A History of Meeting Needs
Adoption in some manner, with or without the name or laws to formalize it, has been around for millennia. Every Passover, Jews around the world celebrate the ancient Hebrews' exodus from Egypt under the guidance of a young adoptee named Moses. It's a lucky thing for the institution of adoption that children rarely get as upset with their parents as Moses did with Pharaoh. (On the other hand, it's instructive to note how intense an adoptee's drive to find his biological roots can be.) Typically, though, adopted people are more like another famous member of their ranks, Clark Kent, who adores his ma and pa here on earth even as he maintains an emotional bond to his birth parents from Krypton.
Informally, of course, adoption has always existed. Aunts or grandparents, godparents, or even close friends would step in, and most often still do, when mothers and fathers abandon their children, are incapacitated, or die. Through much of recorded history, though, adoption by non-relatives has been utilized more to meet the needs of adults than to help children. That's still often more true today, but it used to be far more blatant. It is believed, for example, that in Rome, China, and other ancient civilizations, many infertile
couples and parents who had only daughters formally adopted adult males to serve as heirs, to carry on family names or to participate in religious ceremonies.
English common law, on which America's founders modeled our own legal system, made no reference to adoption at all; in fact, it wasn't until 1926 that England approved its first generalized adoption statute. Scholars believe that nation saw no need for organized adoption because inheritance was dependent solely on bloodlines, and children without relatives to care for them were place in almshouses, then made apprentices or indentured servants at very young ages. The colonists in this country initially followed those traditions, but adoption in the New World quickly evolved into new forms that reflected the unique nature of a society inventing itself.
For instance, the need for farm labor in the 1700's especially on large plantations in the South, turned a practice called "informal transfer" of dependent children
into a widespread phenomenon. The hardships of the Industrial Revolution, accompanied by a huge influx of immigrants, left so many children homeless in the early nineteenth century that public demand grew for providing improved care. Charitable organizations, invariably led by and affiliated with religious movements, spearheaded this movement to end indentures and systematically place children in permanent homes with families.
At about the same time, adoptive parents began clamoring for laws to give their sons and daughters some of the same rights, such as inheritance, that were automatically granted to biological children. Meanwhile, as a result of rampant poverty and disease
, the number of children without parents kept growing. P.C. English, a pediatrician who studied the history of unwanted children, wrote a chilling description in Pediatrics
magazine in 1984 of the scene in New York City during the middle of the eighteenth century: "The lower East Side of Manhattan was the most crowded area in the world: The population density of 250,000/square mile was twice that of the most crowded areas of London. Waves of immigration, begun by the Irish following the potato famine of 1846, packed a mass of poorly fed humanity into tenements, with unclean water, inadequate sewage and no facilities for preparation and storage of food." Similar scenarios played out all over the country: Squalid, cramped conditions killed so many people that tens of thousands of children, and perhaps many more, were left to wander the streets.
Responding to all those gathering social forces, Massachusetts in 1851 enacted legislation that set out strict procedures for giving children new parents. It was the first U.S. adoption law, and it set several precedents. The most important was that it defined the needs of children as paramount - thought that principle hasn't always prevailed in practice during the hundred and fifty years since.
The Massachusetts statute also marked the start of mandatory court approval for adoptions, while presaging that the process would fall under the jurisdiction of the states rather than the federal government. For better and for worse, those were two portentous decisions that every legislature emulated by 1929, and that we all live with to this day. The resulting process has helped to prevent abuses and maintain local standards, but it has also flung open the door to frivolous decision making by individual judges and led to a jumble of state laws that have left adoption underregulated, unconscionably expensive, and unnecessarily difficult, emotionally and logistically, for everyone concerned.
One of the most remarkable chapters in the American adoption story unfolded during the period when the Massachusetts legislature took its groundbreaking legal action. In large cities everywhere, public and private "foundling homes" sprang up in response to the horrendous conditions in which armies of young children were living and dying. These well-intentioned refuges rapidly turned into disease-ridden warehouses where at least as much harm as good was accomplished.
A novel alternative to institutionalization was devised by the Reverend Charles Loring Brace in New York. He founded a benevolent association called the Children's Aid Society, branches of which still exist around the world, and he embarked on an ambitious program of relocating needy children into permanent homes. Reverend Brace believed the optimum circumstances for child rearing existed in rural areas where the spaces were open, the people were honest, and the work was hard. His solution was the orphan train movement, as it came to be called, which continued into the early twentieth century. B the time it stopped running, an estimated 100,000 two-to-fourteen-year-olds had been transported from eastern cities to farms in states as far west as Nebraska and Kansas.
News accounts of the time described how the Children's Aid Society announced the impending arrival of orphan trains in communities on its route, and how children were put on display so that locals could choose the ones they wanted. Records indicate few of these de facto adoptees were ever legally made members of the families that took them in, and some were evidently viewed as little more than cheap laborers. Nevertheless, most presumably wound up in homes that wee more secure and loving than the ones they left behind - not a hard task considering so many of them left nothing behind at all.
However noble the motives or favorable any outcomes from such efforts, the people who ran the orphan trains typically ignored the wishes of any biological parents who were still around, in a grim antecedent to the condescension experienced by birth mothers like Sheila Hansen. Simultaneously, the children themselves were dealt with less as individuals with rights, desires, or emotions than as possessions that could be taken at will and given away. That attitude still is evident in too many adults' behavior toward young people today and is perpetuated by current adoption law, which essentially treats the transfer of a child from one family to another as a property transaction.
The popular notions is that "everyone wins" in adoption because it allows birth mothers to resolve a problem, satisfies a deep desire for adoptive parents, and places children with families in which they can thrive. It's a wonderful ideal, but it was a myopic vision during the time of the orphan trains and it remains one now. Adoption's glory is that it has fulfilled the dreams of millions over the years, but it has always been an emotionally wrenching and legally complicated process because, by its nature, it must balance the rights and needs of vulnerable people. One of the stark realities of this little-understood institution is that nearly all adoptions are initiated by women and men suffering from heartbreak and loss. For many of these participants, including some who reap enormous benefits from the ensuing process, the wounds never completely heal.
Adoptive parents may love their children absolutely, but many nevertheless feel the ache of their infertility
forever - and never stop wondering about the biological baby that never was. And birth parents give up the lives they created, tiny beings who look like them, who gestated inside their mother's wombs and, for nine months, were as much a part of them as their limbs; it's incomprehensible that there are people who believe that a woman, especially, can relinquish a child and then put the experience aside, forget about it, pretend she didn't part with a piece of herself. During the current period of fundamental change, perpetuating the myth of "everybody wins" can impede progress because it trivializes or even ignores the feelings of grief, insecurity, and identity confusion that are integral components of adoption, for adoptees as well as their sets of parents.
Within the adoption world, such simplistic views can undermine relationships among adoptive relatives, between adoptive and birth families, and between professionals and their clients. They also can lead people inside and outside the triad
to unintentionally say and do things that inflict emotional pain on relatives, friends, and acquaintances who are tied to adoption. Children tend to get hurt the most, and the most often. Even during the revolution, we live in a nation in which "You're adopted!" is sometimes a taunt, "What kind of woman would give away her baby?" is still considered a reasonable question, and "I'm sorry you couldn't have real children" is still meant as an empathetic remark.
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