Adoption is a process

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.[1] 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.[2][3]

Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the interest of the adopter,[4] providing a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and creating male heirs to manage estates.[5][6] The use of adoption by the aristocracy is well documented; many of Rome's emperors were adopted sons.[6]

Infant adoption during Antiquity appears rare.[4][7] Abandoned children were often picked up for slavery [8] and composed a significant percentage of the Empire’s slave supply.[9][10] 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.[11]

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,[12] continued, in a limited and highly ritualistic form, so that an adopter might have the necessary funerary rites performed by a son.[13] China had a similar conception of adoption with males adopted solely to perform the duties of ancestor worship.[14]

[edit] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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 .[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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." [22][23] 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.[24] 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." [25]

[edit] Modern period

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.[26][27]

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.[28] The children were generally indentured, rather than adopted, to families who took them in.[29] As in times past, some children were raised as members of the family while others were used as farm laborers and household servants.[30]

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.[31][32]

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,[33] 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.[34][35] 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.[36]

Nevertheless, the popularity of eugenic ideas in America put up obstacles to the growth of adoption.[37][38] 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.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41][42] In this environment, adoption became the obvious solution for both unwed mothers and infertile couples.[43]

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,[16][23] 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.[44]

The number of adoptions in the United States peaked in 1970.[45] 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[46] so that few children born out of wedlock today are adopted (Refer to Table 1). Ironically, adoption is far more visible and discussed in society today, yet it is less common.[47]


Before 1973





All Women






Black Women






White Women






Table 1: Percentage of Infants (Born to Never-Married Women) Who Were Relinquished[48]

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.[49] Additionally, the Asian powers opened their orphanage systems to adoption, influenced as they were by Western ideas following colonial rule and military occupation.[50]

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.[51]



Live Births

Adoption/Live Birth Ratio



443 (2003–2004)[52]

254,000 (2004)[53]

0.2 per 100 Live Births

Includes known relative adoptions

England & Wales

4,764 (2006)[54]


0.7 per 100 Live Births

Includes all adoption orders in England and Wales


between 20-35 year[56]

4,560 (2007)[57]

0.8 per 100 Live Births


263 (2003)[58]

61,517 (2003)[59]

0.4 per 100 Live Births

92 non-family adoptions; 171 family adoptions (e.g. stepparent). 459 international adoptions were also recorded.


3,158 (2006)[60]

560,010 (2006)[61]

0.6 per 100 Live Births


657 (2006)[62]


1.1 per 100 Live Births

Adoptions breakdown: 438 inter-country; 174 stepchildren; 35 foster; 10 other.




1.1 per 100 Live Births

10-20 of these were national adoptions of infants. The rest were international adoptions.

United States

approx 127,000 (2001)[66]

4,021,725 (2002)[67]

~3 per 100 Live Births

The number of adoptions is reported to be constant since 1987.

Parenting and development of adoptees

[edit] Parenting

Biological ties are the hallmark of parent-child relationships, and its absence has caused concern throughout the history of adoption. No less an authority than Jessie Taft, a pioneer in the professionlization of adoption services and herself an adoptive mother, commented on the difference in adoptive parenting, “No one who is not willfully deluded would maintain that the experiences of adoption can take the place of the actual bearing and rearing of an own child." [92]

Along these lines, a Princeton University study of 6,000 adoptive, step, and foster mothers in the United States and South Africa from 1968-1985 indicated that food expenditures in households with non-biological children (when controlled for income, household size, hours worked, age, etc.) were significantly less, causing the researchers to speculate that, instinctually, people are less interested in sustaining the genetic lines of others.[93] Moreover, the perception of similarities between adoptive parent and child appears important to successfully parenting. In relationships marked by sameness in likes, personality, and appearance, both adult adoptees and adoptive parents report being happier with the adoption.[94].

Nevertheless, there is evidence that adoptive relationships can form along other lines. A study evaluating the level of parental investment indicates strength in adoptive families, suggesting that parents who adopt invest more time in their children than other parents and concludes, "...adoptive parents enrich their children's lives to compensate for the lack of biological ties and the extra challenges of adoption."[95]

Beyond the foundational issues, the unique questions posed for adoptive parents are varied. They include how to respond to stereotypes, answering questions about heritage, and how best to maintain connections with biological kin when in an open adoption.[96] One author suggests a common question adoptive parents have is whether, "Will we love the child even though he/she is not our biological child?"[97] A specific concern for many parents is accommodating an adoptee in the classroom.[98] Familiar lessons like "draw your family tree" or "trace your eye color back through your parents and grandparents to see where your genes come from" could be hurtful to children who were adopted and do not know this biological information. Numerous suggestions have been made to substitute new lessons, e.g., focusing on "family orchards."[99]

