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Originally Authored By Elisha Marr, Emily Helder, and Gretchen Miller Wrobel in The Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Complex family forms, such as those created through adoption, are becoming increasingly commonplace in the US. Our contemporary familiarity with adoptive families, whether through personal connections or through media portrayals, makes it difficult to believe that adoption is a relatively new practice in the US. In fact, prior to the 1900s, few families formally adopted unrelated children (Davis, 2011; Perry, 2017). The current US adoption system was created and shaped by a variety of factors including immigration, race, war, poverty, affluence, disease, and medical developments as well as changing cultural perspectives about the value of children and norms for women and families. To provide some foundational context for this handbook, we first provide a brief history of adoption in the US and then describe some of the major adoption-related topics and controversies.

Prior to the 1900s

Some of the earliest instances of adoption involved White settlers adopting Native American children. Though ostensibly based – at least initially – on an agreement between White missionaries and Indigenous groups, Native Americans often interpreted the practice as an ongoing, reciprocal establishment of kinship and peaceable relations between the two groups; whereas the White settlers treated it as formal severance of relationships between the child and their tribe. Once the Native Americans learned that the agreement was nonreciprocal and irrevocable, they stopped willingly participating in the practice (Leacock, 1980). Yet the willingness of Native Americans became irrelevant since this period was followed by massacres of Indigenous people allowing Whites to take possession of their now-orphaned children (Ward Gailey, 2010). This practice continued through the early 20th century, during which White Americans not only “adopted” Native American orphans, but also forcibly removed children from their parents in order to “civilize,” “Christianize,” and “Americanize” them in boarding schools (Briggs, 2012; Davis, 2011; Perry, 2017).

The 19th-century influx of European immigrants to eastern coastal cities resulted in the practice of White immigrant children being adopted by rural White families. Travel to the US, poverty, and disease resulted in growing numbers of orphans living on the streets. These were not only children whose families had died, but also those whose parents were too poor to provide them with basic necessities. Although some improperly supervised or homeless children became vagrants engaging in criminal activities to survive, others were taken in by families where they would work for room and board (Carp, 2005; Davis, 2011; DellaCava, Kolko Phillips, and Engel, 2004; Perry, 2017). Around the mid-19th century, there were about 30,000 parentless Irish children in New York City alone (Perry, 2017). Urban and church-related organizations, such as the Children’s Aid Society of New York, would put many of these children on “orphan trains” to the western US to become formally adopted into families or to work as farm hands (Perry, 2017; Solinger, 2004). It has been estimated that from about 1850 to 1930 around 200,000–250,000 of these children were placed into homes; however, only 90,000 were formally adopted (Davis, 2011; Perry, 2017).


The formal private adoption of infants began around the turn of the 20th century and took shape throughout the Depression Era. The formality arose from efforts to standardize and professionalize child placements. The US Children’s Bureau, which was established in 1912, and the Child Welfare League of America, which was established in 1921, began to create and institute adoption standards for both public and private agencies. By the 1930s, all 48 states instituted statutes governing adoption; the federal government followed suit (Carp, 2005; DellaCava, Kolko Phillips, and Engel, 2004). The infant adoptions resulted from the maternity home movement, which offered unwed pregnant women a place to live until their child was born. The main message conveyed to birth mothers was that their infant
would be promptly adopted by married couples, providing good homes, who would raise the child to be a good citizen (Davis, 2011). Until this point in time, safe, effective infant formulas and bottles were not easily accessible or affordable, making it almost logistically impossible for an infant to be adopted by another couple without a wet nurse. Once infants could be fed by someone other than a lactating mother it created the opportunity for childless couples to adopt, and conversely the opportunity for unwed mothers to place their child for adoption (Hanan, 1997).

These systems, policies, and practices continued into the post-World War II (WWII) era baby boom. Married women who were able to biologically reproduce were able to create the idealized nuclear family, yet infertile married women conspicuously lacked the children needed to make their couple into what they considered a real family (Carp, 2005; Sandelowski, 1990). Conversely, pregnant unmarried women often did not have access to jobs paying a living wage and feared the social stigma of raising an illegitimate child (Solinger, 2004). Thus, they were pressured by society to marry, or to quietly and surreptitiously surrender their child for adoption. The aforementioned maternity homes made it possible for infertile White middle class couples to gain access to healthy, White infants available for adoption, while protecting the birth mother and her family from shame and stigma (Davis, 2011; Patton, 2000; Solinger, 2004). Although private adoption seemed like a good solution to the issues of both White married women who were infertile and White unmarried women who were pregnant, some birth mothers reported a sense of choicelessness and being coerced into surrendering their infants (Fisher, 2003; Solinger, 2001).

Adoption was not an option for all women in the US. Throughout US history and into this post-WWII era, African American women were effectively excluded from these early forms of formal adoption. They did not have access to many of the postwar programs, supports, and resources White women were using to create idyllic American families, and most worked in formal or informal wage labor (Davis, 2011; Solinger, 2004). Similar to White couples, unmarried African American couples who learned of their pregnancy were expected to marry to avoid the stigma of raising an illegitimate child (Gutman, 1976). Yet, African American women who did not marry did not also have the choice of a private, confidential, and formal means for placing their child with a vetted middle or upper class unrelated couple of their same race. Consequently, their unwed pregnancies were handled informally by their familial and kinship communities, a practice that had always been utilized by African American families (Gutman, 1976; Higdon, 2008; Solinger, 2004). During slavery, Black women had very little control over the residence and raising of their child, yet could count on the related and unrelated people in their network to support and provide for both of them to the extent it was possible (Abdullah, 1996; Davis, 2011; Gutman, 1976; Higdon, 2008). These informal adoptions could simply involve the network assisting the woman in raising her child, or another woman or couple might raise it as they would one of their own biological children. Regardless of the arrangement, it was more likely to be verbal, informal, and without any organizational oversight or approval (Abdullah, 1996; Higdon, 2008). Asian, Hispanic, and Latino families in the US similarly relied on informal arrangements among extended family for the care of single-parent and orphaned children (Higdon, 2008). Yet their mid-20thcentury immigration to the US (, 2018) coincided with the establishment of a more structured adoption system with legal oversight and enforcement, resulting in the informal aspect of adoption being a much smaller portion of their US history than it was for African Americans (Higdon, 2008). In summary, although the 1930s through the 1960s are commonly viewed as the beginning of adoption in the US, it should be recognized that the adoption of unrelated children has been a practice, for better or worse, since the arrival of Europeans (Davis, 2011; Higdon, 2008).

