Although the title might make the majority of modern readers cringe, in 1859 when Charles Loring Brace published ‘The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children’ is was a paragon of progressive thinking. For much of the second half of the 19th century, religious fervour swept across the Western world, specifically the Protestant world. In the UK, well-to-do Victorians esteemed acts of philanthropy and talked about civilising the world—another notion that a modern reader might grimace to fathom, but that had positive intention behind it.
And in America, where Charles Loring Brace was a Protestant minister, the Third Great Awakening, a religious revival, was kicking off at about the time he published his work on guardian-less children. Running in tandem to the industrial revolution this Third Great Awakening focused on charity and helping the poor. Despite the religious intolerance associated with a great many periods epoch of overt piety, it brought with it many helpful ideas and institutions such as ‘disposing of pauper and vagrant children’ or as we know call it, adoption.
Brace’s idea of taking orphaned children out of overcrowded cities and relocating them in less populated parts of the country became known as the Orphan Train. The practice was in many ways quite similar to what had been going on in the UK for some time, namely, children without parents being put into indentured servitude. Not unlike what happened with the UK’s Home Children—a programme dating from 1869 in which orphaned children from across the UK were sent to New Zealand and Australia, Canada and Virginia—the Orphan Train was prone to abuse and in a very cases even fostered kidnapping.
Needless to say that once the flaws in the respective programmes were discovered laws were changed to protect the children themselves as opposed to simply addressing the issue (and not the individual children) as had been the case previously.
Nowadays the adoption process is extremely rigorous to prevent the abuses of the past from reoccurring. Drafted in 1993 and in effect two years later the Hague Adoption Convention, ratified by 96 countries, is one of the tools used to safeguard children across the world. First and foremost the convention puts the well-being of the child at its core.
Between modern adoption and indentured servitude of the 19th century, adoption had something of a bumpy start. It was often taboo and something people hid. Secrecy was paramount in the early days of adoption so that birth parents could not return to claim their children. While this policy served its purpose in protecting children from possibly abusive or negligent parents it was a double-edged sword inasmuch as it created a climate of secrecy around the entire process and often children too young to remember being adopted were never told.
By the middle of the 20th century with populations decimated by the war, widespread labour shortages, and changes in morality vis-a-vis sex the stigma associated with adoption by and large vanished—at least compared with how it had been previously. However, within certain communities those beliefs persist.
Manager of adoption and fostering departments of faith-based charity Penny Appeal, Tay Jiva, says that many Muslims wrongly belief adoption to be a sin. The charity hopes to convince potential Muslim parents otherwise. With a recent influx in refugees from predominately Muslim countries, including parentless children, having foster or step-parents from a similar religious background might help children adjust to new lives in the UK. Based in the West Midlands, with a relatively large Muslim population, the charity believes there is ample space for growth.
According to another charity, Adoption UK, 2000 of the 70 000 children in foster care in the UK hail from Muslim or culturally Muslim families. Though the charity admits that the number could be much higher considering that at least a third of councils in the UK do not keep records of the children’s religious beliefs or those of their birth parents.
While it can be argued that on balance adoption as been a force for good in the world, it can be said that alleviating the problems that lead to parents giving their children up for adoption is an equally noble task. Charities working with orphans have been know to also work for causes to better the lives of those living in areas hit by drought, famine or war.
These conditions are often what prompts international adoptions in the first place. Dr Peter Selman of Newcastle University’s School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology and expert in international adoption says however that over the last ten years the number of international adoptions has declined dramatically. The numbers are falling at some 200 per week and have halved since 2004.
Italy remains an exception to that rule with 2211 international adoptions in 2015 (the latest year of figures available). For other European countries the number is something closer to 1000 on average, though clearly varies from country to country.
One of the reasons for that decrease according to Dr Selman likely due at least in part to the very laws that have been ratified to protect the children who are up for adoption. When dealing with something as precious as a human life and as vulnerable and impressionable as a child’s not the most shocking to imagine how bureaucracy might get in the way.
The practice is nowadays certainly not perfect. In countries that haven’t ratified the Hague Adoption Convention abuses of the adoption process are still common and unfortunately children are most often the one’s paying the price. However, modern adoption (to say nothing of adoption in the ancient world or Japan’s almost unique mukoyōshi, adult adoption) has come a long way from a Protestant minister worried about children growing up Catholic. Were he alive today Brace may be taken about out the modern world’s tolerance and lack of piety as he may see it. But it seems a safe claim to make that he would be pleased with the development of adoption over the 20th century and positive changes it’s brought into people’s lives.