The History of Adoption

The practice of adoption is as old as recorded civilization. The Bible addresses this topic. Fearing for Moses’s life, Jochebed places her baby in a watertight basket and floats it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. Pharaoh’s grown daughter discovers the babe, takes pity on him, and decides to adopt him as her own.

“School is often the first time kids are left to describe complex emotions related to adoption to new classmates, without having a parent nearby for support.”

Adoption of boys was a common practice among Romans in the upper senatorial class for ensuring a smooth succession of leadership. In the absence of a biological son to inherit his wealth and title, it was common for the emperor to adopt a son to carry on the political tradition of his family and designate him as his legitimate chosen successor. Augustus Caesar was the most famous Roman adoptee.

Muhammad instructed adoptive parents to refer to their adoptive children by the names of their biological parents. They were not considered blood relatives, and it was okay for them to marry. Inheritance remained separate from the biological family. If an adoptee inherited wealth from a birth parent’s estate, the adopted family was commanded to act as trustee and not to combine that property or wealth with their own.

Conscripting or enslaving children into armies and labor pools occurred as a consequence of war and pestilence when children were left parentless. Abandoned children then became the ward of the state, military organization, or religious group. When this practice happened en masse, it had the advantage of ensuring the strength and continuity of cultural and religious practices in medieval society.

Foundlings were commonly abandoned on the doorstep of churches, resulting in many of Europe’s abandoned children becoming alumni of the Church. This trend marked the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization, eventually bringing about the establishment of foundling hospitals and orphanages. From these locations, children were doled out as laborers and household servants. Baby farming in the Victorian era was the taking in of a child for payment, but baby farmers were often unscrupulous and many orphans suffered neglect, abuse and death.

The destiny of most European orphans was a lifetime of squalor, poverty, and crime until literature changed public consciousness about the fate of parentless children. Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist exposed the cruel treatment of the many orphans in London. Heidi is a novel about the events in the life of an orphaned girl in the Swiss Alps that is popular all over the world. Little Orphan Annie became a highly popular daily comic strip. She escapes from an orphanage and makes her way in the world by hard work and a cheery disposition. Anne of Green Gables, the story of an 11-year-old orphan girl, has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages.

Orphan trains were highly popular as a source of free labor. The largest migration of children in history took place in the United States when over two hundred thousand children were forced onto railroad cars and shipped west, where any family desiring their services as laborers, maids, and servants used and abused them. The sheer size of the displacement and degree of exploitation that occurred gave rise to new agencies and a series of laws that promoted adoption rather than indenture.

Almost all children without parental care in the United States were in orphanages or foster arrangements until President Theodore Roosevelt declared the nuclear family was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned. Inspired by his leadership, forces against institutionalization gathered momentum, and the practice of formal adoption gained popularity.

Eventually, adoption became a quintessential American institution, embodying faith in social engineering and mobility. By 1945, adoption was formulated as a legal act with consideration of the child’s best interests. The origin of the move toward secrecy and the sealing of all adoption and birth records began when Charles Loring Brace introduced the concept to prevent children from the orphan trains from being reclaimed by their parents. Brace feared the impact of the parents’ poverty and their Catholic religion, in particular, on the youth. Progressive reformers later carried on this tradition of secrecy when drafting American adoption laws.

The legalization of artificial birth control methods and abortion resulted in a sudden drop in the number of babies available for adoption. As concerns over illegitimacy began to subside in the early 1970s, social welfare agencies began to emphasize that; if possible, mothers and children should be kept together. Societal opinions and adoption laws continue to evolve and vary by state and country. In safe haven states, infants may be left anonymously at hospitals, fire departments, or police stations within a few days of birth. While some states allow for open adoptions, others impose strict secrecy laws to protect identities.

Advanced biological, genetic, social, and psychological research in recent years has greatly enhanced public knowledge about the symbiotic relationship between birth mothers and infants. The perception of similarities between adoptive parent and child appears important to successful parenting. In relationships marked by like personalities and appearances, both adult adoptees and adoptive parents report being happier with the adoption. For this reason, Native Americans and many other cultural and ethnic groups stress the importance of keeping adoption within the child’s ancestral population.

Open records have increased the number of adoption reunions in recent decades that can be a beneficial experience for adoptees that desire to learn about their biological and ancestral backgrounds and medical history, but this is not to imply that the goal of all reunions is to establish ongoing relationships.

Judith Land



La historia de la adopción | L’histoire de l’adoption | La storia di adozione | История принятия | Istoria Adoptare | Historien om adoption | Historien om adopsjon | Hanes Mabwysiadu | 입양의 역사 | 采纳史

About Judith Land

Judith Land lives in Colorado and Arizona with husband and coauthor Martin Land. Judith is a former nurse, retail shop owner, college instructor and avid outdoor person. Her book "Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child" is a true story detailing the journey of Judith Romano, foster child and adoptee, as she discovers fragments of her background, and then sets out to solve the mystery as an adult. She has reached readers in 192 countries. "Mothers and fathers everywhere in the world need to understand that children are forever and always." --Judith Land
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3 Responses to The History of Adoption

  1. eagoodlife says:

    While modern adoption does appear to be the invention of America and people like Georgia Tann, the history of adoption covers every other country, whether it is a sending or receiving country. If you’ve read Kate Adie’s book, “Nobody’s Child”, you’ll note that the majority of babies committed to religious insituations were committed to death.

  2. Judith Land says:

    Kate Adie, one of Britain’s national treasures—In “Nobody’s Child” Kate Adie has written a compelling book about foundlings like herself. Don Boyd

  3. Judith Land says:

    Eagoodlife, I’m glad you mentioned Beulah George Tann. She is a major character in the history of adoption. Beulah was an American child trafficker that used an unlicensed home as a front for her black market baby adoption scheme. The files of the children were fictionalized before being presented to the adoptive parents. She used pressure tactics, threats of legal action and other methods to take children from their birth parents, mostly poor single mothers, and sold them to wealthy buyers. She engaged in kidnapping when single parents would drop their children off at nursery schools, only to be told that welfare agents had taken the children. She was documented as taking children born to unwed mothers at birth, claiming that the newborns required medical care. When the mothers asked about the children, Tann told them that the babies had died, but they were actually placed in foster homes or adopted. Some children were placed into homes where they were used as child labor on farms, or with abusive families. She charged upwards of $5,000 per child for her services and failed to report the income to the Internal Revenue Service. Judith

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