Research: Institute Research
UNTANGLING THE WEB
THE INTERNET'S TRANSFORMATIVE IMPACT ON ADOPTION
Author: Jeanne A. Howard, Ph.D.
Published: 2012 December, New York NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
Document Type: Policy and Practice Perspective (70 pages)
Availability: PDF Full Report | Executive Summary | Press Release
The first-ever examination of the Internet’s impact on adoption, released today, concludes that social media and other elements of this modern technology are having "transformative" effects – positive and negative – on adoption policy, practice and millions of people’s lives, while raising serious legal, ethical and procedural concerns that have yet to be addressed.
"Untangling the Web: The Internet’s Transformative Impact on Adoption" is the initial publication of a multiyear research project on the subject by the Donaldson Adoption Institute. Its key findings include:
- There is a growing "commodification" of adoption on the web, replete with dubious practices, and a shift away from the perspective that its primary purpose is to find families for children.
- Finding birth relatives is becoming increasingly easy and commonplace, with significant institutional and personal implications, including the likely end of the era of "closed" adoption.
- A growing number of young adoptees are forming relationships with birth relatives, sometimes without their adoptive parents’ knowledge and usually without guidance or preparation.
- A rising number of websites offer useful, positive resources and expedite the adoption of children and youth who need families, notably including those with special needs.
"We hope this report will serve as a wake-up call that something historic is happening that demands the attention of legislators, practitioners, law-enforcement officials and the affected parties themselves," said Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Adoption Institute. "In the longer term, our intent is to help shape policies and practices that respond to the shifting landscape in ways that protect vulnerable children and parents, while taking full advantage of the benefits that this new technology can bring."
Among the recommendations in the Institute’s 70-page report are:
- Professionals who deal with expectant and pre-adoptive parents should get training reflecting the certainty that many, if not most of their clients. will be able to find each other at some point, and should educate them about the benefits of openness and the realities of such relationships.
- Practitioners should get additional training and resources to enable them to better assist the growing number of adopted individuals and others who seek help with search and reunion.
- Policy and law-enforcement officials should routinely review online adoption-related sites/activity for fraud, exploitation or other illegal/unethical practices, and should take action as warranted.
- Laws that impede the parties to adoption from gaining significant information, including "closed records" statutes, should be repealed since the Internet obviates their main contemporary rationale (i.e., preventing the affected parties from learning about and finding each other).
It is difficult to describe the extent to which the Internet is changing the everyday realities of adoption – and the lives of the millions of people it encompasses – without using words that sound hyperbolic. But a yearlong examination of the effects of this very new technology on a very old social institution indicates that they are systemic, profound, complex and permanent.
Social media, search engines, blogs, chat rooms, webinars, photo-listings and an array of other modern communications tools, all facilitated by the Internet, are transforming adoption practices, challenging current laws and policies, offering unprecedented opportunities and resources, and raising critical ethical, legal and procedural issues about which adoption professionals, legislators and the personally affected parties, by their own accounts, have little reliable information, research or experience to guide them.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s research for this report affirmed that substantive information about the Internet’s impact on adoption is scarce in the scholarly literature – or anyplace else – so there is little reliable knowledge to inform policy and practice, or to guide families or professionals. To begin filling this gap, the Adoption Institute has embarked on a multiyear, first- of-its-kind study of the Internet’s impact on all aspects of adoption. Because there is a dearth of evidence-based information, most of the content of this report was derived from searching the Internet and getting input from the affected parties through a variety of means, including interviewing them and setting up a special email address to which they could send their input.
One key goal of this initial report by the Adoption Institute is to stimulate a national discussion about the Internet’s impact on adoption and how to regulate Internet-based adoption services to assure that they are legal and ethical, and that the interests of all those affected –particularly children– are protected. This report provides an overview of the evolving landscape; an explanation of the scope and impact of the changes; resources (albeit limited ones) to inform, protect and assist all those affected; and preliminary recommendations on legal, policy and practice reforms intended to better respond to adoption’s new realities. Our ultimate intent is to identify and promote policies and practices that enable this powerful technology to best serve the millions of children and families for whom adoption is part of everyday life.
