Joseph L. Zarefsky, “Children Acquire New Parents,” 1946

Source: U.S. Children's Bureau, photo by Philip Bonn

This picture of Nell getting acquainted with a family who wished to adopt her accompanied Zarefsky's 1946 survey of the growth in adoptions in the United States. He emphasized that agency practices and minimum standards were necessary protections for all parties to adoption. The original caption under the photo noted that “after a trial period has shown that she fits into the family circle, legal adoption will be requested.”

Joseph Zarefsky was Chief of the Statistics Section in the U.S. Children’s Bureau when that agency began collecting national statistics on adoption. This early survey was subtitled “Recent increases in adoptions emphasize need for adequate adoption procedures,” illustrating how adoption reformers used improved statistical knowledge about the growing numbers of adoptions to advance their goals. Zarefsky pointed out how little reliable or detailed quantitative data policy-makers and professionals actually had about adoption patterns even as he summarized what was known at the time. He noted dramatic increases in relative adoptions, but independent adoptions by nonrelatives were, characteristically, the focus of his concern. The premise of adoption reform was that too few adoptions were being safeguarded by professional oversight or the enforcement of minimum standards.

For an intelligent campaign to establish and maintain adequate adoption procedures in all the States one of the basic needs is information showing the problems involved in the current procedures. However, even the number of children adopted each year in the United States is not known because most States have no provision for the central collection of such statistics. In about half the States the department of welfare can obtain statistics on adoption proceedings because it (or its authorized agencies) has the legal responsibility to investigate petitions for adoption or because it has established working relationships with the courts empowered to act on such petitions. Late in 1945 the Children’s Bureau obtained from 22 of these States (including three-eighths of the estimated 1943 population under 21 years of age in the United States) information on the number of children for whom adoption petitions had been filed in 1944 and on selected identifying data relating to the children and their placements.

Volume of adoption petitions

These 22 States, representing all sections of the country, reported a total of more than 16,000 children for whom adoption petitions had been filed. On the basis of these data it is estimated that such petitions were filed for approximately 50,000 children throughout the country in 1944. In proportion to the population under 21 years of age in the State, the number of children for whom petitions were filed in Oregon was more than nine times that in North Carolina, the States reporting the highest and lowest rates, respectively. The Southeastern States, with the exception of Florida, reported the lowest number of children for whom petitions had been filed in relation to their child populations. . . .

One of the most significant developments in the field of child welfare has been the great increase in adoptions during recent years. . . .

The increase in adoptions by stepparents underlies the great increase in adoptions, although adoptions by other relatives and by persons not related to the child also have increased markedly during recent years. In the six States for which comparable data are available the proportion of children being adopted by stepparents increased from 17 percent in 1934 to 41 percent in 1944. The great increase in stepparent adoptions undoubtedly represents in part war-stimulated legalization of family relationships that in many instances had existed in fact for years. The disruption of home life occasioned by service in the armed forces probably has been an incentive to the formalizing of existing family ties. It would be of interest to know how many of the situations in which stepparents or other relatives are petitioning to adopt children can be traced to war deaths and the break-up of homes due to war conditions, but data of this nature are not now available. . . .

The adoption of children by stepparents is almost always undertaken without the aid of an agency, and frequently petitions filed by stepparents are not subjected to the same study as those filed by persons not related to the child. Available data indicate the children being adopted by stepparents and other relatives are generally older than other children being adopted, and are more frequently children who were born in wedlock. Finally, courts almost routinely grant adoption decrees requested by stepparents. . . .

Many independent adoptions are by nonrelated persons

Slightly more than a quarter of the children for whom petitions were filed in 1944 had been placed in the adoptive home by a placement agency; another quarter had been placed without the aid of an agency by parents, friends, relatives, physicians, lawyers, or others; the remainder were being adopted without the aid of an agency by relatives or by persons with whom the child had been living. If only children being adopted by nonrelated persons are considered, the importance of independent placements is indicated by the fact that more than half of these children had been placed without the aid of a recognized child-welfare agency.

Placement of a child for adoption by a competent child-welfare agency is one assurance that adequate safeguards are being observed for the child, for his natural parents, and for his adoptive parents. Agencies provide this protection by studying the child, investigating the status of the natural parents and of the prospective adoptive home, and supervising the placement during a waiting period. This basic and elementary assurance was lacking in more than half the children (and their parents) for whom adoption proceedings were instituted by nonrelated persons in 1944 in these 15 States. Observance of other desirable adoption procedures cannot completely compensate for this shortcoming. . . .

Most of the children are very young

Another indication of the need for adequate safeguards in adoption placements and procedures is the fact that most of the children are very young, as shown by the following age distribution of the children (8,764) for whom this information was available in the 15 States previously mentioned:

Age at filing of petition




Under 6 years


Under 6 months


6 months, under 2 years


2 years, under 6 years


6 years, under 14 years


14 years, under 21 years


Children born in wedlock

Adoption is popularly identified with illegitimacy. However, 42 percent of the children for whom petitions were filed in the 15 States in 1944 were born in wedlock; in 4 States they outnumbered the children who were born out of wedlock. More than half (55 percent) of the children born in wedlock came from homes that had been broken by divorce, desertion, or separation; 32 percent had lost one or both of their parents by death. Undoubtedly a large number of these children were being adopted by a stepparent. . . .

Children born out of wedlock

Children being adopted need to be safeguarded by adequate procedures whether born in or out of wedlock. But in the case of children born out of wedlock the need for services is most compelling. More than two-thirds of the children placed independently of an agency in the 15 States (exclusive of those being adopted by relatives independently of an agency) were born out of wedlock. . . .

It is evident that we have a long road to travel before all parties to the adoption of a child are assured of all the safeguards that should accompany the legal establishment of a new family relationship. . . .


Source: Joseph L. Zarefsky, “Children Acquire New Parents: Recent increases in adoptions emphasize need for adequate adoption procedures,” Child 10 (March 1946):142-144.

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) 346-3118
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman