Tag Archives: Adam’s book

Equal Rights for All: It’s Finally Time for Adopted People, Too

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

As our country has focused enormous attention in recent days on the rights of one minority, gay men and lesbians, we continue (alas) to give short-shrift to the decades-long effort to achieve equality for millions of people in another segment of our population: Americans who were adopted into their families.

Change is in the air, however, and a grassroots adoption-reform movement — akin to the one that led to the marriage-equality cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court — is growing. The result is that an unusually large number of states — including Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington — this year have considered, or are considering, bills that would address adult adoptees’ second-class legal status by restoring their right to obtain their original birth certificates. I stress the word restoring because these records were accessible nationwide until the mid-20th Century, when one state after the other (except Kansas and Alaska), began sealing them.

The research is crystal clear as to why that was done — to protect adopted children, most of whom were born to unmarried mothers, from the shame and stigma of “illegitimacy;” and to prevent these women, who were even more shamed and stigmatized, from obtaining information that they might use to interfere with the adoptive family.

Many Americans today, notably including state legislators, mistakenly believe original birth certificates (OBC’s) were sealed for a very different reason — to keep the promise of anonymity given to unwed mothers when they parted with their babies. A big problem with that belief, in addition to its being historically inaccurate, is that it deprives the affected women of the one thing shown by research to help them deal most effectively with their grief and loss – that is, knowing that the children they created are alive and well.

Other work by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I have the privilege to lead, buttresses the point from virtually every perspective. For instance, research on Positive Identity Formation concludes that access to core information, such as OBC’s contain, provides important benefits for adopted children’s development. Research on Openness in Adoption finds there are usually gains for everyone concerned, including adoptive parents, when they have more information and contact. And a groundbreaking new report, titled Untangling the Web, recommends that “closed records” laws should be repeated because “the Internet obviates their main contemporary rationale,” which is to keep the parties to adoption from finding each other.

So, in the face of so much evidence that unsealing OBC’s would do a lot of good for millions of people in our country — with little or no indication of resulting harm — why have so many lawmakers in so many states refused to change the status quo for so many decades? From where I sit, the primary answers are mythology, misconceptions and mistaken beliefs, all born during the generations in which adoption was such a deep, dark, dreadful secret that many parents didn’t even tell their own children that they were adopted, and the women who created those children were driven underground because out-of-wedlock pregnancy was considered so disgraceful.

It’s hard to learn much about secrets, so all sorts of erroneous notions have come to be widely accepted, even by some professionals in the adoption field. So here is the bottom-line reality that I hope everyone, particularly legislators, will take into account going forward: The critics of restoring adult adoptees’ right to their OBCs warn that doing so will set off an array of dire consequences — from ruined lives, to increased abortions, to fewer adoptions. Whether they are right is no longer the subject of conjecture or speculation. Very diverse states from coast to coast — from New Hampshire and Maine to Alabama and Illinois, from Rhode Island and Delaware to Tennessee and Oregon — have taken this step, while Kansas and Alaska never sealed their records. So now we can see with our own eyes what calamities transpire when OBC access laws are approved.

The answer, very simply, is “none.”

All this information, and far more, is contained in two comprehensive, research-based reports published by the Adoption Institute, “For the Records” and “For the Records II.” Additional information is contained in testimony that I have provided on behalf of the Institute in various states that have considered OBC legislation in recent years, for example in Maryland.

Viscerally appealing arguments can be made by anyone, on any subject. Compelling anecdotes and singular experiences can be produced by any side, in any argument. So, in order to form the best possible laws, policies and practices, it is vital that we examine real evidence, solid research, and broad-based knowledge.

Those are the elements that have been placed front-and-center, appropriately, in the gay/lesbian marriage debate. It’s long past time for the same to happen during the deliberations in states across our country regarding the right of adopted people to have what everyone else around them assumes as a birthright: access to the simple, essential, unadulterated information about the beginning of their lives.

 

 

Before it’s Too Late: Understanding the Impact of Institutionalization on Children

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to:  http://huff.to/W2rO5X

Through all the dark shadows that Russia has cast with its ban on adoptions by Americans – on the affected girls and boys, on the U.S. citizens seeking to become their parents, and on the process of international adoption itself – a thin glimmer of light is struggling to emerge: That is, for the first time in recent memory, the consequences of institutionalization on children are receiving serious (albeit still superficial and sporadic) public attention.

For the record, the consequences can include emotional and social disorders; loss of IQ points and intellectual capacity; stunted growth and other physical ailments; and a host of additional psychological, physiological and behavioral challenges. Some of these impairments cause developmental delays that can be remediated and others can severely undermine the child for his or her lifetime. The bottom line is that even “good” institutions are lousy places for human beings to grow up, and research shows that the longer children remain in them, the dimmer their prospects for a reasonable future become.

