Toward a Sociology of Adoption: Historical Deconstruction

Dawn Esposito & Frank Biafora. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.


This chapter explores adoption with the aid of a wide-angle, sociological lens. With a few important exceptions (Berebitsky, 2002; Fiegelman & Silverman, 1983; Fisher, 2003; Pertman, 2000), the current, growing body of scholarly literature presents adoption and related practices of temporary foster care from the epistemological position of individual actors in a related triad (i.e., adopted persons, adoptive parents, and biological parents). While important and necessary, explored in this way, our current tapestry of knowledge is framed and informed primarily by the research and expertise of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and adoption professionals, many of whom have contributed to this Handbook. Fisher (2003) reminds us, however, that because these studies so often use clinical populations or personal experiences, they are more likely to focus on the occasional pathological aspects of adoption and of the cognitive/developmental aspects of adoption on individual actors. Viewed in this manner, adoption “is” an experience worthy of study. Our position, however, was to move away from this trend and instead follow Wegar’s (1997) suggestion to examine adoption “as” an American experience from a sociological vantage point.

The authors of this chapter have not forgotten that at the core of adoption is the desire to create a family, however broadly defined. Historically, the image of the typical American family, especially the White Anglo family, has been of a rather fixed, nuclear unit. Interestingly, adoption has been a social force that has helped at once to maintain tradition as well as to shatter it; the married heterosexual couple who find they cannot have a biological child can still create, through adoption, their nuclear “family,” just as the homosexual couple can create a family of their own. Adoption has stretched the view of the American family as a conventional model of a racially homogeneous and heterosexual nuclear unit (Berebitsky, 2002).

When viewed from within a sociological paradigm, the history of adoption emerges as more than a one-sided story with more than just a few stakeholders. A surface view of adoption is one of kindness, justice, and hope for children in need of a loving home and of adults in need of a child to love. But this is certainly not the whole picture. This chapter explores the charitable as well as the surreptitious sides of adoption, with its policies that have been handcrafted to maintain a specified social order. We openly claim at the outset that our starting bias is a sociological one; that underlying America’s story of adoption is a complex posturing of social, cultural, political, economic, and religious forces in a continual convergence and struggle. Simply stated, adoption is socially constructed.

Sociological History of Adoption in the United States

Adoption is a social practice, a solution to a social problem, and an act of making a family at a particular moment in time. Like all social practices, adoption is intertwined with the production of social order. Adoption is also a public phenomenon determined by social and cultural forces that transcend individual actors. As a practice, it has always been determined by a general social, ideological discussion of the construction and meaning of the family, motherhood, biological kinship, race, social class, poverty, the citizen, and his or her responsibility to the social whole. As Berebitsky (2002) has claimed, “adoption is a public site to thrash out meanings” (p. 3). Importantly, adoption is a means of providing a permanent home for a child without one. The tension between children’s needs and social forces permeates the history of adoption. The discourse on adoption is an evolving one, yet when read across its history certain tendencies emerge, which have direct bearing on the present day. The story that follows is both old and new at the same time.

Colonial Times (1750-1800)

Adoption began as an informal practice during the formative years of the United States. Carp’s (2004) research on the colonial period found “dependent children, those from the poor or working classes, some of whom were orphaned some not, were often placed out as apprentices” (p. 3) in cross-generational families based on a loose connection to biological kinship. What today would be likened to foster care in some respects was, in fact, a practice of indentured servitude where children were thought of as an available source of labor. The creation of these “families” was often based on economic rather than emotional ties. Since the prevailing explanation for dependency in this period was a failure to adhere to a strong work ethic, the placed children were expected to gain from this experience and be reformed in the process. The possibilities for abuse were built into the system itself. By 1800, however, public outcry was such that the practice of indentured servitude was abandoned. A close cousin to indentured servitude would again resurface but with more religious and moral overtones at the height of the great Irish immigration.

The beginnings of a more modern framework for adoption and child placement began with the founding of the orphan asylums, usually by reformed-minded women. As Porter (2004) notes, “The founders saw both the children and their relatives as blameless victims of misfortune and were sympathetic rather than judgmental” (p. 31). One of the more hopeful policies of the orphanages during this time was to place children where possible with biological kin, anticipating a return to their birth families. But as Porter’s research demonstrates, relatives were not always a reliable source of support; some were too poor and others continued the practice of indentured servitude. Problems of abuse and the return of children to the orphanages were common among the orphaned, and many would never again unite with their birth families.

The failure of birth parents to adequately care for their children is a familiar story and has become a central factor in the modern move toward early termination of parental rights and permanency. Berebitsky (2002) highlights the fact that “the language of the market … represent(s) one of the significant frames through which Americans saw adoption” (p. 4) in this period. Despite the privileging of the emotional role of the family in the contemporary public discourse on adoption, the economic character should not be overlooked. Children currently in need of adoption tend to come from poor or otherwise distressed families; the system of foster care, with built-in financial incentives, has evolved as one solution to address the large numbers of children without stable homes as well as to satisfy our nation’s desire to support the cultural notions of a traditional family.

