A Reflection on the State Department’s Report on Intercountry Adoption

marie-dolfis-headshotThis guest blog post was written by clinical social worker Marie Dolfi. Marie specializes in counseling prospective adoptive parents, adopted people, adoptive families and first/birth parents. Learn more about Marie’s services, work and upcoming events on her website. If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume or bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

There has been a lot of discussion about the decline of intercountry adoptions following the latest U.S. State Department’s FY 2015 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption. A fact of the report that has not been widely discussed is that 59 children that had been adopted from other countries have entered state care in the U.S. Unfortunately, this number does not tell us what went wrong and how children who were promised forever families have now lost another family. Sometimes people avoid conversations about adoption dissolution fearing an open discussion may scare off potential adoptive parents and with over 107,000 children in foster care with a permanency goal of adoption, we cannot afford to scare off potential adoptive parents. However, we have an obligation to the children who have been adopted and those waiting to be adopted to do everything we can to decrease the number of future dissolutions by discussing risk factors and ensuring needed supports to minimize adoption dissolution.

With the majority of new international adoptions being older children with special needs, prospective adoptive parents need to have a clear understanding of the needs of the child they are hoping to adopt prior to placement. Countries that have ratified the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption must provide prospective adoptive parents with the child’s medical records but things can get lost in translation, and there are times that information may be inaccurate or incomplete. Additionally, non-Hague counties do not have to provide medical records to the prospective adoptive parents. Eight of the top 15 sending countries for 2015 were non-Hague countries.

Research has already shown us what we can do to decrease adoption dissolutions. We know specialized post-adoption services (respite, training, parent support groups and attachment-focused family therapy) decreases adoption dissolutions and admissions to residential treatment programs. We know intensive pre-adoptive training helps to increase more solid matches for special needs adoption. Training like MAPP (Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting) includes educating the prospective adoptive parents on the types of medical and mental health issues of waiting children and encourages prospective adoptive parents to reflect on their capabilities to parent a child with special needs. This is a very different type of pre-adoptive training that is required of prospective adoptive parents applying to adopt internationally.

There are additional reasons adoptions dissolve. According to “The Revolving Door of Family Court: Confronting Broken Adoptions” (Post & Zimmerman, 2012), some children are entering foster care after adoption because their parents were elderly and passed away with no guardianship plans for their child. Hague home study guidelines do not require a guardianship statement for prospective parents and only one U.S. state requires a guardianship statement as an element of the home study. Asking prospective adoptive parents to designate a guardian for their child during the home study process would help to decrease the number of children entering foster care after adoption. Some children are abused or neglected after adoption resulting in the child entering foster care. Home study preparers have an obligation to evaluate a child’s risk for being abused or neglected that goes beyond examining criminal and child abuse background checks. Applicants need to be screened for anger management issues, substance abuse and mental health problems that could potentially lead to neglect or abuse of a child.

Research has also shown that adoption dissolutions can be a result of a lack of extended family support (Child Welfare Information Gateway Fact Sheet, 2012). While the adoptive parents may have welcomed the child into their family, the extended family, in some cases, might have preferred that there was not a special needs child in the family. The home study process should include talking to prospective adoptive parents about extended family support and how it will impact them if they do not have the support of their family.

Some of these children may have entered foster care because their states’ regulations require a parent to give up custody for their children to be in a residential treatment facility (Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law). Our society never requires a parent to give up custody for a child to receive nursing home care, but many states mandate a loss of parental custody for a child to be treated in a residential treatment facility. While some would say this is not an adoption dissolution since the parents could regain custody upon discharge, the parents must still sign away their parental rights for the child to be in treatment, and while their child is in treatment, their parental rights to have a voice in their child’s treatment are limited.

