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Adoption practices have changed significantly over the course of the 20th century, with each new movement labeled, in some way, as reform. Beginning in the 1970s, efforts to improve adoption became associated with opening records and encouraging family preservation. These ideas arose from suggestions that the secrecy inherent in modern adoption may influence the process of forming an identity, create confusion regarding genealogy, and provide little in the way of medical history.
Adoptions can occur either between related family members, or unrelated individuals. Historically, most adoptions occurred within a family. The most recent data from the U.S. indicates about half of adoptions are currently between related individuals. A common example of this is a "stepparent adoption", where the new partner of a parent may legally adopt a child from the parent's previous relationship. Intra-family adoption can also occur through surrender, as a result of parental death, or when the child cannot otherwise be cared for and a family member agrees to take over.
In Spain under Francisco Franco’s 1939–75 dictatorship the newborns of some left-wing opponents of the regime, or unmarried or poor couples, were removed from their mothers and adopted. New mothers were frequently told their babies had died suddenly after birth and the hospital had taken care of their burials, when in fact they were given or sold to another family. It is believed that up to 300,000 babies were involved. These system – which allegedly involved doctors, nurses, nuns and priests – outlived Franco’s death in 1975 and carried on as an illegal baby trafficking network until 1987 when a new law regulating adoption was introduced.
There is limited research on the consequences of adoption for the original parents, and the findings have been mixed. One study found that those who released their babies for adoption were less comfortable with their decision than those who kept their babies. However, levels of comfort over both groups were high, and those who released their child were similar to those who kept their child in ratings of life satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and positive future outlook for schooling, employment, finances, and marriage. Subsequent research found that adolescent mothers who chose to release their babies for adoption were more likely to experience feelings of sorrow and regret over their decision than those who kept their babies. However, these feelings decreased significantly from one year after birth to the end of the second year.
This system of apprenticeship and informal adoption extended into the 19th century, today seen as a transitional phase for adoption history. Under the direction of social welfare activists, orphan asylums began to promote adoptions based on sentiment rather than work; children were placed out under agreements to provide care for them as family members instead of under contracts for apprenticeship. The growth of this model is believed to have contributed to the enactment of the first modern adoption law in 1851 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, unique in that it codified the ideal of the "best interests of the child." Despite its intent, though, in practice, the system operated much the same as earlier incarnations. The experience of the Boston Female Asylum (BFA) is a good example, which had up to 30% of its charges adopted out by 1888. Officials of the BFA noted that, although the asylum promoted otherwise, adoptive parents did not distinguish between indenture and adoption; "We believe," the asylum officials said, "that often, when children of a younger age are taken to be adopted, the adoption is only another name for service."
Externally focused theories, in contrast, suggest that reunion is a way for adoptees to overcome social stigma. First proposed by Goffman, the theory has four parts: 1) adoptees perceive the absence of biological ties as distinguishing their adoptive family from others, 2) this understanding is strengthened by experiences where non-adoptees suggest adoptive ties are weaker than blood ties, 3) together, these factors engender, in some adoptees, a sense of social exclusion, and 4) these adoptees react by searching for a blood tie that reinforces their membership in the community. The externally focused rationale for reunion suggests adoptees may be well adjusted and happy within their adoptive families, but will search as an attempt to resolve experiences of social stigma.