Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Adoption and Family Research
Adoption creates a dilemma for someone who wants to learn more about their ancestry. While an adoptee can research their adopted family this will only provide background for their upbringing and the situation in which they were raised. Who we are as adults is the product of environment and heredity; knowledge of genetic tendencies and inherited diseases is perhaps most important.
Historically, adoptions are difficult to document prior to the mid 1800s as there were no formal adoption laws. In colonial days orphaned children were often indentured as early as two or three years of age as servants or to learn a trade. When a child lost both parents or an existing parent was unable to care for him/her, the child might be taken in by relatives or neighbors. City or county-run orphanages were sometimes available to keep homeless children off the streets.
If a baby was unwanted it might be given to a friend or relative who was willing to take and raise the child. In many cases an illegitimate child was raised by grandparents or an older sibling who would cover the illegitimacy by absorbing the child into their own family. My great, great grandfather’s niece had a baby at the age of 16. Her parents already had 15 children but they raised the child as their son. In 1899 he was the one to whom they deeded their farm in exchange for his promise to care for them in their old age.
In the mid 1800s, charitable organizations and governmental social agencies began to form to find homes for orphaned children. States became interested in controlling the practice and began legislating controls on the adoption procedure. Those interested in child welfare soon became concerned about harsh discipline and rigid rules in institutions, and the failure to address the interest of the children.
Adoption statutes were first passed in Mississippi in 1846 and in Texas in 1850. A law passed in 1851 in Massachusetts became a model emphasizing "best interest of the child" with a judge required to determine whether the adopting couple were "fit and proper." Girls were traditionally easier to place than boys, and early adoptions often favored middle class parents with no children of their own.
In the 1930s, Illinois became the first state to legislate secrecy in adoption, issuing a new birth certificate in the child’s adoptive name and sealing the original birth record so details of the birth would never be divulged. Forty-four states had revised or created new laws by 1937 making it nearly impossible for an adoptee to ever locate his birth parents. At the same time, baby mills charged exorbitant rates and exploited both the prospective parents and the birth parents. Children who were disabled or considered "feeble minded" were excluded from adoption.
Between 1937 and 1945 adoptions tripled and by 1965 they had increased ninefold. With more demand for children, agencies became more selective making it difficult for some unfortunate couples to ever obtain a baby whether due to insufficient income, health problems, or their age. Parents wanted a "perfect" child and the agencies wanted "perfect" parents.
In recent years, abortion laws have resulted in a shortage of adoptable children and led to many adoptions of foreign children, formerly forbidden by agencies that required the child and parents to be of similar race, ethnic and religious background. The next article will discuss the recent movement toward adoption reform and increased rights for adoptees.
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