Adopting older children presents other parenting issues. Some children from foster care have histories of maltreatment, such as physical and psychological neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, are at risk of developing psychiatric problems.[100][101] Such children are at risk of developing a disorganized attachment.[102][103][104] Studies by Cicchetti et al. (1990, 1995) found that 80% of abused and maltreated infants in their sample exhibited disorganized attachment styles.[105][106] Disorganized attachment is associated with a number of developmental problems, including dissociative symptoms,[107] as well as depressive, anxiety, and acting-out symptoms.[108][109]

[edit] Development

The consensus among researchers is that adoption affects development throughout life, with the fact of “being adopted," creating unique responses to significant life-events, e.g., the birth of a child. As a result, researchers often assume that the adoptee population faces heightened risk in terms of psychological development and social relationships. Earlier literature on the topic supported the conception of such problems, however, much of that research has since been deemed flawed due to methodological failures.[110]

Some conclusions about the development of adoptees can be gleaned from newer studies, though, and it can be said that adoptees, in some respect, seem to develop differently than the general population while facing greater risks during adolescence.

Concerning developmental milestones, studies from the Colorado Adoption Project examined genetic influences on adoptee maturation, concluding that cognitive abilities of adoptees reflect those of their adoptive parents in early childhood but show little similarity by adolescence, resembling instead those of their biological parents and to the same extent as peers in non-adoptive families.[111]

Similar mechanisms appear to be at work in the physical development of adoptees. Danish and American researchers conducting studies on the genetic contribution to body mass index found correlations between an adoptee’s weight class and his biological parents’ BMI while finding no relationship with the adoptive family environment. Moreover, about one-half of inter-individual differences were due to individual non-shared influences.[112][113]

These differences in development appear to play out in the way young adoptees deal with major life events. In the case of parental divorce, adoptees have been found to respond differently than children who have not been adopted. While the general population experienced more behavioral problems, substance use, lower school achievement, and impaired social competence after parental divorce, the adoptee population appeared to be unaffected in terms of their outside relationships, specifically in their school or social abilities.[114]

The adoptee population does, however, seem to be more at risk for certain behavioral issues. Researchers from the University of Minnesota studied adolescents who had been adopted and found that adoptees were twice as likely as non-adopted people to suffer from oppositional defiant disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (with an 8% rate in the general population).[115] Suicide risks were also significantly greater than the general population. Swedish researchers found both international and domestic adoptees undertook suicide at much higher rates than non-adopted peers; with international adoptees and female international adoptees, in particular, at highest risk.[116]

Nevertheless, work on adult adoptees has found that the additional risks faced by adoptees are largely confined to adolescence. Young adult adoptees were shown to be alike with adults from biological families and scored better than adults raised in alternative family types including single parent and step-families.[117] Moreover, while adult adoptees showed more variability than their non-adopted peers on a range of psychosocial measures, adult adoptees exhibited more similarities than differences with adults who had not been adopted.[118]

[edit] Public perception of adoption

In Western culture, the dominant conception of family revolves around a heterosexual couple with biological offspring. This idea places alternatives family forms outside the norm. As a consequence, research indicates, disparaging views of adoptive families exist, along with doubts concerning the strength of their family bonds.[119][120].

The most recent adoption attitudes survey completed by the Evan Donaldson Institute provides further evidence of this stigma. Nearly one-third of the surveyed population believed adoptees are less-well adjusted, more prone to medical issues, and predisposed to drug and alcohol problems. Additionally, 40-45% thought adoptees were more likely to have behavior problems and trouble at school. In contrast, the same study indicated adoptive parents were viewed favorably, with nearly 90% describing them as, “lucky, advantaged, and unselfish."[121]

The majority of people state that their primary source of information about adoption comes from friends and family and the news media. Nevertheless, most people report the media provides them a favorable view of adoption; 72% indicated receiving positive impressions.[122] There is, however, still substantial criticism of the media's adoption coverage. Some adoption blogs, for example, criticized Meet the Robinsons for using outdated orphanage imagery [123][124] as did advocacy non-profit The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.[125]

The stigmas associated with adoption are amplified for children in foster care.[126] Negative perceptions result in the belief that such children are so troubled it would be impossible to adopt them and create “normal" families.[127]. A 2004 report from the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care has shown that the number of children waiting in foster care doubled since the 1980s and now remains steady at about a half-million a year."[128]

Cultural variations in adoption

Main article: Cultural variations in adoption

Attitudes and laws regarding adoption vary greatly. Whereas all cultures make arrangements whereby children whose own parents are unavailable to rear them to be brought up by others, not all cultures have the concept of adoption, that is treating unrelated children as equivalent to biological children of the adoptive parents. Under Islamic Law, for example, adopted children must keep their original surname in order to be identified with blood relations,[155] and, traditionally, observe hijab (the covering of women in the presence of non-family) in their adoptive households. In Egypt, these cultural distinctions have led to making adoption illegal。