Adoption Through The Years

It’s no wonder that most people have been touched by adoption in some way. Maybe you’re an adoptee, adoptive parent or birth parent. Or, you know someone who is. At the very least, you probably have a friend, co-worker or acquaintance who is apart of the adoption triad. Adoption isn’t a new concept in our society. Adoption is a thread that connects us to others in this world.

Adoption has certainly changed, though. Adoption was not a legal process initially and there were less protections for all members of the adoption triad in the past. Adoptions were generally more secretive and there was not openness between birth and adoptive families. These practices were likely fueled by stigmas around unwed mothers, infertility and being adopted overall. While these stigmas are not completely gone from our world today, we have seen significant differences in the world of adoption due to changes in attitudes and feelings towards the practice of adoption. The brief overview here is just the tip of the iceberg of adoption’s rich history.

The Bible and Adoption
You may have heard from an adoptive parent that they just felt called to adopt, that there was a divine plan to create and grow their family through adoption. We’ve heard this from many of the adoptive parents we work with. Some birth parents have shared that their decision to place for adoption was strongly linked to their beliefs. Christianity has strong ties to adoption.

If you have any familiarity with any Abrahamic religion, you’ve probably heard of Moses. In the bible, we learn of Moses’ birth mother, Jochebed. At the time, Pharaoh ordered all Hebrew male infants to be killed. Instead of complying, Jochebed protected Moses by sending him in a basket down the river until he was found by Pharaoh’s daughters and adopted into the family (Exodus 1:15-22, English Standard Version). In the book of Esther, we learn that Esther is another historical adoptee in the Bible. Esther’s mother and father died and she was adopted by a cousin. Esther goes on to be a queen.

Oh, and have you heard of a guy named JESUS? In the book of Matthew in the Bible, we learn of how Jesus came into this world. Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit through his mother who was a virgin. Perhaps not exactly like other adoption stories, but he is still adopted by Joseph, his mother’s husband. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, Jesus’ life has changed the world in many aspects and changed the course of history as we know it.

Orphan Trains
The Orphan Train movement in the United States came about as an answer to homeless children living in the streets in the US. It’s estimated that between 1854 and 1929, more than 250,000 children were placed with families through this movement. The Children’s Aid Society was founded at this time to address the needs of homeless children and utilized trains to transport children to prospective adoptive parents which led to the term “Orphan Trains.” Many of these children came from New York due to the amount of homeless children there. Most children were not really aware of where they were going and what would happen to them. When they arrived to their destination in the West, they were viewed by prospective adoptive parents to be considered for adoption. This is where the term “put up for adoption” came from. There was a committee to assess adoptive parents ability to parent but was not nearly as extensive as today’s standards. This process often lead to siblings being split up as adoptive parents could only adopt one child. Adoptee’s often lost their history in this process but overall, historians believe adoptee’s lives were better for the Orphan Trains. Many of these children were able to find homes who were previously living on the street or in orphanages. There was little assistance for parentless children at this time in history. (Orphan Train History, 2013)

Baby Farming and Maternity Homes
Unfortunately, some stigma remaining in the adoption world today has ties to the term “baby farming” common in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This practice boiled down to children being bought and sold for profit. Frequently children were sent out of state with very little investigation of the “buyers.” Fees were taken from both birth parents and adoptive parents. Maternity Homes also played a part in providing newborns to the highest bidder, with little oversight into the safety of children being placed. (Baby Farming, 2013)

Brief History of Adoption Laws
We first saw adoption law in Massachusetts in 1851. The 1851 Adoption of Children Act allowed judges to be apart of the decision making process if and when a child should be placed with a family. Judges wanted to assure that the placement was “fit and proper” for the child. The needs of the child were considered primarily. In 1891, Michigan specified that judges should “be satisfied as to the good moral character, and the ability to support and educate such child, and of the suitableness of the home.” In 1917, Minnesota further regulated adoptions, specifically home studies and also provided the ability for adoptions to remain confidential. 1978 brought about the Indian Child Welfare Act. In 1994, Multiethnic Placement Act prohibits agencies to deny transracial adoptions on the basis of race. Most recently, the Child Citizen Act of 2000 allowed international adoptees to become U.S. citizens upon arrival in the United States. (Timeline of Adoptions History, 2012)

Truly, a lot more has happened in adoption besides legislature. Reading these developments in adoption history really only gives a quick and incomplete glance at how adoption has changed over time. They’re important, though, because it provides structure and safety for adoptees. For timeline with additional information from University of Oregon, feel free to view other aspects of the adoption timeline here.

In the United States, adoptions are far less stigmatized than in the past with more openness, discussion and overall safety for those involved. Adoptees have more access to their biological identity than ever before. It’s important to be aware that there are still adoptions that are done inappropriately which is why it’s so important to work with an agency or other adoption entity with a good reputation. Through legislation, professional development and advocacy, adoption is a viable options for birth parents to plan for their child’s welfare and for adoptive parents to grow their family.

Ayler, B.D. (2013, July 18) Orphan Train History. Retrieved from

Herman, E. (2012, February 24) Baby Farming. Retrieved from

Herman, E. (2012, February 24) Timeline. Retrieved from