Marshall Field, Child Welfare League of America President, Address to National Conference on Adoptions, 1955

Source: Stephen Becker, Marshall Field III, A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 256.

Marshall Field III with children brought to the United States during World War II, 1940

Source: Stephen Becker, Marshall Field III, A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster).

Marshall Field III, newspaper owner and devoted child welfare philanthropist

All of us can remember when adoption was considered a great risk; adoptive parents either saints or fools, and adopted children indebted beyond repayment. Then, as social agencies came more and more into the picture, great safeguards were introduced so that in a sense, adoptive parenthood became less risky than natural parenthood. Even after the war, with greater economic security and a resurgence of family life causing a greater demand for babies, many agencies were still clinging to rigid standards. Some agencies were refusing to place children who needed little more than eye glasses, while outside their doors a black market in babies boomed.

Then, in 1948, the Child Welfare League held its first conference on adoption. Seventy-five of the country’s leading adoption agencies worked together to study the adoption picture, to examine their practices, to reevaluate their aims. About half reported that they would not consider placing a child who had a mentally sick parent. Eighty per cent of the agencies reported that their aim was to place only the perfect child with the perfect background. And “perfect” could be defined in ways which may surprise some of you. Anything from diabetes in the family background to an infant hernia could be a disqualifying factor.

The delegates to the conference seven years ago wrestled with many of their preconceptions. They faced up to the fact that by trying—with the best will in the world—to create ideal adoption situations, they were condemning thousands of children to purgatory. It was a firm step forward in the march of human progress when that conference announced: “Any child can be considered adoptable who can gain from family life, and for whom a family can be found who will accept him with his history and capacities.” . . .

And while we are putting our new-found knowledge into practice, let us take care that we let our fellow citizens in on the secret. If we no longer want the public to insist on rosy infants for adoption, we must also confess that we do not have a yen for handsome, 30-year-old parents and new ranch houses with home-made pies in the deep freeze. At least, I hope we don’t. Maybe that’s something that ought to be looked into at this conference, too. If we are going to admit that babies can be less than perfect and still be perfectly satisfactory, maybe we ought to give adoptive parents the same leeway, too. Nature isn’t nearly as fussy as we’ve been, and she’s been in the business a lot longer.

The fact is, I suppose, that couples who have sought babies from agencies and been rejected do not make the best possible spokesmen for agency methods. And yet we know that whatever mistakes are made, agency placement is the only sound way of adoption. We must keep on telling our story. Patiently, we must tell of the great gap between the numbers of available children and the couples seeking to adopt them. We must tell of the ways we are trying to lessen that gap in view of the large numbers of children needing homes who are not now getting them, and we must tell the public the factors we consider when we decide whether a home is suitable or a child able to prosper in it.

We must keep telling our story because we want public support. We want public understanding. We want public trust. Let us take but one example— individual placement of babies, still a very common practice in our country. No one condones the “black market” as an exchange for babies, but too many people think the kindly intercession of any individual is perfectly all right. We have not sufficiently emphasized the highly specialized processes in adoption. A good obstetrician would not attempt to transplant a cornea—he would refer his patient to a specialist. He should not try to transplant a baby either. And we have to show him—and the public—why not.

This week you will be scrutinizing facts and fancies, theory and practice. I have expressed some of my personal opinions about adoption. You may well prove them wrong, too.

Individual placement is only one of the aspects of adoption you will consider at this conference. You will range the field from grandparents to good nutrition, from twisted limbs to torts. You will cover different ground in your various groups, but I think you will all come to the same conclusion—nothing that we do is more important than bringing our innocent young from the “prison house” into homes of their own. Get to your work, and God speed you!


Source: Address by Marshall Field to the National Conference on Adoptions, January 26, 1955, pp. 1-2, 4, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 16, Folder 8, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman