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]
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]
Beyond the foundational issues, the unique questions posed for adoptive parents are varied. They include how to respond to stereotypes, answering questions about heritage, and how best to maintain connections with biological kin when in an open adoption.[97] One author suggests a common question adoptive parents have is: "Will we love the child even though he/she is not our biological child?"[98] A specific concern for many parents is accommodating an adoptee in the classroom.[99] Familiar lessons like "draw your family tree" or "trace your eye color back through your parents and grandparents to see where your genes come from" could be hurtful to children who were adopted and do not know this biological information. Numerous suggestions have been made to substitute new lessons, e.g., focusing on "family orchards."[100]
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.[129]
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Some adoptees reject the idea of reunion. It is unclear, though, what differentiates adoptees who search from those who do not. One paper summarizes the research, stating, "...attempts to draw distinctions between the searcher and non-searcher are no more conclusive or generalizable than attempts to substantiate...differences between adoptees and nonadoptees."[169]

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.[130] 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.[131] 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.[132]
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Social workers and other professionals in the field of adoption began changing terms of use to reflect what was being expressed by the parties involved. In 1979, Marietta Spencer wrote "The Terminology of Adoption" for The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA),[184] which was the basis for her later work "Constructive Adoption Terminology".[185] This influenced Pat Johnston's "Positive Adoption Language" (PAL) and "Respectful Adoption Language" (RAL).[186] The terms contained in "Positive Adoption Language" include the terms "birth mother" (to replace the terms "natural mother" and "real mother"), and "placing" (to replace the term "surrender"). These kinds of recommendations encouraged people to be more aware of their use of adoption terminology.

During the same period, the Progressive movement swept the United States with a critical goal of ending the prevailing orphanage system. The culmination of such efforts came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909,[33] where it was declared that the nuclear family represented "the highest and finest product of civilization" and was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned.[34][35] Anti-institutional forces gathered momentum. As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. Less than forty years later, nearly one-third were in an adoptive home.[36]
Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the political and economic interests of the adopter,[4] providing a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs to manage estates.[5][6] The use of adoption by the aristocracy is well documented; many of Rome's emperors were adopted sons.[6] Adrogation was a kind of Roman adoption which required the adrogator to be at least 60 years old.

Europe's cultural makeover marked a period of significant innovation for adoption. Without support from the nobility, the practice gradually shifted toward abandoned children. Abandonment levels rose with the fall of the empire and many of the foundlings were left on the doorstep of the Church.[18] Initially, the clergy reacted by drafting rules to govern the exposing, selling, and rearing of abandoned children. The Church's innovation, however, was the practice of oblation, whereby children were dedicated to lay life within monastic institutions and reared within a monastery. This created the first system in European history in which abandoned children did not have legal, social, or moral disadvantages. As a result, many of Europe's abandoned and orphaned children became alumni of the Church, which in turn took the role of adopter. Oblation marks the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization, eventually bringing about the establishment of the foundling hospital and orphanage.[18]


The language of adoption is changing and evolving, and since the 1970s has been a controversial issue tied closely to adoption reform efforts. The controversy arises over the use of terms which, while designed to be more appealing or less offensive to some persons affected by adoption, may simultaneously cause offense or insult to others. This controversy illustrates the problems in adoption, as well as the fact that coining new words and phrases to describe ancient social practices will not necessarily alter the feelings and experiences of those affected by them. Two of the contrasting sets of terms are commonly referred to as positive adoption language (PAL) (sometimes called respectful adoption language (RAL)), and honest adoption language (HAL).

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