There are several kinds of adoption, which can be defined both by effect — such as whether the adoption is open or closed — and/or by location and the origin of the child, such as domestic or international adoption. Each of these has its own features and rules.
Adoption has been called the quintessential American institution, embodying faith in social engineering and mobility. While it is true that the modern form of adoption emerged in the United States, Western civilization has a long history of the practice of adoption. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, details the rights of adopters and the responsibilities of adopted individuals at length while the practice of adoption in ancient Rome is well documented in the Codex Justinianus.
Ancient adoption practices were markedly different from those in the modern period. Foremost, they were legal tools that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and provided male heirs to manage the estates of other notables. Adoption was inherently an act that fostered the interests of adults, putting less emphasis on the interests of those adopted. The use of adoption along these lines by the aristocracy is well documented; many of the Rome's emperors were adopted sons.
Moreover, evidence suggests that although legal, infant adoption for the purpose of building a family was rare. The abandoned were often picked up for slavery rather than adoption. In fact, abandoned children are thought to have composed a significant percentage of the Empire’s slave supply. Evidence of trafficking abandoned children also comes from the Church Fathers. Both Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr attest that foundlings of both genders made up a substantial portion of those in brothels.
Nevertheless, Roman legal records indicate that some foundlings were taken in by families and raised as one of their own. Such children, however, were not normally adopted. Called alumni, they were more similar to modern foster children and still considered the property of the father who abandoned them.
Other ancient civilizations, notably India and China, utilized some form of adoption as well. Evidence suggests their practices aimed to ensure the continuity of cultural and religious practices rather than the creation of new families. In ancient India, for example, ‘secondary sonship’ was clearly denounced by the Rigveda, yet the practice continued, in a limited and highly ritualistic form, so that an adopter might have the necessary funerary rights performed by a son. China had a similar conception of adoption; males were adopted in order to carry on the duty of ancestor worship. Western ideas of adoption would not take hold in the East until well into the contemporary period.
The nobility of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic cultures that dominated Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire denounced the practice of adoption. Bloodlines in medieval society were paramount; a ruling dynasty that lacked a natural-born heir apparent was replaced by a new family, 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 accepted 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 have fostered the adoptee for at least six years.
Despite the cultural shift in Europe, the Middle Ages marked a period of significant innovation. Without support from the nobility, the practice of adoption was gradually redirected toward abandoned children. With the fall of the empire, only the Catholic Church had enough influence to wield authority over the daily activities of the population. In the face the rising levels of abandonment, the Church created rules to govern the treatment and rearing of abandoned children. Additionally, with so many children left on Her doorstep, the Church began to find new homes for the abandoned.
The Church's innovation, however, was the practice of oblation, whereby children were dedicated to lay life within monastic institutions and reared within the monastery. This created the first system in European history in which abandoned children were without legal, social, or moral disadvantage. As a result, many of Europe’s abandoned and orphaned became alumni of the Church, which in turn took the role of adopter. Oblation also marked the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization that eventually saw the creation of the foundling hospital and orphanage systems.
The next stage of adoption’s evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States. Rapid immigration and the aftermath of 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. Whether his appall was caused more by the condition of the children or their impact on the streets, however, is uncertain. 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 not generally adopted, but rather indentured to families that 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 of 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. The culmination of its efforts to promote child welfare came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.. The conference marked the start of the end of the prevailing orphanage system, declaring that children should be placed in family homes, “the highest and finest product of civilization.” Anti-institutional forces gathered momentum. As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care where 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 strong eugenic tendencies in Western society at the time 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.
It would take a war and the disgrace of Nazi eugenic policies to alter attitudes. The period 1945 to 1974, the Baby scoop era, saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. The number of illegitimate births rose three-fold 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, however. First, adoption was formulated as a legal act 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, 1851 which mandated that placements consider the welfare of the child. Second, adoption became infused with secrecy, eventually resulting in the sealing of an adopted peoples' 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 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. Besides the legalization of artificial birth control methods and abortion, the years of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic change in society’s view of illegitimacy. In response, family preservation efforts grew so that few children born out of wedlock today are adopted (Refer to Table 1). Ironically, adoption is far more visible and discussed in society today, yet it is less common. This visibility has facilitated the emergence of new innovations — such as open adoption — and calls for unsealing records. These contemporary movements are described in the remainder of the article.
