Adoption in America Today: The Good, the Bad, and a Path to Reform

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Our Let’s Adopt Reform initiative continues with an important message shedding light on perspectives surrounding adoption, foster care adoption and family. Please click below to view the SlideShare and please be sure to view in full-screen.

The presentation is a jumping-off place that outlines key issues and sets up our vision for a path to much-needed reform. We believe that what we already know from our decades of research, combined with what we discovered through our public opinion research and what we discussed on our National Tour about family, identity, human rights and education will serve as a foundation for the path to reform.

Read more about “Adoption in America Today: The Good, The Bad, and a Path to Reform” on The Huffington Post here.

If you believe in reform as much as we do, please share this important message with your network and help DAI continue our vital work by donating today.

If you are unable to view the presentation, please click here.

Our Differences: Let’s Celebrate Instead of Shame

Bullying is far from a childhood rite of passage – it’s a public health issue. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “one out of every four students (22%) report being bullied during the school year.” With more research reframing bullying as an epidemic infiltrating our education system, it’s no surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Educated released a bullying surveillance and prevention report in 2014.

Generally, the targeted student is different from the majority student population by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability or cognitive disorder. The common denominator between these bullying incidents is the emotional wounds that negatively impact the delicate shaping of a young child’s identity. While there isn’t enough evidence to cite bullying as the cause of suicide, StopBullying.gov notes that the majority of youth who commit suicide have several risk factors including “emotional distress, exposure to violence, family conflict, relationship problems, lack of connectedness to school, and alcohol and drug use.”

High profile suicides of American youth like 13-year-old Emilie Olsen continue to sensationalize the relationship between bullying and suicide. In December 2014, 13-year-old Emilie Olsen, who was adopted from China at nine months old, shot herself with her father’s gun at home. In an 82-page federal lawsuit against Fairfield City School District, administrators and Emilie’s alleged bullies, the Olsens hold the school district accountable for their daughter’s tragic death. Emilie allegedly experienced online and physical bullying and discrimination because of her race and perceived sexual orientation at Fairfield Intermediate and Middle School in Ohio.

The majority of media reports overlooked Emilie’s transracial adoption experience. Amid the predominantly white student population at her school, Asian American students were allegedly perceived as “too smart” and taunted for their “slanted eyes.” Legal documents revealed that Olsen suffered from depression and self-mutilation, and even asked her parents to dye her hair to resemble her white classmates. Clearly, Emilie wrestled with dual identities as a racial outsider in her hometown.

It is common for transracially adopted children to experience identity challenges – especially in geographic locations where they represent a different race than the majority population. While transracially adopted children may be aware of their physical differences, they still identify with “members of the majority culture due to their adoption.” As discussed in The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption” report, this transracial adoption paradox entangles youth in an identity web where they often feel as outsiders to their family and peers with no direct connection to one race. Their different skin pigmentation and physical traits prevent transracially adopted children from sharing their feelings openly with their different-race parents and underlying fear that their parents will be upset if they express interest in their biological roots.

Like Emilie and many transracially adopted children, I grew up in a predominantly white town in Long Island. While I couldn’t change (nor desired to) my physical appearance, I did my best to camouflage into my white surroundings. Still, my chameleon-like superpowers did not insulate me from racial discrimination. As a shy third grader in 1992, I experienced my first racial bullying incident by a black child. The student consistently taunted me for my “slanty eyes” by giggling, spewing racial slurs and stretching his eyelids horizontally both in and out of the classroom. Since we represented the few minority children in our elementary school, I secretly hoped we would unite instead of become enemies.

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Heather posing in between a mini golf game with her friends in 1994

Being cast as an outsider and shamed for my eye shape confirmed my worst fear. I became invisible to my fellow students and teachers. I kept my head down as I zigzagged through the hallways. Although I knew the answers to questions in class, I refused to raise my hand and doodled on my notebooks.

