Tag Archives: adoption

From Steve Jobs to Kids in Foster Care: Lessons During National Adoption Month

October 31, 2011

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/v7WTPf.

With seemingly ceaseless regularity nowadays, most recently in the coverage of Steve Jobs’ passing, we are inundated by conflicting messages relating to adoption.

For the next few weeks, the wonder of adoption will be on display. November is National Adoption Awareness Month, so media outlets nationwide will be — and should be — writing stories about children whose lives are improved as a result of moving from foster care into permanent, loving families. President Obama will even issue a proclamation, as he and his predecessors have done routinely in past years, saying something to the effect that our country is blessed by this extraordinary institution.

At other times, of course, a very different picture is transmitted. Sometimes the focus is on adoptive parents who seem to regard adoption as child rental (remember the mother who “returned” her son to Russia?) or ones who purportedly use the child welfare system as a means of getting monthly support payments; the most sensational case took place several years ago in New Jersey, where a couple allegedly starved their four adopted sons in order to retain more of their state subsidies.

Press accounts cast an appropriately suspicious eye on parents who commit such horrid acts but, all too often, they also raise broader concerns about the competence and motives of adoptive parents per se; in particular, they implicitly or explicitly suggest that people may adopt children for dubious reasons or even that adoption itself is somehow a less-legitimate or less-desirable means of building a family than is childbirth. In the coverage of Jobs, for instance, we’re regularly seeing and reading reports that question his being “given away” by his “real parents” — language that hardly affirms adoption as a positive option.

So which is it? Lucky kids or kids relegated to second-class families? Good people trying to do the right thing for their children, either by placing their children for adoption or adopting them, or desperate people with suspect motives? What are we to think when we receive such disparate impressions, not just today, but time after time when there’s a high-profile story involving adoption? Or even when adoption is depicted in either very positive ways (“Modern Family”) or chillingly negative ways (“Orphan”) in the movies and on television?

Based on available research and extensive experience, two unambiguous images emerge: that most adoptive parents are doing the same things as most biological parents — that is, providing their children with all the affection and care they humanly can; and that, with rare exceptions, boys and girls are far better off in permanent families than in foster care, orphanages or any other temporary or institutional setting.

But adoption’s history of secrecy has afforded us with too few opportunities to learn about its realities. So we tend to assume we’re learning far more from singular, usually aberrational experiences — man bites dog is a story, after all, while dog bites man is not — than we usually are.

Yes, financial payments intended to increase the number of adoptions from foster care can cause complications, but that’s the clear exception. And, yes, families sometimes struggle as a result of the challenges their children face as a consequence of having been mistreated and/or institutionalized before they were adopted. But there is no indication that horrors such as the ones that typically make the news are being repeated with any regularity elsewhere, even though many thousands of parents throughout the country receive state subsidies — and even though the number of children being adopted from foster care is at historic highs.

Moreover, even in the most troubled systems, good things are happening daily. Most children are being reunited with newly healthy mothers, fathers and other biological relatives, while a fast-growing number of kids — over 52,000 last year alone and over 57,000 the year before that — are being adopted by loving parents who treat them well. The same is true for the hundreds of thousands of girls and boys who have been adopted from orphanages abroad over the last couple of decades.

It’s hard to learn much from secrets, so we as a culture don’t yet know enough about adoptions from foster care and institutions to put the aberrational stories in perspective. That’s changing, to be sure; organizations such as the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I’m proud to lead, are providing more and better research and knowledge – please take a look at www.adoptioninstitute.org to read our most recent work – and, partly as a result, the media are doing a better and better job of informing the public, policy-makers and others who profoundly affect the tens of millions of children and families for whom adoption and foster care are daily realities.

Even as we make progress, however, the still-widespread lack of knowledge has tangible, negative consequences that play out in the attitudes all these people encounter and the policies that impact their lives.

