Why Is the History of Adoption So Complicated?

In this exclusive excerpt from RELINQUISHED, sociologist Gretchen Sisson explains how the historical traumas of family separation have shaped contemporary adoption in the U.S.

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To understand contemporary adoption, it is essential to understand the long and far-reaching tradition of family separation throughout American history. These historical traumas shape how adoption is practiced, which infants and children are valued for what purposes, which communities engage with systems of adoption, and whom adoption aims to serve. It requires visiting the darkest moments in our country’s past.

Many of America’s earliest relinquishing mothers were enslaved Black women whose children were often sold away from them. Of all the core violations of American slavery, including the systemic rape and forced childbearing, these separations were among the harshest losses. The narratives of enslaved people are rife with mothers begging to be bought along with their children or to not have their children sold away. “Still holding me in her arms … [she] honestly and imploringly besought my master to buy her and the rest of the children,” wrote Charles Ball, remembering his own separation from his mother. But the selling away of children from their parents, or vice versa, was systematic—an estimated half of all slave trades separated nuclear families—and intentional, as the ongoing threat of separation was used to induce terror and extract obedience from enslaved parents. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs spoke of this threat: “When my master found that I still refused to accept what he called his kind offers, he would threaten to sell my child. ‘Perhaps that will humble you,’ said he.” The practice of separation incentivized a callous indifference to the family relationships of enslaved people, and it continued after the end of the Civil War, when former slave owners argued that liberated Black people could not care for their own families and took their children into forced indentured servitude.

In this same tradition were the Native American mothers who fled to the hills every day with their children and grandchildren to try to hide from government officials who rounded up the children and sent them to military-run boarding schools. They could rarely hide well enough and long enough. At the schools, the children faced abuse and coercive assimilation into white American culture: Their belongings were burned; they were beaten for speaking their own languages; they were physically and sexually abused, involuntarily sterilized, and starved. In an infamous 1892 speech, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt—dubbed the “father of the movement in getting Indians out from their old life into citizenship”—argued that these schools allowed the government to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Also in the 19th century, poor white mothers in eastern cities, many of them immigrants, struggled to care for their children due to poverty, widowhood, illness, or simply having more children than they had the capacity to parent. They surrendered them to foundling homes or institutions that labeled the children “orphans” despite the fact they had living parents. Many of these children became Orphan Train riders, sent west for rehoming. One such child was Hazelle, who fondly recalled trips to the Bronx Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her widowed mother from her early childhood. However, when her mother was hospitalized, Hazelle was sent to Texas. She protested, saying, “I can’t go. I’m not an orphan. My mother’s still living. She’s in a hospital right here in New York,” but the social worker ignored her objections. The Orphan Trains were framed as a benevolent way to move children toward safe Christian homes. Many of these organizations were run by abolitionists who decried the selling of enslaved children from their mothers but saw no conflict in their own work separating children from their families via Orphan Trains.

As Charles Loring Brace, founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society, put it: “The best of all asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home.” Yet many of these homes were often more interested in fostering laborers than in expanding their families. Accordingly, the Children’s Aid Society often marketed the children as a source of helpful and low-cost labor: “Boys … handy and active … could be employed on farms, in trades, in manufacturing …. Girls could be used for the common kinds of housework.”

These examples were usually focused on older children; they were rarely about infants. Indeed, when abolitionists made family separation a focus of their antislavery message, it was an easy concession for some Southern states to outlaw the selling of infants away from their enslaved mothers beginning in the 1850s. This policy cost them almost nothing, as there was no real market for small children, but—they hoped—would make the institution of slavery appear more humane and thus more resistant to the attacks of abolitionists, as gender studies scholar Laura Briggs describes in Taking Children. And while some babies rode the Orphan Trains—especially toward the later years of the Orphan Train period, into the 20th century—most riders were older children.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that a social demand for babies came into existence. As sociologist Viviana Zelizer states, the early 1900s saw a cultural shift: “While in the 19th century a child’s capacity for labor had determined its exchange value, the market price of a twentieth- century baby was set by smiles, dimples, and curls.” As children came to be understood as an inherent source of fulfillment and joy for parents, the demand for them soared. This shift does not mean that parents of previous centuries loved their children less; it does mean that the economic incentives around having children—and the motivations for adoption—had changed. Adoption had previously included temporary fostering or kinship arrangements, but now increasingly involved the full and permanent legal transfer of parental rights.

Prospective adoptive parents were eager to participate. “The woods are full of people eager to adopt,” a Boston probate court judge remarked in 1919. The supply and demand dynamics of adoption had inverted. By 1927, The New York Times reported that a new challenge was “one of finding enough children for childless homes rather than that of finding enough homes for homeless children.” These early laments about the limited supply of adoptable babies would continue throughout the century and beyond. As gender studies and adoption scholar Laura Briggs describes, “Every generation in the 20th century faced a ‘baby famine.’”

Into this opportunity for profit stepped Georgia Tann, who served as director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society beginning in 1924, but who impacted the practice of adoption far beyond her tenure. As chronicled by reporter Barbara Bisantz Raymond in her book The Baby Thief, thousands of women had their children stolen by Tann. There was Irene Green, who after groggily waking from anesthesia was told by a labor and delivery nurse that she’d delivered a stillborn baby. When Green protested that she’d heard the baby cry, the nurse told her she was wrong. When she asked to see her newborn’s body, she was told they had already disposed of it. In fact, Tann had taken the baby.

There was Grace Gribble, a poor widow who signed papers at the behest of a social worker employed by Tann, believing they would help her children get health insurance, only to realize they were adoption relinquishments. Her children were sold for adoption in three different states; by the time she found a lawyer to take her case, the judge ruled: “This is one of the sad tragedies of life that even a mother must endure for the best interests of her children.” There was Mary Owens, who wrote to one of Tann’s agents: “Please help me git my baby back. I am so heartbroken about the way it has bin taken from me … . I would gladly lay down my life just to see her one time.”

Tann would take sick children from doctors’ offices and tell their parents they had died; she would remove children from nursery schools while their parents were at work. Over the course of her career, she would facilitate over 1,000 adoptions and earn over $1 million. To protect herself, Tann facilitated adoptions for prominent celebrities, authors, and politicians, including actress Joan Crawford, writer Pearl S. Buck, and New York governor Herbert H. Lehman. These connections made those at the highest level of society complicit in the secrecy of her work. Tann lobbied for sealed birth certificates, meaning that adopted people would never have access to their original parents, and this secrecy was legally issued in nearly every state—including New York, where Governor Lehman closed access himself. Adopted people had only one legal identity, and it was as the children of their adoptive parents.

From RELINQUISHED: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood by Gretchen Sisson. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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