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During the 20th century, policies and practices related to child adoption changed enormously in the United States. Even as one adoption revolution reversed the most cherished achievements of the last, new theories and approaches were invariably announced with great fanfare and high hopes that scientific research, policy innovation, and humanitarian progress were synonymous. Few revolutions have been more consequential and less considered in the history of modern adoption than the novel association of helping professionals and practices with the process of making families and then managing them once "biological strangers" are turned into kin.
"Adoption" is used here to refer to non-relative adoption. Adoption by blood relatives was presumed to be natural and easy, whereas the difficulties associated with adoption by strangers justified public regulation and professional oversight. A majority of children adopted during the 20th century were probably placed with non-relatives, but a significant number have been adopted by natal relatives and step-parents, especially since 1970.
When, how, and why did the exchange of children-an ancient transaction traditionally tied to concerns about property and charity-become a process requiring intensive scrutiny, information management, psychological sensitivity, and instruction and guidance by professionals? What have been the consequences of making adoption into a therapeutic operation, as well as a legal and social one?
Like other examples of therapeutic culture, the case of adoption provides an opportunity to document the shifting meaning of authenticity and explore the many practices that have been invented and reinvented to stabilize, manufacture, and ensure its survival in difficult modern and post-modern times. Therapeutic practices proliferated with the disenchantment of the world famously described by Max Weber, and scholars have explored their historical correlation with a voracious culture of consumption and increasingly global capitalism that draws more and more experience into the nexus of market relations. Whatever its causes and consequences, therapeutic culture has inspired vigilant efforts to recapture authenticity, the sense of being, becoming, and experiencing the really real.
Therapeutic Problems and Solutions
Adoption has not come "naturally." The cultural positioning of adoption as artificial kinship has galvanized developments aimed as securing a more complete authenticity for adoption and its participants. These have taken the form of policies governing the eligibility, emotional profiles, demographic characteristics, and behaviors of all the parties to adoption. Such authenticity quests have relied on what we might call "rules for realness."
Over the past century, adoption's rules for realness have shifted dramatically, moving from a dominant emphasis on the authenticity of similarity--prevalent before the 1960s-toward an interest in the authenticity of difference. Between World War I and the late 1960s, most adoption reforms stressed wholesale kinship replacement, an ideal in which authenticity was achieved through substitution and simulation of a nuclear family made biogenetically. Pluralism may have been acceptable in the public square of social life during this era, but it had few backers in the realm of private experience. Early advocates of difference in family life included New York jurist Justine Wise Polier, novelist Pearl S. Buck, and Helen Doss, whose popular memoir, The Family Nobody Wanted (1954), described a large family forged transracially and transnationally in the late 1940s and 1950s. H. David Kirk, in Shared Fate (1964), was the first scholar to consider adoption as a serious theoretical issue in the sociologies of family and mental health. All of these individuals are conspicuous today as dissidents who questioned the authenticity of similarity. They were prophetic, but they departed from majority opinion at the time.
Before the 1960s, matching summarized the dominant rule for realness. This way of thinking about authenticity in kinship--as a byproduct of similar appearances--governed the concrete steps of family formation. Matching required that adopters be married heterosexuals who looked, felt, and behaved as if they had conceived, by themselves, children born to others. The consensus among professionals that children should be told about their adoptions nevertheless pointed to widespread awareness that adoption was a different way to make a family. Matching did not preclude sensitivity to adoption's uniqueness; excruciating awareness that adoption was artificial was precisely what made it so important to fit families together carefully. Nor did matching refer to bodily characteristics alone. Great effort was devoted to pairing children with parents whose intellects, temperaments, and personalities would be as similar as their bodies. Artifice was the paradoxical key to an authenticity based on similarity.
Since 1970, new rules for realness have emerged. Demands to open sealed adoption records, moves toward open adoption, searches and reunions, and increases in the visibility of transracial and transnational placements have contested, if not dislodged, the codes of matching and secrecy that previously governed adoption. According to this view, it is precisely the rejection of matching that promotes authenticity. Compared to the stipulation that children and adults match according to superficial appearance is the more profound love that bonds family members across borders of difference. (Some critics of matching suggest that adoption across racial, ethnic, and national lines will benefit the nation as well as its children and families by advancing diversity and civil rights where they may count most: at home.) Champions of difference in adoption allege that matching was a cruel hoax, incompatible with authenticity. The realness that difference promises, on the other hand, is the real thing. Such changes may tell us as much about tectonic movements in the deep structures of cultural meaning as they do about the history of adoption and family life.
