Albert H. Stoneman, “Adoption of Illegitimate Children: The Peril of Ignorance,” 1926

In this excerpt, the General Secretary of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society expressed views that predominated among early twentieth-century child welfare professionals and reformers. Adoption was extremely risky and should therefore be safeguarded and held to a set of minimum standards in law and social practice. The assertion that illegitimacy and feeble-mindedness—or mental defect—were closely related was also a common theme among eugenicists. In contrast to commercial baby farmers, sentimental child-placers, and other amateurs who “disposed” of babies on the basis of personal whim or religious bias, Stoneman suggested that science offered the only safe approach to adoption. He envisioned family-making as an operation characterized by thorough fact-gathering, keen observation, close supervision, and careful attention to the individual factors at play in each and every case.

By far the greatest problems and dangers connected with adoptions center around illegitimacy. The large proportion of adopted children always has been and still is of illegitimate birth. Ignorance of essential facts is the great peril in most adoptions of illegitimate children. The children are born in mystery and disposed of permanently while still too young to show signs of future capacity. . . .

The placers of these babies are optimists, do you say? But their optimism is based on wishes rather than facts, and therefore is counterfeit. . . . Heretofore too much of the policy for dealing with such social cases has been based on sentiment, prejudice, and convention. Too often the plan for the child grows out of the personal opinion of the social or religious worker as to what ought to be done with “such” children. There is usually a favorite and customary method of solving this type of human problem, peculiar to the particular person or institution.

Social workers must adopt a saner policy. Call it a more scientific method. It means greater reliance on the facts and knowledge of circumstances in each particular case as the only dependable basis for making a plan for the child.

It means learning the truth about the mother and the father and their families; the physical and mental calibre of each; the attitude of each toward the child and its future; the material and personal resources available for the child’s care; and all the information possible in regard to the personal condition and capacities of the child. . . . No two cases are quite alike. How unwise and unethical then it is for social workers to allow themselves to be predetermined in their policies. How dare one decide on a plan to dispose of a child when the case is still undeveloped and the truth of the situation yet undiscovered?

With our present knowledge of biology and heredity we seem justified in general not to offer for adoption the child of feebleminded parentage. . . .

The one thing we must do is to ban ignorance as disgraceful; and to exalt accuracy and integrity.


Source: Albert H. Stoneman, “Adoption of Illegitimate Children: The Peril of Ignorance,” Child Welfare League of America Bulletin 5 (February 15, 1926):8.

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