I am not defending any system that does less than everything possible to protect the children within it. But we live in a society in which nearly every program that helps vulnerable children receives insufficient resources; in which well-intentioned quick fixes replace (rather than augment) thoughtful, long-term solutions such as post-adoption services; and in which cases like the ones I’ve cited above fuel our worst stereotypes about adoptive parents, birth parents, their children, and adoption itself.

A positive and fair question for the media to ask (but I haven’t yet heard it asked) would be something like this: Would the world have had Steve Jobs without adoption?

During National Adoption Awareness Month, states across the country will celebrate by holding public ceremonies at which hundreds upon hundreds of children will receive the opportunity to move into permanent, loving and successful families.

I’d like to suggest it’s also a good time for all of us to start learning more about adoption, foster care and institutionalization (orphanages), because the problems will be fixed more rapidly if faulty stereotypes are replaced by genuine understandings. And the ultimate beneficiaries will be the hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, in our own country and others, who will still need homes long after we turn another page on our calendars.

The Critical Role of the Media in Shaping Attitudes

June 30, 2011

A lot of people in my world – that’s the one in which words like “adoption,” “foster care,” “orphan,” “search and reunion,” and “birth/first parents” are used almost every day – wonder why I talk to journalists so much when so many of them seem to understand so little about the issues we’re most concerned about.

Here’s why I do it: The media play a critical role in every society in huge ways, most pointedly by helping to shape popular attitudes and understandings about a wide, diverse array of topics. That’s true about presidential politics, international affairs, restaurant reviews and, of course, about the issues that profoundly affect the people in my world. Alas, generations of secrecy and stigma relating to those issues (and to the people they affect) have undermined public understanding of them by everyone from policy-makers to members of our own communities to … wait for it … the media.

So the short answer is that I talk to journalists so much because I know from having been one myself for 25 years that, believe it or not – and I know many readers of this blog won’t believe it – most of them really want to get it right and, once educated on a subject, will try hard to do so. The problem is that they, like the rest of the society in which they live and work, are the products of all the secrecy and stigma and shame that pervaded the world of adoption for generations.

Journalists cannot print or air anything unless someone says it to them, so one of my missions – as Executive Director of the Adoption Institute and author of the new edition of Adoption Nation – is to use all those words I mentioned in the first paragraph above, and many others that have become routine parts of my vocabulary, to explain our realities; unravel our mysteries; dispel our myths; shatter our stereotypes; and, as best as I can, promote better attitudes and understandings in the media, through the media and, eventually, to the broad range of readers, viewers and listeners whom they reach.

All of this is a long way of telling you that I’ve had a very busy few weeks talking to reporters, producers and TV/radio hosts. Many of the interviews grew out of promotion for my book, and I make no secret of the fact that I want at least one zillion people to buy it, read it and learn from it. But I promise you that, first and foremost, I enter every interview with my primary role being that of educator, and my goal being to improve life for everyone on the planet we inhabit.

Whew! Now here’s a list of most of the media in which I’ve appeared in the last few weeks:

  • June 10 – F OX News online, discussing the decline in international adoptions and the growth of adoptions from foster care: http://tinyurl.com/FoxNewsPertman.
  • June 7 – ABC affiliate News 10’s Sacramento & Co., talking about Father’s Day, as well as about respecting children’s heritage:  http://tinyurl.com/ABCSacramento.


Radio Interview on KWMR

May 10:

I had the pleasure today of speaking with Raul Gallyot of KWMR on his “Pleasures in Taste” show.  Discussed were issues and attitudes surrounding adoption and foster care. To learn more and listen, go to:  http://tinyurl.com/KWMRMay10.

A Healthy Reminder: Adopted People are Americans

February 28, 2011

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

News flash: Michelle Obama didn’t invent the crusade to improve Americans’ well-being. Her focus (as we all know) is childhood obesity but, for the last several years, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General has been waging an even farther-reaching, get-everyone-healthy campaign that centers on this website: https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action.

Essentially, citing the obvious fact that many diseases are inherited, the top health official in our country is encouraging all American families to keep abreast of their medical histories, not only in the past but in an ongoing way. And, to make this important task easier to accomplish, the Surgeon General’s site includes software that everyone can download at no cost to help track medical information about our parents, grandparents and other relatives.

