In 2013, Italy had the world’s highest international adoption rate among Western countries. Do adoption costs vary on the basis of characteristics of the adopted children? To answer this question, in 2015, 280 adoptive families took part in a detailed survey-the first of its kind in Italy-on their adoption experience. Econometric results showed that Italian families are willing to choose expensive accredited bodies to facilitate adoptions of children younger than 5 years of age.

Introduction and research design

Adopting a child satisfies a desire for parenting and therefore affects the well-being of a family. As has been noted, “International adoptive parents and children meet across lines of difference involving not just biology but also socio-economic class, race, ethnic and cultural heritage, and nationality” (Bartholet 2006, p.107). Italian families adopted 37,680 children between 2003 and 2013, with a rate of 6.7 international adoptions per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, the highest among all Western nations. The US, the first receiving country in the world, welcomed over 170,000 children in the same period corresponding to 3.0 inter-country adoptions per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 (CAI 2014).

Italian parents adopt children abroad because of the lack of a sufficient number of adoptable children domestically; in 2011, similarly to previous years, over 5,000 families applied for adoption but less than 1,100 children have been adopted domestically according to the Internal Affairs Minister (2012). The openness of Italian families toward adoption coincides with one of lowest birth rates in the world (as reported in the last Italian census by ISTAT 2011).

Most of the empirical analyses available in the economic literature refer to the United States, which has not adopted the guidelines of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), but ratified The Hague Convention on the international adoption of children in 2014. Its adoption procedure is composed largely of private agreements involving little state intervention. Thus, profoundly different procedures are followed among countries that have ratified The Hague Convention, as Italy has. The socioeconomic consequences of adoption in these countries are significant and deserve greater attention. Bennet Woodhouse (2014) has explored the differences and highlighted the unexpected similarities between adoption philosophies and procedures in Italy and the US.

The Italian adoption authority does not disclose information on either adoptive families or unsuccessful adoptions, so the data were gathered through a survey of Italian adoptive families. We describe the costs associated with the adoption procedure (accredited body fees, health care, and travel costs), the characteristics of the adopted children (age, continent of origin, disability, and gender), and the characteristics of the adoptive parents (age, education, and income).

Given the lack of cooperation by the Italian authorities in the research, the anonymous questionnaire, which was conducted from 15 December, 2014, to 10 August, 2015, was posted on Survey Monkey and advertised through adoption newsletters, blogs, forums, press articles, a Facebook marketing campaign and two interviews on national TV with the principal investigator. Interested parents were directed to a secure URL, where they were supplied with details regarding the survey.

The questionnaire was formulated on the basis of existing literature, is similar to the questionnaire submitted by the CAI to Italian adoptive families after entering the country with their adoptee, and comprised 59 questions divided into seven sections, beginning with a filter question: “Have you adopted one or more children abroad?” The questionnaire’s seven sections are outlined in Table 1.


Questionnaire Structure

In the first section of the questionnaire, families were asked to provide socio-demographic information (age, level of education, income, and number of adopted children) and the duration of their adoption. The second section addressed the support provided by public social services and accredited bodies as well as the perceived satisfaction before the child arrived in the family. The third section was devoted to the adopted child and the child’s characteristics (age, gender, special needs, birth country). The fourth section asked about the time spent abroad with the child (duration and satisfaction) and the parental leave taken after returning to Italy (how long parents were away from work after returning to Italy). The fifth section asked about the support provided by public social services and accredited bodies as well as the satisfaction with this support after the child joined the family. The sixth section examined the current family situation and asked about the satisfaction of the adoptive experience, the extent to which parents felt that the child was aware of his/her story, and his/her relationship with other family members (aunts, grandparents) and school. In the final section, families were asked about cost of their adoption (fee for the accredited body, health-care treatments, and other expenses) and whether these expenses were as expected.

Parents and children

Among the 280 respondent families, 63% had adopted one child, 34% had adopted two, 3% had adopted three, only one family had adopted four and no family had adopted 5 or more children; 66% of children were male, and over 60% of the adoptions reported had taken place after 2010. The survey confirmed that adoptive families are self-selecting in terms of their education and income; over 50% of families had a monthly net income over €3,000, whereas the national average is €2,500. The adoptive families in the survey came mostly from northern and central Italy.