There are things that can be done to decrease the number of adoption dissolutions both intercountry and domestically — many of which would cost little to no money. One very transformational element to help prevent dissolution could be a national standard on adoption home studies as well as working towards an improved Hague home study process and report. Improved home study standards could address issues around: 1) required training for applicants where the prospective parents need to reflect on their capabilities, skills and knowledge and requires the pre-adoptive parents to identify resources in their community prior to adopting; 2) guardianship; 3) applicant’s discussion with their extended family on their desire to adopt a special needs child; 4) improved screening around an applicant’s ability to handle anger, substance abuse and other issues related to abuse and neglect. An April 2013 policy brief, the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, recommended a singular home study tool to increase the timeliness of children from one state to another. The newly introduced National Adoption and Foster Care Home Study Act (HR5810) speaks to the need of a national home study standard and training of home study providers, which is a really amazing step forward but does not address the need for guardianship plans, training for prospective adoptive parents, extended family support for adoption and other additional screening of prospective adoptive parents. The federal government needs to increase funding for comprehensive post-adoption services. Traditional parenting is often not enough for children who have been neglected, abused, traumatized, lived in foster care or an orphanage. Post-adoption services that provide respite, support groups, training and counseling by adoption-competent professionals are crucial for adoptive families with special needs children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken the position that states can provide residential treatment for children with mental health issues without the parent’s losing custody of their child, but unfortunately, it has not taken a stand to stop states from requiring parents to give up custody of their child to receive treatment in a residential program.

This is the first year that the AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System) will have a statistic for the number of children entering foster care with a history of adoption. Once we have this number, the question is will the number of dissolutions be ignored like the intercountry adoption statistics or will it be part of a discussion to make meaningful changes in the system so children remain and do well in their forever families?



Post, Dawn J. & Zimmerman, Brian (2012). The Revolving Doors of Family Court: Confronting Broken Adoptions. Capital University Law Review, 40, 437-515.

Child Welfare Information Gateway (2012). Adoption Disruption & Dissolution Fact Sheet. Available online at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/s_disrup.pdf#page=5&view=Dissolutions.

Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Available online at http://www.bazelon.org/Where-We-Stand/Success-for-All-Children/Custody-Relinquishment/Custody-Relinquishment-Policy-Documents.aspx.

Call-Out for Guest Bloggers


The Donaldson Adoption Institute is looking for dynamic guest bloggers to contribute insightful and educational pieces on adoption and foster care adoption for our blog. We’re interested in the following topics:

  • Openness in adoption
  • Post-adoption services
  • Modern family experience
  • Maintaining healthy family connections
  • Lifelong journey of adoption
  • Access to original birth certificates
  • Influence of money and market forces on adoption
  • Balancing differences of race, class and culture in adoption and foster care adoption
  • Need for uniformity in adoption laws, policies and practices

If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume or bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. Once your topic is approved, please submit an 800-1,000 word blog post for our review and consideration. All submissions must be original and unpublished. Within one week, we will notify you whether your submission will be posted.

Let’s Give Every Family the Chance to Be Strong


Family is the foundation of humanity, binding us together, even with the nuances that make our experiences discrete. Family is also the fundamental building block of society. We all, for better or for worse, have people we call family. More than ever before, the landscape of family is changing, and supports are needed as individuals navigate the beautiful, yet complex relationships of today’s modern family. Particularly within the sphere of adoption and foster care, families may struggle at times to make sense of their blended experiences. The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) in partnership with the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY) is excited to launch “Building Strong Families: Advancing Post-Adoption Services,” a new initiative to provide education and advocacy surrounding the need for post-adoption support.

The research base is clear that families who come together through adoption and foster care adoption thrive when they are able to access quality post-adoption services and support. Yet, research also reveals a lack of adoption-competent options and an overall inaccessibility of appropriate services. Many families, particularly those who adopt from foster care, will benefit from counseling and other services to best meet their children’s needs. This is not because there is something inherently wrong with these families; rather the experiences that lead a child to experience foster care and subsequent adoption often include trauma. Although we may see this more commonly in adoptions from the child welfare system, the reality is all types of adoption require that parents are thoughtfully informed and prepared before an adoption is complete and that they have access to quality post-adoption services long after an adoption is finalized. Adoption is the essence of what is meant by the word “bittersweet”; it is filled with loss for all involved yet can also be filled with joy and healing. This type of experience naturally will require the right supports in order for all members of the extended family of adoption to make sense of their unique family and truly thrive.

