According to adoption historian Ellen Herman of the University of Oregon, the transformation of adoption into a safe and modern system required what she called a new paradigm of “kinship by design.” That idea is at the heart of her well-researched study of adoption history in the United States in the 20th century (Kinship by Design, 2008). Herman shows how the creation of this new model represented a radically new way of creating families.
It is also a story that can best be told by numbers. Between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s, nearly 2.7 million Americans were adopted. I was one of them, and my personal history is also part of this national story that many Americans still do not understand.
In her writings on adoption, Herman describes how this never-before-tried, national social-engineering experiment came to legitimize this new form of non-biological kinship.
It was also an experiment that required professional management, scientific research and legitimization, the full participation of state-level public bureaucracies, and the cooperation of professional groups like social workers, medical personnel, maternity homes and hospitals, and public health personnel to ensure its success. Those whose lives were shaped by the institution, birth mothers and adoptees, never had a role in creating the system or the rules that still govern it.
By the middle of the 20th century, almost every state in the country had brought their adoption laws into alignment with the principles laid out by two influential groups: the U.S. Children’s Bureau (USCB) and the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) guidelines and the Child Welfare League of America, Herman writes.
The USCB was created by the federal government in 1912 as a Progressive Era organization that introduced public health interventions to reduce infant mortality. It also became a national leader in making policy related to illegitimacy and unmarried mothers. The group was motivated by multiple scandals with commercial and unregulated adoptions that had lethal consequences for the infants. The CWLA, which brought together public and private service groups starting in 1915, later initiated efforts to standardize adoptions that culminated with its influential 1958 publication Standards for Adoption Service.
As the adoption system was rationalized and many criminal and black-market adoptions were pushed to the margins, the United States after World War 2 saw a boom in out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
Existing service organizations like the National Florence Crittenton Mission, which was created to help keep single mothers and their children together, provided essential health and social services that helped many of these unwed mothers. By the late 1940s, the mission—later called the Florence Crittenton Association—also encouraged nearly all of their single mothers it served to relinquish their infants.
I was born in one of those Florence Crittenton facilities, the Crittenton General Hospital of Detroit, one of the nation’s largest maternity hospitals for single women, and also a destination where nearly all infants born were relinquished to the booming adoption marketplace.
There is no truly accurate data from this era that precisely captures how many persons were adopted during what some historians and others call the “baby scoop era.” That descriptor is an imprecise term that lacks meaning. I do not use it in my writing because it obfuscates the scope of a national system that created a new class of Americans, known as adoptees. The title also clouds the consequences of laws that later deprived many of them equal rights of non-adoptees. I simply call this period the boom years of adoption and a massive social engineering experiment.
The most reliable population data available and the most frequently referenced numbers on U.S. adoptions through the mid-1970s was published in a paper by Penelope Maza for the USCB. (See Table 1 above.)
The study found the United States recorded 2.4 million adoptions from 1944 through 1972—the last year before abortion became legal in the United States. Through 1975, the number hit almost 2.7 million. The study made estimates without precise figures, because data collecting was voluntary not mandatory, and the U.S. Census Bureau did not begin counting some adoptees until 2000, leaving out an entire generation of adoptees during its most recent count in 2010. It is not clear still why older adoptees are still not counted by the U.S. government.
The expansion of adoption to become a ubiquitous American institution can be told in the numbers collected by Maza.
In 1937, there were an estimated 16,000 to 17,000 adoptions in the country. By 1944, that bumped to 50,000. In 1957, the figure hit 91,000. The year I was born, in 1965, the number hit 142,000. Finally, by the peak year of 1970, there were 175,000. That means 479 kids a day that year, on average, we being put in homes of parents who agreed to take children that mostly single women had agreed to relinquish.
My book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, examines the surge in adoptions that coincided with changing social values and the rise in out-of-marriage pregnancies among American women, particularly white women like my birth mother.
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show a spike in “illegitimate births” between 1940 to 1965. The end result of cultural transformation captured in these numbers are adoptee adults like me.
The number of births outside of marriage more than tripled from an estimated 89,500 in 1940 to 291,200 in 1965, when I arrived into this world. Five years later, in 1970, these out-of wedlock births reached 398,700—the same year when adoptions peaked. Between the 1960s when I was born and the 1980s, more women of all races were deciding to parent their children as unmarried mothers. In short, there was no longer stigma that shamed them into hiding or having a child out-of-wedlock. (Note my book briefly highlights the differences between white single moms versus Hispanic and African-American single moms. Single moms of color were far more likely not to relinquish their infants for adoption and chose to raise them or have family members help raise their infants.)
The boom years of American adoption were ending, but a new era of adoptees coming of age and demanding equal treatment under the law had come of age. Read more about that struggle in my forthcoming memoir. That struggle by adoptees and their advocates for equality under the law to access original birth records continues to this day.
 Penelope L. Maza, “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975,” Child Welfare Research Notes #9 (U.S. Children’s Bureau, August 1984), 1-4, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 65, Folder: “Adoption—Research—Reprints of Articles,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.
 Maza, “Adoption Trends.”
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Report to Congress on Out-of-Wedlock Child Bearing (Hyattsville, Maryland: September 1995), accessed May 13, 2016, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/wedlock.pdf, 55, 83.
Herman, Ellen. Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Herman, Ellen. “The Paradoxical Rationalization of Modern Adoption.” Journal of Social History, 36, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 339-385.
Kreider, Rose M. and Daphne Lofquist. “Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2010, Population Characteristics.” U.S. Census Bureau, April 2014. Https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p20-572.pdf.
Maza, Penelope L. “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975.” Child Welfare Research Notes, no. 9, U.S. Children’s Bureau, August 1984. Child Welfare League of America Papers, box 65, folder: “Adoption—Research—Reprints of Articles,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota. (Also found online at the University of Oregon’s Adoption History Project website.)