Evan B. Donaldson Institute Study

I just thought I would circulate a new study that was released by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute on adult adoptees.  It’s the largest study on adult adoptees that has been done.  It has a large focus on Korean adoptees as well.

It made it into an article in the NY Times so I have included a link to the article as well.  The study itself is over 100 pages so I would suggest checking out the executive summary.

They present some interesting findings, which, being an adoptee myself, I can’t say I’m surprised by.  However, it is a historic study none the less, and I’m happy that it made national headlines.  -GS

Evan B. Donaldson Institute Study

BEYOND CULTURE CAMP: PROMOTING HEALTHY IDENTITY FORMATION IN ADOPTION

Authors: Hollee McGinnis, Susan Livingston Smith, Dr. Scott D. Ryan, and Dr. Jeanne A. Howard
Published: 2009 November. New York NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

New York Times Article

November 9, 2009

Adopted From Korea and in Search of Identity

As a child, Kim Eun Mi Young hated being different.

When her father brought home toys, a record and a picture book on South Korea, the country from which she was adopted in 1961, she ignored them.

Growing up in Georgia, Kansas and Hawaii, in a military family, she would date only white teenagers, even when Asian boys were around.

“At no time did I consider myself anything other than white,” said Ms. Young, 48, who lives in San Antonio. “I had no sense of any identity as a Korean woman. Dating an Asian man would have forced me to accept who I was.”

It was not until she was in her 30s that she began to explore her Korean heritage. One night, after going out to celebrate with her husband at the time, she says she broke down and began crying uncontrollably.

“I remember sitting there thinking, where is my mother? Why did she leave me? Why couldn’t she struggle to keep me?” she said. “That was the beginning of my journey to find out who I am.”

The experiences of Ms. Young are common among adopted children from Korea, according to one of the largest studies of transracial adoptions, which is to be released on Monday. The report, which focuses on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, found that 78 percent of those who responded had considered themselves to be white or had wanted to be white when they were children. Sixty percent indicated their racial identity had become important by the time they were in middle school, and, as adults, nearly 61 percent said they had traveled to Korea both to learn more about the culture and to find their birth parents.

Like Ms. Young, most Korean adoptees were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and saw few, if any, people who looked like them. The report also found that the children were teased and experienced racial discrimination, often from teachers. And only a minority of the respondents said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group.

As a result, many of them have had trouble coming to terms with their racial and ethnic identities.

The report was issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit adoption research and policy group based in New York. Since 1953, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, the vast majority of them from orphanages in Asia, South America and, most recently, Africa. Yet the impact of such adoptions on identity has been only sporadically studied. The authors of the Donaldson Adoption Institute study said they hoped their work would guide policymakers, parents and adoption agencies in helping the current generation of children adopted from Asian countries to form healthy identities.

“So much of the research on transracial adoption has been done from the perspective of adoptive parents or adolescent children,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the institute. “We wanted to be able to draw on the knowledge and life experience of a group of individuals who can provide insight into what we need to do better.”

The study recommends several changes in adoption practices that the institute said are important, including better support for adoptive parents and recognition that adoption grows in significance for their children from young adulthood on, and throughout adulthood.

South Korea was the first country from which Americans adopted in significant numbers. From 1953 to 2007, an estimated 160,000 South Korean children were adopted by people from other countries, most of them in the United States. They make up the largest group of transracial adoptees in the United States and, by some estimates, are 10 percent of the nation’s Korean population.

The report says that significant changes have occurred since the first generation of adopted children were brought to the United States, a time when parents were told to assimilate the children into their families without regard for their native culture.

Yet even adoptees who are exposed to their culture and have parents who discuss issues of race and discrimination say they found it difficult growing up.

Heidi Weitzman, who was adopted from Korea when she was 7 months old and who grew up in ethnically mixed neighborhoods in St. Paul, said her parents were in touch with other parents with Korean children and even offered to send her to a “culture camp” where she could learn about her heritage.

“But I hated it,” said Ms. Weitzman, a mental health therapist in St. Paul. “I didn’t want to do anything that made me stand out as being Korean. Being surrounded by people who were blonds and brunets, I just thought that I was white.” It was not until she moved to New York after college that she began to become comfortable with being Korean.

