The Truth About the History of Adoption

In order to understand what adoption really is like, it’s important to understand how the process evolved into what it is today. While the history of adoption is not always pleasant, it serves an important purpose of demonstrating which trends and adoption processes are negative for adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents — and has served as a great way to create a modern adoption process that’s beneficial for all involved.

Adoption history is incredibly lengthy; the process has existed in an informal way ever since human beings first existed. When biological parents couldn’t care for their own children, other parents (usually relatives) would take on that responsibility and raise the children as their own.

Generally, the history of adoption can be split up into two eras: before and after the first modern adoption law was passed in 1851.

The History of Adoption Before 1851

Adoptions have occurred throughout history, but adoption history before 1851 is very secretive in nature. Because there were no laws regulating adoption or protecting the welfare of those involved in the process, adoptions were typically secret deals negotiated between family members.

Adoptions most commonly occurred when an illegitimate child was born. Because of the stigma associated with a child born out of wedlock, a woman (and, typically, her parents) would place the newborn baby with another family. Women also placed their children with other families for similar reasons they do today: poverty, illness or family crisis. Generally, the choice of adoption was made in the best interest of the child.

However, not all adoptions ended up successfully. While there may have been some families who openly embraced the idea of adoption and a healthy communication with the child’s birth mother, most adoptive parents kept the adoption closed and may not even have told their children the truth because of the social stigma associated with being an illegitimate child. Until the first modern adoption law was passed in 1851, there were no legal protections for these children to know the truth about their biological past — and many may have grown up completely in the dark about their true family history.

The History of Adoption After 1851

Adoption history changed forever when Massachusetts implemented the Adoption of Children Act. This law recognized adoption as a social and legal operation based on the interest of the child involved, not the adults. Therefore, it required that judges ensured adoption decrees were “fit and proper,” although it left that method of determination up to them.

While the law was vague, it marked the start of a new evolutionary period in the adoption process — that placed the child’s interests, safety and stability first. People began to realize the negative effects that secretive and closed adoptions had on the well-being of adoptees, and they began to work for better treatment of children not only during the adoption process but also during the time they waited to be placed with a new family.

Prior to the 20th century, orphanages were common in the United States. Orphans weren’t the only children in these homes; children whose parents could not take care of them also stayed in these orphanages, which were the precursor to today’s foster care system. However, while the goal for orphanages was to provide a safe and stable home until the child’s parents were ready to take them back in, most orphanages lacked the supplies they needed and many had cold leadership that doled out corporal punishment. To help these children in need of homes, progressives worked to abolish orphanages and reform the new foster care system into what we know it as today.

As another positive step, the U.S. Children’s Bureau was founded in 1912 to further investigate and advocate for the welfare of all children, including adoptees and foster children. As the Bureau began researching the effects of adoption on adoptees, it became clear that closed adoptions were negatively impacting children — not only in emotional ways but also practical ones. Children who were denied access to their adoption records were subsequently denied access to their medical records and birth story, both of which played a huge role in determining who they were. When adoptees couldn’t access this information, they were commonly left with unanswered questions for the rest of their lives.

Soon, organizations and groups began to advocate for an adoptee’s right to open adoption records, starting the movement in adoption history toward open adoption relationships. However, it was a gradual change, as many adoptions in the late 20th century continued to be conducted with closed relationships.

Another aspect of adoptions that gradually changed was the acceptance of nontraditional adoptions, like those of children with special needs or the completion of transracial adoptions. For a long time, it was believed to be in the best interest to place a child with parents of the same race — which led to roadblocks for parents who wanted to adopt transracially and long wait times for nonwhite children to be adopted. Many adoptive parents were reluctant to adopt a child they didn’t deem “perfect” by their standards but, thankfully, this way of thinking dissipated as people became more educated about the realities of adoption.

Adoption History — and Where We Are Today

Today, the history of adoption has come a long way. Modern adoptions are very different from the secretive, harmful adoptions of old; 95 percent of today’s adoptions are open or semi-open, and adoption professionals take many steps to ensure an adoption is in the best interest of all involved before finalizing the placement.

Of course, there are still challenges associated with adoption, specifically stigmas related to infertility, birth parents and blended families. As more people begin to realize the truths of adoption and the happiness it brings to so many, the history of adoption will surely continue to move forward in positive ways.

So, what can you do to help? Understand exactly what progress has still to be made by reading more about adoption and what it really means — and, subsequently, using your knowledge to help spread awareness about this beautiful family-building process.