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Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting for another who is not kin and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities from the original 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 whereas others have endeavored to achieve adoption through less formal means, notably via contracts that specified inheritance rights and parental responsibilities. Modern systems of adoption, arising in the 20th century, tend to be governed by comprehensive statutes and regulations.

Adoption has a long history in the Western world, closely tied with the legacy of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. Its use has changed considerably over the centuries with its focus shifting from adult adoption and inheritance issues toward children and family creation and its structure moving from a recognition of continuity between the adopted and kin toward allowing relationships of lessened intensity.

History of adoption


Adoption for the well-born
Adoption has been called the quintessential American institution, embodying faith in social engineering and mobility. While it is true that the modern form emerged in the United States, 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.

Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the interest of the adopter, providing a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and creating 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, utilized some form of adoption as well. Evidence suggests their practices aimed 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 conception of adoption with males adopted solely to perform the duties of ancestor worship.

Middle Ages to Modern Period

Adoption and the commoner

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 around 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 his old age; an idea that recalls conceptions of adoption held under the provisions of 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 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 marks the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization, eventually bringing about the establishment of the foundling hospital and orphanage .

As the Foundling Hospital Model gained acceptance, some formal rules were created for placement of children into families: boys could become apprenticed to an artisan and girls might be married off under institutional authority. Hospitals continued to informally adopt out children as well, a mechanism regarded as a means 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.

The system of apprenticeship and informal adoption extended into the 19th 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, and 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 the 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.”

Modern period

Adopting to create a family

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 Citymarker. 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.
William and his brother Thomas.
They rode the Orphan Train in 1880 at the ages of 11 and 9, respectively.
William was taken into a good home.
Thomas was exploited for labor and abused.
The brothers eventually made their way back to New York and reunited.
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 Minnesotamarker’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.Henry Goddard, Wanted: A Child to Adopt

It took 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. Illegitimate births rose three-fold after WWII, 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 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 Massachusettsmarker, 1851 which mandated that placements consider the welfare of the child, 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 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.

Race Before 1973 1973-1981 1982-1988 1989-1995 1996-2002
All Women 8.7% 4.1% 2.0% 0.9% 1.0%
Black Women 1.5% 0.2% 1.1% 0.0% NA
White Women 19.3% 7.5% 3.2% 1.7% 1.3%
Table 1: Percentage of Infants (Born to Never-Married Women) Who Were Relinquished

The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. Englandmarker and Walesmarker established their first formal adoption law in 1926. Hollandmarker passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germanymarker 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 today practiced globally, 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 1044(2002) 91,466(2002) 1.1 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

Contemporary adoption

Forms of adoption

Contemporary adoption practices can be divided into two forms: 1) Open and 2) 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 U.K. and six States in the U.S.). More often, open adoption is 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 binding agreement concerning visitation, exchange of information, or other interaction regarding the child, however).

The practice of closed adoption, the norm for most of modern history, seals all identifying information, maintaining it as secret and barring 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, closed adoption is seeing renewed influence. In 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 adoptee advocacy organizations as being retrograde and dangerous.

How adoptions originate

Adoption occurs between related family members and unrelated individuals. Historically, most adoptions occurred within a family, though. The most recent data from the U.S. indicates about half of adoptions are currently between related individuals. . A common example of this is a "stepparent adoption", where the new partner of a parent may legally adopt a child from the parent's previous relationship. Intra-family adoption can also occur through surrender, as a result of parental death, or when the child cannot otherwise be cared for and a family member agrees to take over.

Infertility is the main reason parents seek to adopt children they are not related to. One study shows this accounted for 80% of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care. Estimates suggest that 11%-24% of Americans who cannot conceive or carry to term attempt to build a family through adoption, and that the overall rate of ever-married American women who adopt is about 1.4%. Other reasons people adopt are numerous although not well documented. These may include wanting to cement a new family following divorce or death of one parent, compassion motivated by religious or philosophical conviction, to avoid contributing to perceived overpopulation out of the belief that it is more responsible to care for otherwise parent-less children than to reproduce, to ensure inheritable diseases (e.g., Tay-Sachs disease) are not passed on, and health concerns relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Although there are a range of possible reasons, the most recent study of women who adopt experiences suggests they are most likely to be 40–44 years of age, currently married, have impaired fertility, and childless.

Unrelated adoptions may occur through five mechanisms:

1) Private domestic adoptions: under this arrangement, charities and for-profit organizations act as intermediaries, bringing together prospective adoptive parents and families who want to place a child, all parties being residents of the same country. Alternatively, prospective adoptive parents sometimes avoid intermediaries and solicit pregnant women directly, drafting contracts through a lawyer (this is illegal in some jurisdictions). Private Domestic Adoption accounts for a significant portion of all adoptions; in the United States, for example, nearly 45% of adoptions are estimated to have occurred through private arrangements.

