History of Adoption

Adoption has a long history in Western society. While modern adoption emerged in the United States, the history of adoption is actually as old as civilization itself.

The grounds of adopting children have changed over the centuries, but the process has definitely shifted its focus on the interests of the adopted child, rather than the interests of the adults involved as was the case ages ago.

Since then, children have been handed over from adults who could not care for them due to poverty, physical disability, mental illness or family crisis, to other adults who are emotionally and financially capable in doing such. But you may be surprised that adoption’s close link with infertility/childlessness, humanitarianism and social/economic advancement are actually more recent phenomena.

But as with many things, there are ugly sides to adoption. Many adults (both birth parents and foster parents) would use adoptees for exploitation and human trafficking. Fortunately, there have been laws that focus more on the protection, rights and welfare of the adoptees.

Ancient era – 1800’s

Ancient Rome – Adoption was a common practice in ancient Rome as a means of reinforcing stronger ties among wealthy and well-connectedfamilies, as well as ensuring peaceful transitions of power.In other words, adoption was mostly a political affair.

Many of Rome’s emperors (such as Caligula, Octavian, Marcus Aurelius and Nero) were adopted children.

2000 B.C. – Ancient Mesopotamians wrote adoption laws and contracts that upheld the rights and interests of both the adopted child and the adoptive parents –which were quite progressive in this era. These laws were documented and sealed in tablets.

1750 B.C. – The Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babyloniaincluded the rights and the responsibilities of both the adoptees and their adoptive families in detail. It stated that craftsmen should train their adopted sons as their own apprentices. This law even allowed unmarried women to adopt, as well as slaves to be adopted as part of the family.

400 A.D.– Roman Christiansestablished their first orphanages.

Middle Ages– In contrast to ancient Romans, the European nobilitydenounced adoption, as they gave more superior importance to the continuation of the family bloodlines (mainly for the purposes of inheritance).

1693 –Sir William Phips (who was governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay) adopted Spencer Phips, a son of his wife’s sister. It became one of the earliest-known recorded instances of adoption.

1729 –The first orphanage in the US was established at a convent in New Orleans. It was runby nuns of the Ursuline order.

1800 to 1900

1804 – The Napoleonic Code was drafted in France. It contains one of the most influential laws on adoption. Based chiefly on the Roman adoption law, it limits adoption to individuals who have already reached adulthood. It details the rights of the adopted person, as well as their responsibilities to both his/her adoptive and birth families.

1851 – Massachusetts passed the first modern law on adoption, the “Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act.” It was a turning point in the history of adoption as it recognized adoption as a legal and social procedure based on the welfare of the child rather than the interests of the adult parties involved.

1854 – Philanthropist Charles Loring Brace, considered as the “father of foster care,” established the “Orphan Train” movement with the aim of sending orphans to “Christian homes.”

1868– TheMassachusetts Board of State Charities began paying private families to care for orphaned children. This was the start of the “placing-out” adoption process, where orphans were placed at private family homes rather than institutions.

1891–Michigan became the first state to require lawful investigation of adoptive families.

1910 to 1930 – The first specialized adoption agencies were established, which included the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee, Spence Alumni Society, Alice Chapin Nursery, and The Cradle.

1912 – The US Children Bureau was established to “investigate and report (to Department of Commerce and Labor) upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of people.” Among its operations include adoption and foster care.

1917 – Minnesota enacted a law which mandated the closingof adoption records from public scrutiny.

1920 to 1940

1921 – The Child Welfare League of America was founded from the remnants of Bureau for Exchange of Information Among Child-Helping Organizations (which had been established in 1915).

1929 – The “Orphan Train” ended after 75 years. It had sent over 150,000 orphaned children to families in southern, Midwestern and western cities and towns.

1933 – Children’s rights advocate Edna Gladney successfully lobbied against the inclusion of the word “illegitimate” from birth certificates in Texas.

