Vol. 18, No. 2 May 2014
What's the Difference between Custody, Guardianship, and Adoption?
Custody, guardianship, and adoption are legal arrangements for the care of children. Each is established by the court when for some reason children's parents cannot care for them.
Custody is when a person or entity (such as a county department of social services) is responsible for the care and well-being of a child and has the legal authority to consent on behalf of the child, but the child's parents maintain their parental rights. Custody can be restored to the parents by the court if the parent proves capable of caring for the child.
Guardianship is when a person is responsible for the care and well-being of a child and has the legal authority to consent on behalf of a child. Under a guardianship arrangement the child's parents maintain their parental rights. However, courts overturn guardianship only if it is determined the guardian is no longer capable of caring for the child or maintaining their safety.
Adoption is the process by which an adult becomes the permanent, legal parent of a child. Adoptions can occur through relinquishment, termination of parental rights, or consent to adoption by a birth parent. Adoption severs the previous legal parent-child relationship and creates a new legal parent-child relationship between the adoptee and adoptive parent. Sometimes children who have been adopted also maintain contact with their birth family. This is called an "open adoption."
To learn more about custody, guardianship, adoption, or other terms related to children in foster care, see "Terms You May Want to Know" in the appendix of A Family's Guide to the Child Welfare System (http://www.cwla.org/childwelfare/fg.pdf ), or visit the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov).
~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~