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Familial Fitness

Disability, Adoption, and Family in Modern America

Familial Fitness

Disability, Adoption, and Family in Modern America

The first social history of disability and difference in American adoption, from the Progressive Era to the end of the twentieth century.

Disability and child welfare, together and apart, are major concerns in American society. Today, about 125,000 children in foster care are eligible and waiting for adoption, and while many children wait more than two years to be adopted, children with disabilities wait even longer. In Familial Fitness, Sandra M. Sufian uncovers how disability operates as a fundamental category in the making of the American family, tracing major shifts in policy, practice, and attitudes about the adoptability of disabled children over the course of the twentieth century. 

Chronicling the long, complex history of disability, Familial Fitness explores how notions and practices of adoption have—and haven’t—accommodated disability, and how the language of risk enters into that complicated relationship. We see how the field of adoption moved from widely excluding children with disabilities in the early twentieth century to partially including them at its close. As Sufian traces this historical process, she examines the forces that shaped, and continue to shape, access to the social institution of family and invites readers to rethink the meaning of family itself.

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360 pages | 5 halftones, 2 line drawings, 1 tables | 6 x 9

Disability Studies

History: American History



"With nuance and razor-sharp analysis, Sufian combines work in adoption studies and disability studies to offer a searching, critical, careful history lesson. Each chapter is rigorously researched and argued; each encapsulates its time period in unexpected ways. This book is a necessity and a major achievement."

Susan Schweik, University of California, Berkeley

"Meticulously researched and powerfully argued, Familial Fitness transforms eighty years of disjointed policies and practices into a compelling narrative demonstrating the centrality of disability to ideas about children’s worth and adoptability and to the construction of American families. Anyone interested in family policy, social work, disability, or adoption will want to read this book. A stunning achievement."

Molly Ladd-Taylor, York University

"What counts as a family? And what kind of person is sufficiently human to belong in one? This deeply researched, deeply felt book offers a fine-grained and usable history of changing constructions of ability/disability and of family in the twentieth-century United States. Despite growing inclusiveness in defining who may be 'adoptable,' as in the shift in language over time from 'hard to place' to 'special needs,' the stigmas attached to disability and to adoption continue to compound each other as they influence policy and practice in family-making, yet Sufian creates a timely and cautiously optimistic model for plotting a future with fewer structural barriers to individual and collective flourishing."

Margaret Homans, Yale University

"Sufian discusses the mid-century belief about love overcoming all risks entailed by disabled kids' adoption and describes a more inclusive, pragmatic approach developed in the last decades of the century. This informative analysis discusses social workers' initial biases against disabled children, the public attitude of double stigma with regard to adoption and disability, the mental disability caused by foster care drift, and the demographic changes that influenced racial inclusivity... Highly recommended."


“. . . . Comprehensive and meticulous.” 

H-Net Reviews

Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Abbreviations
A Note on Language
Introduction. Disability and Belonging in Adoption History
Part I. Expecting Normality: 1918–1955
Chapter 1. Exclusionary Practices in the Age of Eugenics and Child Welfare
Chapter 2. Risk Equivalence and the Postwar Family
Part II. Working toward Inclusion: 1955–1980
Chapter 3. Love, Acceptance, and the Narrative of Overcoming
Chapter 4. From Overcoming to Programmatic Solutions
Part III. Continued Obstacles: 1980–1997
Chapter 5. Institutional and Structural Barriers to the Adoption of Children with Disabilities
Chapter 6. The Limits of Inclusion
Epilogue. A Usable Past: Thinking about Contemporary Practice in Light of History
Appendix 1. Suitability of the Child for Adoption
Appendix 2. Suggestions for Summary of Information as to Family History
Appendix 3. Chronology of Relevant Federal Bills and their Provisions
Appendix 4. Handicapping Conditions of Children Listed on Adoption Exchanges in 1985
List of Archives

The bibliography can be found at /sites/sufian/.

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