Charles Dickens captured the isolation, fear and shame of orphan life in the spare, cold prose of classics such as “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations.”
How dare undernourished Oliver ask for more gruel at the workhouse?
Hard to imagine facing a world alone, never knowing your “people” and wondering like Little Orphan Annie clinging to her half of her parent’s locket: “Who am I? Where did I come from?”
“I’m going to have a regular mother and father, like a regular kid,” she told Daddy Warbucks. “I am! I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’ve been nicer to me than anybody in the whole wide world, but I’ve been dreaming of my folks for as long as I can remember, and I’ve just got to find them.”
Heartbreaking for Annie; heartbreaking for Daddy Warbucks.
Facing the major life decision of becoming an adoptive parent, I realize these images of both fiction and popular culture shaped my own education on the subject of adoption. I’ve known adoptees (one of my best friends since 1st grade was adopted) virtually my whole life and yet, I know very little on the topic.
I’m a research demon. And for me, it’s made every one of my life decisions easier because I’d rather know than be surprised. I’ve already compiled a list of some books to read (I’m open to more). Of course, my mother knows this and cautioned that I shouldn’t “research and over-analyze this to death.”
So, I’ll try to strike a balance.
Simply put, adoption means assuming the parental rights and responsibilities to rear a child born of someone else as their own. Today, adoption helps build a family, but that wasn’t always so.
Let’s go back to the origins of adoption.
The first orphanages sprung up in the 1st Century as a place to house and raise children whose parents either died or could not otherwise care for them. This practice dates back to Jewish and Athenian law as a means to care for the offspring of killed military members.
Plato considered the public charge of caring for orphans as a duty of a community to raise up a proper next generation no matter its relation – a fairly kind ideal.
But in ancient Rome, adoption merely allowed for political gains and powers for the exchange of wealth and prestige between families – much as marriage might also have served. Therefore, it’s no surprise many of Rome’s most powerful rulers were adopted. In other cases, Roman adoptees served more as slaves and therefore, trade commerce.
In other civilizations, such as Indian and China, adoption of abandoned children allowed for the continuity of religious teachings and a means of passing on culture.
After Rome fell, the world’s attitude about blood lines shifted.
Family history and preservation took a front seat to political or monetary gains and the practice of adoption all but became verboten. The result: a higher population of abandoned children. (Cue the image of a swaddled baby left at a church doorstep.)
During the middle ages, the volume of abandoned children taken in at monasteries eventually led to the children being either sent off permanently or by day to area households or workhouses upon a certain age as trade apprentices.
Later, orphanages largely replaced monasteries as public institutions to house abandoned or orphaned children. The settings became ripe for scandals throughout the Western world.
Much like the abandoned children of Europe caused the rise of institutions, the rapid influx of immigrants to the United States and aftermath of the Civil War created the rise of orphanages. Most of the adopted children served as family nannies or farm hands (like my “Anne of Green Gables, ” who was supposed to be a boy for farm work).
But the huge numbers of orphaned children overwhelmed the system and rampant mistreatment and exploitation led to the formation of protective laws. In the early 1900s, the Progressives fought to end the orphanage system altogether and figure out a new way to place children who could not be cared for by their parents.
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt said the nuclear family presented the best suited environment to raise abandoned or orphaned children. By 1923, the foster and adoptive system virtually conquered the orphanage system.
Soon after, Wales and England followed the trend and later, the rest of Europe.
Despite the movement, bloodline concerns still plagued the stigma of adoption. Enter Hitler. Following the disgraceful Nazi beliefs of eugenic ideology leading to the “cleansing” campaign during World War II, attitudes greatly shifted.
Since the 1950s, the orphanage setting began to slowly disappear under the public scrutiny of horror stories, such as girls being shipped off to have a child in secret and be shamed into silence of the birth, or children growing up and reporting cases of horrific abuse.
As child-birth related deaths decreased, the need for such institutions followed suit. More and more, charities focused efforts on assisting birth parents to work through parenting obstacles, such as housing, finances, family support or drug/ alcohol abuse. The law began to also opt for more aggressive parent-child reunification.
From these ideals, the popularity of adoption arose in the 20th Century and largely, it’s considered an American institution.
From 1945 to 1974, illegitimate births rose as the sexual cultures progressed during a time known as the Baby scoop era when adoption rates skyrocketed. At the same time, science began to give more credence to nurture over nature, which further reduced eugenic issues.
And the result: a solution to both an unwed mother and infertile couples. Today, adoption practices span the globe, but even still – the United States leads the pack.
Adoption in the United States peaked in 1970. Some believe invention of The Pill and legalization of abortion affected the recent three-decade decline.
Annually, the United States successfully places about 127,000 adoptive children with roughly 4 million live births each year. Since the 1980s, nearly 500,000 children nationwide wait in the foster care system – either for reunification with their biological parents or permanent placement with an adoptive family.
The adoption system utilizes two general practices: closed and open.
Open adoption allows identifying information to be shared between biological and adoptive parents. The degree of openness varies depending on the people and agencies involved. Open adoption can be an informal arrangement with little direct contact between the parties or as interactive with face-to-face meetings before, during and after the birth.
Closed adoption maintains secrecy of all identifying information that prohibits the disclosure of the adoptive parents and adoptees identity. Some information may be exchanged, such as medical history, religious and ethnic background. Surrendered or “safe haven” babies, where the children are anonymously and safely surrendered at hospitals, fire departments or police stations shortly after birth, are considered closed adoptions.
Avenues to adopt include: private domestic, foster care, international, embryo and common law (think common law marriage).
Infertility caused most parents to seek adoption to unrelated children. One study reports that infertile couples account for 80 percent of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care.
Through modern medicine, many infertile couples now have far more options to exhaust to fit in the Western culture mold of a mom, dad and 2.5 kids. For couples that are unsuccessful with infertility treatments and continue to deeply desire their of their own, they can turn to a surrogate. If biology isn’t as important, they consider adoption and begin that journey.
Popular culture champions adoption due to such famous adoptive parents as Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bullock, making the process seem easy and trendy. But private sentiments reflect a vastly different opinion.
Recent adoption attitudes studies show that nearly one-third of those surveyed believed adoptees are less-well adjusted, more prone to medical issues, and predisposed to drug and alcohol problems. Yet those same people believed adoptive parents were “lucky, advantaged, and unselfish.”
Views on foster children went further. Negative views reflected in the study so far as to conclude that children in the foster care system could never help create a “normal” family.
Well, I hate to break the bad news: no family is “normal.” Never met one including mine. And I know all about a parent raising unrelated children. My father raised my older half siblings and to this day, I’ve never heard my brother call him anything but “dad.”
Through all the Oliver Twists and turns of the system, two facts remain unchanged: too many children and not enough parents.
As the late famous adoptee Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s fast food chain, said: “Every child deserves a home and love. Period.” And maybe a chocolate Frosty once in a while.
*Not Quite Dickens: Part II will examine our chosen adoption path.