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Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption

E. Wayne Carp

One woman’s tireless crusade for better understanding and social justice for adopted people


Adoption activist Jean Paton (1908–2002) fought tirelessly to reform American adoption, dedicating her life to overcoming American society’s prejudices against adult adoptees and women who give birth out of wedlock.  From the 1950s until the time of her death, Paton wrote widely and passionately about the adoption experience, corresponded with policymakers as well as individual adoptees, promoted the psychological well-being of adoptees, and facilitated reunions between adoptees and their birth parents.

She also led the struggle to re-open adoption records, creating a national movement that continues to this day. While “open adoption” is often now the rule for adoptions within the United States, for those in earlier eras, adopted in secrecy, the records remain sealed; many adoptees live (and die) without vital information that should be a birthright, and birth parents suffer a similar deprivation. At this writing, only seven of fifty states have open records. (Kansas and Alaska have never closed theirs.) 

E. Wayne Carp’s masterful biography of Jean Paton brings this neglected civil-rights pioneer and her accomplishments into the light. Paton’s ceaseless activity created the preconditions for the explosive emergence of the adoption reform movement in the 1970s. She founded the Life History Study Center and Orphan Voyage and was also instrumental in forming two of the movement’s most vital organizations, Concerned United Birthparents and the American Adoption Congress. Her unflagging efforts over five decades helped reverse social workers’ harmful policy and practice concerning adoption and sealed adoption records and change lawmakers’ enactment of laws prejudicial to adult adoptees and birth mothers, struggles that continue to this day.

Read more about Jean Paton at http://jeanpaton.com/

“Who was Jean Paton? Although her name is barely known, it should be as familiar as the most famous of America's civil rights visionaries. Paton was an adoptee who located her birth mother in the 1950s and pioneered many of today's adoption reforms more than a half-century ago. Her commitment to the equality of all citizens and belief that adoptees were not permanent children in need of protection but mature adults entitled to self-determination laid the foundations for the search and reunion movement. In Paton's life, we can see how adoption and family life fit into the rights revolution that swept American society after World War II. Bravo to Wayne Carp for bringing her story to light at last.”
—Ellen Herman, University of Oregon, author of Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States

“A re-writing of the history of adoption in the twentieth century [and the] enormously poignant, moving story of a difficult human being who, like an earthquake, succeeded in shifting the cultural landscape. And more than that, it’s an inside account of a social movement, complete with all the infighting, backbiting, and profiteering that such movements contain. One of the best books ever written on a reform movement.”
—Steven Mintz, University of Texas

Photo: Jean Paton at the 1989 American Adoption Congress conference in New York City

E. Wayne Carp is Benson Family Chair in History and Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University. His other books include Adoption Politics: Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58; Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives; and Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption.

Praise / Awards

  • "Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption is fascinating to read on many levels, as a study of a movement, of grassroots organizing, and of adoption."
    --American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 422pp.
  • 17 B&W photos.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2014
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11910-3

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  • $60.00 U.S.

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