In the decade between 1953 and 1962, some 15,000 children adopted from within the United States fit this bill, as did some 32,000 foreign-born children, adopted between 1966 and 1976, primarily from the Republic of Korea. Carp sees a “deep humanitarianism at work,” spawned partly by revulsion at racism and its consequences in World War II. But then other moral and cultural imperatives were loosed in the land. Interracial adoption, at least where black babies going to white families was concerned, came under fire in the late 1960s, fueled by the Black Power movement. In 1972, Audrey T. Russell, president of the Alliance of Black Social Workers in Philadelphia, called transracial adoption a “diabolical trick,” a “lethal incursion on the black family…. It needs to be stopped.” The then president of the National Association of Black Social Workers announced that black children should remain in foster homes or institutions rather than being adopted by “white families.”
Of course, one might suggest that the most “lethal” inroad into the black family in America in the past four decades has been the exponential leap in the number of children born out of wedlock and growing up without a father and without adequate mothering, despite the heroic efforts of some single mothers and many of their mothers and grandmothers. But the case against transracial adoption proved to be remarkably effective. Social workers did not defend it, even though they privately held that a “white home” was better than no home at all. The outcome was a refusal to place “black children with white parents. As a result transracial adoption declined steeply,” according to Carp, as black children languished in the twilight zone of foster care and no care. And one of the reasons for their misery was that a form of biological fundamentalism had trumped the claims of social morality.
So couples sought babies elsewhere. The results have been mixed. The vast majority of Korean adoptees seem to be faring very well indeed; but there are the horror stories about Eastern-bloc adoptions, especially about children from Romania, to which many American couples turned after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Given the shortage of available infants domestically, Americans rushed to adopt children who had been cruelly warehoused by the awful communist regime–and so were troubled, even deeply disturbed, suffering from all the ills of nonattachment and “failure to thrive.” Perhaps they assumed that such children would work out as well, on average, as had Korean-adopted infants; but they failed to take into account that the preadoptive care received by Korean children was a veritable utopia by comparison to discarded children in various parts of the Soviet Empire, Romania being the most disgusting case.
Rarely held, or talked to, or even touched as infants, many of these Eastern-bloc adoptees proved to be more than their adoptive American parents could handle. The children were swamped with learning disabilities and emotional troubles of all sorts, beginning at the very beginning with an “inability to bond.” In 1996, some 3,700 children were adopted by Americans from Russia and Eastern Europe. Estimates are that about one-third of them do all right; another third develop and adjust slowly; and the remaining third remain in the danger zone–and families cannot manage angry, disruptive children who present a danger not only to themselves but also to others. It turns out that John Bowlby and the other developmental psychologists who stressed the essential importance of early infant bonding with a caring figure were right.
The “damage is irreparable,” writes one neuropsychologist who has treated 1,000 children from the Eastern bloc. Despite heroic efforts, specialists are seeing a big rise in failed adoptions, which are known as “disruptions.” It is not a new phenomenon, of course; but disruption has gained renewed attention in light of the larger numbers of failed foreign adoptions. A “normal” disruption rate for domestic adoptions runs at about 6.5 percent of all adoptions. No accurate figures exist for Eastern bloc disruption rates, but expert observers indicate that it is much, much higher. The longer a child has been in institutional care, the greater the likelihood of major cognitive, emotional, even physical damage; the more difficult the adoption; and the more likely a “disruption.”
Stories such as these only deepen our perplexity about adoption. Disillusioned and defeated parents speak of the collapse of their belief that a loving home, much care and attention, safety, material plenty, and a wonderful school could all correct for early years of neglect. A horrific early lack of nurture may defeat “nature,” so to speak, and, as a result, a child never will develop “normally.” Our American confidence that nearly every situation can be put right is profoundly challenged by the presence of these desperate and even dangerous children.
