In 1955, a special act of Congress
allowed Bertha and Harry Holt, an evangelical couple from rural
Oregon, to adopt eight Korean War orphans. The Holts had a large
family before the adoptions, but they were so moved by their experience
that they became pioneers of international
adoptions and arranged hundreds for other American couples.
They relied on proxy adoptions
and overlooked the minimum
standards and investigatory practices endorsed by social workers.
They honored adopters' specifications for age and sex, gave priority
to couples with one or no children, and asked only that applicants
be “saved persons” who could pay the cost of children’s
airfare from Korea. They paid close attention to race-matching for
children whose fathers were African-American, but otherwise ignored
it entirely. They were happy to accept couples who had been rejected,
for a variety of reasons, by conventional adoption agencies.
The Holts believed they were doing God’s work, but they
became lightning rods for controversy about how adoptive families
should be made. In the press, the Holts were portrayed as heroic,
selfless figures. In Congress, Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger
called them incarnations of “the Biblical Good Samaritan.”
In Christian communities around the country, their work was held
up as a model to be emulated. But many professionals and policy-makers
in the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the
Child Welfare League of America, and the
International Social Service devoted themselves (unsuccessfully)
to putting the Holts out of business. They considered the Holts
dangerous amateurs, throwbacks to the bad old days of charity and
sentiment. Their placements threatened child
welfare by substituting religious zeal and haphazard methods
for professional skill and supervision.
For the Holts, family-making required faith and altruism, not social
work or regulation, and they found nothing wrong with the idea
of Americans adopting foreign children, sight unseen. American childhood,
they assumed, was unquestionably superior to childhood in developing
nations. The Holts' form letter seeking adoptive parents included
the following request. “We would ask all of you who are Christians
to pray to God that He will give us the wisdom and the strength
and the power to deliver his little children from the cold and misery
and darkness of Korea into the warmth and love of your homes.”
For the Holts and many of their supporters, Korea was a backward
country whose children deserved to be rescued.
Many Americans cheered the Holts and found their promises of speedy
and uncomplicated adoptions a refreshing alternative to inspection
by choosy agencies with waiting lists that could last for years.
Pearl S. Buck admired the Holts, even though
she disliked their Christian fundamentalism, and shared their suspicion
that the professionals who were supposed to be helping children
were actually doing them more harm than good. By identifying themselves
with suffering children that most people ignored, the Holts reinforced
the messages that emerged from popular books like The
Family Nobody Wanted. Adoption was an act of faith. Love
was enough to make the families that children needed.
By the early 1960s, the Holts responded to pressure from the child
welfare establishment. Their operation began to follow standard
professional procedures, hired social worker John Adams as its Executive
Director in 1962, and gradually evolved into a typical adoption
agency. In a little more than a decade, the Holts repeated a pattern
central to the history of modern adoption: the movement from humanitarian
to professionalism and from religion to science.
The Holt agency continues to make international placements today.
It is located in Eugene, Oregon.