Fathers in Adoption: Are They Forgotten?
Attend just about any adoption conference of professionals or parents and typically the attendees are predominantly female. Does this merely reflect the longstanding bias that hearth and home are women’s business or are other factors involved?
Exploring the scant social work literature on fathers in adoption begins to shed some light on this question. Clinical practice and agency policy in social work tend to espouse a family-centered, biopsychosocial perspective that views each person in context, using multiple lenses in assessment and intervention. Thus, while fathers’ roles in the family are often disputed, few would contend that biological/birth/original or adoptive fathers are irrelevant or should be ignored.
In contrast to the literature on adoptive mothers and birth/original mothers, however, remarkably little explicit attention is paid in the adoption literature to the issues and needs of birth/original fathers or adoptive fathers (Green, 2006).
Adoptive fathers’ issues are typically subsumed in the literature within the mixed gender category of “adoptive parents.” In order to begin to understand birth and adoptive fathers’ roles, issues, and needs so that policy and practice build and strengthen families, it is crucial to understand each man’s route to adoption, unique circumstances, and characteristics.
Routes to Adoption
Each of the many different routes to adoptive fatherhood brings different clinical and practical issues that birth and adoptive fathers, policy makers, and clinicians must be aware of so they can be appropriately addressed. These routes affect both the biological and the adoptive dad.
For instance, most men who become adoptive fathers do so as stepparents who have adopted their wives’ children from previous relationships (Cahn & Hollinger, 2006). Being a stepfather often differs from fathering a child by birth, as the child the stepfather adopts may have strong feelings about the biological father, feelings that may influence the child’s behavior and family dynamics. Stepfathers who adopt must navigate interlocking and disparate stepparenting and adoption issues within themselves, in their relationships with the child’s biological parents, with other children in the family, and so on, in expanding ripples in the extended family pond.
Surrogacy and ART
Surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology (ART) are also routes to fatherhood involving adoption issues. Through surrogacy, a man may become a father using donor sperm and either his female partner’s or another woman’s ovum; sexual intercourse, artificial insemination, or in vitro fertilization using test tubes and Petri dishes may be used to join the egg and sperm. The resulting child may be genetically related to one, both, or neither nurturing parent, depending on the nature of the surrogacy or ART arrangement, each of which introduces unique legal, psychological, relationship, and adoption issues into the fathers’ (and others’) lives. For example, do the nurturing father and biological father have a moral responsibility to maintain contact with each other, so the child has access to potentially lifesaving medical information that was not known at the time of conception but emerged later?
Men who become fathers by adopting a child through the public child welfare system must navigate adoption issues unique to that route to parenthood. Foster fathers are the primary source of adoptive fathers for children in the foster care system (Pertman & Howard, 2012), and gay men are more likely to adopt children from foster care (Brodzinsky, 2012), perhaps because discrimination limits other routes to adoptive parenthood.
Adoptive fatherhood through the foster care system may involve challenges stemming from the child’s history of abuse, neglect, and loss; these traumatic experiences may affect brain development in ways that influence a child’s ability to regulate emotions, manage impulses, anticipate consequences, attach, develop prosocial skills, and function academically and behaviorally in school. Most of the children from foster care who are available for adoption are no longer infants, are of color, and many may have other special needs (for instance, they are part of a sibling group that needs to be adopted as a unit or have physical or behavioral health challenges or learning differences).
Private Licensed Agencies
Hoping to circumvent some of these challenges, some men choose to adopt a healthy infant through private licensed agencies. State by state and agency by agency policies and practices vary in the home study, preadoption education, and placement processes; each variation brings different issues into the adoptive father’s and biological father’s lives.
Private, Unlicensed Facilitators
Pre- and postadoption supports also vary widely when the adoption is facilitated not by a licensed agency but by a private adoption facilitator. For example, when biological fathers and prospective adoptive fathers use the Internet to make a match, few ethical protections are in place. Deception, manipulation, exploitation, fraud, and other dubious activities are not uncommon (Whitesell & Howard, 2013).
International, Transracial, Transcultural Adoptions
International adoptions, and domestic adoptions that cross racial, ethnic, and cultural lines also introduce unique issues into the fathers’ lives, as the adoptive father has additional responsibilities to learn about and incorporate his child’s heritage into the adoptive family so the child need not navigate these issues alone. Birth fathers may need to deal with the fact that they and their child cannot communicate in a shared language.
In addition to the type of adoption, social workers must also be aware of how the father’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and relationship status affect his adoption experiences.
