Published by H-Childhood@h-net.msu.edu (December, 1999)

E. Wayne Carp. Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998. xiii + 304 pp. Notes and index. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-79668-3.

Reviewed for H-Childhood by Jacqueline S. Reinier , Department of History, California State University, Sacramento.

Secrecy and Disclosure in Adoption

When Wayne Carp set out to write a comprehensive history of adoption in the United States, he discovered that his work was compromised by the issue of secrecy, since the primary sources he needed to consult, adoption case records, are, for the most part, sealed. He was able to surmount this problem by working part-time at a private agency, the Children's Home Society of Washington (CHSW), where he was allowed to read a sample of case records from the years 1896 to 1993, in addition to minutes of supervisors' meetings, personnel files and annual reports. Comparing these records with reports and correspondence of other agencies, sources from the U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare League of America, and material from professional social work journals, he determined that the CHSW records were representative enough to at least focus on the issue of secrecy itself and the effort in more recent years to open not only case records, but to expose the very process behind the adoption of children. The result is a careful and detailed study of one aspect of the history of adoption, valuable in itself and interesting enough to make the reader wish for the comprehensive history that Carp himself had hoped to write.

Carp found that placement of children and adoption were open in America through World War II. In the colonial period, orphans, bastards, abandoned, or impoverished children were bound out by local officials and courts to another family for labor and education. Such children were adopted only informally, or by the early nineteenth century through private bills in state legislatures. Not until the mid-nineteenth century, when ideology of child nurture stressed the family environment, did home-finding become a goal, and state legislatures enact statutes that severed the legal bond between the birth parents and the child. With professionalization and bureaucratization of social work and an expanded role for the state in the Progressive period, records began to be kept of the adoption process. Confidentiality in such records was introduced to shield unwed mothers from public scrutiny, but information about the child's background was considered essential knowledge for adoptive parents and the adult adoptee. Not until after World War II did social workers and agency personnel begin to insist that these increasingly voluminous case records be closed, not only to the public, but also to all the individuals involved in the adoption process.

This narrow focus on adoption records becomes a fascinating look at the 1950s with implications for women's history and the history of sexuality, as well as history of childhood and the family. Carp argues that a shift to a psychoanalytical perspective among social workers increased the stigma of illegitimacy, as unwed mothers began to be viewed as neurotic individuals, who should be separated from the child for the child's own good, rather than as victims of environmental circumstances. At the same time, social workers' quest for professionalism made record-keeping a product of the adoption process rather than the recording of information on the biological family for the child's later use. While he mentions the changing demographics of the time period, this material could be further elaborated. Some historians argue that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was well underway in the 1950s, but was contained within marriage, as men and women married at younger ages following World War II. While attitudes celebrated high birthrates and early marriage, women who engaged in changing sexual behavior without the sanction of marriage were encouraged to relinquish their children, providing infants for couples who desired children but could not have them themselves. Carp argues that it was the demand of unwed mothers for privacy that increased the receptivity of social workers to a policy of secrecy. Keeping records confidential also distinguished professional social work from the practices of unregulated private agencies who competed in the market for babies in the pronatalist 1950s.

Almost simultaneously, however, an adoption rights movement began to develop, as adults who had been adopted as children sought to acquire knowledge about their natural parents. By the 1970s this became a full-fledged protest movement with an articulate leadership and critical mass of adult adoptees, within the wider context of social reform. As young people of the sixties and seventies used new methods of birth control and postponed marriage, changing sexual behavior became a sexual revolution, which challenged the attitudes that stigmatized illegitimacy. Rising divorce rates and aid to families with dependent children made single-parent families prevalent, and many unwed mothers opted to keep and raise their children. Diminishing numbers of infants available for adoption increased demand for older, minority, and foreign children, and empowered mothers who opted to relinquish their babies. Although opposition to opening adoption records continued to be voiced, professional social work journals and the mass media focused on adopted individuals searching for their birth parents. By the 1980s, not only did social work standards and model state laws advocate disclosure of information to all the parties involved in an adoption, but the adoption process itself became more open, as interaction between birth mothers and adoptive parents seemed to be in the best interests of the child.

Carp has outlined this story in a masterful fashion, weaving together the many facets that are only touched on here. While his analytical approach to writing history builds a convincing argument, it often neglects the human aspects of this very poignant material. For this reviewer, at least some illustration from the case records he has been able to read would flesh out the experience of real people who participated in the grief, pain, bewilderment and joy accompanying the wrenching and fulfilling process of adoption. Perhaps a trend toward disclosure of case records will eventually make it possible for a comprehensive history of adoption in the United States to be written. In the meantime, Carp's careful study of secrecy and disclosure is an important start.

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