The Adoption Industry and the Adoptee Rights Movement

 A black image with white text of a quote by filmaker Pascal Huynh, which says: "We fail to listen to adoptees. We fail to look at the history of adoption. We fail to look at how the market in babies has been developing. But most importantly, we fail to understand our own needs.  At the core of it all, most of us want children as a way to escape death, to make sure that a fragment of who we are still exists in this world when our bodies will be buried and forgotten. We fail to see that all the people that have been involved in our lives such as our teachers, uncles, aunts and friends, that in fact, their legacy moves through us too. And for people like me who are unable to produce children, we need to accept this: our legacy will not be through our DNA, but it will be passed through our involvement in other people’s lives. Once we face this truth, we can start supporting families to have the educational, financial and emotional means to raise their own children.  We fail to talk about adoption as a Human’s Rights issue."
Quote by Pascal Huynh. (Credit: Confessions of Birth Mothers).

Alex Lipe

A 1906 French postcard with the caption: "Faites votre choix!" (English: Have your pick!)
A 1906 French postcard with the caption “Faites votre choix!” (English: Have your pick!) (Credit: PicClick)

Part One: The Adoption Industry

The adoption industry commodifies children as well as parenthood. In the U.S., in 2015, the adoption industry had an approximate revenue of $14 billion. (Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy 2015; IBISWorld).

In this piece I will be asking pressing questions: How can the so-called child welfare industry truly have welfare as its top priority when it so clearly is based on profit? Does the U.S. domestic adoption industry place more value on profit than on child welfare? How have various activist organizations historically challenged legislation in order to secure equal rights for adoptees? What is the history of the modern U.S. adoption industry?

As a jumping-off point, it is important to acknowledge that adoption has roots in colonialism and white saviorhood. Adoption is a tactic of social control that has historically primarily affected working class people, sex workers, women and families of color, and ways of organizing families and childcare that are deemed “nontraditional” or “unconventional” or that are non-U.S.-ian. As we will see, adoption is also closely connected to feminized, informal forms of labor.  

An Introduction to Adoption

To adopt is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: “to take by choice into a relationship; especially to take voluntarily (a child of other parents) as one’s own child.” At the same time that adoption is a way to form a family, it is also a way to unmake another family. For a modern, Western adoption to take place, a child is transferred from one family to another. In this process a loss occurs, and historically this loss is smoothed over, or brushed off. In her book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, author Kathryn Joyce writes of common misconceptions of adoption:

Adoption is often described as a ‘win-win’ solution–for a child in need of a home and for adoptive parents longing for a son or daughter to raise. However, in the fuller equation adoption is too often a zero-sum game, in which the happiness of one family comes at the expense of another, particularly that of birthmothers and birth families, both in the United States and overseas, whose choice to relinquish for adoption is sometimes no choice at all (Joyce, xvi). 

It is important to recognize who promulgates these ideas, and to make sure that adoptees are heard in these discussions; that the definitions by and experiences of adoptees are centered. 

Mila, an adoptee and writer for Lost Daughters , defines adoption in her own words: “Adoption is built on the presumption that families are interchangeable or replaceable, that parents and children are interchangeable, and that ultimately, family has nothing to do with flesh and blood, or DNA and biology, but that it’s all about proximity, exposure, and amount of time together” (Mila 2014). This definition is similar to the one that Ellen Herman gives for what she articulates as kinship by design.

Kinship by Design

Historically, adoption in the U.S. was an unregulated process until around the 20th century. Ellen Herman, author of Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States and creator of the Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon, defines the governmental operation to regulate adoption and family planning as “kinship by design.” According to Herman, kinship by design is an operation with the goal to “make families up safely and well by making them up in public, on purpose, and according to plan” (Herman 2008, 1). Kinship by design set out to answer the questions: “Who surrendered children and why? Were children who needed new parents normal enough to qualify for adoption? Were adults who were willing to raise other people’s children up to the task? How should these adults and children be brought together?” (Herman 2008, 1)

Another aim of kinship by design was to eliminate the roles that doubt and chance played in the creation of families by adoption, which was one of the main reasons why early-20th century adoption was stigmatized—how can you know how a child will turn out if it is not “your own”? This argument was steeped in the then-popular theories of eugenics, which postulated that people with certain biological and genetic qualities would inherently behave a certain way, and that people “should stick with their own kind”; and was especially relevant in non-relative adoptions–which take place when the adoptee is not biologically related to the adoptive parents.

