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).
Open records: Movements to unseal adoption records for adopted citizens proliferated along with increased acceptance of illegitimacy. In the United States, Jean Paton founded Orphan Voyage in 1954, and Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) in 1971, calling sealed records "an affront to human dignity.". While in 1975, Emma May Vilardi created the first mutual-consent registry, the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR), allowing those separated by adoption to locate one another. and Lee Campbell and other birthmothers established CUB (Concerned United Birthparents). Similar ideas were taking hold globally with grass-roots organizations like Parent Finders in Canada and Jigsaw in Australia. In 1975, England and Wales opened records on moral grounds.
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" occurred. Along with the change in times and social attitudes came additional examination of the language used in adoption.
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.
Attitudes and laws regarding adoption vary greatly. Whereas all cultures make arrangements whereby children whose birth parents are unavailable to rear them can be brought up by others, not all cultures have the concept of adoption, that is treating unrelated children as equivalent to biological children of the adoptive parents. Under Islamic Law, for example, adopted children must keep their original surname to be identified with blood relations, and, traditionally, women wear a hijab in the presence of males in their adoptive households. In Egypt, these cultural distinctions have led to making adoption illegal.
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. 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.
Family preservation: As concerns over illegitimacy began to decline in the early 1970s, social-welfare agencies began to emphasize that, if possible, mothers and children should be kept together. In the U.S., this was clearly illustrated by the shift in policy of the New York Foundling Home, an adoption-institution that is among the country's oldest and one that had pioneered sealed records. It established three new principles including "to prevent placements of children...," reflecting the belief that children would be better served by staying with their biological families, a striking shift in policy that remains in force today.
Several factors affect the decision to release or raise the child. White adolescents tend to give up their babies to non-relatives, whereas black adolescents are more likely to receive support from their own community in raising the child and also in the form of informal adoption by relatives. Studies by Leynes and by Festinger and Young, Berkman, and Rehr found that for pregnant adolescents, the decision to release the child for adoption depended on the attitude toward adoption held by the adolescent's mother. Another study found that pregnant adolescents whose mothers had a higher level of education were more likely to release their babies for adoption. Research suggests that women who choose to release their babies for adoption are more likely to be younger, enrolled in school, and have lived in a two-parent household at age 10, than those who kept and raised their babies.
In many jurisdictions the adopted person's full original birth certificate is cancelled and replaced with a fabricated post-adoption birth certificate which states that the child was born to the adoptive parents. This deception, when carried out, may continue with the adopted person for life and can be the cause for many well documented traumas experienced by the adopted person, including loss of identity, family history, culture, biological family (including not only biological parents but also siblings and extended family), family medical history and records, and increased risk of suicide, homelessness, incarceration, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
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.
Taken together, these trends resulted in a new American model for adoption. Following its Roman predecessor, Americans severed the rights of the original parents while making adopters the new parents in the eyes of the law. Two innovations were added: 1) adoption was meant to ensure the "best interests of the child;" the seeds of this idea can be traced to the first American adoption law in Massachusetts, and 2) adoption became infused with secrecy, eventually resulting in the sealing of adoption and original birth records by 1945. The origin of the move toward secrecy began with Charles Loring Brace who introduced it to prevent children from the Orphan Trains from returning to or being reclaimed by their parents. Brace feared the impact of the parents' poverty, in general, and their Catholic religion, in particular, on the youth. This tradition of secrecy was carried on by the later Progressive reformers when drafting of American laws.
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.
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Previous research on adoption has led to assumptions that indicate that there is a heightened risk in terms of psychological development and social relationships for adoptees. Yet, such assumptions have been clarified as flawed due to methodological failures. But more recent studies have been supportive in indicating more accurate information and results about the similarities, differences and overall lifestyles of adoptees.