A History of Adoption
by Barbara Free,
people in our society today, unless they are active in some adoption connection,
assume that adoptions have been closed for hundreds of years, surrounded
by secrecy and official legal documentation. If tbey have heard of open adoption
at all, they assume its a very new and radical idea.
In fact, closed adoptions with amended birth
certificates and legal regulations are a fairly recent innovation that gained
momentum in the 1930s and later, and many adoptions were open prior to that.
The Open Adoption Book, by Bruce Rappaport, states: Closed adoption
procedures were born in the late nineteenth century ... A strong social reform
movement sought protection and help for unwed preganant women and their
illegitimate children through the founding of state-licensed adoption agencies
... The founders of the first adoption agencies felt compassion for the plight
of unwed mothers but still considered them sinners and social outcasts. The
other party to the adoptiontbe adopting parentsmight have been
consulted about the placement of the children, but they ... were barren and,
in those days at least, their infertility was seen as the result of being
cursed by God. The chldren themselves were too young to have any say. Only
the agencys own social workers had the legitimacy and social standing
to make the critical decisions in each adoption. Many people came to
accept these ideas, and believed in them as facts. We did not consider other
cultures beliefs or practices, or check to see if these new practices
and laws made sense. In fact, in many cultures, if adoption exists, it tends
to be much more casual than in our own. So, a review of the history of adoption
is in order.
Folk stories and many different religions have
adoption stories. Greek and Roman mythologies are replete with adoption stores,
including Oedipus and Hercules, and the story of Romulus and Remus and the
founding of Rome. The Old Testament gives us the Sara-Abraham-Hagar triangle,
the Moses story, and the story of Esther, all alluding to various adoption
customs. If you havent read these various stories lately, go back and
consider the points of view of birth parents, adoptive parents, and
Childrens stories of adoption include
Tom Thumb, Pinnochio, The Ugly Duckling, Peter and the Wolf (intrafamily
adoption), and, of course, numerous step-family stories. For an adopted child,
hearing these stories may be either terrifying or comforting. Newer
childrens books specifically about adoption may also bring about different
reactions in different children, so parents may want to consider carefully
before buying a book they think is wonderful.
As for our own adoption laws, they were based
primarily on Roman and Babylonian law (the Code of Hammurabi). To quote:
If a man takes a child into his home, adopt and rear him as a son,
the grown-up son may not be demanded back. If a man adopt a child as his
son, after he has taken him, he transgresses against his foster father, that
adopted son shall return to the house of his own father. No mention
of females, or of the adoptees desires here! To seek ones origins
was seen as dangerous, disgraceful, and disloyal, a point of view held by
many to this day. Although most U.S. laws are derived from British common
law, adoption is an exception. In fact, adoption was not legal in Britain
until 1926, because the laws of primogeniture were considered very important,
and the apprenticeship system was substituted for legal adoption. Victorian
society was very concerned about the legitimacy of heirs, and the British
rulers had long had traditions of declaring potential heirs illegitimate,
or murdering them to get rid of the threat they posed. The lack of legal
adoption in Britain led to workhouses, virtual slavery for orphans and the
homeless, and eventually to shiploads of children being sent to Canada and
the U.S. to be bound out as child labor.
The Puritans brought the apprenticeship system
to America, with their own unique twists. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, ever
eager to regulate peoples lives, passed laws giving the colony the
right to take children away from their biological parents if the children
behaved in rude, stubborn, or unruly ways, and then place them in another
home. Connecticut provided for the death penalty for [a] rebellious
son and for any child who should smite or curse his parents, although
in practice, the child was usually placed with another family member. At
the same time, all manner of spousal abuse and child abuse was allowed, even
Orphans in the colonies were usually given
to relatives according to the will of the deceased, or if there were no
relatives, they were bound out. The term adoption came into usage
during the middle of the 19th century and referred to general child placement,
with relatives or others. No legal or binding provisions were in place, but
emotionally, they had the same effects as todays practices. Around
this time, thousands of children were shipped off by the childrens
societies to available homes all over the prairies. Newspapers carried
advertisements, and even living parents sold or gave away children. Orphan
trains full of these children ran West all the time. The first legal
regulations in the U.S. came about because of the need to control the
distribution of this cheap child labor. However, history also records private
individual adoptions, recognized by the courts, no doubt motivated by love
and concern, by families wanting to recognize the child as an heir.
