Will we ever find the right formula for adoption?

Chris Bowlby looks at adoption processes through history

Illustration by Femke de Jong

The Coalition government is seeking to overhaul the adoption process in England, complaining that it has become “painfully slow, repetitive and ineffective”. This follows initiatives by the Blair governments that challenged what was seen as local authorities’ failure to secure the adoption of more children in care.

But amid all the talk of an overly bureaucratic or complex system, says historian Jenny Keating, it is worth remembering why the process was created in the first place. Her book
A Child for Keeps covers the history of adoption in the interwar period, when the state became much more involved in regulating the field.

The UK was late in legalising the adoption process compared with, for example, other parts of the British empire or the United States. Previously, procedures used by adoption societies had been wholly unregulated. In some respects, says Keating, the process of adopting a baby was like “getting a dog from a rescue home”. Prospective parents could turn up at orphanages, take their pick, and then return the child afterwards if they felt dissatisfied.

At its worst, it could involve babies advertised for adoption in provincial newspapers, and exchanged at railway stations without any paperwork. There were reports of touts trading babies for cash, or children sent to farms in Canada where no one monitored their welfare. Children’s charities such as the NSPCC expressed their concern about the situation throughout the interwar period.

The adoption debate exposed all kinds of social angst. Many unmarried mothers put their babies up for adoption, faced as they were, says Keating, with the “sheer difficulty of surviving on [their] own with a child and no income, child care or accommodation” – not to mention society’s prejudices. Some people warned that legalised adoption would “encourage immorality” if it enabled unmarried mothers to dispose of their babies too easily. Others saw adoption as potentially pressurising women into surrendering their children.

The adoption societies, meanwhile, were mainly preoccupied not with openness and accountability but with prospective adopting parents’ desire for anonymity. Adopting parents feared any association with illegitimacy, and, for some, the “desire for secrecy bordered on an obsession,” argues Dr Keating.

From the 1920s onwards, laws and regulations gradually provided adoption with more of a framework. Adoptions peaked some four decades later, in 1968, after which their number began to decline steadily. This was partly due to improved contraception and the legalisation of abortion. Social attitudes were also changing towards unmarried mothers, who now had access to improved childcare, housing and social security benefits.

Nowadays most adoptions in the UK involve vulnerable and emotionally or physically damaged children who have been in local authority care. However many of the debates surrounding adoption have far from disappeared. There have always been tensions, Dr Keating argues, between the interests of birth parents, adopting parents and child. Even though the interests of the child are now more obviously central, tensions remain. In the case of children adopted from abroad, there’s also the question of who benefits most from the process.

And the debate about what kind of adopting family background best suits different children remains intense. That debate has addressed questions of ethnicity and issues such as gay couples wanting to adopt. What’s more, the pool of potential adopters can fluctuate. In the interwar period, anecdotal evidence suggests that more single people – mostly women but also a few men – adopted children. This changed in the earlier postwar decades when, with the emphasis on the ‘nuclear’ family, fewer single people came forward.

So while governments today may claim that adoption is simply a procedure that needs streamlining, history shows what sensitive issues it raises as to whose interests are paramount, and what society believes is best. And the degree of openness accompanying the process is often in dispute. Adoption, concludes Jenny Keating, has long been, and still is, an “evolving and controversial concept”.  


Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here