Single Parent Adoptions

Source: Viola W. Bernard Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University

This 1966 cover of Jet magazine publicized the innovate effort by the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions to seek out single parents for children in need of adoption.

Source: Viola W. Bernard Papers, Archives and Special  Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University

Juanita Nichols, a staffer at the Los Angeles County Bureau of Child Adoptions, conducting a training class for prospective single adopters.

Every state in the country currently allows single adults to adopt children. This may be less surprising than the fact that singles have been legally eligible to adopt since the first adoption laws were passed in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, the “spinster” who took in children was a staple of Victorian moral fiction and a recurrent figure in adoption narratives. A fair number of unmarried women (Jessie Taft was one) adopted children in the early decades of the twentieth century. They often raised children in pairs as well as alone, illustrating that the vast majority of adoptions by lesbians and gay men have been arranged as single parent adoptions, whether they actually were or not. But formal legal eligibility did not imply tolerance, let alone acceptance. Singles were viewed as less desirable parents than married couples. Men were considered far less desirable than women, if they were considered at all.

The number of families headed by single parents increased in the United States throughout the twentieth century, due mainly to rising rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing, but their increasing prevalence did little to dispel fears that growing up in such families would harm children, both emotionally and economically. Many state welfare officials enacted regulations making it difficult or impossible for agencies to place children in the care of single individuals. By midcentury, encouraged by the popularization of Freudian ideas and therapeutic approaches to child welfare, agency workers were determined to find “normal” families for parentless children. To be normal, households had to headed by heterosexual, married, couples who were comfortable with a division of labor between non-working wives and bread-winning husbands. This ideal made single applicants for adoption abnormal by definition. If they wanted children so badly, why weren’t they married? Who would take care of children whose single mothers worked for a living? What would become of children, especially boys, who grew up without fathers? In 1958, the adoption standards issued by the Child Welfare League of America stated simply that adoptive families should include both a mother and a father. No mention was made of single parents at all.

In the popular imagination, unmarried adults figured as birth parents, not adopters. The stigma attached to illegitimacy could be reason enough for unwed mothers to surrender children to married couples who could, at least, legitimize their birth status. Why heap more shame on unlucky bastards by having them adopted by single parents?

Still, single parents did adopt prior to the 1960s, although there is no way of knowing how many. The number was probably small. We know very little about who these adopters were or what kind of children they took in, although it is certain that most were women and probable that they adopted more relatives (i.e., nieces and nephews) than unrelated children. Adoption statistics offer few clues.

Systematic efforts to recruit single parents began only in the 1960s, initiated by advocates of the special needs revolution in adoption. These advocates insisted that children who were hard to place should have equal opportunities to grow up in families in spite of their mental or physical disabilities, advanced ages, minority or mixed-race status, or a combination of these factors. Many potential adopters, however, were looking for healthy white infants, and these private preferences slowed the practical progress of special needs adoptions, as did agency policies that favored or limited placements to infertile couples.

The first organized effort to enlist single parents was a program of the Los Angeles Bureau of Adoptions. In 1965, this public agency sought out single African-Americans in order to locate same-race parents for African-American children for whom married parents could not be found. Over the next two years, the agency placed a total of thirty-nine children with single mothers and one child with a single father, a fairly small number considering the hundreds of children in care. The Los Angeles Bureau of Adoptions also experimented with placing minority children with white married couples, an experience described in some detail by agency official Ethel E. Branham. For even the most daring agencies, however, transracial adoptions represented a partial solution to the urgent needs of children of color, especially as the controversy over placing black children in white families heated up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to Los Angeles Bureau director Walter A. Heath, two parents were preferable, “but one parent is better than none.” By the time it revised its adoption standards in 1968, the Child Welfare League of America conceded that married parents were an unattainable luxury for some children. Single parent adoptions were permissible in “exceptional circumstances” where the child would not otherwise be adopted.

The story of single parent adoptions illustrates change as well as continuity in the history of adoption. That some adults previously considered ineligible or even entirely unfit for parenthood were eventually recognized as a positive resource for children attests to the democratization of adoption, which now includes many more kinds of people than it did in the past, at least in theory. At the same time, single parent adoptions prove that matching children and parents on a hierarchy of more and less desirable characteristics persists. Approximately one-third of children adopted from the public foster care system and one-quarter of all children with special needs are adopted by single individuals today, but many fewer singles adopt healthy infants domestically or internationally. This strongly suggests that single parents offer families of last resort for desperate children who have no other choices. They are as unwanted as the children they take in.

Adoption had evolved significantly as a social institution during the past century, but the cultural values that mark certain children, adults, and families as more and less worthy have been stubborn and very slow to change.


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