A Brief History
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter traces the history of adoption in America. It covers adoption in early America, the rise of the orphanage, the emergence of the adoption agency system, adoption practice following World War II, and gay and lesbian adoption. American adoption is a story intimately linked to larger social changes over three centuries. Once thought of as little laborers, children increasingly became cherished for themselves. Once imagined as a single model, family structure bent and reshaped itself to the winds of change. We now have families with stepchildren, with half-brothers and half-sisters and blends of both; families with children and parents of different races and colors, families with two mothers, and families with two fathers. Adoption has always been a kind of front line of social change in reimagining the family, the place where change has been most evident, most scrutinized, and most controversial. Over time, it has helped to lead the way to acceptance of a diversity of family forms.
The story of adoption is one without beginning and without end—without beginning because adoption has existed in some form throughout human history and without end because the story continues to unfold. What the story does have is a few fundamental fixed elements—parents and children and homes—but the meanings of these terms have been defined and redefined over time. Historically contingent, the institution of adoption has responded to changing conceptions of proper parenthood, the value of childhood, the needs of adults, the best interests of children, and the form of the ideal family. Today it encompasses a multiplicity of family forms, of which the most recent, at least in terms of public visibility, is the gay/lesbian family.
Adoption in Early America
Children have lived with adults who were not their birthparents for many reasons. In America, during the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century, parents placed children in other homes in apprenticeships and indentures to learn a trade. Economic hardship was not always the reason, and historian Edmund Morgan has even speculated that colonial parents feared spoiling their children, and sent them out to another family that could train them in a useful skill while avoiding the dangers of coddling (Morgan, 1944). Destitute children could even be sold into apprenticeships. In these cases, they were not infants, but children of an age to work and learn, and the arrangement would last only for a specific number of years, not continuing into adulthood. Though bonds of affection might form between apprentices or indentured servants and the families into which they (p.4) were placed, and indeed such children might be remembered in a householder’s will, the emphasis in such situations was primarily economic: Children helped out with the work and, in turn, they learned the basics of a trade (Askeland, 2006).
Many children were, of course, in a very different situation: left homeless and dependent because of some kind of family breakdown—usually the illness, death, poverty, or desertion of one or both parents. They might be taken under the care of the state and placed in an almshouse until old enough (sometimes no more than 6 or 7 years) to be put out to indenture or apprenticeship. More fortunate children would be taken into the home of relatives or family friends in a kind of informal adoption, as had long been common in both Native American and African-American cultures. John Hancock, the signer of the Declaration of Independence, was raised by a childless uncle and aunt after his father died, and inherited their property (Berebitsky, 2000). This kind of informal adoption was not yet recognized in law, since colonial America had taken on the system of English common law, which did not recognize legal adoption because all inheritance had to follow bloodlines.
By the early nineteenth century, it became evident that better provision needed to be made for children who did not have a kinship network to take care of them. These children were becoming ever more numerous as America industrialized and urbanized, and immigration swelled the ranks of those without an extended family. The majority of dependent children lived in almshouses, or poorhouses, until after the Civil War; yet these were increasingly seen as undesirable institutions for the dependent young, since they also accommodated adults, who might be delinquent or insane, as well as children (Nelson, 2003). In her book Minding the Children, Geraldine Youcha cites an 1857 report of a New York State Senate committee lamenting the mixing of young and old in almshouses, “an association with their destitute parents, and their necessary poor house companions, [which] is not only a deprivation of the attention and comforts which they ought to enjoy during their tender years, but it is a fatal exposure to examples of most evil tendency. Their chance to become virtuous and exemplary citizens is the most desperate of all human chances” (Youcha, 1995). Orphanages, which had existed since before the Revolutionary War, offered an alternative. They remained the most important locus of temporary or permanent care of children without familial support until well into the twentieth century (Askeland, 2006).
The Rise of the Orphanage
Dolley Madison helped found one of the earliest orphanages, the Washington City Orphan Asylum (WCOA), in 1815. Designed to care for children orphaned by the British raid on Washington during the War of 1812, the WCOA was, like many such institutions, supported by local Protestant congregations. Catholics and Jews founded their own orphanages. In fact, the earliest orphanage in the United States seems to have been Catholic, established in 1729 by Ursuline nuns in Natchez, Mississippi, after an Indian massacre. Spurred in good part by fears (p.5) that Protestant orphanages would proselytize Catholic children, Catholics founded 16 orphanages by 1840, largely staffed by orders of religious sisters. Urgent local conditions, notably epidemics such as cholera and yellow fever, sometimes motivated the creation of orphanages; one of the earliest Jewish orphanages, for instance, opened in New Orleans in 1856 in response to a yellow fever epidemic that had left women without husbands and orphaned many children. African-American children remained largely excluded from these institutions; New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum, opened in 1836 by Quaker women, was one of the first to serve their needs. As the nineteenth century progressed, the number of children at risk increased with the carnage of the Civil War and the enormous postwar industrial expansion that opened the floodgates to immigration.
