"Adoption used to be a shameful secret," says Laurie Flynn, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC). "The adopted child was usually illegitimate and the adopting couple infertile."

In the past, she says most adoptive parents sought "a healthy white infant" and most adoption agencies looked for "a middle-class couple with a home in the suburbs."

But the idea of "who is adoptable" and "who can adopt" has changed dramatically, says Flynn, stressing that "adoption is no longer a second-class way to build a family."

Although the increased use of contraceptives, the availability of abortion and the new tendency of unwed mothers to keep their children has resulted in a scarcity of healthy white babies (averaging a three-to five-year wait), there are thousands of "special-needs children" who need homes.

"there are about a half-million children in foster care and roughly one third are legally freed for adoption," says Flynn, whose organization specializes in helping people adopt special-needs children.

"most are older, minority, handicapped or have mental or physical problems.Some have been abused or abandoned. But it's not true that these children are severely retarded or profoundly disturbed. Most suffer from 'old age' -- the majority are 5 and up."

Many agencies now welcome as adoptive parents persons who formerly would have been considered ineligible. "People who are single, divorced, disabled, retired, any religion or no religion can adopt.

"adoption is no longer a service to infertile couples, but a service to children who need homes. There is a new thrust to getting children out of foster care and into permanent homes.

"foster care is the largest single item of child welfare, costing American taxpayers an estimated $2 billion annually. But although it would save money -- and help children -- if they were in permanent homes, in the past there hasn't been any money given for adoption, which is a reason why children aren't placed."

New legislation may change this. A compromise version of the Social Services and Child Welfare Amendment of 1979 is expected to pass both Houses soon and would provide money for adoptive care of special-needs children.

"hopefully, those people who would like to adopt these children but can't afford it," says Flynn, "will be helped."