Ruth W. Lawton and J. Prentice Murphy, “A Study of Results of a Child-Placing Society,” 1915

Even before outcome studies became an established research genre with the publication of How Foster Children Turn Out, some agencies involved in placing-out tried to follow up on their own cases. What had become of the children formerly in their care? Finding out served two important and related purposes. It would improve the practices that shaped child and family life by establishing the need for minimum standards and it would define social work as a job worthy of being designated a profession.

In this early study, the Boston Children’s Aid Society tracked its own work. Dismayed by the haphazard techniques used to place children and appalled by family-making failures, the agency added a researcher, Ruth Lawton, to its staff in 1913 in hopes that empirical inquiry “might be able to establish certain standards by which we could measure our own work.” She found the agency’s own records distressingly thin, containing too few details to be of value. “Many of the children were taken on meagre information, often engaging us in the task of fitting round pegs into square holes, and in some cases exposing communities to great dangers from the acts of exceedingly difficult children.” The first step toward minimum standards was invariably to standardize record-keeping. The point was to obtain more information and keep it more meticulously.

The agency itself was not new, having been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, but its dedication to placing children in families was only a decade old. The agency hoped that solid research would vindicate its recent commitment to family rather than orphanage care. Lawton found that by October 1913, the agency had placed a total of 129 children in a total of 498 homes, an average of almost four placements per child. A substantial number of the placements (37 percent) were supposed to be temporary, but there was a high rate of replacement for children in need of permanent homes. (“Disruption” was not a term that denoted failed adoptions until the 1970s.) After placement, supervisory visits occurred on average four or five times per year, with girls visited more frequently than boys. Supervision was inconsistent as well as infrequent. Staff turnover was high because the work was hard and salaries were low.

The Boston Children’s Aid Society endorsed thorough physical examinations and mental tests for every child in need of placement. But in actual practice, only 37 physical and 4 mental exams had been administered to all 129 children prior to placement. The agency, which prided itself on being in the professional vanguard, was surprised and embarrassed by this evidence of shoddy and disappointing work. It never doubted, however, that more and better research was the key to realizing its rhetoric about child welfare in practice as well as in theory.


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