Each year, November is recognized in the United States as National Adoption Awareness Month. While all adoption-related issues are important, the particular focus of this month is the adoption of children currently in foster care. Since 2000, the Saturday before Thanksgiving (November 19 in 2016) has been designated as National Adoption Day during which courts and communities in all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico come together to finalize thousands of adoptions of children from foster care. This cause is very close to my heart as I, myself, was adopted from Hope Cottage — the oldest adoption agency in Dallas, Texas — back in January 1966.
Adoption is the process whereby a person assumes the parenting of another, usually a child, and or animal from that person’s biological or legal parent or parents, and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities, along with filiation, from the biological parent or parents. Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction. Historically, some societies have enacted specific laws governing adoption; where others have tried to achieve adoption through less formal means, notably via contracts that specified inheritance rights and parental responsibilities without an accompanying transfer of filiation. Modern systems of adoption, arising in the twentieth century, tend to be governed by comprehensive statutes and regulations.
While the modern form of adoption emerged in the United States, forms of the practice have appeared throughout history. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, details the rights of adopters and the responsibilities of adopted individuals at length. The practice of adoption in ancient Rome is well documented in the Codex Justinianus.
Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the political and economic interests of the adopter, providing a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs to manage estates. The use of adoption by the aristocracy is well documented; many of Rome’s emperors were adopted sons.
Infant adoption during Antiquity appears rare. Abandoned children were often picked up for slavery and composed a significant percentage of the Empire’s slave supply. Roman legal records indicate that foundlings were occasionally taken in by families and raised as a son or daughter. Although not normally adopted under Roman Law, the children, called alumni, were reared in an arrangement similar to guardianship, being considered the property of the father who abandoned them.
Other ancient civilizations, notably India and China, used some form of adoption as well. Evidence suggests the goal of this practice was to ensure the continuity of cultural and religious practices; in contrast to the Western idea of extending family lines. In ancient India, secondary sonship, clearly denounced by the Rigveda, continued, in a limited and highly ritualistic form, so that an adopter might have the necessary funerary rites performed by a son. China had a similar idea of adoption with males adopted solely to perform the duties of ancestor worship.
The practice of adopting the children of family members and close friends was common among the cultures of Polynesia including Hawaii where the custom was referred to as hānai.
The nobility of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic cultures that dominated Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire denounced the practice of adoption. In medieval society, bloodlines were paramount; a ruling dynasty lacking a natural-born heir apparent was replaced, a stark contrast to Roman traditions. The evolution of European law reflects this aversion to adoption. English Common Law, for instance, did not permit adoption since it contradicted the customary rules of inheritance. In the same vein, France’s Napoleonic Code made adoption difficult, requiring adopters to be over the age of 50, sterile, older than the adopted person by at least fifteen years, and to have fostered the adoptee for at least six years.
Some adoptions continued to occur, however, but became informal, based on ad hoc contracts. For example, in the year 737, in a charter from the town of Lucca, three adoptees were made heirs to an estate. Like other contemporary arrangements, the agreement stressed the responsibility of the adopted rather than adopter, focusing on the fact that, under the contract, the adoptive father was meant to be cared for in his old age; an idea that is similar to the conceptions of adoption under Roman law.
Europe’s cultural makeover marked a period of significant innovation for adoption. Without support from the nobility, the practice gradually shifted toward abandoned children. Abandonment levels rose with the fall of the empire and many of the foundlings were left on the doorstep of the Church. Initially, the clergy reacted by drafting rules to govern the exposing, selling, and rearing of abandoned children. The Church’s innovation, however, was the practice of oblation, whereby children were dedicated to lay life within monastic institutions and reared within a monastery. This created the first system in European history in which abandoned children did not have legal, social, or moral disadvantages. As a result, many of Europe’s abandoned and orphaned children became alumni of the Church, which in turn took the role of adopter. Oblation marks the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization, eventually bringing about the establishment of the foundling hospital and orphanage.
As the idea of institutional care gained acceptance, formal rules appeared about how to place children into families: boys could become apprenticed to an artisan and girls might be married off under the institution’s authority. Institutions informally adopted out children as well, a mechanism treated as a way to obtain cheap labor, demonstrated by the fact that when the adopted died, their bodies were returned by the family to the institution for burial.
This system of apprenticeship and informal adoption extended into the nineteenth century, today seen as a transitional phase for adoption history. Under the direction of social welfare activists, orphan asylums began to promote adoptions based on sentiment rather than work; children were placed out under agreements to provide care for them as family members instead of under contracts for apprenticeship.
