- Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States by Ellen Herman
While adoption has only touched a minority of US families, it occupies a significant place in the national imagination. Adoption marks a boundary between private and public, where individual freedom to form families meets social concern for the proper nurture of children. As a planned, regulated child welfare practice, adoption itself is a twentieth-century invention and has undergone dramatic shifts during its brief history. Ellen Herman, a professor of history at the University of Oregon, tracks the development of adoption theory and practice in the modern United States, framing it as a quest to rationalize family making through “design,” or intentional social planning (p. 9).
While some children have always been transferred between families through a variety of formal and informal arrangements, it was only with the rise of modernity that new experts in psychology, social work, and law sought to structure adoption in order to achieve (or so they thought) the best outcomes for children and families. Herman documents the wide swings in expert opinion over the course of the twentieth century, demonstrating that some “innovations” of recent decades, such as open adoption, actually represent a return to earlier practices. Experts recommended adopting older children, then newborns; the perceived importance of matching children to adoptive parents by race, religion, and putative intelligence rose, then declined; unmarried mothers were urged to keep their children, then to give them up. Meanwhile, private arrangements always competed with public, regulated adoption practices, as when families took in extra children without taking formal legal steps, or turned to commercial adoption agencies whose practices sometimes amounted to baby-selling.
Herman locates shifts in adoption practice within the context of narratives concerned with race, gender, class, modernity, and individualism. She argues that while adoption seems to embody the American individualist ideal—anyone can become anything, regardless of origins—the management of adoption [End Page 182] in the United States reveals a conviction that blood really does matter. In the twentieth-century United States, she contends, experts have always seen forging families without blood ties as dangerous. Her history of twentieth-century US adoption practice can be read as a history of twentieth-century American fears: of racial mixing, of sexuality, even (for example, in the case of “adopted child syndrome,” a controversial defense used in several 1980s murder cases) of children themselves (p. 282).
Kinship by Design might more accurately be subtitled “A History of Adoption Social Work Theory and Practice in the Modern United States.” Herman has extensively researched records of private and government agencies, as well as papers of influential psychologists, social workers, and public officials, many of them women, who were instrumental in shaping modern adoption. Among others, she has mined the papers of the Child Welfare League of America, the US Children’s Bureau, psychologist Arnold Lucius Gesell, social work educator Jessie Taft, jurist Justine Wise Polier, and psychiatrist Viola Wertheim Bernard. In contrast, the text is very light on personal material from individuals involved with adoption primarily as birth parents, adoptees, or adoptive parents. Its sweep is so broad, however, that including extensive personal material may have been impractical; the letters, diaries, memoirs, and oral histories of birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents may find their best use in studies of narrower times or topics.
At times, Kinship by Design feels too brief. Cruel, arrogant, or merely interesting adoption practices are described in one or two tantalizing sentences, with a footnote pointing to a primary source but giving no further detail. For example, Arnold Gesell’s Yale clinic, which regularly evaluated children as candidates for adoption in the 1920s and 1930s, strongly advised prospective adopters against adopting children who displayed any signs of subnormal development. Herman writes, “In those rare instances where parents insisted on adopting despite Gesell’s recommendation against it, he encouraged child welfare authorities not to block the adoption if the parents would promise to prevent the child from...