Sophie van Senden Theis, How Foster Children Turn Out, 1924

Source: Virginia P. Robinson, ed., Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator, A Professional Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962).

Sophie van Senden Theis (left) bringing Martha to Jessie Taft (right). Also pictured are Bobby Ueland and Taft's adopted son, Everett

This investigation was the prototype and inspiration for adoption outcome studies in later years. Conducted in the early 1920s by Sophie van Senden Theis, it followed up 910 children placed in homes by the New York State Charities Aid Association between 1898 and 1922. Up to that point, few inquiries had examined the results of either professional or amateur child-placing, and these had been small, scattered, and unsystematic. Homer Folks, the NYSCAA Secretary, described this research project as “the first serious effort, to collect, at first hand, on a considerable scale, the facts as to the careers of an unselected group of foster children.”

How did these foster children turn out? Using the straightforward standards of school success, self-support, and observance of law, Theis concluded that foster children turned out quite well. Seventy-seven percent were “capable,” 11 percent “harmless,” and 12 percent “incapable,” according to statistical data about the children’s family backgrounds, age at placement, health, education, and work experiences presented in 67 tables and six charts. In Theis’ view, and in the view of many later outcome researchers, good outcomes were synonymous with “social adjustment.” Children who turned out according to the prevailing expectations of parents and agencies were children who turned out well.

The study’s findings reinforced some existing views about placing-out while challenging others. A majority of the children (55.2%) had backgrounds that were characterized as “predominantly bad,” while another quarter (24.8%) were classified with histories that were “bad–unknown.” Facts like these confirmed the eugenicist position that available children were terrible risks. They were likely to be defective or “feeble-minded” children. Yet the study also indicated that bad backgrounds did not predict bad outcomes. Since most children had bad backgrounds and also became “capable” adults, heredity could not be the determining factor.

The study undermined the view that older children were safer candidates for family life since more was already known about their development and character. Theis found that children placed after age five were more likely to experience multiple placements, less likely to do well or go far in school, and twice as likely to become “incapable” people. In contrast, children placed early in life experienced more security and belonging. They were also much more likely to be legally adopted by their parents. Progressive-era child welfare professionals were skeptical about severing ties between natal parents and children and did not encourage adoption. So it surprised the researchers to find that 30 percent of the study sample had been legally adopted. They also discovered that adoption was strongly correlated with measures of good outcome. This finding was all the more notable because one-third of the adoptees had never been told about their adoptions.

This study is a significant watershed in adoption history because it painted an empirical portrait of placed-out children and their families for the first time, while also establishing a statistical baseline for the proportions who did and did not make good. That statistical baseline indicated that placing-out had overwhelming positive outcomes. “Our study leads us to believe that there are tremendous latent powers within an individual awaiting development, and that under favorable conditions these powers may be developed and directed toward accomplishment.” Although outcome studies in the decades after 1924 were methodologically more sophisticated than How Foster Children Turn Out, they almost always reported basically similar conclusions. Most children and placements turned out well, while a small percentage did not.


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