Helen Lucile Pearson, “Child Adoption in Indiana,” 1925

In Indianapolis in 1917, Helen Pearson intervened to set aside an adoption in which an irresponsible husband had gotten rid of his wife and sick baby, but kept an older child by violently coercing his wife into surrendering the older child to him for adoption. All that was required was for Pearson to provide the judge with the facts of the case. This experience convinced Pearson that children and families desperately needed safeguards and minimum standards in adoption. Her study of the Indiana adoption law was dedicated to eradicating “promiscuous” placements and introducing “proper systematic supervision of this transaction which is so serious to human lives.” Hers was a typical field study. It equated research with reform.

Pearson found that the state of Indiana did not take adoption regulation seriously and this placed children and adults at risk. Investigations were not mandated. Probationary periods of six months to one year were not required. Adoptions arranged through advertising were not prohibited. And the state’s inheritance laws, which allowed adoptees to inherit from both natural and adoptive parents, were confusing. Bringing Indiana’s law into conformity with the most progressive adoption laws in the country was urgently needed in order to protect the state’s children.

Like other field studies, this one offered county-by-county statistics that clarified for the first time the numbers of adoptions taking place and shed some light on who was involved and how they were arranged. By analyzing all 636 adoptions finalized in the state during 1923, Pearson revealed that almost half of all children were placed privately, at very young ages, with strangers by unqualified persons. These adoptions took place quickly, with little, if any, exchange of information, and entirely lacked the investigatory and supervisory oversight that trained social workers brought to the adoption process. According to Pearson, most of these placements were full of mistakes that would lead to failure and tragedy.

Pearson supplemented her quantitative data with cases she trusted to illustrate that insufficient public regulation was responsible for faulty adoptions. “Billy” was the second illegitimate child of a feeble-minded and institutionalized mother, adopted by a couple who knew nothing at all of his background. Three-month-old “Dorothy” was easily adopted by a prostitute and raised in a brothel. At fifteen, “Thelma’s” adoption amounted to nothing more than labor exploitation. In none of these cases had Indiana’s judges or courts objected.

“Can we not admit that the conditions brought out by this study need attention by the state? If the life of one child or that of one parent, natural or adoptive, is ruined through the state’s lack of foresight, the matter is worthy of attention.”


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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