Even knowing all this, I am not about to suggest that international adoption is the optimal answer for the vast majority of infants, children and youth around the world – including in our own country – who don’t live in secure, nurturing families. Nor do I intend to single out Russia as an exemplar of the problem, though the way in which it cut off one potential escape route for a small minority of its institutionalized children was particularly disconcerting.

Finally and very importantly, I do not mean to alarm potential adoptive parents or to stigmatize the children who need our help by laying out these realities so starkly. The uplifting fact is that children are resilient, and many of all ages do well from the get-go once they are being raised by parents who provide the individualized love and attention they need; for the rest, providing permanency and nurture as early as possible can make a titanic difference – which is to say that even those who face the challenges listed above begin to heal, make progress and even thrive once they are in caring families.

All of which leads to a few bottom-line suggestions for politicians, policymakers, child welfare officials and the general public in the United States, Russia and every other country:

  • Beginning tomorrow morning, provide the funding and resources necessary to ensure that children can grow up safely and successfully in their families, cultures and nations of origin – and so that the women and men who created them are treated without stigma and with respect.
  • Beginning tomorrow morning, provide the funding and resources necessary to prevent institutionalization, to replace institutions with more-beneficial interventions, to make out-of-home care as short and effective as possible, and to restore families whenever feasible.
  • Beginning tomorrow morning, reshape domestic norms so that adoption and other types of permanency are understood as positive ways of forming families for children who need them – and so that the parents who choose these paths are treated without stigma and with respect.

Those aren’t quick or easy solutions; in fact, it would be fair to describe them as idealistic, long-term dreams rather than as realistic, near-term goals, and that’s the point. Taking the steps necessary to help the millions of children who deserve to live in safe, stable and successful circumstances will take a long time, a lot of money and a level of commitment that few governments, anywhere, have ever provided.

So, while I mightily hope that President Vladimir Putin means it when he says Russia will now strive to take better care of its children, including getting more of them adopted domestically if they cannot return to their families of origin, I need to ask: Can you do that by tomorrow morning and, if not, what will happen to those who remain in government custody during the years, and probably decades, it will take to improve your child welfare system?

Again, that is not a question just for or about Russia. There are many children, everywhere, whose parents and other relatives should get the financial and social support to keep their families intact. There are many children, everywhere, who need interim living arrangements while they receive help for their medical and mental health issues. And there are many children, everywhere, who would benefit from moving into families willing to provide them with love and sustenance for the rest of their lives.

It’s hard to imagine there are many children, anywhere, who are better off remaining institutionalized.

The public discourse about these children to date has focused primarily on other concerns, ranging from national pride to money and regulation; from protecting the rights of parents to preventing the exploitation of children; from retaining original cultures to creating new opportunities. And, of course, they have included provocative debates about whether international adoption should play a role and about why Americans adopt from abroad when there are children in the U.S. who need families. (There are good answers to these questions, by the way, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

For now, I think it’s fair to say that these concerns and many others are real, vital and should be seriously discussed. They illustrate the complexity of the problems faced by the international community, by individual nations and by the interested parties in solving the so-called “orphan crisis,” which is a misnomer because a large percentage of the affected children still have at least one living parent – which, of course, makes the whole matter even more complicated.

Perhaps it is because the puzzle has so many pieces that so few countries, including our own, have been able to see the big picture, the one that shows millions of children languishing in temporary care while the adults who control their lives engage in genuinely important deliberations. So I suggest that whenever we look at these important issues, on the ground or at a policy level, we use the glimmer of light that Russia provided a few weeks ago to see them within a different framework, defined by a cliché that every country at some point claims to embrace: the best interests of the child.

It simply cannot be in the best interests of any girl or boy to remain in a setting where she or he loses ground every day. So, while we adults attempt to find the best possible medium- and long-range solutions for these children, let’s also carefully, thoughtfully, ethically implement every short-term measure possible – including family preservation and adoption – to prevent them from deteriorating to the point where even the best solutions will no longer make any difference.

 

New Realities in the Extended Family: Who is the Woman Celebrating Thanksgiving with Your Next-Door Neighbors?

March 27, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to:  http://huff.to/GV7pqq

Adoption has been around, in one form or another, for a very long time; to get a sense of how long, please see the Bible. As a result of its stigmatized, secretive history during much of the 20th Century, however (so stigmatized and secretive, in fact, that parents often didn’t tell their own children that they were adopted), there is a lack of understanding to this day about the parties to adoption and the nature of their relationships. And the repercussions of this lingering lack of knowledge are considerable – from inaccurate, corrosive stereotypes about the women who place their children for adoption; to uninformed, undermining attitudes about adoptive families; to obsolete laws and policies that treat adopted individuals as second-class citizens; to genuine surprise among most people when they learn about adoption’s current realities.

