Soft referrals refer to the act of matching a child to a family before either the child is officially deemed eligible for adoption or the prospective adoptive parents (PAP) have been approved to adopt through the home study process within their respective state of residence.

Referring a child for adoption before they are eligible is counter to the Hague Adoption Convention, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, and the Universal Accreditation Act of 2012. An example of unethical soft referrals would include a child being identified to the PAP for adoption immediately after an orphanage learned the child would enter their facility. The child may not have been legally placed for adoption, and no social worker in the country of origin reviewed the child’s background. The birth parent may not have consented to the child’s adoption, and the child may not have been deemed a legal orphan in the country of origin.

However, many in the adoption community and even countries of origin believe that there are circumstances when soft referrals are ethical and appropriate. The Chinese Central Authority (CCCWA) allows Adoption Service Providers (ASPs), or agencies, the option to request a Special Focus child’s file to be added to an ASP’s individual list for advanced child recruitment. Special Focus children are often older, have significant health issues and many times are deemed difficult to place due to these factors. Special Focus recognition provides an opportunity to be adopted for children who may never receive their right to a family. Special Focus matches families with a soft referral of a child before their home study could be complete. They could hold the file until the family completes the home study and is approved to adopt. Although this is frequent with China, the practice also takes place with other countries of origin. This practice allowed the placement of hundreds, if not thousands, of special needs children in a permanent, loving home where otherwise it might not have happened.

As of March 2018, the United States Department of State published a notice stating that Adoption Service Providers (ASP) should not reserve Special Focus children’s files for prospective adoptive parents if a suitable family is ready with a completed home study to proceed with a child’s intercountry adoption with another ASP. It has been a confusing and upsetting new development for many prospective adoptive families who rightfully point to the fact that China allows the practice to ensure the placement of children in loving families. The Department of State, however, states that U.S. ASPs must abide by their rules and regulations.


Jennifer Mellon is the co-founder and president of Trustify, providing private investigators on demand to consumers and businesses. She has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving as the executive director and chief development officer at Joint Council on International Children’s Services. She also worked for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) and served on the board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro region. She currently serves on the development board for the National Council for Adoption and currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and five children.