Agency Philosophy and Policy Regarding the “Telling” of Adoption, 1966

This excerpt illustrates that agencies were keenly aware of their responsibilities to help adoptive parents tell, and tell correctly, in spite of the shame that surrounded illegitimacy. Agency staff also understood that psychopathology studies made this task all the more difficult by implying that bungled or tardy telling would ruin children. One example of such a study was Marshall D. Schechter, “Observations on Adopted Children,” 1960, which is mentioned, indirectly, in these meeting minutes from Louise Wise Services in New York.

Dr. Bernard discussed agency philosophy and policy regarding the “telling of adoption.” She indicated that one of the important things about telling of adoption is that it really should be part and parcel of the entire complex experience and the whole adoption process for parents and child even though, understandably, it is often singled out as a pivotal issue. For without question, it does tend to serve as a focal point around which many of the parents’ anxieties and fears, attitudes and difficulties find expression. It is also a point to which subsequent problems and frictions in an adopted child’s life are readily ascribed and from which a desire to find out more about his natural parents may arise. This may frighten the parents with regard to the success of the adoption.

Dr. Bernard proceeded to discuss some of the current articles on this subject. She reassured the Board that LWS is keeping up with developments in theory and knowledge in the field and with the pertinent professional literature. . . . Several papers by a few psychiatrists and analysts appeared a few years ago in which adopted children were considered more prone to emotional disturbance than other children. Thus, adoption was viewed, in a sense, as causing emotional disorders in children. At least two of these authors made the further suggestion that the maladjustment of these adopted children was due to being told about their adoption at an early age. Dr. Bernard regarded it as unfortunate that these opinions received wide public circulation through being picked up by writers for popular magazines. Although those of us in the adoption field should maintain a scientific attitude and thus accept whatever new facts may appear on the basis of sound investigation, it is important that premature or unsubstantiated comments adverse to adoption be carefully reviewed and evaluated lest publicizing them as authoritative threaten the public’s confidence. . . .

We have also come to realize that adopted children may have special difficulty in the psychological process of establishing their sense of identity. Emotional problems in adopted children are caused by a variety of reasons, just as they are for all children; but such problems for the adopted children are more apt to be expressed through symptoms involving their sense of identity. The telling about adoption may make this task of growing a sense of identity more difficult since it may be hard for a child to assimilate the concepts of two sets of parents and, thus, harder to build a firm sense of self. It would be a mistake, however, thinks Dr. Bernard, to try and protect the young child from being told about his adoption, partly because of the greater psychological burdens this places on the child-parent relationship. In our experience, when the adopted child is emotionally maladjusted, it is due not to the “telling” per se, but to underlying problems of the sort that may obtain for any child, including, of course, disturbing family relationships.

There are a number of ways by which we are learning more about the psychological implications of the telling process for both parents and children which, in turn, serves as a guide for improvements in practice. Thus, at LWS, post-adoptive contact with parents—both individually and in groups—helps the agency to expand its understanding while also providing further help to the parents. It has become apparent that the original casework discussions with prospective adoptive parents at the time of placement are not retained nor available when the time to tell about adoption actually arises. Group meetings when the child is near the age to be told have [been] found to be extremely useful for the parents and instructive for the caseworkers. Our increased realization of what telling has really meant in different situations, and how it becomes enmeshed with the determinants of emotional health, has also been enhanced by helping individual parents and children who return to the agency when the children are young, when they are adolescents, and occasionally when they are adults. . . .

By way of a case illustration, Dr. Bernard reported on a recent consultation she had with a young man whose parents had adopted him as an infant through LWS. The parents initiated the consultation because their son was now expressing some desire to know more about his biological parents. His parents told Dr. Bernard that although they had never lied to their son about anything else, they had told him that his natural parents had both died—which was not the case—and they now felt anxiety on this score. . . .

At the interview it was apparent that despite what he had been told, he was aware that he was probably the illegitimate child of an unmarried mother. He had grown up not believing his adoptive parents that his biological parents had died. By all the usual criteria, this young man was a very well adjusted person, doing well at graduate school, and, according to a reliable and knowledgeable informant, the family relationships within this adoptive family had always been excellent. Nevertheless, at the time of the consultation, there were some psychological problems for both the parents and the young man—though not of overwhelming magnitude—which might have been obviated in the first place had the adoptive parents not disposed of his natural parents originally by killing them off. This is a very attractive solution to many adoptive parents since it avoids the painful question of illegitimacy (the parents who get killed off are always married) and it disposes of the worry about whether the children will want to seek out their natural parents and return to them. However, despite these advantages, in the short run when the children are small and the telling looms large, it can become, as in this instance, a source of later discomfort, anxiety, guilt, mistrust, and a barrier between this young man and his adoptive parents.


Source: Minutes of the Child Adoption Committee, May 4, 1966, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 155, Folder 4, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

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