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The adoption of children whose natural parents are unable to or incapable of caring for them by adults who are able to provide for them has existed throughout human history in one form or another (In re Smith Estate 1955; Miller et al. 2007). Before the mid-1800s, however, there was no formal mechanism for a person interested in adopting a child in the United States to do so (Bartholet 1999). In 1851, the Massachusetts legislature enacted the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act (General Court of Massachusetts 1851). Though enacted more than 150 years ago, the act's basic structure is clearly recognizable in many states' present adoption laws. The Massachusetts act permitted any person to petition a probate court to adopt a child; required the child's parents, if one or both were alive, to consent to the child's adoption; required that if an adoption petitioner was married, his or her spouse was required to join a petition to adopt a child; provided that children age 14 years or older also must consent to their adoption; provided for the court to make a determinate judgment that the proposed adoption would serve the child's welfare; and extinguished all rights of the natural parent while granting to the adoptive parents all the rights and responsibilities that would inure to a natural parent. The Massachusetts statute served as a model for other states' adoption laws (In re Smith Estate 1955). Many of the requirements of that earliest American adoption law are still present in twenty-first-century adoption statutes.


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