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.