Last year roughly 135,000 children were adopted in the United States. Children came to live with their forever families through domestic, foster care, and international adoption. The act of adoption is defined as the legal process through which a person assumes the parenting responsibilities of raising another person’s biological child. The concept of adoption exists across cultures and countries and may be traced all the way back to ancient Rome. But the first adoptions on record look very different than our child-focused philosophy of today. Here is a brief history of adoption, in other words, how an early idea evolved into a complex nationally, and ultimately internationally, recognized law.

History of Adoption: Ancient Rome to 1600s

The first traces of adoption can be found as far back as ancient Rome. Under 6th century AD Roman Law, Codex Justinianeus, when the family patriarch was poised to die without a male heir, an heir could be provided from another family through adoption. Families with many sons often “adopted” their sons to other noble families in order to forge a coveted family connection. If a family had too many sons, the family’s wealth would be spread too thin. Not enough sons and the wealth might revert back to the state. By adopting one another’s sons, the Roman nobility ensured the wealth would stay within a few desirable families and each of those families’ sons would receive a good inheritance. Because wealth and power passed down through the paternal line, daughters were seldom adopted.

Adoption continued in this vein well into the Byzantine Empire (330 to 1453) but in the late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500) the rules began to change. French law discouraged adoption, as did Italian, and English Common Law outright forbid adoption. The reason for this shift in policy is that in the Middle Ages, inheritance was redefined to include only those related by blood. This was done in an attempt to keep the ruling royal families in both power and financial influence. At the same time, the practice of “oblation” began wherein children were left at a convent or monastery and then “adopted” by that religious outpost. The convent or monastery would care for the child and as the child grew up, the child would serve that order. As the number of abandoned children grew, the church began to regulate the practice leading to the first official orphanages in Europe.

Orphanages expanded rapidly beyond the church and into the private and public sector. Soon these institutions were overwhelmed by children with no way of supporting them. This gave way to the idea of “foster-servitude” or “indentured servitude” as a way of moving children from crowded orphanages into families so the children might learn a craft or skill to sustain them in life. Under foster-servitude children were transferred out of institutional care and into an apprenticeship, which more often than not was simply a way to provide cheap labor. In 1652, English Poor Law further expanded this notion by allowing well-to-do families to take in poor and/or orphaned children and force them into mandatory apprenticeships until they came of age. In the United States, the first instance of foster-servitude was a 7-year-old boy named Benjamin Eaton who lived and worked in the Jamestown Colony in 1636.

History of Adoption: 19th Century to 20th Century

This form of indentured servitude under the guise of adoption continued until the mid-19th century when society began to think more about the role the collective should play in the life of the individual. From this new ideological context, emerged the idea that the welfare of orphaned children should be taken into consideration. Adoption, it was reasoned, should be more than a way to provide an heir or servitude. Adoption should be used to promote the best interest of the child in the best circumstances possible.

In 1851, the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act became the first adoption law to protect the interest of the child. The statute required a judge to determine if the adoptive parents had the consent of the biological parents, or guardian, of the adoptee. Furthermore, the adoptive parents had to prove a “sufficient ability” to bring up the adoptee and to provide them a “suitable education.” The approval of the adoption was left to the discretion of the judge, cementing adoption as a state issue rather than a federal issue.

The Civil War brought a halt to most adoptions which led to the overcrowding of many U.S. orphanages. In 1854, Charles Loring Brace, director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, came up with the idea of Orphan Trains to move orphaned and abandoned children from urban areas, like New York City, to rural areas of the Midwest. The estimated 120,000 children were not adopted by the families in the Midwest, and many went into indentured servitude effectively. Though the Orphan Trains existed under questionable circumstance, they did lay the foundation for the idea of modern foster care.

In 1891, Michigan became the first state to require that a judge approves of the prospective adoptive parents’ “moral character and ability to support and educate a child.” A few other states began to pass legislation on adoption, then, in 1909, at the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, President Theodore Roosevelt recommended moving away from child institutional care. This resulted in even more states passing laws regulating adoption and the founding of the first U.S. adoption agencies in 1910. Adoption became even further regulated with the Minnesota law of 1917. The Minnesota law was the first to mandate home studies and became the foundation from which child welfare agencies would conduct pre-and post-placement adoption reports. The law also marked adoption records as confidential, accessible only by the children and adults (birth family and adoptive family) directly involved in the adoption.