To remedy this, and to make adoption more palatable and appealing to the masses, kinship by design operated through the processes of regulation, interpretation, standardization, and naturalization. This means that it was imperative for adoption to be legally regulated by the state more than it had been previously, for the psychology of the children and adults involved in adoption to be interpreted by professionals (in order that said psychology could be “normalized”), standardized by creating rigid and extensive rules for the placement of children, and naturalized by incorporating professional research about “nature, nurture, attachment, and identity” into policies so as to refine the qualifications and procedures for adoptions to take place. This last part, naturalization, aimed to connect children with parents that mirrored each other most closely, so they would seem more natural (Herman).

Matching was the rule for non-relative adoptions—children would be “matched” with parents (usually married, heterosexual, white, middle-class couples) that were similar to them. Ideally, for a successful match, children and adoptive parents would resemble one another physically and share racial and religious heritage. The practice of matching implied that nature could be trumped by people and a well-oiled formulaic process. Matching is a prime example of one of the functions of kinship by design.   

To add context to this definition, kinship by design came into being around the same time (19th-20th centuries) that the paradigm of design as a whole became prominent in governmental policies. Design as a paradigm was put into practice even prior to the French Revolution (Herman 2008, 9). In Kinship by Design, Herman defines design in a broader sense as the “purposeful social planning and management” that “first took root during the Enlightenment, which held that social action was both intelligible and subject to rational organization” (Herman 2008, 9). Kinship by design in particular was an effort to modernize the process of making of families, as in the case of adoption, but design was also being utilized in other social areas such as housing, incarceration, health care, and education. Herman points to the cases of poorhouses, prisons, hospitals, and schools, in which design’s strategies and organizational methods of rational and regulated management were put in control of social welfare. Herman noted: “Foucaultian analyses of the Enlightenment’s dark side and stories of progress and improvement in social welfare agree that the contraction of the family and its functions helped make design possible. As households became more nuclear and shed responsibilities, they became at once more private and more dependent on outside assistance for survival” (Herman 2008, 9). Here, the word “Foucaultian” means inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, who was one of the leading scholars to have analyzed the rise of design’s governmental application. 

Herman also writes about the theories of Christopher Lasch, who argued in his Haven in a Heartless World that “interventions to benefit children and families […] benefited neither. Instead, they pried socialization away from parents, transferred it to peer groups and representatives of commerce and government, and corroded the necessary barrier between public and private” (Herman 2008, 10). The paradigm of design spawned new forms of social control which barred families from engaging in activities or having control over decisions that once would have been theirs to do or make. 

Non-Western Forms of Adoption/Family Making and International Adoption 

The Western form of adoption discussed above is antithetical and contradictory to non-Western practices of family life. Because of the recent phenomena of regulated Western adoption (which is illuminated by the understanding of kinship by design) and international adoptions to Western countries, these traditions, practices, and networks are being both shattered and misunderstood:

[I]nternational adoption reflects a particular Western adoption method, which nowadays spreads rapidly across the globe through international conventions, destroying and replacing non-Western traditions of fostering children among extended kin networks.

The modern Western notion of adoption is deviant, in a worldwide anthropological perspective, in the sense that it is overwhelmingly extra-familial – there is no biological relationship between the birth and adoptive parents; above all, the link between biological parents and the adoptee is totally cut off in order for them to remain unknown to each other, while the adoptive parents give the child a completely new identity by law.

This unique and peculiar Western mode of adoption can be seen as a compensation for the complete break-up of the extended family in Western countries and its replacement with the nuclear family following the process of modernisation. As a result, contemporary Western middle-class concepts of abandonment and abandoned children diverge fundamentally from those of non-Western societies, where the practice of fostering and circulating children among relatives is much more common than adoption itself. Such concepts are today made hegemonic through conventions on international adoption, like the Hague Convention (Hubinette 2006, 2).

Cribs in a créche, or children's home, in Haiti. Source.
Cribs in a créche, or children’s home, in Haiti. Source.

