Understanding adoption

June 30th, 2020

Adoption overview 

Our modern conception of adoption is much different from the way it originated in ancient times. During the Roman Empire, wealthy families without male heirs might adopt sons in order to continue their lineage. In fact, several Roman emperors, including Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, were adopted. In the Middle Ages, bloodlines became paramount in matters of inheritance, and adoption declined. 

In the United States, Massachusetts passed the first adoption statute in 1851. This statute required a judge sign off on the adoption, thus ending more informal adoptions where a relative or some other interested party would simply take in a child who had been orphaned without legal or government involvement. During the second half of the 19th century, the Civil War and increased immigration led to an explosion of orphans in East Coast cities. Charles Loring Brace came up with the idea to transport these orphans to the Midwest on trains. Between 1859 and 1929, over 200,000 children traveled on the “Orphan Trains,” which ushered in the first foster care system. 

In the early 20th century, most adoptions were closed adoptions, where the identities of both the adoptive parents and birth parents were kept a secret. This helped avoid the stigma of illegitimacy and was thought to help the family bond. 

Since the 1970s, open adoptions, where both parties are known to each other, began to be more accepted, and today these make up between 60 to 70% of adoptions. International adoptions and private adoptions, where prospective parents contact individuals through advertisements, lawyers or other professionals, have risen in popularity since the late twentieth century. According to the Adoption Network, there are currently 1.5 million adopted children in the United States. Every year, 140,000 children are adopted, and nearly 100 million people have someone in their immediate family who has been adopted. Whether as birth parents, adoptive parents, siblings or adoptees, adoption touches a large number of families, many of whom are present in our churches.

Adoption procedure 

At present, the most common kind of adoption is relative adoption, or adoption by someone related to the child by blood or marriage. This includes both adoption by a stepparent, where someone becomes the legal parent of their spouse’s child, or grandparent adoptions. Of those children who are adopted by someone who is not their relative, more than half (59%) come out of the child welfare or foster care system, a quarter (26%) come from other countries, and 15% are voluntarily relinquished. 

Families considering adopting must be prepared for a long, slow and frequently expensive process. Typically, the least expensive option is to adopt from foster care, though the process differs between states. Families often undergo the full licensing and approval process that allows them to foster children before being able to adopt. While babies can be adopted from foster care, most of the children are older with a median age of eight years old. 

Outside of foster care, licensed private adoption agencies, which adhere to state standards and oversight, can help facilitate an adoption. Alternatively, families can try an independent adoption or adopting through an unlicensed adoption agency. Going this route may mean more of a financial, emotional and legal risk for both adoptive and birth families. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of people taking advantage of a couple’s desire for a child to line their own pockets. Recently, an Arizona man who operated an adoption law firm was federally indicted on smuggling, money laundering and visa fraud charges while linking pregnant women from the Marshall Islands with American families seeking to adopt. 

Due to the visibility of many celebrities who adopted children internationally, some families may be drawn to this option. Before safeguards were put in place, international adoptions were too often coercive and unsafe. In 2008, the United States ratified the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, which was enacted to safeguard children and families involved in these adoptions. The agreement requires home studies, parent training and accreditation for adoption services. Since the Hague Convention, international adoptions have become more restrictive and the numbers have declined. In 2018, most international adoptions were from China, India, Colombia, South Korea and Haiti.

Complicating the adoption narrative 

Adoption is often presented as a solution to a host of complex issues, from being an alternative to abortion to helping those who are unable to have biological children to providing an outlet for expanding the foster care system. On the surface, this makes sense. Experts, however, consider the experience of separation from birth parents, even as an infant, to be a form of trauma. Ultimately, even in the most loving and caring scenario, there is no adoption without separation and loss. Paying attention to this more complicated narrative can help adoptive families adjust and heal without feeling like their struggles are abnormal or shameful. Children adopted out of the child welfare or foster care system have often experienced other trauma in addition to the separation from their birth parents. Early traumas also have long-term effects on one’s physical and psychological health that often manifest in behavioral problems. 

The history of adoption shows us that even the best of intentions can cause harm. For example, adoptive parents of international or mixed race adoptees in the later 20th century were urged to raise their children in a “colorblind” fashion, while currently, adoptive parents are urged to familiarize themselves with their child’s birth culture, country and language. While most adoptive parents are white, most adoptees are children of color. We must be mindful and attentive to the ways in which eugenics, white supremacy and colonialism manifest in discussions and practices surrounding adoption. 

Christianity is particularly concerned with the weak and vulnerable, and there is little more vulnerable than a child who is available for adoption. However, keeping the balance between regulations that protect everyone involved while also striving to swiftly place children in loving homes is tricky. Christians should support and encourage adoption and adoptive families while being aware of some of the complications, trauma and ethical issues surrounding adoption. While adoptive families are no different from birth families in many ways, they may need more nurturing and deliberative care from their faith community.

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