Despite the incessant taunting and tear-filled nights, I proudly claimed my Korean heritage. While playing with Barbies in the basement with my sisters, my default choice was my Korean Barbie in her magenta, green and gold Hanbok. When my third grade teacher assigned a report on any country of our choice, I naturally chose South Korea. I quickly dived into the card catalogs of the school library to research the geography, political structure, culture and history of my birth country.

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1988 Korean Barbie Doll

My second exposure to racial bullying occurred in fourth grade. One of my white classmates refused to hold my hand in practice when we gathered in a circle at the end of our immigration play. During the final performance, she finally held my hand in the closing joint circle and quickly released it as the curtains closed on the stage. At that point, I knew my different racial characteristics – not cooties (an imaginary childhood disease) – made her hesitant to hold my hand.

Although I never desired to resemble my parents and siblings, I displayed serious withdrawal and low self-esteem issues. I hid from my peers underneath desks. I hid behind my countless drawings of Disney Princess characters. I also cried in class almost every day. I felt more comfortable confiding in my 4th grade teacher than my parents out of fear that my outsider feelings might hurt them.

This is a common fear among transracially adopted children who are unable to speak with their parents about their inability to unravel their dual identities to both their birth and adoptive countries and shame in racial discrimination events. Parents must understand the importance and become educated in order to create an open and safe environment for their children to effectively communicate their loss of connection to their birth families and cultures and racial dualities.

This includes training from adoption professionals on the proper preventive and adoption-competent therapeutic resources to ensure that racial discrimination does not hinder their identity. DAI’s “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption” report provides the effective strategies for positive identity formation among transracially adopted children including “lived experiences (managing life as adopted people of color in a predominantly white society),” visiting their native country and attending racially diverse schools.

Our differences must be celebrated rather than shamed. This responsibility falls upon both the parents and schools. Adoption professionals must make it a priority that parents are educated about what it means to be a transracially/transcultural family and what they must do to ensure healthy identity development in their children. Academic institutions must foster a supportive, open and safe environment with diversity and bullying prevention workshops and enforce a written zero tolerance policy towards bullying. In return, each parent must demonstrate a willingness and respect to their child’s country of origin like my mother.

After my first trip to South Korea in 2014, I discovered how my mother honored my heritage in her journal. In preparation for my first birthday on July 4, 1985, my mother researched the significance of the first birthday (dol) in Korean culture and dressed me in a traditional outfit and served fruit and rice cakes.

In a journal entry on my first birthday, my mother shared her commitment to the preservation of my Korean roots:

“I wanted your birthday to be traditional because we think it’s important for you to experience your own culture. It may not be important to you now but when you grow up, I want you to know we respect your culture and want to show that it is just as important to us as it will be for you in the future.”

This is a manifestation of celebrating versus shaming and just one example of how one mother – my mother – made it her business to honor my birth culture.

How I Learned to Embrace Both Identities as an LGBTQI and Adoptive Parent

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Gabriel Blau

This guest blog post was written by LGBTQI equality advocate and Let’s Adopt Reform panelist Gabriel Blau. Known as “A Dad fighting for all dads,” Gabriel has represented these issues on television, in newspapers, and in front of legislators. If you’re interested in guest blogging for The Donaldson Adoption Institute, please email Chief Executive April Dinwoodie at adinwoodie@adoptioninstitute.org.

It is hard to write anything without acknowledging the massacre of 49 LGBTQI people in Orlando on June 12. Such a savage event in a place of respite and safety, and on a night specifically for the Latino community will leave a scar on this nation and on our hearts. In sitting down to think about my own family this Pride season, I cannot help but think of all the parents who lost children, all the lives cut short, the families that were devastated and the love that was lost.