Contemporary international adoption of children from non-Western societies misunderstands the ways that families and family caregiving work in these places. For example, in Haiti, children are often placed in crèches (orphanages), even if they are not actually parentless, because of their family’s poverty. These orphanages can be understood as similar to “de facto boarding schools for children whose parents can’t afford to feed or care for them but who may continue to visit them and still consider them part of the family” (Joyce, 13). In some cases parents relinquish rights to their children without knowing because of language and cultural barriers. In other similarly devastating cases, parents might not even get the chance to formally relinquish their children at all because their children are sent abroad.  

A black and white photograph of Tarikua Lemma.
Tarikuwa Lemma. (Credit: CNN)

Tarikuwa Lemma

Tarikuwa Lemma was thirteen years old when she was sold to an American adoptive family in Maine. She was taken from her native Ethiopia and removed from her family. 

When she was ten, Tarikuwa’s mother died. Her father struggled to care for her and her siblings financially. The family fell prey to adoption brokers, who are paid for every child they provide an adoption agency. These brokers tell families that their children will be sent to the U.S. for an education, and they are rarely made aware that they are relinquishing their children for adoption.

Tarikuwa and two of her sisters were sent to the United States. Tarikuwa ended up in Maine, and her sisters ended up in Virginia. The adoptive families that they were placed into were under the impression that they were rescuing orphans. 

After eight months with the adoptive family, Tarikuwa had not adjusted. The family then sent her to Iowa to be with her adoptive grandmother. She was told not to come back just two weeks later. Tarikuwa had been “re-homed.”

Tarikuwa writes about her experience and the misunderstandings that fuel international adoption: 

Ethiopian families often place, or are coerced to place, their children into “education programs”, like the one I was sent away on, after being told that the mostly white people who sponsor their children will help the families financially, or their children will help the families later. ( The word “adoption” is never used, and Ethiopian families are not told that they will lose their rights to their children). By allowing a child to come to the US for what they understand to be educational program, Ethiopian parents believe that they are making long-term investments in the future for the entire family.

But we adoptees didn’t sign those adoption papers – we had no choice as to whether we wanted to go on an education program, let alone be adopted. Many of us were adopted at a very young age and don’t even have memories of our families, homeland or the cultural expectations that go with both. Instead, we grew up in a Western culture, in which we are taught to take care of only ourselves, while Ethiopian culture teaches its people to take care of their family.

International adoption is built upon a foundation of lies and cultural misunderstandings. Better regulation would help, but the power is concentrated in the hands of a powerful adoption agency lobby and adoptive parents, who have legal rights adoptees lack. Adoptive parents’ desires become instantly more important that the child or the child’s homeland, culture, and first family. Adoptees’ histories are erased when their birth certificates are changed to reflect only the names of their adoptive parents – and those parents can change adoptees’ names against the children’s wishes. Adoptee voices are rarely heard in policy discussions and, when they are, they are often dismissed as “angry” or “ungrateful”.

Adoption didn’t help me; it helped the adoption business. Adoption didn’t “save” me; it served the American view of adoption. Adoption didn’t find families for me; it found me for families that wanted to look like heroes in their community and their churches. I wasn’t saved from Ethiopia; I had Ethiopia stolen from me (Lemma).

The White Savior Industrial Complex

A white savior is a white person who aims to save or rescue people of color from their oppression and plight. White saviors are usually unaware of the actual history or needs of the people of color that they wish to save. 

An image from the Kony 2012 Campaign by Invisible Children
An image from the Kony 2012 Campaign by Invisible Children. (Credit: Change from Within)

White savior narratives are commonplace in television, movies, and books. White audiences identify with the “good” white character, who is often in the foreground of the plot. The people of color are characterized as helpless and broken, unable to reach solutions for their own problems, and in need of the “good” white character. This narrative permeates the consciousness of these (often white) audiences, who internalize the messages and often carry out white savior complex-motivated acts in real life. This concept is born from colonialism and is a type of colonialist mindset, as it has real-world implications. Often, this mindset, whether it be fully articulated or vocalized by its holder or not, will lead to intervention with the people or politics of other lands. In this respect, it also is a sibling of Orientalism. White savior complexes are often the motivations behind international adoptions. 

Forms of Child Transfer in the 19th & 20th Century U.S.

In 1851, Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to pass a formal adoption law. This law was one of the first to recognize “adoption as a social and legal operation based on child welfare rather than adult interests. Historians consider the 1851 Adoption of Children Act an important turning point because it directed judges to ensure that adoption decrees were “fit and proper.” How this determination was to be made was left entirely to “judicial discretion” (Herman).

