By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
November 21 marks National Adoption Day, and the month of November is National Adoption Month in the United States. President Gerald Ford was the first to institute a national adoption week to raise awareness about adoption, and in 1990 the week was extended to a month.
The first adoption laws weren't instituted in the United States until the 1850s; prior to that, adoptions were largely informal and no adoption records were kept. If a parent (or both parents) died or became too ill to care for their children, they would be sent to live with relatives without any kind of legal arrangement. In 1851 Massachusetts passed the Adoption of Children Act, which represents the first modern adoption statute.
The 1850s and 1860s marked the beginning of a movement to place orphans and children of destitute parents in families, rather than in institutions such as orphanages and poorhouses. This movement continued into the twentieth century, but not without problems. Some parents who chose to place their children with adoption agencies were driven to this by desperation, but in other cases the agencies were corrupt and gave parents no choice. In Memphis, the Tennessee Children's Home Society was one such corrupt agency. The Home Society was run by Georgia Tann, a social worker who forcibly removed thousands of children from the homes of poor families and "placed" them in the houses of wealthy families for exorbitant prices. In her position as a social worker, Tann took children from their homes without consent of their parents; in many cases, she raided hospitals and seized newborn infants from poor unwed mothers who had just given birth. Tann would then adopt these children out to other families and tell the birth parents that the children had died. Tann pocketed huge profits and bought the silence of law officials and Memphis family court judge Camille Kelley. Because of this, and because the Home Society destroyed all records of the children they placed, parents were powerless to track down and recover their children.
Tann also used her money and influence to lobby for adoption confidentiality laws. As a result, laws were passed in Tennessee to seal adoption records. States across the nation followed suit and passed similar statutes. The concern for privacy was cited as the reason for confidentiality, but the result was that these secrecy laws facilitated the dishonest practices of Tann and others like her.
This kind of secrecy and the sealing of records is the greatest challenge facing researchers of their birth families today. Confidentiality laws meant that when a child was adopted, the state would produce a new, amended birth certificate for him or her listing the names of the adoptive parents. The original birth certificate listing the birth mother's name would be sealed. In some states adoption privacy laws were so strict that adult adoptees could not even view their own adoption records to learn about their birth families. This means that in some cases hospital records are the only available records for adoptees to learn about their birth parents, if the records still exist.
Fortunately, the secrecy is slowly coming to an end. In the 1970s in New York, adoptee Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association; more and more adoptees began demanding access to records. Their lobbying efforts have met with success in some states. Notably, Ballot Measure 58 was passed in Oregon in 1998, making state adoption records open to adult adoptees.
Today open adoptions are becoming increasingly common, and the face of adoption is changing. An increasing number of adoptions are international, and more and more families are multiracial. A significant number of adoptions now are a result of divorce and remarriage; today many adoptees are children being legally adopted by their stepparents.