July 11, 2022

History of Adoption Laws and Practices


Adoption has a history dating all the way back to Biblical times. When we look at the Bible, we can clearly see God’s heart for adoption and orphans. For us, as Christians, we are adopted into God’s family as chosen children. While it has developed and changed over time, we can see the importance of adoption and how it can impact and change lives. However, for this blog, we will talk about adoption through American history.

The orphan train was started in 1854 by Charles Loring Brace. Trains brought orphaned, abandoned, and poor children from urban areas in the Northeast to rural areas in the Midwest with the hope for a better life. The orphan train idea started the modern idea of foster care even though some of the orphan train concepts were questionable. In fact, the phrase “put up for adoption” can stir up a negative response as it relates back to the orphan train era where children were lined up like livestock up on the train platforms. Prospective adoptive families, mostly Midwestern farm families, came to view the children to determine which children looked the strongest and healthiest.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Massachusetts passed the first adoption law in the United States. This was the first law to protect the interest of the child above the interest of the adoptive family and required a judge to determine if the birth parents gave consent for the adoption to take place. The adoptive family also had to prove that they were able to provide a suitable education for the child or children that they were adopting. In 1891, Michigan passed the first law that required adoptive parents to prove their moral character and ability to support and educate a child. This was a step up from the Massachusetts law as the parents did not have to prove they had good moral character. Interestingly, animal protection laws existed before adoption laws!

The aftermath of World War I left more children orphaned than ever before. The Social Security Act of 1935 led to the expansion of foster care and after World War II, adoption started to rapidly increase to include infants as well as school-age children. Generally, children were matched with same race parents. However, as the demand grew for babies, transracial adoption began. The first record of a transracial adoption occurred in 1948. In 1994, the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) prohibited agencies from denying placement opportunities or delaying a child’s placement based solely on race, color, or national origin.

From 1958 to 1967, the Indian Adoption Project was a federal program that forced Native American children to be systematically removed from their families. White families adopted these children even with no reason for the removal. These families tried to assimilate the Native children to white culture. The government thought that adoption was the best option for dealing with the Native American “problem.” This practice was later outlawed through the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 by setting federal requirements regarding the removal of indigenous children and allows the child’s tribe to intervene in adoption cases.

The history of international adoption began shortly after WWII. “War orphans” from Germany, Vietnam, and Korea were put on waiting lists for Americans to adopt. Harry and Bertha Holt led the way for creating the first international adoption agency which still exists today. They started with adopting eight children from Korea and then urged other couples in America to adopt children from Korea.

While adoption has not always been a positive event in history, things have changed. In 1993, the Hague Convention established rules and regulations regarding how intercountry adoptions occurred. They ensure that adoptions are completed legally and ethically. The Hague Convention still exists today to ensure that adoption service providers are accredited, all fees and expenses are disclosed beforehand, and all legal processes are followed.

Since adoption first began, a lot has changed. The wellbeing of the child is first and foremost when it comes to making decisions. Transracial, transcultural, and transnational adoptions have continued to grow rapidly, and the history of adoption will continue to change. As history continues to change, the adoption option, hopefully, will become more prevalent, because every child deserves a loving family.

By: Regina Smith



Adoption History::Timeline of Adoption History (uoregon.edu)

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