Louisiana Adoption Advisory Board
Adoption: A Balancing Act
December 15, 1998
Good morning! It is a pleasure to join you this morning and be a part of this wonderful conference. To clear up any misconceptions, I currently work in New York City but I am, I repeat, am NOT a New Yorker. I grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, went to undergraduate school at USL and got my MSW from LSU. In fact, my very first field placement was with what was then the Department of Public Welfare here in New Orleans – my first experience in working in foster care and adoption. Since that time, I have done much other work in child welfare but those experiences were the very foundation for me.
Today, we are here to look together at a range of issues that bear on adoption, a complicated area which, as the title of your conference so aptly states, requires lots of balancing. I would like to talk some this morning about the many challenges we face as we work in the area of adoption – adoption has so many faces for many different people. We may often find ourselves talking about adoption from a perspective that seems entirely appropriate only to find that others with whom we are talking have a very different world view of adoption. Depending on the context in which we find ourselves, we may encounter radically different perspectives on adoption itself not to mention some of the more hotly debated issues in adoption.
As a way of looking at these perspectives, I would like to consider the many faces of adoption from three focal points – how the general public views adoption, how the media presents adoption, and how we as professionals think about and address the range of issues that adoption presents.
First, how is adoption viewed by the public?
One of the questions that frequently arises as we discuss adoption — and particularly the need of so many children in this country for adoptive families — is how do people who are relatively unconnected with adoption — the general public — view adoption. Is their perception of adoption a wholeheartedly positive one or is the picture a bit more complex? In 1997, our agency commissioned a public opinion survey to find out the answer to that question. Our survey of more that 1,500 adults from across the United States revealed that Americans very much support adoption but at the same time are ambivalent about a number of aspects of adoption. I would like to share with you this morning some of the findings of that survey.
First, it is important to point out that Americans in general hold a very favorable opinion of adoption overall. The vast majority of survey respondents – 90% – agreed that adoption serves a useful purpose in society. However, half of those surveyed believed that adopting a child, while preferable to remaining childless, is not quite as good as having a biological child of one’s own. One quarter believed that it was sometimes harder to love an adopted child because the child is not one’s own “flesh and blood.”
One of the very interesting findings of the survey was that a majority of Americans (58 percent) reported that they had personal experience with adoption – that is, the individual, a family member, or a friend had adopted, been adopted, or placed a child for adoption. We found that personal experience was closely associated with positive attitudes about adoption. Those who fully supported adoption were very likely to have had personal experience with adoption whereas those who expressed more marginal support for adoption more often reported no personal experience with adoption. Those with personal experience with adoption were more likely to believe that parents get the same amount of satisfaction from raising an adopted child as a child born to them. They were also more likely to say that adopted children love the parents who adopted them as much as they would have loved the parents who gave birth to them.
How do Americans get information about adoption?
Those we surveyed most frequently cited friends and family as their main source of information about adoption. The news, magazines and books together ranked second as the main source of such information with entertainment programming running behind the news, books and magazines. Among those who were more marginal in their support for adoption, respondents were as likely to name the news as friends and family as their main source of information — a finding that is important when we consider the nature of news and entertainment coverage about adoption — a point I will shortly address.
The survey also revealed that Americans vary significantly in their views of and beliefs about members of the adoption triad. While almost all Americans saw adoptive families as lucky and advantaged, as many as one in four Americans questioned whether the love between a parent and child can be as strong in adoptive families as in biological families. Similarly, most people held positive views of adopted children. A large majority of those surveyed believed that adopted children are well-adjusted and secure, – but more than a third viewed adopted children as more likely than children raised by their biological families to have academic and behavioral problems.
The public viewed international adoptions as more troublesome than domestic adoption. More than half of the respondents thought that children from other countries would be more likely than children adopted in the United States to have emotional or physical problems. Those surveyed, however, expressed more positive views of the academic performance of children who are internationally adopted. More than half believed that children adopted from other countries would be less likely than children adopted domestically to perform poorly in school. We have often wondered about this split in the public’s views of internationally adopted children – why do they see these children as emotionally and physically troubled but more likely to do well in school? We have wondered whether the public has been influenced by media accounts of horrific outcomes for children adopted from Russian and the Eastern Republics on the one hand, but, on the other hand, have been impressed by accounts of the academic achievement of youngsters from Asian countries. That could account for the different views.
