Trauma, Race and Invisibility: The Power of Getting Woke


Photo Credit: Target

Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW-S, CTS, LCPAA, PLLC is a Texas Board-certified clinical social worker and supervisor and a licensed child placing administrator through the state of Texas. Over the last 18 years, she has specialized in the field of child welfare ranging from foster care, adoption, mental health, trauma-informed care and administration. Melanie also teaches as an adjunct professor of Social Work at Collin College in Plano, Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with her Master of Science in Social Work. Melanie and her younger brother were adopted from South Korea and raised in the United States. Like her Facebook page.

It was not too long ago that I was introduced to the term — “woke.” For what it is worth, this awakening has been a steady revelation of intersections from lived and professional experiences as a transracial adoptee, cis-gendered woman, child welfare advocate, therapist, mother, wife and sojourner. The steady acknowledgement and acclimation to the unnamed, and oftentimes, random acts of racism and discrimination has been an intentional and painful process of getting woke. For a long time, I attempted to keep the impacts of racism invisible to my psyche in a false attempt to shield myself from dealing with the pain, but denying the truth of things never works. If a traumatic experience, such as racism, is completely invisibilized, denied or not even recognized as such, it does not erase the impact as Page (2009) states, “Traumatically experienced events, captured in memory and replayed like a familiar musical refrain from an operatic score, are negatively stored in the memory network… Racial and ethnic self-understanding illuminates the way in which the self can become invisible rather than understood.” For decades, transracial adoptees have shared their experiences related to race, adoption and identity and what they need — this generation is no different.

Last November, The Donaldson Adoption Institute informed me that I was selected to submit a blog post. Enthusiastically, I agreed to explore the complex dynamics of race, invisibility and trauma. Then November 8th happened — and my desire to write was completely stalled. I was too busy reassuring my children that my citizenship would not be revoked and that I would not be sent away. My husband and I spent countless nights discussing how we would deal with the Neo-Nazi propaganda that was anonymously papered in our neighborhood and on our college campus (where my husband and I teach). The fliers that highlighted the twisted belief that people of color, LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and Muslims should be thrown into internment camps, sent over walls, and even denied housing and rental properties in the name of the President-elect. Two days following the election, a swastika was spray-painted on my friend’s workplace doors (in a predominantly LGBTQ community). We wondered if the home we had built for our children would be a safe place for my family and those we loved anymore. Was it time to move? What do we do now?

In the last few weeks, there has been a strange dichotomy of feeling too visible, and yet, invisible. I felt like a walking target for the hate that had become more emboldened, yet simultaneously invisible to those who appeared to go about their day as if nothing happened. I know I was not alone in this. There have been those whom we believed had our best interest, but turned a blind eye or remained indifferent to our concerns. However, there were many more who rendered compassion, sensitivity and empathy by reaching out and supporting us. Following the increased racial hostility this month, I realized that I was not fully prepared to comprehensively address racism with my own children either, but that would not stop me from trying. Having grown up in the South, my adoptive parents did not directly address race or racism, but assimilated my brother (also adopted from Korea) and I into our all-white community. We were told that “color” did not matter. Though, at a young age, the Confederate flags that lined our school told another story. The gravity of what needed to be written weighed heavy on my conscious and a wave of inadequacy and grief blocked my ability to coherently construct what I had committed to write. So, I sat on this post —writing, re-writing and even deleting two completed drafts. It was the bravery of client after client who shared their stories that compelled me to move forward.

