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ADOPTION: A Lutheran Social Services Tradition – Part 1

[Important Note: a free webinar on International Adoption will be held  TONIGHT, Tuesday January 21, 7-8pm CST to learn about adoption in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Details on]

Bethlehem 1931 webThis is the first of a two-part overview of our LSS adoption programs. A lot of history, knowledge, and perspective have combined to make our agency one of the foremost adoption resources in Texas.  

Just two generations ago, the world of adoption was mired in silence and secrecy. Adoption in 2013 is a whole different world than it was in the very earliest days, when orphan trains and foundling homes of the mid-19th century placed orphaned children in positions that were sometimes more indentured than adopted.

Thankfully, adoption practices have changed significantly over the course of the last century. What hasn’t changed is that Lutheran Social Services of the South’s adoption program is still on the leading edge of adoption trends, reform, and quality practices. LSS has facilitated well over 8,000 adoptions over 60 years. Building families through adoption is what we do.

A Short History

The first LSS foray into the world of adoption was in 1881, when the “German Evangelical Lutheran Bethlehem Orphan Asylum Association” was incorporated in New Orleans, Louisiana, to shelter “orphans and half-orphans.” A plantation house became the home for the first children admitted. The name of the facility changed to “Evangelical Lutheran Bethlehem Home” in 1941, and it was popularly referred to as the “Bethlehem Orphan Home” for the next 20 years, as it evolved into a residential treatment center for troubled children referred through child welfare.  As a result of extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Bethlehem had to close and the residents were relocated. The campus was converted to a disaster volunteer camp before becoming the home of the BeREAL (Ready, Educated Accomplished, Leaders) LSS program for youth aging out of foster care.

Lutheran charitable work for orphans in Texas commenced in 1929 with the purchase of Trinity Lutheran Home in Round Rock for orphans and the elderly. This program ended in 1958, as the number of children declined. At this time, the “Lutheran Aid and Orphan Society” began helping unwed mothers and their infants, finally changing their agency’s name to Lutheran Social Services (LSS) in 1965.

The Adoption Closet

State legislatures began passing adoption laws in the United States in the 19th century. At that time adoption evoked as much consternation as curiosity – a sensitive subject linked to other sensitive subjects like illegitimacy and infertility. So the trend was to try to keep adoptions hush-hush, to protect children from the pain of being different and to allow adoptive families to “pass” as traditional, biologically related families. A primary barrier to adoption then, and even now, was fear: How will adopted kids turn out? Early in the 20th century children available for adoption were suspected of being “bad seeds” along with the presumption that their birth parents must be morally flawed. Many of the historical problems with adoption came from the desire to shroud it in secrecy.

Since 1970, earlier reforms guaranteeing sealed records and confidentiality have been aggressively criticized. Movements to encourage search, reunion, and “open adoption” have garnered support. Open adoption means there is some contact between the adoptive family and birth parents. The amount and type of contact is individualized and mutually agreed upon. LSS pioneered the open adoption movement in Texas, and was one of the first agencies nationally to welcome, encourage, and facilitate open adoptions.

Today, the adoption closet has been replaced by a vast variety of adoption communities and networks, with extensive communication outlets through daily media and on the internet. Celebrity adoptions have become commonplace and generate intense publicity—solicited or not. But millions of people have experienced the joys of adoption long before it became a media event.

Adoption Goes Global

Adoption history illustrates that ideas and issues surrounding adoption have been shaped by law and public policy as well as cultural change. Adoption became globalized following World War II—from Germany in the 1940s to Korea in the 1950s, and Vietnam in the 1970s.  Since then, growing numbers of adoptions are transracial and/or international, matching parents to children who have been orphaned for various reasons: by war, poverty, and in the case of China, that country’s policy permitting couples to have only one child.

In some countries instances of corruption in the adoption system were rampant. A new set of regulations has been adapted due to the impact of the Hague Adoption Convention, which went into effect in the United States in 2008, with LSS becoming Hague-accredited that same year. The Hague Treaty ensures that countries follow standards that are designed to protect children. This has resulted in a slowing rate of international adoption, as different countries establish new structure and regulatory systems.

LSS has worked in partnership with other international agencies to place children for adoption since 1967, facilitating the adoptive placements of several thousand children from other countries. LSS has inter-agency agreements with approximately 40 primary providers responsible for adoption services in a multitude of countries, most notably: China, Korea, Ethiopia, Colombia, India, Uganda, Ukraine, The Philippines, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Taiwan.

In 2010, LSS began a new partnership with New Beginning Association, a non-governmental organization (NGO) accredited by the Bulgarian government, as the primary provider to work together to find loving homes for Bulgaria’s orphaned children. The first finalized adoption of a Bulgarian child took place in Bulgaria in December 2013, with his homecoming scheduled for January 18, 2014. Currently other families are in the process who have committed to adopting waiting children in Bulgaria.

Adoption Reform

The radical change in thinking about adoption since 1970 has also given expression to an array of adoption experiences—including transracial and special needs, and adoption of older children as well.  Search and reunion have become prominent features of adoption reform and activism in recent decades. Many adoptees, plagued by questions about their pasts, turn to agencies like LSS to help long-lost relatives find one another. Paradoxically, domestic adoptions have become rarer during the past several decades.

Revolutionary change in the adoption world has been brought on by:

  • Liberation movements: the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, adoptee’s liberty movement (ALMA, 1971), and birth fathers’ rights.
  • Birth control methods, reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies.
  • Legalization of abortion, giving women a choice in whether or not to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term.
  • Normalization and support for single parenthood: provided by increased welfare aids and job opportunities for unmarried females, and head of household tax relief.

[reference: Ellen Herman, Department of History, University of Oregon]


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