The Brief Dark History of Adoption
Stolen children, sealed records, unwed mothers, orphan trains, foreign adoptions, good intentions, bad intentions, the fate of detained children at the border, and the sad, hard truth of all of it
Approximately five million Americans alive today are adoptees, and 2.5 per cent of American children under 18 are adopted, according to the Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon (pages.uoregon.edu). Despite this seemingly low percentage of adopted children overall, the Donaldson Adoption Institute reports that 60 percent of Americans have a connection to adoption. When I attended a small writers’ retreat a few weeks ago, the five women attending included an adoptee, an adoptive mother, a woman whose daughter had just adopted an infant, and me — a birthmother. Four out of five of us at a retreat that had nothing to do with adoption were closely connected to it.
In the ancient societies of Rome, Greece, and Mesopotamia adoption provided heirs, caregivers for childless elders, or the continuation of the family business. In some cultures it was costly, but it was not shameful or secretive. The modern American story of adoption, however, is built on a foundation of secrets and lies.
Adoption was not recognized by English Common Law until 1926, and so the United States of America, despite its cultural and legal common ground with the country it gained its independence from, diverged from England in the practice of adoption. In England bloodlines and their influence over property rights were more of a priority than they were in colonial America. According to E. Wayne Carp in his book Adoption in America: A Historical Perspective(University of Michigan Press, 2004) “The fluid boundaries between consanguine and nonconsanguine families in colonial America led, in some cases, to the informal adoption of children, particularly in Puritan Massachusetts and Dutch New York.” In a particularly interesting case in colonial New York in 1642, a man adopted his own daughter, born out of wedlock.
It wasn’t until 1851 that Massachusetts enacted the first adoption law in the U.S. The Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act allowed for any inhabitant of the Commonwealth to petition the courts in order to adopt a child as long as the parents, the legal guardian of the child, or next of kin consented. If the child was 14 or older, their own consent was also required. If the adopter was married, the spouse also had to agree to the adoption. If the judge found the adoptive parents able to “furnish suitable nurture and education,” the adoption could proceed. The adopted child would then be granted the same legal rights as a biological child, while the rights of any living biological parents were revoked.
After the Civil War overcrowding in orphanages and foundling homes, as well as an unprecedented number of street children in urban areas, inspired philanthropist and minister Charles Loring Brace, who had earlier created the Children’s Aid Society in New York City, to launch his Emigration Plan, also known as the Orphan Trains. From 1853 to 1864 over 300 children were sent each year to families in New England states, the North Atlantic states, and East North Central states. Nearly 1,000 children per year were sent between 1865 and 1874 to Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri.
In Stephen O’Connor’s book, Orphan Trains, The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed,”(Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) the very first delivery of 45 children, in the care of a preacher named E.P. Smith, to Dowagiac, Michigan allowed children to be distributed even if applicants could not produce the suggested letter from a pastor or a justice of the peace. Instead the applicant parents’ general demeanor and appearance sufficed. While in some later instances committees were formed in an attempt to place children with good parents, many Orphan Train children were treated as indentured servants. As a result agencies and laws evolved to promote adoption over servitude. The Progressive Movement, which had endeavored to end the orphanage system, found that the Orphan Trains were not without their own corruptions.
In 1909, as the various iterations of Orphan Trains were in their waning years, the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children was called by President Theodore Roosevelt. Though the country’s top social reformers had some praise for the Orphan Trains, they offered the opinion that children should be kept near their families of origin if at all possible, just as managers of orphanages had recommended prior to the Orphan Trains.
The Minnesota State Board of Corrections and Charities’ review of their state’s Orphan Train placements between 1880 and 1883 laid the groundwork for the Minnesota Adoption Law of 1917.The Minnesota Adoption Law, similar to the Massachusetts law, required investigation of all potential adoptive homes, a trial period, and restricted access to records except for “the parties of interest and their attorneys and representatives of the State board of control, except upon an order of the court expressly permitting the same.”
