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Adoption History

1851 Massachusetts passed the first modern adoption law, recognizing adoption as a social and legal operation based on child welfare rather than adult interests. Historians consider the 1851 Adoption of Children Act an important turning point because it directed judges to ensure that adoption decrees were “fit and proper.” How this determination was to be made was left entirely to judicial discretion.

1854 New York Children’s Aid Society, under the direction of reformer Charles Loring Brace, launched the orphan trains.


1868 Massachusetts Board of State Charities began paying for children to board in private family homes: in 1869, an agent was appointed to visit children in their homes. This was the beginning of placing-out, a movement to care for children in families rather than institutions.

1872 New York State Charities Aid Association was organized. It was one of the first organizations in the country to establish a specialized child-placement program, in 1898. By 1922, homes for more than 3300 children had been found. The first major outcome study, How Foster Children Turn Out (1924), was based on the work of this agency.


1891 Michigan was the first state to require that “the [the judge] shall be 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.”

1898 The Catholic Home Bureau was organized in New York by the St. Vincent De Paul Society. It was the first Catholic agency to place children in homes rather than orphanages, a model soon followed in other cities.

1904 The first social work school, the New York School of Applied Philanthropy, opened its doors.

1909 First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children declared that poverty alone should not be grounds for removing children from families. When children required placement for other reasons, however, they were to be placed in family homes, “the highest and finest product of civilization”; Sigmund Freud published “Family Romances.”

1910-1930 The first specialized adoption agencies were founded, including the Spence Alumni Society, the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee, the Alice Chapin Nursery (all in New York) and the Cradle in Evanston, Illinois.

1911 Dr. Arnold Gesell founded the Juvenile Psycho Clinic (later the Clinic of Child Development) at Yale.

1912 Congress created the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor “to investigate and report on all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people”; Julia Lathrop was appointed as its first chief, the first woman to head a federal agency.

1912-1921 Baby farming, commercial maternity homes, and adoption ad investigations took place in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities.

1915 Bureau for Exchange of Information Among Child-Helping Organizations founded (renamed Child Welfare League of America in 1921); Abraham Flexner declared social work “hardly eligible” for professional status.

1916 Lewis Terman’s revision of the Binet scale popularized the intelligence quotient, or I.Q. Worries about the “feeble-minded” mentality of children available for adoption, and trends toward measuring their mental potential as one part of the adoption process, usually with mental tests, grew out of the eugenics movement in the early part of the century.

1917 Minnesota passed first law mandating social investigation of all adoptions (including home studies) and providing for the confidentiality of adoption records.

1919 The Russell Sage Foundation published the first professional child-placing manual; U.S. Children’s Bureau set minimum standards for child-placing; Jessie Taft authored an early manifesto for therapeutic adoption, “Relation of Personality Study to Child Placing.”

1919-1929 The first empirical field studies of adoption gathered basic information about how many adoptions were taking place, of whom, and by whom.

1921 Child Welfare League of America formally renamed and organized. The League adopted a Constitution that defined standard-setting as one of the organization’s core purposes; American Association of Social Workers founded.

1924 First major outcome study, How Foster Children Turn Out, published.

1934 The state of Iowa began administering mental tests to all children placed for adoption in hopes of preventing the unwitting adoption of retarded children (called “feeble-minded” at the time). This policy inspired nature-nurture studies at the Iowa Child Welfare Station that eventually served to challenge hereditarian orthodoxies and promote policies of early family placement.

1935 Social Security Act included provision for aid to dependent children, crippled children’s programs, and child welfare, which eventually led to a dramatic expansion of foster care; American Youth Congress issued “The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth”; Justine Wise Polier was appointed to head the Domestic Relations Court of Manhattan. She became an important early critic of matching in adoption.

1937-1938 First Child Welfare League of America initiative that distinguished minimum standards for permanent (adoptive) and temporary (foster) placements.

1939 Valentine P. Wasson published The Chosen Baby, a landmark in the literature on telling children about their adopted status.

1944 In Prince v. Massachusetts, a case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s power as parens patriae to restrict parental control in order to guard “the general interest in youth’s well being.”

1948 The first recorded transracial adoption of an African-American child by white parents took place in Minnesota.

1949 New York was the first state to pass a law against black market adoptions, which proved unenforceable in practice.

1953 Uniform Adoption Act first proposed. Few states ever adopted it; Jean Paton founded Orphan Voyage, the first adoptee search support network.

1953-1954 Child Welfare League of America conducted nationwide survey of adoption agency practices.

1953-1958 The first nationally coordinated effort to locate adoptive homes for African American children, the National Urban League Foster Care and Adoptions Project.

1954 Helen Doss published The Family Nobody Wanted; Jean Paton published The Adopted Break Silence, the first book to offer a variety of first-person adoption narratives and promote the notion that adoptees had a distinctive identity.

