Child Welfare

Source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

A Spanish muskrat trapper, his wife, and their adopted child, Delacroix Island, Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 1941. The picture was taken by Marion Wolcott, a documentary photographer who contributed to a new genre of government-created images that were designed to mobilize public concern about social problems, including poverty and child welfare.

Source: U.S. Children's Bureau, The Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy, Bureau Publication No. 178 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1927), 42-2.

This photograph of “children from many races,” taken during a U.S. Children's Bureau conference in Hawaii in the 1920s, suggests that child welfare was a concept capable of drawing government attention and resources to people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.

The modern belief that children are innocent and vulnerable human beings with special needs for care and protection during critical stages of physical and psychological development is the premise of child welfare. Ordinarily, parents are charged with providing care and protection to children, but when they do not or cannot, the responsibility for insuring child welfare rests with society at large. Child welfare as a collective, social obligation is the rationale behind modern adoption regulation.

Since 1851 and the passage of the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, laws have promoted the idea that adoption is a process that should benefit children rather than meet adult needs. In contrast to ancient and premodern adoptions, which were often arranged to secure heirs for childless individuals or workers for households, the ideology of child welfare promises that adoption will offer children permanent love and belonging.

One summary of legal philosophy and reform in 1935 put it this way: “The modern adoption legislation reflects a growing emphasis on the necessity of a better understanding of the child’s individual needs, so that he may be adopted into a home where he will be happy and develop properly.” For advocates of adoption reform, child welfare meant the elevation of “human” values over such material considerations as labor and property. This was progress.

Source: U.S. Children's Bureau, The Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy, Bureau Publication No. 178 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1927), 42-1.

The single most important strategy for insuring child welfare was educating actual and potential mothers. This photograph depicts a “little mothers' class” during which high school students in the early 1920s received instruction in infant care.

 

Document Excerpts

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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