Historical Background

In its broadest sense, the term "adoption" may be used to describe the taking in, nurturing, and rearing of biologically unrelated children in need of protection and care. The terms "adoption" and "fostering" are used interchangeably in some countries, but in the United States adoption, in contrast to temporary foster arrangements, is a legal and permanent transaction.

Shaped by the laws and cultures of each society, adoption was seldom concerned primarily with rescuing abandoned children but rather with the transfer of a child or adult from one set of parents to another in order to ensure property rights or family continuity. Yet the perception of adoption has always wavered between the legal fiction that a child is reborn into the adoptive family and the folk belief that blood is thicker than water. The Egyptians and the Hebrews practiced adoption; the Old Testament chronicles the story of Moses, who was adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh but later returned to his people and led them out of bondage.

Roman law, the foundation of institutionalized legal adoption, was concerned primarily with property and inheritance rights but permitted birth parents to reclaim their abandoned children if they paid expenses incurred by the adoptive parents (Boswell). The Code of Napoleon, enacted in 1804, which was the beginning of modern adoption legislation and is still a major influence in French and Latin American law, allowed adoptees to have knowledge of family background and the option to retain their original name.

The modern French government social security system provides for both "simple" (open) adoption and "complete" (closed) adoption.

English common law, the basis for U.S. law, stressed blood lineage and did not legalize stranger adoption, the total legal transfer of the child to nonrelatives, until 1926. Until then, a form of apprenticeship existed in which children lived with and worked under the master training them. Orphans were sent as indentured servants to the American colonies to help with the labor shortage. Economic considerations superseded any concern for the welfare of the individual child.

From the mid-nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century, New York City street urchins were routinely rounded up and loaded into boxcars on "orphan trains" that carried them to "God-fearing" farm families in the West. There were no legal contracts or protections for the children who, once severed from their families, were regarded as orphans and forced into a life of domestic or manual labor thousands of miles away.

The transition from apprenticeship and indenture to present-day adoption was gradual in the United States, but by 1929 every state had some form of statutory adoption. Licensed adoption agencies established in the 1920s investigated prospective adoptive families to try to ensure the well-being of adopted children. Adoption records were open, but in the late 1930s a few states began to close them.

After World War II, U.S. adoption shifted its focus from the needs of homeless children to the desires of infertile couples to adopt healthy white newborns. Adoption became the means for the childless to create a family. As state after state closed their records, the adopted child's birth certificate was sealed and replaced with an amended document that named the adoptive parents as the birth parents. The original intent was to spare the child the stigma of illegitimacy, not to cut him or her off from the birth heritage. Over the years the rationale of protecting the confidentiality of the birth mother was added, but an even greater concern was the protection of the adoptive parents, who feared the birth parents might reappear to reclaim their biological, though no longer legal, child. By 2003 all but six states had sealed records.

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