Adopting An Older Child

img_5463The definition of an “older child” can vary, but I am going to focus on the age range of 10-13, the time period where a child is close to “aging out” in China. If you inquire with your agency about adopting an older child, they will probably want to ask a few questions about your family. Generally, the older the agency the more likely they are to stick with what are called “best social work practices.”  Some of best social work practices involving older child adoption would be that the parents have parented past the age of the child, that the child be adopted as the youngest child in the family, or that there not be any siblings close in age to the child. Some agencies will stick very closely to these guidelines while others, knowing how difficult it can be to place older children, will approve nearly any family to adopt an older child.

Why any agencies not allow a particular family to adopt an older child? Because agencies which have been around for decades have seen a lot of failed adoptions and older children are at higher risk of adoption disruption or dissolution. I spoke with a representative of an agency often characterized as being “conservative” and “having a lot of rules.” I was told that their top priority was finding the right family for a child. They wanted to make sure that the adoption was successful and they didn’t want to risk the child’s placement by matching them with a family with the potential for disruption.  Please take the time to read my post on adoption disruption for a longer discussion on why you need to keep this possibility in mind as you decide whether or not adopting an older child is right for your family.

China does not allow children to be adopted past their 14th birthday. There are no exceptions to this rule, even if a parent is in the process of adopting a child. For this reason you will often see advocates publicizing children who are close to aging out. “URGENT! This is the child’s LAST CHANCE for a family!!!” This tugs at your heart, is this something that your family should consider? Here are some things to consider when making this decision. Despite the pressure tactics that the deadline for adoption can bring, adopting an older child is not something which should be done on a whim. Please take the time to educate yourself.

Are you thinking of doing this because you want to save the child? I have seen many instances where people have been told that an orphanage kicks a child out onto the street on their 14th birthday. As far as I am aware, this is not the case. While a child is no longer eligible to be adopted after they turn 14, they will remain in state care until age 18. When we visited our son’s orphanage I asked the director what happened to children who aged out. She said that those who could live independently would be given some education or vocational training and they would try to find them a job. Those who cannot live independently will live there for life. While children who have aged out will face many challenges in their life, it is not necessarily so dire as being kicked out onto the street. Organizations such as Love Without Boundaries are working to give these children more educational opportunities and at least one agency has a similar program as well. Yes, adoption will give these children more opportunities, and most importantly a lifelong family. However, it is important to understand the challenges before you take this step and not rush in to “save” someone expecting that happy ending.

IMG_1414Do you think that this child is eagerly waiting for a family? Many older children in China have lived a long time with the same foster family. Others are content with their friends at their orphanage. Some have a boyfriend or girlfriend at the orphanage. They are well entrenched in their life and not at an age where they can understand the benefits of a permanent family in a foreign country. At the age of ten, the child must also consent to the adoption and sometimes they say no thanks, I’d rather stay here. Other times a child will be coerced into agreeing to the adoption by their orphanage employees or other adults. I personally know two families who adopted a child over age 10 who was coerced into agreeing to be adopted when the child did not want to be. Both blamed the adoptive family for taking them away from their “real” family and acted out so much that eventually the adoptive families dissolved the adoptions. I know another family in the same circumstance who is committed to sticking it out, but they assume the moment their son turns 18, he will leave them and never come back. He tells them all the time that he hates them and wishes they had never taken him from China. There are so many older kids who truly want families but you have to proceed with caution. It can be difficult to know in advance how the child you hope to adopt feels about the adoption. Further complicating matters, some orphanages still do not tell the child they are being adopted until the day of the adoption or only a few days prior so they have little time to prepare for this major life decision. Have your agency advocate for your family to be able to have some Skype sessions with the child in the time leading up to the adoption.

Why China rather than the US foster system? Since I adopted from China and I wrote an entire post defending people who adopt internationally rather than from foster care, you might wonder why I ask this question. I support both adoption systems and I think that you need to find the best fit for your family. But if you are considering adopting in the 10-13 year old range, this is an age where there are many children available here in the US. Sometimes people have the mistaken idea that a 13 year old from China won’t have any baggage, unlike a teenager in the US foster system. If you are feeling called to adopting an older child from China you need to make sure you understand that there will be challenges including additional challenges specific to international adoption.

  • Care varies widely in China. Older children have lived over a decade with their family, with a foster family, in an orphanage, or any combination thereof. They could come to you having experienced malnutrition, a lack of necessary medical care, neglect, and physical or sexual abuse.
  • If you have other children in the home, you need to educate yourself on sexual abuse and prepare a sexual safety plan for your home. You should assume that your child has been sexually abused regardless of what information is in their file or what their care situation was. Your social worker can be a great resource in helping you to know what to look for and how to develop a sexual safety plan.
  • You child may have years worth of ingrained orphanage behaviors.
  • Related to orphanage behaviors, you should expect your child to be immature for their age and act several years younger than their age. Are you prepared to parent a twelve year old who acts like a seven year old?
  • The information in their files might be incorrect, and not just medical information. You might your child is older or younger (but usually it’s older) than you thought. Or they might have siblings you didn’t know about until you got to China.
  • It is much more difficult to learn a new language after puberty, even if you are immersed in it.
  • Your child may have received little or no formal education. Mixed with the language issue, this means that they may not ever achieve reading fluency. Adopting older children will bring many educational challenges.
  • They may have unrealistic expectations of their own. Children are often told that everyone in America is rich and they will be given anything they want. Or they may be fearful of you because they were told that you are only adopting them to sell their organs.
  • They may not even understand what adoption is. Love Without Boundaries interviewed older children in orphanages and they struggled to come up with answers to questions about what adoption is, why a foreign couple would want to adopt a Chinese child, or what they think life would be like after adoption. Watch the video.


