Special Needs Adoptions

Source: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society, DN-0071248

Mrs. William Stewart and her adopted daughters Marion and Ethel in 1919. One of the children was blind and the other physically disabled at a time when “special needs” adoptions were still rare.

Source: Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (New York: Hill and Wang, 1955).

Roy DeCarava, a well known African-American photographer, took pictures of family life in Harlem after World War II that were used to publicize the urgent need for adoptive homes.


Systematic efforts to locate families for children who were “hard-to-place” did not really occur until midcentury. It was only after World War II that agencies began to test the feasibility of adoptions previously ruled out of bounds because they were considered difficult, risky, and likely to fail: African-American children and children of racially and ethnically mixed heritage, children with physical and mental disabilities, older children, and sibling groups. Efforts to arrange such adoptions challenged older views, influenced by eugenics, that only normal, white children were qualified for family life. Special needs adoptions were founded on a novel philosophy at odds with matching: “Adoption is appropriate for any child without family ties who is in need of a family and for whom a family can be found to meet his need.” This new slogan came to life for the American public through the writing of Pearl Buck, a best-selling novelist, and popular narratives like The Family Nobody Wanted.

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that class differences have significantly shaped Americans’ openness to the adoption of children with special needs. Working-class adopters have tended to be less demanding than their middle- and upper-class counterparts that adoptees live up to high standards of intellectual achievement or that children be scientifically selected to meet their specifications. Before the special needs revolution at midcentury, when social workers were still reluctant to place less-than-perfect children, many ordinary families expressed both willingness and desire to raise many different kinds of children as their own. At the same time, other would-be adopters actively sought out children who would measure up to their expectations for background, behavior, appearance, and education. Well-educated adopters were particularly interested in identifying children who could take advantage of a college education. (For examples, see the Letters from Prospective Adopters to Arnold Gesell, 1939-1950.)

By the 1960s, statewide adoption resource exchanges were helping with special needs placements. In 1968, the national Adoption Resource Exchange of North America (ARENA) was founded, partly as an outgrowth of the Indian Adoption Project. New parent-led organizations were also crucial in publicizing the needs of children with a wide variety of special needs. The Open Door Society of North America began in Montreal in 1959 and migrated to the United States from Canada, where chapters began in many states. The Council on Adoptable Children, headquartered in Ann Arbor, also emerged in the 1960s. Led by adoptive parents Peter and Joyce Forsythe, the group sponsored an important conference, “Frontiers in Adoption,” in October 1967. By 1969, there were at least 47 organizations in the United States whose mission was to advocate for “waiting” children. Many were local groups, like Transracial Adoptive Parents in Illinois and Families for Inter-Racial Adoption in Boston. In the mid-1960s, single parent adoptions were first tried in order to locate homes for hard-to-place children.

Special needs pioneers changed adoption culture dramatically. Their vision of family defied the claim that adoptive kinship had to be invisible in order to be authentic, insisting instead on the purposeful and open inclusion of difference. This value, in turn, reflected an even broader shift in conceptions of national belonging and citizenship in the United States after World War II. Special needs adoptions symbolized the civil rights revolution within the adoption world. Their accomplishment was not only to offer more different kinds of families to more different kinds of children, but to openly welcome multiculturalism and multiracialism within the family well as within the history, demography, and politics of the country at large.


Document Excerpts

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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