The origins of inter-country adoption

A comprehensive history of inter-country adoption has thus far not been written. Some adoption websites give a brief summary of the history of inter-country adoption, and there are several books trying to do the same, but a thorough study into the origins of inter-country adoption is still awaiting scholarly initiative.

In the book Intercountry Adoption: A Multinational Perspective, by Howard Alfstein and Rita James, the following is said about the history of inter-country adoption:

ICA began primarily as a North American philanthropic response to the devastation of Europe in World War II that resulted in thousands of orphaned children. When the European continent was rebuilt and its economy stabilized, the problem of orphaned children was basically solved. But a revitalized economy, coupled with a reduction in Europe's male population {again a result of World War II), led to an increased rate of childlessness. Western societies then turned to Third-World countries with high birth rates for a solution to the dearth of healthy infants in the West.

This narrative is very similar to most other attempts to summarize the origins of inter-country adoption, dating back the origins of inter-country adoption to the aftermath of World War II.

There is, however good evidence to push back those origins at least another thirty years.

In August 1914, German troops invaded Belgium, in spite of its neutrality guaranteed under the 1839 Treaty of London. German troops were particularly brutal against civilians and ruined property on a large scale.

News papers in the Anglo-Saxon world wrote extensively about the German war crimes in Belgium, with both factual information and entirely made up stories. The German brutalities became known under the moniker: the "Rape of Belgium".

As part of the reporting about this "Rape of Belgium", the Chicago Tribune, in November 1914, started promoting the idea to adopt Belgian orphans.

In this war and world crisis what is the most helpful thing that can be done? This is the question which The Tribune has been carefully considering for weeks. The obvious answer is to stop the war. When the time is opportune for the President of the United States to act, The Tribune and its friends will lend him their heartiest support.

What is the most helpful thing that can be done now? An answer to this question is the movement which we launch today.

The war orphans are in need. Some are without mothers. Some are on the shoulders of poor. overburdened women. Left to themselves, hundreds will starve, other hundreds will freeze when penury, want, privation, suffering, and disease will visit hundreds of thousands.

On the other hand ours is a blessed land. God has been good to us. Our poor are rich compared with the orphans of Europe. A little of our waste would relieve the worst portion of the European situation. Thousands 'of American families want children. Their hearts are hungry; their firesides are vacant.

The Tribune after deliberate consideration, has come to the conclusion that the best service which can be rendered now is to bring together the wants of the war orphans of Europe and the wish of American homes for children.

The service will be one that will give permanent, abiding, substantial help. It permanently removes a burden from the shoulders of the borne-down mothers. It saves from suffering the women and children of the war-stricken land. At the same time it contributes to our country what will prove in time a substantial resource.

The plan is to give the people of the United States an opportunity to ask for these children. We prefer, and it is best, that the children be adopted. To this end we will send to Europe a corps of physicians and nurses who will see that no children are accepted except those free from taint of every sort, strong. sturdy, bright-eyed, clean-limbed children. such as can be welcomed in The Tribune homes with safety.

This is no ordinary time. Never in the worlds history has disaster been so appalling as at the present time. Our response must not be ordinary. Every man must square his conscience , with the extraordinary need.

The appeal to adopt the Belgian war orphans was met with great enthusiasm in Chicago. The city had a shortage of adoptable infants, so an influx of strong, sturdy, bright-eyes and clean-limbed children was most welcome.

The task to bring the Belgian war orphans to the United States was put on the shoulders of Rev. John B. De Ville.  The Reverend came from the St. John Berchmans Parish, a Roman Catholic church for the Belgian community in Chicago.

The number of Belgian children, brought to the US by Father De Ville, is not easy to establish. In an article in the New York Times, dated December 9, 1915, John De Ville tells about his experiences in Belgium. During that particular trip, apparently 300 Belgian children were shipped from Rotterdam to Ellis Island. Some of these children had lived with their grand parents in Belgium and were reunited with their own parents, who happened to live in the US, in which case no adoption was needed. Other children were adopted by family members. It is unclear how many of these children were actually adopted by non-relatives, to fill their vacant firesides.

In 1916, a United Press article appeared in several syndicated news papers, about the works of Father De Ville. This time he planned to ship 1,500 Belgian orphans to America, although it is uncertain if he actually succeeded in this plan. However, the article states: "Some months ago he placed 600 Belgian war orphans in childless American homes".

Even though there is uncertainty about the number of children involved and the families in which the Belgian war orphans were placed, the work of John De Ville shows an eery resemblance to that of Henry Holt in the aftermath of the Korean War, and the shipment of Vietnamese children, better known as Operation Baby Lift, at the closing of the War in Vietnam.

Another project to adopt war orphans was meticulously documented in the The Canadian Jewish Chronicles, on September 30, 1932. This project, which was launched in the summer of 1920, aimed at adopting 1,000 Jewish children from Ukraine, who had also become orphans as a result of World War I. Over time, the project got down-scaled, partially because there were few orphans under the age of six.

In the end ,146 children were taken from Rivne, Ukraine and shipped to Canada for adoption. Of those children, 34 were placed with family members, 9 could not be placed with suitable families, while the remaining 103 were adopted by Jewish families across Canada.

As these two stories demonstrate, inter-country adoption is an older phenomenon than often assumed. The number of children adopted as World War I orphans, is not negligible compared to the number of children adopted through the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which brought 4,095 children from Europe to the United States.

We hope this article has contributed to the understanding of the origins of inter-country adoption, which we by now can firmly place at least as early as the start of World War I.

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