The Early Asylums (1800-1840)

The practice of child placement was an evolving one. When placing children with relatives failed, the asylum directors began to place them in wealthy families. The assumption was that the skills and values that these families transmitted would enable the children to transcend, as they reached adulthood, the impoverishment experienced in their birth families. But again, the more common experience was one of servitude to the family. This forced the asylum directors to turn to middle-class families, making no distinction between those families with or without children. Porter (2004) suggests that this be seen as a solution to their conflict between “empathy and opportunity.… The adopted child would be treated and educated like a member of the family” (p. 36). The child’s physical and emotional needs would be served, and her parents would consider themselves amply repaid by the pleasure of having a complete family. The specificity of the gendered pronoun is appropriate since “young, appealing and usually female” children were wanted. Asylum records of this period indicate that

the typical child left the asylum at age seven or eight, too old to be an adorable toddler but old enough to have a known character, young enough to benefit from a middle-class education but not too young to be helpful in the household. (p. 38)

Placement in a middle-class family, at least at this point in time, was an ideal not often achieved, although it would be in a later period. The children were more often than not adopted by relatives or nonrelatives of roughly the same class position. Porter (2004) has uncovered evidence to indicate that “20% of adopted children had negative family experiences,” which led asylum managers to conclude that adoption “could never replace the natural home” (p. 38). This position, given full expression in the Victorian ideology’s reverence for the family and shared by early-20th-century professional social workers, represents a tension in adoption discourse. The ideological assumption of the superiority of the biological family is a shadow haunting the valorization of the intentionally constructed family. This shadowing is conveyed through phrases that appear in the professional and academic literature related to types of families being constructed: “just like your own”; “better than nothing”; “the best or good enough”; and, in reference to adoption by single women during the Progressive Era, “left-over woman, left-over child.”

The Orphan Trains 1850: Placing Out

Great forces of social change swept the country in the mid-19th century. The economic shift from agrarian to factory production, urbanization, and large-scale immigration resulted in considerable increases in urban and rural poverty. Unstable work, crowded living conditions, and cultural, racial, and religious diversity posed a new array of problems never before confronted in modern cities. In response to the failure of informal social controls, reformers first turned to large-scale safety valves and institutions such as outdoor relief, public almshouses, and private orphanages to reduce the cost to the state. These institutions, intended to reform and educate paupers, were expensive and failed. Levels of poverty and child relinquishment were not abated. Some social reformers, influenced by child development theory, turned to “God’s orphanage”—that is, the family, emphasizing its “ability to produce at little expense sociable, independent, and industrious citizens” (Berebitsky, 2002, p. 5). The New York Children’s Aid Society (CAS), founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, a Baptist Minister, social worker, and author of the “Dangerous Classes of New York” (1872), was a leading force in a renewed movement toward home placement. During the next 40 years, Brace and his like-minded Protestant reformers placed out 84,000 children, transporting them on “orphan trains” from the eastern city slums to families in the Midwest, locations where labor was in short supply. The trains would stop en route and the children were put up on platforms for locals to see, a term still in use today in modern adoption language. Despite the fact that many of these children were not adopted, scholars point to the orphan trains as the impetus behind the nation’s first adoption statutes, which “(made) a public record of private adoption agreements (that were) analogous to recording a deed for a piece of land” (Berebitsky, 2002, p. 5).

Brace’s placing out program began shortly after the codification of the “best interests of the child” standard in the 1840s, which became the guide for child custody decisions. This welfare doctrine stipulated that young or sickly children be “placed out” in the custody of a woman, that older boys be placed in the custody of a man, that a child’s formed ties of affection be recognized, and that an older child’s wishes be taken into account when making a decision. These principles became embedded in the 1851 Massachusetts Adoption Act, the first adoption law in the country, which came to serve as a model for other states. The Massachusetts Adoption Act gave courts the power to sever legal bonds between biological parents and their children and gave judges the responsibility to determine whether adoptive parents were “fit and proper.” The Act made it legally possible for the state to create families. This new state power was reaffirmed in 1853 when the Pennsylvania Adoption Act mandated that “courts were to be satisfied that the welfare of such child will be promoted by such an adoption” (Carp, 2004, pp. 5-6). The opposition between the claims of birth parents and the state’s power to sever parental rights instituted in this period reverberate in the 1997 Social Welfare Reform legislation, which will be discussed below.

