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.[21] 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."[22][23] 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.[24] 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."[25]

The period 1945 to 1974, the baby scoop era, saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family.[40] Illegitimate births rose three-fold after World War II, as sexual mores changed. Simultaneously, the scientific community began to stress the dominance of nurture over genetics, chipping away at eugenic stigmas.[41][42] In this environment, adoption became the obvious solution for both unwed people and infertile couples.[43]

In the 1970s, as adoption search and support organizations developed, there were challenges to the language in common use at the time. As books like Adoption Triangle by Sorosky, Pannor and Baran were published, and support groups formed like CUB (Concerned United Birthparents), a major shift from "natural parent" to "birthparent"[182][183] occurred. Along with the change in times and social attitudes came additional examination of the language used in adoption.

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.[167]
Foster care adoption: this is a type of domestic adoption where a child is initially placed in public care. Many times the foster parents take on the adoption when the children become legally free. Its importance as an avenue for adoption varies by country. Of the 127,500 adoptions in the U.S. in 2000[83] about 51,000 or 40% were through the foster care system.[84]
"Honest Adoption Language" refers to a set of terms that proponents say reflect the point of view that: (1) family relationships (social, emotional, psychological or physical) that existed prior to the legal adoption often continue past this point or endure in some form despite long periods of separation, and that (2) mothers who have "voluntarily surrendered" children to adoption (as opposed to involuntary terminations through court-authorized child-welfare proceedings) seldom view it as a choice that was freely made, but instead describe scenarios of powerlessness, lack of resources, and overall lack of choice.[187][188] It also reflects the point of view that the term "birth mother" is derogatory in implying that the woman has ceased being a mother after the physical act of giving birth. Proponents of HAL liken this to the mother being treated as a "breeder" or "incubator".[189] Terms included in HAL include terms that were used before PAL, including "natural mother," "first mother," and "surrendered for adoption."

Other studies provide evidence that adoptive relationships can form along other lines. A study evaluating the level of parental investment indicates strength in adoptive families, suggesting that parents who adopt invest more time in their children than other parents and concludes, "...adoptive parents enrich their children's lives to compensate for the lack of biological ties and the extra challenges of adoption."[94] Another recent study found that adoptive families invested more heavily in their adopted children, for example, by providing further education and financial support. Noting that adoptees seemed to be more likely to experience problems such as drug addiction, the study speculated that adoptive parents might invest more in adoptees not because they favor them, but because they are more likely than genetic children to need the help.[95]
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.[167]