A New Chapter in Adoption History: For Millions of People, the Internet is Changing . . . Everything

Read on the Huffington Post

It’s hard 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 shows that they are systemic, profound, complex and permanent.

Social media, search engines, blogs, chat rooms, photo-listings and an array of other modern communications tools, all facilitated by the Internet, are transforming adoption practices, challenging laws and policies, providing unprecedented opportunities and resources, and raising critical ethical, legal and procedural issues about which professionals, legislators and the personally affected parties have little reliable information, research or experience to guide them. Continue reading

Adoption Subsidies: A Vital Tool for Families Adopting from Foster Care

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/RhtYve.

More than 104,000 children in the United States are waiting in foster care to be adopted by permanent, loving parents. These girls and boys, who are on average 8 years old, typically remain in temporary situations for over three years before being placed with “forever families.”

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 aimed to help waiting children achieve permanency by requiring states to provide subsidies to parents who form families through adoption, thereby removing financial barriers that prevented many of them from doing so. These subsidies, at a median of just $485 a month, help families meet the basic needs of their children, including such critical services as health care, therapy or tutoring to address their sons’ and daughters’ physical, mental, cognitive and developmental challenges.

Adoption assistance helps many families adopting from the child welfare system – the vast majority of whom are foster parents (54%) or relatives (31%) who have very low incomes.Nationally, nearly half (46%) of families adopting from care are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. State data reveal a similar trend: In Illinois, one study found most (56%) of families had annual incomes under $35,000 (excluding subsidies) and another found almost one-third (30%) had annual incomes under $20,000 (including subsidies).

Many parents report they could not have afforded to adopt without a subsidy. Among adoptive and prospective adoptive parents of foster children in a multi-state study, a big majority (81%) said subsidies were important to their decision to adopt and more than half (58%) said they could not have done so without them. In a study of success factors associated with families’ adoption of children from care, two-thirds (66%) of parents said they needed the subsidy to be able to adopt. The top barrier to foster care adoption cited by African American families is the lack of financial resources to support additional children.

According to economic analyses, subsidies “have a positive and statistically significant effect on adoption rates” and “subsidy policy is the most important determinant of adoptions from foster care that is under the direct control of policymakers.” A Department of Health and Human Services’ evaluation found that “adoption subsidies are perhaps the single most powerful tool by which the child welfare system can encourage adoption and support adoptive families.”

Finally (for now) research shows that adoption yields cost savings versus foster care. One economist found that every dollar invested in adoption of a child from care returns about three dollars in public and private benefits. Another study concluded that the government cost savings for the 50,000 children adopted annually from foster care ranges from $1 billion to $6 billion.

Despite all of this evidence (and more) about the value of adoption subsidies, when states experience budget shortfalls, they often decrease child welfare spending – including by limiting adoption subsidy amounts and/or restricting eligibility. To counter this trend, the Adoption Institute and the North American Council on Adoptable Children have created advocacy materials for parents, professionals and other activists to use at the state level. These resources are available at http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/advocacy/subsidies.php; they include:

  • An Issue Brief, “The Vital Role of Adoption Subsidies: Increasing Permanency and Improving Children’s Lives (While Saving States Money),” that presents research illustrating the critical value of subsidies to parents, states and, most pointedly, to children who need families.
  • Resources with state data (as well as general legislative, budget and child welfare policy sources) to supplement the national information in the Issue Brief. This information is designed to make the most compelling case possible to state legislators and their staffs.

As part of this campaign, the Adoption Institute and NACAC are seeking feedback from adoptive parents and child welfare professionals about the specific need for adoption subsidies in their states and any proposed limits to those subsidies, as well as their experiences educating lawmakers’ offices. To provide input, ask questions or offer suggestions, please visit: http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/advocacy/subsidies.php.

In an era of increased emphasis on evidence-based policy, maintaining adequate adoption subsidies is not only in the best interests of children, it is a sound investment in an effective strategy to saves states money. Modest payment increases of 10 percent could result in nearly 100 additional adoptions from foster care in a state in one year, while reducing these allowances undercuts vulnerable children’s chances of placement in secure families, gaining stability in their lives, and achieving better outcomes and prospects for their futures.

Georgia Deoudes, Policy & Legislation Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

Untangling the Web: A Groundbreaking Project – and a Request for Help

Social media and other elements of new technology are instigating life-altering changes in every aspect of adoption. These historic shifts range from creating challenges and opportunities for child-placement, counseling, outreach and other professional practices; to facilitating search and reunion to an extent never before imagined; to complicating the ability of courts, agencies and parents to determine the nature of contact between minor children and members of their families of origin.