With regard to birth parents, most Americans expressed support for a birth parent’s decision in favor of adoption. Substantial percentages said that such a decision by a birth mother is responsible (76 percent), caring (78 percent), and unselfish (77 percent). One in four Americans (23 percent), however, generally disapproved of a birth mother’s decision to place a child for adoption and a somewhat higher percentage (29 percent) disapproved of a birth father’s decision in favor of adoption. The public’s opinion of birth fathers, in fact, tended to be more negative than their opinions of birth mothers. Birth fathers who relinquish their children for adoption were more likely to be considered irresponsible, uncaring, and selfish.
Americans expressed wariness regarding contact between birth parents and the children they place for adoption. We asked people whether they thought it was a good idea for birth mothers to maintain contact with their children by occasionally sending cards or letters. Only 16 percent of those surveyed thought it was a good idea in most cases —- a large (41) percent said it was a good idea in very few cases, or never. With regard to search and reunion, survey respondents were most favorable about the benefits for adopted individuals who find their birth parents: 68 percent said such contact was usually a good thing for the adopted person. The percentages went down when asked if such contact was a good thing for birth parents or adopted parents. Almost half said that contact was NOT usually a good thing for the birth parent and more – almost 60% said that contact was usually NOT a good thing for the adoptive parents.
Finally and very importantly, over a third of the respondents said they had ever considered adopting a child. However, almost half reported that they had not given any serious consideration to adoption. Responses varied somewhat by gender, race and education. I think it is important to point out that African Americans in larger percentages than white Americans reported that they had very seriously or somewhat seriously considered adopting a child. As we looked at the survey results, we found it of particular importance that personal experience with adoption is associated with positive attitudes toward and beliefs about adoption. Individuals who are not fully supportive of adoption rely less often on such personal experience and more often on the news and entertainment as their main source of information about adoption. So How Does Adoption Look When It Comes to the Way the Media Presents It? This question is important because while adoption professionals, adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents tend to seek out accurate information about adoption from a variety of sources – including professional and popular media, on-line resources, and informational meetings – the vast majority of Americans are not exposed to adoption except through the popular news and entertainment media. As one analysis after another has revealed, this coverage is likely to present a one-sided “face” of adoption – and the “face” that the public sees is most often dramatic, sensational or exploitative.
A survey of adoption portrayals in the mass media during the 1980s and early 1990s found that most stories focused on two themes: adoptees as troubled individuals with disturbing pasts. For example, a 1993 made-for-TV movie – called Family of Strangers– was described in the TV Guide as follows: Facing surgery that requires her genetic history, an adoptee seeks her biological parents in a desperate quest that unearths a dark mystery [the young woman’s birth resulted from a rape].
Most recently, television programming has again picked up the theme of adoption with a particular focus on the “dangers” of adopting. The program Law and Order has seemed to a special interest in adoption and the drama with which the program’s writers can surround it. That program has featured at least four shows with adoption as a theme:
In one, the issue was baby selling.
In another, an adopted woman tracks down her birth mother and kills her.
In the third, a couple adopts a biracial child and the murder concerns the birth parents trying to hide the birth father’s African American heritage.
The fourth show, which aired in September of this year, has generated a storm of protest, in which many have pointed out that the writers brought into play every conceivable stereotype about adoption. I will spare you the contorted story line, and instead simply highlight the major messages that the story conveyed:
1. All adopted children are problem children who are either mentally or physically ill, and who either turn out to be Ted Bundy or cost an uninsured fortune in medical care.
2. Birth parents are drug abusers, torturers, and otherwise wholly unsavory individuals.
3. Agency social workers are uncaring bureaucrats.
4. Falsification of records and fraud are simply par for the course in adoption.
TV movies and programs with their themes of adoption are only one aspect of entertainment programming with messages about adoption. Daytime talk shows have made adoption themes a staple. The Maury Povich Show, in a particularly disturbing example, focused one program on what was entitled, “Adoption Horror Stories” — in this show, three families who had adopted children who were quite destructive described how they had returned their children to foster care, relating in frightening detail their and the children’s stories. One guest summed up her experience by informing the audience, “Adopt knowing that you may be getting a potential Charles Manson.”