The term “orphanage” was actually a misnomer: Orphanages most frequently served children with at least one living parent who, for whatever reason, could not care for them. They were to be “second homes” until the children could be discharged, either to be reunited with their parents, placed in some form of indenture, or adopted into a new family. Though our image of nineteenth-century orphanages may picture them as residences until adulthood, this was infrequently the case.
Many people genuinely believed that institutionalization was the best solution to the problem of the growing numbers of dependent children. Orphanages gave children a reasonably safe place to live, adequate food to sustain life if not health (disease was a constant threat), discipline, and some basic schooling (Youcha, 1995). Still, in the mid-nineteenth century, these children overwhelmed the institutional resources of Eastern cities. And not everyone agreed that orphanages were the best answer to childhood dependency. Charles Loring Brace held that institutional care was detrimental to children, who would be much better off in families. As one of the founders and then secretary of the Children’s Aid Society of New York, he created the most famous (or infamous) alternative to the orphanage: taking children from Eastern city streets and sending them to a more healthful rural environment. His “orphan trains” transported children to farm families, first in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and then to the Midwest. The majority of these trains ran from 1854 to 1904, though the practice continued sporadically until 1929, and in all carried perhaps 200,000 children to new homes. The New York Sun wrote favorably of this system of placing children into new families rather than into orphanages: “We mean no condemnation of the asylum system itself. As compared with the abandonment of children, it is an immense good. No one can deny it. But a new system, we claim, has been discovered, which is nearly as much in advance upon the asylum system as that is in advance of nothing at all” (Youcha, 1995, p. 208).
Though hailed at the time for its benevolence, the orphan train project has been reevaluated by historians, who find its record mixed at best. Some farmers looked upon the children simply as sources of labor. Some children were abused by the families who took them in and wound up as miserable as they had been in New York. In some cases, birthparents had not given consent for their children to be transported. Yet there are also stories with happy endings. Two orphan train (p.6) riders became governors, one became a Supreme Court justice, and others grew up to be mayors and congressmen. Somewhat ironically, a great many of them returned from the salubrious countryside to the streets of New York and other major Eastern cities (Sokoloff, 1993; Youcha, 1995). Most of the orphan train riders were treated as foster children, but some were adopted, and perhaps the most lasting legacy of the orphan trains is their influence on the subsequent history of adoption. According to Stephen Presser (1972), “The origins of America’s first adoption laws can be traced to the increase in the number of middle-class farmers desiring to legalize the addition of children to their families.”
Emergence of the Adoption Agency System
Before the middle of the eighteenth century, some states recognized individual adoptions through the passage of private adoption acts in their legislatures. These acts were fairly frequent but obviously cumbersome and difficult to obtain without some degree of social influence on the part of the would-be adopters. State legislatures grew weary of providing these increasingly numerous individual remedies, and in addition felt a need to safeguard child welfare.
Legal adoption is usually dated from the year 1851, when Massachusetts passed the first general adoption law. It provided that either the parents, the surviving parent if one had died, the legal guardian, or the next of kin if both had died, or “some discreet and suitable person” appointed by the judge, had to give written consent to the adoption. A child of 14 years and older had to give his or her own consent. The judge would then determine that the individuals or couples hoping to adopt were “of sufficient ability to bring up the child, and furnish suitable nurture and education.” The adopted child would then be deemed “the same to all intents and purposes as if such child had been born in lawful wedlock of such parents or parent by adoption” (Herman, 2007). This law is noteworthy for its requirement that a child 14 years or older had to consent to the adoption and that the adoptive parent or parents had to make adequate provision for the child’s welfare. In the latter nineteenth century many states followed the lead of Massachusetts, enacting laws to codify the placement of children into new families and to give them the same inheritance rights as the family’s biological children.