In short, for good and for ill, the Internet is rewriting the rules of adoption.

I’m writing today – along with my colleague at the Donaldson Adoption Institute, Dr. Jeanne Howard — to tell you a bit about (and ask your help on) an important new research project that Jeanne is leading for us. It is titled “Untangling the Web: The Internet’s Historic Impact on Adoption” and it aims to achieve several objectives over the three years we plan to devote to it (funding permitting):

  • Gain a better understanding of what’s happening and its implications.
  • Offer knowledge-based findings and recommendations on effective/best practices for all the affected professionals, families and individuals.
  • Provide information and resources to enable all parties to deal more thoughtfully and effectively with the changes that are forever reshaping adoption.

Here’s how you can help: If you have examples, ideas or any other feedback from your professional or personal experience that could inform our work – issues in law, policy, practice or everyday life that we should be looking at, large and small – we would greatly appreciate hearing from you.

This means illustrations of how the Internet has improved or harmed aspects of adoption; stories of how social media have led to wonderful reunions or problematic ones; instances of positive, affirming communications or terrible ones (such as an abusive adult ignoring a court order and contacting a child) and whatever other issues you have seen, have concerns about, or think we need to research/address.

To share your input: Please send an email to this address: InternetProjectAI@gmail.com.

Let us know in your message whether we can contact you to get further details or clarification on the information you provide. Also, feel free to forward this blog – which also is being circulated as an emailed letter – to anyone on your own lists whom you think might be able to contribute. We will carefully review all messages and may use some as examples in our publications.

Your thoughts and examples will be invaluable to making this groundbreaking project a success, so thank you enormously in advance for taking the time to help. 

Jeanne Howard, Research Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

Adoption in the Media: What Do Pregnant Women, Killers and Crying Babies Have in Common?

August 8, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/RACl6J.

When we don’t fully understand something, we’re prone to make mistakes when dealing with it. This not-very-profound truism popped into my head a few days ago as I was thinking about how to lead into a new commentary – the one you’re reading right now – about the negative repercussions of the secrecy, stigma and shame that permeated adoption for generations and, alas, sometimes still do.

Here are just a few of the examples I was considering as a jumping-off point, and I did not make any of these up: A new reality show called “I’m Having Their Baby,” which films pregnant women as they agonize over the decision of whether to place their newborns for adoption; a headline in a New Jersey newspaper, “Did They Adopt Their Killer?” atop a story about a 26-year-old man accused of murdering the father and grandmother who had brought him up “as their own” for two decades; and an online poster of two infants, the laughing one assuring the crying one, “Dude! I’m joking, you’re not adopted!”

Ah, welcome to the wonderful world of adoption, a place where women are baby-delivery devices for other parents, where men slay the people who raise them because they are not biologically related, and where the very idea of having entered a family in this way is so unnerving that it makes you weep.

It’s tempting to look at all this and conclude that the problem is the media, which too often succumb to the sensational without doing their homework – or caring – about the accuracy or consequences of their seize-the-second hyperbole. So, for example, was the status of that New Jersey family relevant in any way to the murders that were committed, because that’s the implication of the headline, and what’s the message it sends about adoption generally? And, of course, the internet provides a forum for every kind of random notion anyone can conceive, and there are lots out there that are far more toxic than the suggestion that being adopted is an insult; but it’s worth asking what that poster’s impact might be on adopted people (especially children) and, again, what’s the message it sends about adoption generally?

While the media play a significant role in perpetuating misinformed myths and negative stereotypes relating to adoption, however, they obviously did not create those beliefs and I’m confident they rarely transmit them with bad intent. Rather, journalists and television producers and regular folks who post pictures on Facebook primarily reflect the perceived truths of their culture – and the unfortunate fact is that we are still living with the remnants of the bad old days of adoption, when unwed mothers were routinely pressured to give up their babies; it was common not to tell children they were adopted (remember: we keep secrets about things we’re embarrassed about or ashamed of); and adoptive parents were often viewed as having second-best families that might even include “bad blood.”

Combine all those elements with another truism about secrets – that it’s very hard to learn anything about them – and here we are. That is, we’re learning more and more about the realities of the tens of millions of people affected by adoption but, as a culture and as individuals, we retain some of the lingering misconceptions that can undermine their lives.

The title of the new cable show “I’m Having Their Baby” is one of the best examples I’ve seen in a long time, even without getting into its content. I genuinely believe the creators of that program did not mean to transmit any hurtful messages relating to adoption; I’m sure, instead, they saw an opportunity to get strong ratings with episodes chock-full of drama, pathos and empathy, all the while demonstrating just how excruciating the decision to part with one’s child can truly be.

