Adoption Option Guide

Your guide to a new parenting challenge.

28 Jul

Adoption Remains Tricky In Many States

Posted in Uncategorized on 28.07.13 by Merlyn

Gladney decides to go into the adoption business. The fight for the “little ones” is highly sentimentalized, replete with a “Gallery of Notable Orphans” mounted on the agency’s walls. Gladney’s enemies are the “good ladies” of the town, obnoxious Nosy Parkers who traffic in stereotypes of illegitimate children condemned to live as “creatures of shame,” and quite rightly, too, in their eyes. Gladney is the force of enlightenment, calling for “love, sympathy, understanding” rather than law and intolerance. There are “no illegitimate babies–only illegitimate parents.

Then the laws in Texas are changed. Birth certificates will no longer register illegitimacy. The film opens with “America the Beautiful,” and closes with “Oh Come Let Us Adore Him” as the snow falls and two new tykes are taken under Edna’s expansive wing. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy with a screenplay by Anita Loos, Blossoms in the Dust was nominated for four Academy Awards. We may chortle at its lack of sophistication now, but the film is still good for a heart tug, because it is based on a deeply moral intuition. Anyone past the age of forty remembers that children often bore the negative brunt of society’s concern with marital order, stability, and legitimacy, as if any break in the line of biological lineage presaged social chaos.

This is not to say that the history of adoption in America is a matter of sentimentality and saintly figures. There was certainly nothing sentimental or saintly about the “orphan trains” of the mid-1880s. They were the brain-child of a child rescuer named Charles Loring Brace. (Carp’s book tells his story.) Reverend Brace organized the “most influential of charity organizations” dealing with children at risk (as we are now wont to call them), the Children’s Aid Society, in 1853. For Brace, “placing out” was superior to orphanages, almshouses, and reformatories. It promised to transform little “vagabonds and homeless creatures” into “decent, orderly, industrious children.” Beginning in 1854, some 20,000 Eastern children were initially “placed out” in the Western states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, followed by Missouri and Kansas. By 1890, some 84,000 children had been sent from East to West on so-called “orphan trains.”

Brace’s view reflected a controversial aspect of the child-placement system of the nineteenth century, which Carp describes as “a decided preference for breaking up biological families in order to ‘save’ children.” But some biological families more than others: Catholics charged, with good evidence, that the sacrosanct blood tie seemed not to extend to inner-city immigrant Catholic families. Carp calls it “an aggressive and covert form of Protestant proselytizing.” For Brace seemed to believe that, in the case of these neglected or drifting children, it was better to break up the family, if only temporarily, so that children got a proper American (read: Protestant) upbringing.

Children who were sent out on the orphan trains later told of how they were lined up at train stops, or hauled off to a church or school, to be “picked” by local farmers. Unfortunate children were kept moving from town to town, never being picked, sometimes disappearing without a trace. These “distributions” of children continued for 75 years. There were committees that supposedly checked the qualifications of potential foster parents. Children who were picked were expected to work, and adoption was by no means guaranteed. Some veterans of the orphan trains reported good outcomes, with love and eventual adoption by their foster families; but others described being treated like slaves and never entering the household at all. The separation of siblings was common. And this was the “enlightened” approach of the time.

Carp argues that the large-scale placing-out movement had enormous consequences for the history of adoption in America. Worried about the lack of regulation of adoption, state legislatures in the middle of the nineteenth century began enacting general adoption statutes. The Massachusetts Adoption Act of 1851 was the first law to establish the principle of judicial supervision of adoptions, requiring that a judge ascertain that adoptive parents were of “sufficient ability to bring up the child, before issuing the decree.” Adoptive parents were legally required to “furnish suitable nurture and education.” In general, a magistrate had to be satisfied that the adoption was fit and proper.

The law also ended the power of natural parents over the children whom they relinquished, by severing all legal bonds between them and freeing the child from all legal obligations to them. Thus the Massachusetts Adoption Act, in Carp’s words, marked “a watershed in the history of Anglo-American family and society. Instead of defining the parent-child relationship exclusively in terms of blood kinship, it encouraged adoptive parents to build a family by assuming the responsibility and emotional outlook of natural parents.” Parenting was conceived in more moral and social terms. The parent was defined not by genealogy, but by the long, hard work of loving care. A decent nurture was preferred to the claims of nature.

This preference was codified by a “Final Order of Adoption,” which read that the “parental rights and responsibilities” of the relinquishing parents are “hereby terminated forever.” The child is

hereafter deemed the lawful child of Petitioners, the same as if the child had been born to them, for all legal consequences and incidents of the biological relation of parent and children … including the capability of inheriting real and personal property from the Petitioners and their descendants, including other adopted children within the adoptive family…. The adopted child shall have the same such rights as lineal and collateral kindred of the Petitioners….

