Katharine F. Lenroot, “Case Work with Unmarried Parents and Their Children,” 1925

This excerpt illustrates the commitment that many child advocates and policy-makers shared to keeping unmarried birth mothers and their babies together in the early decades of the twentieth century, even as it suggests the shame associated with illegitimacy. It also illustrates the combination of science, sympathy, and legal regulation that defined “social case work,” the approach embraced by the new profession of social work.

Of all problems in domestic relations with which the social worker deals, that of the family unsanctioned by Church or State, unrecognized by the community, is probably the most difficult. Although we speak usually of the “unmarried mother” and the “illegitimate child,” nevertheless the situation involves all the elements of a family group—mother, father, and child. Each of these has certain rights, the parents have certain obligations, and the relationship of the members of the group to the community must also be given consideration.

“Every child has the right to be born with honor, and his birth should not be an obstacle to the fullest and highest development of his life and his social activities,” is the opening clause of the “Code of the Rights of Children,” adopted in November, 1924, by the First International Congress of Social Economy, in session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in January, 1925, by the Third Pan-American Scientific Congress, in session in Lima, Peru. Thus “nobody’s child” of the English common law and the child who under the Code Napoleon was denied knowledge of his paternity, is, by the unanimous declaration of two international gatherings, declared entitled to the fullest opportunities, regardless of the circumstances of his birth. Humiliation and ostracism, those ancient weapons used by society in defense of the sanctity of the home and the family, are not to be employed against the innocent child.

The students of social relationships will take exception to such a proposition, but how is the ideal to be put into practice? How is the child to be safeguarded from social censure, from the deprivation of paternal love, care and support, and be given those things which are essential to a normal, happy childhood? The answers to these questions can be developed only by the slow, painstaking processes involved in what we call “social case work,” and by the gradual education of the public to a more just attitude toward the problem of illegitimacy.

The girl who becomes a mother out of wedlock is in a pathetically large proportion of cases a child herself. In various studies it has been found that from one-ninth to nearly one-fourth of such mothers are under 18 years of age. Her delinquency, made extremely difficult to conceal because of her maternity, is of the kind punished most drastically by society, and the girl fears not only suffering for herself but shame and humiliation for her loved ones. She is town between the maternal instinct to love and care for her child, and the instinct of self-preservation which prompts her to conceal her trouble from the community and perhaps even from her own parents. She is usually in need of physical care, of financial assistance, of social adjustment, of vocational guidance, and of help in stabilizing her emotional life and strengthening her spiritual resources. If the girl is of subnormal mentality, she is doubly in need of protection and guidance.

Steady progress is being made in the development of methods of dealing with the unmarried mother and her child, but the problem of the unmarried father has been given comparatively little attention. The father’s responsibility toward his child is primarily financial, as the mother’s is primarily for physical care. . . .

A baby’s first need is for his mother and his chances for life depend to a large extent on the meeting of this need. Infants born out of wedlock have been found by the U.S. Children’s Bureau to be subject to a mortality rate almost three times as high as that for infants of legitimate birth. For example, in Baltimore in 1915 it was found that almost one-third of the babies born out of wedlock died before the age of one year. The early separation of mother and child, with the consequent feeding difficulties is perhaps the most important factor in this high mortality. A study of illegitimacy made in Milwaukee covering the year ending September 30, 1917, showed that more than half the children included in the study had been separated from their mothers and that in 45 per cent of these cases the separation had taken place within a month after birth. Studies made in Baltimore following the report of the Maryland State-wide Vice Commission in 1914 revealed the seriousness of the problem of early separation form their mothers of infants born out of wedlock and the high mortality prevailing among babies cared for in institutions apart from their mothers.

Maryland public sentiment was aroused and in 1916 a statute was enacted providing that no child under 6 months may be separated from its mother for placement in a foster home or institution. . . .

The Milwaukee program for keeping mothers and babies together during a three-months nursing period was put into effect in 1919. In the two-year period, 1916 and 1917, the mortality rate in Milwaukee for infants born out of wedlock was 256.8, or 2.5 times the rate for children of legitimate birth. The executive secretary of the Juvenile Protective Association, in describing the results of Milwaukee’s program for unmarried mothers and babies after the program had been two years in operation, comments as follows: “The results of these measures have been gratifying and far-reaching. The child-placing organizations, and the doctors and other individuals who formerly brought many babies a few days old into the city to be placed for adoption, are now required to have permits to board them until they are placed with adoptive parents. Commercial lying-in hospitals and maternity homes, which formerly permitted mothers to leave when their babies were only 10 days or 2 weeks old, without any effort at breast feeding, must now apply for a permit to keep the baby without the mother. This requirement gives an opportunity for a social investigation and for finding a way to keep the mother and baby together, in the city or elsewhere, during the three months’ nursing period.”

Under the Milwaukee plan, applications for separation or for exception from the three-months breast-feeding rule, are submitted to the Juvenile Protective Association. A study of applications for separation during the first eight months showed that 69 per cent of those who applied for immediate separation were persuaded to keep their babies and nurse them, and only 9 per cent of this group released their children at the end of three months. It has been the experience of the association that the appeal to the unmarried mother to nurse her baby at least for the minimum period of three months as a kind of reparation for having brought him into the world so handicapped is an almost unfailing argument. It has been found also that at the end of this period not only has there been opportunity for a thorough social investigation but the mother has had a chance to recover from her physical and mental strain and is more capable of deciding what she wishes to do for her baby and for her own rehabilitation.

Meeting the physical needs of mother and baby and securing financial support from the father are often less difficult than readjusting the mother to life in the community and providing for the future of the child. Here the most expert skill is required for study of the mother’s needs and potential abilities and for wise decision with reference to such questions as marriage, return to the mother’s parental home, employment, placement of mother and child, adoption, and for understanding supervision. Opinions differ greatly, even among experienced social workers, with reference to the circumstances under which marriage of the parents should be encouraged, the desirability of keeping mother and child together as a permanent plan extending beyond infancy, the policy with reference to adoptions, the extent to which placement at housework with the baby can be adjusted to the needs of the unmarried mother, and many other phases of the subject.

In Philadelphia in 1921 committees of the Conference on Parenthood worked out standards of case work with illegitimate families which were tentatively adopted in June of the year. Recommendations under the heading “Social Treatment” include the following:. . . .

“7. Adoptions.—The whole question of adoptions in relation to the children of unmarried parents should receive most careful study. No mater how great the social pressure, no child should be adopted unless the social, medical, and mental findings indicate that this action will best serve the interest of the child, the parents, and the foster parents.”

Practically no facts have been compiled concerning the results over a period of years of keeping together the unmarried mother and her child and the methods by which satisfactory adjustments are being made, and we have little or no information showing the extent to which it is possible for the mother to carry the burden of the child’s care over an extended period, nor is it known how much the child suffers as he grows older from an unfavorable community attitude toward the situation. The Federal Children’s Bureau is now securing case histories from social agencies which will, it is hoped, throw some light on these questions. Successful case work with unmarried parents and their children requires scientific study of individual capacities, such as that being developed by psychiatric clinics. Community resources sufficiently flexible to permit adaptation of treatment to individual needs are essential. Above all, it is necessary that there be a sympathetic and understanding approach to such problems, and infinite patience and tact in making the delicate social adjustments which are involved.



Source: Katharine F. Lenroot, “Case Work with Unmarried Parents and Their Children,” 1925, pp. 1-4, 6-7, 9-11, U.S. Children's Bureau Papers, Information File, Box 135, F 7-4-3-0 L543C, National Archives II.

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