Bringing Up Baby: Adoption, Marriage, and the Best Interests of the Child

27 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2006

See all articles by Robin Fretwell Wilson

Robin Fretwell Wilson

University of Illinois College of Law

W. Bradford Wilcox

University of Virginia, Department of Sociology


In the piece, Professor Brad Wilcox and I ask who should care for children when their biological parents cannot? This is a question of potentially explosive dimensions under new definitions of legal parentage proposed in this volume of the WILLIAM & MARY BILL OF RIGHTS JOURNAL. This question is also important today for evaluating state adoption laws. A significant number of states bar consideration of a prospective adopter's marital or non-marital status. We believe these laws miss an important opportunity to maximize the best interests of each child being placed.

In this piece, we take an exclusively child-centered approach, drawing on an enormous body of social science on family structure and child well-being. We begin with a critical look at the studies showing that children are significantly more likely to thrive if they are raised in a home headed by two married parents. Here, the social science is clear: on average, children do best in a married home, compared to the alternatives, and for this reason adoption laws and regulations should clearly favor married parents. The social science is less clear on the advantage that a single parent might have compared to cohabiting parents; here, we think the science suggests that a single parent might offer more stability and safety to a child than a cohabiting couple.

We then propose model legislation to institute these preferences. We endorse a strong preference that gives first consideration to married couples and a weak preference to single parents compared to cohabiting couples. We also consider and reject a number of concerns that may be raised by legislating a preference for placement with married couples.

We ultimately conclude that children entrusted to the State for placement are, for a time, children of the State. There is no one in whom the State has a greater interest in protecting and securing the best possible future. Placement of a child in a home with two, married parents makes it more likely that she will have a safe, affectionate, and enduring connection to two parents over the course of her lifetime, a connection that is clearly in her best interests.

Keywords: adoption, marital status, child well-being, cohabitation, child placement

Suggested Citation

Wilson, Robin Fretwell and Wilcox, William Bradford, Bringing Up Baby: Adoption, Marriage, and the Best Interests of the Child. U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2006-28, William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 883-908, February 2006, Available at SSRN:

Robin Fretwell Wilson (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
217.244.7582 (Phone)


William Bradford Wilcox

University of Virginia, Department of Sociology ( email )

1400 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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