Amey Eaton Watson, “The Illegitimate Family,” 1918


Leading social workers and policy-makers argued for a scientific and non-judgmental perspective on illegitimacy in the early decades of the century, but public benefits offered by states, such as mothers' pensions, were overwhelmingly denied to unmarried mothers because they were considered undeserving. This poster advertized Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), a program established by the Social Security Act of 1935. ADC also excluded the children of many unmarried mothers, as well as those of divorced and non-white women.

In the following discussion, the phrase “the illegitimate family” is used deliberately. Hitherto our attention has been very largely confined to the illegitimate child and its mother and we have ignored the fact that there is in every case a family involved, father, mother and child or children, and that they must all be considered before any adequate plan can be made with them. True as it is that in the eyes of the state no family has been formed, yet it is equally true that biologically the child has a father as well as a mother and it is being realized more and more clearly that socially too the child has a father with definite responsibilities and privileges.

This point of view goes hand in hand with the scientific attitude toward the illegitimate mother which instead of destructively condemning or scorning any woman who has brought a child into the world without the legal sanction of her group, rather seeks to understand the underlying causes of heredity and environment which have brought her (and likewise the father of her child) to the illegal conduct in question. Illegitimacy is the result of biological, psychological and social causes following definite scientific laws and there is a responsibility of the community as well as of the individual for its occurrence. . . .

While this point of view has taken a firm hold of our thinking, it is only just being applied to our case work with the illegitimate family, which is still decidedly in the experimental stage. Case work with the illegitimate family is seeking to work out principles whereby the interests of the illegitimate child and those of both its father and mother may be harmonized with the best interests of society. This end will be secured when the responsibility for the illegitimate child is more evenly shared by the father and mother as well as by the state. . . .

Further and better standards of case work in this field must be established by studying experimentally the question of removing the evil effects of the stigma of illegitimacy. Only injustice is done in allowing this to attach to an innocent child and we must get evidence to show us when the welfare of society is furthered by having a stigma placed on one or both parents. Above all, in line with the findings of modern criminology, emphasis must be placed upon the reeducation of the individuals involved, not upon either punishment or stigma. . . .

Removing the Child’s Handicap

After all it is the child that is our real interest and it is his or her welfare that we are most vitally interested in securing. We have emphasized above that the illegitimate family is a unit and as social workers we consider all the members together. This does not vitiate the fact that the welfare of the child is supreme and that we work for the welfare of the father and mother largely in order that we may do our utmost for the child. This plastic little creature, full of possibilities, must have its future safeguarded; we must seek to give him or her the best possible nurture and support, as nearly as possible as if he had been born in wedlock. It is our privilege and our problem to see how we can conquer social conditions so that he will be handicapped as little as is humanly possible. How shall we accomplish this result?

We must take into account the character and potentialities of both parents, arousing them if possible to make a plan of their own. We must meet them on their own level, working with them in order that they must understand their own problems and develop their own resources and character to meet their situation. It has been pointed out that we must remember that the father as well as the mother may be in vital need of our help, that he too may be passing through a moral and spiritual crisis needing friendship and guidance. Above all we should not make a plan for our clients and seek to force it upon them regardless of their cooperation. Such work is pedagogically unsound in that it fails to arouse the individuals to self-help and independence.

Having eliminated the idea of punishment, we shall try to arouse in both parents a love for and a responsibility for the child. . . .

Individualization of Treatment

So far in our discussion of treatment, we have failed to stress a principle of case work which is as vital in work with the illegitimate family as it is with the legitimate. This principle is individualization of treatment. The day is past when all illegitimate mothers were sent to a rescue home as they were considered to need moral reformation to atone for the sin they had committed. . . .

We therefore question the classification Mr. Carstens made in his discussion at the National Conference at Pittsburgh when he divided illegitimate mothers into three classes, the good, the vicious, and the defective. It is true of course that those illegitimate mothers who are diagnosed as feeble-minded by a psychologist do constitute a group by themselves. This, however, is the only group that can be scientifically measured off, and even within this group we must to a certain extent apply the principle of individualization of treatment. In the main the dangers of classification more than offset the advantages. . . .

It seems vital in the majority of cases to keep the mother and child together at least for the first six months of the child’s life, when the mother should be helped to nurse the baby. . . . Should we not rather bring her to see it as a joy and a privilege in order to safeguard her baby’s life? The problem of supplying work for her at this time is a difficult one. In some cases it is possible for the mother to act as wet-nurse to other children and thus to support herself and her child. Some maternity hospitals are keeping the mother in the hospital long enough to train her in some form of employment and to assist her in securing the same, allowing her to live in the hospital and to keep her child there while she begins her work. . . .

A Normal Life for the Mother

Above all, we should aim in treatment to reinstate the mother in normal life, that is, to place her in such a way that in addition to interesting, remunerative work, she will have normal social contacts, companionship with others of her own age, if possible of both sexes under supervision. . . .

If the above conditions can be fulfilled and the mother and child can be kept together, there must be a gain for both. The relation of parent and child when it really exists is basic and is one which should never be broken until every effort has been made to strengthen it and test out its reality. The child needs the family life and ties and the mother needs the child. Yet, as in the case of marriage, we should not force the external living together if it is only the shell of the relationship which is existing. Keep mother and child together, then, if the mother is fitted to give physical, mental, moral and at least part of the financial care to her child and to be happy in doing it. Under such conditions it would seem as if no other plan could so securely safeguard the child’s future. If, however, the mother is not fitted to give such care to the child, and cannot be trained for it while the child is with her, it seems unwise to keep mother and child together. Perhaps a temporary separation may be the solution, in order that the mother be trained for more adequate parenthood in the future. If she is incapable of being trained under any circumstances, it seems clear that a plan should be made for the child away from its mother, with her relatives if possible, with the father or the father’s relatives or in some other situation where it will have as nearly as possible normal home life. In the case of a defective mother the baby should be separated form her just as soon after birth as the physician deems wise.

In cases where there is no relative who can adequately care for the child, we are faced with the question of adoption. In this volume of The Annals J. Prentice Murphy has outlined certain questions which must be answered before the legal adoption of any child is arranged for. We must stress the fact that this should never be encouraged until we know all the facts about the child’s own parents and relatives and are reasonably sure that they can never offer it a suitable home. . . .

No child that is of diseased and no child of feeble-minded parents should be placed in any home for adoption until the foster parents know the full facts of the case and are ready to take every precaution to see that the disease is not passed on to others and that later in life the defective germ-plasm is not mated with normal stock, thereby passing on the defect and causing much preventable misery. . . .


Source: Amey Eaton Watson, “The Illegitimate Family,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 77 (May 1918):103, 104, 107-108, 109, 110-111, 112-113.

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