The US Department of State is considering banning photolistings for children available for international adoption.

US State Department to ban international adoption photolistings

There is a lot we don’t know and the State Department has not issued a final rule (see update below), but they are currently considering whether the practice of “soft referrals” is a violation of their regulations. We have not seen an official definition of “soft referral” but it appears to include photolisting—or more specifically allowing international adoption agencies to place a child who is on a photolist.

Photolisting is a common practice in both foster care adoption and international adoption. In fact, it is considered best practice in child welfare for finding homes for harder-to-place children–older kids, kids with health issues, and sibling groups.

A photolist is a website that includes a picture, brief information on the child, and an email for the agency or the child’s caseworker to get more detailed information. An example of adoption photolistings is AdoptUSKids (US foster) and Rainbow Kids (international). In addition, each state in the US has their own photolisting, usually known as Heart Galleries, of children available for adoption in their state.

Photolistings are considered best practice for one reason—they work!

photolisting for US foster care adoption

The goal behind a photolist is to humanize a child that is harder to place for adoption. You won’t see pictures of infants or chubby toddlers in photolists because most families can easily imagine parenting an infant or toddler. What you will see in a photolist is a teen holding a football with a shy smile, a child in a wheelchair proudly showing off his latest drawing, a child with a heart condition on a swing, or a sibling set of three holding hands. The hope is that the potential parent will see the child first and her disability or special need second.

Research has shown that the more information you can give about the child and the more interactive the content, the more likely the child will be adopted. The most basic is a simple picture with limited information, but more innovative agencies and states are now incorporating videos and Wednesday’s Child type programs, where a video is created with an interviewer spending time with the child doing activities that show off the child’s personality and interests. Wednesday Child videos are shown on the local news, newspapers, Facebook, and YouTube. Hosting programs are another approach used by some international adoption agencies to introduce the child to a family and community.

The more you are able to show the essence of a child, the more effective the approach at finding parents. Success rates vary depending on the degree of special need, the amount of information, and how wide the distribution, but studies have found that 60-95% of children featured on Wednesday’s Child programs are adopted.

Photolistings are not without criticism, including that they:

  • Market children,
  • Violate a child’s privacy,
  • Encourage parent’s to adopt who are not prepared for the realities of special needs adoption, and
  • Put children on hold while prospective parents complete the adoption process.

While these criticisms have some validity, in my opinion, and the opinion of most child welfare professionals, they are no reason to ban a practice that has found homes for thousands of children.

photolisting for international adoption

Marketing Children

No doubt there is something slightly distasteful about “advertising” a child. Children are not commodities and shouldn’t be marketed. Period. I’ll grant you there is a fine line here, but I conclude that if done respectfully, the greater good is served by finding families for children who would otherwise never be adopted.

Violating a Child’s Privacy

Putting a child’s picture or video on the internet or TV exposes the child to the world. What appears on the internet remains forever and can be found by the child or others in the future. It can also be found by unscrupulous people in the present. In an ideal world, no child’s picture and personal information would be online.

Unfortunately, there are thousands upon thousands of children in the US and abroad who live in anything but an ideal world.

Those who have responsibility for these children have to balance the invasion of privacy with the need for children to have families. Most have concluded that a relatively minor loss of privacy is well worth the risk if an adoptive family can be found.

It is possible to limit the invasion of privacy with password protection, fake names for the child, not listing the state/country where the child lives, and asking permission of all children over a certain age. It is interesting to me that the US federal government and most US states have opted to not use most of these protections, other than asking permission of teens. They have decided to err on the side of doing everything possible to find a permanent home for the children in their care.

I spoke once with an adult who was a former foster child. She told me that she used to pray that she would be on the Wednesday’s Child Program. She never was and she aged out of the system at age 18.

Encouraging Unprepared Parents

It is true that adopting a 12-year-old or a child with a heart condition requires a different type of parenting and different preparation. This is especially the case when adopting a child who has been abused or neglected, which includes almost every child being placed for adoption from foster care or internationally. It is also true that unprepared parents are responsible for some of the greatest problems in foster care adoption and international adoption.

However, the solution to unprepared parents is not to ban the practice of photolisting. Banning photolistings, or soft referrals, because bad outcomes can happen with unprepared parents who fall in love with a picture of an adorable child is like banning scuba diving because bad outcomes can happen with unprepared divers who are enticed into the water by beautiful pictures of exotic fish. The solution, for goodness sakes, is to prepare the parents or scuba diver! Creating a Family’s sole purpose is to do just that!