The adopted children in the survey came from Asia (32%), Africa (27%), Europe (22%) and Latin America (19%). The ages of the children proposed to families depended on the laws in the home countries and any limitations in the Juvenile Court’s decision for the adoptive parents. Indeed, age distribution correlated with the continent of origin: Asian and African children were younger than their European and Latin American counterparts. 47% of the children in our survey were younger than the age of 3 at the time of the adoption, 20% were 3-5 years of age, 30% were 5-9 years of age and only 4% were older than 9 years of age. able 2 shows the descriptive statistics of selected variables.


Summary Statistics of Variables

Adoptions’ costs

Families noted that the most significant cost was the fee of the accredited adoption body, followed by travel expenses. Only in 35% of cases did families spend less than €7,000 on accredited body fees, whereas they spent less than €7,000 on travel expenses in 75% of cases. The expenses incurred for information and health care both in Italy and abroad amounted to less than €3,000 in 90% of cases. Over 80% of families reported not being surprised by the overall adoption costs. These results further confirmed that adoptive families are self-selecting, given their awareness that adoption is expensive.

We investigated the (econometric) relationships among accredited body fees, child characteristics (child age, gender, special needs, continent of origin) and family characteristics (mother’s age and waiting period). In fact, Skidmore at al. (2014) have found that adoptee characteristics explain up to 74% of variations in fees. Similarly, to the US experience (Skidmore et al 2014), we expect that the presence of needs, the male gender and the child age negatively correlate with adoption’s costs, while the European origin should positively correlate.


Result of adoption costs’ regressions

Note: SE in parenthesis; *, **, *** is significant at 10%, 5% and 1% respectively. Accredited body fees are a dummy = 1 if below €7,000; = 0 if above €7,000. Child gender is = 1 if male; is = 0 if female. Special needs are a dummy = 1 if reported; = 0 otherwise. Child’s age is a dummy = 1 if child is aged below 5 years; is = 0 is older.

In all specifications (Table 3) the child age had a negative and statistically significant effect on fees; in some specifications, the adoption duration and the child gender significantly correlated with accredited body fees. Neither the mother’s age, the European origin, nor the presence of special needs were significantly correlated with accredited body fees. These results represent a departure from the US experience, where Caucasian children without special needs are associated to higher adoption fees (Skidmore et al 2014). The statistical significance of these results was confirmed by the very low probability of the likelihood ratio statistics.

Interestingly, accredited body fees were statistically significant and negatively correlated with child age, thus suggesting that the adoption of younger children is more expensive (the younger, the more expensive). This result is consistent with empirical evidence in the US, but has never been reported on in the literature on Italian adoptions, because the Italian system theoretically does not allow adoption fees to vary according to a child’s age (the younger, the more expensive). This result reflects Italian parents’ willingness to choose expensive accredited bodies if they can facilitate the adoption of children younger than 5 years of age. In Italy, in contrast to the US, child ethnicity is not statistically correlated with fees.

Despite the self-selection of the sample and the resulting impossibility of generalizing the results, the survey on the inter-country adoption of children by parents in Italy provides useful indications on this little-researched topic.

Editors: Barbara Pancino and Chiara Oldani


Bartholet E (2006) International adoption. In: Lori Askeland (ed.) Children and youth in adoption, orphanages, and foster care. Westport (CT): Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.

Bennet Woodhouse B (2014) Inter-country adoption in Italy and the United States: divergent approaches to privatization, discrimination and subsidiarity, Legal Studies Research Paper Series n. 12-233, Emory University School of Law.

Commissione per le Adozioni Internazionali (CAI) (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011) Data and perspectives in inter-country adoptions … Report on files from January 1 to December 31, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010. Florence: Istituto degli Innocenti.

European Parliament (2009) International adoption in the European Union. Brussels.

ISTAT (2011) 15th Italian Population and Housing Census. Rome.

Skidmore M, Anderson G, and Eiswert M (2014) ‘The child adoption marketplace: parental preferences and adoption outcomes’, Public Finance Review. DOI: 10.1177/1091142114547412

The Hague Conference on Private International Law (2014) Notes on the financial aspects of inter-country adoption. The Hague.

United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child. Washington D.C.

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