What follows is intended to be a snapshot that helps adoptees begin to grasp the historical weight of their experience, which still influences the experience of adoption today.
To understand the history of adoption, it can be helpful to gain an overview of the legislation and trends that have affected adoption throughout the years. One timeline that is helpful can be found here.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of adoption, footnotes are provided to help begin your research journey and more information can be found on our Resources page.
Today, adoption looks a lot different than it did a hundred years ago. To get a better understanding of the history of adoption, we can look at timelines of policies passed and the trends of adoption over the years. But, one thing that is frequently left out of the discussion is how these events and policies influenced the experience of adoptees and how it continues to influence us today. We cannot talk about adoption today without talking about the history of adoption and the societal stigmas that have surrounded it for decades.
In 1851, Massachusetts was the first state to pass an adoption law recognizing that adoption should be based on the child’s welfare rather than the adult’s interests. This was the first time in history that adults had to prove their fitness for providing for a child, though courts still rarely intervened on the child’s behalf. This means that prior to 1851, there was little to protect children from being taken into families that would use them for labor or profit. Adoptions were often done in secrecy with common motives being family hardship or ensuring that a child wasn’t brought up as illegitimate.
Before moving on, it is important to reflect on the wording that has shadowed the history of adoption and adoptees: legitimate and illegitimate. Although these words may not be used today as they were even a few decades ago, they still color the reality of adoption for many adoptees.
Legitimate tends to be defined as born in wedlock. But it also carries the meaning of something that was exactly as intended. More so, legitimate tends to also carry the definition of good or impressive. Though illegitimate is defined as “departing from the regular,” it is has been construed as "bad." There is an impact on adoptees while growing up, knowing they're not legitimate children. It is a story that can be told to understand ourselves that can carry a heavy pain. There is a difference between a birth family giving up a child because they believe the child will be better off with another family and a birth family giving up a child because its existence is inherently shameful.
Though, the view of adoption slowly changed over the decades and more protections were put in place to protect the children and biological families, stigmas continued to live on and adoptions were largely closed and secretive until relatively recently. Meaning, many children of adoption didn’t know who their biological parents were and didn’t have accesses to finding out.
And here, we begin with the Baby Scoop Era. During the time that more protections were coming into place, there came a time after World War II, known as the Baby Scoop Era, which lasted into the early 70s. Just as there were the Boomers, there were the Boomers who were adopted. The adoptees of the Baby Scoop Era were often a part of closed adoptions and children of single mothers. The stigma of illegitimacy drove many of these adoptions and the pain of birth mothers and adoptees has been widely recorded. These days, many adoptees and their biological parents from this era join online communities to find support around never knowing their biological roots and/or searching for their biological family.
It is important to note here that although protections were put in place to protect children and biological families, these protections focused on White families. Two clear cases where children were left unprotected are can be found in the treatment of Black and Native American populations. Indigenous children have faced a long history of removal from families by colonizers and this continued well into the mid-20th century, which culminated in the Indian Adoption Project (IAP). This was an adoption program facilitated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs joined with the Child Welfare League of America, where social workers removed indigenous children from their homes and placed them with White families, effectively removing a large portion of a generation from their heritage. The IAP was in operation from 1958 to 1967 and is now considered a genocidal policy.
Black children and families were not afforded support or services through adoption agencies until the mid-20th century. Families were denied assistance from agencies on the basis of race or religion, and oftentimes, both. This meant that Black families were left to figure out other ways to care for children rather than being able to legally place children in homes that could take care of them. This often meant adoptions that happened occurred outside of the courts well into the 1940s. It is estimated at this point in history that up to 50,000 African-American children were in need of placement and were not be matched into homes.
Over the decades, many people and organizations worked to change these policies and were willing to fight for the rights of the children and families. But this doesn’t erase the pain that was inflicted or negate the fact that the shadow of these policies continue to influence the adoption system and our perspectives. You can read more about the racial inequities within the adoption and child welfare systems here and here.
Another term for many of the adoptions that took place is transracial adoption, where a child of one race is placed with a family of a outside of their own race. Generally, a child of color was placed in a White family. This occurred with Indigenous children in the form of the IAP. And when services were finally made available to Black families, this occurred here, too. Transracial adoptions still occur today and in the early 2000s were extremely popular in the form of International adoption. Most adoptees struggle deeply with their sense of identity and belonging, but transracial adoptees can experience a particularly acute version of this. Transracial adoptees have recounted not feeling like they fit into any racial category or that they feel like one race on the inside, but know that to the rest of the world they look like another. This can create an additional stress to an already challenging journey of understanding identity.
When we look at the more recent history adoption, we find the system turning more towards transparency and open adoption. The tides shifted due to research that was published indicating that open adoptions were more beneficial for adoptees. And while open adoption has become the most prevalent form of adoption with approximately 95% of adoptees experiencing some form of openness in their adoptions these days, there are few resources out there for adoptees experiencing openness in their adoptions.
 Herman, E. (2012, February 24). Adoption history: Massachusetts adoption of Children Act, 1851. Retrieved from https://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adoption/archive/MassACA.htm
 The Adoption Network (2020, December 18). Brief history of adoption in the United States: Adoption Network: Adoption Network. Retrieved from https://adoptionnetwork.com/knowledge-hub/history-of-adoption/
 Baby scoop Era Research Initiative. (n.d.). What was the “Baby Scoop Era”? Retrieved from http://babyscoopera.com/home/what-was-the-baby-scoop-era/
 The outplacement and adoption of indigenous children. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Native-American/The-outplacement-and-adoption-of-indigenous-children
 Herman, E. (2012, March 24). Adoption history: African-american adoptions. Retrieved from https://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/AfricanAmerican.htm
 Baran, A., Pannor, R., & Sorosky, A. D. (1976). Open adoption. Social Work, 21(2), 97-100. doi:10.1093/sw/21.2.97