Types of Adoptive Fathers
The issues a father navigates are shaped in part by whether he is heterosexual, gay, or another sexual minority; single, married, or coupled but unmarried.
Society seems to prefer heterosexual, married parents, and women as single parents (Brodzinsky & Pertman, 2012). Only 3% of single parent adoptions from foster care are by men (U.S. Children’s Bureau, 2013). More single women than single men seek to adopt, and many agencies are leery of placing a child with a single father (Shireman, 2006). As a result, a single man is most likely to adopt through the public child welfare system and is thus more likely to parent a child who has special needs (Howard & Freundlich, 2008) that require unique fathering skills and social resources not readily available.
Gay adoptive fathers, be they single, partnered, or married, encounter other issues. The actual number of gay adoptive fathers is not known, but an estimated 4% of adopted children in the United States are in gay- or lesbian-headed homes (Brooks, Kim, & Wind, 2012) and a review of the literature indicates themes. For example, in states that prohibit gay marriage, the fathers must decide how important it is to have both men legally adopt their child, how open they should be about their sexual orientation in the home study process, and how they will manage bias and inequity in a heteronormative world. Despite pejorative stereotypes and oppression, the growing research literature on children raised by gay adoptive fathers shows that they are as well adjusted as children raised by heterosexual fathers (Pertman & Howard, et al, 2012), and gay adoptive parents are no more likely than other parents to have psychological problems (Goldberg, 2010).
Regardless of the route to adoption or the type of adoptive father, there are core emotional themes that both birth fathers and adoptive fathers are likely to experience.
Core Emotional Themes
Birth and adoptive fathers tend to experience similar emotional themes, manifested in different ways. These themes include loss and grief, confusion and bewilderment, identity, rejection, intimacy, shame and guilt, control, and anger.
For example, both the birth and adoptive fathers have experienced losses; the birth father has lost his parental rights, and the adoptive father may have lost a child he longed to have by birth. Both men may ruminate about the loss and experience other losses with greater intensity or feel different from men who parent their biological offspring. There are no mourning rituals for these kinds of ambiguous, disenfranchised forms of chronic sorrow. The fathers may experience the feelings alone, as others may minimize or dismiss them.
The adoptive father may feel inadequate due to infertility. Even the most responsible, proactive, and caring birth father may fear society’s scorn for him as someone who walked away from his child. Both fathers may experience guilt and shame around the adoption; the adoptive father may feel he is not entitled to parent someone else’s child, and the birth father may feel caught in the unresolvable double bind of wanting to take proper care of his child but unable to parent that child.
Both fathers may experience identity confusion; the adoptive father may wonder, “Am I really this child’s father?” while the birth father may wonder, “When someone asks me how many children I have, do I include this one in my answer?” Similarly, both fathers may experience issues regarding control, as, for example, neither father has total control over the birth mother’s decision to complete an adoption plan.
Research on Birth Fathers
A negative stereotype persists, that birth fathers are troublesome, uncaring, obstructionist, irresponsible, or worse. Yet there is little research-based knowledge about birth fathers, and no studies using representative samples, as there is no definitive national database (Green, 2006). Hence, we know little about who birth fathers are and how any adoption decision has affected their lives. We do know that very few birth fathers are involved in the process of infant adoption (Smith, 2006). It is up to each individual state to decide how to protect birth fathers’ rights. For instance, some states have a birth father registry; a putative father’s rights can be terminated if he has not put his name into a registry or does not respond to a legal notice printed in the newspaper. The father may or may not know that the registry exists, and the legal notices are in tiny print in seldom-read sections of the paper. As a result, the registries intended to protect birth fathers may actually instead screen them out of the adoption decision-making process.
Research on Adoptive Fathers
Research on adoptive fathers generally subsumes them within the broader category of “adoptive parents,” not addressing their concerns separately from adoptive mothers’. Most of the research on fathers has been on biological fathers raising their biological offspring (Lansford, Ceballo, Abbey, & Stewart, 2001). One study (Schwartz & Finley, 2006) concluded that adoptive fathers were more “nurturant and involved” when compared with adoptive stepfathers and nonadoptive stepfathers. Studies of open adoption indicate that adoptive fathers tend to feel content with whatever form of openness exists in their child’s adoption. It also seems that adoptive mothers in heterosexual marriages are more likely than adoptive fathers to assume responsibility for maintaining contact with the child’s birth family, and usually the contact is with the birth mother, not the birth father (Siegel, 2003). As adoptive fathers and birth fathers are as varied as fathers in general, drawing any definitive conclusions about them is illusive; one must have healthy regard for the many differences among fathers of all types.
