A Brief and Biased History of Adoption

I was doing some thinking about future work and writing projects. This led me to search the Internet for information about the history of adoption. Some of you, particularly if you are adoptive parents in open adoptions, may know a little about this history through adoptive parent education programs designed to sell us on the virtues of openness as compared with the way adoption “used to be done.” I, too, knew a little already. But I had not strayed much beyond the surface of the old closed=bad, the new open=good.

I want to share some of what I learned in a few hours of reading. (Don’t quote me. Do your own research because what I took away as significant may not be the same as what seems important to you.)

Before 1851, and the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, adoption was viewed, primarily, as a means of arranging for heirs and labor. This Massachusetts act signified a change in focus: adoption should benefit children. The notion of “child welfare” was developing. It is the idea that parents are charged with the care and protection of children. When they cannot or do not, society has this responsibility. The Massachusetts act recognized petitioners unrelated to the child, the necessity for birth parent consent, and provided that the adopted child would receive the same legal rights as a child born into a family.

Beginning around this same time, 1854-1920s, 250,000 poor Catholic and Jewish immigrant children from New York and eastern states were put on “orphan trains” and sent to the Midwest and west where they were placed with Anglo-Protestant farming families to be Americanized. (The sources I read suggested that most of these placements were not permanent but offered crisis and temporary help to poor families who later reunited.) This “baby farming” fell into disrepute as advocates of child welfare began promulgating minimum requirements for adoption, state licensing, and investigation of foster homes in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, there were many orphanages. With the emergence of the Progressive era in the latter part of the century – with its emphasis on professionalism and reliance on science – institutional care for children declined. The progressive idea was that families should be preserved and that families, not institutions, were preferred places for children. “Placing out” in homes – like our foster care – became common; but adoption was a last resort.

The first school of social work, founded in 1904, was an outgrowth of the progressive movement. The field of social work was founded on the idea was family formation should be overseen by professionals. “Outcome studies” – research on how adopted children turned out years later – were used to provide scientific justification for this new profession.Between 1910 and 1930, the first specialized adoption agencies were formed. Agencies argued that unmarried mothers and babies were not complete families and that there was no point in keeping them together.

At the same time (late 19th and early 20th centuries), the eugenics movement was gaining steam. This social movement was based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society. The eugenics movement discouraged adoption as too risky. When the IQ test became available in 1916, it was used to test poor, “feeble-minded” children and separate them into idiots, imbeciles, morons, and dullards to improve placement with “like-minded” families.

Eugenics is now believed to have been, largely, a reaction to changes in emigration from Europe rather than scientific genetics. At the time, however, it was considered a method of preserving and improving the dominant groups of the population. Nazi Germany’s reliance on eugenics as justification for destroying races and classes of people virtually killed the eugenics movement in this country. However, its effects continued to reverberate in adoption. The belief that social ills such as poverty, sexual promiscuity, alcoholism and crime were passed on to children in genes remained. The new professional social workers began practices to disguise this history from prospective adoptive parents. The virtues of adoption were bolstered by new scientific studies that showed early family placement had a positive effect on children regardless of heredity.

Between 1920 and 1970, married, heterosexual adoptive parents were matched with children who looked and behaved “as if” they had been conceived by the parents. Physical resemblance, intelligence similarities, race, and religion were used as criteria. Interestingly, these practices reinforced the notion that “blood is thicker than water,” making adoption inferior, while, at the same time, trying to dignify and equalize it.

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, a number of organizations or government entities were formed to safeguard children’s rights, including the U.S Children’s Bureau (1912) and the Child Welfare League of America (1915). Record keeping, personnel training, financial management, and placement practices began to be standardized. In 1917, the first mandatory laws regarding home studies and confidentiality of adoption records were passed. However, records were still available to the adults and children involved in the adoption. This closing of records from public view seems to have stemmed from concern about the stigma associated with illegitimacy. But after World War II, confidentiality converted to complete secrecy and sealed records, such that adoptees could no longer get information about their births or backgrounds.

Transracial adoptions were rare. The first one is recorded in 1948. But think ahead to the late 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Era, when outrage about discrimination was palpable among blacks, women, and other minorities. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took the stand that black children should not be adopted in white homes. Such adoptions were proof of the ongoing chattel status of African-Americans. Transracial (black/white) adoptions began to decline at the same time that international adoptions began increasing. (This phenomenon can only be explained, in my mind, by the racial history between blacks and whites in this country.) In 1994, the Multiethnic Placement Act provided that race could be used as one factor in foster and adoption placements. But in 1996, the act was revised to disallow consideration of race as a factor at all.

In 1954, adoption narratives by adoptees began appearing, suggesting for the first time that adoptees had a distinct identity. In 1958, the Indian Adoption Project began, placing hundreds of Native American children in white homes – an exception to the race-matching rule. At the time, it was considered a triumph of civil rights and equality for Native Americans. But in the 1970s, Native American leaders reacted to this practice as “genocide” of the race. As a result, the Indian Children Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978, giving the tribes final authority over adoptions.

In 1964, the book, Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health, addressed adoption as a mental health issue. It promoted the idea that infertility continues to play a role in adoptive families, and that adoptive parents should embrace their differences just as their adopted children embrace their own. While the book brought diversity in family making into the open, it also raised the question: Does adoption cause damage?

1970 was the peak year for adoption in this country with 175,000 (adoptioninstitute.org), 80% arranged by adoption agencies.

1971 marked the first organized push for open records.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion, had the effect of decreasing the number of infants available to be placed for adoption. At the same time, social mores against unwed motherhood were disappearing. By 1980, less than 3% of unmarried women chose adoption.

In 1976, Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) was formed and coined the name “birthmother.” CUB took the position that original families should be preserved whenever possible and that adoption is risky and damaging. “Surrender [in the post WWII era] was a product of maternal deprivation, social stigma, and political powerlessness rather than a voluntary act.” (The Adoption History Project) CUB maintained that adoption could have been prevented in most cases if resources and support had been provided to the original family.

Bastard Nation, an adoptee rights organization, was founded in 1996 to promote open access to adoption records as a matter of basic civil rights. They were instrumental in the passage of Ballot Measure 58 in Oregon, 1998, which restored the right of adopted adults who were born in Oregon to access their original birth certificates. The movement continues to press for open records in all states.

Anger about closed records and involuntary placements, and diminishing numbers of infants available for adoption pushed professionals to seek an alternative. Open adoption emerged…

Science, law, religion, market forces, education, culture, communication… it is the whole fabric of our being at a certain place and time that influences what we “see,” believe, and how we act. There is no escaping it. But I am convinced that making a commitment to continued learning is my best defense against judgmental attitudes that may harm others and myself.

One thought on “A Brief and Biased History of Adoption

  1. You spent a lot of time on that! It is interesting that one of the reasons they placed me with my mother was that my birth parents were musically talented. (My mom was a church organist and piano teacher). They were always quite proud of this fact, and I must say that it was a good placement, largely for that reason. We shared the music “link” and it got us through some other less compatible issues. So it’s not entirely a faulty idea I think to try and build in some probable likenesses. (I am not thinking of physical likeness here, and it is kind if funny that people often remarked that I looked just like my mother, but my brother is a redhead and looks nothing like any of us) B

    Sent from my iPhone

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