By David Hardy // Attorney
Recently, a project prompted me to consider the history of adoption. Although of ancient origin (i.e., Moses in the basket), the contemporary adoption system in the United States started taking shape in the early to mid-twentieth century. Prior to that era, “unwanted” children were placed in orphanages for care and handling, a practice that persists in many (mostly underprivileged) countries today. Although the managers of orphanages found homes for some of these children, their primary mission was to care for the children.
The twentieth century saw the emergence of public and private child welfare agencies. Rather than focusing on child care and rearing, these agencies, using social science research on the best interests of children, sought individuals and families willing to raise the children. Although the system is far from perfect, its benefits are demonstrated by the fact that almost all children in the United States are raised by caring parents and are not deposited in orphanages or similar facilities.
Adoption, however, is ever changing. A few examples are illustrative.
At their inception, child welfare agencies coordinated closed adoptions, with birth parents playing no role in the selection of adoptive parents or having any contact with the child following placement. There were a number of reasons for this practice, including (in no particular order) child protection, the stigma society attached to an illegitimate child, the stigma involved in conceiving a child outside of marriage, and the desire to discourage abortion or a black market for children.
As understanding and stigmas changed, so did adoption. Initially, birth parents started playing a role in the selection of adoptive parents, first identifying characteristics they desired in a parent and then reviewing profiles and approving or selecting adoptive parents. Quite naturally, this led to pre-birth meetings between birth and adoptive parents, both to assist in the selection process and confirm a decision to place.
Over the past two decades, open adoptions have become the norm. Although some adoptions remain closed based on the need for child protection or parental preference, most adoptions today involve some degree of openness. Birth parents commonly know and associate with adoptive parents, who share details regarding an adoptee’s development. This relationship may involve regular contact and visits, with birth parents celebrating the adoptee’s growth and progress. In many states, post-adoption contact agreements can be legally enforced.
As parental boundaries thin, the role of child welfare agencies in the adoption process seems to be decreasing. While public agencies still play a vital role in protecting children and preventing abuse and neglect, fewer couples seeking to adopt today turn to agencies for assistance in the adoption process. Instead, they seek direct contact and interaction with potential birth parents, both through traditional means (word of mouth, printed advertisements) and modern technology. Websites, blogs, and social media are used, often in place of qualified professionals.
As is generally the case with social changes, some developments in adoption are positive and others are negative (and some have a little of both). There is, for example, a consensus among adoptees, adoptive parents, and professionals that open adoption is beneficial, so long as all involved seek to establish an appropriate balance of parental rights and involvement for each case. On the other hand, many professionals lament that removing their involvement from adoption is harmful to those involved, particularly birth parents. While they recognize that a more efficient adoption practice may reduce costs and allow couples to adopt who might be unable to do so otherwise, they have observed individuals and families being exploited or not being provided with suitable resources, such as mental health counseling, required to address the significant emotional issues involved in adoption.
Good or bad, and whether we may want it or not, change in adoption is inevitable. I am not comfortable nor do I have any confidence in predicting what these changes may be. Perhaps the notion of parental rights will evolve to a point where an adoptee identifies many legal parents who play complementary roles. Or perhaps research on open adoption will conclude that children are best served by having only two identified parents.
My hope would be that such change is thoughtful and deliberate. In figuring out how best to raise children, acting solely upon impulse generally does not yield the best result. Instead, research and reasoning, together with true care in identifying what is best for children, should direct how adoption practice develops.