1934 – The state of Iowa began to conduct mental tests on potential adoptees in order to prevent the occurrence of adopting mentally-challenged (or “feeble-minded”) children.

1937 to 1938 – The Child Welfare League of America issued a set of minimum standards required for adoptive and foster placements.

1940 to 1960

1948 – The adoption of an African-American child by white parents in Minnesota marked the first recorded instance of a transracial (interracial) adoption.

1949 – New York passed a law which made it a crime for any individual or organization (except for licensed and legitimate adoption agencies) to accept fees in exchange for placing a child for adoption.

1953 – The National Conference of Commission on Uniform State Laws drafted the first version of the Uniform Adoption Act, which only a handful of states adopted.

1953 – The National Urban League Foster Care and Adoptions Project began a concerted nationwide effort to promote African-American adoptions.

1958 – The Indian Adoption Project started.

1960 to 1980

1961 –For the first time, the Immigration and Nationality Act included provisions that made it possible for US citizens to adopt foreign-born children.

1966 – The Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions became the first adoption agency in the country to encourage single parents to adopt, in order to find homes for African-American children as well as children with special needs.

1966 – The Indian Adoption Project established its offshoot program, The National Adoption Resource Exchange (later as Adoption Resource Exchange of North America).

1968 – New York became the first state to provide assistance to potential adoptees.

1970 – Adoptions reached at their highest numbers (about 175,000 every year). 80% of these adoptions were arranged by licensed agencies.

1971 – The Adoptees Liberty Movement Association was established to put an end to the practice of closing adoption records, to help adoptees have access to such records in a way to help them find their birth parents.

1971 – The Adoption Listing Service was founded in Illinois. It was the first adoption agency to use the “photolisting” method to advertise adoption of older children.

1972 – The National Association of Black Social Workers declared its opposition against transracial adoptions.

1976–Social workers Reuben Pannor and Annette Baran campaigned for open adoptions, which involved contact between birth and adoptive parents.

1980–The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act provided the first federal incentives to promote adoption of children from foster care.

1980 to 2000

1981 – Catholic priest Rev. George Clements founded the “One Church, One Child” program which sought to recruit black parents to adopt black children through churches. First established locally in Chicago, it eventually became a national effort.

1989 – The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed.

1993 –The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, aka the Hague Adoption Convention, was signed.

1994 – The Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) was in effect, becoming the first federal law that focused mainly on race and ethnicity in adoption and foster care. This law prohibits agencies from denying placements based on a child’s or an adoptive/foster parent’s race, color and ethnicity.

1996 – Bastard Nation was founded which sought and promoted the rights of an adult adoptee to have access to closed adoption records.

1997 – The Adoption and Safe Families Act was enacted. This law emphasized the health and safety of the child as of paramount importance, and shifted away from the policy of reunification.

2000 – The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 allowed certain foreign-born adoptees to automatically become US citizens. This eliminated the burden of going through the naturalization process in international adoptions.

2000 to present

2000 –Over 150,000 foster children were adopted in the US

2012Washington Times reported that an estimated 95% of infant adoptions in the US have some certain level of openness between adoptive and birth parents.

2013 – As of this period, an estimated 85% of adoptions are either semi-open or entirely open.

2014 – As of this period, a total of 28 US states and the District of Columbia allow the inclusion of legally enforceable open adoption contract agreements upon the finalization of the adoption process.


The development of the process of adoption and foster care has remarkably changed in the last 100 years or so. Although adoptions have now become a common practice throughout the world, the United States currently leads the number of adopted children for each 100 live births.

Despite being at times clouded by imperfections and controversies, adoptions aredefinitely more open and progressive than ever before. In our modern society, adoptions are now celebrated as a one-of-a-kind and diverse way of creating and building a family. Adoption agencies have now become more accommodating to all families across the world. Such agencies, plus the laws and regulations that protect the best interest of the birth parents, adoptive parents, and most of all the welfare of the adoptees, the future of adoption looks bright indeed.