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Adoption History - Interview with Barbara Melosh

By Allison Martin

Barbara Melosh, the author of Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption, reveals a surprising fact: Even as adoptions grow in acceptance, they are not as numerous as they once were.

How has our understanding of adoption changed over the last century? In what respects do we raise our families differently today from the way we did 50 years ago? In her eye-opening new book, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption, Barbara Melosh tackles questions like these as she traces the history of adoption in this country.

Melosh is both an historian and an adoptive mother. Her book is based on the detailed study of hundreds of adoption case records, as well as on volumes of adoption studies and historical data. Using a multitude of real-life examples, Melosh brings to light the underlying (and sometimes unspoken) attitudes of different eras—and how they have influenced widely held beliefs about what makes a family.

Adoption is more common and better accepted in the United States than in any other industrialized nation. At the same time, Melosh argues, there remains a lingering sense that “no social relationship can match the natural kinship of blood.” And while adoption is more visible today than ever before—due in part to the proliferation of interracial families and the trend toward greater openness—Melosh points out that the number of adoptions in this country actually peaked in 1970 and has never come close since.

Why and how has this happened? Strangers and Kin revisits the social movements and historical currents that brought us to where we are today. The author talked to Adoptive Families recently about her book and how she’s come to see the American way of adoption as inextricably intertwined with our nation’s rich history and culture.

AF: Could you give us a brief synopsis of the history of adoption you provide in Strangers and Kin?
BM: In the early decades of the twentieth century, adoption was rather unusual. Although it had been a legal institution for some time, it was not a common way to form a family.

But in the 1920s and 1930s there was an increase in the number of adults inquiring about children unattached to families so that they could form families of their own. At the same time, social workers were emerging as a professional group—a group reluctant, at first, regarding adoption. They were actively searching for more “homelike” alternatives to institutional care for children. But they didn’t imagine that parents would be able to make children not born to them truly their own.

During this period, adoption gradually became more acceptable to social workers. They also developed professional standards that gave them more confidence about placing children in adoptive homes.

After World War II, adoption really took off. Not only was it an established practice by this time, but there also happened to be a great increase in the number of pregnancies out of wedlock in a new group—white middle-class women. In this time of considerable economic mobility, respectability took on a new significance. Adoption was seen as a fresh start for everyone involved—the young woman who could erase her past by placing her baby for adoption, the child who could join a normative family rather than be raised by a single parent, and the adoptive parents who could join the baby boom that was otherwise closed to them because of infertility. Adoption flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, as measured both by number and by the enthusiastic support of a broad white middle class.

The 1960s and 1970s brought dramatic changes to society as a whole, and adoption was no exception. In 1970 there were more adoptions than there ever had been (around 89,000 adoptions by non-relatives). However, by 1975 the numbers had dropped sharply (to 48,000). Since then, the numbers have gone up and down a little, but have never reached the peak of 1970.

AF: What do you think has caused adoption to decline in numbers?
BM: The first reason people think of is abortion. I don’t think it is that simple. The number of births out of wedlock actually continued to rise sharply in the 1970s and 1980s, after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. But now there was less stigma attached to the single-parent home.

Welfare workers and the welfare system as a whole came under fire in the late 1960s and 1970s, too. What was once thought of as benign social engineering came to be seen as social control.

Finally, we have to consider the increase in legal support for the rights of unmarried fathers. In the past, they didn’t have to grant consent and generally had no say in what happened to children born out of wedlock. But in the early 1970s, consent became an issue. Then came highly visible challenges to adoption, like the Baby Jessica case (1993). Even though such cases are, in fact, very rare, many people believe there have been more of them recently. Sensational news stories generate a lot of alarm.

AF: The percentage of agency adoptions in the U.S. has also declined. Why?
BM: During the peak period of adoption, in the 1950s and 1960s, most adoptions were conducted through agencies. Agencies acted as the intermediary—and insured confidentiality for both the birthmother and the adoptive parents.

Today, most infants are placed through private adoptions, some through private agencies and some independently. Public agencies work with children who are older, have special needs, or are from racial groups in which children needing homes outnumber prospective adopters, as is the case with African-American children.

Open and independent adoption were largely driven by birthparents reluctant to relinquish babies to an impersonal agency. They want to know that the baby is going directly to a good family (without making a stop in foster care) and often want to choose the adoptive parents. Many private agencies have emerged to meet that need. But the intermediary could also be a lawyer, a minister, even a next-door neighbor.

One finding that surprised me as I researched was the fact that adoption in this country is actually very lightly regulated. If you had told me this when I was going through the process, I would have laughed. There is so much paperwork! However, U.S. adoption is regulated by the states, and there have never been more than a handful of states that required social worker involvement. Today, only six states require that adoptions be conducted via a licensed agency.

AF: You provide a detailed history on disclosure of adoption information in your book. Where do you draw the line between secrecy and privacy?
BM: I agree that the truth about their adoption should be disclosed to children; this is a crucial part of an adopted person’s history and identity. Yet I think that at times the adoption rights movement has gone too far in demonizing secrecy. Anything not fully disclosed is taken as an admission that adoption is shameful. But shouldn’t adoptive parents have the same prerogative other parents have—to keep some details of family life private?

I think open adoption is the wave of the future. We are already in an era of increasing openness. But in cases of birthmothers who placed children for adoption long ago, should access to records for adoptees trump every other consideration? This seems to be the way the social consensus is moving: a few states already facilitate adopted persons’ access to identifying information without any intermediary approaching birthparents for their consent. My guess is that this will soon be widespread.

AF: How would you define the prevailing attitude toward adoption today in the media and society?
BM: Generally, adoption is viewed favorably. However, one of the biggest recent changes in the way many people see adoption stems from the trickledown of sociobiology into popular discussion. The idea is taking hold that many important characteristics are genetically hard-wired. In the 1960s, it was widely maintained that we are shaped more by experiences than by biology. In the 1980s and 1990s, biological determinism became much more prominent in assessing individual potential. This emphasis on biology has made some people more skeptical about adoption.

AF: What can we do to counter misconceptions?
BM: The visibility of our families shows that adoption works. Today, almost everyone can say that he or she knows an adoptive family. I think it really changes attitudes when others see that adoptive families are not so different from biological families.

Adoption also demonstrates that difference is a resource. In our nation’s history, diversity has always been a great strength—part of the richness of American culture. In that way, adoption is very mainstream. We are a nation of immigrants, and in some ways, a nation of strangers. At its best, our culture affirms that we don’t have to be the same to share common dreams and to live together in peace and mutual respect.

This article was first printed in the terrific magazine Adoptive Families.

Allison Martin’s family support Web site,, provides information on adoption, parenting, and special needs. She is also the director of a national support group, Families with Children from Vietnam.
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