The growth of this model is believed to have contributed to the enactment of the first modern adoption law in 1851 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, unique in that it codified the ideal of the “best interests of the child.” Despite its intent, though, in practice, the system operated much the same as earlier incarnations. The experience of the Boston Female Asylum (BFA) is a good example, which had up to 30% of its charges adopted out by 1888. Officials of the BFA noted that, although the asylum promoted otherwise, adoptive parents did not distinguish between indenture and adoption; “We believe,” the asylum officials said, “that often, when children of a younger age are taken to be adopted, the adoption is only another name for service.”
The next stage of adoption’s evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States. Rapid immigration and the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding of orphanages and foundling homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister became appalled by the legions of homeless waifs roaming the streets of New York City. Brace considered the abandoned youth, particularly Catholics, to be the most dangerous element challenging the city’s order.
His solution was outlined in The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859) which started the Orphan Train movement. The orphan trains eventually shipped an estimated 200,000 children from the urban centers of the East to the nation’s rural regions. The children were generally indentured, rather than adopted, to families who took them in. As in times past, some children were raised as members of the family while others were used as farm laborers and household servants.
The sheer size of the displacement — the largest migration of children in history — and the degree of exploitation that occurred, gave rise to new agencies and a series of laws that promoted adoption arrangements rather than indenture. The hallmark of the period is Minnesota’s adoption law of 1917 which mandated investigation of all placements and limited record access to those involved in the adoption.
During the same period, the Progressive movement swept the United States with a critical goal of ending the prevailing orphanage system. The culmination of such efforts came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, where it was declared that the nuclear family represented “the highest and finest product of civilization” and was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned. Anti-institutional forces gathered momentum. As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. Less than forty years later, nearly one-third were in an adoptive home.
Nevertheless, the popularity of eugenic ideas in America put up obstacles to the growth of adoption. There were grave concerns about the genetic quality of illegitimate and indigent children, perhaps best exemplified by the influential writings of Henry H. Goddard who protested against adopting children of unknown origin, saying,
“Now it happens that some people are interested in the welfare and high development of the human race; but leaving aside those exceptional people, all fathers and mothers are interested in the welfare of their own families. The dearest thing to the parental heart is to have the children marry well and rear a noble family. How short-sighted it is then for such a family to take into its midst a child whose pedigree is absolutely unknown; or, where, if it were partially known, the probabilities are strong that it would show poor and diseased stock, and that if a marriage should take place between that individual and any member of the family the offspring would be degenerates.”
The period 1945 to 1974, the baby scoop era, saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. Illegitimate births rose three-fold after World War II, as sexual mores changed. Simultaneously, the scientific community began to stress the dominance of nurture over genetics, chipping away at eugenic stigmas. In this environment, adoption became the obvious solution for both unwed mothers and infertile couples.
Taken together, these trends resulted in a new American model for adoption. Following its Roman predecessor, Americans severed the rights of the original parents while making adopters the new parents in the eyes of the law. Two innovations were added: 1) adoption was meant to ensure the “best interests of the child;” the seeds of this idea can be traced to the first American adoption law in Massachusetts, and 2) adoption became infused with secrecy, eventually resulting in the sealing of adoption and original birth records by 1945.
The origin of the move toward secrecy began with Charles Loring Brace who introduced it to prevent children from the Orphan Trains from returning to or being reclaimed by their parents. Brace feared the impact of the parents’ poverty, in general, and their Catholic religion, in particular, on the youth. This tradition of secrecy was carried on by the later Progressive reformers when drafting of American laws.
The number of adoptions in the United States peaked in 1970. It is uncertain what caused the subsequent decline. Likely contributing factors in the 1960s and 1970s include a decline in the fertility rate, associated with the introduction of the pill, the completion of legalization of artificial birth control methods, the introduction of federal funding to make family planning services available to the young and low income, and the legalization of abortion. In addition, the years of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic change in society’s view of illegitimacy and in the legal rights of those born outside of wedlock. In response, family preservation efforts grew so that few children born out of wedlock today are adopted. Ironically, adoption is far more visible and discussed in society today, yet it is less common.
