The First Adoption Laws

Beginning in the mid -1800’s, the American court system began to understand the importance of nurturing children.  Legal terminations of parental rights were taking place, and it became evident that a formal legal process was needed for adoptions.

In 1851, the first adoption statute in the U.S. was enacted in Massachusetts. Called the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, it was the first “modern” adoption law.  This statute recognized the welfare of the child as opposed to the interests of the adults.  It mandated that judges establish that a birth parent or guardian give consent for a child to be adopted, that the proposed parents had “sufficient ability to bring up the child,” and if it was “fit and proper that such adoption should take effect.”  Determining these factors was left to the discretion of the judge, with no real restrictions or protections in place, which left room for biases and personal interpretations.

In 1891, Michigan became the first state to enact a statute that required the judge to find that they were “satisfied as to the good moral character, and the ability to support and educate such child, and of the suitableness of the home, or the person or persons adopting such child.”  The shift from the interests of the parents to the needs and best interest of the child were hugely significant in child welfare practice. Laws and practices were not perfect, however the idea of the best interest of the child was greatly impacted by biases of people in positions of power.  Children of black or poor families were much more susceptible to removal from their families without the consent of their parents.

By the late 1800’s many states began paying for placing children into families rather than institutions or orphanages.  In 1869, the Massachusetts Board of State Charities appointed representatives to visit children in these homes once they were placed, and the St. Vincent De Paul Society founded the Catholic Home Bureau in New York, the first Catholic agency that placed children into families instead of orphanages.  These placement practices soon spread to other states.