Claudia Nelson begins her study of the ways in which adoption and foster care have been portrayed in the literature with a clever comparison of “Little Orphan Annie,” James Whitcomb Riley’s 1855 bound-out girl, to the twentieth-century’s Little Orphan Annie, adopted daughter of Daddy Warbucks. Riley’s orphan washes the dishes, dusts the hearth, makes the fire, bakes the bread, and shoos the chickens. Daddy Warbucks’ Annie lives to be cherished and protected (Nelson, 2003). The difference highlights the profound change in attitudes toward children that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Children had been an economic asset, highly valued for their labor and often essential to family maintenance, since the colonial period. When children were placed in the homes of adults who were not their kin, they normally went (p.7) to work. The benefits were multiple: to a family that gained another pair of hands, to a child who was given shelter and maintenance, and to a society that did not have to take on a public charge. As the economy moved away from agriculture and toward industrialization, however, children’s labor, though still all too common, became less important as an economic factor. At the same time, the American conception of childhood was changing into one more nearly like that of today: Children were increasingly seen as vulnerable and in need of protection; they should be loved and nurtured. Their value no longer depended on their ability to work; it was emotional, and as such, priceless. One tangible result of this new attitude was a rise in the number of potential adoptive families who sought infants rather than children old enough to work. By the 1930s, a Minnesota study showed, most adoptive parents refused to take older children and, instead, favored babies because they perceived that those children would be entirely their own (Creagh, 2006).
Child welfare workers came to believe that the “best interests of the child” were served in families, rather than institutions, so their emphasis turned increasingly to making it possible for poor families to keep their children at home, and to finding permanent homes for children without parents. This view reached the highest levels in 1909 with the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which concluded:
Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. It is the great molding force of mind and of character. Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons. Children of parents of worthy character, suffering from temporary misfortune, and children of reasonably efficient and deserving mothers who are without the support of the normal breadwinner, should as a rule be kept with their parents, such aid being given as may be necessary to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of children… Except in unusual circumstances, the home should not be broken up for reasons of poverty, but only for considerations of inefficiency or immorality. (Hart, 1910, p. 386)
President Theodore Roosevelt gave his hearty approval to these sentiments.
Although the population of orphanages remained substantial well into the twentieth century, several factors led to their gradual decline—most notably, the emphasis on being in a family prompted greater and greater use of foster care and adoption instead of institutional settings. Progressive Era reforms such as mothers’ pensions, and finally, under the New Deal, Aid to Dependent Children, were also designed to privilege families over institutions.
Interest in adoption on the part of childless couples grew markedly in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of its early manifestations—such as unregulated “baby brokers” and “black market adoptions”—were undesirable and prompted regulatory legislation in most states (Sokoloff, 1993). More legitimate institutions also responded to this awakened interest. In the years after 1910, philanthropic women founded the first specialized adoption agencies, such as the (p.8) Spence Alumni Society, the Alice Chapin Nursery, and the Cradle. These agencies took shape almost by chance. In New York, Alice Chapin began caring for the abandoned infants brought to her husband’s hospital, and then placed them with couples who asked for them. She formalized her work in 1919 with the founding of the Alice Chapin Adoption Nursery. Similarly, in Chicago, Florence Walrath found a baby for her sister, whose infant had died, and was then approached by friends and acquaintances seeking babies of their own. She opened the Cradle in 1923, and it achieved national recognition when Hollywood stars sought out its services (Berebitsky, 2000).
The efforts of private agencies such as these were not always appreciated by social workers, who were still establishing themselves as legitimate professionals and were anxious to claim child welfare as their own field. Social workers disparaged the founders of private agencies as amateurs. Moreover, in their eagerness to place children, private agencies did not always investigate adopting parents with the scrutiny social workers felt was essential; in addition, in their commitment to adoption as the solution to illegitimacy, social workers felt private agencies were not sufficiently concerned about the possible consequences of “inferior” heredity, an issue of growing importance among social science scholars during this time period.