During the post-WWII period, White couples in the US were also able to adopt children from other countries. Part of the de-Nazification program involved placing orphans from Germany and other European countries with both US military and civilian families (Ward Gailey, 2010). Unlike the adoptions of the previous century where the primary goal of adoptive families was to provide a home for the child, often in exchange for work, White couples seeking to adopt internationally desired a child that they would intimately raise as they would their own biological child. Adoption agencies sought to match children with parents with similar eye and hair color in an attempt to minimize differences in appearance (Davis, 2011; Ward Gailey, 2010). This was the beginning of international adoption; however, many would describe these as same-race adoptions due to the matching of adoptive parents’ and adoptees’ phenotypes.

The conclusion of the Korean War in 1953 began the first international adoptions to the US where adoption agencies did not practice racial matching. Very few adoptions of children of one race by parents of a different race had occurred prior to this time (DellaCava, Kolko Phillips, and Engel, 2004; Perry, 2017). Yet the pressure of White families in the US to cross racial-ethnic lines to adopt from Korea was spurred by the notable number of war orphans. Many of these children had been fathered by US soldiers, but excluded from the mother’s Korean family (Perry, 2017). Additionally, civilian evangelical Christians, Harry and Bertha Holt, were moved to adopt these mixed-race children after watching a documentary about an orphanage in Korea. Despite having six biological children, the Holts adopted eight Korean orphans and eventually established Holt International Services to facilitate adoptions from Korea to the US. The Holts are credited with beginning what we now know as the practice of private international adoption (DellaCava, Kolko Phillips, and Engel, 2004; Perry, 2017).

Public foster care also coalesced during this period of the 1930s through the 1960s. As children began to be valued for sentimental and emotional reasons, as opposed to their economic value as workers, adoption practices began to prioritize the best interests of the child (Davis, 2011). Additionally, as the federal government instituted more social welfare and oversight programs, a link between child welfare and adoption was made. Systems were established to investigate child abuse and neglect, as well as to rehome children who were victims of these practices (Davis, 2011; Solinger, 2004). Children involuntarily removed from their parents’ homes were to be temporarily placed with family members or with unrelated families that had met certain standards. The overarching goal of public foster care was to help the parents meet the child welfare standards and reunify the family; however, lack of resources and ethnic bias in the system had a particularly devastating impact on Black families. Social workers were trained in a culture within which White family forms were considered the norm. In comparison, Black families were perceived as dysfunctional and broken by slavery, evidenced by the prevalence of irresponsible and promiscuous Black single mothers (Briggs, 2012; Patton, 2000). Thus, even though some White birth parents also struggled with access to the housing, education, and medical care necessary to provide for their children, the ethnic bias against Black familial cultural practices resulted in disproportionately large numbers of Black children being involuntarily removed from their birth families (Briggs, 2012; Patton, 2000; Solinger, 2004; Ward Gailey, 2010). A smaller proportion of Black children were reintegrated into their birth families in comparison to White foster children. These ethnic differences also characterized Black parents seeking to adopt; consequently, they struggled to be approved as foster and/or adoptive parents (Briggs, 2012; Carp, 2005; Davis, 2011; Solinger, 2004). Some identify this as the beginning of the crisis in the foster care system in which there are more children of color, specifically Black children, than there are of same-race adoptive parents (Solinger, 2004). Because adoptions across racial lines were rare during this time period, these children of color, relative to their White counterparts, experienced longer wait times for placement or languished in institutions (Briggs, 2012; DellaCava, Kolko Phillips, and Engel, 2004; Simon and Altstein, 1977).

The essential structure of the current US adoption system grew out of these practices, policies, government organizations, and private agencies established during this period of the 1930s to the 1960s. Public adoption commonly refers to state governments being primarily responsible for the administration of the adoption and foster care of children who have been involuntarily removed from the homes of birth parents by child welfare agencies. These children are often older, may have physical, mental, or behavioral challenges, and are commonly labeled as hard-to-place or special-needs (CWIG, 2011; Davis, 2011; Vandivere, Malm, and Radel, 2009). Private adoptions are those facilitated by non-government adoption agencies or attorneys (Biafora and Esposito, 2007; Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG), 2011; Vandivere, Malm, and Radel, 2009; Ward Gailey, 2010). Birth parents seeking to voluntarily surrender an infant for adoption work with these private agencies or attorneys to facilitate permanent adoption by adoptive parents. Private domestic adoption describes when birth parents and adoptive parents reside in the US. Private international adoption describes when adoptive parents reside in the US, the birth parents reside in a country other than the US, and adoption agencies or organizations in both countries facilitate the adoption (Biafora and Esposito, 2007; Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG), 2011; Vandivere, Malm, and Radel, 2009; Ward Gailey, 2010). Private international adoption can also involve birth parents in the US and adoptive parents from a country other than the US, yet this is rare (Buckwalter-Poza, 2014). Since international, federal, and state laws may differ, there are some variations to these practices (e.g., state government contracting with private agency to facilitate foster care; Hansen, 2009); yet these categories and descriptions reflect the primary differences between public and private, domestic and international adoption (Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG), 2011; Vandivere, Malm, and Radel, 2009; Ward Gailey, 2010).


