Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption

The Adoption Revolution
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 31 2003 5:18 PM

Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption

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Dear Sarah,

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I'm going to jump around a good bit in this final letter, so that I can touch on the questions you raise and on a few other issues that I don't want to leave unaddressed.

I think the major reason people hold mistaken or extreme views of adoption, like the ones you mention—that it's economic exploitation on the one hand or the grand solution for the world's abandoned children on the other—is ignorance, in a dictionary and not a pejorative sense. Adoption has operated in the shadows for so long that it's no wonder so many people have uninformed, ambivalent views about the institution and its participants. Of adoptive parents: "You are so lucky! But I am sorry you couldn't have any real children." Of birth parents: "Isn't she wonderful? She didn't abort and is giving her child a wonderful new home instead. [Pause.] But what kind of woman would give up her own flesh and blood?" Adopted people, meanwhile, are sometimes treated as second-class citizens (most states don't allow them access to their own birth certificates, for instance), and they grow up hearing and seeing negative depictions of them on television, in newspapers, in movies, and in schools. The words "You're adopted!" are still sometimes used and perceived as an insult.

There's no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of the people I'm talking about have no ill intentions. But most of what they think they know is based on myths, stigmas, stereotypes, their next-door-neighbor's singular experience, or a movie of the week. I wrote my book Adoption Nation to add real people's stories and honest-to-goodness research into the mix and, presumably, that's why Melosh wrote hers—sure, it was a professional exercise, but I doubt either of our books would exist if we weren't adoptive parents. Yes, I know, there are lots of things about which people know relatively little, but I can't think of another subject that has such a profound social impact and touches so many lives—my research indicates about 100 million Americans have adoption in their immediate families—and yet receives so little public or scholarly attention.

You're right—social workers are the major characters in Strangers and Kin, owing to the author's reliance on their written materials for many of her case studies and observations. The result is, as we've said, a solid chronology of the reasons adoption has evolved as it has. But I was left wishing Melosh had offered more perspectives and subtleties from the living-and-breathing participants as well as professionals.

In the chapter titled "Redrawing the Boundaries," for example, she writes:

On the question of racial identity, outcome studies … find that black children raised by white parents have a strong and positive sense of belonging within both white and African American communities. Nonetheless, most adoption experts continue to advocate same-race placement.

That's all true as far as it goes, but the parents and children in those families will tell you themselves that white parents teaching children of color how to cope with racism can be tricky, tough business; that doesn't mean people shouldn't adopt transracially, but in part it explains why many experts advise same-race adoptions be attempted first. (Although they do not necessarily preclude or even recommend against transracial placement.) As an aside, I have no qualms about multiracial, multinational, multicultural adoption, but I do think we have to deal with these issues thoughtfully, so we give children their best shot of growing up comfortable in their own skins. That's particularly important because Americans adopt more children from abroad, most of whom look nothing like their new parents, than do the inhabitants of all other countries combined.

Finally, because I'm out of time and space, I want to respond to your question about why it's so hard to get a straight answer about how easy or difficult it is to adopt today. It's because the system is disjointed; works differently from state to state; and was constructed at a time when people would barely whisper the word "adoption," much less hold public hearings about the best way to achieve positive results. While things are certainly getting better, these obstacles generally remain in place and, as I suggested earlier, most people—notably including the politicians and policy-makers who shape the process—don't know enough about the needs or desires of the people adoption is supposed to help. That really gums up the works and undermines everyone involved.

I'd like to explain that, notwithstanding the ignorance and other challenges I know we still face, I am very optimistic about the future. It's tough to make good decisions with bad information, but adoption is finally coming out of the dark—and so we're finally accumulating that good information, through sources like Barbara Melosh's book. Now we're learning that the changes adoption is undergoing are revolutionary, and so are the consequent effects on our country. To which I can only add: Viva la revolución!

Be well, my friend. It's been a pleasure.

Adam

Adam Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a policy and education think tank. He also is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America.

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