Over the course of the last several weeks, adoptees have shared their experiences of escalated racial and ethnic discrimination that are impacting their sense of safety and trust. These experiences ranged from being told to leave the country, vitriol related to their birth country, racial epithets and slurs directed at them, and online and direct bullying in which race, sexual orientation and/or gender are the main factors. By far, the most painful responses have not necessarily been dealt by their perpetrators, but by the silence, dismissal and outright denial of their experiences from the very ones they trusted. One young person felt unseen and unheard because s/he attempted to share about the taunting, but was told “to just ignore” or “give the benefit of the doubt” — leaving her feeling anxious and unprepared for the next incident. Developmentally, adoptees rely upon their parents for survival and beneficence. Subsequently, transracial adoptees may also outright deny their racial differences and overly identify as the same race as their adoptive parents in an effort to cope and privately manage their experiences. Ultimately, the responsibility of transracial adoptive parents is to help adoptees racially enculturate or integrate their racial and ethnic background, in context to their adoptive family, and not merely assimilate (Baden, Treweeke, & Ahluwalia, 2013).

The paradox for most transracial adoptive families, particularly white adoptive parents, is that they have not had to actively engage or become exposed to other minority groups, yet are parenting a child(ren) of color (Lee, 2003). Children of color cannot remove their minority status, nor can their parents fully protect them from these experiences. Transracial adoptive parents need additional tools to racially socialize and help their child(ren) of color to integrate their identity development. Positing a strong sense of self is hard work that must take place between the parent and child to help prepare adoptees of color for adulthood. There is a difference between parental encouragement related to racial and cultural pride, such as attending culture camps or ethnic events, which tends to be observational versus actively helping transracial adoptees recognize and navigate racialized discrimination and microaggressions (Leslie, Smith, et. al, 2013). What is understood is that this process must begin prior to the home study and morph into a lifelong learning curve for the sake of their child.

Consistently, the issues related to race, claiming and identity are never too far away from discussion. Based on an adoptee’s developmental age, there is a sense related to how much parents have actively engaged in discussions about race. The use of words related to racial identity and awareness, or not, reveals the depth of those discussions. What we do know is that the effects of racism have a negative impact on a person of color’s physical and mental health as well as the deleterious effects of daily, unspoken racial microaggressions on their well-being, self-esteem and personal sense of safety reinforcing the importance of helping transracial family systems navigate race and experiences (Nadal, Sriken, et. al, 2013). The trauma of racism and discrimination is that it is unpredictable, unprovoked, unavoidable and oftentimes invisible to outsiders. These events can range from the intrusive actions of someone touching hair without permission, stares, glares to overt racist comments — and a child of color is the direct recipient. The very nature of racism elicits a sense of vulnerability, hypervigilance and a lack of universal control.

Many adoptees are referred for therapy due to complex, neurodevelopmental trauma, adoption-related stressors and/or attachment challenges, but what is typically overlooked are the stressful impacts of racism and discrimination and how those impact the family system. It is not uncommon for adoptees to hold body memory related to past abuse, institutionalization and neglect. When those past experiences are also coupled with present-day racism and microaggressions, it is no surprise that some children of color are more at-risk for multiple diagnoses, behavior interventions and stacked medications. It also places them at a heightened risk for racialized discrimination and bias due to behavioral or developmental special needs.

For children of color growing up in transracial adoptive homes, particularly within all-white communities, there exists a subtle notion that racism, by proxy of adoption, no longer exists. Adopting across racial and cultural lines does not exonerate adoptive families from the on-going and intentional work of addressing their own biases. It is confusing and conflictual for transracial adoptees to be told to be proud of their heritage, yet not acknowledged as a racial minority wherein others have taken a colorblind approach. This blindness does not alleviate children of color from the racial barbs and stings they will experience both in and outside their family system. Color blindness creates a confusing paradox in which a child has learned that the ones they love may not believe them, nor protect them from racialized attacks, yet are supposed to be there to meet their attachment needs (Lee, 2003). Invisibilizing the impacts of racism can inadvertently trigger past trauma and felt-victimization, particularly if there was past abuse or neglect, related to not being believed or psychologically re-abandoned. Shifting parental responsibility to their child to individually navigate their racial identity places an undo developmental burden on the child and reinforces to the child that their parents cannot or will address openly (Lee, 2003). Failing to see color results in missed opportunities to more comprehensively help their children formulate their full identity, protect them and grow together as a transracial adoptive family.