Formal domestic and international adoption in the US continued into the 1960s and 1970s, yet there were marked changes among birth parents and adoptees. Increased access to contraception and abortion, as well as increased acceptance of single parenthood, led to a decrease in the number of healthy White infants being surrendered for adoption (Fisher, 2003; Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 2000; Ward Gailey, 2010). At this time of more integrative attitudes toward race, White potential adoptive parents began to consider, and became more willing to adopt children of color (Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 2000; Ward Gailey, 2010). Government and private adoption agencies considered these transracial adoptions to be second best to same-race adoptions, yet they began to permit the practice
(Simon and Altstein, 2000). The vast majority of adoptions in the US continued to be same-race; however, this was the beginning of agencies making transracial placements (predominately White parents adopting children of color) when they desired (Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 2000; Ward Gailey, 2010).

Adoption during the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by three major shifts: (1) the increase in transracial adoptions, (2) the increase in international adoptions (Biafora and Esposito, 2007; Simon and Altstein, 2000; Ward Gailey, 2010), and (3) the move from extremely limited contact between adoptees and birth parents (commonly known as closed adoptions) to encouraging some level of contact between adoptees and birth parents (commonly known as open adoptions; Grotevant and McRoy, 1998). Domestically, growing societal and political support for transracial adoption resulted in federal legislation eliminating barriers for transracial placements. The 1993 Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) were established to prioritize adoptive homes for children rather than having them wait for same-race adoptive parents. Agencies were prohibited from using race to delay or deny the adoption of a child (Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 2000). Since private adoption agencies do not report information about their adoptions to an umbrella organization, it is not possible to determine if MEPA/ASFA increased the number of transracial adoptions domestically. However, beginning in the early 1990s, government agencies were required to report data on public adoptions to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). It has been estimated that during the period in which MEPA/ASFA were implemented, transracial placements increased from making up 10.8% of public adoptions in 1995 to 15% in 2001 (Hansen and Simon, 2004).

Internationally, the previously discussed adoptions from South Korea to the US continued. In fact, through 1990 most of the children adopted internationally were Korean (Beck, 1992). However, world events, practices, and policies soon changed the composition of children internationally adopted. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Romanian women surrendered thousands of their children to orphanages. Many White adoptive parents from the US now had the opportunity to internationally adopt White-skinned children. Yet after a year of permitting international adoptions, Romania enacted strict policies on international adoption to avoid being perceived as needing US assistance in taking care of Romanian children (Beck, 1992; Simon and Altstein, 2000).

In the early 1990s, 15 years after the US withdrawal, South Vietnam began to allow international adoption of its children to the US (Simon and Altstein, 2000). Around this time, China also began allowing their children to be internationally adopted due to increasing numbers of girls being surrendered to orphanages. In this patriarchal culture, when faced with China’s policy limiting families to one child, many were choosing to surrender their infant girls. The number of Chinese children adopted to the US increased markedly throughout the 1990s (Simon and Altstein, 2000; Ward Gailey, 2010).

Conversely, prior to the 1990s, South American children made up more than one in five of all international adoptees; most were from Columbia. Yet by 1998, less than one in 20 international adoptions were from South America. This decrease is attributed to fewer South American countries making adoptees available and China providing a new source of internationally adoptable children (Simon and Altstein, 2000). International adoption from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America fluctuated slightly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, yet they accounted for approximately one in ten international adoptees each year, with Guatemala being the largest source (Simon and Altstein, 2000).

The other major change in adoption practice in the 1980s was movement toward more openness in adoption. Traditionally, confidentiality in adoption was viewed as protecting the birth mother, adopted child, and adoptive family from one another so that all could move on from the adoption and continue with their lives (Chapman, Dorner, Silber, and Winterberg, 1986). Birth mothers would be better able to grieve the loss of their child (Kraft, Palambo, Mitchell, Woods, and Schmidt, 1985a), adoptive parents would be able to bond with their child and feel more secure in their role as parent without the presence of the birth mother (Kraft, Palambo, Mitchell, Woods, and Schmidt, 1985b), and adopted children would not become confused as to who their parents were by internalizing only one set of parents (Kraft, Palambo, Mitchell, Woods, and Schmidt, 1985c). In the 1980s, dissatisfied with traditional practice, proponents of openness advocated that contact would benefit all members of the adoptive kinship network (Pannor and Baran, 1984). Birth mothers would know the wellbeing of the child they placed (Chapman, Dorner, Silber, and Winterberg, 1986), adoptive parents would feel equipped to answer their child’s adoption-related questions (Berry, Dylla, Barth, and Needell, 1998), and children’s access to information about their adoption would positively influence their satisfaction with adoption (Mendenhall, Berge, Wrobel, Grotevant, and McRoy, 2004). Agencies began to practice openness in adoption by facilitating agreements between birth and adoptive parents about the type and frequency of future contact. From simply providing detailed information about the birth parents to the adoptee and their adoptive parents, to in-person visits, the amount of contact among those in the adoption triad has increased, a significant change from previous adoption arrangements (Grotevant, 2012; Siegel and Smith, 2012). Contact between birth and adoptive families has become common and is seen as in the best interests of the child (Siegel and Smith, 2012).

