Maud Morlock, “Determination and Establishment of Paternity,” 1940

This paper, written by a U.S. Children’s Bureau official, suggests that the World War II era was a crucial turning point in thinking about unmarried fathers. Many social workers who had previously concentrated on getting men to admit paternity and pay child support began to realize that fathers were people too. Men’s reactions to unplanned parenthood, Maud Morlock pointed out, were shaped just as much by community attitudes and personal circumstances as women’s. That made unmarried fatherhood a social problem equal to unmarried motherhood in the creation of illegitimacy, although fathers had few legal rights in decisions related to adoption until the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Stanley v. Illinois.

Within recent years social agencies have recognized the importance of case-work procedures in dealing with the fathers of children born out of wedlock. Considerable interest has been expressed in this subject, particularly as to agency and community problems and practices. In order to obtain more complete information as to practices in different places, questionnaires requesting such information were sent to the 30 committees in different cities that are cooperating with the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the development of programs for unmarried mothers and their children. . . .

Reports from the individual agencies showed that they had served 5,745 unmarried mothers during 1939. . . .

These agencies reported that paternity was established by court action in 1,115 cases (20 percent) and that paternity was determined by formal or informal agreement in 1,353 cases (24 percent). It is interesting to note that in 1,519 cases (27 percent), the father was not interviewed, although his identity was known; and in 941 cases his identity was not known to the agency. The reasons given for not interviewing the father and the lack of action to determine or establish paternity included: (1) failure or inability to get in touch with the alleged fathers, some of whom had left the city; (2) refusal of the mother to give information or to take action; (3) denial of paternity by the putative father following an interview, with no further action taken; (4) lack of evidence to support the mother’s claim as to the man’s responsibility; (5) the preference of the girl’s family to make its own plans; and (6) the promiscuity of the mother.

These figures as to the extent to which paternity is established compare favorably with previously available data on the subject, which indicate that in urban areas paternity is established through court procedure in 10 to 25 percent of the cases of children born out of wedlock. For example, state-wide statistics on all children born to unmarried mothers in Minnesota during a 12-year period (1918-1930) show that paternity was established by court adjudication in 20 percent of the cases; and by written acknowledgment or admission in 10 percent. In addition to these, 16 percent of the mothers married the father subsequent to the birth of the children. The total number of cases in which paternity was established through court order, or was voluntarily acknowledged through admission or marriage, constituted less than one half (46 percent) of the entire group. This figure may be higher than it would be in most States, since Minnesota has for many years, through its department of public welfare, offered assistance to unmarried mothers to an unusual extent. . . .

We have no composite picture of the father of the child born out of wedlock. In general, we think of him as young, perhaps a few years older than the mother, frequently from the low income group, and in recent years, frequently unemployed. He may or may not have responsibility for contributing to the support of others. In all probability he will within the next few years want to marry and will find that payment for the support of this child will be a distinct hinderance to the success of his marriage and a hinderance to the welfare of his legitimate children. He may or may not have been approached by an irate father of the girl. In all probability the majority of men involved did not anticipate or welcome parenthood and it is therefore a natural first reaction for a man to deny the existence of the child, at least as his child, and to try to escape from any responsibility for its maintenance.

It is not strange that under these complicated circumstances social workers and others are still bewildered by this subject. We have oversimplified the problem in all probability into fathers who showed some sense of responsibility for the situation as contrasted with fathers who were totally indifferent. One of the most difficult problems with which we are now faced, and one for which we still have no answer has arisen partly over our concern for the father as a person rather than just as a means of support. While the law gives him no legal rights in most States in regard to decisions for the child, what are his moral rights if he is interested in the child’s future, and what have we as social workers done to him if we have aroused this interest and are not prepared to help the mother and the father to face and act wisely on their complicated relationships to the child throughout the future years? What is our answer to him if the mother wishes to give the child in adoption, and if he or his family wishes to assume responsibility for the child? What if the mother in her bitterness opposes such a decision and still insists upon adoption?

We would probably be more nearly in agreement on some of the other fundamental problems.

1. The father in the majority of instances is not, at least in the beginning, a willing client of a social agency. He has not as a rule made the initial approach to the social agency asking its services. Rather, the agency has approached him on a subject that is too frequently unpleasant and one he would like to forget—certainly not a subject on which many men, as a first reaction, would choose to keep alive for 16 years. If, however, the situation is handled skillfully, and if he still has some respect and affection for the mother and a sense of responsibility for the child he may desire interviews. He may wish to discuss his own problems or he may show a willingness to assist in planning for the total situation.

2. Social work with the father is so complicated that where possible only case workers with the best skill and emotional maturity should be used, case workers who are aware and in control of their own attitudes as they relate to this problem.

3. While maintenance of the child is important our experience with this problem to date indicates that the amount contributed by the father is far from sufficient for the child’s support, and that maintenance of the child can be approached constructively only when there is an awareness of emotional and social problems.

4. The relationship of the mother to the father may still be deeply important to her, regardless of what she fails to put into words. Social workers can do irreparable damage to the mother when they rush ahead in the first interview to obtain facts that to most people are sacred between two individuals involved.

5.We need to remember that the father is a human being and that the birth of a child out of wedlock—much as it may be regretted by society—is not a crime but only one manifestation of behavior to be approached by the social worker with objectivity and understanding.


Source: Maud Morlock, “Determination and Establishment of Paternity” (paper presented at the Committee on Unmarried Parenthood of the National Conference of Social Work, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 29-30, 1940), 1-3, 17-19.

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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) 346-3699
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