Adoption Research Paper

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Adoption in the United States Research Paper

Adoption is the legal process whereby a child is taken into and raised as a member of a family. While the practice is as old as human history itself, the means and ends of adoption have changed over time. Throughout much of history, adoption has been used to accommodate the interests of the adopters or parents by cementing familial or political alliances, securing youthful labor, ensuring continuation of lineages, or getting rid of unwanted children who were a financial burden to the biological parents.

Adoption began to change with the rise of the modern nuclear family in the nineteenth century. Social historians have explored the changing nature of the family over the past half-century or so, pointing to industrialization and urbanization as the key factors in this change. Before the urban and industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century, families were often extended, with non-nuclear kin living in a single household. Moreover, the household was largely oriented toward production, whether of food in the countryside or artisanal goods in urban areas. While relations among family members were no doubt based on emotional ties, these were not primary. Instead, each member had a role in the household’s larger productive enterprise. Children, though loved and cared for, also had to be productive members for the household to survive. Households frequently adopted children—quite frequently, in fact, given the high rate of mortality and the large number of orphans—with an eye to what they could contribute productively.

Industrialization and urbanization changed the structure and dynamics of the American family. Family households —first in cities and then, to a lesser degree, on farms—became less units of production than units of consumption. As their productive roles disappeared, families focused more on nurturing the young and preparing them for adulthood, when they would have to make their own way in the world, outside the household. There was a new emphasis on education. With urbanization families also shrank, as large households became too unwieldy, and lower child mortality rates reduced the need for many children to ensure at least some would reach adulthood.

The new nuclear families, thus, became more child-oriented, with childhood seen as a distinct and precious phase in human development. Children were nurtured emotionally and educated for the needs of modern society. And with these changes in the family came changes in adoption. The primary focus increasingly moved from the needs and interests of the adopters to the needs of the adoptee.

History of Adoption

Historical references to adoption, dating back to Hammurabi’s Code in Mesopotamia during the second millennium b.c.e. and the Hebrew Bible, largely emphasized its contractual nature and the economic investment in raising the child. One of Hammurabi’s laws reads, “if a man adopt a child and to his name as son, and rear him, this grown son cannot be demanded back again.” The ancient Hindus and Chinese employed adoption to ensure passage to heaven, and in ancient Rome childless politicians commonly adopted to meet the requirements for political officeholders to be heads of households. In societies ranging from pre-Columbian America to medieval Europe, adoption, like marriage, was used to solidify political alliances between families and clans and guard against invasion as a legitimate form of hostage taking.

Although other influences have affected the practice in America, U.S. policies regarding adoption were originally based on European customs. These policies were informed by a belief in the inherent superiority of blood kinship and existed primarily to ensure inheritance rights. This belief was stimulated in large part by Catholic and Protestant reformers in the medieval and early modern era seeking to make church-sanctioned marriage the sole arena of sexual activity. They saw adoption as a way around these mandates, especially as nobles commonly used adoption to include their illegitimate sons in their inheritance. Horror stories of accidental incest warned of the dangers of separating legitimate family.

Unwanted or unplanned children were often viewed as a commodity in the medieval and early modern eras. Those who were healthy were useful as laborers, and many were “bound out” or indentured in exchange for board and, with luck, some type of education. The English created a tiered system of apprenticeship. The merchant classes paid a fee to apprentice their sons to lawyers or doctors, middle-class parents sent their children to learn a craft to avoid “spoiling” them with too much love, and orphaned or abandoned children were bound out to families to work and be educated. Although this system functioned in place of foster care for many families, it was not limited to those who could not support their children. Affluent families also used the practice to secure training for their children. As a system of apprenticeship, this form of “adoption” was not stigmatized since its intended purpose of uplifting the condition of the child and family was clear.

Involuntary apprenticeship was based on the Elizabethan “Poor Laws,” derived from the doctrine of parens patriae (“government as parent”), the idea that the king was the “father” of his people and as such was granted the right to intervene in the lives of his subjects for their benefit. The poor laws were designed to address vagrancy and general poverty. “Overseers of the Poor,” functioning in much the same way as modern social workers, were vested with the power to remove children from families not able to care for them properly. Colonial America copied the English Poor Law system, and during the mid-1700s, the Overseer “placed out” 7.3 percent of children living in Frederick County, Virginia.

Adoption as a formal and permanent situation was not generally recognized or recorded in America until the midnineteenth century, when Massachusetts established what is considered the nation’s first adoption law. Because adoption was only loosely understood to be for the benefit of the child and frequently resulted in situations of abuse, the 1851 law ensured that the adoptive parents would provide a suitable home for the child; this was the extent of the description, however, and “suitability” was a matter left to the discretion of the individual judge. Organizations existed to house orphaned children, but before 1800 most of these were almshouses, which served all the poor; children were housed with criminals and the insane.

