The History of Adoption

How the Perception of Adoption Has Changed in a Positive Way  

The choice of adoption has seen a significant change in recent history, including brave and selfless birth mothers gaining more control over the process.  

Before we dig deeper into the history of adoption, it’s important to know that you can always get answers to your adoption questions by filling out our online form to connect with a professional.   

Until then, here is an overview of adoption history in the United States.  

The History of Adoption from the Beginning  

Adoption history dates back hundreds of years. While not outwardly celebrated, adoption has always been an option for women unable to care for a child.  

The history of adoption in America is viewed as two separate periods: adoption before the 20th century and the “modern” age.  

The History of Adoption Before the 20th Century  

During the early history of adoption, mothers placed children with other families in secrecy to avoid the stigma, shame and label of being considered illegitimate.   

In most cases, women were pressured to give a child up for adoption by the father, family or doctor. Poverty and illness were also factors. The overwhelming impact on keeping adoptions secret was a negative effect on children and mothers. 

While mothers still generally had the best interests of their newborn in mind, many chose to place their child with adoptive parents who were only interested in labor and profit.   

It wasn’t until 1851 that the first adoption law was passed to help protect unsafe placements. Even with an adoption law in place, unsafe and unprotected adoptions still occurred into the 20th century.   

The “Modern” Age of Adoption History in America  

The first major shift into the “modern” age of adoption history occurred when Massachusetts implemented the first adoption law in 1851 to designate adoption as a legally protected decision based on child welfare rather than the adult’s interests.  

For the first time in the history of adoption in America, a judge ensured that adoptions were conducted safely and legally through the Adoption of Children Act. The caveat to this was how judges made their determinations. It was essentially left to their interpretation, leaving room for error and a continued need for oversight.  

Still, implementing the first official adoption law was a significant and positive step in the “modern” age of adoption.   

In 1891, Michigan asked judges to investigate adoptions before giving a final decree. During the 1950s, this would become known as the “home study,” a crucial aspect of ensuring an adoptive family is prepared and eligible to adopt a child permanently.  

The home study was just one of many steps that have improved adoption — making it a safe and trustworthy route for women and children. 

Continued Developments Adoption History During the 1900s [And the Impact of Open Adoption]  

Adoption has continued to improve in the last century. One of the most important ways you can see this is in open adoption communication. 

It used to be that adoption was done in secret, and there was no contact between the birth mother and adoptive family after placement. Today, this is known as a “closed” adoption, which is still an option for prospective birth mothers.  

While there are many reasons why a birth mother would want to remain anonymous in her adoption, the impact on the child can be less than ideal. As the history of adoption in America changed, so did the level of openness.  

Let’s take a closer look at closed adoption and its existence in the overall history of adoption.  

Closed Adoption in the mid-1900s 

Even into the “modern” age of adoption, the U.S. saw an unfortunate period starting with the end of World War II and lasting until the early 1970’s known as the “Baby Scoop Era.”  

The rise in children born out of wedlock during and immediately following the end of the war led to a sharp increase in involuntary adoption placements.  

The social perception of pregnancy out of wedlock and the choice of adoption remained negative, causing the continued secrecy surrounding placing a child for adoption.  

During this period of adoption history, placements peaked at 175,000 in 1970. This resulted in an increase in adoption organizations. Included were organizations that focused on protecting the rights of adopted children and their ability to access their personal adoption history.  

One such group, the Bastard Nation, was founded to advocate for the adoptees’ rights to gain access to adoption records.  

Because of the steep rise in adoptions, adoption reformers officially embraced the term “birth mother.”  

The 1970s would spark the movement toward more openness in adoptions.  

“Open” and “Semi-Open” Adoption in the Late-1900s 

In 1998, Oregon passed a law allowing adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates. This would be the first major shift toward modern open adoption.   

As access to adoption records became available in states like Oregon, adoptions became more open. While identifying information remained secret, organizations and professionals mediated the exchange of letters and photos, known as “semi-open” adoption.  

