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.
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.
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. 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." 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. 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."
Other ancient civilizations, notably India and China, used some form of adoption as well. Evidence suggests the goal of this practice was to ensure the continuity of cultural and religious practices; in contrast to the Western idea of extending family lines. In ancient India, secondary sonship, clearly denounced by the Rigveda, continued, in a limited and highly ritualistic form, so that an adopter might have the necessary funerary rites performed by a son. China had a similar idea of adoption with males adopted solely to perform the duties of ancestor worship.
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.
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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.
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These practices have become significant social and political issues in recent years, and in many cases the policies have changed. The United States, for example, now has the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which allows the tribe and family of a Native American child to be involved in adoption decisions, with preference being given to adoption within the child's tribe.
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