Fears that children from impoverished homes—or to their minds, worse, children born out of wedlock—were likely to turn out badly, received support from prevalent theories of eugenics. Two developments encouraged this concern: the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of heredity and the beginning of intelligence testing. At the time, inheritance was believed to follow simple Mendelian patterns, meaning that traits leading to success or failure in life were directly inheritable from one’s parents. Moreover, such traits were believed to be fixed and immutable. Henry H. Goddard, perhaps the most influential eugenicist of this period, sounded the alarm at the possibility of “disease and mental deficiency and possibly crime” among the thousands of children being annually placed in homes, about whom almost nothing was known (Herman, 2007). Goddard used the Binet Scale, which he brought to the United States from France in 1908, to assess intelligence in children; his position as head of the Vineland School for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls made him particularly sensitive to the problem of mental deficiency. In his mind, and in the mind of many eugenicists, feeble-mindedness was linked to illegitimacy, that is, feeble-minded unwed mothers gave birth to feeble-minded children.1
For Goddard, the remedy was obvious. He wrote,
We must use every means to learn all the facts before we place these children in the care of other unsuspecting fathers or mothers… It means that the family history of every homeless and neglected child must be ascertained just as far as possible, and that no pains or expense be spared to get all the information that can possible be had… It is neither right nor wise for us to let our humanity, our pity and sympathy for the poor, homeless, and neglected child, drive us to do injustice to and commit a crime against those yet unborn. (Goddard, 1911)
(p.9) Carrying out these recommendations meant establishing minimum standards in the adoption process, including certification of child-placers (eliminating amateurs and private agents), investigation of the fitness of both prospective adopting parents and the child to be adopted, and professional supervision of newly formed families. Almost all states had enacted minimum standards laws by mid-century, though the laws were totally unsuccessful in halting private adoption arrangements. One element of these standards was the search for the “normal” family. Social worker Dorothy Hutchinson, in her widely read text In Quest of Foster Parents, asserted that “selection of foster homes has at best been based on the assumption that although there is no such thing as a perfect home there is such thing as a normal family.” What would “normal” mean? “Normality is something that is hard to define, yet easy to feel and see. In it is assumed a wider range of behavior and attitude, not a narrowly fixed concept” (quoted in Carp, 2002).
In fact, normality had a specific meaning: The normal family consisted of the traditional biological unit of mother, father, and child(ren). Adoption agencies worked diligently to replicate this traditional form. They could not, of course, make the adoptive family biological, but they could do the next best thing: create the appearance of biology. They did this by matching physical characteristics, including race, ethnicity, and body type, as well as eye, hair, and skin color. It was believed that matching physical traits would not only eliminate derogatory comments about adoption by others, especially biological children, but would also enhance family bonds—and this would also be true for intelligence and personality. Accordingly, agencies matched for temperament and intelligence as best they could on the basis of the temperament and intelligence of the biological parents. As one California adoption worker explained, “Natural parents derive a normal satisfaction from the similarity of their children to themselves. It is understandable that adopting parents experience this need as well, and the physical and mental traits of an adopted child which seem like those their own child might have shown are a tie which helps to bind them together more closely” (Berebitsky 2000, p. 138). Over time, however, adopters increasingly desired very young children, and, if possible, newborns. Since newborns could not be tested for intelligence, the concept of matching by intelligence had to be abandoned.2
Finally, but every bit as important and often more important, agencies matched for religion. As late as the 1950s, Melosh found that religious matching was a concern. The Delaware Children’s Bureau that she studied followed the state mandate that “at least one of the prospective adopting parents shall be of the same religion as the natural mother” (Melosh, 2002). And even when a specific religion was not at issue, child placement workers looked for some kind of religious practice in adoptive homes. Religion in some form was considered one sign of parental fitness.3
If creating the ideal family meant finding the perfectly matched child, it also meant excluding the “defective” child, one with disabilities of body or mind. A hereditary history of psychosis, feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, addiction, criminality, or general emotional instability, even if the child showed no signs of any of these, signaled danger. For some child placement professionals, any defect (p.10) consigned a child to ineligibility for adoption. Most troublesome of these was feeble-mindedness; agencies often had staff psychologists who could “ensure that feeble-minded children shall not be adopted.” Such children belonged in institutions (Gill, 2002, pp. 162–168).
Prospective parents also came under growing scrutiny. The ideal family model not only excluded defective children as adoptees, it excluded single women as adopters. (At the time, men were not considered suitable adopters.) This attitude represented a change from the late nineteenth century, when single women had often been favorably viewed in light of the maternal instincts they shared with their married sisters. Before the 1920s, single women often raised their adopted children in a community of women or with a female partner. When two women lived together, the arrangement was often referred to as a Boston marriage and these were common and accepted. As the twentieth century moved away from the patriarchal family structure and toward a more companionate image of marriage, however, women were expected to focus on their roles as wives and romantic partners. New studies of sexuality brought homosexuality out into the open, and female partnerships, once completely respectable, came under hostile scrutiny.