Conversely, for transracial parents who are working hard to actively address race within their home, many share their frustrations and grief related to extended family members and community invisibilize their experience as a transracial family. Many parents do not feel fully supported or believed by their loved ones to keep their children safe. Thus, some have made the difficult choice to limit contact and exposure which has decreased support, but yielded a newfound freedom to advocate for their family. Parents have shared their fears and frustrations related to the knowledge that once their child steps over their door sill, there is a world that holds contempt for their child(ren) simply because of the color of their skin. They ask, “How can I keep my child safe?” They have wept in my office with the full knowledge that they can get pulled over for a traffic violation without incident, but if their child made one wrong move it could be potentially fatal. They fear their child’s special need and inability to properly read social cues will create an even great point of victimization based on their race as well. The unknown and out-of-control aspects of parenting creates anxiety and a level of concern for many transracial parents. They share how lonely it feels at times, but how empowering it is, once they get woke, too.

This process is not meant to be rushed. It requires patience, humility, courage, curiosity and time. There will be plenty of mistakes and offensives made, but the purpose is that you are in the arena to make them. It is about listening more and interjecting less. We all have a choice to move into a more compassionate and robust understanding of one another or retreat into defensiveness and fear. Children of color do not have the option of retreating— and need adults to join them on the frontlines. It is my hope that you welcome the process of getting woke, stay the course, and experience the tremendous opportunity that can lie ahead for all involved. What I learned is that there was no right or wrong way to do this. It would be messy and complicated — and along the way, there have been incredible mentors and supports who have guided me. The only mistake is not starting the journey — and relentlessly seeking insight and self-awareness.

Here are some considerations as you start the process:

  • Become aware of your own personal biases. We all have them. Acknowledge them because when they come up again, you will be aware of them — and can do something constructive. (i.e. rather than averting eye contact with a someone different, you engage in eye contact the next time).
  • Research the historical backdrops of race relations in the United States. I strongly recommend reading materials written by people of color.
  • Read fiction and non-fiction works by people of color. Support writers of color.
  • Read and collect books that positively portray children of color. Read these together with your child.
  • Learn the difference between appropriation or co-opting experiences related to people of color.
  • Read transracial adoption works, particularly ones authored by adoptees of color.
  • Research movements related to social justice and social movements from their sites directly.
  • Learn about sensitive (in-group and out-group) terminology related to marginalized groups such as LGBTQ, people of color, religious minorities, special needs and much more.
  • Get involved within your community. Seek out workshops and conferences related to racial diversity and trainings.
  • Intentionally involve yourself within your child’s racial and ethnic community to better integrate mirrors and mentors for you and your child.
  • Talk with your child (at an appropriate level) about what you learn. Discuss national and international events as it relates to race and intersectionality with your child. Help them gain understanding and words related to these events. Words are empowering — and help them better define an experience so they can advocate and speak up for themselves, too.
  • When you hear or see something that could be racially intolerant, biased or microaggressive, call it out. If your safety is not secure, take a picture, record the incident (if you can), and make sure to report the events to police and/or the SPLC or the ACLU. When you become more aware, your attunement to your child’s needs does as well.
  • Be prepared to move through the stages of grief — denial, bargaining, anger, acceptance and grief. This awakening may create many conflictual feelings and will challenge what you thought you knew — that you didn’t quite know.
  • Recognize that if you are connected to social media — you may want to consider sitting on your post for a few hours before posting — not to tone police, but formulate your thoughts and responses.
  • Expect pushback and defensiveness— and that you may lose some relationships you thought you had. You will also gain new friendships as well. This requires a newfound sense of self and courage. Plan for that both physically and emotionally — and recognize that your child experiences many of these events daily. If s/he can do it, so can you. You cannot genuinely lead your child unless you have done the work, too.
  • Build your safe network of loved ones and family who will support you and even do the work with you. This can be online or in-person community. Set healthy boundaries as you need.
  • Above all, take care of your heart. This is a unique journey that only you can define. Do what you need to do to tend to your spirit. Journal. Laugh. Cry. Pray. Meditate. Work out. Write. Find your outlet.



