Adoption can be defined as a process by which children are brought together with adults who are not their biological parents to form a family. Practiced informally throughout human history, adoption in the United States has evolved into a formalized legal procedure; its primary statutory purpose is to protect the welfare of children in cases where the birth parents are gone or unable to care for their offspring. Through adoption, the legal ties to a child's birth parents are severed. Adoptees (adopted persons) are seen in the eyes of the law as permanent members of the adoptive family with all the legal rights and privileges of biological children.
Adoption has long been an important part of America's social landscape. A survey by the Evans B. Donaldson Institute in 1997 found that six out of ten Americans have had a "personal experience" with adoption, meaning that they, a family member, or close friend had been adopted, adopted a child, or placed a child for adoption. Because no national organization or government branch keeps track of adoptions, national statistics on the prevalence of adoption in the United States are at best rough estimates. The number of adopted children under the age of eighteen in the United States has been estimated to be between 1 and 2 million. Approximately 150,000 adoptions are approved in U.S. courts every year (some of these cases involve the children's kin rather than unrelated adults).
The lack of precise data on adoption is in part a result of its historical development in the United States. For much of the twentieth century, adoption was a practice shrouded in secrecy. Under what are now called "closed" or "confidential" adoptions, the identities of the birth parents and adoptive parents were kept from each other by the adoption agencies that made the arrangements. Pregnant women who had decided to give up their children were often given as little contact as possible with their babies at birth, and in some cases were not even told of their babies' gender. Adoptees were issued new birth certificates listing only their adoptive parents and were sometimes never told by their parents that they were adopted. Such practices reflected the prevailing wisdom of the time that "adoptive families stood their best chance of thriving if they locked out all reminders of how they were formed," author Adam Pertman writes. In addition, these secretive methods were thought the best way to protect both birth parents and child from the social stigma of illegitimacy.
The practice of closed adoption was the center of growing controversy during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Critics argued that shrouding adoption in secrecy and shame led to long-term emotional problems for children and parents. The 1978 publication of The Adoption Triangle by social workers Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor and child psychologist Arthur D. Sorosky marked a sea change in public and expert opinion on adoption. The authors asserted that the practice of closed adoption "can be the cause of many potential problems" because of the trauma associated with separating mother and infant—an event the authors labeled as "psychological amputation." They also contended that adopted children can suffer emotional problems due to "genealogical bewilderment" and a loss of their "true identity." The publication of that book coincided with the rise of an adoption rights movement whose goals included the promotion of reunions between birth parents and children and changes in state laws preventing adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates.
A solution the authors of The Adoption Triangle prescribed was "open" adoption. Under open adoptions, which in recent decades have begun to replace confidential adoptions as the American norm for domestic infant adoption, the birth parent or parents meet the prospective adoptive parents, participate in the adoption process (in some cases choosing the adoptive parents), and maintain contact with the child and adoptive family after the child is born and adopted. Birth parents in open adoptions still give up their basic parental rights, but they also enter into some type of agreement for continued communication, which could range from occasional letters to ongoing personal contact. The opening of the adoption process has been accelerated by the Internet, which has allowed birth mothers and people seeking to adopt to find and directly communicate with each other. The Internet has also proved a powerful tool for adoptees and birth parents seeking to find each other.
Proponents of open adoption argue that it benefits all members of the "adoption triad." Adoptees benefit by acquiring knowledge of their family and medical history and experiencing fewer feelings of rejection. Birth parents benefit from knowing how their children are faring, enabling them to cope better with their decision to relinquish their children. Adoptive parents, proponents of open adoption argue, also benefit because open adoption usually results in a stronger relationship with their adopted children. "All three members of the triad," Pertman contends, "become more secure when their relationships cease to be based on fear and fantasy."
The growing trend towards open adoption is not without its critics, however. Some argue that the purported benefits of openness have not been proven by clinical research and that allowing an ongoing relationship between the birth parent(s) and the adopted child's family may not be in anyone's best interests, including the child's. Family therapist Patrick F. Fagan argues that blending birth families with adoptive families may result in a "confusion of roles" that "interferes with parent and child bonding in the adoptive family and inhibits the birth parents' grieving process." Fagan and others have called for a renewed emphasis on traditional closed adoptions. Another group of critics has attacked open adoption for not being open enough, arguing that some birth mothers are being cheated by promises of continued contact with their offspring, only to find out that agreements made prior to the adoption finalization are legally unenforceable. Other critics, such as author Evelyn Burns Robinson, have called for the abolition of adoption itself in favor of a system of temporary guardianship in which the children's legal ties to their natural parents are not severed. Robinson asserts that even in cases where the mother suffers from a mental health problem that puts her children at risk, "there is no justification ... for changing the child's identity and pretending that the child has a different mother."
Robinson's abolitionist views remain a minority opinion in the United States. A 2002 survey sponsored by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption found that 63 percent of Americans had a high opinion of adoption and that nearly 40 percent of American adults had considered adopting a child. In addition, adoption has become increasingly popular among several groups that had in the past not been allowed to formally adopt children, including single people, unmarried couples, older parents, and gays and lesbians. But while adoption remains entrenched in American life, its increasing openness ensures that concerns about its effects on all members of the adoption triad—concerns that were formerly swept under the rug—will increasingly become matters of public debate. The viewpoints in Issues in Adoption: Current Controversies examine several of the leading controversies surrounding adoption in the early twenty-first century.