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“Who you are in these pieces of paper”: Imagining Future Kinship through Auto/Biographical Adoption Documents in the United States

By Kathryn A. Mariner

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At First Steps, a small private adoption agency outside Chicago, social workers spent more time processing paperwork than interacting with clients. In addition to mediating the relationship between individuals and the bureaucratic adoption apparatus, these documents created anticipatory (p)re-kinned subjectivities. Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out between 2009 and 2016, this article examines the completion and circulation of two different forms of auto/biographical documentation during the adoption process: the birth parent file and the adoptive family profile. These documents played a vital role in the adoption process by simultaneously enabling the creation and dissolution of kinship, through the folding of past, present, and future narratives and possibilities into adoption knowledge and decision making. Aided by the documentary termination of birth parental rights and the imagination of visual and narrative adoptive futures, domestic adoption legally split biological kinship from social kinship, rendering the former past and the latter present/future.


adoption; documents; kinship; temporality; future; social workers