Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States

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Chicago: University of Chicago Press, The body of scholarship on the history of adoption in the United States has grown markedly in the last decade, with the creation of an online project and the publication of an historical handbook, a score of articles, and monographs by Wayne Carp, Barbara Melosh, Claudia Nelson, and, now, Ellen Herman. Dividing her narrative into three overlapping chronological periods, Herman shows how in the first third of the century, child welfare advocates in the U. Standardizing matching mechanisms and requirements also served to naturalize the adoptive families by decreasing the distance between them and birth families.

One is the liberal pluralist ideal that families and nations can be constituted through voluntary association, whether adoption in the former case or immigration and naturalization in the latter. The other is the blood ideal, that birth determines belonging. Obviously not the first to note the fundamental tension between these two ideals, Herman is the first to use that tension to explain why adoption has elicited far more public discussion and controversy in the United States than its statistical incidence would seem to warrant.

With its interlinking of expert theory and agency practice with national identity narrative, Kinship by Design will be of especial interest to those who wish to explore the cultural context of evolving social policy. Table of Contents. Making Adoption Governable 3. Rules for Realness. Part 2: Standardization and Naturalization, — 4.

Matching and the Mirror of Nature. Adoption Revolutions 7. The Difference Difference Makes 8. Damaged Children, Therapeutic Lives. Barbara Melosh Women's Review of Books. Others may do so to avoid passing on serious heritable diseases, or out of health concerns relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Others believe that it is an equally valid form of family building, neither better nor worse than the biological route. Many are motivated by the desire to help others that are in need no matter what race or culture they represent.

In many Western countries, stepparent adoption is the most common form of adoption as people choose to cement a new family following divorce or death of one parent. Adoption has a long history in the Western world, closely tied with the legacy of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States, Herman

Its use has changed considerably over the centuries with its focus shifting from adult adoption and inheritance issues toward children and family creation. While the modern form of adoption emerged in the United States, forms of the practice appeared throughout history. Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the political and economic interests of the adopter, [4] providing a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and creating male heirs to manage estates.

Infant adoption during Antiquity appears rare. Although not normally adopted under Roman Law, the children, called alumni , were reared in an arrangement similar to guardianship, being considered the property of the father who abandoned them. Other ancient civilizations, notably India and China , also utilized some form of adoption. Evidence suggests their practices aimed to ensure the continuity of cultural and religious practices, in contrast to the Western idea of extending family lines.

In ancient India, secondary sonship continued, in a limited and highly ritualistic form, so that an adopter might have the necessary funerary rites performed by a son. The nobility of the Germanic, Celtic , and Slavic cultures that dominated Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire denounced the practice of adoption. In medieval society, bloodlines were paramount; a ruling dynasty lacking a natural-born heir apparent was replaced, a stark contrast to Roman traditions.

The evolution of European law reflects this aversion to adoption.

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English Common Law , for instance, did not permit adoption since it contradicted the customary rules of inheritance. In the same vein, France 's Napoleonic Code made adoption difficult, requiring adopters to be over the age of 50, sterile, older than the adopted person by at least fifteen years, and to have fostered the adoptee for at least six years.

Europe's cultural makeover marked a period of significant innovation for adoption. Without support from the nobility, the practice gradually shifted toward abandoned children. Abandonment levels rose with the fall of the empire and many of the foundlings were left on the doorstep of the Church. The Church's innovation, however, was the practice of oblation, whereby children were dedicated to lay life within monastic institutions and reared within a monastery.

This created the first system in European history in which abandoned children were without legal, social, or moral disadvantage. As a result, many of Europe's abandoned and orphaned became alumni of the Church, which in turn took the role of adopter. Oblation marks the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization, eventually bringing about the establishment of the foundling hospital and orphanage. As the idea of institutional care gained acceptance, formal rules appeared about how to place children into families: boys could become apprenticed to an artisan and girls might be married off under the institution's authority.

This system of apprenticeship and informal adoption extended into the nineteenth century, today seen as a transitional phase for adoption history.

Chapter 14. Marriage and Family

Under the direction of social welfare activists, orphan asylums began to promote adoptions based on sentiment rather than work, and children were placed out under agreements to provide care for them as family members instead of under contracts for apprenticeship. The experience of the Boston Female Asylum BFA is a good example, which had up to 30 percent of its charges adopted out by The next stage of adoption's evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States.

Rapid immigration and the aftermath of the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding of orphanages and foundling homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Loring Brace , a Protestant minister became appalled by the number of homeless children roaming the streets of New York City. Brace considered the abandoned youth, particularly Catholics , to be the most dangerous element challenging the city's order. The orphan trains eventually shipped an estimated , children from the urban centers of the East to the nation's rural regions. The sheer size of the displacement—the largest migration of children in history—and the degree of exploitation that occurred, gave rise to new agencies and a series of laws that promoted adoption arrangements rather than indenture.

The hallmark of the period is Minnesota 's adoption law of which mandated investigation of all placements and limited record access to those involved in the adoption. During the same period, the Progressive movement swept the United States with a critical goal of ending the prevailing orphanage system. Nevertheless, the popularity of eugenic ideas in America put up obstacles to the growth of adoption.


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Goddard who protested against adopting children of unknown origin:. Now it happens that some people are interested in the welfare and high development of the human race; but leaving aside those exceptional people, all fathers and mothers are interested in the welfare of their own families. The dearest thing to the parental heart is to have the children marry well and rear a noble family. How short-sighted it is then for such a family to take into its midst a child whose pedigree is absolutely unknown; or, where, if it were partially known, the probabilities are strong that it would show poor and diseased stock, and that if a marriage should take place between that individual and any member of the family the offspring would be degenerates.

It took a war and the disgrace of Nazi eugenic policies to alter attitudes. The period from to saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. Simultaneously, the scientific community began to stress the dominance of nurture over genetics, chipping away at eugenic stigmas. Taken together, these trends resulted in a new American model for adoption. Following its Roman predecessor, Americans severed the rights of the original parents while making adopters the new parents in the eyes of the law.

Two innovations were added: First, adoption was meant to ensure the "best interests of the child;" the seeds of this idea can be traced to the first American adoption law in Massachusetts. The origin of the move toward secrecy began with Charles Loring Brace who introduced it to prevent children from the Orphan Trains from returning to or being reclaimed by their parents.

Brace feared the impact of the parents' poverty, in general, and their Catholic religion, in particular, on the youth. This tradition of secrecy was carried on by the later Progressive reformers when drafting of American laws. The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in The Netherlands passed its law in Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in West Germany enacted its first laws in Ironically, adoption is far more visible and discussed in society today, yet it is less common.

In some countries, applications must be made to a state agency or agencies responsible for adoption. There may also be private, licensed adoption agencies that may operate either on a commercial or on a non-profit basis. Agencies may operate only domestically, or may offer international adoptions, or may facilitate both.

Some jurisdictions allow lawyers to arrange private adoptions, and some allow private facilitators to operate. On applying to adopt, the potential adoptive parent s will generally be assessed for suitability.

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