2000s – The Present

The major development in adoption in the 2000s involved changes to laws, policies, and practices regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and/or samesex couples’ adoption of a child. Although the first known adoption to a gay man occurred in 1968, and the first gay couple to jointly adopt a child occurred in 1979 (Mombian, 2017), adoption agencies formally or informally did not regularly place children with LGBTQ identifying individuals or couples for much of the 20th century (Appell, 2011). In 1993, Vermont and Massachusetts became the first states to permit same-sex couples to adopt jointly, yet the final state to overturn its ban on adoption by LGBTQ people was Florida in 2010 (Appell, 2011; Mombian, 2017). Adoption agencies were then able to prevent same-sex
couples from jointly adopting by banning unmarried couples; however, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in all states (Kazyak, 2018; Moreau, 2019). Most same-sex couples who had previously been denied the ability to adopt due to being unmarried could now legally pursue the adoption of children; however, barriers still exist. At the writing of this chapter, ten states do not require state-licensed adoption agencies to place children with LGBTQ individuals or same-sex couples if the practice conflicts with the agency’s religious beliefs. It is expected that this decision will be challenged and ultimately decided at the federal level (Kazyak, Woodell, Scherrer, and Finken, 2018; Moreau, 2019). In 2013, it was estimated that almost 27,000 same-sex couples were raising 58,000 adopted and foster kids in the US (Gates, 2015).

The National Council for Adoption’s (NCFA) longitudinal research on adoption trends shows that although a notable number of unrelated adoptions continue to occur each year, there has been a decrease since the early 2000s, particularly among international adoptions. In 2014 approximately 75,000 children were adopted by unrelated parents in the US, with almost 6,000 of them having been adopted from countries other than the US (domestic 92%, international 8%; Jones and Placek, 2017). This differs greatly from the 96,000 unrelated adoptions in 2007, of which 19,500 were international (domestic 80%, international 20%; Rosman, Johnson, and Callahan, 2011) and 2002 with 97,000 unrelated adoptions of which 21,000 were international (domestic 79%, international 21%; Atwood, Allen, Ravenel, and Callahan, 2007). These early 2000s figures also differ from 1996, during which the total of all unrelated adoptions was about 66,000 with approximately 11,300 adopted internationally (domestic 83%, international 17%; Atwood, Allen, Ravenel, and Callahan, 2007). A review of NCFA’s periodical reports shows that the number of unrelated adoptions in the 1980s and 1990s fluctuated between 60,000–66,000 with international adoptions comprising minimally 10% of these figures (Atwood, Allen, Ravenel, and Callahan, 2007; Jones and Placek, 2017; Rosman, Johnson, and Callahan, 2011). In short, the number of children adopted by unrelated parents domestically and internationally increased toward the end of the 20th century and peaked in the early 2000s. Yet in the past decade these numbers have been declining, particularly among international adoptions.

Reports from the US Census Bureau have provided some of the most recent and comprehensive information on the characteristics of adoptees in the US (see Chapter 2 for statistics on adoption). In 2010 there were approximately 1,557,000 adoptive children (under the age of 18) in the US, of which almost 17% were born outside of the US, 24% were transracial, and 10% differed in Hispanic ethnicity (i.e., child was Hispanic yet the head of household was not and vice-versa) (Kreider and Lofquist, 2014). In 2000, of the 1,586,000 adopted children (under the age of 18), about 12.5% were born in a country other than the US, 17% were transracial, and 6.5% differed from their head of household in Hispanic ethnicity (Kreider, 2003). These categories overlap (e.g., many of the children adopted internationally also differed in race from their adoptive parents), yet illustrate that a notable portion of adoptions cross national, racial, and ethnic lines; very different from the
adoption patterns of the early 20th century. The variations between the composition of adoptive families in 2000 and 2010 also reflect the increases in domestic transracial placements and international adoptions in the 1980s and 1990s; however, same-race adoptions continue to make up the vast majority of adoptions (Kreider and Lofquist, 2014) (information relevant to this topic can be found in Chapter 10).

Issues and Areas of Controversy in Adoption


Adoption is a process that is shaped by personal, social, and political attitudes in the context of history and culture. Openness in adoption is one aspect that is shaped by these contexts and can be thought of as a continuum from confidential or no contact, to mediated contact with exchange of information through an intermediary (often the adoption agency), to fully disclosed with direct contact (Grotevant and McRoy, 1998). More recently the concept of openness has shifted to a description of the type and frequency of contact (Grotevant et al., 2007). Contact can take many forms: letters and photos placed at the adoption agency, in-person visits, and communication through social media (Fursland, 2013; Grotevant, 2012).

Openness or contact between adoptive and birth family members has seen much change in the last 40 to 50 years. Moving from a culture where adoption was practiced in a context of secrecy, to the adoption process including consideration of how much contact to have between birth and adoptive families, has been a major shift influencing all aspects of adoption (Siegel and Smith, 2012). The decision about contact impacts all members of the adoption kinship network (AKN; Grotevant and McRoy, 1998) of birth and adoptive family members who might have differing desires related to amount and type of contact (Grotevant, Wrobel, Fiorenzo, Lo, and McRoy, 2019) (see Chapters 6, 7, and 19 for information on relationships and contact among the AKN).