Whenever I speak in public, I try hard to say “I am gay. I am a parent. I am Jewish. I am your neighbor.” The Orlando massacre is a terrible reminder why we need to name our identities and embrace all of the challenges that all of our communities and identities face. In a world where homophobia and transphobia, racism, and anti-Semitism are so prevalent, our creating a family and becoming parents happened through those lenses. So when my husband and I decided to add to our family and adopt our son, we saw ourselves as part of the LGBTQI community, but it took time to fully realize we are part of the adoption community too.

We always knew we would adopt. We met in 2003 and, as children of the 80s and 90s, being two gay men meant that the default for us was to not have children. But here we were, part of a new generation, two men in their 20s, on a first date, walking through Central Park, and talking about marriage and children. (The usual first date stuff right?)

When I was coming out, most people had never even heard of an LGBTQI person with children. And neither had I. But in my heart I knew we could do it.

When the time came, we did everything we could to educate ourselves about what it meant to become a family, what it meant to be gay men becoming parents, and what it meant to adopt. We built a small community of other adoptive LGBTQI parents, we listened, we talked and we explored. Adoption felt right for us with all of its blessings and challenges. But if I’m truly honest, I think we were LGBTQI parents-to-be first and adoptive parents second. We chose adoption intentionally and learned what we could about what being adoptive parents meant, but the social and legal barriers we faced as LGBTQI people were front and center.

We confronted these barriers in every way we knew how. We learned about our rights, we engaged in community and we planned. Back then, we weren’t legally married, we couldn’t necessarily adopt in every state, and it was unclear whether being gay would mean that a mother who felt adoption was her child’s best option would choose us as her child’s parents. But we proceeded and, faster than we imagined we were parents in a multi-racial, LGBTQI, adoptive, Jewish, middle-class family. And, as any parent can attest, parenting in any situation is all consuming. You are literally figuring out how to keep a person alive. And how to get some sleep. Never mind all the social, cultural, and legal challenges you need to be preparing to face.

Our LGBTQI friends and communities were ecstatic, mostly. It was 2008 and LGBTQI parents were still novel to most Americans. And so that became the focus of our identity. We were 27 and everyone, from social workers to attorneys to sheriffs, commented on us being the youngest adoptive couple they’d ever met. The nurses and midwife at the hospital where our son was born were mostly excited about being part of the process and the relationship we had with our son’s birth mother. We and most of the people around us saw the process through an LGBTQI lens: exciting, groundbreaking (not actually, but perceived that way), challenging the status quo.

For sure, not everyone was on board – some friends thought we were rejecting our LGBTQI identities. We were conforming to something that wasn’t meant for us. For some of them, it was the painful confrontation of watching something that they had finally made peace with, not having children, become an opportunity for others.

Choosing to adopt, while natural for us, was clearly not seen by others the way we saw it. What we hadn’t anticipated is that while we were just parents living out our family’s truth, others drew lines in the sand. More than one person told us we were “brave” and that they couldn’t do what we did. They couldn’t imagine parenting children who “weren’t really theirs.” They needed their own “real children.” This came from all kinds of people – straight and LGBTQI.

At one difficult moment, I was in a meeting – a meeting about securing lived and legal equality for families like mine – when the person I was with suddenly said they really couldn’t relate – “I have two perfect white children who are really mine.” And then he laughed a little. I smiled uncomfortably and nodded. “You know what I mean,” he added.

In other meetings, I learned that people were all for securing the rights to have children, but not addressing the needs of our families beyond legal rights. Supporting children as they come to terms with being adopted, or have an anonymous egg donor, or sharing a sperm donor with a handful of other kids they didn’t know? These were for other communities to address, not us. These weren’t LGBTQI issues. But of course they are, because these are the stories of our families.

Over the last eight-plus years, we’ve learned, of course, about what our son and family needs from us. We’ve opened our eyes to see how we’re part of a larger adoption community defined not just by being with others whose families are adoptive, but by the beauty and complexity of what our family story means for our son.