Putting Children on Hold

Another criticism of photolistings or soft referrals is that the child could be put on hold while the prospective parent completes the adoption process, especially if the parents do not already have a completed homestudy. Most children who make it onto a photolist do not have a line of parents waiting to adopt them before or after their appearance on the photolist. However, if this is perceived as a major problem there are several easy solutions to prevent it from happening; banning photolistings or soft referrals is simply not necessary.

Most caseworkers who use either AdoptUSKids or Heart Galleries don’t hold children. They evaluate each family that applies and selects the best fit taking into account whether the family is “homestudy ready”. They might choose to wait for a family to complete their homestudy and training if they believe they will be the very best parents for this child or they may decide that a quicker placement with a homestudy family is best for this child. If they have only one family that is qualified, they are more than happy to wait for completion of a homestudy so long as the family moves forward quickly. Another solution is to limit the amount of time a child can be held while the parents complete their homestudy and training.

Requiring Homestudies First

From the limited information that the State Department has shared, it appears that one of their objections is that families that find a child on a photolist may not have a homestudy completed; therefore, they believe it is a violation of their regulations for an agency to have any contact with that family.

In US foster care photolistings, families do not have to have a homestudy to look at pictures of the children. In fact, families are actively encouraged to start viewing kids when they are beginning to consider adoption because it gives them a better idea of the type of kids that need families and allows them to slowly assess what they are able and willing to handle. Photolistings are very often the first step for families before they commit to applying. It is one thing to think about adoption in the abstract, but another thing entirely to think about adopting a specific child.

In international adoption it is even more important to not limit access to photolistings to homestudy-ready families because homestudy requirements vary by country and agency. In other words, you have to know the country and the agency you are going to use before you complete a homestudy. If a homestudy-ready family finds a child on a photolist, they will have to incur the cost and time to re-do their homestudy if they changed either agency or country.

State Department considering ban on photolistings for international adoption
Children growing up in orphanages abroad deserve a family and deserve our full efforts for finding the best family possible.

Children are placed on photolists by individual agencies because most often foreign countries assign a child to an agency for that agency to find a family. It is the nature of how international adoption currently works. A common scenario is as follows.

  1. A prospective adoptive family looks at a photolist, reads the description of the child and his special need.
  2. For more detailed information they contact the agency that is advocating for that child.
  3. After learning more about the child, if the family and the agency decide that this placement would be a good fit, the family signs up with the agency to submit their paperwork to the foreign country adoption Central Authority (the governmental entity responsible for adoption).
  4. The Central Authority decides whether to refer this child to this family through this agency.

The State Department is apparently contending that it is a violation of their regulations for an adoption agency to accept contact from a family for information about a child the agency placed on a photolist unless that family already has a homestudy. One would assume that they would have to have a homestudy for that specific country and for that specific agency as well. The odds of this happening are pretty low. This is simply not how international adoption works.

The State Department’s new interpretation of their regulations would effectively do away with photolistings as a tool for finding families for children in international adoption.

Some kids are dealt a hard hand in life—they are without parents who are able to raise them and they have a physical or emotional disability, or they are over the age of four, or they have sisters or brothers. We owe it to these children to cast our net as wide as possible to find them a home. It makes no sense to limit one of the most effective tools we have.

How You Can Help

Please call or send an email or letter to your congressperson. It’s easy to find out who they are and how to contact them by entering your zip code here.  Feel free to use the following template.

Dear ____:

I understand that the US State Department is considering banning the practice of photolisting children available for international adoption. I strongly object to this ban. Photolisting is used extensively in the US foster care system to find adoptive homes for harder to place children. It is considered best practice in family recruitment for children with special needs and should be available for finding homes for children in other countries as well, especially when other countries also believe in this practice. Please let the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State know that photolisting should be encouraged and access should not be limited to families that have a completed homestudy. Domestic and international children and adoptive parents should be treated the same. Thank you for your time and for caring for the thousands of children worldwide who are growing up in orphanages.

[If you used a photolist to create your family, please include a personal statement about your experience.]


Your name
Your address

Tell us what you think about the proposed ban in the comments.

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy


The State Department issued their Guidance on “Soft Referrals” on March 16, 2018. The part relevant to the topics discussed in this article are found about a third of the way down under the heading: “Soft Referral that occurs before a PAP [prospective adoptive parents] completes a home study”.

Image credit: (these children are not available for adoption)
Aizuddin Saad! (child in green shirt in graphic); Tetsumo (children looking up)