Tag Archives: best interests of the child

Big Lessons That Transcend the Movie: There Are Philomenas All Around Us

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1i7uEzY

As I was leaving the theater over the weekend, after watching the mesmerizing movie “Philomena,” a couple of middle-aged women nearby were talking about how much they had learned from the film. “It’s awful what happened in Ireland back then,” one of them said. “I’d never known about it before.”

What they learned, in a nutshell, was that girls and young women like the real-life Philomena – who got pregnant out of wedlock in that country during the 1950s – were frequently forced to work under brutal conditions in convent laundries as “penance” for their “sins.” And then their sons and daughters were routinely, mercilessly spirited away from them to be adopted by wealthy Americans, most if not all of whom showed their gratitude to the church with generous “donations.”

“Philomena” is far more than a glimpse into the past, however, and I hope that people who see it (and I wish I had a magic wand to induce everyone to do so) will derive far broader and more essential lessons. Because the reality is that during the mid-20th Century and beyond, severe religious, social and familial stigmas against unwed motherhood were the norm far beyond Ireland. As a consequence, it’s almost certainly true that there are more Philomenas in the United States than in any other country – i.e., women who, given a choice, would have parented their children rather than suffering the anguish of losing them and wondering about them every day because they were placed into closed adoptions.

Perhaps most unsettling, both because some of the stigmas remain and because adoption policies and practices have not yet progressed sufficiently, more Philomenas are being created every day.

So from the perspective of a leader of a think tank dedicated to making adoption as thoughtful, ethical and compassionate as possible for all of its participants, here are a few of the big takeaways that I hope will be embedded into the consciousness of the viewers of this important movie.

First and foremost, shaming or coercing parents into parting with their children or, worse, removing their children without consent (even when that’s necessary), inflicts profound and lasting psychic wounds. On-screen in “Philomena,” it looked like a form of torture, and I’m sure many women would describe it that way. A related lesson: Women whose children go to adoptive homes rarely “forget and move on.” They may do the latter, especially if they had a real voice in the process, but just as was the case for Philomena, the lives they created remain in their minds and hearts and souls. And, if they don’t know where their sons or daughters are, they anguish over whether their children are healthy or sick, even dead or alive.

There unquestionably are circumstances in which children need new families, especially if remaining in their original ones puts them in harm’s way; furthermore, there certainly are women and men who willingly place their infants for adoption. Given what we know about the enduring repercussions of being separated from one’s child, however, policy and practice must do a better job of ensuring that families can stay intact when possible, and that parents receive the help they need when that goal cannot be met. Moreover, women and men who do consider adoption for their children should be enabled to understand all of their options beforehand, so that they make genuinely informed decisions, and should receive pre- and post-placement counseling and support as well.

There’s a vital lesson in this film about adopted people, too: Like their peers who are raised in their families of origin, adoptees typically want and/or need – and certainly deserve – to know from where and from whom they came. They are too often prevented from obtaining that knowledge, however, by laws that keep their records sealed; by practices that keep their adoptions closed; and by attitudes that mistakenly equate their desire or need to know with disloyalty to their adoptive parents.

The insights provided by this quietly powerful movie are not simply the conjectures of a filmmaker, written for dramatic effect. Rather, they are based on the real life of the title character – and they reflect the truths of generations of women and the children they lost. It’s also important to say that the lessons in “Philomena” are borne out by decades of experience and research, including “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process” and “For the Records II: An Examination of the History and Impact of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates.” Both are the work of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which is currently embarking on a new “Safeguarding II” study intended to define and shape best practices in options counseling for expectant parents.

Most people who see “Philomena” will undoubtedly come away thinking far more about Judi Dench’s riveting performance than about the need for continued improvement of adoption laws, policies and practices. But this movie, because it is so popular and so well-received, provides the best springboard in years for a broad conversation about the undermining consequences of stigma, shame, secrets and lies – and about how we can reshape social attitudes and institutions that were built on those foundations.

Adam Pertman, President of Donaldson Adoption Institute

Eye-opening Insights Into International Adoption, Orphans, Special Needs and “Re-homing”

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1aFxZ4t

A chilling story has been getting considerable attention in the news during recent weeks: Adoptive parents around the U.S., feeling unable to cope with the severity of their children’s problems, are using the Internet to informally move them into new families — without any professional guidance, support, monitoring, supervision or regulation. The process is called “re-homing,” and it clearly needs to be addressed (i.e., stopped) with targeted laws, policies and practices.

At the same time, this phenomenon needs to be viewed as more than a window into the struggles of a relatively small number of people. Rather, it should be understood as a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents are not prepared for the needs of the children they adopt, and don’t receive the necessary training, support or services to meet those needs (see “Keeping the Promise“). It also should be seen as the tip of an iceberg of unmonitored, unregulated adoption-related activities taking place on the Internet (see “Untangling the Web“).

Finally and pointedly — in the context of a new study by the Donaldson Adoption Institute titled “A Changing World” — the “re-homing” story should be understood as an insight into the emerging realities of intercountry adoption, because nearly all of the children in the news being “re-homed” were adopted from abroad.

