Although adoption and fostering have taken place informally for centuries, it was only in 1926, after the passing of the Legitimacy Act, that adoption became legally recognised in England and Wales. Adoptions became legally recognised in Northern Ireland in 1929 under the Adoption of Children (NI) Act, and in Scotland in 1930 under the Adoption of Children (Scotland) Act. Initially, adoptions were seen as a way of providing security for war orphans and children born to unmarried mothers.

The 1960s and 1970s saw major changes in adoption and fostering and family planning. While the number of babies available for adoption fell rapidly because of improved birth control and changing public attitudes, adoption practice changed its focus to finding families for children with ‘special needs’, such as those in local authority care who had been neglected or had physical or learning disabilities.

Today, children are removed from their birth families only when it is judged unsafe for them to continue living there. The average age for a child to be placed for adoption in the UK is 3.5 years. This is because huge efforts are made to keep families together, including seeking members of the wider family who could take the child. Adoption remains a last resort for children who cannot live with any member of their birth family.