Adoption in the United States

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Adoption in the United States

Adoption in the United States is a social and legal process whereby a parentchild relationship is established between people not related by birth. American adoption practices have changed radically over the past two and a half centuries. Originally an informal, spontaneous occurrence comparable to apprenticeship, adoption has become a formalized legal institution governed by a patchwork of statutes in fifty separate state jurisdictions with increasing federal involvement. During the last century the professionalization of social workers emerged, along with uniform standards for regulating adoptions by the U.S. Children's Bureau and the Child Welfare League of America. Adoption has gone through a revolution since World War II, from an elitist institution that restricted who could adopt and who was adopted to one that that is more inclusive and diverse. Moreover, the past fifty years have seen a movement away from secrecy to an embrace of open adoption and legislative mechanisms for uniting adult adopted people with their biological parents. All of these trends toward inclusiveness and openness are likely to continue. In spite of all these changes, however, Americans' cultural bias toward blood ties remains pervasive, and adoption is still viewed by many as a form of second-rate kinship.

Adoption touches upon almost every conceivable aspect of American society and culture and commands our attention by the enormous number of people who have a direct intimate connection to it. Some experts put the number as high as six out of every ten Americans. Others estimate that about 1.5 million children in the United States live with adoptive parents, and that between 2 and 4 percent of American families include an adopted child. According to incomplete and partial estimates in 1992, there were a total of 126,951 domestic adoptions, of which 53,525 (42 percent) were kinship or stepparent adoptions. Because of the dearth of healthy white infants for adoption, 20,099 adoptions in 2002 were intercountry adoptions, slightly more than half coming from Russia and China. In short, adoption is a ubiquitous social institution in American society, creating invisible relationships with biological and adoptive kin that touch far more people than is usually imagined.

Although adoptions took place in the United States before the twentieth century, they were infrequent and achieved through private legislative action. Children who were adopted in the colonial period or more frequently in the nineteenth century typically ranged in age from six to sixteen years of age. Most of them were boys who had been placed out to work on farms. By the mid-nineteenth century, state legislatures began enacting the first general adoption statutes, which were designed to ease the burden legislatures assumed from the many private adoption acts they were forced to enact. The most important of these statutes was called An Act to Provide for the Adoption of Children, America's first adoption statute. It was enacted in 1851 in Massachusetts. The enactment of the Massachusetts Adoption Act marked a watershed in the history of the American family and society. Instead of defining the parentchild relationship exclusively in terms of blood kinship, it was now legally possible to create a family by assuming the responsibility and emotional outlook of a biological parent. In the next quarter century, the Massachusetts Adoption Act came to be regarded as a model statute, and twenty-five states enacted similar laws.

Progressive-Era Reforms

The true beginning of child welfare reform in adoption began during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) as a response to the nation's high infant mortality rate, itself a product of the unsanitary conditions in vastly overcrowded industrial cities that lacked medical knowledge of contagious diseases. Most infants were born at home, but single mothers often lacked that option, and their babies were born in crowded maternity homes or public infant hospitals where mortality rates reached nearly 98 percent. Galvanized by this knowledge, philanthropic women reformers in New York City founded the first private adoption agencies, such as the Alice Chapin Adoption Nursery (1911) and the Child Adoption Committee (1916, later called Louise Wise Services). Similar institutions, such as the Cradle Society (1924) would soon follow. These private adoption agencies, however, handled only a small minority of adoptions. More typical were institutions such as the State Charities Aid Association of New York or the Children's Home Society of Washington. During this period and in the following years of the Depression, adoptive parents preferred to take in girls, and 50 percent of adoptive parents preferred children above three years of age.

Progressive reformers also lobbied state legislators for measures to safeguard children, which heralded the expanded role of the state in regulating adoptions. In 1917, lawmakers enacted the Children's Code of Minnesota, which became the model for state adoption laws in the next two decades. It was the first state law that required an investigation to determine whether a proposed adoptive home was suitable for a child. The statute also ordered that adoption records be closed to the public, but not to the adoption triad: birth parents, adopted people, and adoptive parents. Three other reforms in adoption practice and law mark the Progressive Era. Child welfare advocates were successful in lobbying many states for the removal of the word "illegitimate" from birth certificates and inventing the amended birth certificate to shield children from public opprobrium of their adoption. Child welfare reformers were also successful in advocating that children should not be separated from the family of origin for light or transient reasons, such as poverty.