While Brace’s intentions may have been noble, his actions reflect a deep-seated classist and nativist framework that have functioned as a subtext in the history of adoption. As Pfeffer (2004) has noted, “Brace did not attempt to support the youngster’s natural families … instead, he preferred breaking up poor biological families to ‘save’ the children. Brace also didn’t investigate the receiving homes either before or after placement” (p. 102). The majority of the children Brace placed in Protestant homes were from Irish Catholic and other immigrant families. He distrusted immigrant culture, seeing in it patterns of behavior and expectation that led to impoverishment. As Gutman (1976) points out, this belief is similar to that held by the dominant culture in regard to the African American family immediately after emancipation; scholars such as Patton (2000) and Day (1979) argue that it is being played out in the contemporary debate as well. Brace was certain that exposure to the American work ethic, thought to be found only in Protestant families, would rescue the children from repeating the lives of their parents. He expected the children to receive care and moral instruction in return for their labor. As Berebitsky (2002) suggests, “Brace also hoped that the children would be treated as members of the family, a goal that was often achieved and, on a few occasions, legally formalized” (p. 42). The reality was that many of the children were not adoptable. Scholars report that at least half of those on the orphan trains, some taken without parental permission, had at least one living parent and either returned to their families or struck out on their own after their period of indenture was over (Berebitsky, 2002; Pfeffer, 2004).

It would be a mistake to understand Brace’s placing out model as simply grounded in the labor potential of children, however. His model incorporated a new cultural emphasis on “nurturing” as a mechanism for child development. Nurturing was held up as the corrective to biological deficiencies. Shifting theoretical and political evaluations of the potential and limits of both biology and nurture influence evolving adoption practices from this period on.

Response to Brace: Catholic and Jewish Agencies

Brace’s practice of placing children in Protestant homes engendered a quick response in the Catholic and Jewish communities and earned Brace a reputation as more of a child stealer than child saver. Each group, fearing the assimilation of their children, developed an alternative for taking care of the homeless children in their communities. Lay male Catholic activists, following the second wave of Irish immigration in 1848 and 1849, founded the Chicago conference of the St. Vincent DePaul Society in 1857. Supported by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent, this became the principal Catholic response. As Pfeffer (2004) notes, Catholics understood religion as

something more than an external value to children, but rather [as] an obligation basic to their nature. Committed to the basic principle that Catholic children placed for adoption could have their total needs met only in Catholic adoptive homes, in 1881 Catholics established a home for foundlings and pregnant, unmarried women and their infants, St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum. (p. 104)

Catholic families were sought for the children, but since many of the children were half orphans, and thus not adoptable, keeping the children in the institutions was a common occurrence. The staff, mostly nuns, took on the responsibility of religious training.

The Jewish community established local institutions with a focus on family services grounded in tradition. Pfeffer (2004) points out that while legal adoption did not exist in Jewish law, “The caring for a dependent child who does not have a biological relationship with one’s family, is very much a part of Jewish tradition” (p. 107). Jewish families were sought for first placement, but advocates of the homes also believed that institutional care was a practical necessity under difficult conditions existing at the time. Most children remained in the institutions. But by the mid-1890s, Jewish philanthropists, influenced by scientific studies attributing the high death rate of institutionalized infants to the “lack of mother’s milk and love,” established the Jewish Home Finding Society of Chicago. This organization was formed to help mothers keep their children at home while also arranging for adoptions when home care was not possible.

African Americans were another group experiencing severe economic hardship during this period. As Berebitsky (2002) and others have noted, as a marginalized group without a strong political or social voice during this time, African American communities tended to hold to the tradition of kinship care or “informal adoption” for orphaned and needy Black children, a custom that originated in Africa, continued and was adapted in slavery, and persists to this day. From its inception, then, adoption was a process typically involving the placement and selection of White infants and young children with White families. Records indicate that the “earliest known adoptions of Black children by Whites occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But these were very few” (Day, 1979, p. 92). Despite the historical practice of taking in distantly related or nonrelated children in the Black community, Black families have historically been excluded from consideration by adoption agencies seeking placement for children of any race. The racist attitudes motivating these patterns have been a persistent presence in the history of adoption. They would remain unchallenged as long as a supply of White infants and children was available.

Victorian Era (1850-1900)

The economic, political, and social shifts during the rise of industrialization had a tremendous impact on the development of the middle-class nuclear family. Husbands entered the labor market, while wives assumed responsibility in the domestic sphere. The cult of true womanhood established a maternal identity at the core of femininity. Families were centered on the emotional connection between members and sustained through the nurturing sustenance of women. The family became a private entity separated from the larger social community. This shift, especially the socially ascribed role of mother, had a tremendous impact on the future of adoption. The discourse in the field began to focus on the mother as biological caregiver, and attention was brought to bear on illegitimacy. The Catholic position, that unwed mothers keep their babies, was shared by other religiously affiliated service agencies. Salvation Army homes required prospective residents to sign a contract promising to keep their children (Berebitsky, 2002, p. 31). The ideological assumption was that women could be saved from moral depravity only through the assumption of their maternal role.