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Gabriel Blau (left) with his husand, Dylan Stein (right), and their son, Elijah Blaustein (middle)

Sometimes these still feel like two different communities, but more and more we see them converge and are finding places where we can be our whole selves. And rather than see the complexities as things to avoid, we are realizing that the more we lean in, the richer our family is.

So during this bittersweet Pride season, let’s embrace all of the communities we need to be part of. Let’s see what LGBTQI issues what our families face because of their whole selves, not only what we face because of our gender and sexual identities. For me, that means embracing our story as an adoptive family truly and fully in addition and in connection to our transracial and LGBTQI stories.

I am gay. I am an adoptive parent in a transracial family. I am Jewish. I am your neighbor. And this is my Pride.

Identity in Adoption, a Right Not a Privilege

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune captures the moving story of a reunion between an 83-year-old adopted woman and her biological mother just weeks before her 100th birthday. Poignant adoption search and reunion stories are common in today’s news feeds, yet there is something about a connection made in this way, especially in the twilight of one’s life, that must capture our attention in a different way.

We can never know the reasons that compel an adopted person or their biological family to search for one another or the reasons individuals may choose not to. However, the policies that guide the basic aspects of adoption make it difficult for those that wish to search, as vital information is typically withheld from adopted persons, their biological parents and adoptive parents. Antiquated views also continue to plague adoption and can be just as obstructive as the laws that seal records.

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Although much of the secrecy and stigma that has impacted adoption is diminishing, there are still perceptions that reflect earlier stereotypes, combined with general misunderstandings and sometimes even willful ignorance about the realities of adoption. According to public opinion research recently conducted by The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI), Americans admit to knowing very little about adoption. Even those who believe they understand adoption only scored a C- on a basic quiz.

The ignorance and misperceptions surrounding adoption makes it difficult to influence necessary changes in policy and practice that support those those closest to this experience. The openness that is part of nearly 95% of adoptions today occurs in stark contrast to a policy system that continues to seal vital information from members of the adoption community. Being deprived of this information has a significant impact on their identity development. Although we cannot always quantify this, we know that many adopted persons, and their biological parents, often struggle to believe they are truly entitled to know all parts of themselves and to attempt relationships with one another. This struggle can reflect the misperceptions that abound in adoption, impacting people so that something as basic as knowing who members of your family are starts to feel like a privilege instead of a right.

We must concern ourselves with the message these outmoded policies send, how they shape identities, and how human lives are diminished when we convey that adopted people and their biological families are not entitled to know one another. That too is fundamentally an issue of human rights as much as being able to access the paper that authenticates the connection is. When we can meaningfully shift perceptions about the truth of the adoption experience, policy advocacy may prove that much more successful.

In this recent search and reunion story, it appears as though the adopted person had paperwork with her original name on it; at the age of 83, a simple Google search led family to her biological mother. Other people today hold up signs on Facebook, and 500 shares later, are connected to a birth sibling. Some individuals have no identifying information and spend decades searching with mixed results. What is true for all of these situations is that no person should have to wait a lifetime, possibly never knowing, or create a Facebook post, in order to know their truth.

Adoption is a unique journey and our needs in this experience will differ. But our rights should never differ from those who are not adopted. Our humanity is the same and both the laws and perceptions that surround us must start reflecting that.

Losing My Birth Father

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Carmen Hinckley

This guest blog post was written by international adopted person Carmen Hinckley. Carmen lives in Portland, Oregon and graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. If you’re interested in guest blogging for The Donaldson Adoption Institute, please email Chief Executive April Dinwoodie at adinwoodie@adoptioninstitute.org.

Adoptees can experience loss in many forms throughout their lives. One type of loss that is rarely discussed is losing a birth parent to death after the adoptee and birth parent have been reunited. I experienced this type of loss in 2015 when my birth father died. Here is my story.