Baden, A. L., Treweeke, L. M., and Ahluwalia, M. (2013). Reclaiming culture: Reculturation of transracial and international adoptees. Journal of Counseling & Development, 90, 387-399.

Lee, R. M. (2003). The transracial adoption paradox: History, research, and counseling implications in cultural socialization. Counseling Psychology, 31(6), 711-744.

Leslie, L. A., Smith, J. R., Hrapczynski, K. M., & Riley, D. (2013). Racial Socialization in Transracial Adoptive Families: Does It Help Adolescents Deal With Discrimination Stress?. Family Relations, 62(1), 72-81. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00744.x

Nadal, K. L., Sriken, J., Davidoff, K. C., Wong, Y., & McLean, K. (2013). Microaggressions Within Families: Experiences of Multiracial People. Family Relations, 62(1), 190-201. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00752.x

Niwa, E. Y., Way, N., & Hughes, D. L. (2014). Trajectories of Ethnic-Racial Discrimination Among Ethnically Diverse Early Adolescents: Associations With Psychological and Social Adjustment. Child Development, 85(6), 2339-2354. doi:10.1111/cdev.12310

Page, R. (2009, August). Trauma, invisibility, and identity development: An EMDR framework. Presentation at the 14th EMDR International Association Conference, Atlanta, GA


 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

Reforming Adoption at the Hyperlocal Level


Left to Right: Lori Holden (Photo by Kim Shokouhi Photography) and Addison Cooper (Photo by Addison Cooper)

This guest blog post was written by Lori Holden and Addison Cooper. Lori Holden, MA, writes at the award-winning site, She’s the author of The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, written with her daughter’s birth mom and acclaimed by people in all parts of the adoption constellation. She presents around the U.S. about openness in adoption. She’s written for The Huffington Post, Parenting magazine, and Adoptive Families magazine. She lives in Denver with her husband and their two teenagers. Follow her on Twitter @LavLuz and like her Facebook page.

Addison Cooper, LCSW, runs Adoption at the Movies, a film review blog for adoptive families. He’s written for The New Social Worker, Adoptive Families, Adoption Today, Fostering Families Today, Foster Focus, Focus on Adoption and The Huffington Post. His book Adoption at the Movie: a Year of Friendly Movie Nights to Get Your Family Talking will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in early 2017. Addison has 10 years’ experience in foster care adoption as a social worker, therapist and clinical supervisor. Follow him on Twitter @AddisonCooper and like his Adoption At The Movies Facebook page

Imagine a glorious time in the future when all desired adoption laws are passed and all adoption arrangements are codified. Won’t it be great to be finished with the hard work of adoption reform?

While changes in adoption laws and policy are necessary, these alone will not make the adoption world all better. If laws were the endpoints, then the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments would have resulted in immediate equality and justice for formerly enslaved and free African Americans – but it didn’t. Now, even 150 years later, our society struggles with these same issues.

Reforming policy and law is one necessary step, but it’s not the last step. Not until ideas of respect, empathy and inherent value of others also take root in people’s hearts can true and enduring change happen.

Imposed vs. Embraced

As an experiment, ask yourself:

  • Why don’t you speed?
  • Why don’t you text while driving?
  • Why don’t you lie, steal or murder?
  • Why do you pay taxes?
  • Why do you give to charity?

Some things you do because it’s a rule, and some things you do because it seems right to you. Sometimes it’s because “somebody told me” and other times it’s because “I told myself.” What is it that makes us feel good about giving money to charity, but resentful about paying our taxes? What is it that makes us resent a speeding ticket for going 7 miles an hour over the speed limit at the bottom of a hill, but not resent a ticket for texting while driving in a school zone?

Perhaps the difference lies in whether we feel motivated by externally imposed rules or internally embraced values. We may resent taxes because they’re required and because we don’t always see direct benefits, and we may not get the same sense of fulfillment from paying our taxes that we do from giving to a chosen charity. They’re both right, they’re both things we should do, but one type we do because an external force makes us do it and the other comes from within.

