Children’s Commission of Pennsylvania conducted one of the
largest and most significant early field studies when it investigated
1022 Pennsylvania adoptions granted between 1919 and 1924, supplemented
by an additional 1200 cases examined by the U.S.
Children’s Bureau in various Pennsylvania counties. As
the excerpt suggests, adoption was vulnerable to a host of problems,
from the economic exploitation of young people to their sexual abuse.
The Commission’s report to the state legislature recommended
that the state’s adoption law be strengthened and more strictly
enforced. Pennsylvania lawmakers stopped short of requiring judges
to consider professional investigations in all cases, but the revised
adoption law attempted to give agencies and interested parties occasional
opportunities to protest the most objectionable placements. Like
most bodies that gathered empirical data on adoptions during the
early decades of the century, the Children’s Commission of
Pennsylvania found that more and better information was desperately
needed in adoptions. Consistent record-keeping, thorough investigations,
and other regulatory protocols needed to be put into place long
before the family’s day in court if child
welfare was to be meaningfully protected.
No more striking example could be found of the wide
discrepancy between life as set forth in the stereotyped phrases
found in legal documents and life as shown in good social case records
than is presented by adoption petitions in Pennsylvania and doubtless
in many other places in the United States. . . .
Between twelve and fifteen hundred adoptions take
place each year in Pennsylvania. Children may be legally adopted
in either of two ways in this state. In 1855, following the example
of Massachusetts, which enacted the first adoption legislation in
1851, Pennsylvania provided that adoption could be decreed by the
common pleas courts of the counties. In 1872 an amendment to this
law was passed which legalized a process of adoption referred to
as the “common law form of adopting a child by deed.”
This dual system makes it possible that an adoption refused by the
judicial authorities should be consummated by deed. While the Commission
has found no actual instance of this kind, it has found traces of
adoptions effected by deed because the parties recognized that they
were of such doubtful character that they hesitated to submit them
to the scrutiny of the courts, casual as that often is.
The second outstanding defect of the Pennsylvania
system is that it provides for no social investigation of the child
and his natural family or of the adopting family. An adoption can
be consummated by a judge who has not seen any of the parties and
who has no information other than that contained in the high sounding
phrases of the petition. . . . The Commission has
unearthed interesting cases of perjury as to the identity of the
parents of a child and whether or not they are dead. The minor’s
own consent it assumed. . . .
Families in which venereal and other serious transmissible
diseases are present at the time of the adoption of unrelated and
very young children, families who are receiving assistance from
the charitable resources of the community, beggars, fortune tellers,
families with prison and criminal court records have all been found
among those who appear in the petitions. . . .
The Children’s Commission does not wish to convey
the impression that all or even a large number of the adopted children
went into homes of the kind described in the two cases cited on
these pages. Instances reminiscent of the adoptions in story books
stand out, however, in somewhat bold relief against a mass of adoptions
in which at best the child secures a tolerably good abiding place
and at worst sinks apparently to the deepest depths of misery and
degradation. Adoption gives the adopters control of the services
and earnings of the child during minority and a claim for non-support
thereafter; it becomes a very practical matter when an aged couple
of no financial resources adopt an adolescent or a young child. . . .
Persons of Respectability
A married couple whose street address is omitted in the petition
to adopt, took a twenty-two months old boy three days after they
filed their petition in 1921 in the Philadelphia County Court. They
are described as persons of respectability by the two affiants,
whose street addresses are also omitted. The petition contains no
information concerning their character or their home.
The records of the social agencies, however, had a great deal of
enlightening information. The family consisted of a husband then
forty years old, his wife, forty-seven, and one daughter fourteen
years old. Nine years previously the family had taken an illegitimate
child and at about the same time had appealed to the Salvation Army
for help on the ground of sickness. The Salvation Army asked one
of the relief societies to go in but the family was found not to
need material relief.
Not long afterward an anonymous complaint was made to the Society
to Protect Children from Cruelty that the foster child was not receiving
In April of 1917 the man, who at one time had worked as a street
car conductor, was arrested on the charge of disorderly conduct
and indecent exposure. He was committed for thirty days to the House
In August 1919 the Society to Protect Children from Cruelty again
received a complaint which alleged abuse by the father of the twelve
year old daughter. During the early morning hours, neighbors had
heard the girl begging the father not to touch her and not to turn
down the light. Stories were rife in the neighborhood of indecent
practices of the man toward his daughter.
The visitor for the Society to Protect Children form Cruelty found
that the woman kept a very dirty and untidy house. She was known
as a drinking woman who told fortunes. Husband and wife were known
to quarrel and fight continuously. The Society filed a petition
alleging neglect and improper guardianship and recommended that
the children be removed and placed in foster homes with a court
order on the father for their support.
The court left the children with the woman and put a support order
on the father, who also was ordered to behave himself toward the
children. The case was put on probation with the court and the Society
to Protect Children from Cruelty withdrew.
In January 1921 the boy taken in 1912 died suddenly of broncho-pneumonia.
His death certificate is signed by the coroner.
In October 1921 the family took the boy, whose adoption is described
At Christmas 1923, this family appealed to a relief society for
a basket of food and for clothing for this little boy. When in January
1924, they were asked to send the little boy to the Sunday School
maintained by the relief society, they again dropped out of sight.