Henry H. Goddard, “Wanted: A Child to Adopt,” 1911

Source: Archives of the History of American Psychology, The University of Akron

Henry Herbert Goddard

Henry Herbert Goddard was Director of the Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys in Vineland, New Jersey. He was a national authority on intelligence testing, mental deficiency, and special education, but is probably best remembered for adding the term “moron” to the vocabulary of mental classification. In this excerpt, he explains the eugenic dangers of child adoption. Fears that many children available for adoption were “feeble-minded” led to disqualifying some altogether and consigning them to institutions. In many other cases, these fears encouraged practices such as mental examinations and matching, which attempted to place children with parents who resembled them intellectually as well as physically.

The nineteenth century has been called the age of science or scientific development. It looks as though the twentieth century would be called the age of the application of science. Not that we have not already had many applications of the natural sciences to the arts; but we are now coming to apply the higher and more abstract sciences to the more difficult art of living.

The writer was recently asked to make an application of scientific facts to the problem of adopting a child. A friend sought advice about answering an advertisement asking for a home for a homeless child. This led to the question, Who are the homeless and neglected children? Why are they homeless? Why should any child be neglected? . . .

We may imagine a person ignorant of the facts attempting to answer these questions somewhat as follows: These children are not orphans, else the advertisement would have mentioned the fact; they cannot be the children of well-to-do parents, because such parents would take care of their own; they cannot be children even that have relatives, such as uncles or aunts or grandparents, or even cousins, who are in comfortable circumstances, otherwise the family ties would lead to their taking care of their homeless and neglected relatives. It would seem then that they must be, in many cases, the children of profligate parents, children of families who are unable to maintain their footing in the community, or even provide for the necessities of life. And this is the condition not only of the parents, but also of the other relatives of the family. In other words, these children have no relatives who are sufficiently endowed with self-respect and intelligence to enable them to make a living for themselves, or to have interest enough to take care for their own kin. . . .

Now it happens that some people are interested in the welfare and high development of the human race; but leaving aside those exceptional people, all fathers and mothers are interested in the welfare of their own families. The dearest thing to the parental heart is to have the children marry well and rear a noble family. How short-sighted it is then for such a family to take into its midst a child whose pedigree is absolutely unknown; or, where, if it were partially known, the probabilities are strong that it would show poor and diseased stock, and that if a marriage should take place between that individual and any member of the family the offspring would be degenerates.

Lest any reader should be disturbed through fear that we are preparing to attack the plan of finding homes for the homeless, let me hasten to say that such is not the intent, nor is it the logical or necessary outcome of the argument. But no cause, scientific or humane, ever prospers through ignoring the facts; and in view of the hundreds and thousands of children that are annually placed in good homes and brought up practically as members of the family, and in view of the further fact now coming to be understood that disease and mental deficiency and possibly crime are transmitted from parents to children, grandchildren, and even to the fourth generation, it is not only wise but humane for us to consider the fact and perhaps revise our practice. . . .

I have before me a family chart of a girl normal in intelligence, bright, and attractive. Not even the experts can discover anything wrong with her. She has brothers, and a sister, also normal; altogether, it seems that the feeble-mindedness which is so evident in the mother has for some reason run out and come to an end, and that now we begin with these children a new race. Let us follow the possibilities in this case. As we have said, the mother is feeble-minded, her father was feeble-minded, with several brothers and sisters in like condition. But the mother dies, her family are already gone, and people rejoice that at last the hindrance, the taint in the family, has disappeared, and these children are left without any of it; it remains only to find them homes where they will be cared for until they are old enough to care for themselves, and all will be well. Accordingly, a home is found for this girl, in a well-to-do family with three children of their own, but philanthropically disposed, with ample means, glad to take this nice-looking child into their home and bring her up as one of their own children. She grows up as one of the family, except that all know she is not their own child. She comes to young-womanhood, the son of the family falls in love with her, and there being no visible objection to a union, they are married. In due course of time a child is born and then another and another. As the years go by these children grow up and to the horror of all interested it is discovered that one or possibly two, even three of them, are feeble-minded.

When it first becomes evident that the children are not normal, the other people say, “Ah, well, the grandmother was wrong, the great-grandfather was wrong, it was a bad family.” And so the old law so well expressed in holy writ that the condition of the father is visited upon the son to the third and fourth generation still holds and will always hold. In other words, the parents who took this child into their home and later allowed their own son to marry her might have known, had they taken the trouble to inquire, that the probabilities were strong that if children were born to that girl some of them at least would be feeble-minded. The fact that neither she nor any of her brothers and sisters showed mental defect was no evidence whatever that their posterity would be free from it. Indeed, statistics now clearly indicate a high probability that defectives will again appear in that line.

These are facts, and in view of these facts, ought we not to take some thought and care in this matter of finding homes for the homeless and neglected? We are now face to face with the question, “What ought we to do?”

In the first place, we ought to be honest, as I trust we are, although many of us can look back to the time when we were not. . . .

We must use every means to learn all the facts before we place these children in the care of other unsuspecting fathers or mothers who are willing to take care of them and give them a home.

It means that the family history of every homeless and neglected child must be ascertained just as far as possible, and that no pains or expense be spared to get all the information that can possibly be had. Then the prospective foster-parents should have before them all the information that has been acquired in regard to these children, so that they may guard not only their own children if they have them but other children from any alliances that are dangerous from a hereditary standpoint. If this results in such families refusing to take these children, then we must provide for them in colonies. Charitable organizations, even the state, can well afford to do that rather than run the risk of contaminating the race by the perpetuation of mental and moral deficiency. . . .

It is neither right nor wise for us to let our humanity, our pity and sympathy for the poor, homeless, and neglected child, drive us to do injustice to and commit a crime against those yet unborn.

Source: Henry H. Goddard, “Wanted: A Child to Adopt,” Survey 27 (October 14, 1911):1003-1006.
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