It’s good to have good laws; it’s even better when those laws are followed naturally, because they’re viewed as the right thing to do anyway.

With the reforms we want to see in adoption, we don’t just want to see compelled behavioral change, we want the spirit of the changes. We want adoption relationships to be healthy, good and welcoming.

In reforming adoption, how can we help people move from “because it’s a requirement” to “because it’s right?” And from “because I have to” to “because it’s in line with who I want to be?”

Attaining the Vibe

To put this in adoption terms, even though we may have a post-adoption contact agreement, that doesn’t always mean the agreement comes from the heart. The law says one thing, but the vibe that an adopted person or a birth family or an adoptive family gets from others involved in the relationships may say something else.

For example, even if the law says an adopted person can get his original birth certificate, if the vibe he senses from his family isn’t an open one, he may not actually feel as though he’s free to get his document. It’s like he’s being told, “Yes you can, but no you may not.”

And how many times have you heard the story of an adoptee waiting until the death of her adoptive parents to begin searching for her original parents? Even though she had always been legally free to start looking, she never really felt free to do so. A law opening up her original birth certificate would be ineffective for her until and unless her adoptive parents had given the vibe that would have allowed her to search. Such closedness and brittleness is sad for all involved.

Resources for Reforming Adoption at the Hyperlocal Level

Ideas start big, at the macro level, but implementation needs to reach all the way to the micro level, to the minds and hearts of individuals. Fortunately, much is already being done in the adoption world to bring about such hyperlocal changes.

In preparing for our presentation at the 2016 American Adoption Congress Conference, we began to compile a list of people already doing the work of bringing heart-based change. Take a look.

We started jotting down frameworks on our radar that move people:

  • From external to internal
  • From separate to connected
  • From closed to open
  • From head to heart
  • From fear to love

Though by no means all-inclusive, on this list you’ll find adoption reform luminaries like Jim Gritter and Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao. You’ll see organizations like Creating a Family, the Family to Family Support Network and, of course, The Donaldson Adoption Institute. You’ll see work from the #flipthescript effort, as well as a variety of voices on Portrait of an Adoption.

And because stories are such effective and wonderful ways for people to connect deeply with another person and to truly “get” a new viewpoint, Addison offers films about Angela Tucker (Closure) and by David Quint (Father Unknown). Lori shares memoirs by Anne Heffron and Lorraine Dusky, as well as anthologies compiled by Lynn Grubb and Laura Dennis. Really, you need to check these out. Each is brilliant for reaching directly into the hearts of the audience.

Feel free to start here and add resources you know of to make this list your own.

A More Hospitious Place

While adoption may appear to be a legal experience, it is also at its essence, as Dr. Randolph Severson says, a spiritual experience. The head is involved and so must the heart be.

No matter what laws are passed and no matter what agreements are signed, the adoption world will become a more hospitious place if we don’t rely solely on rules. Let us — each of us — also open and engage our hearts. Let us offer to others what we most desire for ourselves: respect, empathy and a recognition of inherent value.


 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

Lost and Found in Lion

Like its namesake, the movie Lion roars a powerful message about family, identity and the meaning of the journey we are all on to find our place in this world. For those of us connected to adoption, this journey is more complex. Yet Lion manages to capture the essence of the quest to find “home” that many of us have been on at one point or another in our lives. Regardless of whether you have a personal connection to adoption, you’re bound to get lost in Lion. And every person who watches the film will very likely be inspired to think about their identity and yearn to find the parts of themselves that may be missing.

