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.
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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.[19] 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.[20]
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]
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"[182][183] occurred. Along with the change in times and social attitudes came additional examination of the language used in adoption.

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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.[28] The children were generally indentured, rather than adopted, to families who took them in.[29] As in times past, some children were raised as members of the family while others were used as farm laborers and household servants.[30] 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.[31][32]