I hear that surprise regularly in the voices of the teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, journalists and others with whom I routinely interact as head of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national research and policy organization. “Are you sure birthmothers don’t want to just forget about the baby they put up for adoption and move on?” Yes, very sure. “I’m sorry that you, as an adoptive parent, couldn’t have any real children.” You should see my kids sometime; they look real. And: “It can’t be true that most states’ laws impede adult adoptees from getting their own medical information, can it?” Shocking maybe, but true as true can be.

All of which brings me to a just-published report from the Adoption Institute, the core of which is a new survey of adoption agencies nationwide and which is entitled “Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections.” It shows just how far we have progressed – and how profoundly families have changed – since the stigmatized, shame-filled, clandestine days when it was considered good practice to keep nearly all adoptions of infants in this country “closed,” meaning the children’s new families and their families of origin knew virtually nothing about each other and never had communication of any kind.

Leaping forward to today’s very-different world, here are some highlights of the Institute’s report:

  • Only 5% of agency infant adoptions start out as “closed” and most (55%) are “open,” which means the birth and adoptive families know each other and usually plan ongoing contact. (The remaining 40% are in the middle, with information exchanged through intermediaries.)
  • Equally telling is the finding that 95% of agencies now offer open adoptions; remember, not very long ago in our history, that number was zero.
  • In the vast majority of cases, the expectant mother considering adoption for her baby meets the prospective adoptive parents and chooses her child’s new family.
  • Adoptive parents, like most participants in open adoptions, report positive experiences;  more openness is also associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process.
  • Women who have placed their infants for adoption – and then have continuing contact with their children – report less grief, regret and worry, as well as more peace of mind.
  • The primary beneficiaries of openness are the adopted persons, as children and later in life, because of access to birth relatives, as well as to their own family and medical histories.

So, what does it all mean?

At the ground level, for the adults and children directly involved, it means we’re moving into an era in which the definition of “extended family” is being expanded to something along the lines of an in-law model – except it’s the children, rather than the spouses, who bring their relatives into the new family. It also means the practitioners who place babies for adoption need to better understand the sometimes-challenging road ahead so they can impart their knowledge to the involved parties, who themselves need to learn how best to navigate their complex new relationships. (The Adoption Institute is creating a curriculum for professionals and parents to help them do just that.)

Not all adoptions are “open,” of course, and most contemporary adoptions are not of infants; the majority are of older children from foster care in the U.S. and some involve boys and girls from orphanages abroad. One size does not fit all; no single type of family formation – by adoption or biology or step-parenting or guardianship or fostering – is right for everybody; and, while adoption has improved markedly in many ways in the last several decades, we’ve still got lots of work to do.

Even so, the knowledge we now have tells us that modern infant adoption increasingly involves informed consent, mutual respect and the genuine best interests of children to a degree that simply hadn’t existed before. And it tells us – in the really big picture – that adoption as a social institution continues to do what it has done for a very long time: open our minds and alter our collective views about what constitutes a family, and that’s very good news for the growing gamut of family constellations in our country today.

The woman celebrating Thanksgiving with your next-door neighbors is the mother who brought her son to this earth – and then placed him with his new parents. Don’t be surprised, be delighted.

 

If Kids Need Families, Why Do We Reject Parents?

September 15, 2011

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://tinyurl.com/pertmanhuff

Politicians love to say it. Child-welfare professionals work mightily to practice it. American laws and practices promote its essential truth: every boy and girl deserves to live in a permanent, loving family.

Yet tens of thousands of children in the U.S. spend their lives in temporary (i.e., foster) care, unable to return to their original families and without great prospects for being adopted into new ones. At the same time, the number of gays and lesbians becoming adoptive parents increases daily. This reality has raised hopes throughout our country among children’s advocates who see an underutilized supply of prospective mothers and fathers for so-called “waiting children.”

Across the United States, however, some conservative interest groups and politicians have worked in recent years to implement laws and policies that would prevent lesbians and gay men from providing homes for these boys and girls, and a few such efforts have been successful. The good news is that the research on this subject is almost unanimously one-sided — that is, it shows that non-heterosexuals make good parents, and their children do well (see the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute’s report on the subject, “Expanding Resources for Children,” and my two new books, Adoption by Lesbians and Gay Men: A New Dimension in Family Diversity and Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families). And, in the legal realm, the latest news is positive, too: the Arkansas Supreme Court recently struck a blow for best practices in child welfare by striking down a 2008 referendum — which allowed only married couples to foster or adopt a child from state care — as unconstitutional.

