Social Work

Source: Elsa Ueland Papers, available in David R. Contosta, Philadelphia's Progressive Orphanage: The Carson Valley School (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

Students at the country's first social work school, the New York School of Applied Philanthropy, c. 1910



Social work transformed help into a professional activity. Because social workers have been the rank and file workers in the world of adoption, endowing them with authority and expertise was a prerequisite for the professionalization of adoption. Making sure that family-formation would be overseen by professionals was an important part of making adoption modern.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, social work did not yet exist as a professional community. The first social work school in the country, the New York School of Applied Philanthropy (which later became Columbia’s School of Social Work), opened its doors in 1904. In 1915, there were only five independent and two university-affiliated social work programs in the United States. In 1921, the American Association of Social Workers was founded and, in the 1920s, the Russell Sage and Commonwealth Foundations offered crucial financial support for institution-building in the new field. Yet amateur workers remained the backbone of many child welfare organizations long after formal training opportunities were established, and the shortage of social work personnel remained a chronic problem for agencies involved in child placement and adoption.

The first true professional in the world of adoption, Sophie van Senden Theis, graduated from college in 1907. She never earned a social work degree. Other important figures in adoption history were members of the pioneering generation of social work educators, including Jessie Taft (University of Pennsylvania), Charlotte Towle (University of Chicago), and Dorothy Hutchinson (Columbia University). Social work was a female-dominated occupation from the start.

Social workers experienced gender troubles in their efforts to professionalize child welfare. Although a number of leaders in children’s work were men—C.C. Carstens, Hastings Hart, and William Henry Slingerland among them—it was not always clear why women would need specialized training to do work that simply extended their natural, maternal responsibilities to other people’s children. The first social work generation was also frustrated by the tradition of nineteenth-century “friendly visiting,” which defined helping as the responsibility of all women with the means to do it. Social work was an expression of women’s intuition and moral superiority, according to this way of thinking, not a professional job.

In order to professionalize, social workers set out to affiliate the work they did with science. In placing-out, this often took the form of psychiatric casework and outcome studies. By importing psychodynamic theories from medicine and embracing sophisticated research methods as their own, social workers hoped to turn ordinary care-taking tasks into authoritative, if not actually masculine, careers. Therapeutic perspectives on child placement and adoption grew out of this convergence between social work and science.

The progress of social work was geographically and culturally lopsided. It advanced most rapidly and effectively in cities in the east and north. Professionally staffed agencies were still rare or nonexistent in many parts of the country during the first half of the century. In these places, most adoptions were still independently arranged by relatives, doctors, midwives, lawyers, orphanage staff, and other baby brokers who operated according to rules of commerce and sentiment rather than a professional creed.


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