These desperate circumstances for children inspired the creation of orphanages, organized primarily by religious institutions. The orphanages, however, did not solve the problems of orphaned and abandoned children, and many of these organizations suffered the same problems as the poorhouses. Poverty and crime continued to threaten children, and seemed to be increasing as the growing immigrant population sought opportunity in East Coast cities.

In response to this problem, Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York in 1853. Brace believed that the orphanages, rife with disease, overcrowding, and unsympathetic and overworked staff, could not solve the problems of urban children. He believed the only suitable place for a child was in a family, preferably a Protestant farming family that embodied what he viewed as the quintessential American values. In 1854 he sent the first “orphan train” to the Midwest with 138 children to be placed with farm families. Although his intention was sincere, his methods were questionable. Children’s Aid Society workers combed the ghettos of New York picking up children to be placed with little evidence of whether their biological parents wanted them or were capable of raising them. They wrangled children away from immigrants who often did not speak English or understand what they were consenting to. By 1890, an estimated 84,000 children had been placed in this way.

Although Brace believed he was “saving” children, even he ultimately admitted the problems with his system. Orphan trains simply dropped children off in rural areas of the Midwest and West. Prospective parents would gather at the depots, selecting the child or children of their choice, and taking them home. There were no followup services whatsoever. Eventually Brace was criticized from all sides. Child welfare reformers accused him of stealing children; representatives of the orphan train destinations accused him of dumping “poison” in their states, the results of which were dramatic increases in vagrancy and prison population in those areas. Critics of Brace rightfully drew attention to the lack of continuing services, hasty placements, overt racism, and needless dissolution of poor, urban families.

In 1863, the Society for the Protection of Destitute Roman Catholic Children in the City of New York was founded to ensure that dependent Catholic children would be brought up in the faith. An important aspect of this organization was its focus on maintaining the natal family, an aspect largely overlooked by the Children’s Aid Society, which, as noted earlier, often took children away from impoverished, urban families without their consent. Casework was introduced as a way of creating a record of a family’s condition and progress under the assistance of the fledgling organization. In 1883 the Presbyterian minister Reverend Martin Van Buren Van Arsdale founded the American Education Aid Society (later, the National Children’s Home Society). Van Arsdale understood that families were the best place for children, but unlike Brace he incorporated diligent investigative casework and strived to maintain the natal family at all costs. He introduced the idea of a trained staff, screening prospective parents before adoption, insisting on written acts of surrender by the biological parents or current guardians, and maintaining detailed records of all placed children. In 1886, Van Arsdale also created the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society.

The Progressive Era saw the influx of a large number of women into the field of social reform. Educated in elite women’s colleges during the 1880s and 1890s, these social reformers galvanized their strength toward improving all aspects of American life, especially the condition of women and children. These women were responding to a growing problem in America. Rising populations of immigrant poor in the country’s rapidly growing cities contributed to a rising number of orphans. Recognizing the problem, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in 1909, inviting a number of female social reformers to participate. The most important outcome of the conference was the establishment in 1912 of the U.S. Children’s Bureau (USCB). As its charter stated, the bureau was established to investigate and report “upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people.”

The USCB was the first federal institution devoted to the treatment and condition of children. Operated almost entirely by women, it was initially not allowed to create policy or distribute funds. Instead, it served as a databank for information on child welfare in America. USCB was the first organization to collect data on agency-sponsored and private adoptions, the treatment of children in orphanages and foundling homes, as well as a host of other statistics. It monitored media representation of adoption and child welfare and diligently controlled public perception of child welfare practices in both the public and private sector. Early staff members such as Florence Kelly and Martha May Eliot helped make the USCB a powerful and influential source of information on child and family welfare in America. Eventually the USCB was authorized to provide pensions and assistance specifically for mothers with dependent children under the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Infancy and Maternity Protection Act. To this day the USCB remains a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Child Welfare League of America, founded in 1921, supplemented its work in the private sector.

Although most families who adopt now typically ask for infants, this was not possible before the advent of feeding formula in the 1920s. Infants were placed in foundling homes, where the mortality rate was often as high as 95 percent. At the urging of the USCB, many states passed laws prohibiting the separation of mother and child before the age of 6 months. After World War I and the great influenza pandemic of 1918–20, birth rates were unusually low. This spurred an interest in adoption, especially of infants, but the many reforms made to improve the safety of children had also made the process lengthy and invasive for many who simply wished to start a family. Thus private adoptions surged during this period.

