Proxy Adoptions

Source: International Social Service, American Branch Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota

The dangers of proxy adoption: According to an official of the International Social Service, this woman from Texas “appeared to be drunk and she appeared to be over 50 years of age” when she first greeted the baby adopted for her, by proxy, in Greece, 1957.





During the 1950s, proxy adoptions were the most widely publicized means of international adoption. They allowed U.S. citizens to adopt in foreign courts by designating a proxy agent to act in their place. Thousands of children, especially from Japan, Greece, and Korea, were adopted in this way. Because these adoptees entered the United States as the legal children of parents who had never met them, proxies avoided the requirements of state laws and flouted the notion that child welfare was the dominant factor in adoption.

Proxy adoptions revealed how inadequate federal policy was in dealing with family-making across national borders. Until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1961, which incorporated international adoption, the migration of foreign-born children to the U.S. had no place in permanent law. It was governed by a series of provisional refugee and displaced persons acts, beginning with a directive from President Truman in December 1945, that envisioned the entry of “eligible orphans” from war-torn countries as a temporary emergency and set quotas for that purpose. National concerns about immigration and unwillingness to interfere in the legal systems of sovereign nations meant that international adoptions were effectively exempted from the regulatory regime that had been laboriously put into place domestically.

Proxy adoptions epitomized the problem, as professionals saw it, that foreign children were given unequal legal protection and accorded few if any safeguards. Officials in the U.S Children’s Bureau, the Child Welfare Leargue of America, and the American Branch of International Social Service charged proxy peddlers, including Bertha and Harry Holt, with masterminding an unscrupulous, global mail-order baby racket and hiding behind humanitarian rhetoric. Transnational migrants needed the minimum standards mandated in most domestic adoptions: investigation, supervision, and probation. Professionals pointed to additional hazards in international adoption. Many foreign children—from Asia in particular—had spent lengthy periods in orphanages and needed special attention as a result. Professionals also claimed to possess crucial cultural awareness that amateurs lacked. They suggested that parents adopting foreign children needed basic education about children’s home countries, rudimentary language skills, and enlightened attitudes about a host of things from food and sleeping arrangements to neighborhood integration and interracial dating and marriage.

Proxy adoptions ignored all of this and left family-making up to faith and chance.


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