2) Foster care adoption: this is a type of domestic adoption where a child is initially placed in public care. Its importance as an avenue for adoption varies by country. Nevertheless, the example of the United States is instructive. Of the 127,500 adoptions that occurred in the U.S. about 51,000 or 40% were through the foster care system.

3) International adoption: involves the placing of a child for adoption outside that child’s country of birth. This can occur through both public and private agencies. In some countries, such as Sweden, these adoptions account for the majority of cases (see above Table). The U.S. example, however, indicates there is wide variation by country since adoptions from abroad account for less than 15% of its cases. The laws of different countries vary in their willingness to allow international adoptions. Recognizing 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 and has been ratified by 75 countries, to date.

4) Embryo adoption: the state of Georgiamarker in the United States of America is the first jurisdiction to include human embryos in it adoption laws. Conservative evangelicals are the primary supporters, considering it a recognition of embryo life and a mechanism to save that life. These developments in adoption law are not without critics, however, even among religious communities. While the Catholic Church has not announced its support or opposition to the adpotion of embyros, its theologians are divided on the issue with some deeming it a "grave violation of nature," and others viewing it as an act of charity. In the absence of adoption laws, embryo relinquishment has occurred under property laws, being transferred from one set of individuals to another. As of 2003, 400,000 embryos had been frozen in the United States alone and an estimated 2% or 9,000 were available for donation; the rest were reserved for future use by the parents or for medical research.

5) Common law adoption is a phrase used to describe an adoption which has not been recognized, beforehand, by the courts, but where a parent, without resort to any formal legal process, leaves his or her children with a friend or relative for an extended period of time. At the end of a designated term of (voluntary) co-habitation, as witnessed by the public, the adoption is then considered binding, in some courts of law, even though not initially sanctioned by the court. The particular terms of a common-law adoption are defined by each legal jurisdiction. For example, the U.S. state of Californiamarker recognizes common law relationships after co-habitation of 2 years.

How adoptions can disrupt

Disruption refers to the termination of an adoption. This includes adoptions that end prior to legal finalization and those that end after that point (in U.S. law, the latter cases are referred to as having been dissolved). The Disruption process is usually initiated by adoptive parents via a court petition and is analgous to divorce proceedings. It is a legal avenue unique to adoptive parents as disruption/dissolution does not apply to biological kin.

No known official statistics track the number of disruptions in any country. Some ad hoc studies, performed in the U.S., however, suggest that between 10-25 percent of adoptions disrupt before they are legally finalized and from 1-10 percent are dissolved after legal finalization. The wide range of values reflects the paucity of information on the subject and demographic factors such as age; it is known that older children are more prone to having their adoptions disrupted.

Parenting and development of adoptees


Biological ties are the hallmark of parent-child relationships, and its absence has caused concern throughout the history of adoption. No less an authority than Jessie Taft, a pioneer in the professionlization of adoption services and herself an adoptive mother, commented on the difference in adoptive parenting, “No one who is not willfully deluded would maintain that the experiences of adoption can take the place of the actual bearing and rearing of an own child.”

Along these lines, a Princeton Universitymarker study of 6,000 adoptive, step, and foster mothers in the United States and South Africa from 1968-1985 indicated that food expenditures in households with non-biological children (when controlled for income, household size, hours worked, age, etc.) were significantly less, causing the researchers to speculate that, instinctually, people are less interested in sustaining the genetic lines of others. Moreover, the perception of similarities between adoptive parent and child appears important to successfully parenting. In relationships marked by sameness in likes, personality, and appearance, both adult adoptees and adoptive parents report being happier with the adoption..

Nevertheless, there is evidence that adoptive relationships can form along other lines. A study evaluating the level of parental investment indicates strength in adoptive families, suggesting that parents who adopt invest more time in their children than other parents and concludes, "...adoptive parents enrich their children's lives to compensate for the lack of biological ties and the extra challenges of adoption."

Beyond the foundational issues, the unique questions posed for adoptive parents are varied. They include how to respond to stereotypes, answering questions about heritage, and how best to maintain connections with biological kin when in an open adoption. One author suggests a common question adoptive parents have is whether, "Will we love the child even though he/she is not our biological child?" 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."

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.


The consensus among researchers is that adoption affects development throughout life, with the fact of “being adopted,” creating unique responses to significant life-events, e.g., the birth of a child. As a result, researchers often assume that the adoptee population faces heightened risk in terms of psychological development and social relationships. Earlier literature on the topic supported the conception of such problems, however, much of that research has since been deemed flawed due to methodological failures.

