The next stage of adoption's evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States. Rapid immigration and the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding of orphanages and foundling homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister became appalled by the legions of homeless waifs roaming the streets of New York City. Brace considered the abandoned youth, particularly Catholics, to be the most dangerous element challenging the city's order.
The practice of closed adoption (aka confidential or secret adoption), which has not been the norm for most of modern history, seals all identifying information, maintaining it as secret and preventing disclosure of the adoptive parents', biological kins', and adoptees' identities. Nevertheless, closed adoption may allow the transmittal of non-identifying information such as medical history and religious and ethnic background. Today, as a result of safe haven laws passed by some U.S. states, secret adoption is seeing renewed influence. In so-called "safe-haven" states, infants can be left, anonymously, at hospitals, fire departments, or police stations within a few days of birth, a practice criticized by some adoption advocacy organizations as being retrograde and dangerous.
As the idea of institutional care gained acceptance, formal rules appeared about how to place children into families: boys could become apprenticed to an artisan and girls might be married off under the institution's authority. Institutions informally adopted out children as well, a mechanism treated as a way to obtain cheap labor, demonstrated by the fact that when the adopted died, their bodies were returned by the family to the institution for burial.
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.
The research literature states adoptees give four reasons for desiring reunion: 1) they wish for a more complete genealogy, 2) they are curious about events leading to their conception, birth, and relinquishment, 3) they hope to pass on information to their children, and 4) they have a need for a detailed biological background, including medical information. It is speculated by adoption researchers, however, that the reasons given are incomplete: although such information could be communicated by a third-party, interviews with adoptees, who sought reunion, found they expressed a need to actually meet biological relations.
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Infant adoption during Antiquity appears rare. Abandoned children were often picked up for slavery and composed a significant percentage of the Empire's slave supply. Roman legal records indicate that foundlings were occasionally taken in by families and raised as a son or daughter. Although not normally adopted under Roman Law, the children, called alumni, were reared in an arrangement similar to guardianship, being considered the property of the father who abandoned them.
The research says that the dysfunction, untruths and evasiveness that can be present in adoptive families not only makes identity formation impossible, but also directly works against it. What effect on identity formation is present if the adoptee knows they are adopted but has no information about their biological parents? Silverstein and Kaplan's research states that adoptees lacking medical, genetic, religious, and historical information are plagued by questions such as "Who am I?" "Why was I born?" "What is my purpose?" This lack of identity may lead adoptees, particularly in adolescent years, to seek out ways to belong in a more extreme fashion than many of their non-adopted peers. Adolescent adoptees are overrepresented among those who join sub-cultures, run away, become pregnant, or totally reject their families.
Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction. Historically, some societies have enacted specific laws governing adoption; where others have tried to achieve adoption through less formal means, notably via contracts that specified inheritance rights and parental responsibilities without an accompanying transfer of filiation. Modern systems of adoption, arising in the 20th century, tend to be governed by comprehensive statutes and regulations.