Few in the United States have not been touched by adoption—either as members of the adoption triad (biological parents, adoptive parents, and adopted persons) or being related to or having (had) an association with adoption involving others. Adoption is the legal and permanent placement of a child with an adult who is not the child’s biological parent. Once an adoption is legally finalized, adopted children have all the rights accruing to biological children, including the right to inherit.
Adoption may involve stepchildren, biologically related children, previous foster children, and children who are strangers to (have never met) the adoptive parents. Adoptions may be closed (sharing no information between the biological parents and adoptive parents); semi-open (sharing limited information, such as medical history or pictures at certain occasions, between the biological parents and adoptive parents); or open (making provision for ongoing contact between the biological parents and adoptive parents, and possibly the adoptee). Adoptions may be matched (for similarity between adoptive parents and adopted person in such areas as race, religion, physical features, nationality, and ethnicity), transracial (historically involving U.S. Caucasian parents and African American, Hispanic, or Native American children), international/intercountry (historically involving U.S. Caucasian parents and children of countries other than the United States—generally developing countries or economically impoverished countries), or transcultural (involving differences between adopted parents and adoptee in any aspect of culture such as religious background, sexual orientation background, or ethnic background).
Based on the 2000 census, an estimated 2.1 million adopted children live with U.S. householders. These children are distinguished from stepchildren (the biological children of the householder’s spouse or partner).
While U.S. parents generally complete the largest number of international adoptions, these adoptions also occur among families in such countries as Canada, Denmark, England, France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden. In some countries, laws in force for religious reasons prohibit the adoption of children by foreigners, although in some cases foreigners may become guardians of a child who is subsequently adopted in the country of origin of the adoptive parents.
Historical Overview of Adoption
Adoption originated in Rome for the purpose of providing an heir to families without a male heir. Even with legalized adoption for this purpose, the adopted child continued to reside with the biological family and maintained the usual relationship with, and rights accorded biological children of, the biological family as well as the inheritance rights and responsibilities associated with membership in the adoptive family.
During and shortly after the Great Depression of 1929, agencies transported street children of large cities like New York, whose parents were financially unable to care for them, to foster-care-like families, mostly in the Midwest—a period that, because of the method of transporting them, became known as the period of the orphan trains. Although the purpose was usually to provide care in exchange for work by the children, some families adopted these children.
Following the period of the orphan trains, the adoption of children born to unmarried mothers became prevalent. Increased social freedom of adolescents and young adults occurred at a time when effective methods of preventing or terminating unwanted pregnancies were not yet available. Accompanying this relaxing of social norms were substantially increased numbers of pregnancies among unwed women. Social stigma surrounding these pregnancies and prohibition of governmental assistance to unmarried mothers left many women little choice but to relinquish their children for adoption. A private social welfare system for placing the children with more advantaged, mostly Caucasian married couples ensued, and adoption became an avenue to family formation for married couples for whom infertility prevented biological births. Children born out-of-wedlock to minority group mothers, particularly African American children, were generally informally adopted and raised by the mother’s extended family.
Adoptions of infants born to unmarried mothers were generally closed and birth certificates changed to reflect the child’s birth to the adoptive parents. Children were matched with adoptive parents according to race, religion, and physical features—all aimed at increasing the likelihood that children would look as if they were the biological children of the adoptive parents. European children orphaned in World War II also became a source of adoption for U.S. couples. For the first time, however, some children were placed with adoptive families who could not be matched on physical features (as in the case of orphaned children from Japan). The ending of the Korean War and the placement of large numbers of Korean War orphans with U.S. families further restricted the possibility of matching children and adoptive parents.
Effect of Social Changes
Effective artificial birth control methods beginning in the 1960s, followed by a decrease in social stigma associated with unwed pregnancy and, finally, the legalization of abortion in 1973, substantially reduced the number of healthy, Caucasian infants available for adoption. Although some infants remained available through private, independent adoptions, numbers were much smaller and biological mothers had increased control over the selection or eligibility determination of adoptive parents. Costs associated with these adoptions increased.
Already accustomed to seeing international adoptees in their communities and supported by public policy changes, Caucasian couples began to embrace the adoption of Native American, Hispanic, and African American children. A number of federal, state, and private agency policies provided financial, medical, tax, and employment incentives for the adoption of children considered otherwise hard to place. (These children were frequently older, members of sibling groups, and troubled by behavioral or developmental disabilities.) Support for these transracial adoptions eventually reopened interest in the international adoption of children who were frequently much younger than children available for domestic adoption, leading to an increase in international adoptions. In addition, same-race adoptions by minority group parents were encouraged, along with support for adoption by single parents and parents with limited incomes and resources.
Adoption Trends and Future Directions
Controversy still surrounds the adoption of children. Adults who were products of closed adoptions frequently search for their biological parents and, in the case of adoptions that occurred in this country, with some success. These adults have also sought policy changes aimed at opening information between biological parents and adoptees. Birth mothers have organized to support each other in searching for their relinquished children, to call the public’s attention to the circumstances surrounding their early decisions, and to effect laws more responsive to openness in adoption records. While open adoption is more common than previously, there is substantial variation in the structure and success of these arrangements.
For numerous reasons, adopted children more frequently than their nonadopted peers have behavioral problems and receive psychiatric treatment. Some adoptions disrupt (terminate before adoption finalization) or dissolve (terminate after the adoption finalization). Questions arise regarding the existence of loss and grief experiences associated with adoption; the effect of transracial, international, and transcultural adoption on the identity of adopted children; and whether, and under what circumstances, adoption is in the best interest of children. Design and sampling difficulties hinder the use of research in addressing these questions. At the same time, adoption continues to be a positive reality in many U.S. families, and adopted children are more likely to be economically advantaged, excel academically, and advance socially than their nonadopted counterparts.
New reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization and donor insemination, surrogacy, and embryo donation have increased alternatives to traditional adoption although they involve various ethical, legal, and social questions. Support for transracial adoptions reopened interest in the international adoption of children who are frequently much younger than children available for domestic adoption, leading to an increase in international adoptions.
Is Adoption Altruism or Commodification?
From its earliest practices, adoption has been recognized as an altruistic act—whether to provide a loving family to a child born to a young, unmarried mother; or to provide a life rich in social, economic, and educational resources and potential freedom from discrimination to impoverished biracial or minority group children who were often also victims of abuse or neglect; or to provide an alternative to abandonment, existence in the emotionally stark atmosphere of an orphanage, or even death, in the case of international adoptees. Some, however, call attention to the fact that in many cases, the adoption provides both a child and the opportunity to parent to individuals and couples who would otherwise be biologically unable to do so. These persons point to the extensive market that exists for adoptable children, particularly healthy infants, and to private adoption agencies and independent adoption facilitators as businesses that provide jobs and economic profit. Critics apply such terms as colonialism and cultural imperialism to international and transcultural adoptions.
- Kreider, Rose M. 2003. Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2000. Census Special Reports, CENSR-6RV. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-6.pdf).
- McGowan, B. G. 2005. “Historical Evolution of Child Welfare Services.” Pp. 10-46 in Child Welfare for the Twenty-first Century: A Handbook of Practices, Policies, and Programs, edited by G. P. Mallon and P. M. Hess. New York: Columbia University Press.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children’s Bureau. 2006. “AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2005 Estimates as of September 2006.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/afcarsreport13.pdf).
- S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. “Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans Coming to the U.S.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.passportsusa.com/family/adoption/stats/stats_451.html).
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