Adoption is, strictly speaking, a legal device. It defines the relationship between child and parents, both natural and adoptive, conferring on the child all the rights and on the adoptive parents all the duties that the law upholds between natural children and parents. The regulation of family relationships has always been regarded as a matter of social as well as private concern. In the case of adoption, society’s chief concern is, of course, for the welfare of the child, whom the adoption process provides with the stable environment necessary to his sound development.
Adoption basically is designed to provide childless couples with children, and parentless children with parents, and thus forming family units; although couples with their own children may, of course, adopt others. Legal adoption also assures the adoptive parents that there will be no interference in their enjoyment of the child or in their training
of him. For both child and adoptive parents, legal adoption establishes the indissoluble ties that are the foundation of a secure and normal family life. The natural parents, or whatever relatives of the child surrender him for adoption, are relieved of what was often an insupportable financial or emotional burden, a situation potentially destructive to the mental health of both adults and the child.
About half the children (171,000 in 1969) adopted each year in the United States are adopted by relatives. With non-relative adoptions, half are arranged through social agencies, either public or voluntary, and the remaining half usually are arranged by doctors or other intermediaries. However, in some states it is required by law that non-relative adoptions must be arranged through an agency.
In agency adoptions, the agency is approached on the one hand by prospective adoptive parents and on the other by natural parents or pregnant women in need of social assistance. Of the latter, the overwhelm ing preponderance—about 90 percent in 1969—are unwed mothers in their teens or early twenties.
The agency screens the prospective parents to determine their suitability. Its primary concern is that the couple be emotionally mature and sensitive to the responsibilities of parenthood; financial considerations are of secondary
importance. A caseworker attempts to recognize, and eliminate if possible, any lingering resentment or guilt the couple may feel about their inability to have children of their own, to insure that the child will receive unreserved welcome.
The agency also makes certain that the natural parent, or parents, understands and accepts the decision to surrender the child. Before placement, the baby is, of course, thoroughly examined for his physical and mental health. Adoptions not handled by social agencies often are transacted in communities where no such agencies exist. A physician might act as intermediary between an unwed mother and a couple seeking to adopt. A few adoptions—the so- called black-market babies—verge on, or fall directly into, the illegal; although privately handled adoptions are by no means all illegal. The present shortage of available babies has encouraged many couples to seek non-agency help in order to shorten their waiting time. Private adoptions may entail some risks, however, if they are undertaken casually.
(l) The adoption may not conform to the law; the 50 states and Canada have widely differing laws to govern adoption, sometimes imposing fairly strict standards for matching race and religion, though many of these restrictions are being eased.
(2) The natural parents may not have signed adequate release for the child; should they later change their minds, the outcome of legal action is uncertain.
(3) If the child is insufficiently tested, the couple may unwittingly adopt a baby with physical or mental disabilities that they are unequipped to deal with financially or emotionally.