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Adoption Throughout the Ages

The More Recent Past

In the early 1900’s other major changes affecting the welfare of children took place such as the establishment of juvenile court systems in many states, the organization of the National Child Labor Committee, and the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. This conference consisted of 200 child welfare advocates who focused on improving child welfare practices for dependent children and was organized by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.  Child placement issues that were discussed included that removing children from their birth families should not be based solely on a family’s poverty.  When children did need to be removed from their birth homes, they should be placed into other families not into orphanages.  This meeting led to a series of White House conferences that focused on the needs of the nation’s children.

The idea that the U.S. should have a way of protecting and providing for the needs of its children was discussed with President Roosevelt in the early 1900’s.  After much lobbying and political debate, and the White House Conference, the Congress passed the bill to create the Children’s Bureau, which had the sole focus of making the lives of children and families better.

In 1915, the Bureau for Exchange of Information Among Child-Helping Organizations was founded.  It was renamed the Child Welfare League of America, CWLA, in 1921.  The organization was comprised of about 70 child service groups that worked collaboratively to address the needs of the nation’s children.  As the U.S.’s oldest child welfare organization, one of the founding principles of CWLA was to establish national standards in child welfare.  In the 1930’s they instituted minimum standards for both adoptive and foster care placements.  Today, the Child Welfare League of America includes hundreds of child service groups, both public and private, and is hugely influential in positively impacting the lives of children.  Other reforms to the child welfare system also took place at this time that included requiring investigations into homes before a child was placed, policies about confidentiality, and inheritances after adoptions.

In this era, the physical characteristics and religion of a family were the foremost factors considered for matching a child for adoption.  If the infant had blonde hair at birth and the waiting family was brunette, another, blonde waiting family would likely be chosen for the child.  The thinking was that the interests of all were best served if the child looked like the adoptive parents and came from the same religious background so the adoption was basically undetectable.  The identities of the birth and adoptive parents were kept secret.  Here, the thinking was that the child and new parents would both better bond and avoid the stigmas of illegitimacy and infertility.  As fewer infants were available for adoption, families were screened out through these matching processes.  At the same time African-American or biracial children were also matched based on their physical characteristics.  Transracial adoption was considered impossible by most people.  Instead, very few African American adoptions occurred.  The philosophy behind this discriminative practice was a belief that African Americans would take care of their own children through relatives and a system of kin as they had for ages so formal adoption practices were not needed for them.

In the early 1900’s “baby farms” and advertising for them became more prevalent.  The term baby farming refers to placing an infant outside of the home for a fee to the child care provider; other times it referred to fostering children or adopting children for profit.  This placing out of an infant was usually done by birth mothers so they could work, although some upper class birth mothers also followed this practice.  Conceptually, it was similar to daycare or a foster home, where care was provided for children, including wet-nursing infants.  Baby farming had a very bad reputation because some of the paid providers were very abusive and neglectful and cared for many children together causing the spread of diseases.  Sometimes this led to the death of children, and some providers even murdered infants for personal economic gains.

At times the practice involved the sale of infants as well.  No regulations forbid the practice, no standards existed for the care providers, and no screening process existed for prospective adoptive parents. Some doctors and midwives in commercial maternity homes sold infants for profit.  Credible adoption agencies began to change their own policies so they could compete with this black market approach to adoption.  Advertising campaigns were investigated, as were the adoption practices within the maternity homes and baby farms.  These investigations and those of the orphan train movement, helped child welfare advocates gain support to establish standards and regulations for child care, adoption and foster care.

When children did need to be removed from their families, practice was shifting to using foster homes instead of institutions.  More services, including government aid to mothers, were provided so families could keep their children.  The priority was shifting to having educated welfare professionals actively working in both urban and rural areas.  States began establishing standards whenever foster care and adoptive homes were needed.  By the 1930’s almost every state required an investigation before finalizing an adoption, although these requirements varied.  Orphanages were opened after the Great Depression and were often so full that children had to share beds.  As the need for orphanages decreased because children remained with their families or were placed into foster homes, the number of orphanages finally began to drastically decline.

As the child’s welfare became the focus in adoptions, children were now seen as innocent, defenseless and needing parents to raise them with love and nurturing.  The Social Security Act of 1935 provided money for formal adoptions, which greatly influenced the rate at which relative adoptions were formalized.  The number of adoptions by non-relatives also increased, which was viewed positively by child welfare workers who had advocated for establishing regulations and minimum standards within the welfare system for years.  Even so, adoptions were still mainly completed through private adoption courts without involving the child welfare system, as most children in foster care were considered unadoptable and long term placement was the main practice.