The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. The Netherlands passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germany enacted its first laws in 1977. Additionally, the Asian powers opened their orphanage systems to adoption, influenced as they were by Western ideas following colonial rule and military occupation. In France, local public institutions accredit candidates for adoption, who can then contact orphanages abroad, or ask for the support of NGOs. The system does not involve fees, but gives considerable power to social workers whose decisions may restrict adoption to standardized families (middle-age, medium to high income, heterosexual, white).
Although adoption is today practiced globally, the United States has the largest number of children adopted per 100 live births. Adoption in the United States still occurs at nearly three times those of its peers although the number of children awaiting adoption has held steady in recent years, hovering between 133,000 and 129,000 during the period 2002 to 2006.
Contemporary adoption practices can be open or closed.
- Open adoption allows identifying information to be communicated between adoptive and biological parents and, perhaps, interaction between kin and the adopted person. Rarely, it is the outgrowth of laws that maintain an adoptee’s right to unaltered birth certificates and/or adoption records, but such access is not universal (it is possible in a few jurisdictions — including the UK and six states in the United States). Open adoption can be an informal arrangement subject to termination by adoptive parents who have sole authority over the child. In some jurisdictions, the biological and adoptive parents may enter into a legally enforceable and binding agreement concerning visitation, exchange of information, or other interaction regarding the child. As of February 2009, 24 U.S. states allowed legally enforceable open adoption contract agreements to be included in the adoption finalization.
- The practice of closed adoption (aka confidential or secret adoption), which has not been the norm for most of modern history, seals all identifying information, maintaining it as secret and preventing disclosure of the adoptive parents’, biological kins’, and adoptees’ identities. Nevertheless, closed adoption may allow the transmittal of non-identifying information such as medical history and religious and ethnic background. Today, as a result of safe haven laws passed by some U.S. states, secret adoption is seeing renewed influence. In so-called “safe-haven” states, infants can be left, anonymously, at hospitals, fire departments, or police stations within a few days of birth, a practice criticized by some adoption advocacy organizations as being retrograde and dangerous. Closed adoption, lack of medical history and the broken thread of family continuity can have a detrimental impact on an adoptee’s psychological and physical health. The lack of openness, honesty and family connections in adoption can be detrimental to the psychological well being of adoptees and of their descendants.
Adoption gives many children great opportunities that they may have never otherwise received. Such opportunities include loving homes and environments, parents who are able to provide and care for all their financial needs as well as access to education. While these are all positive factors that will enhance the life of the adopted child, many do not realize that there are negative effects adopted children can experience both mentally and emotionally.
According to studies from Princeton University, adoptees (especially those coming from closed adoptions) may suffer from a wide range of mental effects at all stages of life. One of the largest issues that an adoptee may deal with is the formation of their identity. It is believed that children who are adopted may not feel as though they fit in with their adoptive families knowing that their adoptive parents are not the people who gave birth to them. Especially in adolescence, many adopted children begin to question where certain personality traits, likes or dislike, and physical characteristics come from. What characteristics come from the biological family and which come from the adoptive family?
Adoptees struggle with whom they are or whom they could become because they do not know or understand where everything about them comes from. For many, this uncertainty can be unsettling and uncomfortable. They may begin to question everything about themselves. Adopted children also often find it hard to form comfortable and meaningful relationships. These relationships can be friendly, familial or romantic. Because many adoptees feel that their biological parents left them, they may be afraid to form new relationships in fear that those involved may “leave” them as well. This can lead to holding back and withdrawing from relationships when they feel like they are becoming too attached as well as not forming relationships at all. The fear of being left or forgotten is what often holds adoptees back from creating such relationships.
Many adoptees feel that they can never truly relate to or trust anybody because their family experiences can be so vastly different from those of people who have not been adopted. It is because of such fears that so many adoptees find it hard to create relationships in their lives.
Another common feeling that many people who are adopted deal with is a feeling of guilt. This guilt is felt towards both their birth families as well as their adoptive families. They may feel guilty towards their birth family because in many ways, they have accepted their adoptive family as their own and would not want their birth family to be upset or jealous. Many adoptees call their adoptive parents “mom” and “dad” and refer to adoptive siblings as such, which adoptees feel may hurt their biological families, should they find out.
The sense of guilt towards adoptive parents comes from curiosity about biological families. Adoptees often feel that any curiosity about their origins and their birth families may hurt their adoptive one. They believe that the adoptive family will feel a sense of betrayal for wanting to know about where they came from, especially if the adoption allows for access to such information. Adoptees may also fear that their adoptive family may love them less because of their curiosity.