The Adoption Institute study shows that a growing number of the girls and boys being adopted from other nations today are not the infants of adoption’s recent past but, instead, are older and sometimes have serious special needs. As a result of this new reality, the study recommends (among many other things) that best practices be created, reshaped and implemented to enable all their families to succeed and, for those with severe problems, to prevent the kind of distress that leads desperate parents to seek radical solutions like “re-homing.”

“A Changing World” represents the most extensive independent research into intercountry adoption to date, including into the regulatory framework/treaty called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCIA). The research was conducted over the past two years by scholars at Tufts University and the Institute; among its components are surveys of about 1,500 adoptive parents, adoption professionals in the U.S. and other “receiving” countries and countries of origin, as well as interviews with senior policymakers in 19 nations.

Key findings in the study, based on the responses from parents and professionals, as well as an extensive literature review and additional research, include:

• More children are remaining in orphanages for longer periods of time, thereby incurring the increased developmental and psychic harm that comes from being institutionalized, while also diminishing their prospects for ever moving into a permanent family.

• Though many prospective parents chose intercountry adoption to avoid contact with children’s families of origin, a fast-growing number change their minds and seek connections — which is leading to a growing increase in international open adoptions.

• Many countries of origin, including the largest ones such as China, are increasingly allowing the intercountry adoption primarily or exclusively of children who have special needs, are older, and/or are in sibling groups (to be adopted together).

• While the overwhelming focus for children in U.S. foster care is finding permanency domestically, American officials are also endorsing adoptions for some of them into families abroad. Ninety-nine children were adopted out of the U.S. last year..

• There is greater transparency and consistency in the international adoption process, as well as an increased focus on the best interests of and protections for children who need families, though there is great variability from country to country.

• The ongoing changes in the world of intercountry adoption have contributed to a steep drop in numbers (from a peak of almost 23,000 adoptions into the U.S. from abroad in 2004 to fewer than 9,000 last year and to rising costs that can exceed $50,000.

Based on its analysis of the research findings, the Institute’s recommendations include:

1. To the greatest extent possible, countries of origin should provide more-complete and accurate diagnoses/records on medical and mental health issues; these are often lacking, so it is more difficult for adopting families to prepare for and meet their children’s needs.

2. Receiving countries should offer more training and resources to help countries of origin improve their child welfare and adoption systems, thereby helping more children while showing that their primary interest is not just increasing intercountry adoptions.

3. Receiving countries should provide preparation, services and supports for adoptive families; the research found they too often do not know where to turn, and the help they need sometimes is not available. Preparation on special needs and openness is critical.

4. To the extent possible given economic and social realities, countries of origin should develop and provide better adoption education and supports for domestic families. The goal should be that more children can be placed in families in their own communities.

5. Adoption practitioners should provide more and better information for prospective and adoptive parents about the prospects/realities of making and maintaining contact with families of origin, and about positive ways to navigate possible relationships.

Intercountry adoption has changed comprehensively in the last few decades — and is still in the midst of its transformation from a robust but largely unmonitored process through which tens of thousands of infants and toddlers moved into new homes annually, into a smaller but better-regulated system serving primarily children who are older and/or have special needs. At the same time, uncountable hundreds of thousands (and probably far more) of boys and girls of all ages remain institutionalized in countries around the globe, many if not most with minimal prospects of ever living in a family or reaching their potential.

The accumulation of greater knowledge about adoption is critical to shaping, improving and implementing the laws, policies and practices that are ostensibly designed, first and foremost, to serve these children’s interests and to enhance their prospects for better lives.

Adam Pertman, President

Ellen Pinderhughes, Senior Fellow

Donaldson Adoption Institute

In Whose Best Interests?

February 9, 2011

The professional consensus in the child-welfare and adoption worlds is that decisions relating to the placement of children into new families should be made, first and foremost, to benefit the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society. You know the mantra: “In the best interests of the child.” Trouble is, too often, it’s lip service paid by sometimes well-intentioned and sometimes less high-minded adults who have other agendas – economic, political, ideological, personal or all of the above. Kids don’t vote, don’t lobby and don’t legislate, so the grownups most often get their way.

All this comes to mind because Arizona’s Senate is considering legislation (SB 1188) that would revise state law to mandate that “ a married man and woman” receive preference in the adoption of children. Individuals would  be permitted to adopt under specific circumstances, for instance if a married couple was unavailable, if the alternative was long-term foster care and – ready for it? – if it served “the best interests of the child.”

Looking at a state that does not have married couples lining up around the block to provide homes for children in need of them (that goes for every state, by the way); in which gays and lesbians are not permitted to marry; in which about one-third of children in foster care, including some with the toughest special needs, are currently being adopted by singles – and in light of research clearly showing that children grow up far better in permanent, loving families regardless of the number or type of parents – I think it’s fair to ask whether the idea here is to engineer a better future for boys and girls, or to conduct some social engineering.