“Black market” adoptions arranged by private brokers generated huge profits. Largely unregulated, brokers sought out pregnant, destitute women and coerced them into giving up their children when they were weak and vulnerable. Brokers often took payments from the mothers, for the temporary care of their infant children, and from the prospective parents, for the privilege of a smooth, private process. The USCB lobbied tirelessly to regulate these practices, and the number of adoption agencies increased in an attempt to compete. Eventually adoption laws were amended to ensure the fitness of the placement in court, before an adoption could be finalized. These laws are still in effect today.

Black market adoptions, the association with criminality, the high mortality rate of the foundling homes, and the abuse suffered by many children all played into a growing stigmatization of adoption. Medical science contributed further with the theory of eugenics, which proposed that negative traits are inherited and persons who carry them should be discouraged from reproducing. Families were terrified of introducing “bad blood” into their families. In 1912, Henry H. Goddard, director of the Research Laboratory of the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey, for Feeble-minded Girls and Boys, published his influential study The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. The study suggested children were highly likely to inherit the social pathology of their parents. At the same time, early proponents of intelligence testing portrayed strong links, debunked by later advocates of such testing, between unmarried motherhood and feeble-mindedness.

The boom period following World War II created a renewed interest in adoption, although it was mainly limited to infants. The diligent work of the USCB and other organizations in establishing uniform adoption practices, including a guarantee that the children were not forcibly removed from their biological parents and the adopting family is emotionally and financially sound, played an enormous part in making adoption safer and more socially accepted.

By 1950, the number of adoptions in America had soared to some 80,000 annually, from just 5,000 or so in the 1930s. Couples eager to start families and share their success with those less fortunate embraced adoption as a benevolent alternative. In contrast to the caution suggested by social reformers after World War I, adoption was now enthusiastically supported as the most sensible option for all concerned: unwed mothers were relieved of a burden they clearly could not handle, children were given a fresh start with two loving parents, and childless couples were able to form families, an institution closely linked with patriotism at the time. This enthusiasm lasted through the mid-1960s, but public opinion again turned against adoption by the 1970s.

Several factors played a role in this change of attitude. First and foremost was the women’s movement. Prochoice activists came to view adoption as the enemy of abortion. Prevailing feminist opinion portrayed adoption as unnecessarily burdening a woman with the pain of separation from a child she had developed a relationship with during pregnancy. Black Nationalism, supported by the National Association of Black Social Workers, found fault with transracial adoptions that became more prevalent with the Civil Rights movement for further divesting black children of their cultural heritage. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 also threatened the practice of closed adoption, which prohibited children from learning their biological parents’ identity, complicating adoption for mothers who wished to relinquish their children without fear of discovery, and changing societal views of sexuality and the family made single-parent households more common and acceptable. From 1970 to 1975, legal adoptions by unrelated persons dropped nearly 50 percent, from a high of 89,000 in 1970 to 48,000 in 1975. In the latter year, the federal government stopped collecting information on the number of adoptions, but later estimates suggest that annual total has remained fairly constant.

During the next 20 years, several important events significantly affected adoption policy. In 1980, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act offered significant financial assistance to states that supported subsidy programs for families willing to adopt children with special needs. In 1989, the United Nations held its Convention on the Rights of the Child, inspiring the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption in 1993, both of which examined and extended the rights of children throughout the world. In 1994, the Multiethnic Placement Act (later revised as the Adoption Promotion and Stability Act of 1996) addressed issues concerning interracial adoption, finally concluding that race could not be considered at all when evaluating placement. By 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, while representing a child-centered approach, once again legitimized adoption as a sensible alternative to family reunification when families could not guarantee stability. It did this by forging stronger ties between adopting families and government and private, nonprofit social welfare agencies. More recently, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 granted foreign-born adoptees automatic citizenship on entrance to the United States. This last act has spurred a dangerous expansion of Internet adoptions, reminiscent of the orphan trains.

Experts say poorly regulated Internet adoptions can and have led to instances of children being taken from their biological parents without adequate safeguards concerning the biological parents’ willingness to give their children up for adoption. At the same time, Internet adoptions often occur without sufficient assurance that the child will be placed in an emotionally nurturing home.

Current State of Adoption in America

The Child Welfare League of America defines adoption as “the method provided by law to establish the legal relationship of parent and child between persons who are not so related by birth.” Appropriate adoption services include assisting birth parents with placement, placing children in adoptive homes, and maintaining the adoptive home once it has been established. These services often involve medical and legal personnel, as well as an array of counseling services employed by all members of the adoption triad (birth or natal parents, prospective adoptive parents, and adoptees).