Rules for realness that addressed the authenticity problem therapeutically were evident in child placement manuals and how-to books between 1915 and 1965. These materials were often addressed to professional audiences, especially social workers involved in day-to-day adoption placements. After the mid-1930s, they also reached participants in adoption, especially prospective adopters. This literature illustrates how the adoption process itself was transformed into an operation that advanced the most significant ideals of therapeutic culture: self-scrutiny, emotional training, and the commitment to lifelong management of selfhood and social relationships.
Systematic procedures, detailed investigations, and expert clinical control from start to finish were the hallmarks of therapeutic family formation. Although agency professionals never gained a legal monopoly over the adoption process, and commercial and sentimental adoption persisted, many of the safeguards and standards professionals favored were incorporated into state adoption laws between 1917 and mid-century. (These included mandatory pre-placement social investigations, post-placement supervisory periods of 6-12 months, confidentiality of court proceedings and records related to adoption, and movement toward equalizing inheritance rights.) During this era, many social workers, psychologists, and physicians advanced therapeutic approaches to family life-and to life in general. By the early 1970s, only 21 percent of all non-relative adoptions were privately arranged. This was the high point of professional authority in adoption.
Therapeutic adoption aimed, above all, to be a helping operation in which skilled professional mediators offered an indispensable asset: "interpretation." Interpretation summarized the psychological work required of all adoption participants and marked the transformation of adoption into a full-f ledged subject of casework and counseling. Even during the period when the matching paradigm dominated, professional emphasis on interpretation drew meaningful attent ion to the uniqueness of adoptive family formation by endowing the steps in adoption with layers of complex, often unconscious, emotional meaning that individuals did not appreciate, and certainly could not adequately negotiate, by themselves. Insight and guidance by experts trained in the intricacies of human motivation and behavior were just as necessary to successful adoption as meticulous documentation and up-to-date knowledge of state laws. Matching was no crude mechanical blueprint that paired like with like on the basis of superficial characteristics alone, writers took pains to point out. Making a real family was an act of the most delicate psychological engineering imaginable. Therapeutic skill and expertise were crucial during all phases of the adoption process: investigating children and adults, bringing together those who had the potential to make authentic families and rejecting those who did not, overseeing the probationary period during which (it was hoped) the potential for authenticity was realized.
So central did this therapeutic vision of adoption become over time that key legal and social operations involved in family formation were eventually discussed in terms of their emotional meaning. Termination of parental rights, placement, guardianship transfers, and adoption decrees mattered largely because of what they signified for children's sense of secure belonging and psychological development, according to Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, a 1973 book that marked a profound change in legal practices surrounding child placement. The challenge facing the law was to "assure for each child a chance to be a member of a family where he feels wanted and where he will have the opportunity, on a continuing basis, not only to receive and return affection, but also to express anger and to learn to manage his aggression," according to authors Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert Solnit. Because courtroom decisions clearly influenced human development, they argued, the ingredients of children's psychological welfare (rather than abstractions like justice or rights) should be primary legal considerations. This perspective served to prioritize continuity of nurture (preservation of the relationship to the "psychological parent"), speedy and permanent decisions, and humility about what the law itself could accomplish for children (which was not very much). In adoption as well as other decisions involving placement conflicts, therapeutic logic subordinated law to psychology.
Making families the therapeutic way involved even more than accumulating the knowledge to make families up well rather than poorly. Adoption was a growing and learning experience in itself, in which the ability of participants to demonstrate that they were growing and learning indicated the success of the process as well as the probable quality of the product. The cultivation of constructive self-consciousness was key to therapeutic adoption, and it became a credible indication of readiness for family life, whereas hostility to inspection was judged quite harshly. From early in the century, professionals warned that resistance to being investigated was an ominous sign. Would-be adopters who did not cooperate with professionals were likely to make poor parents. In contrast, willingness to ask for and use help during the course of the adoption process was among the best predictors of successful outcomes. By the late 1950s, therapeutic cooperation had itself become a quasi-legal requirement According to the Child Welfare League of America's landmark Standards for Adoption Service (1958), applicants who displayed openness to personal growth "indicate their flexibility and adaptability to adoptive parenthood."
