Historical statistics on domestic
adoptions during the twentieth century are interesting, but they
are scarce and can also be misleading. Field
studies did not even begin to estimate numbers of adoptions,
or document who was being adopted by whom, until almost 1920. When
researchers began to tally adoptions, they did so in only a handful
of Northeastern and Midwestern states and based conclusions about
statewide patterns on records from a few counties, usually in urban
A national reporting system for adoption existed only between 1945
and 1975, when the U.S. Children’s
Bureau and the National Center for Social Statistics collected
data voluntarily supplied by states and territories. Today, most
statistics available about adoption are being gathered by private
organizations, such as universities and foundations. The Adoption
and Safe Families Act of 1997 requires states to collect information
about the adoptions of children in public foster
care, but these are the only adoption-related statistics regularly
reported by governments.
Even when the federal government was trying to keep track, during
the three decades after World War II, adoption statistics were incomplete.
They never included informal adoptions, which were beyond the reach
of law and uncountable by definition. The summary data that did
exist tended to obscure trends that were as important as total figures.
How many children were adopted by relatives and how many by strangers?
How many were arranged independently or by agencies? How many involved
infants or adolescents? What factors explain regional and state
differences in the past and present? Why, for example, are adoption
rates in Wyoming and Alaska higher today than in California, Delaware,
and Texas? Have any or all of these patterns changed over time?
We can guess, but usually on the basis of partial or non-existent
We know one thing with certainty on the basis of historical statistics.
Adoptions were rare, even at the height of their popularity, around
1970. What is paradoxical is that adoptions have become rarer during
the past several decades, just they have become more visible. A
total of approximately 125,000 children have been adopted annually
in the United States in recent years, a sharp drop since the century-long
high point of 175,000 adoptions in 1970. Growing numbers of recent
adoptions have been transracial
families in which parents and children look nothing alike—and
the attention attracted by these adoptive families has led many
Americans to believe that adoption was increasing. The adoption
rate has actually been declining since 1970, along with the total
number of adoptions.
Estimates suggest that adoptive families are atypical as well as
few in number. Approximately 5 million Americans alive today are
adoptees, 2-4 percent of all families have adopted, and 2.5 percent
of all children under 18 are adopted. Adoptive families are more
racially diverse, better educated, and more affluent than families
in general. We know this because Census
2000 included “adopted son/daughter” as a kinship
category for the first time in U.S. history. It is possible that
the demographic profile of adoptions arranged many decades ago was
just as distinctive. We simply do not know.
Special-purpose adoption laws have existed in the United States
since the middle of the nineteenth century. More than a century
ago, however, very few Americans entered courts in order to formalize
kin ties. Divorce, still very unusual at the turn of the twentieth
century, was more common than adoption. After 1900, numbers of adoptions
in the United States began to climb. Why? First, a new culture of
children’s innocence and vulnerability placed a premium on
their welfare and secure membership
in families. Second, tangible benefits, such as those available
through the social security system established during the 1930s,
offered practical incentives for Americans to legalize family bonds.
For the period before 1945, however, we have practically no detailed
national statistics. After 1945, the number of total adoptions increased
steadily, with numbers of adoptions doubling in the decade after
World War II to reach approximately 100,000 annually by the mid-1950s.
During this period, the proportion of non-relative adoptions arranged
by agencies also increased significantly, a partial victory for
child welfare professionals who had been advocating expansive regulation,
uniformity, and minimum standards
for decades. Before 1945, independent placements probably represented
more than half of all adoptions. These decreased to an all-time
low of 21 percent in 1970.
The statistical picture for international
adoptions is uniquely clear because the federal government counts
all legal immigrants, including immigrant “orphans,”
as they are still called. (We also know that approximately 500 American
children are adopted annually by foreigners, mostly in Canada and
Europe, but in comparison to this country’s status as a “receiving
country,” we know practically nothing about the United States
as a “sending country.”) We know with some precision
how many children born in South Korea have been adopted by U.S.
citizens during the past fifty years—well over 100,000—and
figures available through the Department of State tell us the number
of Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Romanian, Chinese, and children of other
nationalities who have been incorporated into American families
through adoption. In the past decade, international adoptions have
increased dramatically as a component of the adoption total: the
2002 figure of 20,009 was more than triple the 1992 figure, and
comprised approximately 16 percent of all adoptions.
In addition to knowing where international adoptees come from and
how many of them there are, we also know that well over 60 percent
are girls and virtually all have been non-relatives. That does not
mean that non-relative adoptions are on the rise, however. Because
divorce and remarriage have become more common, relative adoptions
(by step-parents, for example) have become much more prevalent among
domestic adoptions in recent decades.
Numerically significant adoptions are not necessarily socially
sensitive adoptions. Relative adoptions have become more common
in recent decades but have attracted relatively little notice. Exactly
the opposite is true for transracial adoptions. These have been
covered extensively in the press and studied intensively by researchers,
but their importance is symbolic rather than statistical. The largest
number of transracial adoptions
occurred in the years around 1970, when there were perhaps a few
thousand annually. Opportunity,
an Oregon program, conducted one of the only national surveys of
black adopted children; it documented 7,420 total adoptions in 1971,
of which 2,574 were transracial. This was a tiny number, considering
that almost 170,000 adoptions were finalized in the country that
year. Why did outcome studies focus
on a small number of African-American children adopted by white
parents but ignore the thousands of children adopted by relatives?
The former was controversial and the latter was not.
Since all kinds of adoptions were and still are rare, the reason
to subject them to quantitative inquiry has had little to do with
sheer numbers. Governments and private organizations have compiled
adoption statistics because numbers have been crucial in adoption
policy debates. Proof that adoptions arranged in the black market
turned out poorly was valuable ammunition in the campaign against
disreputable independent adoptions, for instance, while proof of
how professionally arranged adoptions turned out could make or break
the reputation of agencies. Numbers were also accorded great meaning
within the placement process. The I.Q. scores of children, the ages
of aspiring parents, and the educational levels of birth parents
were all, at one time or another, treated as key indicators of where
and with whom they belonged.
Social researchers who conducted pioneering studies of child placement,
such as Sophie van Senden Theis,
author of How Foster Children
Turn Out, believed that counting was a privileged method
of accumulating knowledge and approaching truth scientifically.
They were sometimes surprised or disturbed by what statistics and
correlations revealed—that many adopters failed to inform
their children about their adoptions or that “telling”
was not a reliable predictor of positive outcomes—but they
were always confident that compiling aggregate data would improve
the lives of individual children. Statistical evidence based on
many adoptions was often compared with anecdotal evidence, which
revealed the details of one child’s or family’s story.
Numbers were often considered more objective than narratives,
and therefore more legitimate and trustworthy as a basis for policy
That adoption statistics have been gathered so haphazardly suggests
that the effort to tie adoption reform to adoption knowledge has
been a partial success, at best. But they also embody a uniquely
modern faith in numbers and a widespread belief that they could
be trusted to plan and govern the future.