History of Adoption: World War I to Mid-1900s

The aftermath of World War I brought even more orphans, as did the influenza epidemic of 1918. Closed adoptions continued to rise in the United States, and in 1935, the Social Security Act led to the expansion of foster care in the U.S. In the aftermath of World War II, adoption increased rapidly in both the U.S. and Europe. Prior to the early 1900s, adoptees were typically school-age children but with the conclusion of World War II, families wanted more infants to adopt. Before WWII, agencies conducted “race matching,” wherein the agency would match the prospective adoptive parents with a child of their same race. As the demand for babies grew, agencies began to look beyond this policy which led to the first transracial adoption, of an African-American child to two white parents, in 1948. The Indian Adoption Project, in 1958, further expanded transracial adoptions. In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by Congress over a growing concern that American Indian adoptees had no connection to their cultural heritage. This landmark decision helped shape how we think about transracial and transcultural adoptions today.

The history of international adoption began shortly after the Second World War. Orphaned children from Germany were sent to families in Greece, Japan, and even the United States. These adoptions took place as “proxy adoptions,” meaning U.S. citizens would send a proxy agent to court to complete the adoption in the child’s country of origin. This process of proxy adoption continued throughout the 1950s. The Vietnam and Korean wars led to even more “war orphans,” and in 1955, Harry and Bertha Holt lobbied Congress to adopt these waiting children. The Holts went on to found the first international adoption agency, Holt International Children’s Services, which still exists today.

The number of domestic adoptions peaked in the United States in 1970 at approximately 175,000 per year. Of these, approximately 80 percent were arranged by agencies. In 1957, Delaware became the first state to ban non-agency facilitated adoptions and in the years that followed, several states followed suit. The rate of domestic adoptions slowly began to decline, likely due to the availability of effective contraceptives and the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Prospective adoptive parents began to consider more transracial and transnational adoptions as a way to build their families. At the same time, “special needs” adoptions started to rise.

History of Adoption: 1960s to Today

Beginning in the 1960s, agencies began to identify “waiting” children in foster care homes. These waiting children were characterized as special needs due to a diagnosed disability, their age, their designation as part of a sibling group, or even their race. Increased education on supporting children with special needs led to special needs adoption becoming more widely accepted. Special needs adoption became, and remains, an often quicker route to adoption for waiting families.

Overseas, adoptions continued to expand but were not regulated. It is estimated that between 1953-1962, roughly 15,000 foreign children were adopted. These numbers continued to rise and when China opened its doors to international adoptions in 1992, the numbers skyrocketed. In 2004, during the peak of international adoption, 22,990 children were adopted from a foreign country into the United States. Worldwide, in 2004, 45,288 adoptions occurred internationally.

In 1993, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption came into being. The Hague Convention laid out rules and regulations regarding the conduct of intercountry adoption from home study requirements to foreign fees paid. Most importantly, the Hague Convention ensured that every adoption was completed in the most legal and ethical way possible and that every child adopted internationally was indeed an orphan. This was particularly important given rumors of corrupt adoption practices worldwide. Though the Hague was instrumental in providing a framework for international adoption, it also led to many countries closing their doors to international adoption (like Guatemala in 2008).

In 2000, the Child Citizenship Act was passed by Congress. The act eliminated the need for international adoptive parents to naturalize their new sons and daughters upon entry into the United States. Per the Child Citizenship Act, when a foreign-born adoptee enters the United States they automatically become U.S. citizens. The act also inspired the 2000 U.S. Census to include “adopted son/daughter” as a kinship category for the first time in recorded U.S. history.

Domestically, adoption continued to expand and in 1979 the first openly gay couple adopted a child in California. In 1994 The Multiethnic Placement Act became the first law to address race in adoption. The act found a disproportionate number of minority children waiting in the system, so per the act, agencies were not allowed to make decisions about the welfare of a child based solely on race. In 1996, the law was revised to eliminate race from consideration altogether.

Additionally, on the home front, conversations about adoption continued to evolve as did our understanding of the adoption triad—adoptee, birth parents, and adoptive parents. In 1996, Bastard Nation emerged as a group concerned about the negative media portrayal of adoption. Perhaps more importantly, they called for the unsealing of confidential adoption records. Up until this time, adoption was handled with the adoptive parents and birth parents in mind. The group argued that by sealing a person’s birth records states were denying individuals the most basic of human rights. Their protests led to Oregon passing a ballot measure in 1998 which gave adoptees 21 years and older access to their birth certificate.

While many states still seal this information, this group gave voice to the idea that adoption is not just between the birth parents and the adoptive parents but rather a triad made up of the adoptee, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. Though open adoption had existed since the 1970s, by the end of the 1990s, open adoption became more common practice in the United States.

Since adoption first began a lot has changed. Today we focus first and foremost on the wellbeing of the child and make decisions on the child’s future accordingly. Transracial, transcultural, and transnational adoptions have risen substantially as have special needs adoption. Today the face of adoption is commonly comprised of an open triad (95 percent of all adoptions are open) and/or of an adoptive family blending another country’s culture into their own. Though we have come a long way, it is still important to remember that there is always more to do and always more to learn. What will the face of adoption look like 10, 20, even 50 years from now? Only time will tell.


Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at