“I was 21 before I could look in the mirror and not be surprised by what I saw staring back at me,” she said. “The process of discovering who I am has been a long process, and I’m still on it.”

Ms. Weitzman’s road to self-discovery was fairly typical of the 179 Korean adoptees with two Caucasian parents who responded to the Donaldson Adoption Institute survey. Most said they began to think of themselves more as Korean when they attended college or moved to ethnically diverse neighborhoods as adults.

For Joel Ballantyne, a high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was adopted by white parents in 1977, the study confirms many of the feelings that he and other adoptees have tried to explain for years.

“This offers proof that we’re not crazy or just being ungrateful to our adoptive parents when we talk about our experiences,” said Mr. Ballantyne, 35, who was adopted at age 3 and who grew up in Alabama, Texas and, finally, California.

Jennifer Town, 33, agreed.

“A lot of adoptees have problems talking about these issues with their adoptive families,” she said. “They take it as some kind of rejection of them when we’re just trying to figure out who we are.”

Ms. Towns, who was adopted in 1979 and raised in a small town in Minnesota, recalled that during college, when she announced that she was going to Korea to find out more about her past, her parents “freaked out.”

“They saw it as a rejection,” she said. “My adoptive mother is really into genealogy, tracing her family to Sweden, and she was upset with me because I wanted to find out who I was.”

Mr. Ballantyne said he received a similar reaction when he told his parents of plans to travel to Korea.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s study concludes that such trips are among the many ways that parents and adoption agencies could help adoptees deal with their struggle with identity and race. But both Ms. Towns and Mr. Ballantyne said that while traveling to South Korea was an eye-opening experience in many ways, it was also disheartening.

Many Koreans, they said, did not consider them to be “real Koreans” because they did not speak the language or seem to understand the culture.

Mr. Ballantyne tracked down his maternal grandmother, but when he met her, he said, she scolded him for not learning Korean before he came.

“She was the one who had put me up for adoption,” he said. “So that just created tension between us. Even as I was leaving, she continued to say I needed to learn Korean before I came by again.”

Sonya Wilson, adopted in 1976 by a white family in Clarissa, Minn., says that although she shares many of the experiences of those interviewed in the study — she grew up as the only Asian in a town of 600 — policy changes must address why children are put up for adoption, and should do more to help single women in South Korea keep their children. “This study does not address any of these issues,” Ms. Wilson said.

Ms. Young said the study was helpful, but that it came too late to help people like her.

“I wish someone had done something like this when I was growing up,” she said.

————————————————————————————————————————————————-

This study, released in November, is the broadest, most extensive examination of adult adoptive identity to date, based on input from the primary experts on the subject: adults who were adopted as children.

The principal recommendations of the 112 page study include:

  • Expand parental preparation and post-placement support for those adopting across race and culture. Such preparation should include educating parents about the salience of race across the developmental course, instruction about racial identity development and the tasks inherent in such development, and assistance in understanding racial discrimination and how best to arm their children to combat the prejudice and stereotypes they will face. Preparation also should include the understanding that seeking services and supports is a positive part of parenting – i.e., it is a sign of strength, not failure.
  • Develop empirically based practices and resources to prepare transracially and transculturally adopted youth to cope with racial bias. This study, as well as previous research, indicates that perceived discrimination is linked with greater psychological distress, lower self-esteem, and more discomfort with one’s race/ethnicity. Hence, it is essential to arm transracially adopted youth with ways to cope with discrimination in a manner that does not negatively impact their identity.
  • Promote laws, policies and practices that facilitate access to information for adopted individuals. For adopted individuals, gaining information about their origins is not just a matter of curiosity, but a matter of gaining the raw materials needed to fill in the missing pieces in their lives and derive an integrated sense of self. Both adoption professionals and the larger society need to recognize this basic human need and right, and to facilitate access to needed information for adopted individuals.
  • Educate parents, teacher, practitioners, the media and others about the realities of adoption to erase stigmas and stereotypes, minimize adoption-related discrimination, and provide children with more opportunities for positive development. Generations of secrecy, shame and stereotypes about adoption (and those it affects) have taken a toll, as the respondents in this research make clear. Just as discrimination based on color, gender, sexual orientation and religion – all components of people’s identity – are broadly considered to be socially unacceptable, adoption-related discrimination also should be unacceptable. Professionals and parents also need to be better informed about the importance of providing diversity and appropriate role models.
  • Increase research on the risk and protective factors that shape the adjustment of adoptees, especially those adopted transracially/culturally in the U.S. or abroad. More longitudinal research that combines quantitative and qualitative methods is needed to better understand the process through which children, teens and young adults progress in confronting transracial adoption identity issues. Additional research is also needed on the identity journey experienced by in-race adoptees – and, pointedly, more of the studies of every kind need to include the perspective of adopted individuals themselves.