The Adoption Institute’s key findings on the Internet’s impact on adoption to date include:
- A growing "commodification" of adoption and a shift away from the perspective that its primary purpose is to find families for children. This is particularly the case in domestic infant adoption, where a scarcity of babies available to be adopted heightens competition. Unregulated websites compete with traditional practitioners, sometimes by making claims and utilizing practices that raise serious ethical and legal concerns.
- Finding birth relatives is becoming increasingly easy and commonplace, with significant institutional and personal implications, including the likely end of the era of "closed" adoption and a growth in relationships between adoptive families and families of origin.
- An indeterminable but growing number of minor adopted children are contacting and forming relationships with biological siblings, parents and other relatives, sometimes without their adoptive parents’ knowledge and usually without guidance or preparation about the complex emotional and interpersonal repercussions for everyone involved.
- A rising number of useful, positive sites, such as ones that expedite the adoption of children and youth who need families, notably including those with special needs; and more places to get information and education, networking opportunities, support services and other resources that are a clear contribution to professionals, policymakers, researchers, journalists and the millions of personally affected individuals.
- Evidence that the Internet has many additional positive effects on adoption and the people it touches. For instance, there are growing numbers of opportunities for affiliation, support and information-sharing that would be impossible to achieve without the technology and reach of the Internet and, in particular, social media.
Because the territory covered by this review is extensive and on-going, these initial findings are necessarily general, as are the recommendations presented below. The Adoption Institute will follow up in the coming months and years with more-detailed additional research, as well as education and advocacy initiatives to improve Internet-related laws, policies and practices.
- Key organizations and experts in the fields of child welfare, foster care and adoption (Child Welfare League of America, National Association of Social Workers, American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, and representatives of major agencies and stakeholders) should convene for the purpose of devising best-practice standards and identifying other guidance/materials for use in the short-term while additional research is being conducted. The Adoption Institute plans to organize such a meeting in mid-2013.
- Education and training programs should be developed by and for adoption professionals so that they gain a better understanding of the positive and negative uses of the Internet and social media (including improved understanding of the technology itself), They then need to develop comparable programs to pass on this knowledge to their clients.
- Adoption practitioners, social workers and others who deal with birth and adoptive families should revise their curricula and training regimens to reflect the reality that many if not most affected parties will be able to find each other at some point, if they wish, and should provide their clients with commensurate information, education, counseling and other supports that recognize most adoptions likely will be "open" to some extent.
- Adoption practitioners of all sorts need to receive training and devise materials that enable them to better assist the growing number of adopted individuals, first/birthparents and other members of families of origin, adoptive parents and others who are coming to them for assistance in search and reunion activities.
- Child welfare organizations, researchers and other professionals should devise and post information on the Internet for prospective parents (adoptive and birth) explaining how to assess the array of online services and thereby enable them to make informed decisions based on a clear understanding of the ethical, personal and legal issues involved.
Policy and law recommendations:
- Policy-makers at the state and federal levels should commission research and hold hearings to determine whether changes in law or policy are needed to serve their constituents who are affected by adoption, and to ensure that everyone is protected from scams, exploitation or the risk of psychological harm.
- Policy and law-enforcement officials at all levels should routinely examine adoption-related activity on the Internet to determine whether fraud, exploitation or other illegal or unethical practices are taking place, and should follow up, as warranted, by issuing warnings to violators, pressing charges and/or instigating statutory changes.
- Social media and Internet companies, particularly Google, Facebook and others that have a major impact on the issues discussed in this report, should conduct and enable research to inform their activities and should re-examine their policies and practices to determine if they need to be altered in light of the findings of this report.
- Laws that impede or prevent the parties to adoption from gaining important information, including statutes preventing adopted adults from accessing their original birth certificates, should be repealed since the Internet obviates their primary contemporary rationale (i.e., keeping the affected parties from learning about and finding each other.)
The list of positive, negative and complicated changes occurring in the world of adoption as a result of the Internet goes on and on, with many already in place and others still evolving. The common denominator among them is that they are not best practices derived from lessons learned from research and experience; rather, overwhelmingly, they are transformations that are happening simply because new technology enables them to happen. It is critical that those concerned about ethical adoption practice alter this reality by determining how to use the Internet to assure the rights and well-being of all parties, while improving adoption overall.