Sophie van Senden Theis (1885-1957)

Source: Virginia P. Robinson, ed., Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator, A Professional Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962).

Sophie van Senden Theis (left) bringing Martha to Jessie Taft (right). Also pictured are Bobby Ueland (the adopted son of Elsa Ueland, another leading social worker) and Taft's adopted son, Everett

Sophie van Senden Theis was the first genuine adoption professional and researcher in the history of the United States. She was best known for her pioneering outcome study, How Foster Children Turn Out, published in 1924, in which Theis documented what had become of 910 children placed in homes by the New York State Charities Aid Association between 1898 and 1922. It was the first large-scale inquiry of its kind, became the prototype for many later outcome studies, and is still cited as a landmark in the history of adoption research.

Theis worked for the NYSCAA for forty-five years, from 1907 until her retirement in 1952, and served as the Executive Director of its Child Adoption Committee for thirty-six of those years. She graduated from Vassar College in 1907, at a moment when the professionalization of social work was imaginable but formal training in the field barely existed. From the very beginning of her career, Theis set out to communicate whatever she knew about desirable adoption procedures to her colleagues and a broader public while also warning them about the risks of unregulated family-making.

Theis was a firm believer in adoption modernization and the empirical research, specialized training, and minimum standards that went along with it. Her agency embraced mental tests as placement aids early on but Theis always cautioned against simple-minded hereditarianism. Early on in her career, she agreed that only “normal” children were qualified for family life and even suggested that families who insisted on adopting children with bad histories should sign binding agreements promising to return them if and when abnormal characteristics appeared. In general, however, Theis was less influenced by eugenics than most of her peers. She trusted that children would take advantage of opportunities for love and belonging and expressed confidence in adoption as an institution long before most other child welfare professionals.

Along with her NYSCAA colleague Constance Goodrich, Theis published one of the first training manuals for professional child-placers in 1921. It moved step-by-step through the process, devoting chapters to the selection of children and homes, placement, supervision, and replacement. Full of details from her own agency’s case records, The Child in the Foster Home taught by example. It offered concrete help to workers confused about when to reject applications for children, what to do about placing siblings, and how to handle the touchy issue of telling, a parental responsibility that adopters often resisted against the best advice of agency staff. The philosophy the manual conveyed anticipated many features of therapeutic adoption. It stressed casework, psychological diagnosis, and close attention to personality and its adjustment.

Theis never married, which was far from unusual among well-educated, reform-minded women of her day. She encouraged single women and female couples to adopt and personally facilitated the placement of two children with Jessie Taft and her partner, Virginia Robinson. This illustrated that definitions of acceptable and legitimate family were relatively more diverse and flexible early in the twentieth century than they became later on.

After her retirement from the NYSCAA, Theis became the Executive Secretary and Treasurer of the Doris Duke Foundation. She died in 1957.


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