By the turn of the 20th century, professional social workers asserted increasing influence in child welfare agencies. “The casework method endeavored to help individuals adjust to their environment by attempting to treat each family or individual as a unique problem and discover the data pertinent to that particular family’s history” (Pfeffer, 2004, p. 108). In practice, this meant keeping poor families intact and unwed mothers and their children together. Child health was also reflected in this position as

the infant mortality rate of illegitimate children was almost three times that of children of legitimate birth … [K]eeping the child supplied with an abundance of mother’s milk proved the most effective way to lower the death rate. (Berebitsky, 2002, p. 32)

Interestingly, adopters were less concerned with the legitimacy of a potential child than were the caseworkers. Most children in public and private child welfare systems had at least one parent unknown to the agencies who was, thus, potentially able to reclaim his or her child. As we will see, this would be just one of the times when the interests of adopters and the policies of adoption professionals would come into conflict. Couples interested in adoption just wanted a child, but the position taken by social workers limited the number of available children. The conflict between social workers and families seeking adoption over the profession’s valorization of biological motherhood was reinforced in the culture at large. As Berebitsky (2002) reports,

The dominant culture’s idealization of mothers generally equated motherhood with biology, not nurturance. Because they had not given birth, adoptive mothers found themselves on the edges of the culture’s ideal … [A]doptive mothers (and their advocates) argued for a definition of motherhood that would legitimate their identity as real mothers … [T]hey made their claim by showing how their motherhood fit with tenets of the ideal that were not dependent on a blood tie or physical maternity. (p. 76)

In the first two decades of the century, adoptive mothers, possessing exceptional maternal instincts, were represented as rescuers of cast-off children. After 1920, representations highlighted the conscious choice adoptive mothers were making and thus their exceptional preparedness for motherhood. These constructions made room for the potential of single women to adopt, and some did for a brief period. The current acceptance of foster care and single-woman adoption is grounded in this logic. This logic moved the notion of the ideal mother beyond blood ties to those of care and commitment; it modified the notion of instinct. This shift in the ideology makes a connection between the role of woman/mother and her responsibility as a citizen. Native-born, middle-class women had a duty to raise their own children and also the children of mothers not up to the task. As noted in a story in the Delineator (see Berebitsky, 2002, p. 80), a popular magazine that featured a save-the-children campaign of the period, “Adoption was a means to Americanize children and maintain Anglo-Saxon values.” While motherhood was looked to as the means for producing the right kind of citizen, it also made women into the right kind of citizen. Another commentator in the Delineator wrote “that without a child to love, a woman could become a danger to society, her heart the ‘breeding place for dragons and other things unnatural.’”

Progressive Era: Save-the-Child Campaign (1900-1920)

The Delineator’s campaign was grounded in the social climate of the Progressive Era (1900-1920). The social and economic conditions resulting from industrialization had a tremendous negative impact on the poor, the massive numbers of recent immigrants, and African Americans. The conditions of their lives were perceived to be a threat to social order; their families were judged to be lacking in the skills and ambition that the changing American landscape required for success. This led to intervention strategies on both the public and private levels. The discourse on the family in this period was set by a 1909 White House conference at which President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed home care. His position reflected the belief, shared by many social reformers of the day, that the American family’s capacity to mold citizens was the highest achievement of civilization. “Both the future of the nation and the future of the species seemed to balance on the ability of native-born White women to raise children with middle-class standards of self-sufficiency, moral uprightness and Protestant sobriety” (Hart, 2004, p. 142). It was believed that the children of the poor could be saved only if severed from the corrupting influences of their families. Poor parents may have been guided by this belief as well. Adoption records of the period indicate that

men and women relinquished when adoption seemed the only way for their children to have decent lives. Women relinquished to spare children abuse, provide them protection, food and appropriate shelter. Men relinquished, so their children could receive consistent, caring female nurturing. Young women relinquished to avoid social sanctions against illegitimacy and hopeless poverty. (Hart, 2004, p. 145)

Scientific knowledge became a transcendent public discourse in the late 1920s and would become an avenue for positioning debate in future discussions of adoption. Science was offered as a corrective to the notion of maternal common sense. This added to the legitimacy of adoptive mothers; if biological mothers needed to be educated, physical birth no longer mattered. Although it seems logical that scientific mothering could be adopted by both married and single women, by this point in time, single women were no longer considered fit for motherhood. This represented a turnaround from thinking that prevailed only a few years earlier. Married women were favored because of their perceived celibacy and commitment to traditional gender roles in a nuclear family setting. A number of women reformers in the Progressive Era, motivated by personal and intellectual reasons, adopted children and raised them within support networks that included their female partners.

By 1930, public discourse had shifted; adoption by single women was framed as a challenge to the normative family. This reemphasis on the nuclear family was fueled by the increasing influence of psychoanalytic theory in social work practice, which emphasized the importance of fathers in children’s lives and the leadership role social workers assumed in agencies involved in adoption. Women’s sexuality came increasingly under scrutiny, and lesbianism, identified as deviant sexuality, was constituted as a danger to the healthy psychological development of children. The exclusion of single women from adoptions continued through the 1950s. While demand for children exceeded the supply, single women were seen as depriving married couples of the children they desired. Maternal status, once dependent simply on being a woman, now depended on occupying the combined roles of mother and wife. It has been argued that the exclusion of single women from adopting during this transitional era caused adoption to lose its potential to “radically expand the culture’s definition of the family” (Berebitsky, 2004, p. 127). We will have to wait and see if the gradual move in present-day adoption practices to allow for adoptions by single women and men and gay and lesbian couples will make a radical redefinition realizable.

