The days of secrecy and shame in adoption are all but gone. Adoption has come a long way since 1851, the year when Massachusetts was the first state to pass a modern adoption law (1851 Adoption of Children Act), which recognized adoption as a social and legal operation based not on adult interests but on child welfare. What follows are some of the highlights over the years.
Between 1854 and 1929, hundreds of thousands of children from poor, urban families, usually Catholic and Jewish immigrants, were transported on so-called orphan trains to Midwestern towns where Anglo-Protestant farming families were to help “rescue” and Americanize the children. While the goal was to permanently separate parents and children, most parents not only didn’t lose touch with their children, but many also took advantage of the opportunity for apprenticeships or caretaking during economically troubling times.
Between 1868-1869, the Massachusetts Board of State Charities began to pay for children to board in private homes and an agent was appointed to visit the children there. This was the beginning of a movement to care for children in the context of a family unit rather than in institutions. In other words, this was early foster care. Over 100 years later, in 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act stressed permanency planning for children and began a policy shift towards adoption and away from family reunification.
The first specialized adoption agencies were founded between 1910-1930. Investigations of adoption ads, commercial maternity homes, and baby farming took place between 1912 and 1921. Unscrupulous opportunists took advantage of unwed mothers, prostitutes, and poor women by arranging the adoption of their newborn babies by families willing to pay. Unwed birth fathers didn’t appear on the adoption scene officially until they finally gained rights to their children in 1972 with the requirement of informed consent and proof of parental unfitness before their parental rights would be terminated and their child adopted out.
Home studies had their start in 1917, when Minnesota passed the first law mandating a social investigation of all adoptions. In 1944, in Prince v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s power as parens patriae to restrict parental control when the child’s best interest is in question. In 1965, a program for single parent adoptions of hard-to-place special needs children was launched by the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions.
The first recorded transracial adoption took place in Minnesota in 1948. The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by Congress in 1978, putting restrictions on the adoption of Native American children by families without claims to an approved tribe. In 1994, the Multiethnic Placement Act prohibited agencies which received federal funding from denying transracial adoptions on the sole basis of race. In 1996, a revision to this law made it illegal to use race as a factor in adoptive placement at all.
1961 saw the first provisions for the international adoption of foreign-born children by U.S. citizens, incorporated by the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 eliminated the need for internationally adoptive parents to go through the naturalization process for their children, allowing them instead to become automatic American citizens upon entry into the United States.
The first adoptee search support network, Orphan Voyage, was founded in 1953 by Jean Paton. Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association in 1971 with the goal of abolishing the practice of sealed records of adoptees. The fight for full access to adoptee’s original birth certificates continues to this day.
Today, open contact between birth and adoptive families is increasingly acceptable and even expected. More people are adopting transracially, older children, children with special medical needs, and/or sibling groups from foster care. Infertility is no longer the only reason why people seek to adopt.
Credits: Karolina Maria
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