Tag Archives: Adam’s Commentaries

Legalized Infant Abandonment Roils Europe; Where’s the Debate in the U.S.?

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/13WOsN7.

A colleague emailed me a few days ago to suggest that I listen to an NPR story headlined “Spread of Baby Boxes Alarms Europeans,” about the growing number of facilities – now in at least 11 of the continent’s 27 countries – where newborns can be legally abandoned. “I’m very glad we don’t have anything like this in the U.S.,” my friend wrote.

Alas, she was wrong. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have implemented so-called Safe Haven laws during the last decade, with exactly the same intent as the Baby Boxes: to save newborns from being left in horrible places (dumpsters and the like) by providing safe alternatives. In Europe, they are hatches at designated buildings into which babies can be placed and then retrieved by trained workers on the other side; in America, they are usually hospitals, firehouses or police stations, where personnel inside can accept the child.

The big difference between their approach and ours, apart from the logistics, is that there’s a substantial debate in Europe over the effectiveness and wisdom of legalizing infant abandonment – with human rights advocates and the United Nations calling for an outright ban on Baby Boxes – while there’s barely a peep in this country because, thus far, lawmakers have accepted this bottom-line argument: “If it saves just one bay’s life, isn’t it worth doing?”

It’s a powerful, emotional, compelling argument. Alas, it is also deeply flawed.

The best social policies result from solid research, thoughtful planning and careful implementation. Unfortunately, these basic standards haven’t been applied to the laws that address the disconcerting, very real problem of infants being abandoned in dumpsters, bathrooms, and other dangerous places.

Instead, with too little information about the causes of the phenomenon or the potential effectiveness of the response, lawmakers nationwide have created these so-called “safe havens” – again, usually hospitals, police stations and firehouses – where new mothers can legally desert their babies, anonymously and without the risk of prosecution.

These well-intentioned laws spread so rapidly during the past decade because they promised an intuitively appealing, easy fix. But complex social problems are rarely resolved through simple, feel-good solutions. So it’s no surprise that the Donaldson Adoption Institute’s examination of the issue, entitled “Unintended Consequences,” not only concluded that there was no evidence the safe haven statutes work, but also found that they had serious drawbacks. The Institute is in the process of conducting research to update this report, which was published several years ago, but indications are that its findings remain true.

In a nutshell, the core flaw in these laws is that a mother who is so distraught or so in denial that she would stuff her newborn into a trash can is not likely, instead, to ask her boyfriend for a ride to the police station. The Institute found that disconnect to be the major reason unsafe abandonments were continuing unabated, even in states that advertised their “safe havens” on highway billboards and in public-service TV commercials.

Women in distress need counseling and support, not to mention pre- and postnatal medical assistance. But these laws don’t even pretend to offer resources to help mothers deliver healthy babies or to resolve the traumas that lead them to jeopardize their newborns’ lives.

This don’t ask, don’t tell approach does open a Pandora’s box, however.

It undermines the established legal rights of biological fathers to parent their own children, for instance, while precluding grandparents and other relatives from helping to care for the mother or her child. Alternatively, it creates the opportunity for irate boyfriends or disapproving family members to coerce an emotionally fragile teenager into deserting her baby, or even to take the child themselves and anonymously abandon it.

Perhaps worst of all, these laws proclaim, loud and clear, that deserting a child is socially sanctioned behavior. That’s an unnerving message for our culture to be sending. And we know anecdotally that it is being heard: Some women who never would have thought to deprive their offspring of genealogical, personal, or even critically important medical information are doing so now, because they’ve been given an option that’s less of a hassle than receiving parenting counseling or filling out an adoption agency’s paperwork.

So there are indeed infants being left at safe havens, but there’s no evidence that many – or perhaps any – of them would have been left in horrible places if these laws didn’t exist. Rather, they very likely are children who otherwise would have been adopted through traditional means or been raised by birth relatives, but who now must grow up without any prospect of knowing the most basic facts about themselves.

The Adoption Institute report raised other red flags, too, from specific concerns such as whether these laws actually encourage women to conceal their pregnancies and give birth unsafely, to the sweeping indictment that anonymous abandonment flies in the face of recognized best practices developed for decades by child-welfare and adoption professionals.

The proponents of safe havens and Baby Boxes most effectively answer criticism by saying their approach is worthwhile even if it saves just one baby’s life.

I have an alternative suggestion: Let’s aim higher. Let’s conduct the solid research, and then do the thoughtful planning and careful implementation. That way, we can develop policies that help women who face crisis pregnancies, prevent infant abandonment – and maybe, just maybe, save all the babies’ 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.

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