1955 Child Welfare League of America national conference on adoption in Chicago announced that the era of special needs adoption had arrived; Congressional inquiry into interstate and black market adoptions, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN), suggested that poor adoption practices created juvenile delinquency; Proposed federal law on black market adoptions introduced by Senators Kefauver (D-TN) and Edward Thye (R-MN), but it never passed Congress; National Association of Social Workers founded, consolidating a number of other social work organizations; Bertha and Harry Holt adopted eight Korean War orphans after a special act of Congress allowed them to do so; Pearl S. Buck accused social workers and religious institutions of sustaining the black market and preventing the adoption of children in order to preserve their jobs; Adopt-A-Child founded by the National Urban League and fourteen New York agencies to promote African-American adoptions.

1957 International Conference on Intercountry Adoptions issued report on problems of international adoptions; U.S. adoption agencies sponsored legislation to prohibit or control proxy adoptions.

1958 Child Welfare League of America published Standards of Adoption Service (revised in 1968, 1973, 1978, 1988, 2000); Indian Adoption Project began.

1959 UN Assembly adopted Declaration of the Rights of the Child, endorsed in 1960 by Golden Anniversary White House Conference on Children and Youth.

1961 The Immigration and Nationality Act incorporated, for the first time, provisions for the international adoption of foreign-born children by U.S. citizens.

1960 Psychiatrist Marshall Schechter published a study claiming that adopted children were 100 times more likely than their non-adopted counterparts to show up in clinical populations. This sparked a vigorous debate about whether adoptive kinship was itself a risk factor for mental disturbance and illness and inspired a new round of studies into the psychopathology of adoption.

1962-1965 Special conference on child abuse, led by Katherine Oettinger, chief of the Children’s Bureau, generated proposals for new laws requiring doctors to notify law enforcement and most states adopted such legislation.

1963 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development established as part of the National Institutes of Health; U.S. Children’s Bureau moved from Social Security Administration to Welfare Administration.

1964 H. David Kirk published Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health, the first book to make adoption a serious issue in the sociological literature on family life and mental health.

1965 The Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions launched the first organized program of single parent adoptions in order to locate homes for hard-to-place children with special needs.

1966 The National Adoption Resource Exchange, later renamed the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America (ARENA), was established as an outgrowth of the Indian Adoption Project.

1969 President Nixon created the Office of Child Development in HEW to coordinate and administer Head Start and U.S. Children’s Bureau functions.

1970 Adoptions reached their century-long statistical peak at approximately 175,000 per year. Almost 80 percent of the total were arranged by agencies.

1971 Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association “to abolish the existing practice of sealed records” and advocate for “opening of records to any adopted person over eighteen who wants, for any reason, to see them.”

1972 National Association of Black Social Workers opposed transracial adoptions; Stanley v. Illinois substantially increased the rights of unwed fathers in adoption by requiring informed consent and proof of parental unfitness prior to termination of parental rights.

1973 Roe v. Wade legalized abortion; Beyond the Best Interests of the Child articulated the influential concept of “psychological parent,” which prioritized continuity of nurture and speedy and permanent decisions in legal proceedings related to child placement and adoption.

1976 Concerned United Birthparents founded

1978 Indian Child Welfare Act passed by Congress.

1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act offered significant funding to states that supported subsidy programs for special needs adoptions and devoted resources to family preservation, reunification, and the prevention of abuse, neglect, and child removal.

1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

1993 Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect to Intercountry Adoption

1994 Multiethnic Placement Act was the first federal law to concern itself with race in adoption. It prohibited agencies receiving federal funds from denying transracial adoptions on the sole basis of race, but permitted the use of race as one factor, among others, in foster and adoptive placements. A 1996 revision to this law, the Inter-Ethnic Adoption Amendment, made it impermissible to employ race at all.

1996 Bastard Nation founded. Its mission statement promoted “the full human and civil rights of adult adoptees,” including access to sealed records.

1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act stressed permanency planning for children and represented a policy shift away from family reunification and toward adoption.

1998 Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 58, allowing adult adoptees access to original birth certificates. This legal blow to confidentiality and sealed records was stalled by legal challenges to the measure’s constitutionality, which eventually failed. The measure has been in effect in Oregon since June 2000.

2000 The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 allowed foreign-born adoptees to become automatic American citizens when they entered the United States, eliminating the legal burden of naturalization for international adoptions; Census 2000 included “adopted son/daughter” as a kinship category for the first time in U.S. history.





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Congress enacted the ICWA to protect the best interests of Indian children and to prevent the erosion of tribal ties and cultural heritage by preserving future Indian generations. In enacting the ICWA, Congress declared that “it is the policy of this Nation to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture…” (25 U.S.C. § 1902.)

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