The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. Holland 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.
Although adoption is practiced globally today, the United States remains the leader in its use. The table below provides a snapshot of Western adoption rates. 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 to 129,000 during the period 2002 to 2006.
|Country||Adoptions||Live Births||Adoption/Live Birth Ratio||Notes|
|Australia||443 (2003-2004)||254,000 (2004)||0.2 per 100 Live Births||Includes known relative adoptions|
|England & Wales||4,764 (2006)||669,601(2006)||0.7 per 100 Live Births||Includes all adoption orders in England and Wales|
|Iceland||between 20-35 year||4,560 (2007)||0.8 per 100 live births|
|Ireland||263 (2003)||61,517 (2003)||0.4 per 100 Live Births||92 non-family adoptions; 171 family adoptions (e.g. stepparent). 459 international adoptions were also recorded.|
|Italy||3,158 (2006)||560,010 (2006)||0.6 per 100 Live Births|
|Norway||657 (2006)||58,545(2006)||1.1 per 100 Live Births||Adoptions breakdown: 438 inter-country; 174 stepchildren; 35 foster; 10 other.|
|Sweden||696(2002)||91,466(2002)||0.8 per 100 Live Births||10-20 of these were national adoptions of infants. The rest were international adoptions.|
|United States||approx 127,000 (2001)||4,021,725 (2002)||~3 per 100 Live Births||The number of adoptions is reported to be constant since 1987.|
Table 2: Adoptions, Live Births, and Adoption/Live Birth Ratios are provided in the table below (alphabetical, by country) for a number of Western countries
Open, or fully disclosed, adoptions allow identying information to be communicated between adoptive parents and biological kin. This arrangement may also allow interaction between the parents involved and the adopted person. Communication may include letters, emails, telephone calls, or visits. Arrangements regarding direct contact are typically informal and could be terminated since, even in an open adoption, adoptive parents have sole authority over the child. In some jurisdictions, however, the biological and adoptive parents may enter into a binding agreement concerning visitation, exchange of information, or other interaction regarding the child; however, informal agreements are much more common.
Open adoption is sometimes the de facto outgrowth of laws which maintain an adoptee's right to unaltered birth certificates and/or adoption records. Although such access is not universal, a few jurisdictions do provide automatic rights. These include,
The practice of closed adoption bars all identifying information from being shared between adoptive parents, biological kin, and adoptee. Non-identifying information, however, may be shared between the parties up to the point of placement. Such information may include medical history, and religious and ethnic background. After the adoption is legalized, no further information is shared between the parties.
Closed adoption has been the norm for most of modern history. Today, it may be practiced when the parties involved do not want any contact or when a child is removed from the home by the state because of abuse or neglect. Closed adoption may also occur as a result of safe haven laws passed by some U.S. states that allow infants to be placed at any nearby hospital, fire department, or police station within 10 days after birth, with no questions asked. Such laws have been criticized by adoptee advocacy organizations as being retrograde and dangerous.
Adoption practices have significantly changed over the course of the last century, with each new movement labeled, in some way, reform. Beginning in the 1970s efforts to improve adoption became associated with opening records and encouraging family preservation.
Family preservation: As concerns over illegitimacy began to subside in the early 1970s, social-welfare agencies began to emphasize that, if possible, mothers and children should be kept together.. In America, this was clearly illustrated by the shift in policy of the New York Foundling Home, an adoption-institution that is among the country’s oldest and one that had pioneered sealed records. It established three new principles including, “to prevent placements of children (in institutions or foster care).” This reflected the belief that children would be better off staying in their own families and communities. It was a striking shift in policy that remains in force today.