Contact in adoption can change over time, including increasing the amount of contact or stopping contact between birth and adoptive family members. Contact can be stopped for a variety of reasons, including a loss of interest or contact did not work out (Grotevant, Wrobel, Fiorenzo, Lo, and McRoy, 2019). One impetus for an increase in contact is curiosity about one’s adoption (Wrobel, Grotevant, Samek, and Von Korff, 2013). This curiosity, which can be satisfied through many approaches, exists in adoptions with all types of contact, not just for those in confidential adoptions. Yet, it is important to remember that some adopted individuals are satisfied with the information they have and feel no need to seek out more (Wrobel and Dillon, 2009). One concern that can bring tension to the information-gathering process is at what age is it best for an adopted person to seek out the information. If the adopted person is not of legal age to access information independently, the adopted parents must make decisions about helping their child find information. Responses can vary from assisting their child to asking that the child wait until they reach the age of majority (Wrobel, Kohler, Grotevant, and McRoy, 2003).

Searching for birth parents with the goal of reunion is one way adopted persons seek to increase contact (see Chapter 17 for information on search and reunification among transracial adoptees). This process is characterized by the unknown: Will I be able to find my birth parent? Will my birth parent want to have contact with me? Will the relationship work out? What is the best way to find my birth parent? Howe and Feast (2001) found that most adopted persons who engaged in a search for a birth mother, regardless of outcome with regard to an ongoing relationship, found the process satisfying and worthwhile. Sixty-three percent of their sample remained in contact with their birth mother eight years post-reunion. For those who do have contact with birth parents, establishing contact with additional members of the AKN can also provide avenues to additional adoption-related information. Wrobel, Carlson, Phillips, Ruff, and Grotevant (2016, November) found for persons adopted domestically as infants, that as the adopted persons became emerging adults the number of birth family members with whom contact was established increased. Obtaining information does not always need to be accomplished through expanding the AKN. AKN members can provide information to each other as the need arises.

One force that cannot be ignored is the use of the internet and social media sites to seek out adoption-related information and maintain relationships in the AKN. Whitesel and Howard (2013) conducted a survey of over 2,000 AKN members regarding their adoptionrelated internet use. Their findings paint a picture of widespread use of the internet and social media to search for birth family members, maintain ongoing contact in the AKN that can feel less intrusive than visits, and follow AKN members without their knowledge. It is clear that confidentiality is harder to maintain in the era of new technologies, yet Whitesel and Howard report that few of their respondents reported that internet or social media use led to unwelcome intrusions.

Newest to the discussion of information seeking by adopted individuals is genetic testing. Determining a genetic-relative family health history or the use of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing can lead to finding members of the AKN. The bioethics surrounding the use of genetic testing and subsequent search and reunions is in its infancy (Lee, Kim, and Lee, 2016).

Transracial Adoption

Although currently, and throughout US history, adoption agencies primarily match children with adoptive parents of the same race, the number and proportion of children adopted by parents of a different race (predominately children of color adopted by White parents) has grown since the 1960s (Kreider and Lofquist, 2014; Simon and Altstein, 2000). When adoption agencies began to permit transracial placements, it was strongly opposed, particularly by African American and Native American groups. The National Association of Black Social Workers published a paper in 1972 detailing their concerns, including that White parents could not teach Black children Black culture, effectively decreasing the transmission of Black culture to future generations. Additionally, White parents would not be able to equip Black children with the survival skills necessary to living in a racist society (Butler-Sweet, 2011; Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 2000). Transracial adoption was not viewed as the altruistic action to provide Black children with familial homes, but a strategy to fulfill White childless couples’ need for a child due to the dwindling number of White children available for adoption (Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 1977). Native American groups echoed these sentiments, asserting that the adoption of Native American children by White parents decimates Indian tribes and results in a cultural genocide (Simon and Altstein, 2000).

[T]he leaders of black American and Native-American organizations argued that nonwhite children who are adopted by white parents are lost to the communities into which they were born. The experience of growing up in a white world makes it impossible for black and Indian children to ever take their rightful place in the communities of their birth.

Simon and Alstein, 2000, p. 45

The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was established to protect Native American families and intergenerational transmission of their culture; however, the mid-1990s MEPA/AFSA legislation removed barriers from the transracial adoption of all other children (ButlerSweet, 2011; Simon and Altstein, 2000). Thus, the central issue has moved from considering whether transracial adoptions should occur, to how much importance should be placed on race in adoption decisions. Some argue that adoption agencies should not use race as a factor in choosing adoptive parents; finding familial homes, regardless of race, is in the best interests of the child (Bartholet, 1991). Others assert that because adoptive parents have racial preferences for children who are Asian, Hispanic, or Latino over children who are Black, the failure of adoption agencies to consider race in placements will result in Black children being less likely to be adopted (Banks, 1998; Maldonado, 2006) (see Chapter 11 for information on adoptive parents’ race and gender preferences). However, despite the increase in transracial adoptions, and multiracial families in general in the US, research continues to identify areas of concern, including transracial adoptees’ issues with identity and adjustment surfacing as young adults (Butler-Sweet, 2011; Patton, 2000) and adoption agencies’ struggle to prepare White parents for parenting children of color without discouraging them from adopting (Raleigh, 2018).

International Adoption

International adoption is a practice that also contains inherent tensions, with advocates and challengers emphasizing different values and research findings (Rotabi, 2012). Those that support the practice of international adoption, emphasize the inherent right of children to be raised within a family, the large numbers of children currently residing in institutions in nations without robust child welfare infrastructure, the risks that come with aging out of institutional care when domestic placements are not available, and the research findings indicating that adoption from institutional settings into families results in improvements in cognitive, behavioral, and emotional outcomes (Bartholet and Smolin, 2012) (see Chapters 24, 25, 26, 27, and 28 for information on outcomes of international adoptees).

