This Florida study, co-sponsored
by the state’s Department of Public Welfare, the U.S.
Children’s Bureau, and the Russell Sage Foundation, was
the most ambitious of all outcome studies at midcentury. Like the
widely cited Connecticut study by Catherine
Amatruda and Joseph Baldwin, the premise was that independent
adoptions were more likely to fail than agency adoptions because
they lacked professional expertise and took shortcuts around regulatory
safeguards. In 1956 and 1957, researchers carefully tracked 484
independent adoptions finalized between 1944 and 1947. These represented
almost one-third of all adoptions in the state during these years,
at a time when agency placements were still uncommon.
Demographic data showed that the majority of Florida’s independent
adoptions—75 percent—occurred before children were one
month of age and typically transferred illegitimate
babies from young, unmarried women to older, long-married, infertile
couples. This contrasted dramatically with agency policies at the
time, which ruled out placements before six months as risky and
unwise. The Florida study utilized original adoption records, extensive
follow-up interviews with parents (mostly mothers), and a wide variety
of school records and psychological test scores to measure outcomes.
Researchers wanted to know whether these adoptions improved upon
nature, as they believed the law required. Were children unlucky
enough to need new homes being placed in good ones?
But what exactly made a home good? Researchers argued that four
factors were especially important: the marriage, the parent-child
relationship, the mental health of the parents (especially the mother),
and financial resources guaranteeing that children would not grow
up in poverty. They used three kinds of evidence in order to measure
the quality of homes and quantify outcomes: parents’ self-reports,
external ratings of home quality (on a 5-point grading scale from
A to E), and external ratings of children’s adjustment (on
a 4-point scale from well adjusted to maladjusted). What they found
was that parents were a lot happier with outcomes than observers
who assessed their homes and their children. While 85 percent of
parents expressed unqualified satisfaction, only 46 percent of homes
were ranked excellent or good and only 70 percent of children were
ranked well adjusted or fairly well adjusted. “The outcome
of the independent adoptions was not as good as that which the law
aims to achieve,” the authors concluded.
This criticism was not surprising. The superiority of professional
placement was a standard theme in applied research on adoption.
Much more unusual were two of the study’s findings. First,
the number of grossly unsuitable placements was extremely small.
Second, even though up to one-third of children were placed in homes
that earned poor grades of D or E, most turned out adequately or
better anyway. If extremely bad adoptions rarely occurred and most
poor homes did not produce bad outcomes consistently, the widely
publicized view that independent adoptions were dangerous was obviously
exaggerated, if not incorrect. How then would professionals persuade
the public that their oversight was needed in order for child
welfare to be protected? The authors tried to make the best
of this blow to their case for regulation. “It would appear. . .that
the overall picture of the homes is not as bad as some had feared,
but not as good as those concerned about children think it could
and should be.”
Because the study suggested that non-professional adoptions posed
no unusual dangers, even when children ended up in less than desirable
families, the study accomplished exactly the opposite of what its
authors intended. It was championed by advocates for independent
adoption as proof of what they had known all along. Most adoptees
turned out pretty well no matter how they were placed, or by whom.