Guest Blog: A Brief History of Modern Adoption

Just as I felt compelled to know how I came to be and my relinquishment and adoption story, I also felt compelled to understand the history of adoption. I believe understanding the roots of how adoption came to be gave me perspective to understand my story of relinquishment and adoption in a relevant way.

There are two general eras of modern adoption: adoption before the 21st century and adoption after the first adoption law was passed in 1851 in the United States. Before the 21st century, adoptions were very secretive, and the process was based on shame and guilt. The social threat and stigma of being pregnant out of wedlock ran very deep at the time and birth mothers made decisions to relinquish their children out of fear that their child would be labeled illegitimate and therefore scorned by society. Birth mothers were also forced to relinquish their children by their families and/or their church communities to avoid the shunning, shaming and persecution that would follow should she choose to keep her baby.

I remember talking with a late discovery adoptee about 30 years ago. She was in her 70’s at that time and had just gotten a copy of her original birth certificate. The document had, in large red letters, the word BASTARD stamped in two places on the front page. A very telling sign of those times. Poverty, illness and family crisis were other reasons that a birth mother may have had no other choice than to relinquish her baby.

In 1851, the first U.S. adoption law was established in Massachusetts to protect the best interests of a child. During the 20th century, the number of adoptions increase dramatically in the United States. One of the most significant events in adoption history occurred between 1854 and 1929 at the hands of a young minister named Charles Loring Brace. He took it upon himself to gather the homeless, abandoned and orphan children from the streets of New York City, put them on trains and ship them to the Midwest states to be adopted by farming community families. There were more than 150,000 children relocated in this manner. As the train would pull into a station, the children were lined up on loading platforms, so that prospective parents could inspect them. Hence the term “Being put up for adoption.” I highly recommend viewing The Orphan Trains; American Experience that aired on PBS in 2006.

Orphanages were created to house children until they could be placed with a family or returned to family of origin. This was the beginning of the foster care system in the United States. Unfortunately, orphanages were often places with cold leadership, corporal punishment and a great deal of prejudice based on religion, socioeconomic class or race. In 1910, the first specialized adoption agencies were founded and in 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau began to “investigate and report on all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people.”

Let’s shift to the societal context of a white single pregnant women in 1946. For the most part, these women hid their pregnancies as long as possible and were sent to maternity homes to hide until the baby was born and placed with an adoptive family. These pregnant single women were often turned out of their home by embarrassed and ashamed parents and left to fend for themselves. This does not sound to me that the stigma of being an unwed woman had gained any ground since before the twentieth century. Relinquishment, voluntary or not, was viewed as a punishment for a sin and a means to return from a fallen state to a position of grace, in effect, as if it had never happened. It is estimated that at this time in history, 90% of these women “surrendered” their children.

Original birth certificates were sealed and amended birth certificates for adoptee were instituted in Colorado in 1943. In 1949, Colorado sealed remaining adoption records for the first time. This prompted the following legal statutes:

  • Original birth certificates were sealed and amended and were issued using only adoptive family names. Thus, the adoptee has no information about her birth name and can now be considered “as if not born as an illegitimate.”

  • The amended birth certificate gave the adoptive parents an “as if by birth” status.

  • Sealed records gave birth parents protection from disdain and discovery “as if it never happened.”

Knowing what we know now about how separation, grief and loss impact an individual’s mental, emotional and development life process, these “AS IF” concepts proved detrimental and harmful to all.

Fast forward to 1996 and we find a different societal context. There is fast-growing literature on adoptive development which indicates that the long-term effects of secrecy in relinquishment and adoption compromise growth. This type of information stimulated my desire to learn more about myself in this context. Twenty years after being un undergraduate, I returned to a Masters Program to study psychology and how I might have been impacted by my relinquishment and adoption story.

Birth children and birth parents began calling for a voice in legislative reform on the ground of both human rights and complete development. Shame has become less of a major force in relinquishment and adoption decision making. It appears that currently, 95% of single pregnant women choose to parent their child.

Here we are at the end of 2020, a truly historic year. In a time when people are finding family through DNA and social media, support group meetings are taking place on digital platforms where members of the adoption community offer each other understanding, ideas and empathy when burdens become too heavy to carry on their own.


More than ever, it has proven to be a time when it is important to tend to your story, celebrate your healing moments, practice forgiveness and foster love.


Thanks for reading,

Beth Paddock


Beth Paddock, MA, LPC

Beth recently completed her term as an ASRC board member and facilitator of the ASRC small group support meeting. She is a former Colorado Confidential Intermediary who has counseled adoptive families, adoptees, and birth parents. She performs home studies and recertifications for Boulder County Social Services. Beth is an adoptee who connected with her maternal birth family in the 1990s.

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