This longitudinal study was one
of the first to systematically explore the outcomes of transracial
adoptions. Beginning in 1960, Fanshel followed 97 families that
had adopted children through the Indian
Adoption Project, more than one-quarter of all the children
placed between 1958 and 1967. Researchers interviewed parents in
fifteen different states at approximately one-year intervals, but
made no effort to interview or assess children directly. Most of
the children had been two years old or younger at the time of adoption
and were not yet teenagers when the study ended. No control group
of same-race adoptees or non-adopted children was used for comparison.
The study provided detailed tables and statistical correlations,
as all outcome studies did, and used the instrument that Helen Witmer
and her colleagues had devised to measure the quality of adoptive
homes in their study of independent adoptions in Florida. Far
from the Reservation also offered a wealth of narrative detail
that illuminated what these adoptions meant to the parents involved.
Far From the Reservation was published at a moment of
racial polarization and vehement criticism of transracial
adoptions. Its main author was David Fanshel, who was one of
the most prominent child welfare researchers in the postwar decades.
Although Fanshel was white, he had been one of the first to tackle
the question of discrimination in adoption services in his 1957
report, A Study in Negro Adoption. Fifteen years later,
Fanshel still believed deeply in the promise of empirical research
to improve transracial
adoptions, but the changed historical context in which he worked
shaped his interpretation of research findings.
Fanshel found that factors often identified as strongly correlated
with outcomes were not as noticeable in these adoptions. Age at
placement, for example, had been considered crucial ever since Sophie
van Senden Theis’ 1924 study, How
Foster Children Turn Out, showed that children placed earlier
turned out much better. In Native American adoptions, the influence
of age appeared weak, outweighed by other variables, the health
status of the birth mother in particular. In addition, many professionals
and researchers assumed that white couples committed to racial equality
were the most likely to adopt non-white children and succeed as
parents. Far From the Reservation suggested that this was
not the case. Parents’ social attitudes—about civil
rights, politics, and religion—did not matter except negatively.
Families that were more socially concerned and active had more problems
with their adopted children. Why would this be the case? Fanshel
had no idea.
The study’s summary measure of outcomes, The Child Progress
Scale, showed that 78 percent of all the adoptees were adequately
or excellently adjusted. Only one in ten children had problems that
raised serious doubts about their future well-being. This was very
good news. It indicated that transracial adoptions could be arranged
on a solid foundation of objective knowledge that they would to
turn out well rather than a subjective hope that they might. The
study reassured its audience that transracial placements posed little
risk to the physical or emotional well-being of individual children
and Fanshel agreed that these adoptions had “saved many of
these children from lives of utter ruination.”
Yet he did not equate evidence of good outcomes with endorsement
of transracial adoptions.
It was a mistake to consider the lives of Native American children
one at a time, apart from the future of their tribes, Fanshel wrote.
“It seems clear that the fate of most Indian children is tied
to the struggle of Indian people in the United States for survival
and social justice. Their ultimate salvation rests upon the success
of that struggle. . . . It is my belief that only
the Indian people have the right to determine whether their children
can be placed in white homes. . . . Even with the
benign outcomes reported here, it may be that Indian leaders would
rather see their children share the fate of their fellow Indians
than lose them in the white world. It is for the Indian people to
Studies that documented very good outcomes empirically were still
not answers some of the most basic questions. Were transracial
adoptions wise? Were they right? Who had the right to decide?