Sister Irene is among the pioneers of modern adoption, establishing a system to board out children rather than institutionalize them.
Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting for another who is not kin and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities from the original parent or parents. Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction. Historically some societies have enacted specific laws governing adoption whereas others have endeavored to achieve adoption through less formal means, notably via contracts that specified inheritance rights and parental responsibilities. Modern systems of adoption, arising in the 20th century, tend to be governed by comprehensive statutes and regulations.
Adoption has a long history in the Western world, closely tied with the legacy of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. Its use has changed considerably over the centuries with its focus shifting from adult adoption and inheritance issues toward children and family creation and its structure moving from a recognition of continuity between the adopted and kin toward allowing relationships of lessened intensity.
Adoption for the well-born
Trajan became emperor of Rome through adoption, a customary practice of the empire that enabled peaceful transitions of power.
Adoption has been called the quintessential American institution, embodying faith in social engineering and mobility. While it is true that the modern form emerged in the United States, civilization has a long history of the practice of adoption. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, details the rights of adopters and the responsibilities of adopted individuals at length while the practice of adoption in ancient Rome is well documented in the Codex Justinianus.
Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the political and economic interests of the adopter, providing a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and creating male heirs to manage estates. The use of adoption by the aristocracy is well documented; many of Rome's emperors were adopted sons.
Infant adoption during Antiquity appears rare. Abandoned children were often picked up for slavery and composed a significant percentage of the Empire’s slave supply. Roman legal records indicate that foundlings were occasionally taken in by families and raised as a son or daughter. 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, utilized some form of adoption as well. 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, clearly denounced by the Rigveda, continued, in a limited and highly ritualistic form, so that an adopter might have the necessary funerary rites performed by a son. China had a similar conception of adoption with males adopted solely to perform the duties of ancestor worship.
Middle Ages to Modern Period
Adoption and commoners
At the monastery gate (Am Klostertor) by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.
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. 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. Some adoptions continued to occur, however, but became informal, based on ad hoc contracts. For example, in the year 737, in a charter from the town of Lucca, three adoptees were made heirs to an estate. Like other contemporary arrangements, the agreement stressed the responsibility of the adopted rather than adopter, focusing on the fact that, under the contract, the adoptive father was meant to be cared for in his old age; an idea that recalls conceptions of adoption under Roman law.
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. Initially, the clergy reacted by drafting rules to govern the exposing, selling, and rearing of abandoned children. 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. Institutions informally adopted out children as well, a mechanism treated as a way to obtain cheap labor, demonstrated by the fact that when the adopted died, their bodies were returned by the family to the institution for burial.
This system of apprenticeship and informal adoption extended into the 19th century, today seen as a transitional phase for adoption history. 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 growth of this model is believed to have contributed to the enactment of the first modern adoption law in 1851 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, unique in that it codified the ideal of the "best interests of the child." Despite its intent, though, in practice, the system operated much the same as earlier incarnations. The experience of the Boston Female Asylum (BFA) is a good example, which had up to 30% of its charges adopted out by 1888. Officials of the BFA noted that, although the asylum promoted otherwise, adoptive parents did not distinguish between indenture and adoption; "We believe," the asylum officials said, "that often, when children of a younger age are taken to be adopted, the adoption is only another name for service."
Adopting to create a family
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 legions of homeless waifs 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.
Charles Loring Brace.
His solution was outlined in The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859) which started the Orphan Train movement. The orphan trains eventually shipped an estimated 200,000 children from the urban centers of the East to the nation's rural regions. The children were generally indentured, rather than adopted, to families who took them in. As in times past, some children were raised as members of the family while others were used as farm laborers and household servants.
William and his brother Thomas. They rode the Orphan Train in 1880 at the ages of 11 and 9, respectively. William was taken into a good home. Thomas was exploited for labor and abused. The brothers eventually made their way back to New York and reunited.
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 1917 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. The culmination of such efforts came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, where it was declared that the nuclear family represented "the highest and finest product of civilization” and was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned. Anti-institutional forces gathered momentum. As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. Less than forty years later, nearly one-third were in an adoptive home.
Nevertheless, the popularity of eugenic ideas in America put up obstacles to the growth of adoption. There were grave concerns about the genetic quality of illegitimate and indigent children, perhaps best exemplified by the influential writings of Henry H. Goddard who protested against adopting children of unknown origin, saying,
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 1945 to 1974, the Baby scoop era, saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. Illegitimate births rose three-fold after WWII, as sexual mores changed. Simultaneously, the scientific community began to stress the dominance of nurture over genetics, chipping away at eugenic stigmas. In this environment, adoption became the obvious solution for both unwed mothers and infertile couples.
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: 1) 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, and 2) adoption became infused with secrecy, eventually resulting in the sealing of adoption and original birth records by 1945. 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 number of adoptions in the United States peaked in 1970. It is uncertain what caused the subsequent decline. Besides the legalization of artificial birth control methods and abortion, the years of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic change in society's view of illegitimacy. In response, family preservation efforts grew so that few children born out of wedlock today are adopted Ironically, adoption is far more visible and discussed in society today, yet it is less common.
The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. Holland passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germany enacted its first laws in 1977. Additionally, the Asian powers opened their orphanage systems to adoption, influenced as they were by Western ideas following colonial rule and military occupation.
Although adoption is today practiced globally, the United States remains the leader in its use. The table below provides a snapshot of Western adoption rates. Adoption in the United States still occurs at nearly three times those of its peers although the number of children awaiting adoption has held steady in recent years, hovering between 133,000 to 129,000 during the period 2002 to 2006.