Soap operas also love adoption – how could they survive without out-of-wedlock pregnancies leading to shady adoptions, rivalries between birth and adoptive mothers, adopted children who are the consummate “bad seeds” and secret adoptions about which everyone in the show, except the adoptee, is aware? As one example, All My Children, ran a story throughout the entire year of 1996 about a teenager, a runaway, who placed her child for adoption, then attempted to seduce the adoptive father but was spurned by him. On the last day on which she possibly could, she withdrew her consent to the adoption but later — after much upheaval — returned the child to the adoptive parents. Another complex story line in the same soap opera had a leading character kidnaping a child and then attempting to pass off the child as her adopted daughter. Finally, in another soap, General Hospital, an adoptive mother suddenly announced that she placed a daughter for adoption at age 16 and just now, at age 40, had begun to think about that major fact in her life. In addition to these adoption story lines, soaps are enamored with “mystery” themes of adoption – with characters regularly discovering that they were adopted but no one ever told them and all too frequent situations in which the characters have placed their children for adoption, only to have them later come back and literally destroy their lives. News-related coverage on television is also likely to tend toward the negative when adoption is the subject. Analyses of broadcast news media programming have found that while there are positive stories related to adoption policy and human-interest narratives with positive outcomes for members of the adoption triad, many stories feature:
• atypical adoption battles between birth and adoptive families
• “horror” stories in which families are shown as having unwittingly adopted children who are portrayed as “unsalvageable”
• murderous adoptees, some of whom are serial killers; and
• children stolen from their birth parents so that they could be sold into adoption by unscrupulous agencies, doctors and lawyers.
It is not surprising under these circumstances that those in the general public who rely on the news and entertainment media as their primary source of information about adoption come away with reservations and concerns — about adoption itself as well as the impact of adoption on birth families, adoptive families, adopted children and adopted adults. It is also not surprising that the public may feel a certain level of skepticism about the professionals who practice in the field.
Which Bring Us to the Many Faces of Adoption
From the Professional Perspective
It is difficult to find a way around the fact that adoption is a complex subject. The social, psychological, legal, and cultural dimensions of adoption are inescapable . It is also a service that is affected by many – and sometimes competing —- forces. Adoption is shaped by policy at the international, national, state, county and agency levels. It is also shaped by practice – on the part of social workers, attorneys, judges, mental health professionals, physicians, as well as others. Even within each of these professions, there are variations. In the world of social workers, there are private agency social workers who may be focused on the adoption of infants and young children from other countries, public agency social workers who are focused on the adoption of children in foster care, and independent social workers who may solely do home studies. In the world of attorneys, there are practitioners who primarily work in the area of infant adoption and there are attorneys who represent child welfare agencies, represent children as guardian ad litems, and represent birth parents who may challenge the agency’s plan to terminate parental rights and free their children for adoption.
Adoption cannot by any stretch of the imagination be defined as a single service – there are domestic adoptions of healthy newborns; international adoptions of children from dozens of countries with widely varying practices and policies, and adoptions of children in foster care in this country. Those adoptions are themselves quite varied – children in foster care who need adoptive families cross a wide range of demographics – age, gender, race and ethnicity; have different physical, mental health and developmental needs; and are often members of sibling groups who jointly need the right adoptive family. And the families who step forward to adopt these children are themselves quite diverse – in their relationships with the children: they may be their foster parents, their relatives, or persons who are unrelated to them. And among those unrelated to children, we are seeing increasing diversity in this group – in terms of marital status, race and sexual orientation.
Adoption is indeed complex because it brings together the needs, interests and rights of a range of individuals– children, birth parents, relatives, foster parents, adoptive parents, and adult adoptees. These are individuals and groups whose needs, interests and rights do not always nicely coincide. In fact, they may be in outright opposition to one another. From a practice perspective, these competing needs, interests and rights can seem overwhelming. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that there is a lack of consensus among adoption professionals as to who – when adoption services are provided – is the client. In a 1995 survey of representatives of professional and child welfare associations and adoption-related organizations, the researcher, Anne Babb, found that there was significant disagreement about who the client is in an adoption. Some respondents considered the child in a proposed adoption the client; others identified the birth mother as the client; some said that the mother and the child were the clients; and almost half said the birth mother, the child, and the prospective adoptive parents were the “client”. The difficulties posed by serving multiple parties in a single service and balancing the needs of those parties bring a range of ethical questions to the fore.
