 months, to young adults aged 18 and over.

Children adopted through intercountry and local adoptions are typically younger than children adopted through known child adoptions. In 2019–20:

  • 67% of intercountry adoptees were aged under 5
  • 98% of all local adoptees were under 5—31% were aged 1–4 and 67% were infants
  • 22% of known child adoptees were under 5, and almost half (47%) of known child adoptees were aged 10 and over.

The 3 main reasons why children in known child adoptions are generally older are:

  1. some types of known child adoptions have minimum age requirements
  2. legislation mandates that adoptive parents have an existing relationship with the child before an adoption is possible
  3. the additional time involved in forming step-families.

The vertical bar charts shows that known child adoptees tended to be older than local and intercountry adoptees. The age groups of known child adoptees ranged from infants (less than 12 months) to 18+ years. Local adoptees were younger—40% were infants and 57% were between 1 to 4 years. The majority of intercountry adoptees were below 10 years, including 60% of whom were between 1 to 4 years.

Most adoptions finalised in 2019–20 were for a single child, but a number of sibling groups were adopted (where a child is adopted with at least one sibling at the same time by the same family).

In 2019–20, there were 90 adoptees adopted as part of 41 sibling groups—84 by known carers such as foster parents, 2 through local adoption and 4 through intercountry adoption.

Adoptive parents and families

Not including domestic adoptions by step-parents and other relatives, nearly two-thirds (64%) of adoptive families in 2019–20 had no other children, 21% had only other adopted children, and 13% had either other biological children or both other biological and adopted children.

Age of adoptive parents

Most (74%) adoptive parents were aged 40 and over, with 1 in 4 (23%) aged 40 to 44. Carers who become adoptive parents through a known child adoption tended to be older than adoptive parents involved in intercountry or local adoptions. In 2019–20, almost half (44%) of adoptive parents involved in carer (known child) adoptions were 50 and over. In comparison, only 22% of adoptive parents in intercountry adoptions were aged 50 and over, and all parents involved in local adoptions were under 50.

Marital status of adoptive parents

Adoptive parents were most commonly married couples—203 children were adopted by married couples, 24 by de facto couples and 29 by single persons.

Most carers who become adoptive parents through a known child adoption were in a registered marriage (71%), 17% were single persons (including widowed parents) and 12% were de facto couples.

In comparison, all intercountry adoptees became part of families where the adoptive parents were in a registered marriage. This was the case for almost all adoptive parents (94%) involved in finalised local adoptions in 2019-20 as well, with the remaining 6% in a de facto relationship.

The vertical bar chart shows that adoptive parents involved in carer (known child) adoptions tended to be older than adoptive parents involved in local and intercountry adoptions tend to be slightly younger. Most adoptive parents of local and intercountry adoptees were between 35 to 44 years.

National estimate of intercountry adoptees

National data for intercountry adoption is available back to 1979–80. These data can be used to estimate the number of intercountry adoptees placed with adoptive families in Australia since 1979–80, including those who would now be adults.

As adoptees mature in adulthood, there is a need for systematic and on-going post-adoption support. Providing a national estimate of adult intercountry adoptees in Australia aims to assist efforts, such as the Intercountry Adoption Family Support Service, to support the needs of adoptees as children, teenagers and adults.

In Australia, from 1979–80 to 2018–19, there were approximately 9,070 children adopted through intercountry adoption. Of these, it is estimated that 5,963 (66%) adoptees would have been aged 18 and over by 30 June 2020. An additional 1,056 adoptees were approaching adulthood—aged 15–17 at 30 June 2020. Of those adoptees aged 18 and over, nearly half (46%) were aged 30 and over—including 986 adoptees of unknown age who would have been a minimum of 30 years of age.

Impact of COVID-19

In light of the unprecedented impact of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Commonwealth, state and territory governments recognised the necessity of reprioritising national efforts and resources towards responding to the major emergency unfolding across Australia.

There have been government responses to COVID-19 such as travel restrictions, limitations on non-urgent face-to-face work and resource reallocations that have affected domestic and intercountry adoption processes during 2019–20. The impact of COVID-19 may continue to be apparent in adoptions data in future years.

Where do I go for more information?

See Adoptions Australia 2019-20, including relevant data tables and appendices.  

Information on adopting a child can be found in state and territory departments responsible for adoption, Intercountry Adoption Australia and the Department of Social Services.

See also Adoptions for more information on this topic.

References

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2021. Adoptions Australia 2019–20. Child welfare series no. 73. Cat. no. CWS 79. Canberra: AIHW.