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 2020–21, 264 adoptions were finalised in Australia. Of these, 222 (84%) 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 69% of all adoptions finalised in 2020–21, while local adoptions represented 15% (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 16% of all adoptions in Australia in 2020–21, with 90% of intercountry adoptees originating from Asian countries. The most common country of origin was Taiwan (36% of intercountry adoptions), followed by South Korea (29%).

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 the glossary for definitions of adoption categories.

The diagram shows an overview of the number and proportion of adoptions finalised in 2020–21, by the category of adoption. Overall there were 264 adoptions finalised in 2020–21, consisting of 84% domestic adoptions and 16% intercountry adoptions. Known child adoptions (69%) made up the majority of all adoptions, with local adoptions only making up 15%. Ten per cent of all adoptions were from countries which Australia had a bilateral arrangement, while 5.7% were from countries where the Hague Convention was in force.

Trends of adoption

The overall number of adoptions has fallen dramatically over the past two decades. In 2001–02, 561 adoptions were finalised. By 2015–16 this number had fallen to 278 – a decrease of 50%. A slight increase followed, with the number of finalised adoptions rising by 20% from 2015–16 to 2019–20, but the overall downward trend has since continued, with 2020–21 representing a 21% decrease from 2019–20 (Figure 2). The 264 adoptions finalised in 2020–21 is the lowest number on record.

The increase in adoptions between 2015–16 and 2019–20 was largely due to an increase in domestic known child adoptions, which can be attributed to a policy change in New South Wales that resulted in a higher number of adoptions by known carers. The implementation of this policy saw a higher number of known child adoptions in 2019–20 as resources focused on securing permanency for children who had been waiting several years for the finalisation of adoption casework. This was followed by a decrease in the number of known child adoptions in 2020–21 as these processes stabilised.

The 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 stacked bar chart shows that there was a substantial decline in the overall number of adoptions between 2001–02 and 2020–21. The decline is steepest for adoptions of children from other countries. In contrast, the number of known child adoptions has increased over this period, to the extent that it effected a gradual upwards trend in the overall number of adoptions between 2015–16 and 2019–20. This trend does not continue for 2020–21, where the number of known child adoptions decreases substantially. The number of local adoptions has remained relatively stable since 2010–11.

Adopted children and siblings

In 2020–21, 51% (135) of adopted children were female and 49% (129) were male. Adoptees ranged in age from infants aged under 12 months, to young adults aged 18 and over (Figure 3).

Children adopted through intercountry and local adoptions are typically younger than children adopted through known child adoptions. In 2020–21:

  • 71% of intercountry adoptees were aged under 5
  • 95% of all local adoptees were under 5, with 69% aged 1–4 and 26% aged less than one
  • 14% of known child adoptees were under 5, and over half (58%) of known child adoptees were aged 10 and over.

The three 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 chart shows that known child adoptees tended to be older than local and intercountry adoptees. The age groups of known child adoptees ranged from 1 to 4 up to 18 and over. Local adoptees were younger – 26% were infants (less than one year old) and 69% were aged between 1 to 4 years. The majority of intercountry adoptees were aged below 10 years, with 67% between 1 to 4 years.

Most adoptions finalised in 2020–21 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 2020–21, there were 58 adoptees adopted as part of 28 sibling groups – 50 by known carers such as foster parents, 2 through local adoption and 6 through intercountry adoption.

Adoptive parents and families

For local and intercountry adoptions, just over half (54%) of adoptive families in 2020–21 had no other children, 25% had only other adopted children, and 19% had either biological children or both biological and other adopted children. This excludes data from New South Wales that were not available.

Age of adoptive parents

Most (70%) adoptive parents were aged 40 and over. Carers who become adoptive parents through a known child adoption tended to be older than adoptive parents involved in intercountry or local adoptions. In 2020–21, almost half (47%) of adoptive parents involved in carer (known child) adoptions were 50 and over. In comparison, only 8.4% of adoptive parents in intercountry adoptions were aged 50 and over, with a similar proportion occurring for local adoptions (5.1%).

Marital status of adoptive parents

Adoptive parents of adoptions finalised in 2020–21 were most commonly married couples. Not including local adoptions or domestic adoptions by step-parents and other relatives, 111 children were adopted by married couples, 16 by de facto couples and 15 by single persons.

The marital status of adoptive parents differs between the types of adoption. Most carers who become adoptive parents through a known child adoption were in a registered marriage (72%), with 14% single persons (including widowed parents) and a further 14% de facto couples.

In comparison, almost all (93%) intercountry adoptees became part of families where the adoptive parents were in a registered marriage, with the remainder either de facto couples (4.8%) or single persons (2.4%).

The vertical bar chart shows that adoptive parents involved in carer (known child) adoptions tended to be slightly older than adoptive parents involved in local and intercountry adoptions. Most adoptive parents of local and intercountry adoptees were between 35 to 44 years, whereas for carer (known child) adoptions most adoptive parents were between 45 and 54 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 2020–21, there were approximately 9,149 children adopted through intercountry adoption. It is estimated that 6,269 (69%) of these adoptees would have been aged 18 and over by 30 June 2021. An additional 1,179 adoptees were approaching adulthood – aged 15–17 at 30 June 2021. Of those adoptees aged 18 and over, nearly half (49%) were aged 30 and over – including 995 adoptees of unknown age who would have been a minimum of 30 years of age.

Impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Measures put in place as part of government responses to COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021 (including closing of international borders, travel bans/restrictions, lockdowns, quarantine requirements, limitations on non-urgent face-to-face work, and resource reallocations) may have affected domestic and intercountry adoption processes during 2019–20 and 2020–21.

The long-term impact of COVID-19 on adoption processes is still unknown. Such effects may become apparent in adoptions data in future years.

Where do I go for more information?

See Adoptions Australia 2020–21, 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 2020–21. Child welfare series no. 76. Cat. no. CWS 85. Canberra: AIHW.