Even before outcome
studies became an established research genre with the publication
of How Foster Children Turn Out,
some agencies involved in placing-out
tried to follow up on their own cases. What had become of the children
formerly in their care? Finding out served two important and related
purposes. It would improve the practices that shaped child and family
life by establishing the need for minimum
standards and it would define social
work as a job worthy of being designated a profession.
In this early study, the Boston Children’s Aid Society tracked
its own work. Dismayed by the haphazard techniques used to place
children and appalled by family-making failures, the agency added
a researcher, Ruth Lawton, to its staff in 1913 in hopes that empirical
inquiry “might be able to establish certain standards by which
we could measure our own work.” She found the agency’s
own records distressingly thin, containing too few details to be
of value. “Many of the children were taken on meagre information,
often engaging us in the task of fitting round pegs into square
holes, and in some cases exposing communities to great dangers from
the acts of exceedingly difficult children.” The first step
toward minimum standards
was invariably to standardize record-keeping. The point was to obtain
more information and keep it more meticulously.
The agency itself was not new, having been founded in the mid-nineteenth
century, but its dedication to placing children in families was
only a decade old. The agency hoped that solid research would vindicate
its recent commitment to family rather than orphanage care. Lawton
found that by October 1913, the agency had placed a total of 129
children in a total of 498 homes, an average of almost four placements
per child. A substantial number of the placements (37 percent) were
supposed to be temporary, but there was a high rate of replacement
for children in need of permanent homes. (“Disruption”
was not a term that denoted failed adoptions until the 1970s.) After
placement, supervisory visits occurred on average four or five times
per year, with girls visited more frequently than boys. Supervision
was inconsistent as well as infrequent. Staff turnover was high
because the work was hard and salaries were low.
The Boston Children’s Aid Society endorsed thorough physical
examinations and mental tests for every child in need of placement.
But in actual practice, only 37 physical and 4 mental exams had
been administered to all 129 children prior to placement. The agency,
which prided itself on being in the professional vanguard, was surprised
and embarrassed by this evidence of shoddy and disappointing work.
It never doubted, however, that more and better research was the
key to realizing its rhetoric about child
welfare in practice as well as in theory.