In contrast, those that strongly critique the practice of international adoption place a high value on the reciprocal ties and rights to contact between the birth family (including extended family and community) and the child (Bartholet and Smolin, 2012), as well as the child’s right to maintain their birth language, culture, and heritage in order to ground the identity development process (Hollingsworth, 2003). Given that most sending countries involved in international adoption are often lower-resource nations, concerns have also been raised about the vulnerability of birth families to coercion or misunderstanding regarding relinquishment decisions, child kidnapping, and trafficking (Selman, 2009). For example, the practice of placing a child in an institution temporarily due to poverty and/or lack of access to education may lead some children to be incorrectly identified as abandoned. Critics raise the concern that the high fees paid by adoptive parents to agencies can also lead to a commodification of children (Bartholet and Smolin, 2012; Solinger, 2001). Additionally, emphasizing the use of international adoption as a humanitarian response to poverty, conflict, or other disasters in lower-resource nations can de-emphasize the structural and systemic causes and solutions to these problems and might perpetuate, rather than address, the factors that would reduce relinquishment and increase reunification efforts (Brookfield, 2008) (see Chapter 15 on adoptions following natural disasters). The shadow of colonialism and imperialism looms over the practice, for critics, given that the majority of receiving countries are Western nations. Some worry that it perpetuates the narrative of rescue by the “Western savior,” prioritizing the rights of relatively affluent adoptive families above those of poorer birth families (Briggs, 2012; Solinger, 2001).

In response, supporters of international adoption argue that the poor conditions of institutions and the lack of in-country familial options for children, especially those that are older and/or have disabilities, should override these concerns (see Chapter 13 about the impact of institutionalization on adoptees and Chapter 14 about parenting adoptees with disabilities). Also, they tend to view abuses in the system (trafficking, bribes) as rare occurrences that can be addressed through enforcement and strengthening of laws, rather than as a sign of widespread corruption (Bartholet and Smolin, 2012). No matter the position taken, it is important to recognize the complexity of the issue and that it is not merely an intellectual argument, but involves individuals with deep emotional ties to both their adoptive families and their birth family and culture, even when contact with biological relatives has not been established (see Chapters 8 and 9 for information on international adoptions).

In order to address several of the concerns above, in addition to broader issues of child rights and welfare, several international agreements have been established. First, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; United Nations, 1989) delineates a variety of protections and rights, including protections based on gender and a call for countries to address poverty and lack of access to nutrition, clothing, and housing, in the context of international cooperation. Specific to international adoption, the UNCRC states that children are best raised in a family context and that contact between the child and birth family should be maintained, even in the context of adoption or foster care, as long as it is in the best interests of the child. The UNCRC also highlights the importance of cultural continuity in upbringing, specifically with regard to ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic background. The UNCRC does, however, allow for international adoption when in-country options are not suitable for a particular child and outlines several goals for preventing abuse within the international adoption system. These include separation of the child from their family only in cases where judicial review determines it is in the best interest of the child, and that governments would implement measures to prevent the trafficking of children and improper gain by adoption service providers and their intermediaries. To date, 194 countries have signed the UNCRC, with only the United States and Somalia not yet ratifying it.

In order to establish coordination and cooperation among countries involved in international adoption, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was drafted in 1993 (Hague Conference on Private International Law (Conférence de La Haye de droit international privé; HCCH), n.d.), with 101 countries currently considered contracting parties to the Convention. The Convention established standards for inter-country adoption that were intended to protect the rights and interests of children, birth parents, and adoptive parents, all while preventing abuses such as child trafficking. This included requiring each country to delineate a central authority to oversee international adoption (in the United States it is the Department of State) and accrediting adoption service providers as a way to ensure transparency and appropriate levels of regulation. Similar to the UNCRC, the Convention also prioritizes in-country options for children, encouraging the development of kinship care and domestic alternative care models when possible and in the best interests of the child (see Chapter 4 for information on domestic adoption in Ethiopia). A number of critiques have emerged over time regarding the Convention (for review, see Rotabi and Gibbons, 2012), with one of the most prominent being that countries that have not signed or ratified the Convention may continue to operate international adoption programs without these safeguards and regulations in place

LGBTQ Adoption

Even as public opinion supporting same-sex marriage has been increasing steadily in the US and Europe, public approval of adoption by same-sex couples may vary from LGBTQ marriage support (Schwartz, 2010; Takács, Szalma, and Bartus, 2016). In the US, polling by Gallup (McCarthy, 2019) indicated that 75% of those surveyed believed that same-sex couples should be legally allowed to adopt, which represents a steady increase over the last 40 years. Additionally, research examining the level of public support for adoption by LGBTQ couples has found that both micro (i.e., degree of religious involvement) and macro (i.e., country surveyed) level variables (Takács, Szalma, and Bartus, 2016) significantly influence the level of support. Within the US, conservative political ideology and more frequent religious attendance were the strongest predictors of lower support for same-sex adoption (Schwartz, 2010).

The relationship between opposition to same-sex adoption and political and religious beliefs are results of cultural wars and strategic campaigns to prevent LGBTQ people from parenting children. Save our Children, the Moral Majority, Concerned Women for America, and Focus on the Family were established in the 1970s and 1980s to advance evangelical (formerly referred to as fundamentalist) Christian values in US culture, with preserving traditional nuclear families as one of the major principles. Gay people were often characterized as dangerous pedophiles who were a danger to all children, which justified not only preventing them from adopting, but also keeping custody of their own biological children when relevant. These groups worked to change public opinion through books, television, and films, as well as public policy by lobbying, introducing and promoting legislation, influencing elections, and litigation when necessary. Consequently, a relationship was established between conservative political ideology and religious evangelical Christianity, commonly referred to as the “Christian Right.” The impetus and continued priority of the Christian Right is opposition to same-sex relationships and family formation, including the ability for LGBTQ people to adopt children (Briggs, 2012; Herman, 1997).

