© 2017 Rudy Owens. All rights reserved.
Adoption has been many things. It was a grandiose scheme to reform “fallen” and mostly white women, who could be redeemed by relinquishing their infants and hiding the outcomes of unprotected sex. It has been a means of creating a family, among kin but also among strangers. It was, in the United States and to a lesser extent Australia, England, and Canada, a massive experiment never before tried in the mid- and late 20th century, to place infants from single mothers with parents with whom they had no natural connection. It was a large-scale vital records and public health undertaking that created new identifies for adoptees, while hiding original birth records after the 1950s. It was a means of wiping away individuals’ past and their sense of place in history with their tribal, blood kin. It was a way of addressing horrific public health issues seen in the first decades of the 20th century, due to mostly Christian-based religious prejudice and social stigma, which allowed infants to be placed in baby farms that were often recipes for early mortality.
In the United States it was an odd public, medical, private, religious, and charitable partnership. Leaders in each of these fields created the large national system that moved children from one parent to other parents or guardians through a large network of maternity homes for mothers, foster homes for infants, and hospitals. It was also a maternal and child welfare system that involved the full participation of public health, health care, and social work professionals.
Above all, adoption has always been a bureaucratic process. The complexity of placing and tracking millions of children placed for adoption from the 1940s onward required multiple agencies to manage the records of everyone involved and to ensure adopted children had safe, healthy outcomes. This is demonstrated by the multiple health exams I received, in different states, by multiple doctors. It is seen in the rigor of the state and court record keeping that followed me through my placement with a new family. It is evident in the tracking that occurred between the time I was born, cared for by a foster family, and then fully relinquished from state oversight.
Through the 1970s, these actions took place in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and records offices. Almost no one in those facilities raised serious questions about the system’s underlying goals and purposes. Instead, they each did their job make adoptions like mine work. By the time I was born in April 1965, the process of having babies change names and move from custody from one parent to possible foster can and then to another family had taken on a state of normalcy, when three decades earlier this happened on a much smaller scale, mostly in Western countries. Few spoke publicly about or on the record about these practices. Those running the adoption system did not carefully examine the larger issue of how the institution of American adoption separated hundreds of thousands of young people from their birth families. In the end, these groups supported a process that prevented those most impacted in adoption—birth parents and adoptees—from getting information about their biological kin.