Brief History of Adoption in the United States

The history of adoption in the United States can be divided into two eras, separated by the passing of the 1851 Adoption of Children Act by Massachusetts. It was the first modern adoption law and it ensured that adoptions were “fit and proper.”

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Although it was not perfect (it left what was “fit and proper” to be determined at the discretion of the judge), it was a turning point in how adoptions were viewed and carried out and, as a result, the era following the passing of the law is considered the “Modern Era” of adoptions.

Adoptions Before 1851

Before 1851 adoption was not recognized legally, meaning that judges were not authorized to cut the ties of biological family. Adoption prior to 1851 was more akin to a fostering system where families would send their children to go live with another family for education, labor training, apprenticeship or charitable support. If parents were in a really tough spot financially, they may have even sent the child to an “orphanage” for stretches of time so that the parent(s) could try to get back on their feet while someone else paid the bill for things like childcare, education, food and housing. But in neither situation was a child considered to be separated from his or her family in a legal sense.

True adoption before the mid nineteenth century was often done in secret and kept away from the courts. There were certain prevailing stigmas that surrounded adoption at the time, and people were reluctant to adopt children from different ethnicities and financial standings into their home. As a result, it was most common for relatives to adopt children from extended family members. The stigma against illegitimate children, as well as single mothers, was a strong enough motivator that children were placed for adoption so that they would have more opportunities to succeed. Other reasons for adoption included illness, financial troubles and death, but much like today, adoption was used as a means to help a child succeed and thrive when their Birth Parents were either unable or unwilling to provide that for them.

“Modern Era” Adoptions

Before the passing of the 1851 Adoption of Children Act, it wasn’t common for the courts to intercede on a child’s behalf, especially an orphan or adoptee, but in extreme cases it did happen. 1851 was a turning point for children’s rights because laws began to be enacted that focused on the wellbeing of the child, rather than strictly on the interests of the adults. Better laws coincided with organizations, groups, and programs that all lobbied for the rights of children and their ability to find homes that provided them an opportunity to live a life full of love, acceptance, and opportunity.

Key Events: Improvement in the Rights of Children

In the decades following the Adoption of Children Act, we saw an emergence of nongovernmental charitable societies dedicated to the protection of children. The first one was the NYSPCC (the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) that was born as a result of the rescue of a young girl named Mary Ellen from her abusive guardians. For some time all of the agencies that were created for the protection of children were nongovernmental, but that all began to change in 1899 with the establishment of the first governmental court. While their initial concern was in juvenile delinquents, the courts always had the authority to intervene on the behalf of children in instances of abuse and neglect. Over time the juvenile courts have become a pillar of the child protective system.

In the 20th century we saw the government getting more and more involved with the protection of children and the pivotal point came with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the Social Security Act of 1935 which provided millions of dollars in aid to dependent children and poor families. It also gave the Children’s Bureau authorization to cooperate with state public-welfare agencies “in establishing, extending, and strengthening, especially in predominantly rural areas, [child welfare services] for the protection and care of homeless, dependent, and neglected children.” It was a big step in the right direction for children’s rights, and it eventually led to a sizeable expansion of foster care.

As legislature continued to improve, so did the number of children being adopted. During this time, the number of adoptions reached it statistical peak in 1970 with an estimated 175,000 annual adoptions and nearly 80 percent of them were arranged by adoption agencies.

Today, most adoptions involve some level of openness, which allows for some level of contact between the Birth Parents, Adoptive Parents, and the adoptee, both during and after the adoption. Although open adoptions have become embraced as benefitting all parties involved, it is a relatively new movement that started with the foundation of the Bastard Nation, a group that promoted adult adoptee’s rights to access their adoption records that were previously sealed. It took Oregon only two years to pass a ballot that allowed adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates. The continued trend towards open adoption benefits everyone involved, and here at Adoption Network, our goal is to help both Birth and Adoptive Parents find the right fit and level of openness that works best for them.

Transracial Adoption

The debate as to the importance of “race-matching” has been particularly contentious when it comes to black children being placed with white parents. The first recorded transracial adoption of a black child by white parents took place in Minnesota in 1948. In response to some campaigns promoting African-American adoptions as well as a growing number of white parents inquiring about transracial adoption, some agencies began placing African-American children with white parents. However in 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a stand against black children being placed in white homes for any reason and this reignited the debate as to whether or not transracial adoption was helpful or harmful. This stand gained momentum and crippled the domestic transracial adoption of black children into white families, but over time, the number has steadily increased and while there is still some pushback from some people, the trend suggests that we will continue to have more mix-raced families in the future.