In most of the 20th century United States (as well as in most other parts of the Western world) adoption was not yet a formal legal process. That being said, the exchange or placement of children in other ways was not uncommon. 

A 1908 postcard featuring two parents in a baby farm.
A 1908 postcard featuring two parents in a “baby farm”. (Credit:  PicClick).

Infant asylums and orphanages were some of the prominent forms of institutionalized childcare during the 19th century. However, there were non-institutional forms of childcare and child transfer, and these were termed “placing out.” When a child was placed out it could mean the child was sent to a boarding home in which a family was paid to take care of a child, a working home or a type of indentured placement where an older child could “earn their keep”, a baby farm, and/or onto an orphan train. 

Boarding Homes / Working Homes

The indentured placement of children into a working home was the temporary adoption of a child, usually of working class and/or immigrant background, into a family in need of labor or an extra helping hand. These indentured placements were similar to apprenticeships. Original families would send their children to a new home in which the child would work, in exchange for shelter, food, and (at times, and usually only in the case of a male child) an education. Working homes were where families would be paid to take care of usually younger children by an agency. These options were often ones that parents were forced to make when they themselves were impoverished and forced to work wage labor and therefore were unable to care for their children. 

Orphan Trains

Children on an Orphan Train. Unknown date. Source.
Children on an Orphan Train. Unknown date. Source.

Oftentimes, children would be sent to their destination via railroad on an “Orphan Train.” Between 1854 and 1929, as many as 250,000 children from New York and other eastern cities were sent by train to towns in midwestern and western states, as well as Canada and Mexico (Herman). Despite the name of this phenomenon, the children who rode the Orphan Trains were not always orphans. More often than not, these children’s parents were not dead, and their placements/adoptions were temporary, with the children and their original families largely staying in contact even when adoptions were permanent in nature. 

Children would come to train stations and were, in some cases, put on display for prospective families in search of help. According to Herman, placements were often made without any investigation. The children were often placed with middle-class “child-savers.” The Orphan Train project was motivated by evangelical humanitarianism: 

Organized by the New York Children’s Aid Society and directed by well known reformer Charles Loring Brace, the orphan trains were based on the theory that the innocent children of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants could be rescued and Americanized if they were permanently removed from depraved urban surroundings and placed with upstanding Anglo-Protestant farming families (Herman).

Baby Farms

A 1905 postcard depicting a  baby farmer in a cabbage patch.
A 1905 postcard depicting a “baby farmer” in a cabbage patch. Source.

Baby farms were operations in which the informal childcare and housework spheres of life were formalized, and baby farming referred to the adoption or placement of children (especially infants) for money and the sale of infants for profit. The majority of baby farming practices are akin to contemporary family daycare. Baby farming operations were not well funded and therefore often had extremely poor conditions. The term “baby farming” and its practice became notorious when journalistic exposés revealed the worst of the worst cases with squalid environments that soon became synonymous with baby farming. In these narratives, the unsanitary nature of baby farms was equated to and projected onto the baby farm operators (the majority of whom were women), who were portrayed in a dehumanized manner that emphasized their “betrayal” of supposedly natural female roles and innate maternal qualities. They were characterized as unnatural monstrosities because they contradicted these societal norms and understandings of femininity, motherhood, and labor (Herman). Many clients of baby famers were unmarried couples or deserted mothers, sex workers, and/or working class parents who were simply unable to take care of their children.  

Similar to baby farms, maternity homes and so-called “lying-in hospitals” were places where pregnant mothers could go, where doctors, nurses, and midwives worked as for-profit adoption liaisons/brokers. 

Differences in Experiences of Adoption and Family Making

The experiences of those involved in the adoption industry and forms of child transfer have always differed depending on their respective race, class, gender, etc.:

For complex cultural, historical, and economic reasons, black, single pregnant women were not, in general, spurned by their families or shunted out of their communities into maternity homes, which usually had ‘white only’ policies in any case. For the most part, black families accepted the pregnancy and made a place for the new mother and child. As one Chicago mother of a single black pregnant teenager said at the time, ‘It would be immortal to place the baby [for adoption]. That would be throwing away your own flesh and blood.’ In contrast to the very large percentage of white girls and women who gave up their babies for adoption, about nine out of ten blacks kept theirs. In a postwar New York study, 96 percent of blacks keeping their babies reported deep satisfaction with this decision eighteen months later. Yet welfare and social caseworkers persisted for years in their claims that the only reason why blacks kept their babies was that no one would want them.

