A Brief Timeline of Adoption in the U.S.

According to an Adoption Attitudes Survey, 40% of Americans know someone who is adopted.  Adoption is a legal practice that transfers parental rights of an adopted child from biological (or legal) parents to adoptive parents. U.S. Census data estimates that 1 out of every 25 families with children have an adopted child.  Formal, legalized adoption has been ongoing in the U.S. since the 1850s when Massachusetts passed the first modern adoption law. While early adoptions adhered to strict “matching” procedures meant to conceal adoption, in the 1950s transnational transracial adoption from Korea facilitated changes to matching procedures and preferences, popularizing adoption across racial, religious, and national lines while also providing a model for the international adoption industry we see today. In fact, the U.S. is the leading receiving country of internationally adopted children, adopting nearly half a million children since the 1940s.

Below I offer a brief timeline highlighting some of the key events in domestic and international adoption.

1854-1929 Orphan Trains – Approximately 250,000 children of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants from New York and the Eastern seaboard were sent to be raised in Anglo-Protestant farming families across the Midwest.

1940s-1970s Irish adoption to the U.S. – About 2,000 children were adopted to the U.S. from Ireland, facilitated by Catholic orders in Ireland and the U.S. Many of these children were born to unwed mothers in homes run by the Catholic church.

1948-1953 German, Greek, and Japanese adoptions after WWII – Close to 6,000 European children were adopted, primarily from Germany and Greece. About 2,400 children were adopted transracially from Asia, primarily from Japan, to white families.

1953 – after 2011 Adoption from Korea – Adoption from Korea began in 1953 with the end of the Korean War. After the very public adoption of 8 Korean children by Harry and Bertha Holt in 1955, adoption from Korea gained popularity. The creation of the Holt Adoption Program in 1956 help institutionalize international adoption. South Korea became known as the “Cadillac” of adoption programs. Adoption from Korea peaked in the 1980s. Over 100,000 Korean children have been adopted to the U.S., primarily transracially to white families.

1955-1962 Hong Kong Project – Over 500 Chinese children abandoned by Chinese parents, who had fled communist mainland China to Hong Kong, were adopted to the U.S.

1958-1967 Indian Adoption Project – Approximately 395 Native American children from 16 western states were sent to be raised in white families in Eastern and Midwestern states.

1970 African American transracial adoptions – Overall, the number of African American children placed with white families is small, and these adoptions reached their peak around 1970, when approximately 2,500 African American transracial adoptions took place.

1972 National Association of Black Social Workers’ “Position Statement on Trans-Racial Adoption” – Vehemently opposed the transracial adoption of African American children to white families, citing the damage to African American children’s sense of self.

1975 Operation Babylift – Following the Vietnam War, approximately 2,500 Vietnamese children were adopted to families in the U.S. and allied countries.

1978 Indian Child Welfare Act passed by Congress – This Act seeks to keep Indian children with Indian families.

1989-2001 Adoption from Romania – The fall of the Ceauşescu regime revealed that over 170,000 Romanian children were in state-run institutions. Approximately 10,000 Romanian children were adopted to the U.S. and European nations. A moratorium on adoption was enacted in 2001 due to black market adoptions, and international adoption was banned 4 years later.

1995-2008 Adoption from Guatemala – After Guatemala’s civil war, countless Guatemalan children were orphaned or separated from family. Over 22,000 Guatemalan children adopted to the U.S. In 2008 adoptions from Guatemala closed due to child trafficking.

1991 Adoption from China – Since 1992, over 85,000 Chinese children, mainly girls, have been (predominately) adopted transracially to white U.S. families. China’s one-child policy and patrilineal society led to the abandonment of baby girls. Adoption from China peaked in 2007. Over 85,000 Chinese children have been adopted to the U.S., primarily transracially to white families.

1994 Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) – Stated that organizations and agencies that receive federal funds could not “categorically deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent solely on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child involved.

1996 Inter-Ethnic Placement Act (IEPA) – Prohibited State agencies and other entities that receive Federal funding and were involved in foster care or adoption placements from delaying, denying or otherwise discriminating when making a foster care or adoption placement decision on the basis of the parent or child’s race, color or national origin.

2000 Child Citizenship Act – Granted automatic U.S. citizenship to children internationally adopted to U.S. citizenship-holding parents. This Act covered future children adopted to the U.S. and internationally adopted children under the age of 18 at the time it was enacted (children born no earlier than February 27, 1983).

2008 Hague Adoption Convention – The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention) is an international agreement to establish safeguards to ensure that intercountry adoptions take place in the best interests of the child.

2016 Adoption by same-sex couples legal in all 50 U.S. states


U.S. adoption raises questions about:

  • The relationship between U.S. global relations and adoption
  • Immigration policy
  • What comprises the “best interests” of the child
  • The role of consumerism in adoption
  • Shifting definitions of ‘family’
  • The role of race, class, and gender in who can adopt, who is adopted, and who relinquishes their child (whether by choice or force)


For more detailed history on U.S. adoption, see:

  • Berebitsky, Julie. (2001). Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas
  • Choy, C. (2013). Global Families : A History of Asian International Adoption in America. NY, NY: NYU Press.
  • Dorow, Sara K. (2006). Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship. NY, NY: NYU Press.
  • Fessler, Ann. (2007). The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. NY, NY: Penguin Books.
  • Herman, Ellen. (2008). Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Jacobs, Margaret D. (2014). A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press
  • Jerng, M. (2010). Claiming Others Transracial Adoption and National Belonging. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Johnson, Kay Ann. (2016). China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Oh, Arissa. (2015). To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption . Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Roorda, Rhonda M. (2015). In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption. NY, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • The Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon





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