Adoption and Disability: Who is Worthy of Family?

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Sandy Sufian, University of Illinois at Chicago
This paper traces the connected history between adoptability, parentability and disability in mid-twentieth century America. The question of who is suitable to be part of an American, adoptive family--both in terms of the children placed for adoption and those parents seeking to adopt--has been a long standing question in the field of adoption.

Until the late 1940s, children with disabilities were almost always excluded from becoming adopted due to adoption agencies’ beliefs that an impairment (or family medical history thereof) posed an exceptional risk to the success of a placement. More serious discussion about adoptability and disability took place in the years after 1947 when Belle Wolkomir, Supervisor of the Intake Department of Jewish Child Care Association of New York, began asking questions about the fates of babies rejected because of hereditary and developmental risks.  By 1955, the president of the CWLA, Marshall Field, declared that a “peaceful revolution” was happening in adoption practice; the League broadened the definition of adoptability to include the successful placement of disabled children and children with “histories of mental illness in their families.”[1] This redefinition of adoptability did not, however, change the fundamental hesitation by adoptive parents to seek or accept disabled children. 

The fitness of adoptive applicants was no less scrutinized. Adoption agencies screened prospective parents for their physical and mental characteristics and were highly suspicious of the motives and marital relationships of applicants. Adoption agencies disqualified applicants with chronic illness, “invalidism,” and mental ailments. By 1956, some adoption professionals began challenging the rigidity of parent requirements, making calls to become less rigid with regard to the age, income and physical/mental profiles of applicants for those parents’ willing to consider a “handicapped” child.

[1] Wayne Carp. Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption. Harvard UP, 1998, 32.  

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