Home Studies




The term “home study” was not common until the mid-twentieth century, but investigations of potential foster and adoptive homes were hardly new in 1950. Children who rode the orphan trains in the nineteenth-century, or who were placed-out during the early years of the twentieth century, were supposed to be given to responsible adults who possessed adequate resources to care for them. At least in theory, child-placers were charged with insuring that families who took in children born to others had the money, food, and room—not to mention wisdom, patience, and love—to do the job.

The major finding of early adoption field studies was that home investigations were either not done well or not done at all. Progressive-era reformers were appalled by baby farms and other black-market adoptions that illustrated how children might be casually, cruelly, or commercially placed with just about anyone for just about any reason. They complained that sloppy and unregulated arrangements jeopardized child welfare and argued that states had a duty to the public to insure that placements were made according to minimum standards, including the investigation of homes. In 1891, Michigan called on judges to “investigate” before entering final adoption decrees, but no state made such investigation mandatory until the Minnesota Adoption Law of 1917 charged public authorities with making an “appropriate inquiry to determine whether the proposed foster home is a suitable home for the child.”

Between 1917 and midcentury, most states revised their laws to include such an inquiry. Enforcement was weak, however, and many states did not require that investigations take place before children were placed. This loophole made it considerably more difficult to remove children in undesirable placements because many of those children had already been living in their new homes for a long time. Judges who handled adoptions often found themselves in a no-win situation: severing attachments between children and their foster families was likely to compound problems caused by poor placements themselves.

The whole point of investigating homes was to predict, in advance, the likelihood that any given child would find security and love and turn out well in the end. During the first several decades of the century, social workers made the novel argument that only trained and experienced professionals could make such predictions accurately. Yet most professional home investigations began by gathering facts that were readily visible to any attentive observer. Reports typically documented mothers’ housekeeping and cooking skills, water supply, refrigeration, heating, and distance to church and school. Investigators asked if foster children would be expected to work and if they would have rooms of their own.

The moral qualifications of prospective foster parents were evaluated by inquiring about the regularity of church attendance, steadiness of work, sobriety, reputation, and the well-being of any children (“own” or foster) already living in the home. Questions about income, property, and literacy were also routine, giving rise to widespread suspicions—still prevalent today—that adoption, which regularly transferred children from poor to middle-class homes, was hopelessly corrupted by class and cultural biases. Whatever one’s view, the home study illustrates one of the impossible balancing acts that adoption has performed over time: weighing the obvious advantage of belonging to a family blessed by wealth and educational privilege against the belief that child welfare should never be calculated in dollars and cents.

Child-placers during the Progressive era did not begin or end their investigations by running white gloves over windowsills. They also believed that home investigations should explore the intangible qualities that made the difference between happy and unhappy homes. Were parents kind? Were their expectations of children reasonable? Would they be able to see things from the child’s point of view? These questions were as consequential for children as they were tricky to answer with certainty. One solution to this problem, frequently mentioned in child-placing manuals, was to obtain independent character references from neighbors and community leaders. Why? Child-placers realized that foster parents could misrepresent themselves and deceive investigators bent on uncovering the facts.

The transition from home investigations to home studies marked the spread of therapeutic approaches that emphasized psychological interpretation over empirical documentation in the investigation process. During the post-World War II era, home studies were protracted probes of parental worthiness in which personality profiles ranked equally with financial stability and physical health and in which matching aspired to both physical resemblance and temperamental compatibility. In a major national study of adoption practice at midcentury, for example, agencies reported that their investigations concentrated on such qualities as personal adjustment, happy marriages, congenial relationships with family and friends, ability to love a child, and resolution of the grief that accompanied childlessness. Applicants were asked about their families of origin, their “sexual adjustment,” and their reasons for wanting to adopt. The motivation of infertile couples became an especially sensitive issue in the adoption process.

Over time, adoption investigations became complex helping operations. The goal was not simply to accept or reject applicants on the basis of fixed standards, but to evaluate the strengths and weakness of their not-yet-realized parental capacity. Professionals influenced by Freudian psychology believed that people interested in adopting were, more often than not, unaware of their own motivations and unable to determine for themselves if they were emotionally ready for parenthood. The sincerest and most enthusiastic couples might be fooling themselves and never know it, whereas couples who expressed ambivalence might be perfectly suited to the task of raising adopted children. In either case, home studies aimed to reveal a truth deeper than words.

The most common explanation for the growing psychological emphasis in home studies was simple: supply and demand. Adoption was influenced by market forces, so couples were more frequently “screened out” when demand was high. Popular journalistic coverage of the “baby shortage” began as early as the 1930s and adoption statistics occasionally confirmed that applicants did sometimes dramatically outnumber available babies. According to this view, increasing competition allowed agencies to impose different, more selective standards for healthy white infants. After 1945, concerns about the different, less selective (and therefore discriminatory) standards used to place African-American, mixed-race, and other hard-to-place children also supported this view. Today's rhetoric about “screening in” adopters of children with special needs has led to a similar conclusion. When it comes to hard-to-place children, prospective parents are welcomed as "partners" and "allies" rather than scrutinized as subjects.

Home studies have had as many critics as defenders because their timing, duration, and results have been extremely unpredictable. Individuals and couples interested in adopting also wondered, reasonably enough, why they had to subject themselves to evaluations that most parents would find not only uncomfortable intrusions, but intolerable violations of their reproductive freedom. Recognizing, however, that agencies had the authority to give or withhold the children they sought, many adoption applicants resigned themselves to a family-making process in which professionals played God. Sometimes they complained about being put in a “fish bowl” or subverted the home study process by sharing with others what they had learned about the qualities social workers preferred, implying that the entire procedure was nothing but a hypocritical game in which theatrical skill and the “right answers” mattered more than good intentions or truth. Others simply decided to live without children or turned to independent adoptions, which tended to treat would-be parents as generous people with something to offer rather than clients whose motivations required strict scrutiny.

The rationale for regulating adoption legally and socially—as well as the considerable difficulty of doing so—is apparent in the history of home studies. States believed that investigation was necessary to make families in which children would be reliably loved and protected, and in which belonging without blood would be authentic belonging nonetheless. Yet states never gave agencies a monopoly over adoption. (Only Delaware in 1952 and Connecticut in 1957 banned non-agency adoptions, and because it was so easy to cross state lines to adopt, these were largely symbolic acts.) The result was that the agency professionals most dedicated to home studies always had to compete with more flexible, less strenuous arrangements. Changing investigatory fashions reflected trends in social work, in the world of child welfare, and in the broader culture and economy. What was being tested and why may have changed, but at the heart of the modern home study was an enduring belief. Because kinship without blood was fragile and risky, systematic inquiry and interpretation were needed in order for it to succeed.


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Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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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
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