The most notable exception to race-matching was the Indian Adoption Program that sought to match as many Native American children with non-Native American families as possible. Although the Indian Adoption Program only lasted for about 10 years, the practice was continued until 1978 when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).ICWA made it incredibly difficult for anyone without tribal association to adopt a Native American child. This was because ICWA defined children as collective resources imperative to the survival of the tribes. It is a special case in America where adoption is typically determined on a case-by-case basis what is in the best interest of a child.

Transracial adoption can still provide some challenges, but with multi-ethnic families becoming increasingly common, so have transracial adoptions. All evidence points to transracial adoptions only becoming more and more accepted as time goes by.

International Adoption

International adoption within the United States really only kicked off after World War II. There were a sizeable number of children in other countries who had been fathered by United States soldiers, and many of them were ostracized and neglected in their home countries as a result of their mixed-race heritage. The interest in these children within the United States grew as knowledge about their existence spread and before long, religious groups across the country were mobilized in an effort to give these children homes.

One of the key events in the early years of international adoption came in 1955 when Henry and Bertha Holt of rural Oregon adopted 8 Korean “war orphans” through a special act of Congress. They later founded Holt International Children’s services, a charitable organization that is still around today.

As the years progressed, we saw the numbers of international adoptions continue to climb, but these numbers received another large boost as a result of China opening their orphanages to the Western World in 1992 in the wake of the fallout from their “one-child policy” in which they were left with thousands of abandoned daughters. The number of international adoptions continued to climb until it peaked in 2004 when families in the United States adopted 22,990 children. Since 2004 there has been a significant drop in international adoptions that can be attributed largely to countries around the world closing their doors to international parents seeking to adopt. Another reason for the decline is the systemic corruption that pervaded the industry. There were concerns from the beginning about the lack of oversight involved in international adoptions, but over time people came to realize that while there were some still facilitating adoptions with the children’s wellbeing in mind, there were too many that were not. In response, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention) became an international treaty that provides important safeguards to protect the best interests of children, Birth Parents and Adoptive Parents who are involved in intercountry adoptions.

International adoptions have also helped to destigmatize transracial adoption within the United States, since a lot of international adoptions also fall under the umbrella of transracial adoption.

Adoption of Special Needs Children

Much like racially and ethnically mixed children, special needs children were categorized as “hard-to-place,” and there was very little effort put into finding them homes until after World War II. However, following World War II there was a concerted effort to begin placing these “hard-to-place” kids with families, but it was an uphill battle to combat the old views (that were based on eugenics/the belief that bloodlines were to be maintained and therefore only healthy “normal” white babies should be available for adoption).

In 1955, the Child Welfare League of America announced at their national conference that the era of special needs adoption had arrived. In that same year they also produced what would be a landmark study of special needs adoptions. But it was the 1960’s that brought about the most positive and substantial change to how special needs adoption was perceived.

In the 1960’s we saw a number of parent-led organizations that were invaluable in publicizing the needs of potential adoptees with special needs. In the mid 1960’s there was an effort to find homes for these “hard-to-place” children through single-parent adoptions (at the time this was very uncommon, as there was still significant stigma surrounding single parents). By the end of the 1960’s there were nearly 50 organizations whose goal was to advocate for those “hard-to-place” children that were looking for homes.

“Adoption is appropriate for any child without family ties who is in need of a family and for whom a family can be found to meet his need.” – Pearl Buck. The progression for special needs adoptions, like transracial and international adoption, has come from people challenging the notion that a family is “supposed to look” like any one thing. A family is whatever you make it, so make it your own.

Present-Day Adoption

Adoption has come a long way in the last 200 years or so. In the past families were prized for homogeny, today we celebrate families simply for the love they share for one another. There is no one way that a family should look, and there are more options and paths to attain the family that you always dreamed of than there ever have been in the past.

It goes without saying that there are still some leftover stigmas and challenges surrounding families that don’t align with the nuclear families of old. But times are changing, and they are changing fast. All the evidence supports the fact that people will continue to become more accepting and welcoming of what is different.

Adoption Network is committed to furthering the noble cause of adoption, and is fully prepared to both Birth Mothers and Adoptive Parents throughout the entirety of the adoption process. Don’t hesitate to give us a call if you have any questions at all. You can reach us at 1-866-595-9182.

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