Adoptions Prior to Legal Statutes
Adoption is ancient arrangement. It is spoken of in the Bible. Greeks and Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians all had adoption systems. Adoption is the process whereby parents are supplied for parent-less children or for those children whose parents are unable to provide for their care. It also provides children for childless couples, or in modern society for childless individuals as well.
The concept of adoption was not legally recognized in the United States until the 1850’s, with the inception of the first adoption statutes. While transfers of children to substitute parents had occurred informally since American colonial times, adoption statutes legitimized the informal adoptive arrangements which previously existed. During the early years of American society, no formal procedures existed for recording births or name changes. This facilitated an informal ability to have adoptive arrangements. Very often these informal placements were economically motivated. Farm families had great need for child labor. The advent of industrialization in the United States resulted in massive immigration to major cites where families often were unable to support or care for their children. Informal transfers of these children to other families, by either the indigent parents or the charitable institutions where parents sometimes left their children, promoted these types of placements. This situation provided the impetus for the orphan trains between 1854 and 1929.
At the same time the concept of indentured servants also existed, but this differed from the informal adoptive placement. There was some hope or expectation that children placed in informal adoptive settings would receive care, support, and perhaps education from their new home. Only if a formal will was executed, however, would the informally adopted child be permitted to share in the estate of the new parents. Indentured servitude, on the other hand, was premised solely on the concept of the child providing labor for support until he or she became an adult. Children were often treaded as chattel with adoption being little more than a transfer of title.
Indenture was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865 and by the Industrial Revolution which moved crafts out of the home and into factories.
As the number of informal adoptions rose, the need became greater to have a formal process for adoptions. In 1851 Massachusetts enacted the first adoption statute. Adoption pursuant to the Massachusetts statute required judicial approval, consent of the child’s parent or guardian, and a finding that the prospective adoptive family was of sufficient ability to raise the child.
In reality, the concepts discussed in the Massachusetts statute, and the later laws adopted in other states, were not implemented in the manner seen today. Between 1850 and 1930, statutes may have referred to consent, but rarely set parameters regarding when or how consents were taken. Virtually no safeguards existed for ensuring that a consent was informed and voluntary. By 1917 Minnesota required the agency or state welfare department to investigate and make recommendations to the court. While early adoption statutes required a finding of suitability on the part of the prospective adoption home, this requirement was more form than substance. Finally, while early adoption statutes created a defined relationship between the adoptiveparents and the adopted child, the impact on the ties to the biological parents was unclear. For instance, under some statutes adopted children retained the right to inherit from their biological parents.
The treatment of adoption records was similarly confusing. Early adoption statutes made no provision for confidentiality or the maintenance of records. Original birth certificates were not altered or secreted in court files to prevent their distribution. As a result, adoptive families and biological parents had no legal protection with respect to intrusions upon each other’s lives following an adoption.
In the early twentieth century statutes began to address the confidentiality of adoption information as to the public at large, but not between the parties to an adoption. It was not until the 1930’s that statutes evolved which were designed to preserve the exclusivity of the adoptive home.
During the 1930’s. 40’s, and 50’s, social workers began sealing birth and adoption records. The rationale for the change in practice was guided by the attitudes, mores, and myths of the time. Secrecy surrounding adoptions was believed to protect the triad (adoptee, birthfamily, and adoptive family) members.The birth parents were protected from the stigma of pregnancy without the benefit of marriage.
The adoptee was protected from the stigma of illegitimacy and the concerns of “bad blood” which was loosely connected to what we know about genetics today, but carried with it overtones of the “sins of the father.” Secrecy would also prevent the confusion of having two different sets of parents and the conflict that might arise should contact occur.
The adoptive parents, often an infertile couple, were protected from the stigma of raising an “illegitimate” child. They were protected from dealing with their infertility and from facing the differences between being a parent through adoption vs. being a parent by birth. Closed records also precluded the possibility of birth relatives seeking out the child, an event associated with potential kidnapping.
Healthy Anglo babies were plentiful in a time when an unmarried woman had little or no choice whether to place her baby for adoption. This readily available supply of babies had ramifications on adoption practices.
Social workers had complete control over adoptive placement decisions. Services were geared toward providing the most perfect baby for adoptive applicants.
Both sets of parents were explicitly or implicitly promised anonymity. Little, if any, information was shared between them, and any “facts” supplied may well ell have been fictitious.
The parties involved were encouraged to “get on with their lives” and “put this event behind them.” Adoption was viewed as the placement and legal process, not as a permanent state. They were given no preparation to deal with future issues which were bound to arise. The very existence of these issues was denied.
Adoptees who held questions of identity, ancestry, and genetics had nowhere to turn for answers.
Adoptive parents had been assured that if they were good parents, no curiosity would exist. Therefore, when faced with questions, they often felt insecure and inadequate. If their child had questions, they had somehow failed. A Public Affairs pamphlet from 1969, “You and Your Adopted Child”, states, “Instances of extreme curiosity and concern almost never happen… However, should a youngster ever raise the question, it is important, of course, to make it very clear that a search is unrealistic and can lead to unhappiness and disillusionment.”
With the sealing of records there was also little or no legal recourse for the adoptee to access information.
Other reasons given for the closure of records, past and present, include:
- protection fromintrusion into the privacy of all parties;
- protection from blackmail;
- protecting the adoptee from disturbing acts surrounding their birth – incest, rape, etc.
- enhancing the adoptee’s feelings of permanency;
- enhancing the family’s stability and preserving the nuclear family;
- encouraging the use of adoption instead of abortion, black market placement, child abuse, or neglect.
The Impact of the 1960’s and 1970’s Revolutions on Current Adoption Practices
- Liberation movements: women’s liberation, civil rights movement, sexual revolution, adoptee’s liberty movement (ALMA, 1971), birth fathers’ rights.
- Birth control methods reduced the number of unplanned pregnancies.
- The legalization of abortion gave women a choice in whether or not to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term.
- Normalization of single parenthood in the dominant culture allowed women to choose whether to place a child for adoption or raise the child alone.
- Support of this choice was provided by increased welfare aids for unmarried females and head of household tax relief, as well as increased job opportunities.
- The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA-1978)
- National interest in ROOTS.
- Normalization of step, blended, or other family types which are not connected by blood.
- Social workers were encouraged to modify their role into one of educators for adoptive parents in order to help them recognize and cope with the differences in raising adopted children vs. raising birth children.
- Birth Parents and adult adoptees began to speak out about their experiences, their rights and their needs.
- Adoptive parents demanded more information on the children whose futures were entrusted to them.