Minimum Standards

Source: Arnold Gesell Papers, Library of Congress, used by permission of Mrs. Joseph W. Walden

From a Child Welfare League of America brochure on the importance of minimum standards, 1938

Source: Dorothy Hutchinson Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

This illustration from a World War II-era brochure explained why adoptions arranged without minimum standards would result in heartache and tragedy. “I am an adopted child, but I am not a happy child,” this unwanted baby explained. Placed by a well-meaning but untrained physician in order to avoid agency “red tape,” this baby ended up with the wrong parents, cruelly denied the “real home and family” that was the promise of adoption.

















For most of the twentieth century, “standards” and “safeguards” were interchangeable terms for adoption reformers. They believed that adoption was an urgent social problem in need of greatly expanded public regulation. The state’s responsibility to protect child welfare was the animating principle behind minimum standards. Once legislated and enforced, these basic legal rules and social procedures would limit risk by constraining adoptions based purely on money or sentiment. Standards would require that placements be approved (if not actually arranged) by social work professionals operating in agencies rather than by baby farmers or other amateurs who specialized in independent (or private) adoptions. The most vigorous advocates of minimum standards were concentrated in the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the Child Welfare League of America.

The standards they had in mind involved certification of child-placers, investigation of the child and adult parties to adoption, and supervision of new families after placement and before finalization. In 1917, Minnesota passed the first state law mandating that children’s adoptability and prospective parents’ suitability be investigated before adoption decrees were granted. Two decades later, more than twenty states had translated similar standards into law. By midcentury, virtually all states in the country required individual and organizational child-placers to be licensed and the vast majority had new or revised adoption statutes on the books echoing reformers’ constant refrain: investigate and supervise. New record-keeping protocols included comprehensiveness, consistency, and confidentiality and sealed records. When Minnesota legislated adoption investigations, it was also the first state to seal adoption records.

Because early field studies revealed that many courts handled adoption petitions casually and legal requirements, where they existed, were often ignored, minimum standards were considered the most feasible path toward improvement. Typical early statements argued that unregulated placing-out was full of error and catastrophe. “Unless carried out in accordance with approved standards,” declared Edmond Butler, Executive Secretary of New York’s Catholic Home Bureau, child placing would add to the “thousands of human wrecks” already seeking public charity and “be responsible for destroying the future welfare of very many if not most of those intended to be helped.”

Minimum standards were formulated in positive as well as negative terms. Birth parents should be beyond rehabilitation, children should be “normal,” and adopters should be “industrious and thrifty,” of the same religion as the child, and not too “advanced in years.” Adopters were presumed to be married couples—and many surely were—but no rigid codes excluded singles from consideration. Religion was the only factor singled out for matching by adoption laws passed or revised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Minimum standards helped to modernize adoption by subjecting family-formation to new forms of bureaucratic control and professional oversight. By turning helping practices into calculable operations, for instance, they enhanced the role of scientific authority in the adoption process. Standardizing the way families came into being was both the premise and the purpose of outcome studies and other ambitious enterprises in adoption knowledge.


Document Excerpts

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