Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States by Ellen Herman (review)

Irene Elizabeth Stroud
2013 Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth  
hile adoption has only touched a minority of US families, it occupies a significant place in the national imagination. Adoption marks a boundary between private and public, where individual freedom to form families meets social concern for the proper nurture of children. As a planned, regulated child welfare practice, adoption itself is a twentieth-century invention and has undergone dramatic shifts during its brief history. Ellen Herman, a professor of history at the University of Oregon,
more » ... s the development of adoption theory and practice in the modern United States, framing it as a quest to rationalize family making through "design," or intentional social planning (p. 9). While some children have always been transferred between families through a variety of formal and informal arrangements, it was only with the rise of modernity that new experts in psychology, social work, and law sought to structure adoption in order to achieve (or so they thought) the best outcomes for children and families. Herman documents the wide swings in expert opinion over the course of the twentieth century, demonstrating that some "innovations" of recent decades, such as open adoption, actually represent a return to earlier practices. Experts recommended adopting older children, then newborns; the perceived importance of matching children to adoptive parents by race, religion, and putative intelligence rose, then declined; unmarried mothers were urged to keep their children, then to give them up. Meanwhile, private arrangements always competed with public, regulated adoption practices, as when families took in extra children without taking formal legal steps, or turned to commercial adoption agencies whose practices sometimes amounted to baby-selling. Herman locates shifts in adoption practice within the context of narratives concerned with race, gender, class, modernity, and individualism. She argues that while adoption seems to embody the American individualist ideal-anyone can become anything, regardless of origins-the management of adoption
doi:10.1353/hcy.2013.0014 fatcat:65ngenvsinfthhgvurthow22ta