Open records: Movements to unseal adoption records for adopted citizen proliferated along with the cultural shift on illegitimacy. In the United States, Florence Fisher created the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) in 1971, calling sealed records “an affront to human dignity.” Her effort was among the first to demand unsealed records.. In 1975, Emma May Vilardi created the first mutual-consent registry, the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR), allowing those separated by adoption to locate one another via mutual registration. Similar ideas took hold globally. In 1975, England and Wales opened records on moral grounds. Later years saw the evolution of more militant organizations such as Bastard Nation (founded in 1996) which helped overturn sealed records in Alabama, Delaware, New Hampshire, Oregon and Tennessee. . Simultaneously, groups such as Origins USA (founded in 1997) started to actively speak about family preservation and the rights of mothers.
The intellectual tone of these recent reform movements was influenced by the publishing of The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. "Primal wound" is described as the "devastation which the infant feels because of separation from its birth mother. It is the deep and consequential feeling of abandonment which the baby adoptee feels after the adoption and which may continue for the rest of his life. The argument has shaped much of the more recent debate on adoption reform.
Reform and family preservation efforts have also been strongly associated with the perceived mis-use of adoption in aboriginal cultures. In some cases, parents' rights have been terminated when their ethnic or cultural group has been deemed unfit by the controlling government. Historically, the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people in Australia were affected by such policies, as were Native Americans in the United States and First Nations of Canada. Moreover, unwed mothers in many countries still are (and in many more countries used to be) pressured or forced by families, religious bodies or governments to relinquish their children for adoption, due to the social stigma attached to illegitimacy. These practices of the past have become emotionally-charged social and political issues in recent years, and many cases the policies have changed. The United States, for example, now has the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which allows the tribe and family of a Native American child to be involved in adoption decisions, with preference being given to adoption within the child's tribe.
Some people influenced by adoption have a desire to reunite. This has the led to the emergence of formal search systems such as the Adoption reunion registry as well as informal search movements. Estimates for the extent of search behavior by adoptees have proven elusive as studies show significant variation. Even looking at the number of adoptees in search organizations is unhelpful since it is impossible to determine the number of independent searchers. In part, the problem stems from the fact that the studies to date have been non-random surveys; the small adoptee population makes random surveying difficult if not impossible. Nevertheless, some indication of the level of search interest by adoptees can be gleaned from the case of England and Wales which opened adoptees' birth records in 1975. In 2001, the UK Office for National Statistics, projected that the percentage of adoptees who would eventually request a copy of their original birth records was 25% for male adoptees, 40% for female adoptees, and 33% for all adoptees. These values are known to underestimate the true search rate, however, as many adoptees are known to get their records by other means. Nevertheless, the request rate has exceeded original projections made in 1975 when it was believed that only a small fraction of adoptees would request their records.
The research literature states adoptees give four reasons for desiring reunion: 1) they wish for a more complete genealogy, 2) they are curious about events leading to their conception, birth, and relinquishment, 3) they hope to pass on information to their children, and 4) they have a need for a detailed biological background, including medical information. Nevertheless, it is speculated by adoption researchers that the reasons given are incomplete since although information could be communicated by a third-party, interviews with adoptees, who sought reunion, found they expressed a need to actually meet biological relations. Along these lines, it appears that the desire for reunion is linked to the adoptee’s interaction with and acceptance within the community. Internally-focused theories suggest some adoptees possess ambiguities in their sense of self, impairing their ability to present a consistent identity. Reunion helps resolve the lack of self-knowledge that creates this issue. Externally-focused theories, in contrast, suggest that reunion is a way for adoptees to overcome social stigma. First proposed by Goffman, the theory has three parts: 1) adoptees perceive the absence of biological ties as distinguishing their adoptive family from others, 2) this understanding is strengthened by experiences where non-adoptees suggest adoptive ties are weaker than blood ties, 3) together, these factors engender, in some adoptees, a sense of social exclusion, and 4) these adoptees react by searching for a blood tie that reinforces their membership in the community. It is important to note, that, at least, the externally-focused rationale for reunion suggests adoptees may be well adjusted and happy within their adoptive families, but will search as an attempt to resolve experiences of social stigma.
