Adoption History - Interview with Barbara Melosh
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 erasand 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 beforedue in part to the proliferation of interracial families and the trend toward greater opennessMelosh 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 shes come to see the American way of adoption as inextricably intertwined with our nations rich history and culture.
AF: Could you give us a brief synopsis of the history of adoption you
provide in Strangers and Kin?
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 groupa group reluctant, at first, regarding adoption. They were actively searching for more homelike alternatives to institutional care for children. But they didnt 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 groupwhite 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 involvedthe 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?
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 didnt 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.
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?
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?
AF: What can we do to counter misconceptions?
Adoption also demonstrates that difference is a resource. In our nations history, diversity has always been a great strengthpart 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 dont 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 Martins family support Web site, www.ComeUnity.com, 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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