When people reach out for help and find that it is difficult to come by, unaffordable or otherwise inaccessible, families are unnecessarily burdened. Although most families in adoption will ultimately manage these difficulties, many may struggle needlessly to overcome challenges that can be balanced when quality supports are in place. For some families though, the lack of support in the face of overwhelming hardship may lead to further disruptions and dangerous decision-making on behalf of children. The worst of these is seen in the case of unregulated child custody transfers, a process termed “rehoming” by the news media to capture instances where parents place children they’ve adopted with new caregivers outside of legal channels and without appropriate oversight. Although it would be unfair to say this behavior is common, even one child “rehomed” is one child too many. Surely, we can do better than this. And we must do better than this if we want to offer adoption as a solution that is in a child’s best interest.

“Building Strong Families” is an initiative with several key components that all serve to strengthen children and families. The “Building Strong Families” website includes information pertaining to relevant news and research in the area of post-adoption services, as well as resources that can help families gain access to existing services. In addition to this practical tool, “Building Strong Families” seeks to advocate for quality and accessible post-adoption services that are streamlined and appropriately funded. We are beginning in New York and hope to expand to other states as well. This advocacy effort will exist in partnership with organizations and individuals with both personal and professional connections to adoption and foster care adoption. It is within the experiences of those who have truly thrived when service provision was consistent with their needs that the strongest case for ensuring effective post-adoption services will be made. The New York advocacy effort will ideally serve as a model for other states to engage in similar efforts on behalf of their families, and regular updates on progress will be posted on the “Building Strong Families” website.

Under the best of circumstances, maintaining healthy family connections is challenging and requires preparedness, thoughtfulness and patience. For everyone in the adoption and foster care adoption communities, navigating this journey can be even more challenging. Access to quality post-adoption services is critical so families can thrive and children have all they need and deserve. To learn more about the “Building Strong Families” initiative, visit www.buildingstrongfamiliesny.org.

Strong families build strong communities and strong communities make a better world for all of us. Join us as we work to give every family the chance to be strong!


Olympian Simone Biles Reminds Us: We Do Need to Get ‘Real’ About Adoption


Simone Biles’ beam performance in the women’s individual all-around final at the 2016 Rio Games. Photo: Tatyana Zenkovich/European Pressphoto Agency

What makes the news in adoption? Most frequently, it’s the sensational. It is the “Either/Or” theme or “Us vs. Them” mentality that makes the headlines – either extremely good OR terribly bad; either this OR that. Rarely is adoption shown as the many shades of gray that more aptly depict this complex experience.

The most recent of these polarizing narratives surrounds Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, her kinship adoption, and the need society has to publicly and shamelessly call into question the diverse family connections that comprise the adoption experience.

Although NBC announcer Al Trautwig ultimately deleted the tweet in reference to Simone’s parents, in which he insisted “they may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents,” it’s true that nothing ever really disappears in the vast land of social media. Commentary continues in the wake of his ignorant remark, as the public weighs in with their opinions surrounding the authenticity of Simone Biles’ family connections, and how this reflects on their own family experience.

It is incredibly sad that something so personal as an adoption experience is being debated in the public sphere, as though any of us have a right to comment on how Simone chooses to reference her own family connections. Indeed, nothing seems to be sacred when it comes to using adoption as fodder for dramatic headlines, inappropriate punch lines or click bait. As two adoption professionals, we choose to comment on this recent media buzz simply to use what others have made public in the hopes of educating. Within this teachable moment, we wish to share three critical elements:

Adoption is Not Either/Or

The extended family of adoption include biological parents, parents through adoption, the child and the family members connected to each. In many ways, all families contain people who have multiple roles in our lives. An uncle can also be a godfather. Family roles need not be mutually exclusive, nor do they need to be in competition with one another. And while all people have parents we are born to, some people also have parents we know through the experience of adoption. One would think that as adults, who likely have some experience with complex family structures such as blended families and step-parenting, we would easily be able to make sense of these intricacies. Yet the conversation surrounding Simone Biles’ family says otherwise.

