The History of Adoption in the United States

The history of adoption informs the present
Understanding the History of Adoption

Many friends and family members have asked us why the adoption process we're undergoing is so extensive, in-depth, and, at times, invasive. We've spent hours writing about our childhoods, parenting philosophies, and past experiences to submit to our adoption agency. Our home-study process involves lengthy discussions about everything from our family traditions to our preparedness to parent a child with special needs.

To understand why adoptive families are so thoroughly vetted and educated before they are approved to adopt, it's helpful to understand the devastating history of adoption in the United States.

Adoption has been around for thousands of year, and has existed for a variety of reasons, not always for the best interest of the child. In the 1600's, it was common for orphaned children or children from poor families to be taken in by wealthy households as indentured servants until they came of age. In the early United States, adoption was driven by the stigma associated with having a child out of wedlock, and once a person had given birth, they might never see the child again, nor have any idea who had adopted the child. Fear and shame characterized the experience of many birth parents in the era of "closed adoptions," in which everything was done in secret; the birth parents and adoptive parents never met, and often the adopted child was never told about their adoption. 

In 1854, Charles Loring Brace created the Orphan Trains, which brought an estimated 120,000 children from urban areas like New York City to the growing rural midwest. The trains full of children would stop in rural towns and families could claim children as they were displayed on the train platforms. The term "put up for adoption" comes from this practice of children literally put up on platforms for strangers to select. Many of the children from the Orphan Trains ended up in what was effectively indentured servitude on the growing midwestern farms. 

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Adoption has long, too, been associated with the racist notion of assimilating and "Americanizing" non-white children. Until the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, for example, Native/Indigenous children in the U.S. were often placed in white families as a way to erase Native American cultures, and to "save" children perceived to have been born into poor, non-Christian communities.


Following WWII, there was a surge in international adoption of children conceived by American soldiers on tour, and the subsequent movement to assimilate these children into mainstream, white American culture. As a result, international adoption boomed in the late 20th century and early 2000s, and concerns surfaced about whether all international adoptions were conducted ethically and with the consent of birth parents. In the last 10-15 years, new international laws and growing concern over the ethical placement of children internationally has led many countries to close their doors to international adoption, and the number of infants adopted internationally has decreased dramatically.

Today, the process of infant adoption is, in many ways, a response to the history of secrecy, exploitation, and harm associated with adoptions of the past. Now, adoptive families are thoroughly vetted by licensed agencies and social workers to ensure that they are prepared to parent a child and have the child's welfare at heart. Additionally, birth families are given more control over their child's placement, carefully selecting the baby's adoptive family and negotiating what "openness" will look like in the adoption triad of the birth family, adoptive family, and adoptee. Research shows that it is in the best interest of everyone when there is continued interaction, or "openness", between the birth family and the adoptive family. In almost all contemporary domestic adoptions, the child grows up knowing their history and birth family to some extent. It is our hope that our future child's birth family will remain a present and important part of our child's life.

Obviously, a lot has changed over the course of adoption history. With those changes comes new language. For example, the term "put up for adoption" is outdated and rooted in a troubling past, so instead we say that a birth parent "made an adoption plan" for their child. To learn more about adoption-positive language, check out this PDF.