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."
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.
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).
As a reaction against the bans and hurdles affecting international adoption, scholars Elizabeth Bartholet and Paulo Barrozo claim that every child has a right to a family as a matter of basic human rights. This claim devalues heritage or "cultural" claims and emphasizes the child's existence as a human being rather than a "property" of specific nations or, for example, abusive caregivers.
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.
Now it happens that some people are interested in the welfare and high development of the human race; but leaving aside those exceptional people, all fathers and mothers are interested in the welfare of their own families. The dearest thing to the parental heart is to have the children marry well and rear a noble family. How short-sighted it is then for such a family to take into its midst a child whose pedigree is absolutely unknown; or, where, if it were partially known, the probabilities are strong that it would show poor and diseased stock, and that if a marriage should take place between that individual and any member of the family the offspring would be degenerates.
The next stage of adoption's evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States. Rapid immigration and the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding of orphanages and foundling homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister became appalled by the legions of homeless waifs roaming the streets of New York City. Brace considered the abandoned youth, particularly Catholics, to be the most dangerous element challenging the city's order.
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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.
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 about 51,000 or 40% were through the foster care system.
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, 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. 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.
The American model of adoption eventually proliferated globally. England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. The Netherlands passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germany enacted its first laws in 1977. Additionally, the Asian powers opened their orphanage systems to adoption, influenced as they were by Western ideas following colonial rule and military occupation. In France, local public institutions accredit candidates for adoption, who can then contact orphanages abroad, or ask for the support of NGOs. The system does not involve fees, but gives considerable power to social workers whose decisions may restrict adoption to standardized families (middle-age, medium to high income, heterosexual, Caucasian).
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.
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.
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.