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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States

Yvette G. Flores


At the turn of the twenty-first century, Latino children constitute 17 percent of the child population in the United States and 13 percent of the child population waiting to be adopted. In California, where Latino children constitute 40 percent of the child population, they account for 31 percent of the children in foster care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Significant historical, economic, and cultural factors influence Latino patterns of adoption and may contribute to the high number of Latino children in nonfamilial foster care who are waiting to be adopted.

Historical and Cultural Factors

Among Latinos a tradition of informal adoption exists; it includes children being raised by aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In Latin America, families that have more financial resources incorporate children from poorer relatives into their households. Likewise, through the practice of compadrazgo (co-parentship based on the ritual of baptism), a child's godparents (particularly if childless) might raise their godchild as their own. Likewise, many young Latino parents allow their firstborn child to be raised by a grandmother, particularly if the couple needs time to solidify the marriage or travels to a different region to seek employment. In such cases, the child generally knows who his or her parents are and is not stigmatized for not living with them. The practice of informal adoption has been facilitated by the fact that Latino families tend to be larger than non-Latino families (3.65 members versus 2.56, respectively) (Zambrana). In addition, Latino families tend to be extended, rather than nuclear in nature. Regardless of household size, Latinos tend to consider grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and godparents as immediate family.

With increased migration of Latinos to the United States, the practice of informal adoption in nations with high emigration rates has increased significantly, as adults generally migrate alone and later send for their children. Moreover, studies indicate that families can be adversely affected by migration in terms of health status and family functioning, thereby potentially increasing the number of families that are unable to care for their children once their family reunites in the United States. One or two generations after migration to the United States, Latino families become smaller in size, reducing the familial resources for informal adoption; thus the process of migration may loosen familial ties and disrupt the practice of informal adoption.

Economic Factors

U.S. Latinos are a highly diverse population with considerable differences in family and social structure, depending on the country of origin. Furthermore, Latino families are generally more economically disadvantaged than European Americans. There is scant information indicating why Latinos of various national origins place their children for adoption or lose their children to foster care. However, several factors may contribute to the high number of Latino children in this situation. First, Latinas have a high rate of teen pregnancy. In the past, if the young woman did not marry, the teen's family raised her children. In recent years, however, adoption has become a more acceptable option. Second, the rate of marriage has decreased, and the divorce rate has increased among Latinos, creating a burden on Latina single parents who are generally undereducated and underemployed. In the absence of extended family with the economic means to take care of children temporarily, a single parent unable to care for them may lose custody of her children. Third, the majority of children involved in the child welfare system have been removed from the home due to parental abuse or neglect. Maternal alcohol and drug abuse is a key predictor of loss of custody. The epidemic of addiction to opiates and cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s affected large numbers of poor women in Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities, resulting in their children being placed in foster care if the mother lacked extended family members to raise them.

Barriers to Latino Adoption

Despite a history of informal adoption, data indicate that Latinos are underrepresented among foster and adoptive families. Of states able to provide statistics for 1998, only 127 of a total of 31,128 licensed or approved adoptive families were identified as Latino (CWLA 1999). In addition, a number of barriers may exist for the placement of Latino children with families from the same ethnic or national origin group.

First, Latinos may be unaware of the extent of the need. The general perception within and outside the culture that Latinos are highly familistic and well adapted may obscure the reality that many Latinos are unable to care for and raise their own children temporarily or permanently. Second, a large percentage of the children in the welfare system are sibling groups, which are harder to place together in foster care and harder to place in common adoptive homes. The socioeconomic condition of most Latinos may preclude adoption or foster care of more than one child. Third, childless Latinos may feel that their inability to have children is a punishment from God and that they do not deserve to have a child, even an adopted one. In addition, there are misconceptions about children with special needs, especially among Latinos who are less educated and who are less acculturated to the United States. Fourth, about one quarter of the Latino population in the United States speaks little or no English, and one third does not speak English well (Zambrana). Children from such households need Spanish-speaking foster placements and adoptive or foster parents who understand their cultural background. Yet linguistic requirements for adoptive placements preclude many Spanish-speaking families who otherwise meet criteria for serving as foster or adoptive parents.

Other barriers to adoption include lack of information, unavailability of financial resources, and absence of bilingual caseworkers. In addition, Quintanilla found that bureaucracy deters people who might apply because of a lack of Spanish-speaking staff and forms written in Spanish. Agencies sometimes view individuals who do not speak “perfect” English as inappropriate for adoption and hold the view that Latino children should be removed from their communities and placed with non-Latinos to afford them better opportunities.

Thus, to promote adoption by individuals from similar ethnic and national backgrounds, specific recruitment and information strategies must be developed. For children in foster care, the ultimate goal is family reunification. When that is not an option, an adoptive family who will support the child's cultural and emotional needs is needed. Once Latinos become aware of the need by Latino children, they will come forth to adopt, since taking care of children is highly valued in Latino cultures.

See also Familia and Teenage Pregnancy.


Child Welfare League of America. State Child Welfare Agency Survey. Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), 1999.Find this resource:

    Flores-Ortiz, Y.“Injustice in Latino Families: Considerations for Family Therapists.” In Family Therapy with Hispanics, edited by M. T. Flores and G. Carey, 251–264. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.Find this resource:

      Quintanilla, M.“Adoption and the Latino Community.” In Race, Culture, and National Origin: The Issues…the Values. Conference Proceedings, Ethics and Adoption: Challenges for Today and the Future, Anaheim, Calif. November 4 1999.Find this resource:

        U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child Welfare Outcomes 1998, Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000. Available at www/ this resource:

          Zambrana, R. E.“Economic and Social Vulnerability of Latino Children and Families by Subgroup: Implications for Child Welfare.Child Welfare77, no. 1 (1998): 5–27.Find this resource:

            Yvette G. Flores