Progressive-era social workers institutionalized their reform efforts in two public and private national organizations. In 1912 the U.S. Children's Bureau was established, and until World War II was the leading provider of information about adoption. It was also instrumental in setting standards for adoption agencies and guiding state legislatures, social workers, researchers, and the public in every aspect of adoption. In 1921, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), a private, nonprofit institution, was founded; it would become increasingly important in setting adoption standards for public and private agencies. By the 1950s the Children's Bureau had been eviscerated by Congress, and the CWLA emerged as the leading authority in the field of adoption.

Acting as a counterweight to the reform and popularization of adoption practices before World War II was Americans' cultural definition of kinship, which was based on bloodties and stigmatized adoption as socially unacceptable. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a broad segment of the American public believed that adoption was an "unnatural" action that created ersatz or second-rate families. Medical science contributed to popular cultural prejudices against adopting a child by coupling the stigma of illegitimacy with adoption. After 1910 the rise of the eugenics movement and psychometric testing led adopted children to be linked to inherited mental defects. Adopted children were thus doubly burdened: they were assumed to be illegitimate and thus medically tainted and they were adopted, thus lacking the all important blood link to their adoptive parents. The result was that during the Progressive Era the vast majority of dependent children continued to reside in orphanages, rather than being placed in foster care oradopted.

PostWorld War II

The upheaval of World War II was a watershed in the history of adoption. Following the war, social workers and state bureaucrats began for the first time to shroud adoption records in secrecy, preventing adoption triad members from gaining access to adoption records. This was a gradual process that was not completed until the 1980s, because each state legislature acted on its own and adoption agencies sometimes continued informal policies that ignored state statutes mandating secrecy. Another change in the postwar period was adoptive parents' preference for boys rather than girls, wishing perhaps to replace symbolically the men who went off to war. But by the end of the war, the shortage of adoptable children led prospective adoptive parents to be more flexible, and many more would-be adoptive parents were willing to accept children of either sex.

The demand by childless couples for infants also led to radical changes in adoption practices. The baby boom, beginning in the mid-1940s and reaching its peak in the late 1950s, saw a dramatic rise in marriages and births and created an increased demand for adoptable children. Adoption agencies were inundated with requests, and adoptions rose spectacularly: between 1937 and 1945 adoptions grew threefold, from 16,000 to 50,000 annually; a decade later the number of adoptions had nearly doubled again to 93,000 and, by 1965 the number had increased to 142,000.

Although adoptions increased in number and popularity in the twenty years after World War II, the availability for adoption of white, out-of-wedlock infants declined radically in the decades after the 1960s. A number of factors were responsible for the decline, including the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), and many unwed mothers' decision not to relinquish their babies. These profound cultural, social, legal, and demographic changes in American society caused a substantial decline in the number of adoptions and precipitated important shifts in adoption policy. First, by 1975 adoption agencies across the nation began to stop taking requests for healthy, white infants. Social workers often informed prospective adoptive parents that they would likely have to wait three to five years for such a child. Second, social workers abandoned the idea of the "unadoptable" child and broadened the definition of adoptability to include any child who needed a family and for whom a family could be found. With the enlarged definition of adoptability, social workers for the first time initiated serious efforts to place children with special needsindividuals with physical or mental disabilities, minority and older children, and children born in foreign countriesin adoptive homes. Third, the shortage of infants available for adoption and the emphasis on minority adoption led social workers to practice transracial adoption. By 1965, transracial adoption had become known as the "little revolution," as adoption agencies all over the nation increasingly placed black babies with white families. Four years later, the CWLA revised its guidelines to reflect the new practice, unequivocally stating that agencies should not use race to determine the selection of an adoptive home. In 1971, transracial adoptions reached their peak, with 468 agencies reporting 2,574 such placements.

Transracial adoption was highly controversial. The first manifestation of discontent emerged in 1972 when the National Association of Black Social Workers denounced transracial adoption as cultural genocide; between then and 1975 only 831 transracial adoptions occurred. In the following years transracial adoptions declined steeply as child welfare workers chose to keep African-American children in foster care rather than place them with a white family, even though repeated studies demonstrated that transracial adoptions were successful. Reaction to social workers' discriminatory practices resulted in Congress enacting the Howard M. Metzenbaum Multiethnic Placement Act in 1994. The act prohibited adoption agencies from denying any person the opportunity to become an adoptive parent based solely on the person's race, color, or national origin.

