By R. Dubucs

There is widespread ignorance about matchmaking for adoption.  How is a match made between would-be adoptive parents and a particular child?  By popular belief, the match occurs because an adoption agency matched the parents’ characteristics and preferences with a child.  In reality, adoptions, like marriages, come about in various ways.  Some of these ways, and the occasionally surprising results, are illustrated by the stories of three mothers.  (All names were changed for this article, to preserve privacy.)

The Mother of Christine

Dr. Williams, a single woman, applied to an adoption agency.  She wanted a little boy or little girl.  To adopt a child from Central America through the agency, she had to satisfy the requirements of her state, the United States, and a foreign country.  This entailed travel abroad and two home studies, one in each country.  The home studies required interviews with social workers and other professionals, criminal checks, psychological tests, character checks, medical tests, and considerable paperwork in English and in Spanish.

After Dr. Williams’s name reached the top of the agency’s waiting list, she was assigned baby Christine.  The girl is now four years old.  Despite their different coloring, the mother and daughter look strikingly alike.  Dr. Williams believes the match was made by God.

Still, the woman was puzzled for a while about the human element involved.  She wondered how the social workers had figured out that Christine was destined for her.  To find the answer, she contacted her Central American lawyer.

It turns out that, despite two home studies, no social worker or social scientist matched Dr. Williams with her daughter.  It was the lawyer (who likes boys to go to couples) who decided to assign the woman an infant girl.  However, he was too busy to make the selection personally.  Instead, he sent the youngest, lowest-ranking employee in his office off to the orphanage, with instructions to pick out a baby girl for Dr. Williams.  In short, this match made in heaven was accomplished through the whim of a teenage girl!

The Mother of Jack

Sometimes would-be parents rule out a physical, mental, or emotional problem in a child and receive a child with that problem anyway.  It happened to Jack’s mother.  This educated, intellectual woman and her husband had to fill out an adoption form listing dozens of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities found in children.  They made clear on the form that they would not accept a hyperactive child.

The couple rejected a number of referrals, including an American newborn boy, before learning of Jack.  At the time of the referral, he was eleven months old and living in a country to which the would-be parents had not applied.  They were able to adopt Jack because the person who would have adopted him had just accepted the newborn boy.  In other words, through the adoption agency’s intervention, the couple got him by taking somebody else’s place on a slow-moving waiting list on which they had never waited.

Jack entered his mother’s civilized life like a toddler tornado.  For four years he was the most active child wherever he went, and three separate doctors ultimately declared him hyperactive.  His play school had more than 100 pupils.  According to the staff, Jack was the most all-boy boy in the school, a child with no fear, and the liveliest child in the school.

In adoption, some matches are not made in heaven.  However, this match was heaven-sent, as may become clear from seeing Jack’s proud and smiling–though occasionally shell-shocked–mother with merry, thriving Jack.

The Mother of Julie and Matt

Some would-be parents specify the sex of the child, the age of the child, or the number of children and get a child of the opposite sex, a child of another age, or a different number of children.  All three things happened to Cara.

The woman was sure she knew what she wanted in an adopted child.  In fact, she was adamant.  According to her, she would adopt only one child, who had to be a baby, a girl, and Korean.  Thus, when blond, Caucasian Cara was offered the chance to adopt two blond, Caucasian sisters, she declined.

With pluck and determination, Cara set out to find her child herself.  After her husband was transferred by his company to Korea, she went to various Korean agencies and orphanages and met with rejection.  She also began talking directly with Koreans considering placing a child for adoption.

Suddenly, after two heartbreaking years of dealing with Korean institutions and birth families, Cara had to prepare for the arrival of “twins.”  In a three-day period, an adoption agency offered her a two-day-old boy, a birth mother offered her a four-year-old girl, and she accepted both children.

Later she learned why she had been assigned a boy.  The match of Cara and her beloved son was accomplished through the prejudice of the Korean social worker.  At the time of the assignment, there was a newborn girl available for adoption, and Cara’s application had specified a girl.  However, the social worker, like many Asians, was prejudiced against girls.  The woman simply assumed Cara had made a mistake in filling out the application.