Then likely follows the new naming of the child, unless the adoption is of a newborn.

The Massachusetts statute became the model statute; twenty-five states enacted similar laws in the nineteenth century, and the half-century of child welfare reform efforts that followed upon the heels of this judicial requirement helped to bring about the professionalization and the bureaucratization of social work. Modern adoption, according to Carp, is in large part the creation of child-saving as a profession. And the professionals could point to a terrible prehistory, when private orphanages, some of them grotesquely hideous, were the rule, or when children were institutionalized with adult criminals, paupers, and the “insane,” as well as being sent West on orphan trains. Child welfare reformers believed that large-scale institutions might work for some purposes, but for the purpose of saving and placing children, foster care and adoption were the best course.

There was a larger public purpose here, as Carp characterizes the aims of the child-saving movement, namely “to produce sociable, independent, and industrious citizens at little expense.” Although the language strikes us as cloying and tendentious, it is important to remember that the alternatives for children abandoned and abused were not rosy. Nor are they rosy now. The contemporary failures of the foster care system are all around us. All the respectable research shows that adoptive parents do a better job of raising children than foster parents.

ctmdYet foster care survives alongside adoption as the way America provides for children who are not being cared for. Foster care is very expensive; it costs states about $17,000 per child per year. The average foster child lives with at least three different families, and often with many more. And with adoption currently languishing, foster care seems the only way to spare children from the not-so-tender ministrations of parents who are criminals, drug addicts, and abusers. For its justification, the foster care system appeals to the doctrine of “family preservation” at all costs, a doctrine that waxes and wanes in the favor with which it is embraced by professional childsavers.

At the moment, certainly, “family reunification” rules the roost under a federal law passed in 1980, with the very best interests of children in mind. The very best interests of children are always involved, at least in theory. It is now very difficult to take children away from demonstrably abusive biological parents, especially mothers, who now keep their children in overwhelming numbers, as they did not in the past. A full 96 percent of unmarried teenage mothers now retain the child or children whom they have borne, and many of them spurn adoption.

This is a situation that is proving disastrous for the overwhelming majority of the babies involved, and it is certainly detrimental to the overwhelming majority of the teenage mothers. Yet this terrible predicament is quite understandable, given the ways in which the superiority of biological kinship has been reasserted in recent decades, not only in law but also in politics and culture–and in the “adoptees rights” movement. Combine the new prestige of blood with the collapse of any stigma surrounding out-of-wedlock birth, and you have what might be called a crisis of care in America; and this crisis will be with us for years to come in high rates of cognitively deprived, asocialized children, and teenage girls dropping out of school with subsequent high rates of unemployment and drug abuse.

Carp cites studies that show that teenagers who give up their babies for adoption are more likely to finish school and to end up in modestly decent situations than teenagers who refuse to give up their babies, and are consequently at greater risk on every possible scale. The same studies also show that, as teenagers, adopted children are no more likely than nonadopted teenagers to suffer from major problems. Carp also denounces biological “privileging” in his book–but then, for some unfathomable reason, he chooses to celebrate the record numbers of teenagers giving birth and keeping babies as the “empowerment of unwed mothers.” This is a book that unwittingly displays American society’s own deep ambivalence about biological parenting, social parenting, and adoption.

Trying to get a clear picture of what is going on is not easy. This much is clear: voluntary, church-based, nonprofit societies that once placed children for adoption have gone belly-up across the country. Carp tells the story of the adoption home for which he worked as he did his research, the Children’s Home Society of Washington, which in the 1960s averaged 421 adoptions a year. It ceased placing children for adoption in 1973, because of a shortage of “Caucasian infants.” Carp sees this case as representative of what has happened more generally to adoption in our recent past.

The implication is that we are suffering from a dearth of “suitable” babies for adoption. This spurs infertile or charitable Americans to seek foreign adoptions. It should be noted that this search for foreign babies was abetted, in part, by the fact that in the years before Brown v. Board of Education, many of the nation’s adoption agencies “began placing an increasing number of African American children for adoption”–a kind of anticipation of the integration imperative, one might suggest. Disabled, older, and foreign-born children were also placed. Carp claims that this was the “first time in history” that “relatively large numbers of Western couples,” mostly Americans, adopted children who were “racially and culturally different from themselves.” Surely this was a kind of high-water mark of the idealistic insistence that we are called to love and to serve others, even in this most demanding and intimate way, without distinction.

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