Some estimates place the number of American children currently looking for adoptive placement at more than 100,000, of whom 60 percent could be qualified as “special needs”—that is, children whose mental, physical, or emotional problems make it more difficult to find adoptive families who can raise them with adequate financial, health, and emotional sustenance. Older children, minority children, children with mental, physical, or emotional handicaps, and siblings who should be adopted together are all children with special needs in adoption placement.

Adoption is frequently discussed in the same breath as foster care. A foster family agrees to take in a child and is compensated by the government. Foster homes are usually meant to be temporary waystations for the child until he or she can be formally adopted. Because foster care is not a permanent placement, the natal parents retain all legal rights over the child. Foster care is a temporary alternative for families struggling with other issues— including substance abuse problems or domestic violence—who are temporarily unable to care for their dependent children. Preadoptive placements differ from foster care in that they are viewed as probationary periods to test the feasibility of adoption before it becomes final. Unsuccessful preadoptive placements are referred to as “disrupted,” and termination of legal adoption is referred to as “dissolution.”

There are several types of adoption circumstances. “Stranger” adoptions refer to those placements in which the prospective parents have no preexisting relationship with the child. A large percentage of adoptions are placements within the blood family or by stepparents. In 1975, the National Center for Social Statistics estimated that 75 percent of private adoptions were made by stepparents.

Private adoptions, in contrast with agency adoptions, are arranged by independent organizations not affiliated with state or federal agencies such as the USCB, which assists local, state, and Indian tribal agencies in adoption. These services have grown alongside federally regulated adoption agencies, providing an alternative to the slow and often frustrating process of government-sponsored agencies. The Child Welfare League of America is the umbrella organization that provides regulation and standard practices for private adoption services. Its government-regulated counterpart is the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services. The two organizations work in concert to maintain safe, standardized adoption practices.

Adoption Controversies

Adoption in contemporary America is beset by a number of critical controversies, involving the degree to which adopted children can seek information on their biological parents, the role of public versus private institutions in adoptions, the rights of biological parents to reassert their guardianship over children they have given up for adoption, and whether nontraditional families—that is, families with gay parents or a single parent—have the right to adopt.

Open versus Closed Adoption

Open and closed adoption refer to the level of information shared within the adoption triad: biological parents, adoptive parents, and adopted child. In closed adoption, also known as traditional adoption, the adoptive parents have no contact with the natal parents, and information concerning the natal family is closed to the adoptee. The Freedom of Information Act has complicated this process. Under this law’s provisions, even “closed” adoptions have been “opened,” when records exist, at the insistence of the adoptee.

By contrast, “open” adoptions involve a spectrum of relationships between the natal parents and the child they gave up for adoption. At one end of the spectrum, families establish and maintain ongoing relationships. Often presents and photographs are exchanged, and in some cases the natal mother might even have some input in selecting the adoptive family. At the other end is simple disclosure of names, leaving further research to the discretion of the adoptee. Although little empirical research has been done on outcomes in adoption, studies suggest that both the adoptive family and adopted child have more empathic views of the relinquishing family in open adoptions. It is also believed that open adoption shortens the grieving process for the natal mother as more information about the placement gives her a greater sense of control, especially if she has some input in the placement. Openness advocates also maintain that children who are aware of the circumstances leading to their adoptions will view the experience less as a rejection by the birth mother. That knowledge can result in fewer adjustment problems, stronger self-esteem, and a healthy relationship with the two families, fostering a more secure personal identity.

Supporters of traditional adoption suggest that open arrangements can complicate the process of identity formation by potentially dividing the adopted child’s loyalties. For adoptive parents, openness may result in a weaker familial bond with the child. For natal mothers, continuing contact may prolong the grief process, creating expectations that cannot be fulfilled by the adoptive family while preventing her from moving on with her life.

Institutional versus Private Sources

Institutional adoption agencies operate strictly under the regulation and practices mandated by the federal government and overseen by the Children’s Bureau. Many prospective adoptive parents turn to private agencies because of the complicated procedures of government institutions. Both birth parents and prospective adoptive parents typically bring a sense of urgency to the process and, historically, the institutional process has been frustrating. This leads many to investigate other options.