I was adopted from Brazil as an infant, and shortly after my birth, taken to an orphanage where I lived for 11 weeks before all of the legal paperwork was finished. Then my mother, who adopted me as a single parent, and I were able to come home to the United States. I was told that I was adopted before I could even speak or understand words, so I have always known. Throughout the years, we would periodically search for my birth family. We were told by the orphanage that my birth father was powerful, wealthy and married. Seeking him out would be inappropriate, hurtful and disruptive to an entire family.

I never expected to meet him, but that’s exactly what happened. In 2009, after years of searching, my mother and I visited Brazil and met my birth family. It was the best, most emotional and triumphant day of my life. We were unexpectedly presented with the opportunity to meet my birth father. With our incredible and unstoppable family friends in tow, we headed to a nearby supermarket for this life-changing meeting. We walked into the store and the few minutes we waited seemed like an eternity. When my family friend finally told me he had arrived and I turned around to meet him, it was the most overwhelming, satisfying, yet incredibly strange feeling of coming face-to-face with someone who looked just like me. Our facial features strongly resembled each other and I began to feel like I had answers to questions about my identity that I’d never had before. I remember him as a quiet, soft-spoken, gentle man who was given the most life-altering, shocking news when he was told that I was the daughter he never knew existed. I will feel a lifetime of gratitude towards him for the way in which he carried himself when faced with this news.

After this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I never had the opportunity to communicate with my birth father again. The years passed and I focused on developing a relationship with my birth mother, my half brother from my birth mother’s side, and continuing a relationship with the family friends who accompanied us in Brazil. I knew that my birth father was elderly and that he wouldn’t live forever. I was satisfied knowing that I’d met him and that he knew I existed, especially because I’d never expected to have that opportunity. I thought that would be enough.

Then one night last year, I was sitting at a coffee shop writing my adoption story and I found myself reflecting on an anecdote about my birth father. It had been years since I had searched the Internet for information about him. Little did I know that my adoption story and my world were about to take a massive turn.

I typed his name and the name of the city where I was born into Google. Immediately, multiple news articles popped up. I was excited to suddenly have all of this information at my fingertips, but I needed to translate it first. I clicked “Translate this page” and it began.

One article after another appeared saying that he had died nearly a month earlier at age 90. The entire city had mourned his death. He had been in the hospital for more than two months before dying. My immediate reaction was to find a way to confirm that this was, in fact, my birth father. I did not want to mistake this information if it belonged to someone else. After carefully reading through the information, my heart sunk as I determined that this was, in fact, my birth father. My heart beat quickly and I shut off my computer, gathered my belongings, and left the coffee shop as fast as I could. I never thought I would meet him again after our brief encounter six years ago, but knowing that I had no chance to meet him again in this lifetime felt like the end of an era. Although he was thousands of miles away on another continent, in another world, I was as vulnerable as ever and a tragedy like this could easily find and affect me.

My birth father was married with several children and I was the result of his affair with another woman. His children and wife, to the best of my knowledge, do not know that I exist. And if they do, I have no idea if they would ever have an interest in meeting or getting to know me. This means that much of my Internet searching for them is quite lonely, discovering interesting facts but only knowing them from afar and not being able to ask any questions. Since learning of my birth father’s passing, I have taken advantage of the information I’ve been able to find and have conducted multiple searches for his family members, learning about their careers and their history within the city where I was born. This is an adoptee’s dream come true if they are interested in learning about their birth family. I happen to be biologically related to a well-known family whose information is available on the Internet for me to find, but many adoptees are not nearly as fortunate.

Many adoptees who were adopted domestically do not have the language barrier that I am faced with and can develop deep relationships with their relatives, which I cannot. I have a close relationship with my half brother from my birth mother’s side, but much of this is built on our shared interest in each other and our translated emails. We do not have the luxury of simply communicating in the same language at any time we desire.

I am determined to use my birth father’s death as a positive growing experience and to do this, I am starting a birth parent loss support group to bring together adoptees with this shared experience. My hope is that, in our grief, we can turn to each other for understanding and empathy on a subject not often discussed. I also want to honor my birth father’s memory in this way.