Sophie van Senden Theis and Constance Goodrich, The Child in the Foster Home, 1921

Source: Public Health Nursing Association, available through National Library of Medicine,

For adoption reformers, careful investigations—including mental tests, physical measurements, and complete personal and health histories—were essential to reducing the many risks of child placement and establishing minimum standards in adoption.

Pre-placement inquiry

Purpose of Inquiry.—There are several reasons why the investigation of the child’s history must be thorough. We need complete knowledge of the child’s circumstances and personality to place him successfully. Moreover, we need it to inform foster parents, who more and more frequently are demanding full and detailed histories for the children whom they think of adopting. For the child himself, when he is grown, we must have the facts about his own family. If he knows that he is an adopted child, as most adopted children do nowadays, he will have a natural curiosity, which he has a right to satisfy, about his parentage. Last of all, but of increasing importance, is the interest of science, both social and psychological, in these records, so rich in human significance and in facts which need only to be assembled to have genuine scientific value. Scientific research may seem a remote affair to the harassed case worker, but her records may some day contribute invaluable material to the scientific student, and it is to research that we owe many of the methods which we daily use—the intelligence test, the Wassermann test, and the complete physical examination. . . .

Legal status.—How did the agency secure the custody of the child? By poor law commitment, by court commitment, by abandonment by the parents?

Family History.—This involves gathering every scrap of significant information about his family, including his grandparents, aunts and uncles; their health, intelligence, schooling, occupations, habits, character, religion. Where and how have they lived? Why did they move? What did the neighbors think of them? Were they “queer”? What was their reputation in the community? What did they look like? Could they hold jobs? What kind? Did they keep a clean house? Were they quarrelsome? How did they treat the children? Have they records in a police office or in a social service office?

Personal History.—How old was the child when conditions in his home became bad? How old when he was removed? Where has he lived since—in boarding homes or institutions or in visiting homes? How long in each? How long has he been in school? His grade? His school record? His personal appearance, coloring, etc.?

Health.—Was he breast fed? When did he begin to walk and talk? What illnesses has he had? What kind of feeding, cleanliness, hygiene has he had? A thorough examination of his present condition will usually include a Wasserman test, and in the case of girls smears are made, whenever possible, for determination of possible venereal infection.

Intelligence.—The child’s intelligence is usually tested by a psychologist, using one of the standard tests. Children whose parents or relatives show a marked degree of mental inferiority should always be tested, and also children who show serious retardation. The results of the test, taken with the observation of people who see the child constantly, give some indication of the child’s mental capacity and help to determine whether he should be placed with a family who will be ambitious for his progress in an educational way, or with a family whose work and interests are of a simpler sort.

Personality.—Information about the child’s personality is as important as any of the more tangible facts which we need. It is possible to have on record a full statement of the child’s background, his physique, and the circumstances of his removal from his own home, and yet to know nothing of the child himself. When it comes to the test, that of setting a frightened, neglected child in the midst of strangers, such knowledge may prove futile. What we really need to know is what the child feels about his own father and mother, about his separation from them, what memories he has brought with him, and what he hopes and fears from a new home. If a little girl has been brutally treated by her drunken father, will she be terrified by her new father? Often such memories lie buried in the child’s mind, unknown to the foster parent or to the visitor, causing him worry and fear and making it nearly impossible to trust the strangers with whom he is living. Such a child can be hardly anything but unresponsive, disobedient, or dishonest.

In addition to knowing the child’s feeling about his situation we need to know his tastes, the things that he enjoys doing, his temper, his demonstrativeness, his honesty, his ability to get on with other children. If he is a robust, boisterous child, strong willed and aggressive, he will never get on with the Browns, who want a sensitive, responsive child, but he may just suit the Greens, who don’t on any account want a “sissy.” It is vital to know these things in advance so that one may choose the right home for him.


Source:Sophie van Senden Theis and Constance Goodrich, The Child in the Foster Home, Part I, The Placement and Supervision of Children in Free Foster Homes, A Study Based on the Work of the Child-Placing Agency of the New York State Charities Aid Association (New York: School of Social Work, 1921), 13-16.

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) 346-3699
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