Some adoptees reject the idea of reunion. It is unclear, though, what differentiates adoptees who search from those who do not. One paper summarizes the research, stating, “…attempts to draw distinctions between the searcher and non-searcher are no more conclusive or generalizable than attempts to substantiate…differences between adoptees and nonadoptees.
In sum, reunions can bring a variety of issues for adoptees and parents. Nevertheless, most reunion results appear to be positive. In the largest study to date (based on the responses of 1,007 adoptees and relinquishing parents), 90% responded that reunion was a beneficial experience. This does not, however, imply ongoing relationships were formed between adoptee and parent nor that this was the goal.
The two contrasting sets of terms are commonly referred to as "Positive (or Respectful) Adoption Language" and "Honest-Adoption Language."
Positive Adoptive Language (PAL)
It is believed that social workers in the field of adoption, most notably Marietta Spencer, created and began the promotion of what they termed "Positive Adoption Language" around the mid 1970s.. The terms contained in ""Positive Adoption Language" include the terms "birth mother" (to replace the terms "natural mother" and "first mother"), "placing" (to replace the terms "relinquishment" or "surrender"), and restricting the terms "mother" and "father" to refer solely to the parents who had adopted. It reflects the point of view that (1) all relationships and connections between the adopted child and his/her previous family have been permanently and completely severed once the legal adoption has taken place, and that (2) "placing" a child for adoption is invariably a non-coerced "decision" the mother makes, free of coercion or pressure from external circumstances or agents.
Honest Adoption Language (HAL)
"Honest Adoption Language", on the other hand, refers to a set of terms that reflect the point of view that: (1) family relationships (social, emotional, psychological or physical) that existed prior to the legal adoption often continue past this point or endure in some form despite long periods of separation, and that (2) mothers who have "voluntarily surrendered" children to adoption (as opposed to involuntary terminations through court-authorized child-welfare proceedings) seldom view it as a choice that was freely made, but instead describe scenarios of powerlessness, lack of resources, and overall lack of choice. It also reflects the point of view that the term "birth mother" is derogatory in implying that the woman has ceased being a mother after the physical act of giving birth. Proponents of HAL liken this to the mother being treated as a "breeder" or "incubator".. Terms included in HAL include the original terms that were used before PAL, including "natural mother," "first mother," and "surrendered for adoption."
There are generally two kinds of adoption: those between related family members (including stepparents) and those between unrelated individuals. Historically, about half of all adoptions occurred within the same family. . New data, however, suggests this may be changing; public agency and inter-country adoptions now account for the majority of cases in the United States. In 2001, for example, of the 127,500 adoptions in the U.S. about 51,000 occurred through the foster care system alone.
Methods of creating an adoptive family vary by country and sometimes within a country, depending on region. Jurisdictions have varying eligibility criteria, and may specify such things as minimum and maximum age limits, whether a single person or only a couple can apply, or whether adoption by same-sex couples is possible. On applying to adopt, the potential adoptive parent(s) will generally be assessed for suitability. This can take the form of a home study, interviews, and financial, medical and criminal record checks. In some jurisdictions, such studies must be carried out by an independent or state authority, while in others, they can be carried out by the adoption agency itself.
Potential adoptive parents, generally, have three paths to pursue an adoption: private, foster care/public, and international.
Private adoptions, within the same country, account for a significant portion of all adoptions. It has been noted that an interstate adoption can take up to three years to be finalized where as a same state adoption may take up to one year for finalization assuming all necessary documents have been given to the adoption attorney. Foster care adoption is a type of domestic adoption where the child is initially placed into a foster care system and is subsequently placed for adoption. Children may be placed into foster care for a variety of reasons, including removal from the home by a governmental agency because of maltreatment. Maltreatment can take the form of neglect or abuse. In most adoptions regarding foster children, the foster parents decide to adopt and become the legal parents. In some jurisdictions, adoptive parents are licensed as and technically considered foster parents while the adoption is being finalized.