Social workers and other human service professionals claimed repeatedly that black single pregnancy was the product of family and community disorganization. Yet in comparing the family and community responses and blacks and whites to out-of-wedlock pregnant and childbearing, it is striking how the black community organized itself to accommodate mother and child while the white community was totally unwilling and unable to do so. The white community simply organized itself to expel them (Solinger 2000, 6). 

These differences are still salient in contemporary experiences of adoption. Transracial adoptees, transethnic adoptees, and international adoptees face different challenges, and different forms of oppression, than white domestic adoptees. This is particularly relevant in the cases of Native American adoptees (see Profiting off Indigenous Children in South Dakota).

The Indian Adoption Project & the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

The Indian Adoption Project was a national effort to assimilate Native American children into white homes, managed by the Child Welfare League of America, and made possible by funding from a federal contract between the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It lasted from 1958 to 1967, and it was responsible for placing 395 Native American children into white families. These adoptions can be understood and classified as international, transethnic, and transracial adoptions. This project was an exception to the nearly across-the-board practice of matching based on race at the time. Native American activists deemed this project a continuation of systemic colonization, assimilation, and genocide against Native Americans.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 reversed many effects of the Indian Adoption Project by consolidating children’s rights as group rights, designated children as crucial, necessary resources for tribes and their survival, and made it more difficult for Native American children to be adopted by white families. 

Part Two: Adoptee Rights Movement 

Bastard Nation & the Struggle for Open Records

An image of a tree with roots which says: Do you know your roots? Support open records for adoptees and allow our roots to grow.
Open Records emblem used in Adoptee Rights Protest, New Orleans, 2008, artist: D. Martin. (Credit: Wikipedia)

One of the hallmarks of 20th-century adoption process was sealed confidential records. A closed adoption refers to an adoption that takes place in secret or is kept hush-hush, in which the records of the adoption and birth family are kept sealed, and in which the adoptee and adoptive family have no contact with or identifying information of the birth parents. Original Birth Certificates (OBCs) are the original and authentic record of a child’s birth, and these are often (one of the) records that are sealed. New amended birth certificates are created through the process of adoption, and these are what the adoptee has access to. In some states, original birth certificates are sealed forever, and there is little to no chance of adoptees gaining access to some of the most fundamental legal records of their identity. Some adoptees never know their place of birth, their time of birth, or even their actual birthdate. New birth certificates are another example of matching–children received completely new identities that matched up with those of their parents. 

An image says: Bastard Nation leaves no one behind! No conditions! No restrictions! No excuses!
An image from Bastard Nation.

Bastard Nation is a militant adoptee activist group that fights for open records, and in 1998 the collective successfully passed Ballot Initiative 58 in Oregon, which unsealed adoption records. 

Lost Daughters & #FlipTheScript 

In November of 2014, which was National Adoption Month, a Twitter hashtag movement called #flipthescript was created by Rosita González. It called for more representation of adoptees during National Adoption Month, which historically overflows with representations of adoptive parents and panders towards them as an audience, serving the purpose of validating their emotions and savior complexes. #flipthescript aimed to bring adoptees to the front.  

The goal was simple: for adult adoptee voices to be represented during National Adoption Month. #flipthescript sought to create a welcoming space on Twitter for adoptees to express themselves; to reach out to adoptees new to public discourse; to promote acceptance of all adoptee voices as important whether they express happiness, ambivalence, grief and loss, or anger—or all of these themes at once; and to unlabel adoptee narratives as “happy” or “angry” by accepting and expecting complex conclusions from complex life experiences (Lost Daughters).


In conclusion, it is evident that adoption is a multifaceted process and experience, and the implications of adoption have fluctuated throughout recent and modern history. The contemporary adoption industry/child welfare industry is a particularly Western construct, although it has significant ramifications throughout the world and globe; and the understanding of adoption that has been employed throughout this project refers to this Western concept, while hopefully clarifying the problems that that definition creates. 


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