Nor did single women escape: This new emphasis on romance and marriage by definition left them on the margins, branded as odd or deviant. Healthy adulthood required marriage: “Deprived of the outlets which a satisfactory marriage provides, the foster parent, whether bachelor or spinster, may unconsciously warp or thwart the child development by bestowing upon and accepting from him the full measure of affectional regard usually shared by the other parent” (Letter of U.S. Children’s Bureau staffer Elsa Castendyck to Miss Charlotte Whitton, quoted in Berebitsky, 2000, p. 119). Increasingly, child placement professionals counseled against placing children with single women. Moreover, Freudian theory, growing increasingly important during this time period, lent weight to this negative view. Boys and girls, Freudians insisted, needed both a mother and a father to achieve “[n]ormal Oedipal development” (Berebitsky, 2000, p. 120). Helene Deutsch, a psychoanalyst and author of The Psychology of Women, described the phenomenon of single adoptive motherhood as pathological (Berebitsky, 2000). By the 1950s, guidelines for adoption unequivocally excluded single women. Adoption standards developed by the Child Welfare League of America in 1958 envisioned a single adoptive family model: one with both a mother and a father (Herman, 2007).
Adoption Practice Following World War II
The landscape of American adoption changed profoundly in the years after World War II. Liberalized sexual mores reduced the stigma of unwed motherhood, leading many women to choose to parent their babies. Somewhat later, beginning in the 1960s and extending into the 1970s, the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion resulted in fewer unplanned pregnancies. As a result, the availability of white babies for adoption shrank significantly. Furthermore, as more and more children entered foster care, especially in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the (p.11) numbers of African-American children available for adoption grew. For white prospective adopters, two possible solutions to the reduced number of white babies existed: adoption of children transracially in this country or, somewhat later, intercountry adoption. Transracial adoption, primarily the adoption of black children by white families, raised a host of controversial issues, and was never a large-scale phenomenon. It reached its peak in 1971, when agencies reported 2574 placements of African-American children in white homes (Carp, 2002). With the enactment of the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and Interethnic Adoption Provisions Act (IEPA), as well as the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), during President Clinton’s administration, the number of transracial placements, once again, had begun to rise (Smith, McRoy, & Kroll, 2008).
International adoption began as a direct outgrowth of World War II, which had left many foreign-born children orphaned or abandoned. A second war shortly thereafter, the Korean War, resulted in a much greater influx of Korean adoptees, profoundly changing the face of American adoption. Whereas the European children looked similar to their white American parents, the Korean children did not. Adoptions from Korea continued to be the most common kind of intercountry adoption until 1991. In the 1970s and 1980s, Latin America became a major source of children for adoption, and later still, Russia, Rumania, and China. In her article “Intercountry Adoption: A Frontier without Boundaries,” Joan Heifetz Hollinger notes that in the last decades of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first century, adoption of children from abroad more than tripled in number from the 1980s, although in recent years it has dropped off significantly (Hollinger, 2004).
Some opponents of international adoption argued that children are best cared for in their countries of origin, where they can grow up within their ethnic and cultural heritage. They also insisted that such adoptions constitute a vicious form of exploitation by rich countries of the dearest resources of poor countries. Advocates of international adoption, however, suggested a healthy empiricism. Elizabeth Bartholet summarizes their position as a call to realism: How can children of the streets and orphanages actually participate in their native culture? Although most people involved in intercountry adoption have avoided taking part in this controversy, the views of critics, and, more importantly, recent international baby-selling and kidnapping scandals, have had a major impact; countries have begun to institute restrictions on the numbers of children they will permit to be adopted, and international adoption has become a great deal more difficult (Bartholet, 2006), resulting in a dramatic drop-off in the total number of intercountry adoptions in the past few years.
The most controversial issue in the history of adoption after World War II was adult adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates. Contrary to public perception, closure of these records for reasons of confidentiality was for the most part instituted quite late in the twentieth century, in the decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Those favoring closure gave several reasons, including the right of birth parents to privacy and the right of adoptive parents to raise their children without any interference from the birth family. At the same time, a movement was (p.12) gathering force on the part of adult adoptees to regain access to their birth certificates (which they had until the states began sealing them). This movement came to public attention in 1973 with the popular film, “The Search for Anna Fisher,” which told the story of activist Florence Fisher’s successful discovery of her birthmother and their reunion.4
For a variety of reasons, including the reluctance of birthmothers to place their babies if they had to lose all contact with them, open adoption has become increasingly common. Those who favor an end to secrecy have worked to create continuing contact between birth families and adoptive families. Such contact would begin with an exchange of information at the time of adoption. Thereafter contact might go no further than an occasional letter or photograph, or it might be much more sustained, including regular visits between birth parents and adopted child. Although there have been many skeptics, as well as outright opponents, of open adoption, nearly a quarter-century of research and social casework practice have found that this type of adoption arrangement has a positive impact on most birthparents, adoptive parents, and, most importantly, adopted individuals (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998; Grotevant, Perry, & McRoy, 2005; McRoy, Grotevant, Ayers-Lopez, & Henney, 2007).