It is worth recalling an earlier era when families were spooked by bringing a child with “bad blood” into the home. Carp tells the tale, in which Progressive reformers are the main players. In 1921, the Sheppard-Towner Infancy and Maternity Protection Act provided federal funding to promote infant and maternal health. Family preservation was the rule of thumb among child-savers; and according to Carp, this ideal “remained axiomatic among professional social workers until the end of World War II.” During the first third of the twentieth century, therefore, there was not much increase in adoption. Carp claims that our genealogical obsession “stigmatized adoption as socially unacceptable”; to this was added the eugenics movement and its fear of inherited feeble-mindedness, which was more fuel to the anti-adoption fire. Between 1910 and 1925, when eugenics was at the height of its influence, “feebleminded” unwed mothers were separated from their children and their putatively “defective” children were institutionalized. This sometimes included coerced sterilization of “mentally defective” institutionalized women.
Enter the United States Children’s Bureau, headed by Julia Lathrop, a protege of the great Jane Addams of Hull House. The first woman to head a federal bureau, Lathrop mandated research to find out what was really happening to American children, especially those who fell between the cracks; she published standards for foster care; she pushed local governments and private agencies to do more with displaced infants and parents; and she moved, over time, to shut down “adoption mills” that accepted payment for babies. Far-reaching changes in adoption policy, spurred by these early efforts, continued apace, Carp claims, all the way through the 1970s.
Slowly American attitudes toward adoption changed. Eugenics was given rather a bad name by the Nazis. There was a renaissance of humanitarianism in America. A “pro-natalist mood” led to a nine-fold increase in adoptions over a thirty-year period from roughly 1937 to 1965. By 1960, adoption was “riding high”: a respected institution that expanded our understanding of the family, that was carefully regulated, and that appeared to promote the “best interests of the child” by, among other things, guaranteeing that the child’s preadoption biological connections were severed.
And so the stage was set for another upheaval. The issue this time concerned the truth about the adopted child’s origins. The child welfare reformers of the Progressive Era insisted upon the secrecy of those origins. Lathrop’s Children’s Bureau took the lead by commissioning a massive study, Illegitimacy as a Child Welfare Problem, which appeared in 1920. Not only did the study call for greater regulation of adoption by states, it also marked the beginning of the argument for confidentiality, according to Carp. The aim was to prevent public snooping by “curious and unscrupulous persons” who might want to “unmask” a woman who had given birth but relinquished the baby for adoption secretly, or to forestall attempts to blackmail adoptive parents by threatening to reveal that little Janie or little Jimmy was “illegitimate.” The official position of the Children’s Bureau was that natural parents should not be permitted to reenter the picture and disrupt an adoptive family.
Still, until around 1970, “adult adoptees and natural parents who wished to receive information could easily gain access from a variety of sources.” Privacy was not construed as absolute secrecy. The document most sought out was the birth certificate. Confidentiality remained the norm, primarily to “shield” the unwed mother’s reputation, but Carp’s research convinces him that child welfare activists never intended to prevent “children born out of wedlock, or adopted children, from viewing their own birth records” at some point safely removed from the adoption itself. But this got tricky because, by 1941, 35 states had “enacted legislation instructing registries of vital statistics to issue new birth certificates” using the adopted name of the child in place of the original one.
When they became adults, adoptees sometimes requested information on their family of origin “whether out of natural curiosity, as a matter of right, or from psychological need,” and natural parents did the same thing. Social workers, behaving like good bureaucrats, had acquired the habit of amassing huge “case files” on adoptees packed with every conceivable piece of information that they could get about adopted children and their families of origin. The question was: To whom should such information be made available? For what reasons? Under what conditions?
The available evidence suggests that, before the mid-1960s, only a small number of adoptees or birth parents sought out such information. Since the 1940s, the country had been in the midst of an adoption boom, influenced by The Chosen Baby, a book supported by the Children’s Bureau, by Dr. Valentine P. Wasson, a kind of Dr. Spock for adoptees. This book included instructions for adoptive parents on when and how to explain to the adopted child that he or she was adopted–no, chosen; and this was to be done in a way that minimized any confusion or trauma. And lessening the trauma fueled the quest for greater secrecy. What could be more traumatic than to learn that your father had been a criminal, or your mother a drunk? What could be more alarming than a biological parent turning up on the doorstep a decade or more later, seeking a relationship with a child whom he or she had relinquished? Better by far, the argument went, for adoptive parents to offer the child a version of his or her past with which the child could live: your mommy loved you but couldn’t take care of you, your daddy went to war and never came back.