Joan F. Shireman and Penny R. Johnson, “Single Persons as Adoptive Parents,” 1976



From the outset, single parent adoptions were seen as beneficial chiefly for children who might otherwise have great difficulty finding permanent homes because of special needs related to race, age, and disability. Would-be single parents knew this, and expressed flexibility about the kinds of children they were willing to adopt. It is therefore surprising that this outcome study by two Illinois agencies shows that “low risk” infants were deliberately placed and efforts were made to match children with the stated preferences of single adopters. The authors suggest that this illustrated doubts about the ability of single parents as well as the desire to make these pioneering adoptions successful by making them as “safe” as possible.

In an attempt to find permanent homes for as many children as possible, adoptive agencies have considered a variety of alternatives to the traditional placement of a child with a mother and father of his own race. The newest of these is placement of children with single parents, begun as recently as 1965 by the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions. Placement with single persons has in general met with community acceptance; it seems that everyone knows of some child raised by a single person. Adoption workers have wondered, however, about whether a home with this “different” composition really offered a child a sufficient chance for normal growth and development.

Over the years the characteristics of the “hard-to-place” child have changed. As recently as five years ago there were few applicants for black infants; currently it is the older children and handicapped children for whom it is difficult to find homes. Thus at present the central question about the usefulness of single-parent homes is whether such homes can provide the environment needed by an older and/or handicapped child. Perhaps the answer to this can be determined, at least in part, by looking at the characteristics of these parents and the children they have already adopted.

The Research Design

This report is a description of the experience of single parents who adopted black infants from Chicago Child Care Society (CCCS) and Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society (ICH&A) (private, multiservice child welfare agencies) between June 1970 and June 1972. . . . At approximately four-year intervals, research interviewers assess the overall development of the child and the problems and rewards for the family which appear to stem from the adoption. . . .

This paper. . .contains descriptive information about the thirty-one single parents in our sample, the children placed with them, and some information about the initial adjustment of these families. Eighteen of them now have children four or five years old and have again been interviewed. Thus there is information about the development of these eighteen children and about the stresses these families have faced. . . .

It is evident that our knowledge of the growth and development of children in single-parent homes is sketchy, and we have no knowledge of what happens in such adoptive homes. . . .

Characteristics of the Single Applicants Who Adopted Children

General.—Our sample of single parents contains twenty-eight women and three men. Three women are white, all the others black. These are all of the single persons with whom children were placed for adoption by CCCS and ICH&A between June 1970 and June 1972. The thirty-one applicants in our sample ranged in age from twenty-nine to fifty years, with a median age of thirty-four. Many of the single applicants had been married; fifteen were divorced, and three were widowed. None of the three men had ever married.

This was a varied group in terms of education, occupation, and income. Three of the applicants had not graduated from high school, while seven women had college degrees and an additional four had graduate degrees. About half of the applicants were engaged in professional occupations, including eight teachers, four nurses, two ministers, and one mental health worker. Another six were in clerical or sales work. Two additional persons were factory workers. Most of the remaining were in service-related occupations, for example, two beauticians, a nurses’ aide, and a welfare attendant. Incomes were low from a high proportion of single applicants. Thirteen earned less than $8,000 annually, and the median income was only $9,000. . . .

Capacity to handle life experiences

Ratings were made of self-image, expectations of self, health, energy level, and use of defenses. These judgments, although difficult to make, focused on traits considered to be of major importance. On the whole, these applicants appeared to possess a positive self-image and to have high expectations of themselves. All but two showed constructive use of defenses, seemingly able to adapt to the problems and stresses of life in a way that indicated successful coping. But notable was the incomplete emancipation of many of these applicants from their parents. . . .

Capacity to be a parent

In a final set of assessments, most applicants were judged to possess a high capacity for nurturing a child, an important ingredient in providing a home. Most were also judged to manifest a high degree of sensitivity to the needs of children. They were considered empathetic persons with apparent ability to observe situations as the child sees them and interested in learning about children and their needs.

As a group, then, these applicants seemed well educated, stably employed, planful, and competent. They were characterized as having a strong desire for children and family life and were judged to be well endowed with those characteristics thought important for successful parenting. Problems mentioned frequently concerned the applicants’ limited interest in friendships, particularly with adults of the opposite sex, the strong dependence of several upon their families, and their seeming inability to emancipate themselves form their parents. The most evident risk seemed to be the low income combined with family reliance on the employment of a single person. This danger may have been offset by the closeness and interdependence of these extended families. . . .

Characteristics of Children Placed

The children placed in these adoptive homes may be considered a relatively low risk group. Most were very young and healthy, with good family histories and good care in one foster home prior to adoption.

Single parents usually received a child of their own sex. Boys were placed with all three men. Two of the five women with whom a boy was placed had previously adopted a girl. About 30 percent received infants under two months of age, and 40 percent received infants form four to eight months of age. Despite the apparent flexibility in stated preferences, the characteristics of the children placed tended to match closely the characteristics initially requested (or described as preferred) by the applicants. That is, the applicant who requested a girl under three months with no health problems was very likely to get a child identical or nearly identical to this request. Only two single parents received a child quite different from their preference. One requested a girl of toddler age and received an eight-month-old boy with a minor medical problem. The other requested a toddler boy, and the child placed was a three-month-old girl. This extremely high degree of congruence between type of child preferred and child placed may indicate uncertainty about the capacity of single-parent homes; a young, healthy child exactly like that preferred by the applicant may have seemed, as it doubtless was, the “safest” placement for a new type of adoption. . . .

Early Adjustment of the Children

At the time of this report, eighteen single parent families had been revisited when the children were about four years old. . . .

The families.—There had been changes and crises between placement and follow-up for many of these families. Only three families have remained completely stable. In three other families another child was adopted when the study child was three years old—in two of these an infant, in one a six-year-old girl. One mother (still unmarried) had a son born to her when her adopted child was three. . . .Three families reported moves, and two job changes; these seem to have caused little disruption.

Eight of the eighteen families have experienced serious illness during the four years. . . .

All of the parents were employed at follow-up with the exception of one who was temporarily laid off. . . .

Ten children have not been told of their adoption. One parent plans to conceal it; the others say the child is not interested now, and they will tell him “later.” Five children have received minimal information, and their parents report that the children “are not interested.” Only three children know they had another mother, that there was an agency or foster home involved, and that they were “chosen.” There is no association between originally stated plans and what has occurred. Clearly, telling of adoption is more difficult for these single parents than they or the agency anticipated.

After three to four years of adoptive parenting, three types of families can be identified. Most numerous are the real “single-parent” families—twelve families where the adopting mother maintains a separate residence and assumes responsibility for the child’s care. In three families the adopting mother and her mother live in the same household and together are the child’s parents. In the other three families a whole family group resides together, and the child seems to have multiple parents. . . .

The children.—At this follow-up, we have seen only two children whose behavior raises questions about their emotional adjustment. . . .

It should be noted that the investment and concern of almost all these parents is reflected in the good intellectual functioning of most of these children, in their ability to form relationships and use the new experiences, and in their capacity to function independently. At the age of four, the children in these homes seem, for the most part, to be thriving.

Summary and Conclusions

While single applicants were fairly flexible in describing the type of child they wanted to care for, adoption workers were cautious in evaluating these homes and generally placed young, problem-free children. The question whether more demanding children could have been successfully placed in these homes is unanswered. . . .


Source: Joan F. Shireman and Penny R. Johnson, “Single Persons as Adoptive Parents,” Social Service Review 50 (March 1976):103-104, 105, 106, 107-109, 111, 112-113, 114, 115.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

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
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman