In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Cross-Country Adoption and Fostering

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Legislative and Political Frameworks
  • Transracial Adoption and Fostering
  • Ethics, Politics, and Demography
  • Personal Accounts
  • Organizations

Childhood Studies History of Cross-Country Adoption and Fostering
Fiona Bowie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0046


The movement of abandoned, neglected or surplus children from one family or group to another that has a perceived shortage is a phenomenon widely documented from many different historical periods and cultures. What is relatively new is the way children now cross international borders. Surplus children might be created by, for instance, a culture that does not permit unmarried women to bring up their “illegitimate” babies, as with the movement in the 1950s of children from Catholic Quebec in Canada to Jewish couples in the United States. The Korean War in the early 1950s gave rise to a generation of Korean American babies, many thousands of whom were placed for adoption overseas. A similar process followed the Vietnam War in the 1970s. China’s one-child policy has produced a “surplus” of girls, many thousands of whom have been adopted by North American, European, and Australian families. International adoption is controversial, because underlying the humanitarian motivation to give disadvantaged children a better life there are issues of international politics, commercialization, and commoditization. Adoption can be a profitable business, and there is an underworld of kidnapping and child trafficking. As adoptees reach adulthood there is also reflection on the psychological challenge of growing up in a new culture, often with an unknown personal history. Similar issues are often faced by transracial adoptees, and a section on transracial adoption has therefore been included. Internationally recognized and local legal frameworks, in particular The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (1993), represent attempts to mitigate the worst excesses of unregulated international adoptions and to ensure that the interests of the children concerned remain paramount. Such frameworks are, however, predicated on a Western notion of the individual and of the nuclear family. They do not sit well with cultural practices in which child rearing is often shared, temporary, flexible, and pragmatic. Whether due to poverty, indigenous kinship norms, or attempts to maximize a child’s opportunities, in many parts of Africa, South America, and Asia, children are frequently reared for some or all of their childhood by people other than their biological parents. When these practices are mistaken for abandonment, or when an informal foster situation is translated into permanent adoption, there is an often painful clash of cultures. Anthropological accounts have therefore been included that enable social policy research to be seen within a broader cultural context.

General Overviews

The books in this section reflect the scope of recent approaches to cross-cultural adoption and fostering. They include both single-authored and multi-authored texts, and they have in common an awareness of the complexity of the issues involved when children are moved across national boundaries, in what is generally also a transracial adoption. Most of the volumes in this section are also attentive to the historical and cultural factors that have informed adoption policy and practice. Contributors to Bowie 2004 largely adopt an anthropological perspective, highlighting the diversity of child-rearing practices in different parts of the world. A second overview of cultural approaches to transnational adoption is given in Volkman 2005, an edited volume that, like Bowie 2004, includes some more personal as well as analytical accounts. These two collections of essays are aimed at academics interested in kinship, childhood, and adoption, as well as practitioners and those personally affected by adoption who want to understand the cultural dimensions of the topic. Marre and Briggs 2009 is more concerned with the politics of international adoption and the inequalities of power between sending and receiving countries. Howell 2006 focuses on the movement of children from the poor South and East to North America and western Europe. O’Halloran 2009, now in its second edition, is also an excellent source of information on the politics of international adoption, as well as law and practice. It is aimed more at practioners, or at academics with a specific interest in international adoption. Gibbons and Rotabi 2012 is a wide-ranging collection of essays and perspectives taking up current debates among those involved in the often contentious issues concerning the ethics, legality, and probity of intercountry adoption. Jerng 2010 is a little different from the other overviews. As a professor of English at an American university, Jerng’s concern is with transracial adoption and the sense of belonging or personhood of transracially adopted individuals in the United States, seen through a literary lens. A beautifully written and nuanced book, this work will be of interest to a variety of readers interested in American cultural history, adoption, and notions of personhood more generally. The only overview specifically dealing with fostering rather than adoption is Delap and Fulford 2011, a succinct but very informative booklet that gives a balanced picture of foster care internationally, with its challenges, positives outcomes, and pitfalls. The booklet is freely available online.

  • Bowie, Fiona, ed. Cross-Cultural Approaches to Adoption. European Association of Social Anthropologists Series. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

    This volume provides an overview of adoption and fostering, or more accurately “child circulation,” in Western and non-Western societies. Most of the contributors are anthropologists, and they provide a detailed cultural perspective. Seventeen chapters cover Africa, Asia and Oceania, Central and South America, and the West, many dealing with international adoption.

  • Delap, Emily, and Lousie Melville Fulford. Fostering Better Care: Improving Foster Care Provision around the World. Positive Care Choices Working Paper 2. London: EveryChild, 2011.

    A very useful 42-page booklet, giving an overview of foster care provision and of cultural attitudes towards foster care in different parts of the world. Numerous case studies illustrate topics such as the case for foster care; its limitations; how to provide effective, quality foster care; and its development.

  • Gibbons, Judith L., and Karen Smith Rotabi, eds. Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices, and Outcomes. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

    This is a wide-ranging, up-to-date discussion of intercountry adoption, covering a multitude of issues, perspectives, and countries. The book addresses receiving and sending countries, outcomes for international adoptees, political and ethical debates, and legal and social policy issues and concerns.

  • Howell, Signe. The Kinning of Foreigners: Transnational Adoption in a Global Perspective. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2006.

    Howell is concerned with the ways in which transnationally adopted children are absorbed into new families through a process of “kinning.” The book combines a study of family relationships with an analysis of trends in international adoption, with a focus on Scandanavia as a destination.

  • Jerng, Mark C. Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

    Using scholarly and literary sources, Jerng traces the history of transracial adoption in the United States from the first adoption law in Massachusetts in 1851 to the present. His approach is cultural and deconstructive, looking at ways in which transracial adoption disrupts notions of family, nation, and race.

  • O’Halloran, Kerry. The Politics of Adoption: International Perspectives on Law, Policy and Practice. 2d ed. Brisbane, Australia: Springer Science and Business Media BV, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-9152-0

    A comprehensive text covering political, legal, and cultural aspects of adoption in Western and non-Western contexts, including Islamic contexts. The emphasis is on modern Western nations, particularly English-speaking countries, that share a common law tradition.

  • Marre, Diana, and Laura Briggs, eds. International Adoption: Global Inequalities and the Circulation of Children. New York: University of New York Press, 2009.

    A comprehensive overview that provides perspectives from sending as well as receiving countries. Contributors attempt to show the complexities and the politics behind international adoption. Chapters include North and South American and European perspectives, and cover topics such as stranger and kin adoption, child circulation, fostering, and assisted reproductive technologies.

  • Volkman, Toby Alice, ed. Cultures of Transnational Adoption. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    A blend of scholarly and personal accounts of transnational adoption from and in different parts of the world. Korea, China, and North America are particularly well represented in the book’s nine chapters.

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