The 19th-century reform groups, deeply moral
and religious, believed that unsavory and illicit origins of a child
could be overcome through placement in a severely upright, spiritual
environment. With the passage of the Social Security Act in 1936, there
was a need for persons to have birth certificates, and states began to regulate
and document all sorts of things, including births and adoptions. Adoption
agencies began to proliferate, and the Child Welfare League of America was
formed, and began to set the standards for regulations. Independent, private
placements continued, however. In the 1940s, some states began the practice
of sealed records to conceal an adopted childs origins;
at the same time, fewer children were available due to the Depression, World
War II, and birth control, all of which lowered birth rates.
Black-market adoptions began to fluorish, as adoptive parents
became desperate and poor birth mothers were tempted by money and secrecy.
The interests of infertile couples became primary, with agencies favoring
wealthy, white, well-educated couples, with the same religion as the agency.
Non-white families continued to have informal, intrafamily adoption customs.
The importance of environment over heredity was emphasized to combat Nazi-like
ideas of superior genetics, yet agencies went to great lengths
to match parents and children in background and looks so
no one would suspect. Adoptive families were given less and less
information about the child, and the chosen child story was
encouraged, along with the car crash story, and the your
father was killed in the war and your mother couldnt afford to keep
you story, even though the child may have been born in 1947!
In the 1950s and 60s, there were more
babies available, if the adopting parents were affluent and white. By this
time, most states had sealed records, and independant adoptions were not
legal in some states. They still are not in several states, including Colorado.
In some states, a private adoption was referred to as gray market,
implying that it was not desirable and involved some subterfuge or profit.
In the 1970s, as effective contraception became
readily available, even to single women, and abortion became legal, attitudes
began to change, and mothers began to keep their babies, partly in response
to closed records and policies that shamed them. These societal changes led
to fewer babies being available for adoption, and, in turn, changes in policies.
Agencies began advising that adopted children be told early on of their adoption,
but still were not given meaningful, let alone identifying, information about
their birth parents, and many adoptive parents were given false information.
In the 50s and 60s, the Child Welfare League made policy statements
that adoptive parents should be told the strengths of the birth parents,
but no negative information, including medical information. This was changed
in 1971 to include relevant medical history but no physical descriptions
of birth parents. Despite sealed records and lack of information, adult adoptees
have always found ways to find their birth families, through bribery, slips
of the tongue, finding secret papers, gossipy neighbors or relatives, or
hiring detectives. A woman named Jean Paton did a study in 1954 of persons
adopted prior to 1934, and found many who had searched, some successfully.
She went on to found Orphan Voyage, one of the first support and search groups,
and wrote several books about her research and her own search.
Books such as Florence Fishers The
Search for Anna Fisher, Rod McKuens Finding My Father, and
Betty Jean Liftons Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience,
were published, and people began to hear of searches and reunions. The
Adoption Triangle, from which some of the material here is taken, advocated
open records and open adoptions. Dear Birthmother, in which a long-time
adoption worker tells of her experiences with open adoptions, came out in
1982, and the movement toward open adoptions and trying to get records unsealed,
or at least make searches legal and practical, began to gather momentum.
Still, most states, some agencies, and some political and religious groups
continue, to this day, to oppose any changes in policy or laws. Currently,
only Alaska and Kansas have records open to adult adoptees, and only Kansas
to birth parents. Tennesse changed its law to open records, but a long and
costly appeal process tried to block that. At last word, the appeal was thrown
out, but the group is taking it to federal court. Changes are pending in
several other states (see also page 8).
At this time, there are many search registries
in the U.S. and Canada, some maintained by states or provinces, some run
by non-profit organizations, such as the ISRR and Concerned United Birthparents,
and ALMA. These registries do not conduct searches, but are passive registries,
where they report a match if both parties happen to register. There are also
numerous support groups, such as Albuquerques own Operation Identity,
founded in 1979. Many persons are also conducting their own searches on the
Internet, with or without any live support group, which is resulting in other
issues and trends.
International adoptions, which became more
common after World War II, has gone through different phases (some would
say fads) as far as policies, countries of preference, and so on. There is
a great deal of controversy about international, intercultural or interracial
adoption at this time. Genetic testing and adoption connections will come
into more public discussion, no doubt, as the Human Genome Project produces
There has been relatively little research done
on the long-term effects, both positive and negative, of adoption for all
members of the adoption triad, particularly the effects of closed adoptions
and sealed records, not so much the issues of placement and bonding, but
the life-long issues. It would be helpful to have meaningful studies, and
to compare them with studies that remain to be done concerning open adoptions
and their long-term results. To quote from Dear Birthmother, Our
approach revolves around ... three concepts: 1. Adoption is a lifetime
experience; 2. Adoptive parents will never totally parent their child, and
adoptees will never be totally parented by their adoptive parents; and 3.
Birthparents remain a part of the adoptees life whether physically
separated or reunited.
Excerpted from the October 1998
edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 1998 Operation Identity