During the twentieth century, child adoption was reimagined in scientific terms, as a social experiment and human laboratory that could produce knowledge as well as help children. Researchers were persuaded that adoption could answer basic scientific questions about development, nature and nurture, and family norms. Professionals and parents were persuaded that scientific research would improve family-making by minimizing risks and maximizing safety. Adoption has been the subject of four major types of empirical research: field studies, outcome studies, nature-nurture studies, and psychopathology studies.
Outcome studies are a well-established research genre today, but early in the twentieth century, they were new. How did adopted children and adoptive families turn out five, ten, or twenty years after placement? By finding out what had happened to children and parents later in life, outcome studies offered a way to predict and control future adoptions by studying the results of adoptions arranged in the past.
These studies defined outcomes in many different ways, but all tried to correlate “inputs”—such as child's sex, age at adoption, natal family background, and adopters' characteristics—with measures of child development, parental satisfaction, and success (or failure) later in life. They aimed to reveal which variables, in which combinations, produced which outcomes. Which family-making practices and kinship configurations had good results? Which had bad results? Outcome studies embodied the conviction that systematic research was essential to improving the results of future adoptions for children and families.
The first major outcome study was conducted by Sophie van Senden Theis and the New York State Charities Aid Association. How Foster Children Turn Out, published in 1924, followed up on the cases of 910 children placed between 1898 and 1922.
Because non-relative adoptions separated parental genes (nature) from family environment (nurture), adoption amounted to the sort of scientific experiment that could not otherwise be ethically conducted with human beings. Nature-nurture studies were designed by developmental psychologists and other researchers in the human sciences to reveal the relative power of heredity and home in intellectual and psychological development. In this sense, nature-nurture studies are different than field studies and outcome studies, which were conducted mainly by social work researchers interested in using empirical data to refine future adoption practice and policy. But like these other kinds of adoption studies, nature-nurture science reinforced the belief that producing knowledge and protecting children were mutually reinforcing.
Researchers whose initial interest in adoption was abstract and theoretical often found themselves confronting very practical questions from parents and professionals. Did nature-nurture science support or contradict the placement of newborns and infants in adoptive homes? Should children with shameful or unknown natal backgrounds be placed for adoption? What did nature-nurture studies suggest about matching children and adults?
Does adoption jeopardize the mental and emotional health of children, making adoptees especially vulnerable to developmental, behavioral, and academic problems? Most people connected to adoption today think it does. Most Americans agree that adoption is a “risk factor,” according to public opinion polls.
The belief that adoption has a psychology of its own is recent, indebted to a tradition of controversial clinical studies linking adoption to psychopathology. Beginning around World War II, some mental health professionals, often influenced by psychoanalysis, proposed that the losses associated with adoption made normal development tricky for adopted children and stability difficult to achieve for adoptive families. The new worries about adoption generated by psychopathology studies added to already well established concerns that available children were feeble-minded and adoption unusually risky.
Psychopathology studies equated difference with damage. They helped to transform adoption into a full-fledged object of casework and counseling, and this was essential for the emergence of therapeutic adoption. The rapid spread of post-adoption services, non-existent in 1950, indicates that many parents and professionals now accept the need for long-term, perhaps permanent, help in order to avoid or manage adoption-related problems.
Awareness that the parties to adoption face unique psychological challenges may well be one of the things that makes twentieth-century adoption practices historically distinctive—as distinctive as the psychology of adoption itself.