——————

BEYOND CULTURE CAMP: PROMOTING HEALTHY IDENTITY FORMATION IN ADOPTION

Authors: Hollee McGinnis, Susan Livingston Smith, Dr. Scott D. Ryan, and Dr. Jeanne A. Howard
Published: 2009 November. New York NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

Executive Summary

I realized I never could change my ethnicity/race. I also developed a pride in being Korean and Asian. I reviewed things I liked about being Asian that European Americans did not have. I also grew comfortable with things I did not like about being Asian. As an adult I learned how to deal with racism/stereotypes in a way that makes me feel OK about being a “border person” and a minority (Study respondent).

Transracial adoption is a reality of contemporary American life. Since 1971, parents in this country have adopted nearly a half-million children from other countries, the vast majority of them from orphanages throughout Asia, South America and, most recently, Africa. Additional tens of thousands of multiracial families have been formed during this period with boys and girls liberated from foster care, with the rate of such adoptions from the domestic system growing from 10.8 percent in Fiscal Year 1995, when there were about 20,000 total adoptions, to 15 percent in 2001, when there were over 50,000. In the vast majority of these cases – domestic and international – children of color have been adopted by Caucasian parents.

The consequences of this historic phenomenon have been profound, both for the tens of millions of Americans into whose families these children have been adopted as well as for a society in which our understanding of what a family looks like is being altered every day. Yet we know very little about the impact of this change – most pointedly about its effects on the Asian, Hispanic and African American boys and girls at the core of it. How do they develop a sense of racial identity when raised by White parents, most often in predominately White communities? How do they incorporate an understanding of both being adopted and of having parents who are of a different race or ethnicity than themselves? How do they learn to cope with racism and stereotyping? What experiences are beneficial to them in developing a positive sense of self?

This ground-breaking study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, to our knowledge, constitutes the largest, most extensive examination of identity development in adopted adults in the U.S. And it does so by asking the experts – adult adoptees – about the experiences, strategies and choices that promote positive identity development. Too often, our understanding of identity, particularly of those adopted across race/ethnicity, has been formed through research only on children and youth. Similarly, conclusions about identity in transracial adoption too often have come from the perspective of parents, not adoptees themselves. The Institute’s study focuses on adult adopted persons, gaining their understanding of how they have integrated “being adopted” and their race/ethnicity with other aspects of themselves that, together, form an identity.

Although 468 adopted adults completed the online survey at the heart of this research (making it, to our knowledge, the largest study ever conducted of adopted adults in the U.S. to focus on identity), for the purposes of comparison, this paper concentrates on the 179 respondents born in South Korea and adopted by two White parents, and the 156 Caucasian respondents born in the U.S. and adopted by two White parents. For this analysis we chose these two groups, who constituted over 70 percent of our respondents, to make them as homogeneous as possible for comparison purposes. It is also noteworthy that South Koreans comprise the largest group of internationally adopted persons in the U.S., and adoption from South Korea into the U.S. has a longer history than from any other nation; indeed, 1 in 10 of all Korean American citizens came to this country through adoption.

It is important to add that, while one cohort of transracial adoptees is at the core of this study, an extensive review by the Adoption Institute of decades of relevant literature (Appendix I), as well as the Institute’s examination of transracial adoption in comparable areas (see “Finding Families for African American Children: the Role of Race and Law in Adoption from Foster Care” at http://adoptioninstitute.org/research/2008_05_mepa.php) make clear that many of the observations and conclusions in this paper also are applicable to other domestic and international adopted persons and families.

Through this study we sought to learn about identity development in adopted persons generally, but also about the impact of racial/ethnic difference from one’s parents. This research uses a range of standardized measures , questions about background, challenges in identity formation, and experiences or services that are most helpful in developing a positive adoption identity. We title this study Beyond Culture Camp because we recognize that parents adopting across race and culture, and the professionals who guide them, have developed strategies such as camps and festivals to introduce or strengthen children’s connection to their cultures and countries of origin. Yet, as this study found, such activities – while important – are insufficient in helping children adopted across racial and national boundaries develop a healthy, positive sense of self.

