Adoption is a complex family form that touches the lives of many. In a national survey of adoption attitudes conducted by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 64% of respondents indicated that a family member or close friend had either been adopted, had adopted, or had placed a child for adoption. Despite the large numbers of people who have a connection with adoption, there is no current attempt to collect one comprehensive national data set that includes information about public, private agency, and independent adoption. The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) tracks children adopted from foster care, and the State Department tracks international adoptions through the record of orphan visas issued each year. The most comprehensive figure for the number of total adoptions in the United States is provided by the 2000 Census, which for the first time included the category “adopted son or daughter” and places the number of adopted children under the age of 18 at 2.5% of the population. This number is a broad estimate because it encompasses a wide range of adoptions, including adoption of stepchildren, biologically related and unrelated children, and domestic, international, independent, and informal adoptions. The lack of a comprehensive system for collecting reliable adoption data hinders the accurate reporting of adoption statistics.
Becoming Adoptive Parents
Prospective adoptive parents encounter experiences unique to adoption. David Brodzinsky and Ellen Pinderhughes delineate five tasks associated with becoming an adoptive parent. First, adoptive parents require the approval of others to become parents. An in-depth evaluation called a home study is a legal requirement to adopt in every state. This process requires prospective adoptive parents to open themselves to the scrutiny of social work professionals as to their adequacy for parenting. Despite the educational and supportive intent of the home study, it can feel evaluative in nature, producing anxiety that one may not be found adequate. Second, there is the period of time during which consent for the adoption is given, parental rights of the birth parents are terminated, and adoption finalization occurs.
Third, adoption is characterized by an uncertain timeline for achieving parenthood. The process can take from a few months to a year or longer. Waiting for their child to join the family can be a frustrating experience for prospective adoptive parents. Fourth, although favorable opinions about adoption are increasing, adoption is still characterized by social stigma. Although adoptive parents are satisfied with their decision to adopt, they and their children must cope with the negative attitudes of some that adoption is a “second best” route to parenthood. Families formed across racial or national lines may encounter additional prejudices. Finally, adoptive parents have fewer adoptive parent role models to turn to for advice, especially advice related to the unique challenges of raising adopted children.
Types of Adoption
There is no one description that can characterize adoption. Adoption is no longer limited to a married couple adopting a same-race infant whereby confidentiality between birth and adoptive families is paramount. Adoptive families reflect the diversity of family forms found in society. Kinship adoption (adoption by a nonparent relative or stepparent) is a prevalent way of forming adoptive families. Although there is lack of precision in available data, the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse reports that kinship adoptions are the slight majority of adoptions in the United States. Despite the preference for married couples by adoption agency staff, birth parents, or both for nonrelative adoptions, single-parent adoption has increased in prevalence. Single parents have a greater likelihood of adopting special needs children for whom finding a permanent placement may be more difficult. There are also a small but growing number of adoptions by gay and lesbian couples. Controversy surrounds this practice, with some states banning gay and lesbian adoption, whereas the Child Welfare League of America asserts that gay and lesbian couples should be assessed the same as any other adoptive applicant.
Permanency planning for children in the child welfare system for whom reunification with a biological relative is not possible has increased the number of adoptions from foster care. Most recent estimates for fiscal year 2001 indicate that 18% of children who exited from foster care were adopted, up from 14% in 1998. There is a higher proportion of children adopted from foster care with physical, behavioral, or emotional disabilities, and as such, financial subsidies are available to adoptive families to provide medical, maintenance, and special services to their children. International adoption has continued to rise, with more than 21,000 children adopted from other countries in fiscal year 2003. During this period, the largest number of children were adopted from China (6,859), followed by Russia (5,209), Guatemala (2,328), and South Korea (1,790). Transracial adoption, defined as racial or ethnic minority children adopted by white parents, can be further differentiated into domestic and international transracial adoption. In general, research indicates that both domestic and international transracial adoptees are psychologically well adjusted and engage in active exploration of their racial and cultural identities.
Developmental Issues Related To Adoption
Two important developmental issues related to adoption are attachment and the development of an adoptive identity. A common assumption is that since an adopted child’s first attachment is not to the adoptive mother, the mother–infant attachment in adoptive families is less secure. The research support for this assumption is equivocal. Some feel that early attachment disruptions can prolong the initial adoptive mother–infant attachment process, yet others view attachment as a developmental process that allows relationships to stabilize and change over time, thus allowing secure adoptive-parent attachments to occur.
Adopted adolescents have an additional layer of complexity related to the development of a personal identity. They must incorporate how being adopted influences how they view themselves. Adopted adolescents do think about their adoptive status, as evidenced by the responses of adopted teens in a national survey conducted by the Search Institute: 27% endorsed the statement “adoption is a big part of how I think about myself,” and 41% said they thought about adoption at least two or three times per month. Integrating adoptive status into their identity is crucial because it allows for the construction of a narrative that explains, accounts for, or justifies their adoptive status.
Openness in Adoption
Openness in adoption describes the amount of contact between adoptive and birth families. It can be placed on a continuum with confidential adoption at one end and fully disclosed at the other. Mediated adoption is midway on the continuum. Fully disclosed adoption describes direct, ongoing communication between birth and adoptive families, which can include face-to-face meetings. Confidential adoption is characterized by the absence of communication between adoptive and birth families, with information shared at placement being non-identifying. Mediated adoption is characterized by the communication of non-identifying information through an intermediary, often the adoption agency. There has been movement toward greater openness in adoption in response to birth mothers’ desire for continued contact, the need for adopted people to understand their past, older children who know and remember their birth parents being adopted, and the adoption of sibling groups. In response, most adoption agencies currently incorporate openness into their adoption practice. After placement, changes in openness can be influenced by the desires of the adopted person, by adoptive and birth family dynamics, and by the amount of available information. Most adoptive families will at different points consider whether more contact is desired. In general, openness is a dynamic process that can work in both infant and older child placements when adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees work together to communicate in a manner that meets the information and relationship needs of all involved.
Search and Reunion
For those adopted people who do not have direct contact with their birth families, curiosity about one’s adoption may lead them to search for members of their birth family, particularly their birth mothers. Not all adopted people desire to initiate a search, but many do. Thinking about searching can begin in adolescence when approaching adulthood makes searching legally possible. Gretchen Wrobel, Harold Grotevant, and Ruth McRoy studied a group of 93 adolescents with varied amounts of openness, and found that satisfaction with the amount of adoptive openness was negatively associated with adolescent search intentions and that those with more information about their birth parents had a higher desire to search or had actually done so. Adult searchers are most likely to be women, 25 to 35 years old, white, married, and placed in their adoptive families earlier than nonsearchers. Most of those adults who reported contact with their birth mother after a search describe the experience as positive, resulting in satisfaction with information received and a better sense of self. Currently, in contrast to earlier perspectives, search intentions and actions for both adults and adolescents are not viewed as resulting from problematic relationships in the adoptive family.
Our understanding of adoption has changed considerably in the past 20 years. Adoptive families are complex, reflecting the many family forms found in society. Children join their adoptive families from a variety of backgrounds: they may have been born in another country, have experienced foster care, be of a different race or ethnicity than their adoptive parents, or already have ties in the kinship system. Adoptions also vary by the amount of contact and communication between birth and adoptive families. The multifaceted nature of adoption requires that the adopted person be understood within the unique context of his or her own adoption. As adoption practice and policy continue to evolve, so will our understanding of adoption.
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