Based on a true story, the premise of Lion seems almost surreal; a small child named Saroo accidentally separated from his family in rural India winds up alone on a train bound for Calcutta then finds his way to an orphanage after being lost for months on the streets. He cannot speak the local dialect, pronounce the town he is from or even correctly pronounce his own name. Ultimately, he is adopted out of India by a couple from Australia. While the premise may seem surreal, Lion portrays this very real experience in a way that avoids the either/or trap others often fall in to when depicting adoption. Lion perfectly describes the imperfections of a life experience that requires every person connected to it to lose something in order to gain something. It portrays the essence of adoption, which will always be that very bittersweet combination of joy and sadness, of laughter through tears.


Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar in Lion. (Photo Credit: Mark Rogers)

Lion could speak to every family who has come together through adoption and knows that the truth of this experience is not one simple narrative. What we find in Lion reminds us of how critical it is that adoption is no longer treated like a point-in-time transaction but rather as the transformational experience it truly is for all involved.

Lion could speak to the mothers and fathers who have been separated from children whom they do not parent, yet they undoubtedly feel a connection to throughout their lives.

Lion could speak to the many adopted people who crave knowing their full truth no matter their circumstance. The hunger of Saroo as a young adult to know his full identity is something many adopted people can relate to; the insatiable need to find answers that can render us unable to do much of anything at times other than lose days of our life weeding through haystacks to find the proverbial needle.

Dev Patel stars in LION

Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley in Lion. (Photo: Mark Rogers © Long Way Home Productions 2015)

Lion demonstrates the duality of the adoption experience, which will always be the enduring connection to the family we know through adoption and those we know through birth. Each of these is essential in a person’s identity development. Each of these impacts our relationships. Each of these at times will leave us with more questions than answers. Each of these at times will give us the answers we need.

We do not have to choose which is better or divide our loyalties between the two. But not knowing all the parts that make us who we are will often leave a burning desire to find the missing puzzle piece that is needed to make the picture whole. It is in the journey that we often find the answers to questions we have asked ourselves for many years. We may also find that we had some answers all along.

Lion confronts all of us with some powerful questions: What do we have to lose to gain? What do we gain through our losses? How do we respond to the simple question, “Where are you from?” when the answer is complex and filled with layers of meaning?

Ultimately, home is all around us. It’s about the people in our lives. Those we lose and those we gain. It is those we know whom we have never met. It is the people we meet along the way who help make us who we are today. What you’ll find in Lion is that sometimes you have to lose yourself in order to discover who you are and where you belong.


View the Lion trailer below.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute held a special preview screening of Lion on Friday, November 18, 2016, at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City. After the screening, DAI Chief Executive April Dinwoodie hosted a Q&A with Saroo Brierley and his adoptive mother, Sue Brierley. View the photo gallery here.

Measuring the Workplace Climate for Open Adoption Practice

tanyabretherton_headshotThis guest blog post was written by Dr. Tanya Bretherton. She is a Sydney-based research consultant, sociologist and writer with 20 years of experience in the fields of early childhood development, education and care, organizational culture and professional development. She has published both domestically and internationally on a wide range of issues that impact the safety and security of children and young people. Follower her on Twitter @TanyaBretherton.

Open adoption practice: is it a case of workplace “weather permitting?”  

Australian research to emerge from the Department of Family and Community Services in New South Wales (NSW) sheds new insights on the link between practitioner attitude and adoption. The findings suggest a more meaningful understanding of the challenges faced by practitioners is needed, particularly when seeking to progress open adoption of children from out-of-home care (OOHC) settings.

Over the last decade, attitudinal data has been used to inform the understanding and development of open adoption practice regimes in many jurisdictions. This research has clarified how practitioner perceptions of open adoption are important in identifying the best interests of the individual child and in influencing professional behavior and decision-making regarding permanency (Ryan 2011 et al; Brown et al 2007).

In child protection circles, it is often assumed that understanding frontline worker attitudes to adoption can offer valuable insights to administrators in their professional development planning. Like a thermometer, attitudinal data on practitioner beliefs is often touted to offer value as a measurement instrument.  For example, low rates of adoption may indicate that practitioners are “lukewarm” on adoption as a permanency option for children, and this could constitute an institutional barrier which needs to be addressed through training.