Social Work Era (1930-1960)

The 1930s saw the highest point of voluntary childlessness among married couples in the United States. The economic collapse during the Depression led to an increase in the number of applicants to child placement agencies. Social workers instituted the practice of “matching” children and parents. They evaluated a child’s heredity through extensive background investigation and intelligence testing. Social workers asserted that they could find a child who “might have been born to you.” “Children could fit their adoptive homes in physical characteristics, intellectual capacities, temperament and religious and ethnic affiliation. The policy of matching assumed that this affinity would lead to easier assimilation” (Hart, 2004, p. 157). Social workers believed that this practice was in the best interest of the child as well as the family. They had a model of the best, most suitable family in mind, and, while single women were certain to be excluded, now certain heterosexual nuclear families were unfit as well. Parents had to prove their psychological fitness; their “natural desire” to have a child was scrutinized.

Social workers wanted adoptive homes in which husband and wife, according to the marital ideals of the time, enjoyed a healthy sex life, supported their partner’s dreams, and accepted their socially prescribed gender role. A strong marriage … provided the most solid basis for a successful adoption. (Hart, 2004, p. 152)

Infertility, long considered to be the purist motive for adoption in the culture at large, came under scrutiny as a possible “neurotic basis for childlessness.” The expertise of the social worker was relied on to assess whether a couple’s infertility was perhaps a result of the wife’s rejection of her ascribed feminine role. Since the intention of such careful matching was the creation of a nuclear family that would appear to be natural, it was essential that the woman be ready to fulfill her duties as a homemaker and mother. The practice of matching extended to older couples, who, while denied infants, were able to adopt older children. This practice would become particularly beneficial as the supply of available infants toward the conclusion of World War II began its decline.

The shortage of infants precipitated a change in the social evaluation of illegitimacy. Psychiatric social work redefined the White unwed mother as

neurotic and therefore unfit as a parent … [T]he experts maintained that illegitimacy had little to do with sex and much to do with psychological sickness. Social workers encouraged these “sick” unwed mothers to give their children up for adoption; in cases in which an unwed mother wished to keep her child, the encouragement could turn into coercion. (Hart, 2004, p. 154)

While this practice pitted the unwed White woman and her married, childless counterpart against each other, the potential for each of these women to reach the ideal of womanhood depended on the other. Each of them could become married with children. As Day (1979) has argued, unwed Black women, often turned away from private adoption agencies, were forced to turn to public agencies and the state-run foster care system. The supply of Black infants also was in decline, but since the image of the family social workers looked to for placement tended to be White, a supply of older Black children remained in the foster care system.

From the postwar period through the 1960s, adoption policies and practices developed in response to an unprecedented increase in requests for healthy White infants from infertile White, middle-class, heterosexual married couples (Ladner, 1977). This practice was rooted in an ideology that naturalized and normalized the state’s reproduction of White nuclear families. The practice rendered the sexual deviance of White unwed mothers and infertile White couples invisible. As a consequence, the system’s resources were devoted to the placement of healthy White babies, neglecting the placement of Black children. Despite claims that the system was “color-blind,” a racial ideology was nevertheless present. Patton (2000) points out that “Black women were often turned away from adoption agencies because there was no ‘market’ for their children” (p. 46).

The 1970s: Transracial Adoption

By the early 1970s, when there was no longer a supply of White babies, any aversion to race mixing had to be abandoned; transracial placements had to be made. Since the number of White children placed in Black homes during this period was negligible, transracial adoption then and now must be seen as the adoption of Black children by White families. While there may have been initial reluctance on the part of social workers to transracial placements, a number of factors led to the increasing reliance on it. Critics such as Patton (2000) and her colleagues have characterized this practice as “an extension of the White man’s burden of civilizing the [impoverished urban] native” (p. 5). The tensions surrounding the practice have come to dominate the terrain of adoption ever since. It seems that “when it comes to transracial adoption,” argues Patton (2000), “questions of socialization and race are inseparable” (p. 159).

Scholars point to several primary reasons to explain the decreased supply of babies that began in the 1970s, including the legalization of abortion, a shift in cultural attitudes toward illegitimacy, the increasing use of contraception, later onset of marriage, and the modern view of “woman” in greater control of her own body and destiny. The effects of the shift to more open thinking about legitimacy would be gradual, but the result was inevitable; more single women began keeping their babies. Although the supply of White babies was most affected, the number of Black babies diminished as well. Older Black children, however, were still in abundant supply. Day (1979), relying on data reported by the Child Welfare League of America, found that,

in 1969, shortly before the change in the legal status of abortion, a survey of 240 adoption agencies revealed there were only 39 non-White homes approved for every 100 non-White children … In 1975, a smaller survey … showed an improvement … [T]here were 85 Black homes approved for every 100 Black children reported as needing adoptive placement… [I]n 1975, a total of 57 agencies accepted for adoption 533 Black children for whom they did not find adoptive homes. (p. 5)

Black children were increasingly adopted by White adults, and transracial families became much more prevalent across America.