Adoptive families represent an important break with the concept that a “real” or “normal” family is one with a mother and a father and their biological children. As long as adoption agencies attempted physical matching, the illusion of that concept could be maintained. But once children of different races and ethnicities entered the homes of Americans, that “perfect” family model no longer accorded with reality. The process of reinventing the family had begun (see Pertman & Howard, this volume). It changed the profiles of both the adopted children and the adoptive parents. Increasingly, children once thought to be unadoptable—older children, those with mental or physical challenges, sibling groups, children of color—came to be seen as deserving of homes. Meanwhile, the difficulty of placing such children led to a relaxing of the strictures that had governed the definition of suitable parents. In a society in which high rates of divorce left women and some men to raise children alone, single applicants began to be considered, and in the 1970s a support group for single adoptive parents was formed. Today, single women and, to a lesser extent, single men, although making up a fairly small percentage of adoptions of domestically born infants, as well as adoptions of children from abroad, now represent a sizable percentage of those adults adopting children from the foster care system. Over the past few decades, adoption agencies also began to accept as prospective adopters others previously considered ineligible to adopt, including foster parents, older adults, disabled adults, racial minority adults, those in the working class, and those with low incomes. Even more remarkably, gay and lesbian individuals and couples increasingly have been viewed as resources in the fostering and adoption of children, especially those youngsters with special needs (see Brodzinsky, this volume; Pertman & Howard, this volume; Gates et al., 2007; Howard & Freundlich, 2008). In short, in the past several decades the landscape of adoptive families has grown increasingly diverse. Gay and lesbian adoption adds one more element to that diversity.
Daniel Luke Lippin-Hayes lives with his two dads, Thad Hayes and Adam Lippin, in Montclair, New Jersey. Like so many suburbanites, Daniel’s parents moved out of the city because they thought suburban life was better for children. Montclair is a prosperous, liberal community, and the two dads say they have not experienced discrimination. When Daniel goes on play dates, his playmates’ parents are sometimes straight and sometimes gay. Were it not for having two dads, Daniel’s story would be entirely unremarkable, but his family, together with others like it, represents the new frontier of adoption (New York Times, 2007).
Same-sex couples are writing the latest chapter in the American adoption story (see Brodzinsky, this volume; Pertman, 2011; Pertman & Howard, this volume). Gay and lesbian people have always raised children, but until fairly recently they did so quietly, so it is impossible to know exactly how common this was in the past.
The implications of gay and lesbian adoption need to be understood in the broader context of the psychology of family formation, which examines desires, intentions, and actions taken to become parents. A stereotype held by many people is that sexual minority individuals do not wish to bear and/or raise children. Yet research suggests that this stereotype is wrong. For example, a sizable number of lesbians and gays have children from previous marriages (Martin, 1993; Patterson, 1994; Patterson & Friel, 2011). Based on Census 2000 data, Gates et al. (2007) report that one in three lesbian women and one in six gay men in the United States are raising children—either from previous marriages, surrogacy, or adoption. They also reported that 41 percent of childless lesbians and 52 percent of gay men expressed a desire to parent a child. In addition, a study by D’Augelli, Rendina, Grossman, and Sinclair (2006/2007) found strong expectations of future parenthood among a sample of urban lesbian and gay youth, with 86 percent of the young women and 91 percent of the young men reporting that they expected to rear children in the future. Furthermore, another recent study by Riskind and Patterson (2010) found that although lesbians and gays expressed less of a desire for parenting children than did heterosexual individuals, lesbians displayed the same strong intention as heterosexuals to become parents in the future; gay men expressed less future parenting intention than other participants in the study. Moreover, although showing less desire to parent children than heterosexuals, both lesbian women and gay men endorsed the value of parenthood just as much as heterosexual women and men. In short, contrary to stereotypes, sexual minority individuals are motivated to become parents and strongly value the role of parenthood. However, because they cannot directly procreate with their life partners, lesbians and gay men often seek alternative routes to parenthood, including adoption.