In contrast, the match of Cara and her daughter Julie was, on Cara’s side, due to love basically at first sight.  The thunderclap sounded during their very first meeting.

This is what happened.  Cara while in Korea was introduced by an intermediary to Julie, then four years old, and the girl’s birth mother.  Later in the meeting, the two women were discussing through the interpreter the possible adoption.  Cara had had similar discussions in other cases she had decided not to pursue.  During this particular discussion, she suddenly realized that Julie was still in the room listening.  Cara, with her kind heart, understood how painful such talk must be for a youngster.  At her suggestion, the child was sent off to play.  On the way out, Julie deliberately slammed the door.  At the sound of the crash, strong-willed Cara, recognizing a kindred spirit, fell in love with the little girl.


Adoptive matchmaking to some extent resembles marital matchmaking.  There are multiple parties to satisfy and many ways for the match to occur.  For example, in the past:

1.   Matchmakers such as social workers proposed a particular child because of a careful matching of the characteristics of the would-be parents and that child, because the child was disrupting her orphanage, or because the parents were next on the waiting list.  Matchmakers such as priests, doctors, and friends proposed a match to help a pregnant teenager or an infertile couple.  Matchmakers such as foreign lawyers and foreign facilitators proposed a match for money or for humanitarian reasons;

2.   Birth parents chose one set of would-be parents over another because the preferred parents were religious, agnostic, or lesbians.  In some cases a birth mother selected a particular couple because they would let her visit the child, had a cat, or were the parents she wished she had had;

3.   Older children consented to adoption to have a family or for other reasons of their own; and

4.   Would-be parents said yes to a particular child because they fell in love with his smile and bravado on a videotape, she was crying in every single photograph, or this was the first child offered.

In adoptive matchmaking, as in marital matchmaking, many matches are cases of love (e.g., love by the parent of the child’s picture) at first sight.  Sometimes an abiding love develops slowly.

Often one party to the matchmaking is ready to make a commitment before another party.  For example, Cara, discussed above, and Julie’s birth mother concluded at the first meeting that Cara and Julie belonged together.  However, due to circumstances predating the adoption, it took Julie years after joining her adoptive family to reach the same conclusion.

Sometimes matchmaking that began well ends badly.  For example, marital matchmaking can end in a broken engagement before marriage or a divorce after marriage.  Similarly, adoptive matchmaking can end in a “disruption” (the name for the situation in which a child placed for adoption is returned before the adoption is finalized) or a “dissolution” (the return of a child after a final adoption).

There are, of course, some differences between matchmaking resulting in adoption and matchmaking resulting in marriage.  Perhaps the biggest difference is in the success rate.  Reliable statistics on the percentage of final adoptions that fail are unavailable.  This is in part because most published reports focus on disruptions rather than dissolutions, confuse the two categories, combine the two categories, or concentrate on older child adoptions (the most failure-prone).  Nonetheless, it is clear that marriages are far more likely to fail than adoptions.


Life can be hard for social workers and other matchmakers.  Would-be parents are positive they know what they want in a child but often are mistaken.  Sometimes the parents end up with a very different child, and, like the three mothers discussed above, are delighted.

So how the adoptive parents got assigned the child hardly matters.  Regardless of the method or the reason for the match, their child may be just what they wanted.  If not, the parents may well share the view expressed by one adoptive couple.  The duo could have been speaking for the mother of live-wire Jack, the mother of the Korean “twins,” and countless other parents.  The couple said, “God doesn’t always give you what you want.  Sometimes God gives you something better.”

Renée Henning is an attorney and a writer on various subjects. Her work has appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters (e.g., WE Magazine for Women, Washington Post, A Day in the Life of Public Service Lawyers, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, Women Magazine, WNC Woman, Hudson Herald, Free Lance-Star, Ours, Adoptive Families, International Concerns For Children Newsletter, and Living).