Bertha and Harry Holt

Source: International Social Service, American Branch Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota

The Holts and their fourteen children in the 1950s



Source: Courtesy of Holt International

Bertha Holt with Vice-President Hubert Humphrey at the American Mother of the Year presentation, 1966

In 1955, a special act of Congress allowed Bertha and Harry Holt, an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, to adopt eight Korean War orphans. The Holts had a large family before the adoptions, but they were so moved by their experience that they became pioneers of international adoptions and arranged hundreds for other American couples. They relied on proxy adoptions and overlooked the minimum standards and investigatory practices endorsed by social workers. They honored adopters' specifications for age and sex, gave priority to couples with one or no children, and asked only that applicants be “saved persons” who could pay the cost of children’s airfare from Korea. They paid close attention to race-matching for children whose fathers were African-American, but otherwise ignored it entirely. They were happy to accept couples who had been rejected, for a variety of reasons, by conventional adoption agencies.

The Holts believed they were doing God’s work, but they became lightning rods for controversy about how adoptive families should be made. In the press, the Holts were portrayed as heroic, selfless figures. In Congress, Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger called them incarnations of “the Biblical Good Samaritan.” In Christian communities around the country, their work was held up as a model to be emulated. But many professionals and policy-makers in the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the Child Welfare League of America, and the International Social Service devoted themselves (unsuccessfully) to putting the Holts out of business. They considered the Holts dangerous amateurs, throwbacks to the bad old days of charity and sentiment. Their placements threatened child welfare by substituting religious zeal and haphazard methods for professional skill and supervision.

For the Holts, family-making required faith and altruism, not social work or regulation, and they found nothing wrong with the idea of Americans adopting foreign children, sight unseen. American childhood, they assumed, was unquestionably superior to childhood in developing nations. The Holts' form letter seeking adoptive parents included the following request. “We would ask all of you who are Christians to pray to God that He will give us the wisdom and the strength and the power to deliver his little children from the cold and misery and darkness of Korea into the warmth and love of your homes.” For the Holts and many of their supporters, Korea was a backward country whose children deserved to be rescued.

Many Americans cheered the Holts and found their promises of speedy and uncomplicated adoptions a refreshing alternative to inspection by choosy agencies with waiting lists that could last for years. Pearl S. Buck admired the Holts, even though she disliked their Christian fundamentalism, and shared their suspicion that the professionals who were supposed to be helping children were actually doing them more harm than good. By identifying themselves with suffering children that most people ignored, the Holts reinforced the messages that emerged from popular books like The Family Nobody Wanted. Adoption was an act of faith. Love was enough to make the families that children needed.

By the early 1960s, the Holts responded to pressure from the child welfare establishment. Their operation began to follow standard professional procedures, hired social worker John Adams as its Executive Director in 1962, and gradually evolved into a typical adoption agency. In a little more than a decade, the Holts repeated a pattern central to the history of modern adoption: the movement from humanitarian to professionalism and from religion to science.

The Holt agency continues to make international placements today. It is located in Eugene, Oregon.


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