A new book explores the history of adoption,
its cultural implications, and the challenges that remain.
ADOPTION: A Brief Social and Cultural History
By Peter Conn, faculty
Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, $45.
By Richard Gelles | When I finished reading page 20 of Adoption: A Brief Social and Cultural History, I went to my bookcase to retrieve a book I had written in 1995. That was Contemporary Families: A Sociological View, a 542-page textbook. I turned to the index and there it was—nothing. Not a single entry on the topic of adoption. I was just like the other authors of texts on families and family relations that Peter Conn, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, discusses in the opening chapter of his book—I had essentially ignored or glossed over adoption in my supposedly comprehensive examination of families across time and cultures. I did find a single mention of adoption in the actual text—a 1992 definition of family provided by the United States Census Bureau as “a group of two or more persons related by birth, marriage, or adoption residing together in a household.” On the opposite page of that definition was a photograph of a gay couple with the caption: “Although the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of ‘Family’ would not include gay or lesbian couples, sociologists’ definitions of ‘family’ would.” Yet I ignored adoption, which is clearly and uniformly recognized as a means of becoming part of a family.
That I would ignore adoption in my own textbook was an unsettling realization. In the two decades after the publication of my book I had worked to help enact two federal laws that would eliminate obstacles to adoption: the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 and the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of the Small Business Protection Act of 1996. And so I came to the conclusion early in my reading of Professor Conn’s tidy examination of adoption that I too viewed adoption through an ambivalent and inconsistent lens.
Conn brings considerable expertise to his social and cultural history of adoption. First and foremost, he is an adoptive parent. The book is dedicated to his adopted daughter, Jennifer. Second, he is an accomplished humanities scholar whose work includes a 1996 cultural biography of Pearl S. Buck, an adoptive mother and a leading figure in adoptive practice.
Beginning with his and his wife’s puzzlement when they were asked “How many natural children do you have?” in the forms needed to complete the adoption of Jennifer, Conn traces and documents the ambivalent and paradoxical social and cultural history of adoption across time and cultures. Consider the question about “natural children.” The Census Bureau clearly defines families as including adopted children, but the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania wants Peter and Terry Conn to distinguish between their “natural children” and Jennifer, who presumably is viewed by the Commonwealth as “not natural”—whatever that is. The American child-welfare system theoretically exists as an important safety net for abused, neglected, and abandoned children, but until 1997, child-welfare policy and practitioners erected and steadfastly maintained barriers that kept children from being adopted. Pearl Buck’s adopted children, for example, included two mixed-race children. Although research has consistently found no developmental disadvantage to inter-ethnic adoptions, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued an official statement in 1972 that declared transracial adoption “unnatural” and likened the practice to “cultural genocide.” That statement and the provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 essentially meant that hundreds of thousands of African-American children who grew up in the child-welfare system had little chance of achieving permanence and stability through adoption. Even when the policy changed in 1994 with the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act and again in 1997 with the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, prevailing child-welfare practice continued to see adoption as a last resort and transracial adoption as an undesirable outcome for children exiting foster care.
Conn’s examination of adoption is not limited to history, policy, and practice in the United States. As an international adoptive parent, Conn also examines the changing views and practices in the domain of inter-country adoption. The Hague Convention of 1993 on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption was enacted to create safeguards to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of children, and was supposed to mark the culmination of efforts to remove barriers and resolve problems in the area of inter-country adoption. But, as was the case in the United States with the issue of trans-racial adoption, there has been considerable pushback against inter-country adoption. Opponents of inter-country adoption argue that such adoptions threaten the heritage and cultural identity of children. Add to that the disturbing anecdotes about American parents abusing and sexually assaulting internationally adopted children, and there is a large wall constructed to constrain inter-county adoptions.
As I am a social scientist first and a policy wonk second, this review does not give Professor Conn’s literary analyses of adoption much attention. Chapter 2, “Adoption’s Long and Often Surprising History,” is not merely an historical analysis but a cultural and literary analysis as well. Conn waits for the last chapter to display his literary and cultural chops, and that chapter, “Imaging Adoption,” is a delightful examination of how adoption is represented in fiction.
When adoption is discussed in social-science, social-work, and policy circles, the debate is harsh and ideological. Conn’s book captures the cultural inconsistencies and paradoxes surrounding adoption in a clear and even-handed fashion. Even when he cites the work of the most vocal and passionate advocates on either side of the issue, his presentation is dispassionate. When the story is personal, such as answering the question about how many “natural” children he and Terry have, just a hint of his personal passion seeps through. Frankly, I was relieved to not have to read another polemic about adoption. Conn’s prose and breadth of knowledge makes the book a welcome respite from the trench warfare that surrounds the issue of adoption in the US and around the world.
Richard Gelles, the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, is dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at Penn.