Guidelines for Policy and Practice With Fathers in Adoption
Widely disparate state laws and agency practices regarding birth fathers require reform (Smith, 2006) so biological fathers’ rights to make fully informed choices for themselves are protected. Laws discriminating against sexual minority fathers must be changed so that the legal advantages that marriage provides are equally available to all fathers and their children and families.
Birth and adoptive fathers need access to high-quality, informed preadoption education, counseling, and support to foster their self-determination, ensure their informed consent, and help them make decisions that honor their needs and the needs of their children. Adoption is a lifelong process, not an event. Hence, in addition to preadoption services, birth and adoptive fathers need ongoing access to competent postadoption support and clinical care.
It is likely that today’s adoptees will use digital communication, e.g., search engines, social media, text messaging, e-mail, and other electronic devices, to create and maintain connections with their biological relatives. Hence, every birth and adoptive father should plan at the outset for this possibility, and should enter adoption with explicit, realistic, honest agreements with each other about contact. It is no longer reasonable to assume that secrecy in adoption can be maintained.
The social work profession’s commitments to promoting social justice, celebrating diversity, ending oppression, and enhancing functional family connections support the importance of attending to birth fathers and adoptive fathers. Both men play important roles in the adopted person’s life and in the life of the extended family formed by adoption.
— Deborah H. Siegel, PhD, LICSW, DCSW, ACSW, is a professor in the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, a clinician specializing in adoption issues, an adoption researcher, and an adoptive parent.
Brooks, D, Kim, H., & Wind, L. H. (2012). Supporting gay and lesbian adoptive families before and after adoption. In D.M. Brodzinsky & A. Pertman, Adoption by lesbians and gay men. (pp. 150-183). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Brodzinsky, D.M. & Pertman, A. (Eds.) (2012). Adoption by lesbians and gay men. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Brodzinsky, D. M. (2012). Adoption by lesbians and gay men: A national survey of adoption agency policies and practices. In D.M. Brodzinsky & A. Pertman, Adoption by lesbians and gay men. (pp. 62-84). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Cahn, N. & Hollinger, J. H. (2006). Stepparent adoption. In K. S. Stolley & V. L. Bullough (Eds.), The Praeger handbook of adoption, volume 2. (pp. 601-603). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Goldberg, A. E. (2010). Lesbian and gay parents and their children: Research on the family life cycle. Washington, D.C.: American Psychology Association.
Green, K. M. (2006). Birth fathers. In K. S. Stolley & V. L. Bullough (Eds.), The Praeger handbook of adoption, volume 1. (pp. 103-106). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Howard, J. & Freundlich, M. (2008). Expanding resources for waiting children II: Eliminating legal and practice barriers to gay and lesbian adoption from foster care. New York, NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Lansford, J. E., Ceballo, R., Abbey, A., & Stewart, A. J. (2001). Does family structure matter? A comparison of adoptive, two-parent biological, single-mother, stepfather and stepmother households. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(3), 840-851.
Pertman, A. & Howard, J. (2012). Emerging diversity in family life: Adoption by gay and lesbian parents. In D. M. Brodzinsky and A. Pertman. (Eds.), Adoptions by lesbians and gay men. (pp. 20-35). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Schwartz, S. J. & Finley, G. E. (2006). Father involvement, nurturant fathering, and young adult psychosocial functioning differences among adoptive, adoptive stepfather, and nonadoptive stepfamilies. Journal of Family Issues, 27(5), 712-731.
Shireman, J. (2006). Single parent adoptions. In K. S. Stolley & V. L. Bullough (Eds.), The Praeger handbook of adoption, volume 2. (pp. 538-543). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Siegel, D.H. (2003). Open adoption of infants: Adoptive parents’ feelings seven years later.Social Work, 48(3), 409-419. [Publisher printed a corrected Table 1 in the October 2003 issue, 48(4), 503].
Smith, S. (2006). Safeguarding the rights and well being of birth parents in the adoption process. New York, NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
U.S. Children’s Bureau. (2013). The AFCARS report: Adoption and foster care analysis and reporting system (AFCARS) FY 2012 data. Retrieved June 4, 2014, fromhttp://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/afcarsreport20.pdf.
Whitesell, A. & Howard, J. (2012). Untangling the web: The Internet’s transformative impact on adoption. New York, NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.