- Redeeming the Child:Adoptive and Foster Care in the Progressive Era
In A Home for Every Child, Patricia Hart has written a lucid and engaging history about the care of dependent children in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. Her research into the Washington Children's Home Society is revealing not only for understanding how reformers constructed a system of care for needy children but for underscoring how the concerns and problems that plagued care for dependent children over a century ago continue to resonate in current debates. Many of the protocols that today mark good adoption practice—insuring voluntary relinquishment, reconciling family reunification efforts with permanency concerns, and training adoptive and foster families to be sensitive to the needs of children whose lives have been unsettled by poverty and loss—first found expression in the work of institutions like the WCHS.
The book ranges widely. It begins by exploring the material conditions of life in the turn-of-the-century boom and bust economy of the West that frequently left men, women, and children clinging desperately on the margins of existence. To the extent possible, it documents the reasons that led families—primarily women—to relinquish children. It then parses out the motivations of "child savers" themselves, noting how they came to understand the balance of interests involved in providing care for children. Where possible, it draws out the voices of children displaced by poverty and neglect to understand how they experienced their situations and navigated the dislocations to which they were subject. Finally, it inquires into the experiences of the adoptive parents who sought to create families with children whose experiences often left them traumatized.
Interweaving these strands, Hart complicates more widely accepted narratives of adoption history in the U.S. As she notes, [End Page 289]
without the stories of relinquishing families, a too complacent understanding of adoption emerges that overlooks the important influences of class and gender in determining who relinquished children—and why. . . . Without information about the birth parents, we are left with a simplistic melodrama of adoption with the forces of good (represented by adoptive families and child savers) conquering forces of evil (represented by failed or absent parents) with an outcome inevitably made in the best interest of the child. The alternate scenario, with child savers snatching children from poor, non-consenting parents, is just as distorted(p. 69).
The stories were complicated, and as Hart's book unfolds, it becomes clear that WCHS workers were remarkably attuned to these nuances. This searching history reveals how the complicated balancing act played out.
The end of the nineteenth century was an anxious time. For many social reformers, particularly those in the urban East, the nation's ills could be traced to the influx of immigrants ill prepared for life in the new world: the social problem was defined as the need to contain the degeneracy that immigrants trailed in their wake. Eugenicists viewed many immigrant groups as hopelessly unable to assimilate and criminal by nature, and reformers of this ilk argued that the answer to the country's social problems lay in limiting reproduction.
Hart's book, however, explores the Pacific Northwest, peopled less by immigrants from Southern Europe and Ireland than by white, English-speaking Protestants from Northern Europe, Canada, and the American Midwest, all seeking the fortunes they believed would be miraculously uncovered in the West. But the West they encountered was a precarious place with a highly mobile population: mines were depleted, areas logged, railroads built, and people moved on. This was, as Hart notes, a population "in a chronic state of dislocation" (p. 9). Children were not forced into vast mills or left to hawk newspapers on city street corners. Instead, scattered about a vast and impersonal landscape, dependent children were at the mercy of adults who were themselves overwhelmed by trying to carve out a living in harsh and unforgiving surroundings.
Child saving, then, took a different tack from...