Ida Parker, Fit and Proper?, 1927

One of the largest early efforts to compile basic information about adoption patterns took place in Massachusetts, also the first state in the country to pass a modern adoption law. The Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act of 1851 required judges to ensure that each and every adoption was “fit and proper,” although it did not specify exactly how judges were supposed to do this. Seven decades later, social researcher Ida Parker embarked on a study to determine if the laudable goal of child welfare was actually being achieved. She concluded that it was not. There was far too much variability and error in procedure and far too little regulation. The picture of adoption that emerged confirmed reformers’ belief that adoption was a risky procedure likely to result in tragedy, delinquency, and maladjustment. Adoptions that were neither fit nor proper were a major social problem.

The study, conducted by the Boston Council of Social Agencies, examined all adoption records in the probate courts of six counties (including the state’s most populous counties, Suffolk and Norfolk) between July 1, 1922 and December 31, 1925. It tallied the number of adoptions taking place and asked who was being adopted, by whom, and how. Parker’s statistical findings were based on 872 cases. Of these, she examined 100 in detail to discover what happened to children after legal adoption but she avoided contacting either children or parents personally, as outcome studies did. “Care has been taken to injure no one by carrying the inquiry too far,” she noted, indicating how sensitive adoption was at this time and also how unreliable adoptive parents were about telling their children.

What did the study find? Parker estimated that approximately 1000 adoptions were granted in Massachusetts annually. A majority involved illegitimate babies from families who were reported to have very bad reputations and long histories of mental deficiency and criminality. Adoptions typically occurred when children were young: the majority were under five and almost 19 percent were less than one. Most were arranged by birth mothers with the help of doctors, midwives, or newspaper advertisements rather than qualified social agencies. Birth fathers were generally absent and consented to adoption in only a handful of cases. Many more children were adopted by strangers than by natal relatives.

Without the safeguards of expert investigations and mental tests, these adoptions were eugenic nightmares. “This is not the human stock which people contemplating adoption desire but many times, though by no means always, it is what they secure. . . Normal families of good stock seldom give away their children even in the face of poverty, death, or other adversity.” According to Parker, the adults involved in adoption were often as unfit as the children. This fact made it even more urgent for courts to have new methods of “sifting the wheat from the chaff.”

Like other Progressive reformers, Ida Parker was convinced that empirical field studies would support the case for minimum standards such as mandatory investigations and post-placement probationary periods. “The facts show that adoption may bring tragedy or great happiness to child and to adoptive family. Properly safe-guarded adoption may be a social asset as well as a social expedient. How much longer must helpless children of Massachusetts wait for their State to extend that measure of protection against unsuitable adoption which they so sorely need?”


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