The bad news is that proponents of such measures are continuing to formulate legal and procedural strategies to accomplish their goal. Some of the activists engaged in the gays-shouldn’t-be-parents campaign acknowledge that they believe non-heterosexuals are problematic simply because of who they are. But most maintain, at least publicly, that they are motivated primarily by a desire to do what’s best for the kids who need families.

It is not homophobia, they insist, to establish rules that promote the benefits of parenting by both a mother and a father who are married to each other. They frequently add that preventing gay men and lesbians from adopting protects children from being negatively influenced, or even physically harmed, by the adults who are supposed to protect them.

Such arguments are, at best, ill-informed and, in many cases, plainly disingenuous. If politicians and others who make those assertions truly believe their own words, they should act quickly to remove the millions of supposedly at-risk girls and boys who are already in families in which one or both parents are gay. More urgently, they should swoop children out of single-parent homes, since those families deprive far more children of two married, cohabitating, heterosexual parents than any other cultural phenomenon in history.

Those are silly suggestions, of course, and no one is going to follow them (though there probably are some people who want to).

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I head, is not a gay/lesbian advocacy organization. We conduct independent, nonpartisan research and education projects on a broad range of subjects in order to improve the lives of everyone touched by adoption — especially children — through better laws, policies and practices.

Among the many reports we have published over the last several years are three about gay and lesbian adoption. They contain no shockers; in fact, they simply affirm what previous research has found: that children grow up healthier in loving families than in temporary care, including when the families are headed by qualified (training, vetting and oversight are all parts of the placement process) lesbians or gay men.

That is why a broad range of professional organizations — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Family Physicians, the National Association of Social Workers and the Child Welfare League of America — has come to the same conclusion as we have at the Adoption Institute. These are not fringe groups that would put kids at risk, but just the opposite. The common threads among all of the organizations listed here is that we are in the mainstream and we all work, based on the best available information, for the welfare of children. And we all agree that allowing adoption by qualified gay men and lesbians furthers that objective.

Not incidentally, most adoption practitioners in our country have come to the same conclusion. Indeed, one study by the Adoption Institute showed that a growing majority of agencies nationwide accepts applications from gay and lesbian prospective parents, and at least 40 percent have placed children with them. Again, the social workers, therapists and other professionals at these agencies aren’t in business to hurt boys and girls but to improve their lives. And they’ve decided that that occurs when children stop shuttling between foster homes and are firmly ensconced in permanent ones.

The bottom line is simple: no state can effectively prevent lesbians or gay men from becoming mothers or fathers, because they can do so in other ways — such as surrogacy and insemination — or by moving somewhere that permits them to foster or adopt children. So all a state can accomplish if it imposes restrictions, as Arkansas tried to do and as Utah and Mississippi still do, is to shrink the pool of prospective parents and, as a result, increase the odds that children in its custody will ever receive the benefits of living in permanent, successful families.

 

Random Musings: Innovation, Research and Reviews

August 3, 2011

Summer is a time for kicking back, soaking up some sun, and savoring every minute without the bustle of the normal stresses of workaday life. Yes, I’m fanaticizing – or at least kidding. In fact, this has been an unusually busy summer for me, but I’m truly not complaining, because I know how lucky I am to get to do what I do.

In July, for instance, I spoke at a terrific conference on Cape Cod sponsored by Joyce Maguire Pavao and her Center for Family Connections; visited a beautiful site in Connecticut where a camp for adopted kids will be held next year, based on best practice standards that the Adoption Institute is developing; attended a “launch party” for my new book Adoption Nation at an art gallery in Washington, D.C., hosted by Janice Goldwater and Adoptions Together; and – here’s the capper – ended the month by participating (with a lot of extraordinary people, including a Nobel laureate) in an invitation-only Innovation Forum in New York, organized by the Rockefeller Foundation, to discuss world problems.

August includes presentations at the annual conference of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, where I’ll talk about how research can improve laws, policies and practices; at a national education conference in Washington, D.C., where I’ll focus on key issues in the schools; and at a professional training in California, where I’ll discuss some of the Adoption Institute’s major initiatives (such as post-adoption services, youth aging out of foster care, positive identity formation, etc.).

And, of course, I’ve been promoting the work of the Institute – as well as my book – through television, radio, the internet and print publications. Please take a look at the front page of the Institute website or the media section of my blog to read, listen to and watch some of the interviews. And here’s one last bit of suggested reading: Adoption Nation. Order a copy, tell your friends about it, and recommend it to complete strangers!.

To recap, I get to run around all over the place, interact with smart and dedicated people, and do a lot of things I care deeply about. Yes, I will even take some time off for an annual family vacation on the Jersey shore. Am I a lucky guy, or what?