However, recent research findings to emerge from NSW suggest that open adoption practice needs to be understood using a diverse range of observational instruments. While open adoption practice remains work of the heart and the attitudes of the people involved are indeed paramount, a number of systemic factors must also align to create the preconditions for high quality practice to manifest. Local units may need to take a workplace “weather check” to assess whether a range of conditions are favorable for open adoption practice and to ensure the workforce is well mobilized and remain appropriately skilled for this undertaking.

Understanding the adoption “climate” in Australia

Australia has a complex and conflicted adoption history with which the country is still coming to terms. The deep personal losses experienced by Forgotten Australians (those impacted by a closed or forced adoption) and the suffering of the Stolen Generations (Australia’s first peoples forcibly removed and separated from family and community) continue to resonate. While the modern system of adoption is open and represents a clear break from the closed adoption system of the past, the pain and sensitivities surrounding the idea of adoption remain very real for many Australians.

Adoption rates from OOHC in Australia remain low. In the year 2014-2015, only 94 children were adopted by their carers, with 87 of these adoptions occurring within NSW. While the state of NSW is clearly a leader with regard to open adoption practice in Australia, the number of adoptions from care remain at record level lows. This is particularly concerning when contextualized by other data on children’s experiences in OOHC. The number of children entering statutory care continues to grow. The most recent data available indicates that 43,399 children are in OOHC in Australia, with 16,843 of these children in NSW alone.  Prolonged time in OOHC is also of great concern. Almost half of all children in OOHC in NSW (47 percent) have been continuously in care for five years or more (AIHW 2016: 52).

Key insights from NSW on open adoption practice

The research findings to emerge from NSW suggest that the relationship between attitude and practice is far less direct and causal than was once believed. Despite the low levels of adoption from OOHC in NSW, frontline practitioners maintain strong in-principle support for the concept of open adoption and exhibit high levels of understanding of what open adoption means. In addition, the research findings argue that the challenges faced by practitioners in undertaking open adoption work remain poorly understood. As it stands, a gap exists between knowing and valuing the importance of communication work on one hand, and feeling confident in the act of doing this work on the other.

Understanding workplace climate and open adoption – a new conceptual framework needed?

While perception and attitude of practitioners are undoubtedly important, so too are practical considerations. An array of workplace factors shape the propensity for practitioners to undertake open adoption work. The research analysis concludes that a four-pillar structure appears universal to open adoption practice work.

  1. Capability: The progression of open adoption requires a labor force of skilled and experienced people ready to assume the complex responsibilities associated with the work.
  2. Capacity: Many facets of the child protection sector must operate in concert in the interests of open adoption.
  3. Communication: Transparency and openness in adoption require a different profile of communication abilities than those used historically by child protection workers.
  4. Culture: Individual workers can exhibit personal and cultural characteristics which mean they are receptive to the open adoption concept. Workplace culture too, is salient.

A significant finding of this research study identifies that these factors are deeply interconnected and must be present to some degree in order to achieve the open adoption of children from OOHC.


The role of legislation in impacting adoption “climate change”

Adoption can be formally legislated as “open.” Legal provisions can be used to strengthen the quality of services provided to children and young people, and offer greater assurance and compassion for adoptive families and birth families in negotiating the terrain of ongoing contact. Where open legislation goes, innovation and adaptation to facilitate open practice can follow. However, this can only occur when child protection authorities also implement workforce development measures capable of supporting the implementation of high quality open adoption practice regimes.

Checking the forecast – are conditions favorable for open adoption practice?

The four-pillar model to emerge from the NSW study is important for two main reasons. Firstly, the research offers a unique systemic perspective on emerging open adoption practice and the realities of working life in OOHC environments. Secondly, this model for high quality open adoption practice could serve as a diagnostic tool for other agencies. By using the model as an analytical tool, organizations can take a “barometer reading” of the frontline to assess whether workplace weather conditions are favorable for the undertaking of open adoption practice work in the long term.


