W.H. Slingerland, Child-Placing in Families, 1919

Mental Defectives. One of the greatest social problems in America is the large and constant increase in feeble-mindedness. Less than a decade ago the world woke up to this fact—for the problem is not confined to America but is world-wide—and realized something of its portent. We now know that almost every orphanage contains some feeble-minded children; that every child-placing agency unavoidably handles some every year; that from 15 to 50 per cent of the delinquents in the reform and industrial schools are of subnormal mentality; and that the special institutions for the feeble-minded are crowded and have long waiting lists. The situation demands immediate, definite, scientific, and systematic action.

Diagnosis is one practical essential, long neglected but now generally demanded and increasingly applied. It is not too much to ask that all child-placing agencies and child-caring institutions arrange for the psychological examination of wards, in order to determine their relative mental ages and possibilities. Any that show possible signs of mental disease should be treated by skilled psychiatrists. The merely backward should be identified, and efforts made to assure their speedy advance to normality. The constitutionally defective should be definitely determined, and should be placed in proper institutions. To put a low grade mental defective in a family home where a normal child was expected is a social crime, once to be condoned because of ignorance, but now inexcusable in a well-ordered and progressive child-placing agency. . . .

The following classification scheme was prepared for a previous volume, Child Welfare Work in Pennsylvania, and is again offered as comprehensible to the average layman and probably not objectionable to the expert psychologist:

1. Idiots. Those of the lowest class of mental defectives are termed idiots. These require asylum care, are very slightly improvable, and none ever exceeds the mental capacity of the average child of two years.

2. Idio-Imbeciles. Those of the next grade are called idio-imbeciles. They also require asylum care, are more improvable, in a limited way can be trained to assist others, and in mental capacity are equal to the average child of from three to five years.

3. Imbeciles. Those of the third grade are generally called imbeciles. They require custodial life and perpetual guardianship, are morally deficient, can be trained in some manual and industrial occupations, are often plotters of mischief with a genius for evil, and in mental capacity are equal to the average child of from six to nine years.

4. Morons. Those of the highest class of constitutionally mentally defective recently have been called morons. They require long apprenticeship and colony life under protection, are trainable in the manual arts and many mental acquirements, lack mainly in will, balance, and judgment, and in mental capacity grade with the average child of from ten to twelve years old.

5. Dullards. Another class, not distinctly defined, is that of the backward or mentally feeble. These are sometimes wrongly included with the morons, from whom it is often difficult to distinguish them. But morons are constitutionally defective, and can never become normal in mentality. Dullards are normal in their mental powers and processes, which have been enfeebled by disease or retarded by lack of opportunity. They require special training to develop their latent powers, and usually medical attention, a prescribed diet, and improved environment. The special schools for backward children are established partly to meet their needs, and partly to define and give adequate attention to imbeciles and morons. . . .

While institutional care is essential to all the lower classes, there are many of the moron class who will be far better off in family homes than in institutions. The families in which they are placed must be selected with especial reference to the humane and honorable care of such wards, and of course must have full information as to the children’s mental limitations; and proper public or private agencies must keep such homes and children under special and permanent supervision. Dullards, not being constitutionally deficient, may often be most quickly renewed in physical and mental vigor and greatly improved, if not wholly brought up to normal conditions, by placement in first-class family homes.


Source: W.H. Slingerland, Child-Placing in Families: A Manual for Students and Social Workers (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1919), 69, 74-76.

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
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman