was Chief of the Statistics Section in the U.S.
Children’s Bureau when that agency began collecting national
statistics on adoption. This early survey was subtitled “Recent
increases in adoptions emphasize need for adequate adoption procedures,”
illustrating how adoption reformers used improved statistical
knowledge about the growing numbers of adoptions to advance
their goals. Zarefsky pointed out how little reliable or detailed
quantitative data policy-makers and professionals actually had about
adoption patterns even as he summarized what was known at the time.
He noted dramatic increases in relative adoptions, but independent
adoptions by nonrelatives were, characteristically, the focus of
his concern. The premise of adoption reform was that too few adoptions
were being safeguarded by professional oversight or the enforcement
of minimum standards.
For an intelligent campaign to establish and maintain adequate
adoption procedures in all the States one of the basic needs is
information showing the problems involved in the current procedures.
However, even the number of children adopted each year in the United
States is not known because most States have no provision for the
central collection of such statistics. In about half the States
the department of welfare can obtain statistics on adoption proceedings
because it (or its authorized agencies) has the legal responsibility
to investigate petitions for adoption or because it has established
working relationships with the courts empowered to act on such petitions.
Late in 1945 the Children’s Bureau obtained from 22 of these
States (including three-eighths of the estimated 1943 population
under 21 years of age in the United States) information on the number
of children for whom adoption petitions had been filed in 1944 and
on selected identifying data relating to the children and their
Volume of adoption petitions
These 22 States, representing all sections of the country, reported
a total of more than 16,000 children for whom adoption petitions
had been filed. On the basis of these data it is estimated that
such petitions were filed for approximately 50,000 children throughout
the country in 1944. In proportion to the population under 21 years
of age in the State, the number of children for whom petitions were
filed in Oregon was more than nine times that in North Carolina,
the States reporting the highest and lowest rates, respectively.
The Southeastern States, with the exception of Florida, reported
the lowest number of children for whom petitions had been filed
in relation to their child populations. . . .
One of the most significant developments in the field of child
welfare has been the great increase in adoptions during recent years. . . .
The increase in adoptions by stepparents underlies the great increase
in adoptions, although adoptions by other relatives and by persons
not related to the child also have increased markedly during recent
years. In the six States for which comparable data are available
the proportion of children being adopted by stepparents increased
from 17 percent in 1934 to 41 percent in 1944. The great increase
in stepparent adoptions undoubtedly represents in part war-stimulated
legalization of family relationships that in many instances had
existed in fact for years. The disruption of home life occasioned
by service in the armed forces probably has been an incentive to
the formalizing of existing family ties. It would be of interest
to know how many of the situations in which stepparents or other
relatives are petitioning to adopt children can be traced to war
deaths and the break-up of homes due to war conditions, but data
of this nature are not now available. . . .
The adoption of children by stepparents is almost always undertaken
without the aid of an agency, and frequently petitions filed by
stepparents are not subjected to the same study as those filed by
persons not related to the child. Available data indicate the children
being adopted by stepparents and other relatives are generally older
than other children being adopted, and are more frequently children
who were born in wedlock. Finally, courts almost routinely grant
adoption decrees requested by stepparents. . . .
Many independent adoptions are by nonrelated persons
Slightly more than a quarter of the children for whom petitions
were filed in 1944 had been placed in the adoptive home by a placement
agency; another quarter had been placed without the aid of an agency
by parents, friends, relatives, physicians, lawyers, or others;
the remainder were being adopted without the aid of an agency by
relatives or by persons with whom the child had been living. If
only children being adopted by nonrelated persons are considered,
the importance of independent placements is indicated by the fact
that more than half of these children had been placed without the
aid of a recognized child-welfare agency.
Placement of a child for adoption by a competent child-welfare
agency is one assurance that adequate safeguards are being observed
for the child, for his natural parents, and for his adoptive parents.
Agencies provide this protection by studying the child, investigating
the status of the natural parents and of the prospective adoptive
home, and supervising the placement during a waiting period. This
basic and elementary assurance was lacking in more than half the
children (and their parents) for whom adoption proceedings were
instituted by nonrelated persons in 1944 in these 15 States. Observance
of other desirable adoption procedures cannot completely compensate
for this shortcoming. . . .
Most of the children are very young
Another indication of the need for adequate safeguards in adoption
placements and procedures is the fact that most of the children
are very young, as shown by the following age distribution of the
children (8,764) for whom this information was available in the
15 States previously mentioned:
Age at filing of petition
Under 6 years
Under 6 months
6 months, under 2 years
2 years, under 6 years
6 years, under 14 years
14 years, under 21 years
Children born in wedlock
Adoption is popularly identified with illegitimacy. However, 42
percent of the children for whom petitions were filed in the 15
States in 1944 were born in wedlock; in 4 States they outnumbered
the children who were born out of wedlock. More than half (55 percent)
of the children born in wedlock came from homes that had been broken
by divorce, desertion, or separation; 32 percent had lost one or
both of their parents by death. Undoubtedly a large number of these
children were being adopted by a stepparent. . . .
Children born out of wedlock
Children being adopted need to be safeguarded by adequate procedures
whether born in or out of wedlock. But in the case of children born
out of wedlock the need for services is most compelling. More than
two-thirds of the children placed independently of an agency in
the 15 States (exclusive of those being adopted by relatives independently
of an agency) were born out of wedlock. . . .
It is evident that we have a long road to travel before all parties
to the adoption of a child are assured of all the safeguards that
should accompany the legal establishment of a new family relationship. . . .