More information

The Gap Between Knowing and Doing: Developing Practice in Open Adoption from OOHC in New South Wales” was written by Dr. Tanya Bretherton and Senior Practitioner Ms. Tracey Webb as part of the NSW OOHC Adoption Research Initiative. A full copy of these research findings is available at:


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2016). Child Protection Australia 2014-15, AIHW, Canberra.

Brown, D., Ryan, S. & Pushkal, J.T. (2007). Initial Validation of the Open Adoption Scale: Measuring the Influence of Adoption Myths on Attitudes Toward Open Adoption. Adoption Quarterly 10, 3-4: 179-196.

Ryan S., Harris G., Brown, D., Houston D., Livingston Smith, S. & Howard, J. (2011). Open adoptions in child welfare: social worker and foster/adoptive parent attitudes. Journal of Public Child Welfare 5, 4: 445-466.


 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

What is the State of Adoption in America Today?

Over the last year, we asked ourselves a tough question: why—after 20 years, over 40 publications and 180 recommendations (and that is just from DAI alone)—have policies and practices not advanced far enough fast enough? With this in mind, The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) launched Let’s Adopt Reform, an initiative to strengthen all families by igniting a national conversation about adoption and foster care adoption in the 21st century.

We commissioned two milestone research projects to dig deeper into the state of adoption in America today. We conducted qualitative research with a wide range of professionals and undertook the most comprehensive public opinion research ever fielded in this area. Then we set out on a nationwide Town Hall Tour where we tackled the issues, explored opportunities, shared life experiences and asked the tough questions. It became abundantly clear; a path to reform is possible if we recognize and learn from both the good and the bad.

Let’s Adopt Reform culminates with our landmark report exploring the most critical issues facing our community. This report highlights our many years of research, what we most recently learned from the American public and adoption professionals, policy challenges and opportunities, promising practices, and our recommendations for changes needed on the path to reform.

What we discovered is that it is no longer a matter of knowing what to do it is time to understand new perspectives, change behaviors and encourage action.  Inspiring these changes requires us to present the realities in new, different and sometimes uncomfortable ways all in service to helping children and families with better policies, practices and resources.


Here are the five key themes that have emerged and become the bedrock of the report and our work going forward.

  • Adoption Is Not a One-Time Transaction
    It’s a lifelong journey for the entire family. In order to encourage healthy identity development and strong relationships, it is important to understand adoption as a transformational experience that lasts a lifetime.
  • A Human Rights Framework Is Needed
    Adoption is in urgent need of a cultural shift; this shift requires us first and foremost to make decisions in adoption through the lens of human rights and to practice adoption in a way that primarily and fundamentally respects and upholds the humanity of all who are connected to this rich and complex experience.
  • Market Forces Create a Variety of Concerns
    It is critical to develop uniform standards and regulations in order to remove the influence of money as it relates to the practice of adoption. Children are not commodities.
  • Adoption in America Lacks Uniformity
    Adoption policies and practices vary widely by state and type of adoption. The consequence of these inconsistencies can lead to fraud, coercion, and undue stress of families and ultimately leaves children vulnerable.
  • No Reform Without Education
    One of the greatest impediments to meaningful reforms in adoption and foster care are the societal misperceptions and general lack of knowledge surrounding this experience. We must foster understanding in society as well as the systems that serve families if needed changes are to be made.

Bringing a child into a family—whether by birth, adoption or the blending of families—is life-changing for everyone. When we recognize the lifelong impact and put children at the center, adoption can truly represent an evolved definition of family. Strong families build strong communities and strong communities make a better world for all of us.

While we have reached many milestones, more work needs to be done and today our work feels more urgent than ever.


Since 1996, The Donaldson Adoption Institute has been on a mission to improve the lives of children and families through research, education and advocacy. We investigate the issues of greatest concern to first/birth families, adoptive/foster families, adopted people, the people who love them and the professionals that serve them. We educate and train professionals, enlighten parents and engage members of the community to make a positive impact on laws, policies, practices and perceptions.