David Fanshel, Far From the Reservation, 1972

This longitudinal study was one of the first to systematically explore the outcomes of transracial adoptions. Beginning in 1960, Fanshel followed 97 families that had adopted children through the Indian Adoption Project, more than one-quarter of all the children placed between 1958 and 1967. Researchers interviewed parents in fifteen different states at approximately one-year intervals, but made no effort to interview or assess children directly. Most of the children had been two years old or younger at the time of adoption and were not yet teenagers when the study ended. No control group of same-race adoptees or non-adopted children was used for comparison. The study provided detailed tables and statistical correlations, as all outcome studies did, and used the instrument that Helen Witmer and her colleagues had devised to measure the quality of adoptive homes in their study of independent adoptions in Florida. Far from the Reservation also offered a wealth of narrative detail that illuminated what these adoptions meant to the parents involved.

Far From the Reservation was published at a moment of racial polarization and vehement criticism of transracial adoptions. Its main author was David Fanshel, who was one of the most prominent child welfare researchers in the postwar decades. Although Fanshel was white, he had been one of the first to tackle the question of discrimination in adoption services in his 1957 report, A Study in Negro Adoption. Fifteen years later, Fanshel still believed deeply in the promise of empirical research to improve transracial adoptions, but the changed historical context in which he worked shaped his interpretation of research findings.

Fanshel found that factors often identified as strongly correlated with outcomes were not as noticeable in these adoptions. Age at placement, for example, had been considered crucial ever since Sophie van Senden Theis’ 1924 study, How Foster Children Turn Out, showed that children placed earlier turned out much better. In Native American adoptions, the influence of age appeared weak, outweighed by other variables, the health status of the birth mother in particular. In addition, many professionals and researchers assumed that white couples committed to racial equality were the most likely to adopt non-white children and succeed as parents. Far From the Reservation suggested that this was not the case. Parents’ social attitudes—about civil rights, politics, and religion—did not matter except negatively. Families that were more socially concerned and active had more problems with their adopted children. Why would this be the case? Fanshel had no idea.

The study’s summary measure of outcomes, The Child Progress Scale, showed that 78 percent of all the adoptees were adequately or excellently adjusted. Only one in ten children had problems that raised serious doubts about their future well-being. This was very good news. It indicated that transracial adoptions could be arranged on a solid foundation of objective knowledge that they would to turn out well rather than a subjective hope that they might. The study reassured its audience that transracial placements posed little risk to the physical or emotional well-being of individual children and Fanshel agreed that these adoptions had “saved many of these children from lives of utter ruination.”

Yet he did not equate evidence of good outcomes with endorsement of transracial adoptions. It was a mistake to consider the lives of Native American children one at a time, apart from the future of their tribes, Fanshel wrote. “It seems clear that the fate of most Indian children is tied to the struggle of Indian people in the United States for survival and social justice. Their ultimate salvation rests upon the success of that struggle. . . . It is my belief that only the Indian people have the right to determine whether their children can be placed in white homes. . . . Even with the benign outcomes reported here, it may be that Indian leaders would rather see their children share the fate of their fellow Indians than lose them in the white world. It is for the Indian people to decide.”

Studies that documented very good outcomes empirically were still not answers some of the most basic questions. Were transracial adoptions wise? Were they right? Who had the right to decide?


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