"Put Up" on Platforms: A History of Twentieth Century Adoption Policy in the United States

By Kahan, Michelle | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, September 2006 | Go to article overview

"Put Up" on Platforms: A History of Twentieth Century Adoption Policy in the United States


Kahan, Michelle, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Adoption is closely intertwined with many issues that are central to public policy in this country--welfare and poverty, race and class, and gender. An analysis of the history of adoption shows how it has been shaped by the nation's mores and demographics. In order to better understand this phenomenon, and its significance to larger societal issues, this analysis reviews its history, focusing on four key periods in which this country's adoption policy was shaped: the late Nineteenth Century's 'orphan trains'; the family preservation and Mothers' Pensions of the Progressive Era; World War II through the 1950s, with secrecy and the beginnings of international adoption; and the 1970s-1990s, when reproductive controls were more obtainable, and relinquishing children became more uncommon.

Keywords: abortion, adoption, birth control, child welfare, history international adoption, Mothers' Pensions, Operation Baby-lift, open adoption, orphan train, policy, secrecy, women's rights

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Adoption is closely intertwined with many issues that are central to public policy in this country--welfare and poverty, race and class, and gender. Recent studies show that adoption is so prevalent that it touches six in ten Americans (Pertman, 2000, p. 9). And yet, we often think of adoption as a private family matter, affecting a small sector of the population, primarily middle class white families. An analysis of the history of adoption shows how related policy has been shaped by the nation's belief in the primacy of biological kinship, as well as demographic, economic, and reproductive trends. Now is an opportune time to critically examine this past as we begin to confront the impacts of welfare reform, the growing diversity in our society, and increasingly successful attempts to limit reproductive rights.

The history of adoption is weakly documented, mostly in a disconnected manner. Because adoption policy implementation has been shrouded in secrecy for most of the century, comprehensive histories of the topic are rare or incomplete at best. Since most case records had been sealed, historians have not had access to primary sources. Most researchers have focused on legal histories based on state laws and cases. Surprisingly, precise data describing fundamental adoption trends do not even exist. Since 1975, no national organization or government department has tracked this widespread social phenomenon. Data that are available include adoption by family members, estimated at one-third to one-half of adoptions at any given time, depending upon the period (Adamec and Pierce, 2000; Moe, 1998; Stolley, 1993). According to existing information, adoption began to increase considerably during the World War II era, rising from 16,000 annually in 1937, to 55,000 by 1945, and then growing tremendously over the next thirty years (to 142,000 in 1965). Peaking around 1970, at 173,000 it has since decreased in large part as a result of the sexual revolution and resulting reproductive technologies. The recent low point was at 118,000 in 1987, with 2001 estimates at 130,000.

In order to better understand this phenomenon, and its significance to larger issues of race, class, and reproductive rights, this analysis reviews its history, focusing on four key periods in which this country's adoption policy was shaped. As a whole, these times represent moments during which adoption policy patterns were set (the first three), and traditions challenged and changed (the last period):

1. The late Nineteenth Century, when the first modern adoption law was passed and the 'orphan train' movement began as a way to control children from poor families.

2. The Progressive Era, a time of child welfare reform, the rise of social work, beginnings of the family preservation movement, early efforts to regulate adoption, and Mothers' Pensions as a means to help worthy poor women take care of their children.

3. …

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