Parenting a child adopted at an older age requires an understanding of how difficult it can be to leave behind everything you know. You should be prepared and willing to provide large amount of familiar food from home. How would you like to give up bacon and eggs for congee every morning? It just wouldn’t seem like breakfast, would it?

It is important to many parents to choose a new English name for their child. You should be open to the idea that your child might not want to give up the name they have been called all  of their life. You need to be willing to provide translation for the first few months and hire a private tutor to help with the language transition. Immersion is not a magic cure at an older age. Many schools will not adequately prepared for helping your child become fluent in English and catch up to grade level work. You need to become aware of resources and Chinese community activities in your area. Learn to be okay with being one of the few caucasians at these gatherings. It’s what you’re asking of your child in reverse.

Here are a few additional resources I recommend:

Financial considerations– No one wants a child to lose their chance for a family because of finances. For this reason you will find that there are many generous grants available for older children who are reaching the end of their opportunity for adoption. Sometimes a particular child will be offered a large grant by a private donor which is independent of an agency. Some agencies will reduce their agency fee by a significant amount in addition to offering a grant. Finally, many of the orphanages in China will reduce or waive the required orphanage donation in an effort to help these kids find a family. While no one should consider adopting an aging out child because it is cheaper, if you are interested in adopting a child who is close to aging out you should be aware of all of these available resources.

Time– Because the adoption must be completed by the child’s 14th birthday, time is often a major concern. Be sure to ask if your agency has experience with expediting the adoption of an aging out child. There are many things which can be done to make sure the adoption is complete in time. I have known people who adopted an aging out child in under 3 months from start to finish, barely making it across the finish line by finalizing the adoption in China before the Travel Authorization had been issued. Most agencies will transfer the files of aging out children so if an agency is skeptical that they could complete the adoption in time then you could see if they would transfer the file to another agency which is more experienced with the expedite procedures. If the agency is unwilling to transfer, or is offering a generous grant which you can find support on Facebook to walk your agency through the process. If you send me a message, I will put you in contact with a woman who serves as mentor to families expediting the adoption of an aging out child.

IMG_0796Finally, if you are considering adopting an older child from China it important to know that this is an area where child trafficking occurs. Unfortunately, some people bring home older children only to find that they have families back in China. There are many older kids in China who need homes, and you want to make sure that you make one of them a part of your family rather than someone who has been coerced into coming to America with you. While most of these false orphans come from one particular orphanage, the problem isn’t limited only to that orphanage. There are often red flags that will help you spot these kids. Allow me to break out the bullet points one more time.

  • Abandoned at an older age under fishy circumstances. Found wandering the streets at 10 or 12 but can’t remember their name, parents names, or address.
  • Came into state care at an older age because their entire family was tragically wiped out; often comes with fake death certificates to aid the story.
  • Looks older than 12 or 13. Many of these kids are closer to 17, so if your son has a 5 o’clock shadow in his pictures, beware.
  • Not only are completely healthy, but excel academically. Often are accomplished at playing a sport or instrument.
  • For more information google “China aging out fraud.”

I don’t want to leave you on that negative note, especially since this post has been focused on the negative more than usual. I have already linked to the Seriously Blessed blog in this post but I wanted to highlight the story of Jasmine. The Lisa and her husband decided rather last minute to adopt Jasmine even though they had previously discussed older child adoption and said it was something they would never consider. When they arrived in China to adopt Jasmine, they realized she had muscular dystrophy rather than spina bifida, meaning her special need was a much worse diagnosis than they had been prepared for. Despite this they completed the adoption.

As Jasmine grew comfortable enough to begin sharing her story they learned that she had been mistreated by both her father and her orphanage nannies. She was abandoned by her grandmother, the only relative who had treated her with kindness. She hadn’t received any education in her orphanage, and had been told that the American couple coming for her would surely mistreat her or abandon her in America. This sounds like everything I’ve been warning you about, right? But Jasmine is thriving in a loving family. She is so appreciative of “simple” things like hot showers and receiving an education. This is why some families will educate themselves about all of the negative aspects of older child adoption and decide to go ahead anyway. Because it’s worth it, and it makes all the difference in the world to kids like Jasmine.


If you are just beginning your adoption journey and found this post helpful, you might consider buying my book which has all of this information and more, including several chapters on travel.


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