Black Social Worker Response to Transracial Adoption

The number of transracial adoptions from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s is estimated at 15,000 (Day, 1979). The parents and professionals in support of these adoptions saw them as promoting color blindness, but critics claimed they were a form of cultural genocide. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) took the following position:

Black children should be placed only with Black families whether in foster care or for adoption. Black children belong physically, psychologically and culturally in Black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future. Human beings are products of their environment and develop their sense of values, attitudes, and self-concept within their own family structures. Black children in White homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as Black people. (Day, 1979, p. 98)

A heated public debate ensued. The central questions for Black social workers at this time were whether White parents were capable of providing the foundations of African American culture and history or instilling in their Black children the survival skills necessary in a racially divided and unequal nation. The protest by the association was motivated by a concern for the futures of Black children as well as a desire to strengthen the Black family. But at the same time, it was a protest against “state-sanctioned regulations determining which families African American children would become part of, and thus be socialized by” (Patton, 2000, p. 3). Critics of the association’s position argued that it would negatively affect Black children in the system, denying them loving homes.

National survey data from this period raise questions regarding the active search for Black families for the children in the system. Surveys in 1973 and 1974 found that Black children accounted for about 20% of all children adopted and 40% of all children waiting for adoption (Day, 1979). The evidence does seem to indicate that Black families, even when willing to adopt, were discouraged by adoption agencies. Despite the body of literature written by social work practitioners involved in Black adoptions, agencies relied on studies indicating that the Black middle class either wasn’t interested in adoption or did not adopt, but because the number of Black middle-class families was small, there was little impact on the number of children in need. In her comparative study of adoption agencies, Day (1979) identified a number of practices that discouraged Black families from adopting. These included the following: (1) The White middle-class standard of a working father and stay-at-home mother used by many agencies denied the economic reality of stable working-class Black families looking to adopt, (2) the failure to have evening hours and the insistence on a home visit during the day denied this reality as well, and (3) communication problems between the social worker and the client also negatively affected the agency’s decision to place children with Black families. Moreover, family placement professionals judged parenting capacity by the applicants’ ability to “stick it out” through a difficult adoption process. The tendency on the part of Black families to not persist because they were discouraged was interpreted negatively by the social workers, and, as such, they would often turn instead to those who were seen as more persistent and, by extension, more suited to care for children—that is, White parents.

Implicit in the position taken by the NABSW is the understanding that the welfare system socially constructs the family and identity of adoptees. Given the evidence that Black families were being discouraged by adoption agencies, and the historical failure to place White children with Black families, their concern had merit. It echoes in today’s public discourse as well.

Public discourse has typically asked: Should White parents be allowed to adopt Black children? In light of the intersecting issues of gender, poverty, and race we must broaden the question now to ask: How do so many Black children become (placed in foster care) and available for adoption? (Patton, 2000, p. 17)

Social Welfare Reform of the 1990s

By this time, most of the children in the public child welfare system had been removed from low-income families. Poor families, already involved in the social welfare system and possessing attributes that Solinger has defined as “social demerits,” are subjected to more scrutiny and, thus, are more vulnerable to charges of abuse or neglect (Patton, 2000, p. 122). Many of these families are headed by single Black mothers. Long a subject of public and intellectual discourse, the single Black mother and her children have been viewed as a threat to social order (Moynihan, 1965). Federal welfare reform policies instituted in this period must be seen as a corrective response to this perceived threat.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (welfare reform) and the Small Business Job Protection Act (minimum wage law) signed by President Clinton in 1996 were intended to address this threat. Together, they provide a modern framework for the regulation of the reproductive capacity of poor women and the socialization of their children as productive citizens. The welfare reform legislation

placed a five year limit on benefits, required able-bodied adults to work after two years, required minors to be enrolled in school and living at home or with a responsible adult, required unwed mothers to cooperate in identifying paternity, disallowed support to anyone convicted of a felony drug charge, and denied benefits to legal immigrants. (Patton, 2000, p. 161)

The minimum wage law provided a $5,000 to $6,000 tax credit to families that adopt, removed all restrictions on transracial placements, and prohibited the use of race in considering child placement in adoption. The 1995 draft of the Personal Responsibility Act included a provision for removing restrictions on transracial adoption. That it was contained in a section called “Reducing Illegitimacy” demonstrates what the real threat was perceived to be. The section enumerated a long list of “negative consequences of out-of-wedlock birth on the mother, the child, the family and society.” It included the following statements: “Children of teenage single parents have lower cognitive scores, lower educational aspirations and a greater likelihood of becoming teenage parents themselves. Areas with higher percentages of single-parent households have higher rates of violent crime” (see Patton, 2000, p. 23). The underlying logic motivating the adoption trains of the 1850s is in play here as well. Poor families, incapable of taking care of their children, relinquish their responsibility to the state, in this case the foster care system. Welfare reform and transracial adoption were intended to remedy the state’s growing foster care burden.