Despite the opinions of both 19thand early 20hcentury social reformers who recommended that children stay near relatives, other forces began gathering momentum. By 1920 the Children’s Aid Society and other philanthropic organizations had placed 175,000 children (though most of these placements were not formalized in court.) However, as late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. Still the movement for adoption continued to gain momentum. Less than 40 years later, nearly one-third of orphaned or abandoned children were in an adoptive home. (“Adoption.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org)
As the concept of adoption worked its way into the mainstream, unscrupulous profiteers and outright criminals like Georgia Tann from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society brokered thousands of babies and children for sale, many of them stolen from poor or unwed mothers. Tann amassed a fortune from the adoption of more than 5,000 stolen children. Black market adoptions, prior to 1951, were not illegal in Tennessee and many other states until laws aiming at adoption reform were put in place.
The Baby Scoop Era (1945–1973) followed on the heels of black market adoptions. Around four million women gave up their babies for adoption during the Baby Scoop Era. I was one of those girls sent away in secret so as not to disgrace her family. Social workers convinced me that I would only bring hurt to my family and my son if I kept him, and the Catholic Church convinced me I was going to hell. These were among the forces kept the wheels of the adoption machine turning.
By the time the Baby Scoop Era began nearly every state had adoption laws on the books that mandated pre-placement fitness, inquiry post-placement, and sealed records including sealed original birth certificates, even from the parties involved in the adoption. When an adoptee reached adulthood their birth certificate and all identifying information remained sealed. In most states yet today these records are still held in secret. According to the Bastard Chronicles, 20 Years of Adoptee Equality Activism in the U.S., compiled and edited by Marla L. Paul, (BabyGirlX Publishing, December 2016) only a few states bucked that trend, with Pennsylvania sealing their original birth certificates in 1984, and Alabama in 1991. Only two states, Kansas and Alaska, chose never to seal original birth certificates.
While adoption in the United States began as a domestic enterprise, foreign children also became available at the end of World War II. With many German cities destroyed, food rationed, living quarters and employment in short supply, American GIs in West Germany were very attractive to German young women. Many children of these relationships, as well as war orphans, were placed for adoption with American couples and brought to the U.S. The story in Japan might have been similar, if not for racism on both sides.
The Korean War also resulted in a wave of mixed race children, and Korea, due to its high regard for racial purity was happy to offer these children for international adoption. According to an article in The Economist(“Pity the Children,” May 23, 2015)“The outflow continued long after the Korean war. Since then South Korea has sent overseas around 200,000 of its orphaned or abandoned children, three-quarters of them to America.”
Subsequently, the post Viet-Nam War baby lift and dozens of other conflicts and catastrophes have rendered children available to a system hungry for do-gooding and profit. According to priceonomics.com,“The fact that American adoption trends tend to track with conflict, disaster, and destitution also reflects a fairly obvious point: Americans adopt orphans from countries that are full of adoptable orphans.” (“Why Did International Adoption End?” Ben Phillips, July 29, 2016) It is, unfortunately, after the fact that these humanitarian endeavors are found to be tainted. Many children taken out of their home country or placed in orphanages are not, in fact, orphans. These incidences occur both by accident and by nefarious design. Too rapid post-disaster inter-country adoption holds the potential to harm rather than help.
More recently, an unknown number of children were taken into custody at our border with Mexico. According to a piece in theatlantic.com, (“Children Were Dirty, They Were Scared, and They Were Hungry,” Lizzie O’Leary, June 25, 2019) hundreds of traumatized children were held in deplorable conditions on or near the southern border. While the Trump administration’s zero tolerance crackdown had supposedly ended by the time the piece was written, hundreds or perhaps even thousands of children remained (and still remain) in U.S. detention centers. What will happen to these children? According to the Christian Science Monitor, “An Associated Press investigation drawing on hundreds of court documents, immigration records, and interviews in the United States and Central America identified holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents.” (“Separated from parents, some migrant children are adopted by Americans,” Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza, csmonitor.com, October, 9, 2018)
Currently, these unaccompanied migrant children are housed, not just at the border, but in scores of detention centers throughout the country. While technically overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, many privately run faith-based organizations hold contracts to house these children. These agencies offer adoption services. With state court judges giving children away and adoption agencies housing unaccompanied children, it’s not a great leap to imagine a new era in adoption, the Border Baby Scoop.
The adoption system in the U.S. has been entangled in one corruption after another since its inception. Good intentions were not enough to keep it on the straight and narrow in the beginning, and they are not enough to set it right now. Love is not enough to heal adoption’s hoard of broken hearts. We must prioritize family preservation and acknowledge the searing truth that adoption is trauma. Every adoption begins with trauma. Every adoption begins with loss.