Marshall D. Schechter, “Observations on Adopted Children,” 1960

Marshall Schechter, a psychiatrist in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, reported in 1960 that adoptees were 100 times more likely than non-adoptees to present a range of serious emotional problems. Like a number of other contributions to the psychopathology literature, Schechter’s report was based on a tiny number of cases. He presented information about 120 children seen in his practice between 1948 and 1953, of whom exactly sixteen (or 13.3 percent) were adopted. Since adoptees numbered less than one-tenth of one percent in the general population, adopted children were greatly over-represented in his practice. Schechter’s friend, Povl Toussieng, a child psychiatrist at the famous Menninger Clinic, had also told him that up to one-third of all children seen as outpatients at the clinic were adopted. Schechter’s own observations, confirmed by a trusted colleague, were the basis for his conclusion. Adoption had an emotionally damaging impact on child development.

What exactly was it about adoption that caused problems? According to Schechter, the answer could be found in the psychoanalytic theory that “object relations” (the first and closest ties formed between infants and the adults who care for them) were crucial determinants of personhood. Children could not cope with the knowledge that they had been rejected by birth parents and no amount of reassurance that their adoptive parents loved and wanted them could make up for the “severe narcissistic injury” that adoption inflicted. Each and every one of his sixteen cases illustrated “how the idea of adoption had woven itself into the framework of the child’s personality configuration.” Telling children they were adopted was mandatory, Schechter agreed, but it also precipitated psychological difficulties. Carefully timing and managing the details of telling could help mitigate the resulting problems. (Later studies challenged this view. See, for example, the excerpt from Benson Jaffee and David Fanshel, How They Fared in Adoption.)

Schechter was not the first person to suggest that adoption posed intrinsic psychological risks. As early as 1937, psychiatrist David Levy presented case histories showing that adoptees suffered from “primary affect hunger,” a term he used to describe what is now called attachment disorder. A number of other clinicians in the U.S. and Britain published reports in the 1940s and 1950s about the deleterious consequences of growing up “without genealogy.” It was the boldness of Schechter’s claim that adopted children were much more likely to become neurotic and psychotic that galvanized helping professionals and therapeutic approaches to adoption. It also generated a great deal of controversy. H. David Kirk, author of Shared Fate, called Schechter’s study “spurious.” Many other researchers were equally skeptical that adoption was the sort of risk factor Schechter maintained it was.

Schechter’s methodology drew the most fire. Small numbers of detailed case histories had long been standard features of medical research and psychiatrists renowned for their contributions to developmental theory, including Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud, relied on them extensively. But psychologists and social workers with training in scientific research methods insisted that Schechter’s sample was far too small to be representative and disparaged his crude and inaccurate statistical calculations. His research design was so flawed as to be hopelessly unreliable.

Schechter responded by sending a questionnaire to members of the Southern California Psychiatric Society and various regional institutions. A follow-up report presented empirical data showing that adoptees showed up in clinical populations everywhere at much higher than average rates.

Schechter’s account of the damage that adoption did to children was vigorously contested during the 1960s. Today, it is widely accepted by parents and professionals who agree that attachment and loss are at the heart of what makes adoption a distinctive and difficult experience. This consensus was efficiently summarized in a book that Schechter co-edited with developmental psychologist David Brodzinsky: The Psychology of Adoption (1990).

 

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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© Ellen Herman