Helen Witmer et al, Independent Adoptions: A Follow-Up Study, 1963

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.


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
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