Public discourse of the 1990s, grounded in empirical evidence, suggested that Black children remained in foster care because of institutionalized racist policies that opposed racial mixing. Debate centered on comments suggesting that while Black families were not seeking to adopt, White families were both willing and able. Interracial adoptions were depicted in positive terms; the suggestion that children could be deprived of their culture was dismissed. A longitudinal study conducted by Simon and Alstein (see Patton, 2000, p. 142) was used to support the conclusion that transracial adoptees were well-adjusted. There was little discussion of the impact on mothers whose children were being permanently taken from them. Instead, the discourse promoted “color-blind” transracial adoptions as the solution to problems in the child welfare system.

Social critics, not necessarily opposed to transracial adoptions, have insisted that “colorblind” policies are implicated in racist ideology and practices. Barbara Katz Rothman (2005), in her recent autoethnography, describes her experience raising her adopted Black daughter, acknowledging that

I profit from American racism … [W]e have enough racism so that it is Black babies and children that disproportionately are up for adoption, and White families that disproportionately have the wherewithal to adopt—and enough racism that it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which a Black family would/could adopt a White baby. (p. 10)

Arguments in favor of the welfare reform policies, such as the one made by Batholet (see Patton, 2000, p. 143), “promote a narrative of Black family pathology and White family values.” Black children, failed by their families, need White families to save them.

It is too early to know if current policies will have their intended effect and reduce the number of Black children lumped into a category of “special need” foster care, many of whom have not been adopted because of the intersection of race, age, disability, and status as a member of a sibling group. Those who have been in the system for a number of years are likely to have been placed in a number of different foster homes. There is ample evidence that these are the conditions that lead to social and emotional problems and deviancy and contribute to a cycle of poverty (Day, 1979). Federal policy outlined by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, mandating the speedy removal of children and terminating parental rights after a little more than 1 year of temporary placement in the foster care system, is more likely to increase the supply of babies and young children who have always been more readily adopted. Critics of the new federal policy raise questions about the control it places on poor and Black women’s bodies and the shift in economic costs from the state to individual families.

A lot of what adoption is about is poverty; a lack of access to contraception and abortion, a lack of access to the resources to raise children. And a lot of what poverty is about in America is racism. It’s not just that people of color are more likely to be poor. It’s also that poor people of color lack the resources to overcome racial discrimination, find themselves powerless before the state. Race and poverty play out together to push/pull Black children out of Black homes. (Rothman, 2005, p. 18)

Further Comment on Transracial Families

Scholars and practitioners have made suggestions regarding the screening of White applicants when considering the placement of Black children. Joyce Ladner (1977) suggested in a study of transracial adoption that

only those parents who are able to accept and live with differences should be allowed to adopt. Agencies should reject any would-be parent who engages in denial involving the child’s color, hair texture, biological parentage, or any overt or latent characteristic. (p. 113)

A Black child should be the couple’s first choice, not settled on when a White child is unavailable. It’s preferable if they live in an integrated neighborhood; their child won’t bear the added burden of being the lone Black. Ladner (1977) cautions that “the adoption should not be done to prove a point, such as demonstrate independence from the parents’ families, the couple’s liberalism, or whatever” (p. 245). Patton’s more recent study (2000) of transracial adoptees suggests that families should “be conscientious about exposing their children to their cultural patterns of origin” (p. 13). She found that both international and Black adoptees felt compelled as adults to explore their cultural origins. Ladner’s observation that for many White families, adopting Black children was “an expression of their commitment to the philosophy of the ‘brotherhood of man’” (p. 92), is echoed in Rothman’s observation that transracial adoption reflects a vision of the world. “Taking a child marked as one thing and raising it in a family marked as another, is to weave together the two communities” (p. 150). She emphasizes that “the deepest connections are created, not born… the deepest human connections are formed in mundane acts… in the work of nurturance” (p. 136).

Despite the repeated scholarly finding that “within Black civil society, notions of interpersonal relations forged during slavery endured—such as equating family with extended family, of treating community as family” (Collins, 2000, p. 53), Black families have largely been ignored by adoption agencies. Ladner (1977) is just one of the scholars to observe that “a narrowly drawn White, middle-class, Christian, suburban, nuclear family came to be seen as the ideal and only ‘legitimate’ form of family” (p. 56). Challenges to this ideological construct emanated from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In some cases, federal funds were used to set up programs intended to involve Black families in the formal adoption process. One of the most successful programs, Homes for Black Children in Detroit, can be looked to as a model. Recognizing the economic reality of most Black families, the “question of whether a couple is financially able to care for a child (was) based on how that family use(d) its resources” (Day, 1979, p. 124). Some children were placed in families where the parents had grade school educations, and recognizing employment patterns determined by a stratified labor market, including the employment of Black women, frequent changes in jobs by Black men were not taken as an indication of instability. Yet the following observation by Rothman (2005) deserves consideration:

As much as the Black community stands with open arms, absorbing as many of those babies and children it can, the same poverty that pushes all those babies and children into the adoption stream ensures that there won’t be enough Black homes to take them all. (p. 18)

Current welfare reform policies look to encourage permanent adoption of those children already in foster care while at the same time only guaranteeing that those numbers will increase. The likely increase in the pattern of Black children being adopted into White families as the model for “color-blind” placement replicates as well as challenges racist practices that have long existed throughout the history of adoption in America.

