The Pressure for Birth Mothers Facing Poverty To Give Their Child Up for Adoption

October 11, 2023 by Daniella Cohensedgh

Adoption is the method of establishing by law the social relationship of a parent and child between individuals who are not each other’s biological parent or child.[1] At any given time, an estimated 1 million U.S. families are looking to adopt.[2] That number substantially outweighs the number of available babies throughout the country.[3] This high demand contributes to the pressure.  For decades, unmarried mothers have shared stories of being pressured to put their unborn child up for adoption solely because they are impoverished. Even though times have advanced and single motherhood is embraced more, unmarried mothers facing poverty still have to face the coercion to give up their child to ensure a “better life” for their child.[4]

Not too long ago, social workers had a strategy in which they argued that environmental circumstances were more important than heredity.[5]  Many believed, and unfortunately some still do, that children must be saved from the consequences of inadequate parenting in a risky environment that often results in neglect.[6] While social workers “professed a belief in the fundamental right of unmarried mothers to make their own decisions,” “in practice, they often pressured them to place their babies for adoption by adding additional stress to do what was “best” for their child.”[7] It seems as if agency goals are quite similar to those of social workers in the past.

Unmarried mothers do not share one voice on their experience with having a baby out of wedlock. However, many single mothers who ultimately made the choice to give their child up for adoption, shared one feeling in common: pressure. Historically, the act of adopting poor children was seen by the white middle class as a civic duty. [8] Poor mothers, more generally poor parents, were seen by society as being “bad seeds.”[9] While poor mothers were viewed negatively, their children were considered to be redeemable and had the opportunity to lose their “bad habits,” which they had learned from their poor birth mothers.[10] The definition of “significant harm” as outlined in §31 of the Children Act 1989 explains that the harm must be ‘attributable’ to the care being offered or not offered by a “reasonable parent.”[11] While most mothers who are living in poverty do not in reality neglect their children, the clear association between poverty and neglect has been highlighted for years.[12] The fact that these soon-to-be mothers are trusting private agencies to have their best interests at heart, but in reality are being coerced to give their unborn child up due to their socioeconomic status, is a travesty However, due to all of these common misconceptions about raising a child in poverty, it is not surprising that adoption agencies can convince stressed out and isolated single mothers to give their child up for adoption. An example that better demonstrates the way agencies push mothers includes the fact that they are not transparent about the revocation process. Since mothers are usually pressed on time to give their child up for adoption before they give birth, many adoption agencies fail to ensure that mothers are aware of the time-frame they have to change their minds and keep their baby.

Although federal tax credits can subsidize private adoptions (as much as $14,300 per child for the adopting parents), there is not a federal regulation of the industry.[13] Every state has a different law on when a mother can revoke her decision to adopt.[14] While Mississippi allows birth mothers six months to change their mind, in Tennessee, mother’s only have three days.[15] Once the revocation period is done, “the mother has little recourse.”[16] The unknowns of becoming a mother are sufficient without having to add on the burden of feeling tricked into giving their child up for adoption for financial assistance. A specific private adoption agency, known as ANLC, has faced a lot of backlash for their unethical practices of successfully threatening and ultimately forcing unmarried and impoverished mothers to give their child up for adoption.[17] An example shared was from a twenty year old soon to be mother who was considering giving her child up for adoption since her husband was serving jail time and she did not have the resources to serve the best interests for her child. She shares that she had recurring doubts about her decision.[18] However, when she called her ANLC counselor to ask about whether keeping the child was an option, she shared: “They made me feel like, if I backed out, then the adoptive parents were going to come after me for all the money that they had spent.”[19]

Further, experts report that any relay of an organization’s putting pressure on birth parents to go through with an adoption would bring concerns on whether those mothers placed their child under duress.[20] If so, that could be grounds for invalidating consent and even overturning those adoptions.[21] The adoption option has turned into a cycle of dependency for women struggling financially.[22] Many women place multiple children as a means of financial support and are pressured into thinking this is their best option – for themselves and their children.[23]

In conclusion, change must be made. To start, each mother that is considering adoption should be given a counselor, free of charge, to actually assist them in navigating the complexities of the adoption process. Offering this service, free of charge, will allow a safe space for the mothers to let them know that they are not alone and can ask for guidance. Every mother, regardless of their socioeconomic status deserves to know their options before making a life changing decision for her and her child.



[1] The Rise of Adoption, Wayne Carp, Family Matters 1-35 (1998).

[2]  Tik Root, Inside America’s Murky Private- Adoption Industry, (June 3, 2021, 6:00 AM),

[3] Id.

[4] Regina G. Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of

  Social Work, 1890-1945, 29-32 (reprinted in Families by Law: An Adoption Reader (NYU Press 2004)).

[5] Id. at 33.

[6]  Shirley Lewis, Geraldine Brady, Parenting Under Adversity, Coventry University.

[7]  Id.

[8] Rosalind King, Valerie Maholmes, Oxford Handbook of Poverty and Child Development (May 2012).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Anna Gupta, Poverty and Child Neglect – The Elephant In the Room?

[12]  Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.