When adopted children grow into young adults, many worry about their health. For many adopted children, their adoptive families are given little to none of their medical history, especially if the adoption was international. This can be due to lack of information on the part of the biological family, type of adoption or circumstance in which the adoptee was found (for example being left at an orphanage in a foreign country). Simple trips to the doctor or dentist, for something as small as a check up, can bring about great worry because there is so many unknowns to ones health when the person is adopted. Anxiety over lack of medical history may become worse for those who are seeking to get married and start a family. If one of the parents is unaware of medical history, having a child becomes much more difficult. The risks of being unable to conceive, or the child being born with certain health issues are higher because parental medical history is unknown.
The United States foster care system enables adults to care for minor children who are not able to live with their biological parents. In fiscal year 2000, 150,703 foster children were adopted in the United States, many by their foster parents or relatives of their biological parents. The enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 has approximately doubled the number of children adopted from foster care in the United States. If a child in the U.S. governmental foster care system is not adopted or returned to the custody of their birth parents by the age of 18 years, they are aged out of the system on their 18th birthday.
Adoption is changing the way people form families, as well as affecting the way society perceives the fundamental concepts of life such as nature and nurture and the role of biological relations with an adoptive family member. Because of changes in adoption over the last few decades — changes that include open adoption, gay adoption, international adoptions and trans-racial (racial transformation) adoptions, and a focus on moving children out of the foster care system into adoptive families — the impact of adoption on the basic unit of society and the family, has been enormous.
Adoption is often thought of as a beautiful process. The transfer of parental rights grants birth parents a second chance at fulfilling life goals while placing their child into the arms of someone who not only longs for a precious infant but is prepared for raising him. The adoptee also grows up knowing that they have parents who chose them and birth parents who loved them enough to choose life and also place them for adoption so that they could have a chance at a better life. The adoption triad or the relationship between the birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adoptee seemingly all benefit from adoption.
However, a closer look reveals adoption is the cause of many lifelong issues for the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee. Adoption research scholars have reported seven core issues to consistently be associated with the unnatural processes of adoption. Problems with loss, grief, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, and control uniquely affect each member of the adoption triad. It is important to be mindful of the realities of adoptions as they permanently impact those involved.
Many adopted children who were separated from their birth parents by adoption have a desire to reunite, and most would like family medical history information and access to any documents where they are mentioned. Often, birth parents who placed their infants want to reunite as well. In states which practice or have practiced confidential adoption, this has led to the creation of adoption reunion registries, and efforts to establish the right of adoptees to access their sealed records (for example, the American Adoption Congress, Concerned United Birthparents, and Bastard Nation). Others join search and support groups, most of which are non-profit, or some hire investigative companies to locate birth families and adopted children.
The first major effort to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in the foster care system occurred in Massachusetts. In 1976, then-Governor Mike Dukakis proclaimed Adoption Week and the idea grew in popularity and spread throughout the nation. President Ronald Reagan President Reagan proclaimed the first National Adoption Week in 1984, and in 1995, President Bill Clinton expanded Adoption Awareness Week to the entire month of November due to the number of states participating and the number of events.
Activities and celebrations are kicked off with a Presidential Proclamation. During the month, states, communities, public and private organizations, businesses, families, and individuals celebrate adoption as a positive way to build families. Across the nation, activities and observances such as recognition dinners, public awareness and recruitment campaigns, and special events spotlight the needs of children who need permanent families. National Adoption Day, traditionally the Saturday prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, is observed in courthouses across the nation as thousands of adoptions are finalized simultaneously.
While efforts made at the national level certainly help build awareness of adoption, participation in local programs, events, and activities by those of us with a direct connection to adoption can often be the most effective way to promote positive perceptions, debunk the myths, and draw attention to the tens of thousands of children in foster care who wait and hope for permanent families.
Scott #3398 was issued by the United States Postal Service on May 10, 2000, the latest in a series of stamps saluting social awareness. Previous issues included breast cancer research (Scott #B1 released on July 29, 1998), organ and tissue donation (Scott #3227 released on August 5, 1998), and hospice care (Scott #3276 issued on February 9, 1999). Illustrated by artist Greg Berger, the adoption stamp combines fundamental shapes and simple linear forms to create a balanced and open composition. The 33 cent multicolored stamp was printed by lithograph on self-adhesive paper with a serpentine die cut measuring 11½ on the perforation gauge.