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A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45.

A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45. By Jenny Keating (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. ix plus 276 pp. $80.00).

Jenny Keating's historiographically sophisticated, deeply researched monograph on the history of adoption in England from 1918 no 1945 is a significant and welcome event. Although she follows the well worn-path of such historians as Stephen Cretney, N.V. Lowe, and Alan Teague, (1) examining the major and minor government committees and reports on adoption and various pieces of legislation, none have done so in such a thorough or comprehensive fashion. Keating begins her study with an excellent discussion of the many factors responsible for the enactment of England's first adoption statute, the Adoption Act 1926, which included changing attitudes toward children and unmarried mothers, new demographic patterns, the lobbying efforts by the adoption societies, and World War I--though curiously she does not inquire into why England waited until 1926 to legalize the practice. Unlike any previous historical account, Keating is especially good at identifying the origins and leaders of the various voluntary organizations and adoption societies and differentiating between them in this early period. She emphasizes that while the rescue organizations such as Barnardo's concentrated on reclaiming unwanted children, the adoption societies, such as the National Adoption Society and the National Children Adoption Association sought to bring children and adopters together to create families. The adoption societies were also adamant about the necessity for secrecy and discretion throughout the adoption process.

In 1920 the government responded to the adoption societies' pressure and appointed the Hopkinson Committee to consider making adoption a legal entity. According to Keating, although the Committee issued a report supporting legalizing adoption and instituting secrecy, the government's civil servants had their own plans and derailed the enabling legislation. The government formed a second committee, the Tomlin Committee in 1924, which went over the same ground but reached somewhat different conclusions: it was more guarded and conservative, hence less enthusiastic about adoption, though it ultimately supported such legislation; and it was highly critical of the adoption societies and hence adamantly opposed to their championing of secrecy. Keating dilutes the Tomlin Committee's commitment to openness however, by noting that it allowed the public and press to be kept out of adoption court hearings and denied the public any right to inspect the Adoption Register, where adoptions were to he registered. When finally passed, Keating stresses that the Adoption Act 1926, was "a way of introducing the practice gently to English society," (p. 114) with the understanding that a cautious approach to separating children from their parents was best and should not be rushed into as urged by the adoption societies. Uppermost in the Committee's mind was the possibility that a child might lose all knowledge of its identity and the birth mother, all contact with her child.

Keating describes in great detail, better than anyone else, the origins and debates over the amendments to the Adoption Act 1926 that arose as a result of the need to regulate the subsequent abuses by the adoption societies. In 1936, the Government named the Horsbrugh Committee to look into these problems caused by the adoption societies and propose remedies. Its Report resulted in the Adoption of Children (Regulation) Act 1939, which for the first time regulated the adoption societies by making it illegal to arrange an adoption unless they were registered and approved by the Government. It also laid down rules by which the local authorities were to regulate the adoption agencies. Six weeks after the Act's passage World War II broke out, and the Government officially postponed the legislation. After the war, adoption again became a priority as a result of the increase in illegitimacy and unregulated adoptions, giving rise to one other significant piece of legislation. Among other changes, the Adoption of Children Act 1949 permitted the identity of the adopters to he concealed behind a serial number.

Keating concludes that between 1918 and 1950 enormous alterations occurred in adoption policies, practices, and attitudes. By the end of the 1940s, the reluctance and opposition to adoption that had characterized the earlier period had been transformed to total acceptance, a force for good. She credits the adoption societies with providing the essential force behind the campaign to legalize adoption in the 1920s, though they consistently marginalized unmarried mothers and favored adopters, viewing their mission as the creation of families. Secrecy was at the heart of the adoption societies' program to protect the adopters, but Keating notes that the Government's civil servants resisted such a policy. She emphasizes, however, the near impossibility for adopted people to discover their family of origin due to legal restrictions on birth registration.

There are three issues that are open to debate in Keating's study. The first is the role of the adoption societies' lobbying efforts. In the conclusion, Keating credits them with being the major force in bringing the Adoption Act 1926 into existence. But in the text, Keating demonstrates that the civil servants had their own agenda, which was very much opposed to the adoption societies'. Second, Keating also contradicts herself (and Cretney) on the legal issue of informed consent concerning unmarried mothers and adoption. Throughout the interwar period Keating demonstrates that civil servants, judges, and government committees went out of their way to protect the rights of unmarried mothers to know the identity of the persons adopting their children until the Adoption of Children Act 1949. However, Keating both denies and affirms that the question of "rights" was ever an issue with these entities. Finally, Keating's assertion that provisions for secrecy effectively kept birth mothers and adopted adults from identifying members of their original families is inaccurate. As a recent article demonstrates, such a judgment over-estimates the effectiveness of the privacy provisions of the Adoption Register and fails to take into account the significant number of adopted adults who discovered their original family's identity from the adoption forms given to their adoptive parents with their birth mother's name on it and other informal methods. (2) Despite these caveats, A Child for Keeps is essential reading for a thorough understanding of the political and legislative history of English adoption during the interwar years.


(1.) Stephen Cretney, Family Law in the Twentieth Century: A History (New York, 2003) 596-627; N.V. Lowe, "English Adoption Law: Past, Present, and Future," in Cross Currents: Family Law and Policy in the United States and England, edited by Sanford N. Katz, John Eekelaar, and Mavis Maclean (New York, 2000): 307-338; Alan Teague, Social Change, Social Work and the Adoption of Children (Aldershot, Hants, UK, 1989).

(2.) E. Wayne Carp, "How Tight Was the Seal? A Reappraisal of Adoption Records in the United States England, and New Zealand, 1851-1955" in International Advances in Adoption Research for Practice, edited by Elsbeth Neil and Gretchen Wrobel (Chichester, UK, 2009): 17-39.

E. Wayne Carp

Pacific Lutheran University
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Author:Carp, E. Wayne
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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