The Child Welfare League of America is the oldest and largest private adoption resource, but many other private agencies have promised vulnerable and emotional parents a speedy, minimally invasive, and in some cases costly alternative. Currently the most pressing issue in private adoptions is the Internet. Online adoption agencies are nearly impossible to regulate, and legislation such as the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which promises immediate citizenship for all adopted children, make this practice ripe for abuse on all sides. Families who have been unable to adopt through traditional venues have turned to the Internet, but stories of abuse are common. Kimberly and Belinda, for example, were 6-month-old twins adopted twice through the Caring Heart adoption web site in 2001. Couples in the United States and Great Britain paid the organization a combined total of $18,000 in fees to secure the children. The twins were settled with the first couple when the mother came to “visit”—and never brought them back. Despite the involvement of the federal government, web sites continue to advertise easy adoption. It is not only the prospective parents who are rendered vulnerable by this process. As in the case of the nineteenth century orphan trains, this practice casts desperate children into uncertain circumstances with little intervention or follow-up.

Rights of the Adoption Triad

Several issues surface when discussing rights in the adoption process, all of which are essentially driven by the need for security for all members of the adoption triad. The adoption process begins with the birth or natal mother; she must make the decision to relinquish the child. This decision has profound social and emotional ramifications. The choice has traditionally been easier if the mother can be guaranteed anonymity. This notion is at the root of virtually all state “safe haven” laws, which designate certain places such as hospitals and fire stations as safe places to turn over unwanted children for placement in foster homes and eventually with adopting families. Conversely, some mothers who initially feel unable to care for their children desire the option to change their minds about relinquishing their children. This was the case with “Baby Jessica” DeBoer, who in 1993 was removed from her adoptive home in Michigan when the natal parents changed their minds about the adoption. The Supreme Court upheld the decision on the grounds that “neither Michigan law nor federal law authorizes unrelated persons to retain custody of a child whose natural parents have not been found to be unfit, simply because they may be better able to provide for her future and her education.”

The “Baby Jessica” case also has clear implications for adoptive parents who enter into the adoptive agreement with reasonable expectations of security. They bring strong emotions to the process as well, many having made the decision to adopt after unsuccessful attempts at having children naturally or after a long wait for available children. Most agencies attempt to control for this possibility by mandating a probationary period during which expectations of permanency are suspended until the situation stabilizes. If, as in the Baby Jessica case, the parents change their minds after the probationary period, what becomes of the rights of the adoptive parents? Many who oppose adoption altogether use this case as evidence of its inherently flawed nature.

Finally, the rights of the adopted child are essential. Until the 1970s children in adoptive circumstances were accorded few rights at all. The prevailing belief was that if an orphaned child was unfortunate enough to be placed for adoption, almost any reasonably safe arrangement would be an improvement. The Freedom of Information Act, the UN Conference on the Rights of the Child, and other measures specifically devoted to children’s rights have created new opportunities for the adopted child’s self-determination. Research on successful identity formation have inspired children’s rights advocates to lobby for the right to research one’s parents (“openness”) without obstacle, as well as giving older children input in the placement selection process, including the right of refusal.

Who Should Be Allowed to Adopt?

Only recently have authorities begun to consider nontraditional family structures for possible adoptive placements. In 1972 an Illinois court ruled that three children could not be taken from their biological father simply because he was not married to their mother. This action, along with the growing number of single-parent households, has forced states to embrace new family structures. Recent research indicates that gay and lesbian families adopt more special needs children than any other group, forcing the courts to recognize these families as legitimate. However, religious organizations continue to lobby against nontraditional families as suitable placements. The recent trend in child placement has once again moved toward full legal adoption, as opposed to family reunification in cases where families cannot provide consistent care and safety. It is likely that the needs of children waiting to be adopted will outweigh the desire of special interest groups to control who will be allowed to adopt.

By early 2008, nine states (California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia had formally legalized adoption by same-sex couples. Five states (Colorado, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah) had banned the practice. In the other 36 states, the law remained ambiguous, with no recent legislation explicitly allowing or banning same-sex adoption.


As old as the family itself, adoption has evolved as the family’s structure and purpose have changed. When the family was primarily a unit of production, adoption focused on the financial needs of the adopting family rather than the child’s emotional needs. With the development of the nuclear, child-centered family in the nineteenth century, adoption became equally child-oriented.

Over the past half-century, the family has undergone yet another fundamental change. The traditional nuclear family has given way to new types of families, from single-parent households to same-sex couples. The changing definition of the family has not been without controversy, to say the least, and many Americans, especially social conservatives, argue that “alternative” families are less emotionally and financially stable than the traditional family. Thus, while adoption has historically changed with the institution of the family, political and social resistance to current changes in the family suggests the nation’s laws may become more, rather than less, restrictive regarding adoption by nontraditional families.


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