Over the past several decades more and more gay and lesbian individuals and couples living openly gay lives have sought adoption (see Brodzinsky, 2008; Brodzinsky, this volume; Gates et al., 2007). They have done so in the context of a society that has become a great deal more tolerant of homosexuality, although gay (p.14) adoption remains a controversial subject (Rye & Meaney, 2010). We see those changes most easily in the laws governing same-sex adoption (see Appell, this volume). State-by-state, laws are being modified to permit gay and lesbian individuals, and in many cases same-sex couples, to petition to adopt. Florida, which for many years was the only state to explicitly forbid adoption by gays and lesbians, now allows such adoptions after the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the law was unconstitutional (Department of Children and Families v. In the Matter of the Adoption of X.X.G. and N.R.G., 2010). Mississippi bars “samegender” couples from adopting; individual gays and lesbians, however, are eligible to adopt in Mississippi. In addition, in 2008 Arkansas voters approved a measure that banned … persons “co-habiting outside of a valid marriage” from adopting. Although this statute could also apply to heterosexual couples, it is widely perceived as intending to bar gay and lesbian couples from adopting;1 Utah has a similar law. In both these states, an individual—gay or straight—would not be prohibited from adopting. Almost all the other states permit individual gays and lesbians to adopt; and in many states, same-sex couples also are allowed to adopt (Appell, this volume). By contrast, 11 states and the District of Columbia have policies that prohibit using sexual orientation as a basis for excluding gays and lesbians from adopting. In many other states, lower courts have concluded that gay and lesbian adoption is allowed (Howard, 2006).
In situations in which one of the same-sex partners is the biological parent of the couple’s child, or has previously adopted a child, most jurisdictions allow the other partner to petition to adopt as a second parent (Appell, this volume). Both parents are then the legal guardians of the child. Gay and lesbian advocates have increasingly focused their attention on the importance of second-parent adoption to ensure that both partners have the full measure of legal parental rights over the child and to enhance the stability of the family.
The number of children being raised by gay and lesbian adoptive parents is large; it is probably larger than most people recognize. Gates et al. (2007), using the Census 2000 and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) datasets, report that approximately 65,500 adopted children, or more that 4 percent of all adopted children in the United States, were being raised in lesbian and gay households. Many of these households were headed by a single parent, representing close to one in six of all single parents with adopted children. Same-sex couples, in contrast, were raising about 1 percent of all adopted children. It should be noted, however, that these figures could be an underestimation of the prevalence of gay and lesbian adoption, since some respondents undoubtedly were not fully “out,” which could have resulted in a reluctance to acknowledge their sexual orientation in the surveys.
One interesting aspect of gay male adoption is that men may enter into the raising of children free from the cultural expectations that formerly defined women as mothers. Feminists had to fight the belief that a woman’s place was in the home taking care of the children, and in so doing they sometimes devalued (p.15) the role of a stay-at-home parent. Gay men may be more willing to take on that role. Mike Farina left his job as an engineer to take care of the twins he and his partner adopted. He explained, “I wanted the kids to bond with us. I didn’t want any help. In those first few years, I didn’t even get baby sitters. I thought, ‘That’s my job’” (New York Times, 2004).
Meanwhile lesbian women are shaping a new understanding of equity in relationships that cannot define roles by gender. Some scholars have theorized that lesbians, having experienced oppression in many aspects of their lives, are particularly sensitive to unfairness and inequality. In fact, research does indicate that lesbian couples do tend to share housework more equally, and in general to practice more equality in their relationships, than heterosexual couples (Chan, Brooks, Raboy, & Patterson, 1998; Goldberg, 2010; Patterson, Sutfin, & Fulcher, 2004).
Of course gay adoption remains controversial (Rye & Meaney, 2010). Not all communities are as accepting as Montclair, New Jersey. The arguments against gay adoption are familiar. Many stem from a religious conviction that homosexuality is wrong, and therefore gay partnerships are wrong, and so, obviously, are gay adoptions. Another argument stresses the value of the traditional family with one man and one woman and their children. Although this view may be biblically based (God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve), it need not be religious in origin. Rather, it emphasizes the purported necessity of role models of both sexes in order for children to grow up comfortable with both and psychologically healthy. One moment in the cultural conflict over gay adoption came in 1989 with the publication of Heather Has Two Mommies, a children’s book that portrayed Heather’s family positively. One minister removed the book from the library; it subsequently became the eleventh most frequently banned book in the country.