Some conclusions about the development of adoptees can be gleaned from newer studies, though, and it can be said that adoptees, in some respect, seem to develop differently than the general population while facing greater risks during adolescence.

Concerning developmental milestones, studies from the Colorado Adoption Project examined genetic influences on adoptee maturation, concluding that cognitive abilities of adoptees reflect those of their adoptive parents in early childhood but show little similarity by adolescence, resembling instead those of their biological parents and to the same extent as peers in non-adoptive families.

Similar mechanisms appear to be at work in the physical development of adoptees. Danish and American researchers conducting studies on the genetic contribution to body mass index found correlations between an adoptee’s weight class and his biological parents’ BMI while finding no relationship with the adoptive family environment. Moreover, about one-half of inter-individual differences were due to individual non-shared influences.

These differences in development appear to play out in the way young adoptees deal with major life events. In the case of parental divorce, adoptees have been found to respond differently than children who have not been adopted. While the general population experienced more behavioral problems, substance use, lower school achievement, and impaired social competence after parental divorce, the adoptee population appeared to be unaffected in terms of their outside relationships, specifically in their school or social abilities.

The adoptee population does, however, seem to be more at risk for certain behavioral issues. Researchers from the University of Minnesota studied adolescents who had been adopted and found that adoptees were twice as likely as non-adopted people to suffer from oppositional defiant disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (with an 8% rate in the general population). Suicide risks were also significantly greater than the general population. Swedish researchers found both international and domestic adoptees undertook suicide at much higher rates than non-adopted peers; with international adoptees and female international adoptees, in particular, at highest risk.

Nevertheless, work on adult adoptees has found that the additional risks faced by adoptees are largely confined to adolescence. Young adult adoptees were shown to be alike with adults from biological families and scored better than adults raised in alternative family types including single parent and step-families. Moreover, while adult adoptees showed more variability than their non-adopted peers on a range of psychosocial measures, adult adoptees exhibited more similarities than differences with adults who had not been adopted.

Public perception of adoption

In Western culture, the dominant conception of family revolves around a heterosexual couple with biological offspring. This idea places alternatives family forms outside the norm. As a consequence, research indicates, disparaging views of adoptive families exist, along with doubts concerning the strength of their family bonds..

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.. 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."

Reform and reunion trends

Open Rights efforts, a key platform of modern adoption reform.

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. These ideas arose from suggestions that the secrecy inherent in modern adoption may influence the process of forming an identity, create confusion regarding genealogy,, and provide little in the way of medical history.

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...,” reflecting the belief that children would be better served by staying in their own families and communities, a striking shift in policy that remains in force today.

Open records: Movements to unseal adoption records for adopted citizen proliferated along with increased acceptance of illegitimacy. In the United States, Florence Fisher created the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) in 1971, calling sealed records “an affront to human dignity.” while 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. Similar ideas were taking 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), groups that helped overturn sealed records in Alabama, Delaware, New Hampshire, Oregon, Tennessee, and Maine.. 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."


Photograph of adoptee Lesley Lathrop and mother at their reunion

Estimates for the extent of search behavior by adoptees have proven elusive; studies show significant variation. In part, the problem stems from the small adoptee population which 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. The UK Office for National Statistics has projected that 33% of all adoptees would eventually request a copy of their original birth records, exceeding original forecasts made in 1975 when it was believed that only a small fraction of the adoptee population would request their records. The projection is known to underestimate the true search rate, however, since many adoptees of the era have access to get their information by other means.

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. It is speculated by adoption researchers, however, that the reasons given are incomplete: although such information could be communicated by a third-party, interviews with adoptees, who sought reunion, found they expressed a need to actually meet biological relations.

It appears 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.

Externally-focused theories, in contrast, suggest that reunion is a way for adoptees to overcome social stigma. First proposed by Goffman, the theory has four 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. 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.

Treatment of Aboriginal Cultures

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.

The language of adoption

The language used in adoption is changing and evolving, and it has become a controversial issue tied closely to reform efforts. The controversy arises over the use of terms which, while designed to be more appealing or less offensive to some persons affected by adoption, may simultaneously cause offense or insult to others. This controversy illustrates the problematic nature of adoption, as well as the fact that coining new words and phrases to describe ancient social practices does not alter the feelings and experiences of those affected by them.

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."

Cultural variations in adoption

Attitudes and laws regarding adoption vary greatly. Whereas all cultures make arrangements whereby children whose own parents are unavailable to rear them to be brought up by others, not all cultures have the concept of adoption, that is treating unrelated children as equivalent to biological children of the adoptive parents. In Egypt, for example, and under Muslim law, adoption is illegal.

See also


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