Agnes K. Hanna, “The Interrelationship Between Illegitimacy and Adoption,” 1937

One of the interesting situations found in a study of adoptions, field work in which has recently been completed by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, is a wide variation in the use of adoptions in different States. . . .

Adoption rates in these States varied from 2 to 10 children per 10,000 children under ten years of age. The proportion of urban population in the State apparently affected the extent to which adoption was used. . . . It is probable that group attitudes toward the acceptance of children of other parentage into the family life and agency attitudes toward placement for adoption also affect the situation. The adoption records showed wide variation in the use of adoption by white families and by families of other races. In one Southern State in which 36 percent of the population are Negroes, only 28 Negro children were adopted as compared with 124 white children. . . .

Any study of the children for whom petitions of adoption have been filed will show that a large proportion of them were born out of wedlock. In the Children’s Bureau study, we found that about 60 percent of the children belonged in this group. Furthermore, among the children adopted by persons other than relatives nearly three-fourths were of illegitimate birth. . . .

It is evident that a close relationship exists between adoptions and birth out of wedlock. One basic need would seem to be to know more about this relationship in terms of its extent. For example: Are illegitimate births increasing? What proportion of the children born out of wedlock are adopted? Is our adoption rate a fairly stable one? We have no exact answers to these questions but some suggestive information.

Birth statistics published annually by the United States Bureau of the Census show that in the States reporting during the entire six-year period 1929-1934 there has been an increase in the registered illegitimate births each year except 1933. Whether this increase represents more accurate registration influenced by increased tolerance and willingness to accept the situation or whether it is due to actual increase in the numbers of births, it is impossible to say. Of the total 78,898 illegitimate births reported in 1934, less than half of the children (35,547) were white and all but 1,339 of the remainder were Negroes. The increase in registered colored births from 1929 to 1934 was greater than in white births. In the States reporting during this period the number of white illegitimate births showed an average annual increase of over 700. This increase in the number of children born out of wedlock does not necessarily mean that more children are available for adoption. With the development of standards of child placing throughout the country, increasing emphasis is being placed on the suitability of a child for adoption as well as on the development of other means for adequate care of children handicapped by the status of their birth.

As to the number of children born out of wedlock who are actually adopted, we have little information about them. . . . No accurate State statistics on this situation are available, but theoretically a comparison of the number of illegitimate births during a year with the number of adoptions of children of illegitimate birth during a similar period should give some indication of the extent to which adoption occurs. In attempting to make such a comparison with the figures available, we were seriously handicapped by the fact that California and Massachusetts, two of the states included in our adoption study, do not report illegitimate births. We found on using this crude comparison of births and petitions for adoption in the remaining States that apparently nearly a fifth of the white children born out of wedlock were adopted. In one State having a high adoption rate, about 200 white illegitimate births are registered each year, and in 1934 petitions for adoptions were filed for 98 children of illegitimate birth, largely by persons who were not relatives. . . .

Let us assume that only a fifth of the white children born out of wedlock are adopted. Unquestionably, a large proportion of the remaining children are being cared for by their mothers of by other close relatives who have accepted this responsibility without recourse to legal methods for giving the children the family name and rights of inheritance. Almost equally unquestionable, in the opinion of many persons, is the possibility that a large number of these children are under the care of persons who are not relatives, but who fail to give the children the legal protection of adoption. Some of these children undoubtedly are passed from family to family as the interest of the foster parents wanes or some misfortune occurs. Assistance and advice given to the mother when she needs it the most, during pregnancy or at the time of confinement, would do much toward reducing this hazardous, unplanned care. . . .

I have presented to you only the barest outline of the interrelationship of illegitimacy and adoption and have made no attempt to discuss many of the pressing and immediate problems with which many of you are working. There are probably no two other subjects around which are centered so many strong emotional reactions, which are constantly preventing a rational and sound approach to the problem. . . .


Source: Agnes K. Hanna, “The Interrelationship Between Illegitimacy and Adoption,” Child Welfare League of America Bulletin 16 (September 1937):1, 4-6.

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