How Adoption Started

A brief history of how adoption started in the United States

Ashley Foster June 08, 2018
article image

Adoption has been around for as long as families have. There may not have been official terms or laws in place, but willing parents have always been given children who would not or could not have been taken care of otherwise. Before the 20th century, such actions were done in secret, and the children were deemed illegitimate, a word that came with devastating social ramifications. Most adoptions were done out of love for the children, but some were done merely for profit. For that reason, american adoption has a bit of a tawdry past.

The Massachusetts Adoption Act in 1891 is widely considered the first “modern” adoption law. It recognized adoption as a social and legal operation based on a child’s welfare. From 1854 to 1929, orphan trains took as many as 250,000 orphans from New York and other Eastern cities to Midwestern and Western states, as well as Canada and Mexico, for adoption. Adults chose children from on display at the train station with little to no regulation or oversight. The practice started as a way to help the 30,000 abandoned children on the streets of New York. It ended with the beginning of organized foster care.

Minnesota passed laws in 1917 requiring investigations prior to adoption and the closing of records. That later led to the national standards including pre-placement inquiry, post-placement probation, and confidentiality. The intention was to benefit children, but adult preferences sometimes came before children’s needs. Baby farming was common then. Unregulated and untrained women would care for children for pay. Many of the children were abused, neglected, or murdered. The adoptions were more profitable if the kids didn’t survive to accrue additional costs. During that time, babies were bought and sold like commodities. Some doctors and midwives worked as for-profit adoption brokers for unwed mothers and prostitutes. Legal action was taken against baby farming in the 1920s.

Adoption was brought mainstream by notorious women like Georgia Tann. Tann used an unlicensed children’s home as a front for her black market baby business. She advertised babies in newspapers like they were dolls. Tann used coercion and threats of legal action to take babies from their birth parents and sell them to her wealthy patrons. She used her connections to obtain infants born at mental institutions. She arranged kidnappings of children in nursery school. Their parents were told they were taken by social services. Children placed temporarily due to a parent’s illness or unemployment were adopted out before they could be retrieved. Some mothers were told their babies were stillborn, when really they had been taken by Tann. Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley handled the legal end of the business. She severed rights without cause and authorized adoptions without consent. Georgia Tann died from cancer before the investigation’s findings were released.

Adoption globalized after WWII. As a result of poverty and war, children were exported to other countries for adoption. By 1970, the number of adoptions reached an all-time high of 175,000 annually. Just after that time, records were receiving criticism and sympathy was being garnered for search, reunion, and open adoption. Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association to advocate for adoptee rights. The Hague Convention began in 1993 its multilateral treaty to prevent the wrongful removal of children for adoption.

In 2000, the census added an “adopted son/daughter” category. One by one, states are opening records and allowing adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates. There are about 5 million American adoptees, and about 125,000 adoptions are occurring annually. Today, we are seeing an exponential increase in compassion for children’s best interests. 95% of adoptions now include some level of openness between the parties. There are extensive matching efforts in place to ensure success. Adoption is celebrated as a unique, diverse way to create a family.

author image

Ashley Foster

Ashley Foster is a freelance writer. She is a wife and mother of two currently residing in Florida. She loves taking trips to the beach with her husband and sons. As an infant, she was placed with a couple in a closed adoption. Ashley was raised with two sisters who were also adopted. In 2016, she was reunited with her biological family. She advocates for adoptees' rights and DNA testing for those who are searching for family. Above all, she is thankful that she was given life. You can read her blog at

Want to contact an adoption professional?

Love this? Want more?

Claim Your FREE Adoption Summit Ticket!

The #1 adoption website is hosting the largest, FREE virtual adoption summit. Come listen to 50+ adoption experts share their knowledge and insights.

Members of the adoption community are invited to watch the virtual summit for FREE on September 23-27, 2019, or for a small fee, you can purchase an All-Access Pass to get access to the summit videos for 12 months along with a variety of other benefits.

Get Your Free Ticket