The relationship between such displays of therapeutic maturity and the growing ranks of middle-class, managerial occupations during the first half of the century is obvious. Adoption practices sustained class, race, and ethnic stratification, and religious matching had long been legally stipulated in many jurisdictions. The fact that healthy white infants were in highest demand made them the likeliest subjects of therapeutic adoption. Standards of all kinds were eventually relaxed for older, non-white, and other hard-to-place children that professional couples seldom wanted: income and insurance requirements, requirements that mothers not work, requirements that children be given bedrooms of their own, etc. After 1945, programs were organized to promote the adoption of Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Oriental, and mixed-race children, as they were called at the time. The National Urban League's Adopt-A-Child project, for instance, identified a host of therapeutic practices as major obstacles to recruiting minority adoptive parents. Adopt-A-Child equated therapeutic probing with systematic prejudice against non-white, working-class applicants. Why wouldn't such applicants avoid racist agencies that made them think they had to be rich (as well as white) to adopt?
As for the many middle- and upper-class white couples who sought assurances about children's health and educational potential, therapeutic professionals allayed anxieties about the impoverished origins of many children available for adoption by conducting detailed background studies and administering batteries of mental and physical tests. For would-be adopters, however, becoming active therapeutic partners was one of the few steps they could take themselves. "You may well feel that you have experienced just about the ultimate in a complete goldfish bowl exposure of your life and private affairs," wrote Ernest and Frances Cady sympathetically in 1956. "But you may rest assured that a happy and successful adoption makes it all worthwhile." "Screening yourselves as an agency would screen you" is a smart thing to do before applying for a child, Louise Raymond assured readers in a chapter, "What You Should Know About Yourselves," designed to help applicants succeed in getting the children they wanted. The ability to relax and move beyond anger at having to prove one's parental fitness was a mark of emotional maturity, according to Raymond, whereas persistent discomfort betrayed "the deepest-rooted resentment of all-the fact that you and your husband can't have your biological children, through no fault of your own."
Although birth parents and adopters were uncomfortably dependent upon mediators for help in surrendering or acquiring children, no one entered into adoptive kinship accidentally. Professionals turned this act of volition into a sign of character strength. In 1943, Dorothy Hutchinson wrote "There is no special virtue in loving one's own child; such love is taken for granted. However, to love someone else's child requires really uncommon qualities of heart and mind." People who considered adopting "are people of more than ordinary emotional depth, greater than common seriousness in their relation to life and to each other, more than usual conscientiousness," added Frances Lockridge and Sophie van Senden Theis in 1947. "They are able, consciously, to examine their own feelings."
One of the great paradoxes of therapeutic adoption is that the powerful emphasis on the interpretation of invisible dynamics in family formation came to prominence at the same time as the matching paradigm, which credited appearances as ultimately meaningful indicators of love and belonging. This suggests that competing recipes for authenticity in kinship coexisted in adoption practice and philosophy. While realness resided in the fact of physiological likeness between parent and child, it also resided in the intangible aspects of the relationship between them. These two conceptions of authenticity were not necessarily contradictory, of course, and adoption workers strove mightily to produce both kinds of realness on the theory that they were mutually productive and reinforcing. But it is also worth considering how the two types of authenticity could diverge. Therapeutic professionals who trusted depths over surfaces, elevated psychological over material welfare, and insisted that the truest qualities of kinship were located in its emotional geography cast a shadow of doubt, however unintentional, over the commitment to adoption as a mirror of biogenetic nature. Wasn't it possible for kin to match physically without matching emotionally, and vice versa? The critique of the matching paradigm--so central to the direction of adoption philosophy and reform during the past several decades-has roots in both the therapeutic sensibility, with its refusal to equate feeling with appearance, and the rights revolution that sharply recast the terms of individual identity and collective belonging, in the private realm of love and intimacy as well as the public sphere of political and economic participation.
The work of interpretation mitigated preoccupations with skin color and body type by promoting careful attention to emotional currents lurking below the superficial veneer of human bodies and behaviors. Seeing beyond the tangible evidence was the raison d'etre of therapeutic approaches. "Even the would-be parents themselves don't always realize just why they want a child," one how-to pamphlet from the Child Welfare League of America explained. "But in the course of friendly conversation, expertly guided, under-the-surface reasons are bound to come up." Whether the questions were about motivation to adopt or marital sex, it was presumed that the role of skilled interpreters was to extract important emotional truths that would not be voluntarily offered, even when applicants were convinced they had nothing to hide. The habit of checking applicants' own stories against independent sources of information--confidential physicians' reports documenting the causes of infertility, for instance--illustrated that truth was as much a therapeutic as an empirical quality.
Planning for Adoption: Knowing the Costs and Resources
- Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Planning for adoption: Knowing the costs and resources. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
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