Adoption in America

Jim Roberts, CEO/Founder
November, 6, 2020 -

November is National Adoption Month. In today’s culture, Adoption is a very common, valued and esteemed activity. That has not always been the case. Here is a brief history of adoption in our country to provide a greater appreciation of our current social experience.

Since ancient times and in all human cultures, parentless children have been transferred into the custody of other adults for a variety of circumstances. As history has taught us, this has not always been for altruist, humanitarian reasons. In most cases, it was a form of slavery. These children were brought in as laborers, property, or for sexual abuse. Adoption as an “act of kindness or love”, or to start a family due to infertility, is a uniquely, modern phenomena.

There are two general eras for the history of adoption in America: adoption before the 20th century and adoption after the first “modern” adoption law was passed in 1851.

Other common reasons a birth mother placed her child for adoption included poverty, illness and family crisis. The choice of adoption was sometimes made for the best interest of the newborn child, but was predominantly to save face or for financial reasons. There were no laws to protect children who were most often used and abused.

Adoption laws in the US didn’t start until 1851, when Massachusetts implemented the first ever statute that recognized adoption as a social and legal obligation based on child welfare, rather than adult interests. This was a huge turning point for the history of child adoption; the Adoption of Children Act directed judges, for the first time, to ensure that adoption decrees were “fit and proper,” even though this was quite discretionary. The enactment of similar adoption laws by other states was slow to follow, mostly occurring by the mid- 20th century.

In the 20th century, the number of adoptions increased dramatically in the United States. In 1900, formalizing adoptions in a court was still very rare. The period following World War II and ending in the early 1970s was known as the “Baby Scoop Era” — an unfortunate time in the history of adoption in the US. An increase in out-of-wedlock pregnancies led to an increased number in “voluntary” adoption placements, many of which were actually strong-armed by child welfare agencies. The stigma and social pressures of being an unwed mother led to many forced placements that were later regretted by birth mothers. By the end of the 70s--the numerical peak of twentieth-century adoption--175,000 adoptions were finalized annually; of these, 80% were transacted through private and public agencies with the majority being done through public social services.

As the number of adoptions grew, so did the number of organizations that assisted in adoption—including organizations that protected the right of adopted children to know their personal adoption history. While official steps wouldn’t be taken for a few more decades, the rumblings of the adoption rights movements had begun.

For many years, open adoption was really “semi-open adoption.” A contract was mediated by the placing agency, with letters and pictures sent back and forth by professionals. Identifying information was kept secret to protect the privacy of both parties, but it also made future reunions difficult for all parties. Today, 95% of adoptions involve some degree of openness for the benefit of all involved—birth parents, adoptive parents and, most importantly, the child at the center of the adoption triad. Technology like video calls and texting has made direct communication between parties much easier and more convenient than ever before.

“Stranger” or “non-relative” adoptions have predominated over time, and most people equate adoption with families in which parents and children lack genetic ties. Today, however, a majority of children are adopted by natal relatives and step-parents, a development that corresponds to the rise of divorce, remarriage, and long-term cohabitation.

While today transracial and special needs adoptions are common, for the majority of the 20th century, they were rare. The first recorded transracial adoption didn’t occur until 1948, when white parents adopted an African American child, but not without tremendous public outcry. Up until only a few decades ago, many fundamentalist Christian organizations discouraged or even disallowed transracial adoption and marriage! In contradictory doctrine, international adoptions have been esteemed by these organizations.

Another appalling use of adoption was in the 1958 Indian Adoption Project wherein the objective was to remove Native American children from their culture to be adopted by white families. This practice was undertaken by most child welfare agencies throughout the country! This practice was made illegal in 1978 when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. Under ICWA, a Native American child can only be adopted outside of their culture if there is no Native American family available, and with the approval of the child’s tribe.

The world of Adoption is very different today. Special needs children, sibling groups, teens, and LBGTQ youth are benefiting from increased public awareness of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and are being welcomed into families across the country. And there is also great diversity in the families who adopt. Adoptive Families are no longer restricted based on race, religion, culture, sexual orientation or marital status.

Clearly, the process of adoption has changed substantially in the last 100 years. Today, adoptions are celebrated as a unique and diverse way to serve children and youth, some with very special needs, and to create a family—with many paths to do so. The Family Care Network is proud to be a licensed Adoptions Agency, working hard to help children and youth find a loving, supportive lifelong family.

If you are interested in adopting a child or youth, or you are curious in learning more about adopting in general, email us at today to begin your adoption journey!