With the advancement in technology, such as mobile phones, text messages and video chat, adoptions have become even more open. Today, more than 95% of adoptions have at least some level of openness.  

In many cases, birth mothers have direct communication with their children and adoptive families.  

When it comes to the relationship between birth parents and adoptive families, adoption agencies help facilitate communication during the adoption process and help prepare for the continued growth of their relationship post-placement.  

For adult adoptees having been placed in a more closed adoption, access to birth records, DNA records and social media have become assets for finding biological parents and reunions between adoptees and their birth parents.  

Some lawmakers continue to argue that an adoptee searching for and finding a birth parent is a violation of privacy. However, birth parents are happy to experience a reunion with their child in many cases, even if they initially opted to remain anonymous.  

Because access to medical history is crucial and knowledge of the birth parents helps prevent identity issues, most adoption agencies strongly encourage open adoption. In fact, openness in adoption is so beneficial to everyone involved, agencies often require adoptive families to commit to open adoption.  

Adoption Agencies and Their Role in Adoption History  

Adoption agencies as a whole have played a significant role in the history of adoption, and the best agencies in the U.S. offer a wide range of services and support to prospective birth mothers, including giving them more control over their journey than ever before.   

Between 1910-1930, the first specialized adoption agencies became an integral part of adoption history.  

With the changes in adoption laws over the next several decades, adoption agencies were better suited to help birth mothers safely place children for adoption while also helping ensure their adoptions were legal.  

Now, birth mothers control every aspect of their adoption journey by working with an adoption agency.  

Creating a personalized adoption plan, a hospital plan and hand-picking the adoptive family, birth mothers are given the reigns to their adoption experience while receiving support and guidance from a trusted professional.  

Another shift in adoption is the increase in inclusiveness. In 1948, the history of transracial adoption changed forever when, for the first time, a white couple adopted an African-American child.  

Because there are so many waiting adoptive families, birth mothers working with an adoption agency can choose a family of a specific race.   

Inclusion in adoption history doesn’t just stop at interracial adoptions. Gay couples have sought adoption as a way to build a family, as well.  

LGBT Adoption History  

As adoptions became more socially acceptable, it became a more acceptable avenue for gay couples to build families.  

In 1979, the first gay couple in California became the first known same-sex adoptive parents.   

Following the turn of the century, states began easing restrictions on marriage and adoption, positively impacting the history of same-sex adoption.  

In 2015, the right to marry as a same-sex couple became federally protected thanks to the landmark case Obergefell vs. Hodges.  

Today, members of the LGBTQ+ community commonly choose adoption to start families, and the experience and services of adoption agencies and professionals frequently work with same-sex and transgender couples ready for parenthood.  

Some states continue to fight against gay marriage, using “religious” freedom as a foundation for passing anti-LGBTQ adoption bills, but experienced national adoption agencies continue to work toward helping same-sex couples become parents through adoption.  

If you have questions about the history of adoption in America or want more information on how to place a child for adoption, complete this online form to connect with a professional today.  

The History of Adoption and How It’s Viewed Today  

As you now know, the adoption history has seen many changes and advanced positively. Today, adoption is a life-changing pregnancy option when parenting isn’t possible.   

With a rise in teenage pregnancies, challenging circumstances, financial instability and other reasons, birth mothers can make the brave and selfless decision to give their child a life full of opportunity through adoption.  

The stigma of adoption still exists in small pockets, but generally, birth mothers are viewed as heroic women making a difficult decision, but one with the child’s best interests in mind.  

Openness, inclusion and state laws adapting and becoming more accepting of adoption have led to significant changes to the history of adoption in America. With the help of agencies and professionals, adoption will continue to be a safe option for birth mothers to create a better future for everyone involved. 

About the Author

Lindsay Arielle has been a proud birth mother since placing her son for adoption in 2011. Her post-placement agreement has always been an open adoption. She loves the time she gets to spend with her son and his parents during visits. Lindsay truly believes that for herself and her family, adoption has been a blessing, and she enjoys writing about spiritual healing for birth mothers.

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