At our Institute, we are currently working on a range of ethical issues in adoption. These issues – and I would like to share a few of them with you– point to the many “faces” of adoption that adoption professionals confront:
• For whom is adoption principally designed – for children who need families or for adults seeking to adopt?
• What does the “best interest of the child” mean in making permanency planning decisions? When is it in a child’s “best interest” to terminate parental rights and free a that child for adoption? Is there an obligation to the child regarding her connections to her birth family?
• How does the legal process related to adoption, particularly for children and families in the child welfare system, affect outcomes for those children and families? What is the impact of an adversarial process – when someone gets to “win” and someone inevitably “loses” – on children? On their birth families? On their adoptive families?
• What is the role of money in adoption? To what extent have “market” forces driven the way we practice adoption?
None of these is an easy question to answer. They elicit a whole range of values, interests, perspectives and considerations – all intertwined and all reflecting different aspects of adoption. But the way we choose to answer these questions will shape what adoption looks like now and will look like in the future.
As we struggle with these “hard” questions and often even harder answers, it might be helpful to focus, as I finish up my remarks, on how adoption looks to children who are adopted.
The ways in which adopted children and young people look at adoption – and what they see — are the probably the most important view of adoption of any I have discussed today – more important than what the public thinks, what the media presents, or what we as professionals may debate with regard to what makes adoption the service it should be. I would like to share with you some comments from children about adoption – comments that, not surprisingly, also reflect the complexity of adoption. These are drawn from David Brodzinsky’s wonderful book, Being Adopted.
As David makes clear, for many children, adoption can be a wholly positive experience for children, particularly at younger ages. Seven year old Phoebe, for example, says: I’m really happy now about being adopted because I have a family that won’t give me up – never. They told me.
Emma, also seven, is pleased about her adoption: Adoption means coming out of your first parents and then going to live with your second parents. The first ones are the ones who made you and the other people are your parents always. They have to take care of you and everything.
As children grow older, however, we know that many begin to experience concerns related to being adopted. Eight year old Paul, for example, when he talks about adoption, expresses his feelings of loss for his birth mother. He has come to terms with having a first and a second mother and says of his “first” mother: It was a funny feeling knowing that I didn’t know who she was. I was sad because I didn’t know her, and I wanted to see what she looked like. Sometimes I still get sad, but it doesn’t hurt too much. . . I don’t think adoption is all that bad. Even though you don’t know your first parents, you get new parents who love you, and that’s what counts.
For children who are adopted after being in foster care, adoption may mean different things. Some children struggle with their pasts. Gregory, for example, was adopted at age seven after two years in foster care and a physically abusive home life with his father and drug-involved mother. He says at age 19: Being adopted, it’s not the same as if you were born into the family. You just don’t feel as though you actually belong here. The more you think about it, the more confusing it gets. I keep searching for a reason that will help me understand why it’s all happened. I can’t find it. It’s very frustrating. I’m sort of angry about it a lot.
By contrast, Alicia, age 10, who was placed in an adoptive home afer five years in foster care, says right before her adoption was finalized: I think about myself as being adopted now. That’s better than thinking of yourself as being a foster child. Being adopted means “forever”, that your parents will love you and won’t send you away or hurt you, like what happened to me before . . . I’m adopted now and that makes me feel good.
We would want all children to feel as Alicia does, but as we have said over and over again this morning, adoption has many faces and is experienced in so many different ways by different people. Perhaps we can gain a great deal by simply acknowledging the complexity of adoption – the challenges it presents to those touched by it and to those who have devoted themselves professionally to it. Adoption is a balancing act all right – so let us go forth as this conference unfolds and pick up new balancing skills, polish up the old ones, and renew our spirits in the company of colleagues who understand just what a balancing act adoption is!