For tens of millions of people, however, this well-intentioned initiative is nothing more than a mirage, an enticing glimpse of water in the desert that they know they cannot reach. Because all of the Americans whom this campaign targets do not in fact include the vast majority of those who were adopted, rather than born, into their families.

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The Real Clone War: Children vs. Budgets

February 17, 2011

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I wrote a column about the needs of children in our country. Yesterday, I re-read it in light of the cuts being proposed at the federal and state levels as a result of budget shortfalls, and realized how little progress we’ve made in the last decade. So here are some thoughts which, alas, didn’t need much changing to bring them up to date.

We humans are irresistibly drawn to subjects that deal with the core issue of our existence: creating life.

So, in the past, we have engaged in raging debates about and devoted endless newsprint to such revolutionary inventions as birth control pills and in vitro fertilization. Today, our collective attention is turning to even more complex and controversial technologies – most notably cloning, stem cell harvesting and reproductive techniques such as frozen embryo transfers.

It is not just fascinating to examine these mind-boggling developments, of course; it’s essential. Because they raise profound moral, ethical, cultural and legal questions, and because they challenge us all to define, or redefine, nothing less than who we are and want to be.

As I read fanciful stories about how we might one day create children, however, I can’t help but wonder when we will begin showing as much concern about the children we have already created.

The answer, unfortunately, appears to be “not anytime soon.”

Our country has never provided sufficient attention or resources to poor children, sick children, children in need of new families, and children who are abused or neglected. Not long ago, when state and federal officials could barely find enough ways to spend their unprecedented budget surpluses, nary a one of them suggested devoting a penny to hire more social workers, provide better health care, or otherwise improve these children’s prospects.

And now, as many of those same officials cope with treasuries depleted by a recession, wars and tax cuts, guess which Americans are among the hardest-hit by the resulting budget reductions in state after state? Yes, the very same ones who have never been a high priority – in our own country or most others – especially as both hard-pressed governments and individuals have focused on other admittedly important concerns.

Many children’s advocates believe the primary reasons are class and race; that is, most of the boys and girls in need of help aren’t affluent or white. While those are certainly major factors, however, the open hearts of some families – the number of adoptions from foster care, for example, have risen dramatically in recent years despite the poor economy – amply demonstrate that many Americans can and do transcend issues of class and race.  So there clearly must be other forces at work, too.

Ours is a culture, for instance, that promotes individual action over collective responsibility. It’s therefore no wonder many parents assume, since they adore and advocate for their own children, that there must be adults doing the same for other children – but they are simply wrong. Similarly, many of us assume the politicians and policy-makers who love to say things like “children are our most valuable resource” must be taking reasonably good care of that treasure – but, again, they are simply wrong.

Another cruel reality that undermines children’s prospects is their age. They aren’t old enough to vote, to lobby, to make their own voices heard, or to hire publicists to get their stories into the news; they must depend, instead, on the well-intentioned but only sporadically effective efforts of overworked social workers, stressed-out guardians, volunteer-driven advocacy organizations and other surrogates.

All of which brings me back (circuitously) to the ongoing but too-quiet national dialogue about potentially life-creating scientific marvels.

Yes, we must figure out what to do and how to do it for each new technology, based on its particular merits and challenges. But it is equally vital that we frame the discussion in a way that facilitates judgments based on a view of the entire picture rather than just isolated fragments of it.

So, when congressional committees and journalists and academics elicit information from experts about the social or financial implications of cloning or stem cells, for example, they should also include child welfare specialists in the conversation so that Americans can gain a full understanding of the context in which we – as individuals and as a nation – are plotting our future.

That not only would seem a reasonable approach for making sound decisions, but also would place millions of our country’s youngest, neediest citizens in a spotlight that has never shined on them before. Perhaps, once we finally see them clearly, we will begin caring as much about their future as we do about the fate of the cells that compose their bodies.