Thus, currently the most significant tension surrounding LGBTQ adoption is the policy of adoption agencies in several states to decline placement to LGBTQ couples due to religious beliefs about same-sex marriage (Kazyak, Woodell, Scherrer, and Finken, 2018). This tension between the right of LGBTQ individuals to be free from discrimination when seeking adoption services, especially from state-contracted agencies, with the religious freedom of faith-based agencies is currently on display across several states in the US. In Michigan, Dumont v. Gordon, a lawsuit filed by two gay couples who were rejected by state-contracted agencies that had religious objections to same-sex marriage, reached a settlement and resulted in new policy that state-contracted agencies were required to accept qualified LGBTQ couples. One of the agencies named in the case chose to adjust their policy correspondingly, while the second agency has filed a new lawsuit (Buck v. Gordon) (LeBlanc, 2019). The legal landscape in Europe is quite varied, with the Netherlands being the first country to allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt beginning in 2001, and close to 20 countries having some form of adoption process available to LGBTQ couples (Takács, Szalma, and Bartus, 2016). Of note, joint adoption by LGBTQ parents seeking to adopt internationally is not allowed by many sending countries and several countries do not allow single LGBTQ adoption (Kazyak, 2018).

In this context, researchers have attempted to evaluate a wide range of process variables and outcomes for families headed by LGBTQ couples and individuals (see Chapter 12 for information) and have found generally equivalent outcomes compared with families headed by opposite sex couples.

Inequality in Adoption as a Reproductive Option

When most think of adoption they consider it to be one of the options that couples have to become parents once biological reproduction and fertility treatments have failed (Fisher, 2003; Hanan, 1997; Park and Wonch Hill, 2014). However, the aspect of adoption that is less visible is that birth parents must surrender their rights to parent the child they bore (Fisher, 2003; Perry, 1998; Solinger, 1992). Research shows that many birth mothers relinquish their child after considering the few poor choices available to them (Fisher, 2003; Jones, 2000; Madden, Ryan, Aguiniga, and Crawford, 2016; Solinger, 2001) (see Chapters 5, 7, and 16 for information about birth parent experiences and decisions). Thus, although adoption is often perceived as an additional option for reproduction and parenting, this option is dependent on the relative choicelessness experienced by birth parents. Employing an intersectional lens, scholars in this area have learned how larger systems of gender, sexuality, marital status, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and nationality shape one’s reproductive options regarding adoption. An examination of macro-level adoption trends reveals a flow of children from those in disadvantaged groups to those in more privileged groups: from unwed women to heterosexually married couples, from poor women to middle and upper classes, from women of color to people who are White, and from nations with fewer resources or experiencing a crisis to the US (Briggs, 2012; Perry, 1998; Solinger, 2001).

Historically women’s reproductive options were minimal or non-existent. As one of the many assets to men, they were obliged to reproduce based on the desires of their husband as well as societal expectations (Baca Zinn and Eitzen, 2002; Roberts, 1997; Sandelowski, 1990; Thorton Dill, 1999; Weitz, 2016). The growing autonomy of women in US society, as well as the development of safe, effective birth control methods, has afforded them a number of reproductive options (Baca Zinn and Eitzen, 2002; Sandelowski, 1990; Solinger, 2001). However, their ability to exercise their choice of these options continues to be highly influenced by familial, cultural norms (Petchesky, 1998; Ross and Solinger, 2017; Sandelowski, 1990). Despite increasing acceptance of diverse family forms in the US, the traditional nuclear family continues to be the ideal for many. There is social, political, and economic support and pressure for women to marry heterosexually and to have a few (although not many) children (Baca Zinn and Eitzen, 2002; Sandelowski, 1990). This impacts adoption as a reproductive option in two primary ways: (1) adoption is perceived as an option for heterosexually married couples who do not have children or have only one child (Hanan, 1997; Park and Wonch Hill, 2014; Schwartz, 2010) and (2) people with the power to make adoption decisions consider heterosexual married couples to be the best familial homes for adoptive children (Briggs, 2012; Davis, 2011; Hanan, 1997; Raleigh, 2012).

The influence of familial cultural ideals on adoption has resulted in unwed pregnant women who are pressured to place their child for adoption (Madden, Ryan, Aguiniga, and Crawford, 2016; Solinger, 1992), whereas heterosexually married women who experience fertility challenges are pressured to adopt (Hanan, 1997; Park and Wonch Hill, 2014). Those who are LGBTQ, cohabitating, never married, divorced, or widowed are discouraged from adopting a child (Briggs, 2012; Davis, 2011; Hanan, 1997; Raleigh, 2012). There is both explicit and implicit discrimination against sexual minorities and the unmarried in the adoption approval process (Appell, 2011; Briggs, 2012; Hanan, 1997; Raleigh, 2012). There is also less societal acceptance and support for their creation of a family through adoption (Briggs, 2012; Davis, 2011; Schwartz, 2010). Although increasing numbers of LGBTQ and unmarried people are approved as adoptive parents, some research shows that they may be matched with the children who have not been selected by heterosexual married couples and are deemed the least desirable (Goldberg, Downing, and Sauck, 2007; Raleigh, 2012). Thus, adoption by sexual minorities and the unmarried may be a reproductive option, yet their choices continue to be limited in comparison to heterosexual married couples.

