Tag Archives: legislation

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.

Are Children’s Issues Only Important in Attack Videos?

January 10, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go tohttp://huff.to/xz5Dxk

Politicians love children. We believe that to be true because they say it all the time (you know, things like “children are our future”). They also showcase their own kids during commercials, campaign with them if they’re old enough, and even kiss babies when they get the chance.

So why, when they make their policy decisions and set their public priorities, do so few of our elected officials offer specific plans — as they routinely do for budget cuts, military spending and an array of other matters — for how they would provide children with better medical care, enhanced educational opportunities or increased prospects for success, for instance by reforming the foster care system so that more boys and girls can stop shuttling from home to home and can, instead, move into permanent, loving families? Children are routinely cited as the beneficiaries of the ideas politicians suggest, whether tax cuts or hikes, increased spending or less of it. But it’s hard to recall a single instance of a candidate advocating a specific programmatic initiative with children at its core.

All this comes to mind because child welfare, specifically relating to international adoption, actually has recently made it onto the political radar screen — although not exactly in the way one would have hoped. Rather than appearing because a candidate finally decided that children’s well-being should be on the list of America’s explicit priorities, the issue arose instead because someone decided it was good fodder for an attack ad.

The YouTube video, released by self-proclaimed supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, labels presidential rival John Huntsman as a “Manchurian Candidate.” It contains one shot of the former Utah governor holding his daughter born in India and another of him with his daughter born in China; disparaging captions accompany each photo, with the cumulative objective of questioning Huntsman’s values.

It’s a revolting piece of work on many levels. Using children as a weapon against their parents for political gain crosses the most basic ethical line. And, as the leader of an adoption research and policy organization, I find it truly unsettling that anyone can suggest that providing a family for a child from another nation is somehow an indicator of the parents’ loyalty to their own.

Huntsman denounced the ad, of course, explaining that his Chinese daughter had been abandoned and his Indian daughter had been “left for dead” (unfortunately implying that adoption is a means of rescuing children rather than a way of forming families — but that’s a commentary for another day), and saying that his two adopted girls are “a daily reminder that there are a lot of kids in this world who don’t have the breaks that you do.”

What Huntsman did not do — and neither did any of the other candidates, nor any of the journalists covering them — is use this vicious video as the jumping off point for a discussion of the children in our own country and in others who “don’t have the breaks that you do.” Most to the point, no one used the occasion to suggest ways to actually do something about it.

Is the message clear yet? Just in case I’ve been too subtle, here’s the point: Children’s concerns, embedded in concrete proposals and programs, should be on the priority list of every candidate in every party of every ideology running for every office, right there alongside national security, improving the economy and other genuinely vital issues. Nearly every politician says it’s already true, so how about if journalists and advocacy groups and Facebook-ers and Twitter-ers and voters in the audience posing questions at debates start demanding chapter and verse?

It’s wonderful that Michele Bachmann provided foster care for 23 teenage girls, but it would have been more wonderful to turn her experience from a talking point on the campaign trail into a conversation about how to solve the problem of older youth aging out of the U.S. child welfare system without families (see the Adoption Institute’s report on the subject).

It’s important for the candidates to discuss LGBT issues, but why is that almost always done with the focus solely on the adults — i.e., should they be allowed to marry and so forth? How about if we flip the focus and ask about all the children in our country languishing in foster care, pointing out the research showing that lesbians and gay men provide good homes for a growing number of these boys and girls (see the Adoption Institute’s report on the subject)?

And when candidates run or are considered for any office, how about if the media shine a spotlight on their records on adoption, foster care and children’s issues in general, in addition to all the others that journalists already scrutinize? If Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is considered a serious vice presidential candidate, for instance, he should have to explain why he vetoed legislation last year that would have given adopted adults in his state the same rights to their original birth certificates — and thereby the same access to their medical and historical information — as everyone else has as a matter of course.

Children don’t lobby, they don’t vote and they don’t contribute big bucks to political campaigns, so it’s not a big surprise that questions of the kind I’m suggesting haven’t made it to center stage yet. But they should and, to quote nearly every politician who ever was, here’s why: Children, really and truly, are our future.

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.