A fourth consequence of the demographic decline in babies available for adoption was to further redefine the concept of adoptable children to become more inclusive and less concerned with "matching" the physical, mental, racial, and religious characteristics of adoptable children with adoptive parents. Increasingly, the population of children available for adoption was composed of older children, members of minority groups, and children with special needs. In the 1990s, drug-exposed infants, children with AIDS, and infants born HIV positive were added to the special-needs category. Because social workers were often unable to find adoptive homes or unable to free them legally for adoption, these children, numbering some one hundred thousand at the end of the twentieth century, became fixtures in foster care, where they were shunted from one caretaker to another. This situation prompted Congress to pass the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, one of the first federal laws to address the problems of adopted children. Congress's landmark legislation mandated that child welfare agencies provide preplacement services, take steps to reunify children with their biological parents, and periodically review cases of children in long-term foster care. "Permanency planning" legislation, as it was called, had as its goal either to return children to their family of origin or place them in an adoptive home. By 1993 the federal government was distributing an estimated $100 million to forty states to fund this program. Consequently, there were an increasing number of older child and special-needs adoptions in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

A fifth consequence of the shortage of infants for couples to adopt was an increase in intercountry adoption. Since World War II, intercountry adoptions have increased tremendously, but they have been denounced by critics as a shameful admission of a nation's inability to care for its own people, exploitative of its poorest class, destructive of children's cultural and ethnic heritage, and riven by baby-selling scandals. Critics' objections were answered by the United States in 2000, when it ratified the Hague Convention, which sets standards and regulates intercountry adoption by placing adoption agencies under the scrutiny of the international community.

A sixth consequence of the demographic decline in infants has been a veritable revolution in the latter half of the twentieth century in adoption agencies' practices toward adoptive parents. In the past, social workers' standards were elitist and rigid. The vast majority of adoptive parents were Caucasian, heterosexual, childless, married couples. African-American couples who wanted to adopt either did so informally or through the few African-American orphanages which had been established; during the first half of the twentieth century they were routinely refused service by mainstream public and private adoption agencies. By 1997, African Americans adopted 38 percent of all children, disproving a popular belief that few African Americans choose to adopt. Caucasians adopt 28 percent of all children adopted, followed by Hispanics, who adopt 12 percent. Adoption agencies have also changed their policies radically to make adoption possible for a broader range of adults, including foster parents, older individuals, families with children (42%), single parents (4 percent), individuals with physical disabilities, and families across a broad economic range. Many of these changes have been controversial. The issue of gay or lesbian adoption did not emerge until 1973; before that, the fields of psychiatry and psychology had defined homosexuality as a mental disorder. And it was not until 1987 that a court allowed a gay adoption to take place. Subsequently, however, there has been an increasing trend toward inclusiveness regarding gay and lesbian adoptions.

A seventh effect of the decline in adoptable infants was open adoption, an innovation in adoption practice that began in the mid-1980s. In an effort to encourage birth mothers to relinquish their babies for adoption, caseworkers began allowing some birth mothers to decide who would parent their child. The result was open adoption, where the identities of birth and adoptive parents were exchanged and, in some cases, continuing contact of varying degrees between the parties was encouraged. It has become increasingly popular, commanding center stage in adoption practice. Between 1990 and 2002, a majority of adoption agencies in the United States had moved toward fully disclosed open adoptions.

Accompanying the revolution in adoption practices during the last three decades of the twentieth century was the birth of the adoption search movement. In 1971, adoption rights became a major social issue when the movement's most vocal and visible leader, Florence Fisher, who searched for twenty years before finding her birth mother, founded the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). ALMA's example sparked the creation of hundreds of other adoptee search groups across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. By 1978, the number of such groups led to the formation in the United States of a national umbrella organization, the American Adoption Congress (AAC). By 1996, complacency within the movement sparked a mini-revolt, resulting in the creation of the Internet-based adoption activist organization Bastard Nation, which successfully challenged the AAC leadership by passing a citizens' ballot initiative, Measure 58, in Oregon that gave adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Research suggests that women make up 80 percent of adult adopted persons who search for members of their birth families.

Adoption rights activists, composed mostly of adopted adults and birth mothers, contend they are entitled to identifying information in the adoption record. Through court challenges, reform of state legislation, and state initiatives, they have pursued their agenda to repeal laws that sealed adoption records. Although only four states, Kansas, Alaska, Oregon, and Alabama, provide for unconditional access to adult adoptees' original birth certificates, the vast majority of other states provide some mechanismvoluntary adoption registries or state-appointed confidential intermediary systemswhere adoptees and original family members can meet each other. Nevertheless, this issue remains controversial because the rights of some birth parents, who have been promised confidentiality by adoption agencies, clash with the rights of adopted adults, who want unrestricted access to the information in their adoption records.

See also: Foundlings; Orphans.


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internet resources

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. 2002. Available from <>.

Legal Information Institute. 2002. "Adoption: An Overview." Available from <>.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. 2002. "The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse." Available from <>.

U.S. Department of State. 2002. "International Adoption." Available from <>.

E. Wayne Carp