Some children in foster care are difficult to place in permanent homes through the normal adoption process. These children are often said to require “special-needs adoption.” In this context, "special needs" can include situations where children have specific chronic medical problems, mental health issues, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. Governments offer a variety of incentives and services to facilitate this class of adoptions.
International adoption is the placing of a child for adoption outside that child’s country of birth. The laws of different countries vary in their willingness to allow international adoptions. Some countries, such as China and Vietnam, have relatively well-established rules and procedures for foreign adopters to follow, while others, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for example, expressly forbid it. Some countries, notably many African nations, have extended residency requirements that in effect rule out most international adoptions. And some countries such as Romania are closed to international adoption altogether, with the exception of adoptions by close relatives (such as grandparents).
Recognising some of the difficulties and challenges associated with international adoption, and in an effort to protect those involved from the corruption and exploitation which sometimes accompanies it, the Hague Conference on Private International Law developed the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, which came into force on 1 May 1995. To date it has been ratified by 75 countries.
The unique questions adoption poses for parents are varied. This includes responding to stereotypes, answering questions about heritage, and how best to maintain connections with biological kin when in an open adoption. That said, research indicates the perception of similarities between parent and child is important to successfully parenting. In relationships marked by sameness rather than difference in likes, personality, and appearance, both adult adoptees and adoptive parents report being happier.
Adopting older children presents other parenting issues. Some children from foster care have histories of maltreatment, such as physical and psychological neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, are at risk of developing psychiatric problems. Such children are at risk of developing a disorganized attachment. Studies by Cicchetti et al (1990, 1995) found that 80% of abused and maltreated infants in their sample exhibited disorganized attachment styles. Disorganized attachment is associated with a number of developmental problems, including dissociative symptoms, as well as depressive, anxiety, and acting-out symptoms.
A specific concern for many parents is accommodating an adoptee in the classroom. Familiar lessons like "draw your family tree" or "trace your eye color back through your parents and grandparents to see where your genes come from" could be hurtful to children who were adopted and do not know this biological information. Numerous suggestions have been made to substitute new lessons, e.g., focusing on "family orchards.
The most recent adoption attitudes survey completed by the Evan Donaldson Institute provides further evidence of this stigma. Nearly one-third of the surveyed population believed adoptees are less-well adjusted, more prone to medical issues, and predisposed to drug and alcohol problems. Additionally, 40-45% thought adoptees were more likely to have behavior problems and trouble at school. In contrast, the same study indicated adoptive parents were viewed favorably, with nearly 90% describing them as, “lucky, advantaged, and unselfish.”
The majority of people state that their primary source of information about adoption comes from friends and family and the news media. Nevertheless, most people report the media provides them a favorable view of adoption; 72% indicated receiving positive impressions. There is, however, still substantial criticism of the media's adoption coverage. Adoption blogs, for example, criticized Meet the Robinsons for using outdated orphanage imagery as did advocacy non-profit The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
The stigmas associated with adoption are amplified for children in foster care. Negative perceptions result in the belief that such children are so troubled it would be impossible to adopt them and create “normal” families. The result is that many children who would thrive in a loving family instead wait years in foster care, and even “age out” of the system at 18 without a family. A 2004 report from the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care has shown that the number of children waiting in foster care doubled since the 1980s and now remains steady at about a half-million a year.
While rarely discussed in public, even within the adoption community, the practice has become far more widespread in recent years, especially among those parents who have adopted from Eastern European countries, particularly Russia and Romania, where some children have suffered far more from their institutionalization than their parents were led to believe.
In the 2000s, the couples Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt and Madonna/Guy Ritchie drew media and public attention by adopting several children from Third World countries. The adoptions have been criticized because of alleged preference due to the parents wealth or celebrity status.