Florence Clothier to Mary Ruth Colby on “Permanent Love Objects,” January 14, 1941

Florence Clothier was a psychoanalyst at the New England Home for Little Wanderers. Her exchange with U.S. Children’s Bureau official Mary Colby suggests that Freudian developmental theory was one factor in the reconsideration of early (sometimes called “direct”) adoptions: the placements of newborns and young infants. Another was the spread of adoption science in many different research fields and the general turn toward nurture in the human sciences after 1940. At the beginning of the century, child-placers considered early adoptions extremely risky and advised against them, in spite of the fact that many adopters expressed strong preferences for babies. By midcentury, adoptions of children under one year of age had increased significantly. The resistance that Clothier noted to this trend, and her concession that early placement might not make sense when social workers had only “meagre” information to go on, indicate the stamina of eugenic worries about the children available for adoption.

Dear Miss Colby:

Thank you so much for your letter with its helpful criticisms of my adoption manuscript. I am hopeful that “MENTAL HYGIENE” will use the whole set. . . .

You questioned my insistence that, if possible, adoption placements should be made in early infancy. On psychological grounds I feel very strongly on this point. However, I do realize that there are many cases where the information is so meagre that, even at the risk of introducing traumatic experiences, adoption has to be delayed. I shall go over my manuscript and try to make it clear that, where information is meagre, delay in legal adoption is advisable. That need not always or necessarily mean that careful early placement on a trial basis is contra-indicated. From a psychological point of view I am convinced of the importance for the child (and the adoptive mother) that the conflicts and struggles of the infantile and Oedipal development be lived through with the permanent love objects. This psychological fact should, of course never be admitted as an excuse for careless or inadequate work and investigation. On the contrary, it challenges the skill and energy of the social worker and makes tremendous demands on the efficiency of the social agency. I realize that many agencies throughout the country are not equipped and staffed to accept the challenge of painstakingly careful early placements. However, that does not alter the fact that the child’s infantile relationships and experiences are important and that insofar as environment can modify the structure of the personality infantile relationships and experiences are doing so. As often happens, we have here a conflict between what, in the light of our present day knowledge, seems psychologically true and what seems sociologically advisable, safe or expedient. Similes are unsatisfactory, but this occurs to me. A surgeon, addressing a professional group, does not hesitate to recommend what seems to him the best operative procedure, even though many clinics may not be staffed or equipped to carry out that procedure. He outlines his procedure and trusts that medical centers and societies will see to it that it is not exploited or misused by inexperienced, careless or ignorant persons.

I realize that problems in the field of psychology and sociology are complex and not easy to control. For this reason, I suspect, social workers as a defense develop patterns of rigidity about which they are uncritical. There is need for social workers, as a professional group, to evaluate accepted social work procedure in the light of new experimental work coming from all sorts of sources, including genetics, the various schools of psychology, medicine, sociology and economics.

As a psychiatrist, interested in social problems, I can conscientiously express only what, in the present state of my knowledge, I believe to be true. I grant that what I may think of as a fact may be regarded by others as a theory. Certainly further difficult study and observation of the effects of infantile relationships and experiences is essential and I hope that social workers will follow these studies alertly and critically. . . .



Source: Florence Clothier to Miss Mary Ruth Colby, January 14, 1941, U.S. Children’s Bureau Papers, Box 169, Folder 7-3-3-4, National Archives II.

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