A History of Adoption

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Most 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 it’s 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 adoption—tbe adopting parents—might 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 agency’s 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 haven’t read these various stories lately, go back and consider the points of view of birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees.
     Children’s 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 children’s 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 adoptee’s desires here! To seek one’s 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 people’s 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 encouraged.
     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 today’s practices. Around this time, thousands of children were shipped off by the “children’s 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 child’s 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 couldn’t 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 Fisher’s The Search for Anna Fisher, Rod McKuen’s Finding My Father, and Betty Jean Lifton’s 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 Albuquerque’s 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 more information.
     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 adoptee’s life whether physically separated or reunited.”

Excerpted from the October 1998 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 1998 Operation Identity