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.
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His solution was outlined in The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859) which started the Orphan Train movement. The orphan trains eventually shipped an estimated 200,000 children from the urban centers of the East to the nation's rural regions. The children were generally indentured, rather than adopted, to families who took them in. As in times past, some children were raised as members of the family while others were used as farm laborers and household servants. The sheer size of the displacement—the largest migration of children in history—and the degree of exploitation that occurred, gave rise to new agencies and a series of laws that promoted adoption arrangements rather than indenture. The hallmark of the period is Minnesota's adoption law of 1917 which mandated investigation of all placements and limited record access to those involved in the adoption.
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.
Family plays a vital role in identity formation. This is not only true in childhood but also in adolescence. Identity (gender/sexual/ethnic/religious/family) is still forming during adolescence and family holds a vital key to this. The research seems to be unanimous; a stable, secure, loving, honest and supportive family in which all members feel safe to explore their identity is necessary for the formation of a sound identity. Transracial and International adoptions are some factors that play a significant role in the identity construction of adoptees. Many tensions arise from relationships built between the adoptee(s) and their family. These include being "different" from the parent(s), developing a positive racial identity, and dealing with racial/ethnic discrimination. It has been found that multicultural and transnational youth tend to identify with their parents origin of culture and ethnicity rather than their residing location, yet it is sometimes hard to balance an identity between the two because school environments tend to lack diversity and acknowledgment regarding such topics. These tensions also tend to create questions for the adoptee, as well as the family, to contemplate. Some common questions include what will happen if the family is more naïve to the ways of socially constructed life? Will tensions arise if this is the case? What if the very people that are supposed to be modeling a sound identity are in fact riddled with insecurities? Ginni Snodgrass answers these questions in the following way. The secrecy in an adoptive family and the denial that the adoptive family is different builds dysfunction into it. "... social workers and insecure adoptive parents have structured a family relationship that is based on dishonesty, evasions and exploitation. To believe that good relationships will develop on such a foundation is psychologically unsound" (Lawrence). Secrecy erects barriers to forming a healthy identity.
Psychologists' findings regarding the importance of early mother-infant bonding created some concern about whether parents who adopt older infants or toddlers after birth have missed some crucial period for the child's development. However, research on The Mental and Social Life of Babies suggested that the "parent-infant system," rather than a bond between biologically related individuals, is an evolved fit between innate behavior patterns of all human infants and equally evolved responses of human adults to those infant behaviors. Thus nature "ensures some initial flexibility with respect to the particular adults who take on the parental role."
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.
The stigmas associated with adoption are amplified for children in foster care. Negative perceptions result in the belief that such children are so troubled it would be impossible to adopt them and create "normal" families. A 2004 report from the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care has shown that the number of children waiting in foster care doubled since the 1980s and now remains steady at about a half-million a year."
The number of adoptions in the United States peaked in 1970. It is uncertain what caused the subsequent decline. Likely contributing factors in the 1960s and 1970s include a decline in the fertility rate, associated with the introduction of the pill, the completion of legalization of artificial birth control methods, the introduction of federal funding to make family planning services available to the young and low income, and the legalization of abortion. In addition, the years of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic change in society's view of illegitimacy and in the legal rights of those born outside of wedlock. In response, family preservation efforts grew so that few children born out of wedlock today are adopted. Ironically, adoption is far more visible and discussed in society today, yet it is less common.
Identity is defined both by what one is and what one is not. Adoptees born into one family lose an identity and then borrow one from the adopting family. The formation of identity is a complicated process and there are many factors that affect its outcome. From a perspective of looking at issues in adoption circumstances, the people involved and affected by adoption (the biological parent, the adoptive parent and the adoptee) can be known as the "triad members and state". Adoption may threaten triad members' sense of identity. Triad members often express feelings related to confused identity and identity crises because of differences between the triad relationships. Adoption, for some, precludes a complete or integrated sense of self. Triad members may experience themselves as incomplete, deficient, or unfinished. They state that they lack feelings of well-being, integration, or solidity associated with a fully developed identity.