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American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 183-192
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"The Circle of 'We'":
The Strange History of American Adoption
University of Minnesota
Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950. By Julie Berebitsky. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. 272 pages. $34.95 (cloth).
Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption. By Barbara Melosh. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. 326 pages. $29.95 (cloth).
Regarding a recent federal appeals court hearing on Florida's ban of adoption by homosexuals, ACLU attorney Matthew Coles told reporters that he would advocate for his clients, affluent foster parents seeking to adopt the boys in their care, by pointing to the problems in Florida's child welfare system. "Nobody was breaking down the doors to come in and take care of these kids," Coles claimed. "These people have given these kids a childhood they never would have had." Foster parent Wayne Smith noted that he and his partner's best chance for winning their case was the fact that one of the boys was, in the words of a New York Times reporter, "not quite what prospective parents were looking for." As Smith pointed out, "Nobody wants to adopt a 6 year old with developmental problems who is biracial. I do." 1
Welcome to the bureaucratic tangle of race, class, "family values," and market forces that characterizes adoption in twenty-first-century America. And, as two new studies show us, these issues are by no means recent phenomena. Historians Julie Berebitsky and Barbara [End Page 183] Melosh explore the complex history of adoption as a legal and cultural institution that has profoundly complicated our understanding of the American family in the past century.
Berebitsky's Like Our Very Own examines the social and cultural experience of adoption over a one-hundred-year period, beginning in 1851 (the year Massachusetts passed the first adoption legislation). Melosh's Strangers and Kin overlaps and extends this focus, examining the evolution and shaping of adoption policy and practice from the 1910s to the present day. Ambitious and sweeping in scope thematically as well as chronologically, these studies explore the key issues raised by and around adoption: the intersection of adoption policy and eugenic discourses; shifting conceptions of parenthood, infertility, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy; the politics of matching and confidentiality; debates over transracial and international adoption; and the professionalization of adoption work. Above all, these studies explore the ways in which Americans have wrangled with the powerful and often troublesome questions raised by adoption, questions that hinge, as Melosh notes, on our understanding of personal, community, and national identity: "What makes a family? Who belongs together? How wide is the circle of 'we'?" (5).
Berebitsky is broadly concerned with the ways in which adoption "has served as a public site on which the culture at large thrashed out the meanings of family and parenthood"; specifically, she is concerned with the implications this process has held for adoptive families themselves (3). Arguing that previous histories have failed to fully explore the perspective of adoptive parents, she draws on case records from child welfare organizations in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania; letters to the United States Children's Bureau (USCB); and media images to piece together a comprehensive picture of the adoption experience.
Berebitsky's exploration of early adoption practices turns up some intriguing findings. For example, she looks at factors such as age and length of stay to determine that indentures (apprenticeship arrangements), generally considered by historians to be labor-based placements, sometimes masked what were in fact early legal adoptions. She also finds that some potential adoptive parents, even as they eagerly sought to take strange children into their homes as family members, resisted the legal formalities of the early adoption process. Berebitsky suggests that such families not only feared the publicity surrounding adoption but also may have dismissed the idea that a legal procedure [End Page 184] had any real impact on their relationship with a child they had chosen to rear as their own.
Berebitsky then revisits the "Child Rescue...