The History of Adoption – How Did the Practice Start?

I surfed a bunch of sites and called an adoption resource line to research how the actual practice of adoption even started. I thought it began in the olden days between extended families very casually, but that’s only one part of the history of adoption. How did families and neighbors begin taking each others’ children?

Ancient adoptions can be traced back to the Roman Empire where wealthy, aristocratic families without male heirs would adopt older boys or men from within their community, extended family or local village in order to continue the family lineage and name.

Adoption declined during the Middle Ages when pure bloodlines became more important for inheritance and land owners.

Until the 1850s, informal adoptions — from family to family — would take in the occasional orphaned neighbor child. As informal adoptions increased, the need for legalizing the process became law.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, a protestant minister who founded the Children’s Aid Society of New York, conceived the idea to relocate and find homes for orphans from the Civil War. Some documents claim that orphaned and adopted kids ended up as servants or worse but the era after the war shaped America’s foster care system.

Through the 20th century, states passed adoption legislation to protect and serve orphans. President Theodore Roosevelt recommended moving away from institutional orphanages and placing children in family homes.

From closed adoption in the 1940s and 1950s, gradually the industry has progressed to more “open adoptions” without the stigma for birth mothers.

Adoptions reached their highest point in 1970, and have leveled off.

In the last two decades, international adoption is popular too, providing homes to children that have been orphaned by war, disease and global poverty.

Read more about The History of Adoption,  and tell me your adoption story in Comments below.

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Back To The Adoption Diaries, by Nicole Dorsey-Straff
  1. by Michelle @ Bridge Communications

    On July 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I know this is a brief article about adoption in America but missed adoption history of people “of color”. I certianly hope it was not intentional.:

    1) informal adoptions in the African-American community for 200 plus years due to the slavery system of kids being sold off (or parents sold off) and other AA adults raising AA children due to the lack of respect of family. [ referring to your paragraph up until the 1850s] And BTW, AA informal adoptions went long after slavery (who had money for a court process? given Jim Crow etc… ) In fact, I still see informal adoptions in the AA community as well as many formal ones.

    2. Missed the whole orphan train adoption schemes in the early 1900s.

    3. There is also the history of Native American adoptions and why ICWA ( Indian Child Welfare Act) was inacted in 1978.

    4. International adoption and war babies (especially by American GIs) which started in/after WWII with Italian baby adoptions and the Brown babies from Germany and then increased with both the Korean war and the Vietnam war with Korean and Vietnamese babies. In particular Korea has been a receiving source of babies by Americans long before the last 2 decades of internatioanl adoption.