The Facts About Adoption

The Complete History of Adoption [Adoption History Timeline]


The history of adoption is a story of progress. While there have been setbacks along the way, the process has continually improved to protect the rights of everyone involved, especially birth parents and adoptees.

You could write several books outlining adoption history in detail. For the sake of this guide to a brief history of adoption, we’re breaking things down to focus on the most significant shifts that have occurred in modern adoption history.

A history of adoption timeline:

1851: The first child welfare law in the history of adoption in the U.S. is passed in Massachusetts.

1854-1910: The orphanage system defines the adoption landscape. While orphanages existed for decades past this point, other forms of adoption that had greater protections for children and respect for birth parents would begin to take over.

1910: The first private agencies in the history of adoption are formed. These agencies were instrumental in creating a process that was better for birth parents.

1912: The U.S. government officially creates the U.S. Children’s Bureau — a monumental step toward a more unified system of caring for children in the history of adoption.

1910s-1950s: Adoption reforms, regulations and process improvements form the base of the modern adoption system. While the system continues to change to this day, this era of child welfare law was foundational to the process we know as adoption today.

1970: More adoption placements occur this year than any other before or since.

1978: The Indian Child Welfare Act reshapes the landscape of adoption for Native American adoption history.

1993: The Hague Convention ratifies landmark standards for intercountry adoption, instituting significant reforms that altered the history of international adoption.

2000-Modern Day: Birth parent rights in the process, open adoption and other positive reforms increase in prevalence and urgency. The need to put the prospective birth parent in charge of their adoption process becomes common practice in private adoption.

From this timeline, there are several significant shifts in the history of adoption that are worth exploring in more detail. We’ve outlined each below.

The Orphanage Era

Adoption has been a part of human civilization (in one form or another) for centuries. There are stories of adoption in some of our most prominent ancient texts, like the Bible.

However, when it comes to tracking the history of adoption in America, we begin around 1850. The early years of adoption history are defined by orphanages and orphan trains.

Orphan trains? Yes, they are exactly what they sound like. Children who had either lost both parents or whose family situation was deemed unsafe were placed on trains and sent to families in other parts of the country.

Orphanages, which existed for decades as the primary facilitator of U.S. adoptions, were large homes for many children, usually run by a caretaker and funded by a religious institution. Birth parents would leave children at the orphanage and, at that point, lose most or all contact for the rest of their lives.

While the orphanage system was theoretically intended to help children, it is a part of adoption history marked with scandal and abuse. Reforms were needed to protect children and birth parents, and they would eventually come.

History of Foster Care and Adoption

Foster care existed in some form since nearly the beginning of the history of adoption timeline. There are records that indicate the first legal “foster child” lived in New York in the 1850s. However, it wasn’t until much later that the regulated, unified system we know as “foster care” came into creation.

In the early 1900s, laws were passed that allowed the state to step in and remove a child from their biological parents’ care if the situation at home was deemed unsafe.

This moment in the history of adoption law was a major turning point for foster care. It also established one of the most significant differences between foster care and private adoption: whether or not the biological parent chooses adoption of their own free will.

Over the course of the 1900s, the foster care system became the primary form of child welfare in America as orphanages were eventually phased out.

While practices in foster care have continually improved, the latest chapter in this history of foster care and adoption has been defined by deficits in resources and a system on the brink. Lack of adequate funding and a shortage of foster parents have pushed many states to less-than-ideal situations, such as placing too many children in one home.

Still, the foster care system can be a source of hope and healing in the life of a child, whether that’s by providing relief until the child is reunited with family or by facilitating the adoption of a child into a loving, safe home.

Private Adoption and Birth Parent Rights

Adoption is first and foremost an issue of child welfare, meaning that the best interests of the child are at the heart of the process. However, a growing awareness in recent years of adoption history has come to realize that the best interests of the child are often linked to the best interests of the birth parent. This is especially true in private adoptions.

As early as 1910, private agencies orchestrated newborn adoptions. It wasn’t until much later in the adoption history timeline, however, that a major emphasis was placed on respecting prospective birth parents in the process.

Today, you’ll find the prospective birth parents are in charge of their adoption process. That looks like:

Reforms like this took years to achieve, but now they are here to stay. The recognition of birth parent rights in adoption is a bright spot in the history of adoption in America.

Inclusivity in Adoption History

The history of adoption has followed a similar path to our country when it comes to inclusivity and equality. Sometimes, adoption has led the way, taking steps toward a more just future before the rest of society was ready to do so. Interracial adoption history, for example, began in 1948 with the first recorded transracial adoption — white parents adopted a black child.

Interracial adoption history is correlated with the history of international adoption. As international adoption rose in popularity (peaking in 2004), it became more common for families to be transracial and transcultural.

While transracial families are very common in modern adoption, this unique journey can bring unexpected challenges that adoptive parents must be prepared for.

The LGBTQ community has paved another important path toward adoption equality in recent years. In the grand scope of things, the history of LGBT adoption has only just begun.

While many states’ history of same sex adoption began much earlier, it wasn’t until the Supreme Courts’ landmark Obergefell decision in 2015 that LGBTQ hopeful parents received legal protection across the country. This ruling was a turning point in the history of gay adoption in the United States.

Since 2015, some states have worked hard to resurrect roadblocks to adoption, using religious liberty laws as loopholes to allow private organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ couples. Because of this, the history of gay adoption rights is still an unfolding legal battle in some parts of America.

Despite some regressive and discriminatory laws, there are many adoption agencies that are strong allies and proud partners in the history of LGBT adoption.

History of Open Adoption and Other Improvements

The history of open adoption is still in its early years, but we can already recognize that it is one of the most significant steps forward in the history of adoption.

The history of closed adoption is long and full of heartbreaking stories. So many children and birth parents were never able to reconnect. Today, things are different. The vast majority of adoptions are at least semi-open, which means the birth parent and adoptee never fully lose touch.

When you create an adoption plan as a prospective birth parent, you get to choose the level of openness. This can range from occasional letters, to regular video chats, to in-person visits. Adoption can be as open or closed as you’d like it to be.

In the history of open adoption, this is a recent development, and a very good one.

Learn More

This brief history of adoption covers a handful of the points along the adoption history timeline. If you’d like to learn more about this unplanned pregnancy option, you can check out our guide to the adoption process, or you can contact us today to be connected with an adoption agency.


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