It is critical that as adults we learn to make sense of multiple family connections, value them all equally, and recognize that our responsibility is not to make ourselves feel better about these intricacies that sometimes push conventional ideas; rather, it is to ensure that a child can feel proud of whoever is a part of their family and validated in whomever they wish to call mom or dad. A child, young person or adult that has been adopted into a new family structure or system, even one that has biological connections through kinship adoption, need not be forced to choose between the two or have to decide which is better or what is “real.”

It IS What You Say

The overwhelming chatter surrounding Al Trautwig’s tweet focused on an issue that continues to deeply wound people connected to adoption – the language we use when talking about adoption and foster care experiences. It was not the fact that Trautwig insisted on referring to Simone’s parents via their ancestral connection to her; rather, it is what his comment implied about the meaning of parenthood when the role is not defined biologically or traditionally. In the articles and blogs that followed Al’s transgression, you could feel the pain such an implication generates. Adults who had a connection to adoption for many years continue to feel the sting at the idea that they are not “real” parents or that their parents are not “real.” We often completely ignore the biological parent in these conversations – a group that is often marginalized in these discussions.


There are many divergent opinions on language in adoption, with no easy solutions to the challenges we face when trying to figure out the “right” way to discuss adoption. It’s probably because there is no one way to have this conversation, but there should be a healthy way. As adults, we must work to better respond to this issue on behalf of the youngest among us, in a way that speaks to their needs. Too often, children are trying to make sense of their experiences in a world that has stigmatized adoption and painted it as second best. Within this debate about language, we must consider how the competing interests of adults impact the developing needs of children. When considering the wide range of words that can be used to describe the complicated and unique experiences in adoption, it’s important that our vocabulary should not be about what makes adults more comfortable, but rather, what is healthy for children. And it wouldn’t feel good for anyone to think that their parents are not “real.”

We Do Need to Get ‘Real’ About Adoption

There was a particularly insightful piece on Vox which candidly (and fittingly) pointed out that the most sensational aspect of Simone’s experience was the fact that the child welfare system managed to keep a family of color together through the beauty of kinship adoption. We know that children and young people of color are over-represented in foster care, often remain there for far longer than is appropriate, and frequently age out to live a life riddled with hardship.

The realities of the adoption and foster care experiences are far from the images most people have in their minds. While the extremes that headline in the news are the exception, it is a mistake to believe that these experience are without challenge, particularly for children who are waiting in our foster care system for a permanent family connection. Creating resources for these children, including a thorough exploration of existing family connections, should be our top priority. If we want to learn anything from Simone Biles’ experience, let it be that.

The adoption community comes together very quickly when public misperceptions wound the very core of what grounds us – our families. Meaningful change though will only occur when we can organize and align ourselves with one another to educate society in a healthy and realistic way about adoption and foster care. We need to increase these educational efforts across the board as well as access to quality pre- and post-adoption services for families. We owe it to our children to do so.

As two professionals in adoption, we offer this piece because we believe there is a pressing need to encourage a more evolved conversation about adoption and foster care. Within this need, we all must mindfully consider the language we use when discussing these deeply personal experiences and we all must work harder at shifting the focus to the realities of our experiences, not just what makes the headlines.

As two adopted people, we find it incredibly sad that an individual’s very personal situation continues to fuel a public debate that brings us back to the same tired place – whether an adoptive family is as good as a biological one. Nowhere does this debate seem more charged than within our very own adoption community.

We get that the words hurt. Believe us – it’s even harder when you’re a child who has been adopted and at every turn you have to defend how you wound up with a family you weren’t born to. At a very young age, we receive a loud and clear message from society that this is not an optimal situation to be in, and this is a message that continues throughout our lives.

But as adults, if we can’t move ourselves to a place where we all feel secure in our roles, where we own this experience in a way that our validation comes from within, it will be impossible to generate a much needed shift in this conversation with others. And so the cycle will continue, creating more hardship for the youngest among us. And in another 18 years, the next Olympic hopeful who also shares an adoption connection will generate the greatest buzz not about her amazing talent or effervescent spirit, but rather about who makes up her family and what she calls her parents.

We admire you, Simone Biles, for your beauty, and your power, for your breathtaking abilities and your grace. Thank you for representing the United States of America at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

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


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.