A rather more amusing media episode occurred with the publication in 2005 of And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. The book told the true story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, in New York’s Central Part Zoo who had bonded and formed a couple. They were given an egg to hatch and raise together. Zookeepers named the female chick that resulted Tango. If Heather had two mommies, Tango had two daddies.
In seeming to validate gay behavior and parenting in penguins, the book was immensely controversial; it became the most banned book in the country in 2009. Its impact was diminished subsequently, however, when Silo abandoned Roy in favor of a female penguin named Scrappy. Conservatives were pleased at this denouement, but the real message of the affair is probably that seeking to find lessons in sexuality in the animal kingdom is a misguided endeavor.
Adoption, whether by traditional or nontraditional parents, almost always takes place in the context of the best interests of the child, so there has been intense interest in the effects of gay and lesbian parenting on children. The landmark research review by Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” is the most frequently cited work to address this question (Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). Social science research had almost unanimously (p.16) found that there were no discernible differences between children raised in same-sex families and those raised in heterosexual families (see also Goldberg, 2010). Conservative critics of gay parenting argued, however, that the social science literature was biased in favor of gay rights and therefore was flawed and unreliable. Stacey and Biblarz did not fully agree with either side. They dismissed the conservative critique as distorted by heterosexual norms of healthy family life, which led—in the case of lesbian parents—to charges of a pathology of “fatherlessness.” On the other hand, they could not agree with the literature that said children of gay parents showed no differences at all from those children raised by heterosexuals. They viewed this conclusion as a defensive one in the face of the heterosexual family norm, whose proponents understandably feared that “difference” would be interpreted as “deficient.” In fact, Stacey and Biblarz found what they called “modest” but significant differences between the children of gay and straight parents. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both boys and girls raised by gay parents were less apt to fulfill the roles of stereotypical masculinity and femininity. Girls of lesbian parents, for example, “more frequently dress, play, and behave in ways that do not conform to sex-typed cultural norms” (Stacey & Biblarz, 2001, p. 169). They were also more interested in the traditionally male professions of medicine and law as well as engineering and space science. A very recent examination of the literature (Goldberg, 2010) has confirmed these findings, noting that children of lesbian and gay parents appear to be more flexible in their gendered role behavior.
Rather than interpreting these modest differences as deficits, Stacey and Biblarz suggested that the behavior of children from lesbian households was well within the normal range, and therefore of no great importance as a societal concern. Moreover, on the all-important issue of mental and emotional health, they noted that research has found no significant differences between children raised by gay and lesbian parents compared to those youngsters raised by heterosexual parents (see also Patterson & Wainright, this volume; Gartrell, Peyser, & Bos, this volume). These findings should reassure us that American children of gay and lesbian parents are not at risk for unhealthy development but are very much—if not entirely—the same as those of straight parents. And that is surely good news.
The adoption of children by gay and lesbian parents will continue to be controversial so long as homosexuality is not fully accepted into the social fabric of the country, but advocates have had considerable success. Five states have now legalized gay and lesbian marriage, which essentially opens a direct door to adoption. Many other states recognize civil unions, a somewhat shakier basis for adoption, since in most cases only one of the partners is recognized as the legal parent and the other partner must seek a second-parent adoption. It is very likely that more states will legalize gay marriage in the coming years. Meanwhile, acceptance of gay adoption, whether in marriage or in civil union, is substantial and growing, and is highlighted by the recent overturning of Florida’s statute barring such adoptions (Florida Department of Children and Families v. In the Matter of the Adoption of X.X.G. and N.R.G., 2010), as well as a similar ruling by the Arkansas supreme court in 2011.
American adoption is a story intimately linked to larger social changes over three centuries. Once thought of as little laborers, children increasingly became cherished for themselves. Once imagined as a single model, family structure bent and reshaped itself to the winds of change. We now have families with stepchildren, with half-brothers and half-sisters and blends of both, families with children and parents of different races and colors, families with two mothers, and families with two fathers. Adoption has always been a kind of front line of social change in reimagining the family, the place where change has been most evident, most scrutinized, and most controversial. Over time, it has helped to lead the way to acceptance of a diversity of family forms. Perhaps it can be the place where we learn to acknowledge that first and foremost, families are constructs of love, and love between parents and children should be honored wherever it is found.
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(1.) See update on Arkansas law in footnote of Preface.