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Looking into the laws behind adoption

September 2, 2009

Studying the laws behind international adoption

Trained as an historian of the American Revolution and blessed with an abundance of sources, I saw no scholarly reason to travel abroad, although I had wanted to see England, the mother country from which America was born. My subsequent research on the history of adoption, which produced three books over the course of 20 years, focused entirely on the United States. I had little interest in writing or teaching history in a comparative dimension.

My attitude and practice changed dramatically, however, in 2005 when, out of the blue, the Ministry of the Attorney General, Ontario, Canada, hired me as a legal consultant, in the case of Marchand v. Ontario in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. I was asked to research and write an affidavit on the history of adoption legislation, focusing on secrecy and disclosure in Ontario’s adoption records, and placing Ontario’s experience in a wider context. In practice, this meant comparing Ontario’s adoption disclosure laws with those of other English-speaking jurisdictions, including Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. That experience forced me out of my insular focus on the United States and channeled my research interests to international adoption, and in particular, a comparative history of adoption records in global perspective.

Quickly, as an unintended result of my new research interest, I became a world traveler. In July 2006, I was honored to be invited to England to be a keynote speaker at the Second International Conference on Adoption Research at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. This marked my first trip abroad. The following year, I was invited to give a talk at the biannual conference of the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth in Norrköping, Sweden. Soon thereafter, I received a Fulbright Distinguished Lectureship to teach at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, in the spring semester, 2008. And then this past September, I was again honored to be invited to present a paper at the Ninth Australian Adoption Conference in Sidney.

My new international perspective deeply influenced my research. At conferences in England, Sweden and Australia, I was at first stunned and then excited to discover literally hundreds of like-minded people – scholars, professionals, and government officials – all talking about adoption issues. To understand the significance of this seemingly mundane fact, one must realize that the history of adoption in the United States is a new discipline and that only a handful of scholars, scattered over several disciplines, actively practice the craft. Conferences dedicated to the history of adoption in the U.S. are practically unknown, and there are no Internet discussion lists devoted to adoption history. International conferences provided me, for the first time in 20 years of research on adoption, with a community of like-minded scholars and professionals. Now I have begun to e-mail them regularly, share ideas and findings, and collaborate on research and writing projects. After French scholar Ivan Jablonka and I met in Sweden, we began e-mailing about the idea of collaborating on a comparative history of early 20th-century adoption institutions. Similarly, several Australian and Canadian researchers and I are planning to present papers on various international aspects of adoption at the forthcoming 5th Biennial Conference on the History Childhood and Youth in Berkeley, Calif., later in 2009. Neither these collaborations nor the comparative nature of the questions we are asking together would have been possible without “going global.”

A comparative approach to the history of adoption has also led to my revising some of the fundamental research questions swirling about adoption reform in the United States – in particular, the highly contentious issue of whether allowing adopted adults access to their adoption records, which are sealed in most states, would have a negative effect on birth mothers who had been promised secrecy by social workers at the time they had relinquished their babies. My earlier research was ambivalent on this issue, there not being sufficient evidence to support a conclusion, one way or another. But the paper I delivered in Sydney, based on new research in Great Britain and Australia as well as the United States, addressed this issue. My paper was the first one to test empirically how safe birth parents and adopted adults were in countries that have opened their adoption records, usually birth registration records, using contact preference forms and contact vetoes. The results of this investigation revealed that a vast gap exists between the fear by birth parents and adopted adults that their privacy will be invaded and their family disrupted and the reality that few or no offences are committed. I concluded that opening adoption records with contact preference forms or contact vetoes provided a balanced adoption disclosure system and was a viable alternative to the sealed adoption policies currently used in the vast majority of American states and Canadian provinces. The paper has subsequently been published in Adoption Quarterly (offprint sent upon request).

Global experience has similarly altered my teaching perspective. I taught two courses to undergraduates at Yonsei, one of which was “Families and Childhood in American History, 1607 to the Present.” The active participation of the students taught me that my ethnocentric notions about the Western family needed to be seriously qualified as I learned about the Korean extended family kinship system, the family naming register (recently abolished), the importance of Confucianism, and the various levels of respect imbedded in the Korean language. I hope to teach this course at PLU, and when I do, to incorporate a comparative international perspective.

I plan to continue my research, publishing, and teaching in an international context. Currently, I am writing a biography of Jean Paton, a middle-aged, twice-adopted, ex-social worker who pioneered the adoption reform movement, both here and abroad. After I finish that project, I plan to write a history of adoption records in global perspective. In 2009, I am looking forward to attending a business history conference in Milan, in anticipation of adding a comparative history component to my American Business and Economic History course. As I look to the future, I can be sure of one thing: having gone global, there is no going back.

-E. Wayne Carp, Professor of History, Benson Family Chair in History

E. Wayne Carp holds the Benson Family Chair in History and is professor of history at PLU. His research focuses on the history of secrecy and openness in adoption. He is the author of “Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption” (Harvard University Press, 1998) and “Adoption Politics: Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58” (University Press of Kansas, 2004) and the editor of “Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives” (University of Michigan Press, 2002). A recognized expert on legal issues, he has served as a consultant and expert witness throughout North America in cases that concern “wrongful adoption,” secrecy in adoption records, and the history of adoption disclosure laws.