My professional life is all about educating the world about adoption’s realities, including the tough ones, but pregnant women serving as baby carriers for other people? That emphatically should not be among them. Use this title for a show about paid surrogates, not one about women whose options – and, vital to keep in mind, whose preferences – also include parenting the children to whom they give birth.

For the women on screen, is simply participating in something called “I’m Having Their Baby” not-so-subtly letting them know what they’re supposed to do? Will it unwittingly serve as a message to other pregnant women, and to prospective adoptive parents, as well? More broadly, will it communicate to everyone watching that this is what adoption is all about? In 2012, after we’re made so much progress on women’s reproductive rights and on best practices for everyone involved in adoption, am I really still asking these questions?

Adoption is not just about child placement. It is also about family diversity, about equal rights, and about treating everyone involved with respect and dignity. We couldn’t do that very well during an era when we lied to our own children, drove women underground and shamed nearly everyone else involved. Looking back, we can argue – whether it’s a rationalization or a fact – that those practices simply reflected the mores of their time and, besides, there was a lot we didn’t know.

Well, the times have changed, and we know very much more. So now what’s our excuse?

An Unnerving Reality: We’re Deporting Adoptees

May 29, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/K9NYiR.

Imagine that your daughter, whom you raised from infancy, was convicted of forgery. You certainly wouldn’t be surprised if she were prosecuted for that felony and, while it would be heartbreaking, you’d expect her to be punished, probably even imprisoned. Now let’s add one more element to this real-life scenario: How would you feel if the penalty imposed on your 30-year-old child – who suffers from multiple sclerosis – was deportation to another country where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the native language?

I am not making this up. It is happening today. It is obviously devastating to the woman facing a jarringly disproportionate punishment for the crime she committed, but it is also much more than that. It is a vivid example of the unfairness and inequality that sometimes exist in the world of adoption.

What may be most unnerving is the fact that this is not an aberration; while it is hardly commonplace, it has happened again and again. And there has been virtually no media attention, or public outrage, or embarrassment on the part of immigration officials, or concerted effort to reform law and policy so that people who were adopted into their families are placed on a level playing field with their biological counterparts.

Here’s the core of the case: Kairi Abha Shepherd was adopted from India into the United States in 1982, when she was three months old. Her mother, a single woman in Utah, died of cancer eight years later, so Shepherd went on to live with guardians for the remainder of her childhood. More details are in this news story from last week: http://bit.ly/KzkIP5.

In short, Shepherd’s adoption took place before 2000, when a new federal statute conferred automatic U.S. citizenship on most children adopted internationally into this country; the law included a retroactive provision, but she was adopted a few months before it kicked in. So the adults in her life were supposed to fill out paperwork for her to become a citizen – but, like many others, they either didn’t know or, for whatever reasons, never got around to doing it.

As a consequence, when Shepherd was convicted in 2004 of forgery to feed a drug habit, U.S. authorities did what they do to many felons who don’t have documents showing they are Americans: They started deportation proceedings, which are now coming to a head. It doesn’t seem to matter that Shepherd has lived as an American for all but a few months of her life, and it is an extraordinary price to pay for a bureaucratic oversight made by the adults who raised her.

Again, this is not an aberration. Last year, a 31-year-old mother of three, who was adopted from Korea when she was eight months old, was held at a federal detention center in Arizona and faced deportation after a second theft conviction. It’s unclear what happened to the woman, who was not named (http://bit.ly/KiQ65Q) but the bottom line was the same: Her adoption took place before the period covered by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, and neither she nor her parents ever applied for citizenship for her. So, even though she had lived in the U.S. nearly all her life, had given birth to three children on our nation’s soil, had never as much as visited Korea and didn’t speak the language, federal authorities wanted to send her “back.”

There are more examples, too, dating back at least 15 years; indeed, in my book Adoption Nation, I write about a young man who was adopted into the U.S. as a child, convicted of car theft and credit card fraud, and deported at age 25 to Thailand, where (same story) he knew no one and didn’t speak the native tongue. Can you imagine anything comparable happening to someone born into his or her family, whatever the offense? Of course not.

People who break the law should unequivocally pay an appropriate price for their offenses. But I think it can fairly be argued that the reason some are being ejected from the only country they’ve ever known is not because of the crime they’ve committed – but because they were adopted.

This feels grievously wrong. We should be shocked, we should be outraged, and we should do whatever is necessary to halt the cases already in progress and to prevent this from ever happening again.