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Bertha and Harry Holt

In 1955, a special act of Congress allowed Bertha and Harry Holt, an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, to adopt eight Korean War orphans. The Holts had a large family before the adoptions, but they were so moved by their experience that they became pioneers of international adoptions and arranged hundreds for other American couples. They relied on proxy adoptions and overlooked the minimum standards and investigatory practices endorsed by social workers. They honored adopters' specifications for age and sex, gave priority to couples with one or no children, and asked only that applicants be “saved persons” who could pay the cost of children’s airfare from Korea. They paid close attention to race-matching for children whose fathers were African-American, but otherwise ignored it entirely. They were happy to accept couples who had been rejected, for a variety of reasons, by conventional adoption agencies.

The Holts believed they were doing God’s work, but they became lightning rods for controversy about how adoptive families should be made. In the press, the Holts were portrayed as heroic, selfless figures. In Congress, Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger called them incarnations of “the Biblical Good Samaritan.” In Christian communities around the country, their work was held up as a model to be emulated. But many professionals and policy-makers in the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the Child Welfare League of America, and the International Social Service devoted themselves (unsuccessfully) to putting the Holts out of business. They considered the Holts dangerous amateurs, throwbacks to the bad old days of charity and sentiment. Their placements threatened child welfare by substituting religious zeal and haphazard methods for professional skill and supervision....

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