Placing Children of Unknown Background and the Problem of Matching, 1951

These minutes document a seminar given by Dr. Viola Bernard for workers at Louise Wise Services in New York on the subject of mixed-race children. (The agency’s practice of hiring scientific consultants to help them make racial determinations and predictions in such cases is documented in Discussion of the Role of Anthropology in Transracial Adoptions, 1956.) Delays and difficulties in placement prompted a reconsideration of rigid matching practices (especially with regard to skin color) and the articulation of a new placement philosophy that opened the door for the acceptance of difference and anticipated the debate about transracial adoptions. At the same time, this discussion makes perfectly clear how worried agency workers were that children of unknown background might develop “Negroid” features later in life, a possibility that categorized them as “Negro” children and limited their placement options.

David W was discussed specifically as a child who has been held for a long period in foster care, not yet placed, now more than a year and a half old. Because of unknown paternal background and his dark skin coloring, he was seen earlier by Dr. Shapiro who felt that he might be of Puerto Rican paternity, advised our holding him for a time because of the possibility of his becoming darker. Yet it has been over a year and a half since Dr. Shapiro advised that we go ahead with placement.

Various workers have seen David. All have agreed that he is not Negroid appearing but he is described in varying ways as to color. People have been seeing him differently. His features were described from finely chiseled to full. The question was raised as to his lithe, small build and how that might relate to the possibility of a Puerto Rican background. Dr. Bernard felt that this is in itself an economic factor. She pointed out the differences in appearance of some Puerto Rican people who are out of stereotype because of the better nutrition and economic factor, not because of a different heredity factor.

In looking at the difficulties in placing David part of this seemed to be the tendency to draw conclusions as to how a family might see him. We started with sorting out confusion and differences on what the reality factors were about David as problems in placing him, how each worker subjectively saw him and then separated the latter from how a family might see him. To evaluate what were reality factors, Dr. Bernard felt we should have to first use as criteria skin color and the question of Negroid features which on further discussion did not seem like problems pointing to his being a Negro child, and we had no facts to say he is. His appearance, for example, could as well fit with Mediterranean coloring, depending on who happened to be seeing David and how they saw him.

Dr. Bernard developed the importance of weeding out our own subjective feelings in presenting a child and staying with the reality factors. In David’s instance, the family is able themselves to see David’s appearance and to react then in their own subjective way. If in advance we may feel a child of darker coloring would be acceptable to a family and if they were accepting generally of unknown paternity, then why not present him in that sense to a family rather than adding our assumptions (subjective) as to why he may be dark. . . .

We may feel at times that resemblance to possible adoptive parents, extremely positive and lengthy background, often seen positively by the worker will be by the parents. It is also possible to “over-sell” on basis of giving too much. One instance was mentioned where an impressive background was given in detail and was too much for the adoptive parents to be able to assimilate. Matching in physical characteristics, which we may feel would only bring a positive reaction, can sometimes be threatening and may involve a parent’s deeper feeling around such factors as their own security and conflicts with these characteristics. Some instances of real struggle were mentioned in how adoptive parents have worked this out, depending on their own feelings and adjustments re themselves and the counter forces operating.

The drama and shock of seeing the baby itself was discussed, how the baby may fit or not fit with the picture the adoptive parents may have of a child ahead of time. We should give enough history, in a selective way, to responsibly transfer to the family a basis on which, coupled with their seeing of the child, can free them to make their own decision about the child.


Source: Minutes of Dr. Bernard seminar, March 6, 1951, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 161, Folder 5, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

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