Adoption: An Ancient Institution

A brief history.

Sonia Billadeau January 08, 2014
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The grand history of adoption in the human realm must have begun long before we were able to document the process. Primitive cultures existing today give a clue as to how orphaned children were cared for in ancient times. In the “it takes a village” mode, the parentless were absorbed into the greater family that was the community. Not until the devastation of the AIDS epidemic has this method come into crisis in Africa and Asia.

Documentation of more formal adoption practices does indeed exist from as far back as the 18th century BC.

The Code of Hammurabi, named for the Babylonian king who lived from 1728 to 1686 BC, originally defined much of what we still consider the basics of law and contained an entire section on adoption.

A few centuries later, Moses became part of the Egyptian royal family when Pharaoh’s daughter found him floating and decided to adopt. Not exactly the best example of a happy ending for an adoptive family, but certainly an adoption still talked about.

Of course, many consider Joseph the Carpenter’s adoption of Mary’s son around the time BC became AD to be the most significant of all adoption stories … and a good example of an open adoption, since the ‘first father’ was very involved throughout the child’s life.

The ancient Romans came up with their own version of Hammurabi’s Code in AD 535, which included a version of what we now call the home study, and dictated who could and could not adopt.

There are many dark periods in the history of adoption, some fairly recent and close to home. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America, “baby farms” were a common alternative taken by prostitutes and poor women who could not care for their children.   No, as bad as they were, baby farms were not about growing plump little thighs for the stew pot … plump little thighs being rather rare in those establishments.  It was not uncommon for these people to charge as much as $15 to dispose of unwanted children, then turn around and selling the same child for $100.   Often doctors, nurses, and midwives moonlighted as adoption brokers, placing newspaper ads that read, ‘For adoption at birth, full surrender, no questions asked,” and babies that didn’t get the ‘at birth’ adoptions were often considered shabby goods not much worth the effort of feeding for long. Many, many starved to death.

Click here for a detailed history.

Although England was very slow to get up to speed–nothing in English common law addressed adoption until the 1920s-the first state adoption law in the United States came into being in Massachusetts in 1851.

In 1853, the Children’s Aid Society of New York was founded. Although it employed methods far different from systems now in place, somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 children were placed in foster or adoptive families by this organization over the seventy-six years it operated.

Potato? Potahto?

The word ‘adoption’ gets thrown around quite casually in our world: IT companies want adoption of their software; local zoos hope you’ll adopt a tiger or giraffe; elected officials wrangle for adoption of their favorite bills; dogs and cats are available for adoption at the SPCA; those trying to garner influence hope listeners will adopt their attitude; get promoted and you can adopt a new title; retire and you adopt an new lifestyle.

Not to put too fine a point on it, at its most basic “adoption” is a word, and words can be played with, minced, clipped, and … well … adopted for use in various capacities.

There’s little likelihood that you’ll be confused, but you may find yourself explaining what adoption means to you. Not bad practice, actually.

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Sonia Billadeau


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