Additional Sociological Observations: International and Gay and Lesbian Adoptions

International Adoption

Families formed by adopting from outside U.S. borders clearly challenge the hegemonic notion that biological ties make a family. Occasionally, these families are distinctly interracial in the American sense of Black and White; more often the families are multicultural. Race morphs into culture or ethnicity and the children have an “almost Whiteness” appearance. The first international adoptions began immediately after World War II and involved Japanese children. Korean and Vietnamese children were adopted following those wars, although the numbers of Vietnamese children have since declined. It seems that Americans turn most often to countries of eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean for adoptable children. Rothman (2005) suggests that “it is not only the availability and almost-Whiteness of the children that draws Americans to international adoption, it is also the almost complete erasure of the mother” (p. 46). There has always been a preference for infants on the part of White adoptive families; international adoptions make this preference realizable. And while the language of market consumption could and has been used to describe international adoption practices, the families that form themselves convey an ethos of value. In some cases, baby girls in China being the most obvious, the children being adopted are devalued in their countries of origin; here they are cherished and loved.

Gay and Lesbian Adoption

Single women have always figured in the history of adoption. Some of these women were then, as many are today, lesbians who did not reveal their sexual identity; their challenge to the heteronormative nuclear family was private. A more vocal and public challenge is being made by today’s lesbian and gay movement. Same-sex couples create legally viable two-parent families through adoption. But as Dalton (2001) notes,

The adoption system … has a long history of dividing adoption petitioners into two mutually exclusive categories: married couples and single individuals. Within this system, married couples create two-parent families by adopting children jointly, while single adults create single-parent families by adopting individually. (p. 205)

There is no provision in the legal tradition’s adoption model for unmarried couples to adopt a child jointly. This has led gay and lesbian couples to turn to what has been labeled “second-parent” adoptions. This procedure allows a parent to extend his or her parental right to another adult. It was intended for heterosexual couples raising children from previous marriages and requires that the biological mother or father relinquish his or her rights. Gay men and women seeking to adopt their partners’ children from previous heterosexual marriages have not met with much success going this route. More successful arguments have been made via discourse over what is ultimately in the best interest of the child—permanent placement into a loving nontraditional family or continued limbo and aging out in foster arrangements. The use of second-parent adoptions as a legal challenge is more likely if the child is conceived outside the context of heterosexuality (artificial insemination, sperm bank). It requires that the couple convince the court that the proposed adoption is both in the best interest of their child and permissible under that state’s law. As Bernstein and Reimann (2001) report, the economic level of the couple, in those cases that have been favorably disposed, is the most important determinant of the outcome (p. 435). While this legal strategy exists in principal, the practice is limited. About half the states as of this writing have ruled against second-parent adoptions by homosexual couples (Bushlow, 2004). It is reasonable to conclude that, at this time, despite some change, the middle-class heterosexual nuclear family is still the normative model privileged in legal adoption practices. Yet the challenge gay families present, no matter how they are formed, to the heterosexual, nuclear norm is unmistakable.


Sociological analysis is intended to reveal the general tendencies and contradictions surrounding a social practice. The above discussion has identified a number of dichotomies inherent in the historical development of adoption such as blood ties/bonds of caring, ideal mother/loving woman, married couple/single person, heterosexual family/gay family, color-blind/nativist. These dichotomies inform present-day adoption practices just as they have done for previous generations. The struggle to define the family and the best interests of children goes on. Ordinary people in their everyday lives make the struggle. Prospective adoptive families have continuously struggled to get the children they want; ultimately these are the people defining what a family is. To say that structural racism has influenced adoption policies and practices does not mean that families seeking specific children are racist. Most remain, as they always have been, motivated by their desire to have and raise a child, often initially one who resembles themselves. One of the defining characteristics of the adoption revolution, exclaims Pertman (2000), is “the realization of the truth” (p. 71). Whether adoption is domestic interracial, international transracial, or by a gay parent, the messages of tolerance and acceptance are coming through loud and clear and adoption is leading the charge. Some might say that adoption is itself cracking the walls of prejudice and providing a living history lesson to be learned and shared. We hope so. Lessons learned from these experiences can and should be used as guides for all families and all persons wishing to create a family of their own.

Reflection Questions

  1. What impact did the Industrial Revolution have on the family and, by extension, on the attitudes toward adoption and adoption practices in the United States?
  2. What were the concerns of the religious community and their responses to Brace’s orphan trains?
  3. Prior to the 1960s, the number of White babies available for adoption was significantly larger than it is today. What social forces may help to account for the drop in adoptable White infants over the past 40 years?
  4. What concerns do members of the African American professional community have about non-Black families adopting African American children?