Rael Jean Isaac, “What the Agency Looks For,” 1965

This set of guidelines aimed to demystify what social workers were thinking and expecting as they conducted home studies. Boiling the process down to a set of simple instructions about the attitudes and behaviors most likely to succeed—from how to recall one’s childhood to what to say about one’s sex life—undermined therapeutic approaches to adoption because they made home studies appear to be performances that depended on the skill of the actors rather than investigations devoted to children’s well-being. In this excerpt, the author implicitly criticized the power that social workers wielded in agency adoption. Two years earlier, in The Atalantic Monthly, Isaac explicitly condemned the “amateur psychiatry” practiced by social workers, along with their efforts to eliminate independent adoptions and gain a family-making monopoly. “The public may well hesitate before bestowing upon the erring individuals of an agency the final godlike power to decree who shall be parents and who shall not.”

Following are a list of suggestions which should serve as a practical guide to a couple seeking to convince an agency that they have the capacity for adoptive parenthood. . . .

1. Use the pronoun “we,” not “I.” This is a deceptively simple point, but for social workers in adoption these pronouns are important diagnostic tools. The assumption is that the use of “we” by husband and wife is a favorable indicator of the quality of the marriage, since husband and wife do not speak as separate selfish selves but as a family unit.

2. A couple are fortunate if they can say that they get on well with their parents and relatives. Certainly the agency interview is not the time for a frank airing of hostilities on mother, father, even Aunt Emma. On the other hand it is foolish to pretend an unfelt enthusiasm for any of these people, for the social worker will probably detect it as unfelt. . . . The social worker expects that problems will exist; she is on the lookout to find if the couple have “handled” them maturely. . . .

Although it is important to the agency that the couple be on good terms with their parents or at least have come to a full understanding and acceptance of why they are not on good terms with them, they should not appear so close to their parents that the social worker senses they are dependent upon them. The agency is looking for a mature couple, and one of the ways in which it defines maturity is that the couple stand on their own feet, not those of their parents. . . .

3. The couple must convince the agency that they are happily married. This sounds too obvious to be worth mentioning, but the relationship between husband and wife is the area in which the social worker will probably probe most deeply. A mistaken position in the face of this probing is to claim that husband and wife are in perfect agreement and never quarrel. The social worker will probably suspect any couple who claim to get along that well are concealing some hideous disagreements. A couple who literally never quarrel (is such there be) might at least speak of some of their divergences of taste. The agency is looking for masculine men and feminine women to provide models for the child in their respective roles. If the social worker feels that either husband or wife has been sucked up in the personality of the other—which may be her explanation for complete absence of disagreement—she will be afraid that one parent will not offer a suitable model.

4. Adoptive parents are fortunate if they can recall a happy childhood. The reason for this is the social worker goes on the assumption that those who experienced a happy home life are themselves more likely to offer one to a child. While there is no need to paint an idyllic picture, especially if such a picture is inaccurate, a couple should avoid dwelling on any experiences in early childhood that might be interpreted as traumatic. . . .

5. The couple should show that they are reconciled to their infertility. Social workers find that in the typical interview the wife weeps, confesses she is jealous of women who are pregnant, finds it hard to tolerate parties where the women sit talking of their children, feels she is inadequate, and has felt she was alone among women in her reactions. The man may confess that his pride is hurt because of his inability to have children. The social worker will expect a couple to be frank about the way they felt and to express it—if they do not she will feel they are suppressing it. But the couple should then go on to say how they adjusted to the situation through talking the matter out with each other, and coming to the realization that adoption was the answer. They can say that “time helped,” that baby carriages no longer trigger tears, and that they are hoping soon to be wheeling one themselves for an adopted baby. Basically they are balancing on a tightrope. . . .

6. A couple must convince the social worker that their motives for adoption—conscious and unconscious—are healthy. . . .

8. Husband and wife, if the wife works, should both be happy in their jobs, but the wife should not be too happy. While it is important that the husband indicate fulfillment in his work, a social worker may feel that the wife who sounds too fulfilled may be reluctant to sacrifice her work for the routine of child care, and the vast majority of agencies insist, at least in adoption by white couples, that the mother give up her work. . . .

10. The couple should not reveal any desperate need of a child. Agencies are looking for couples who would live comfortably together without children, and do not look upon adoption as a means assuaging their own pain. . . .

11. Although a couple should skirt the revelation of any deep feelings about adoption, they should try to show warm feelings for children and for each other. . . .

12. A couple should not indicate too much preference for a boy or a girl nor should they come with a list of demands regarding a child. . . .

13. The couple must be prepared to take in good part intimate questions regarding their background, fertility problem, and sex life. If the husband and wife are embarrassed in answering questions about their sex life, the social worker may decide that they will be embarrassed in dealing with their child’s questions about how he came to be adopted. . . . The social worker often conducts a miniature psychoanalysis: Like the Freudian analyst, the social worker moves in a world of oral and anal personalities, sexually adjusted and maladjusted individuals. . . . Most social workers will want to know if a couple have an adequate sex life, since this is considered an index to a good marriage. Intercourse twice a week is apt to strike the social worker as an index of a good marriage—good without overdoing it. . . .

16. The couple should reveal no hesitation in regard to telling the child about his adoption. . . .

19. The couple’s feelings toward illegitimacy should not be punitive. . . .

21. A couple should indicate that they would only consider adopting through an agency and disapprove of private adoption. . . .

29. Adoptive applicants should be relaxed, honest, self-searching, and unguarded. If this sounds contradictory after twenty-eight suggestions implying that a couple must be thoroughly on their guard, it nonetheless remains good advice. . . .


Source: Rael Jean Isaac, Adopting a Child Today (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 23.

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) 346-3118
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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