More Recent Trends
Although adoption is mentioned in the legal codes and writings of many ancient peoples, including the Romans and Hebrews, no such laws existed in England or her colonies prior to the middle of the 19th century. Instead, indigent children were generally sent to public institutions known as almshouses until the age of six or seven, when they could be “put out” as indentured servants or apprentices. Families also sometimes took in children informally, especially in rural areas to help on the farm.
In the United States, these practices worked well enough until the early 19th century, when changes in economic conditions and the size of the population produced numbers of children the system couldn't cope with. At the same time, largely through the efforts of certain social reformers, society's attitude toward adoption began to change. Private agencies were established to place children in homes where they would be treated as members of the family rather than servants. And families who took in children increasingly petitioned state legislatures for private adoption acts to ensure the legal status and inheritance rights of adopted children.
Finally, as a result of pressure from individual families and to provide better care for destitute children, the state legislatures were prompted to take action. Between 1851 and 1873, 17 states enacted adoption legislation, and by 1929 all states had such laws. (England did not enact general adoption laws until 1926.) Under these new statutes, adoptions had to be approved by a judge, after which the adopted child assumed the same rights accorded any natural, legitimate child of the petitioners.
Adoption in the 20th Century
Despite the legislation, foundling homes continued to exist, and legal adoption was still relatively infrequent. Many people feared that poor, abandoned, or illegitimate children were doomed to grow into troubled adults. Infants in particular were undesirable because of high mortality rates and the lack of readily available breast milk.
Following World War I, however, the demand for babies began to grow. This was partly a response to the sharp drop in population caused by the war and the influenza epidemic of 1918 and partly also due to the development of a successful feeding formula. The number of adoptions exploded, and “closed” adoptions became the norm. In closed adoptions, the identities of the birth parents and adoptive parents were kept a secret because, it was thought, this helped the child bond to his or her new family and avoid the stigma of illegitimacy.
By the mid-1950s the demand for healthy infants began to exceed the number available. Agencies started screening prospective parents more selectively, and by 1975 many had stopped accepting applications for nondisabled white children altogether. Other agencies were obliged to put prospective parents on waiting lists, usually for an average of three to five years. Factors contributing to the decline in available infants included the increased availability of effective contraception, a rise in the abortion rate following Roe v. Wade in 1973, and an increase in the number of unmarried women keeping their babies rather than giving them up for adoption.
It was also during the 1970s that “open” adoption, in which adoptive and birth parents were known to each other, became more accepted. A growing number of prospective parents adopted through private placement, contacting a birth mother directly through an advertisement or through the services of a lawyer or other professional specializing in adoption.
More Recent Trends
Since the end of the 20th century, infertile couples and single people have increasingly turned to transracial and international adoptions, as well as new medical techniques for treating infertility and providing alternative methods of reproduction. Meanwhile, the number of older special-needs children awaiting adoption has skyrocketed. These children often come from backgrounds of abuse and neglect, and finding appropriate placements for them is one of the most pressing concerns in child welfare today.
In December 2007, the United States joined the Hague Adoption Convention. As of April 2008, the Convention will monitor adoptions between the United States and other Convention member countries. Each member country has established a central authority to maintain ethical practices in the adoption process. The treaty is intended to protect children, birth parents, and adoptive parents from corrupt dealings, such as hidden fees and child abduction, that have become common.
In 2007, international adoptions dropped to 19,292 from their peak of 22,884 in 2004. The decline may be attributed to the tougher requirements in China, the most popular country from which Americans adopt, and suspensions in Russia. China sent 5,453 children to Americans in 2007, compared to 7,906 in 2005. Adoptions from Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Vietnam increased from 2006 to 2007, however.