Having the resources to raise a child is another aspect fundamental to having adoption as a reproductive option. Lack of material resources and access to quality service resources are cited by birth mothers as one of the greatest factors considered when surrendering their child (Jones, 2000; Madden, Ryan, Aguiniga, and Crawford, 2016). Faced with the limited choices of not being able to provide for their child and the potential for their child to be parented by someone with more resources, poor women sometimes choose to place their child for adoption. Conversely, those who seek to adopt a child in the US must have notable financial resources and demonstrate access to quality services in order to be approved (Davis, 2011; Hanan, 1997). The ability of those in the middle and upper classes
to choose to parent through adoption, is highly dependent on poor and working class birth parents’ disadvantages.

Similarly, racial-ethnic categorization impacts reproductive options. Since the arrival of Europeans to what is now known as the US, social, political, and economic forces encouraged fertility, reproduction, and parenting among White married women, while simultaneously attempting to stymie the births among racial-ethnic minority women unless their children could be controlled by Whites and/or used for instrumental purposes (Roberts, 1997; Thorton Dill, 1999; Weitz, 2016). Although the eugenics movement, which promoted the reproduction of White people (Anglo-Saxon or Nordic heritage), did not take root in the US until the early 1900s, it simply elucidated, structured, and strategized the prominent reproductive and parenting practices (Sandelowski, 1990; Weitz, 2016).

The more recent manifestation of reproductive racial inequality is less explicit and takes the form of cultural and political encouragement or discouragement of reproduction (Davis, 2011; Roberts, 1997; Weitz, 2016). It also involves less of a focus on population control and more of a focus on socialization and parenting (Patton, 2000; Solinger, 2001). Since people of color in the US are disproportionately represented in the poorer and working classes, the inequality in reproductive choices previously identified regarding social class are consistent with reproductive choices for racial-ethnic groups (Patton, 2000; Ward Gailey, 2010). However, independent of social class, racial-ethnic minority groups who have material resources and access to quality services can be discouraged from reproduction and parenting based on stereotypes and perceptions about their race and cultural practices (Patton, 2000; Sandelowski, 1990). The standards used to determine child abuse or neglect have been deemed to be culturally biased against people of color, resulting in disproportionately larger numbers of children of color being involuntarily removed from their birth parents and available for foster care or adoption (Briggs, 2012; Cooper, 2013; Patton, 2000; Roberts, 2002). Similarly, people of color seeking to adopt children encounter the same cultural bias in the approval process (Briggs, 2012; Hanan, 1997; Roberts, 2002). This cultural bias results in inequality, as people of color are less likely than people who are White to be able to exercise their reproductive choice to adopt a child. It also limits the ability of parents of color to parent the children they bore.

Race and ethnicity shaping the pool of approved adoptive parents and the children available for adoption is also relevant to transracial adoption (previously discussed in an earlier section). During the period of racial matching in the US, White adoptive parents were forced to compete over the White children available for adoption (Simon and Altstein, 2000; Solinger, 1992). As fewer White infants were surrendered for adoption, racial matching limited adoption as a reproductive option for potential White adoptive parents. The increasing social and political support for transracial placements beginning in the 1970s not only increased the chance that children of color would be matched with an adoptive family, it also provided White parents with an additional reproductive option (Patton, 2000; Simon and Altstein, 2000). This has resulted in Whites being the vast majority of foster care and adoptive parents, children of color being disproportionately overrepresented in foster care and as adoptees, and most transracial adoptions being comprised of White parents and children of color (Marr, 2017; Vandivere, Malm, and Radel, 2009).

Regarding nationality, countries that allow their children to be adopted internationally are more likely to be struggling with after effects of war (e.g., Korea), natural disasters (e.g., Haiti), political unrest (e.g., Romania), as well as those that have fewer resources (e.g., Guatemala), and/or are predominately non-White (e.g., China, Ethiopia) (Briggs, 2012; Perry, 1998; Selman, 2009; Simon and Altstein, 2000). In these areas of relative disadvantage or circumstantial crises, birth parents who struggle to provide for their child might deem surrendering their child for adoption to be the best of the few choices available to them (Bloch Jones, 1993; Briggs, 2012; Fisher, 2003; Manley, 2006). This makes it possible for potential adoptive parents in the US, who have relatively greater resources and political power, to add international adoption as an option for reproduction.

Reproductive justice is a framework put forth by Ross and Solinger (2017) to address inequality in reproductive options. They argue that individuals should have: (1) the right not to have a child, (2) the right to have a child, and (3) the right to parent a child in a safe and healthy environment. These rights can only be realized when individuals have access to community-based resources (high quality health care, education, and housing), a living wage, and a safety net for situations when these resources fail (Ross and Solinger, 2017). Logically, increasing resources and rights to disadvantaged groups will positively impact their reproductive options; however, it is more complex when applied to the reproductive option of adoption. Since one person’s ability to have adoption as a reproductive option is dependent on another person’s choicelessness (Solinger, 2001), the equality achieved through reproductive justice will effectively remove adoption as one of the reproductive options currently available to advantaged groups.

Emerging Areas of Exploration and Practice

Although during the 20th century organized, formal adoption was shrouded in secrecy, the practice, the kinship network, and the related social services have grown in visibility and openness throughout the 21st century. Recognizing that adoption is not only familial, but involves politics, economics, health, communication, and education for individuals and society on a global scale, it has increasingly become an important area of research in the academy. Much of the initial scholarship focused on the adjustment of adoptees, yet the diversity of adoption-related research illustrates how and why adoption should be studied by a variety of disciplines. Reviewing historical and contemporary fundamental information about adoption provides the context necessary for in-depth exploration of the subject. It is this richness of context that promotes a broad understanding of adoption that undergirds research that promotes knowledge of specific adoption-related topics.


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