Neva R. Deardorff, The Children's Commission of Pennsylvania Studies Adoption, 1925

The Children’s Commission of Pennsylvania conducted one of the largest and most significant early field studies when it investigated 1022 Pennsylvania adoptions granted between 1919 and 1924, supplemented by an additional 1200 cases examined by the U.S. Children’s Bureau in various Pennsylvania counties. As the excerpt suggests, adoption was vulnerable to a host of problems, from the economic exploitation of young people to their sexual abuse. The Commission’s report to the state legislature recommended that the state’s adoption law be strengthened and more strictly enforced. Pennsylvania lawmakers stopped short of requiring judges to consider professional investigations in all cases, but the revised adoption law attempted to give agencies and interested parties occasional opportunities to protest the most objectionable placements. Like most bodies that gathered empirical data on adoptions during the early decades of the century, the Children’s Commission of Pennsylvania found that more and better information was desperately needed in adoptions. Consistent record-keeping, thorough investigations, and other regulatory protocols needed to be put into place long before the family’s day in court if child welfare was to be meaningfully protected.

No more striking example could be found of the wide discrepancy between life as set forth in the stereotyped phrases found in legal documents and life as shown in good social case records than is presented by adoption petitions in Pennsylvania and doubtless in many other places in the United States. . . .

Between twelve and fifteen hundred adoptions take place each year in Pennsylvania. Children may be legally adopted in either of two ways in this state. In 1855, following the example of Massachusetts, which enacted the first adoption legislation in 1851, Pennsylvania provided that adoption could be decreed by the common pleas courts of the counties. In 1872 an amendment to this law was passed which legalized a process of adoption referred to as the “common law form of adopting a child by deed.” This dual system makes it possible that an adoption refused by the judicial authorities should be consummated by deed. While the Commission has found no actual instance of this kind, it has found traces of adoptions effected by deed because the parties recognized that they were of such doubtful character that they hesitated to submit them to the scrutiny of the courts, casual as that often is.

The second outstanding defect of the Pennsylvania system is that it provides for no social investigation of the child and his natural family or of the adopting family. An adoption can be consummated by a judge who has not seen any of the parties and who has no information other than that contained in the high sounding phrases of the petition. . . . The Commission has unearthed interesting cases of perjury as to the identity of the parents of a child and whether or not they are dead. The minor’s own consent it assumed. . . .

Families in which venereal and other serious transmissible diseases are present at the time of the adoption of unrelated and very young children, families who are receiving assistance from the charitable resources of the community, beggars, fortune tellers, families with prison and criminal court records have all been found among those who appear in the petitions. . . .

The Children’s Commission does not wish to convey the impression that all or even a large number of the adopted children went into homes of the kind described in the two cases cited on these pages. Instances reminiscent of the adoptions in story books stand out, however, in somewhat bold relief against a mass of adoptions in which at best the child secures a tolerably good abiding place and at worst sinks apparently to the deepest depths of misery and degradation. Adoption gives the adopters control of the services and earnings of the child during minority and a claim for non-support thereafter; it becomes a very practical matter when an aged couple of no financial resources adopt an adolescent or a young child. . . .

Persons of Respectability
A married couple whose street address is omitted in the petition to adopt, took a twenty-two months old boy three days after they filed their petition in 1921 in the Philadelphia County Court. They are described as persons of respectability by the two affiants, whose street addresses are also omitted. The petition contains no information concerning their character or their home.

The records of the social agencies, however, had a great deal of enlightening information. The family consisted of a husband then forty years old, his wife, forty-seven, and one daughter fourteen years old. Nine years previously the family had taken an illegitimate child and at about the same time had appealed to the Salvation Army for help on the ground of sickness. The Salvation Army asked one of the relief societies to go in but the family was found not to need material relief.

Not long afterward an anonymous complaint was made to the Society to Protect Children from Cruelty that the foster child was not receiving proper food.

In April of 1917 the man, who at one time had worked as a street car conductor, was arrested on the charge of disorderly conduct and indecent exposure. He was committed for thirty days to the House of Correction.

In August 1919 the Society to Protect Children from Cruelty again received a complaint which alleged abuse by the father of the twelve year old daughter. During the early morning hours, neighbors had heard the girl begging the father not to touch her and not to turn down the light. Stories were rife in the neighborhood of indecent practices of the man toward his daughter.

The visitor for the Society to Protect Children form Cruelty found that the woman kept a very dirty and untidy house. She was known as a drinking woman who told fortunes. Husband and wife were known to quarrel and fight continuously. The Society filed a petition alleging neglect and improper guardianship and recommended that the children be removed and placed in foster homes with a court order on the father for their support.

The court left the children with the woman and put a support order on the father, who also was ordered to behave himself toward the children. The case was put on probation with the court and the Society to Protect Children from Cruelty withdrew.

In January 1921 the boy taken in 1912 died suddenly of broncho-pneumonia. His death certificate is signed by the coroner.

In October 1921 the family took the boy, whose adoption is described above.

At Christmas 1923, this family appealed to a relief society for a basket of food and for clothing for this little boy. When in January 1924, they were asked to send the little boy to the Sunday School maintained by the relief society, they again dropped out of sight.


Source: Neva R. Deardorff, “'The Welfare of the Said Child...'”Survey Midmonthly 53 (January 15, 1925):457-458.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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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) 346-3699
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