The central findings of this study include:

  • Adoption is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for adopted people as they age, and remains so even when they are adults. A primary contribution of this study is the understanding that adoption is an important factor in most adopted persons’ lives, not just as children and adolescents, but throughout adulthood. Adoption grew in significance to respondents in this study during adolescence, continued to increase during young adulthood, and remained important to the vast majority through adulthood. For example, 81 percent of Koreans and over 70 percent of Whites rated their identity as an adopted person as important or very important during young adulthood. This new insight has profound implications for policy, law and practice relating to adoption.
  • Race/ethnicity is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for those adopted across color and culture. Racial/ethnic identity was of central importance to the Korean respondents at all ages, and continued to increase in significance into young adulthood. Sixty percent of them indicated their racial/ethnic identity was important by middle school, and that number grew during high school (67%), college (76%) and young adulthood (81%). Based on their overall scores on the Multi-group Ethnic Identity Measure, Korean adoptees had a stronger sense of ethnic identity than did White respondents, but with caveats. While being equal to Whites in agreeing that they were happy about being a member of their ethnic group and feeling good about their ethnic background, they were less likely to have a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic group, despite identifying more strongly with it. They also were less likely than Whites to feel welcomed by others of their own race.
  • Coping with discrimination is an important aspect of coming to terms with racial/ethnic identity for adoptees of color. The Korean respondents in our research were less likely than Whites to face discrimination based on adoption status, but more commonly confronted racial discrimination. Eighty percent reported such discrimination from strangers and 75 percent from classmates. Nearly half (48%) reported negative experiences due to their race in interaction with childhood friends. A notable finding was that 39 percent of Korean respondents reported race-based discrimination from teachers. It is clear that adoption professionals, parents and others – including schools – need more effective ways of addressing these realities.
  • Discrimination based on adoption is a reality, but more so for White adoptees – who also report being somewhat less comfortable with their adoptive identity as adults than their Korean counterparts. Adopted people of all colors report that they experience discrimination, based on how they entered their families, in all settings of their lives – from classmates to employers to strangers. Most Americans probably do not perceive that adoption discrimination exists, per se, but this finding makes clear that stigmas and negative stereotypes linger in our culture and adversely affect adopted children and adults. When asked to identify the context of adoption-related bias, white respondents identified extended family as the most frequent source (for 40%). For Koreans, adoption-based discrimination was most common by strangers (31%) and classmates (25%).
  • Most transracial adoptees considered themselves White or wanted to be White as children. Of those adopted from Korea, 78 percent reported they considered themselves or wanted to be White as children – a stark message to parents and professionals, even though the majority grew to identify themselves as Korean-Americans as adults. Analysis of their responses to open-ended questions demonstrates that integrating race/ethnicity into identity can be a complex process. While the most common reason cited for the shift was simply maturity, access to a more diverse community and affiliation with people of Asian background also facilitated the shift. For others, negative experiences such as racism or teasing led to reconsidering their identities and coming to terms with being Asian. A minority of respondents classified themselves as “unreconciled” — that is, even as adults, they still long to look like their parents or members of the majority culture.
  • Positive racial/ethnic identity development is most effectively facilitated by “lived” experiences such as travel to native country, racially diverse schools, and role models from their same race/ethnicity.Many Korean adoptees were active agents in resolving identity struggles related to race/ethnicity, with 80 percent reporting that they tried to learn more about their ethnic group. Most had visited Korea (61%) and participated in adoption-related organizations or Internet groups. Korean adoptees offered practical suggestions to adoption professionals about actions that would have helped their shift in identity from White to Korean-American. Travel to the country of their birth topped the list. They also noted the importance of attending racially diverse schools and having child care providers, teachers and other adult role models of their race/ethnicity. One respondent poignantly described the loneliness of being in an all White community this way: “I was the diversity in my high school.”
  • Contact with birth relatives, according to the White respondents, is the most helpful factor in achieving a positive adoptive identity. When asked to name the experiences or services that are most helpful in achieving a positive identity as an adopted adult, White adoptees rate contact with birth relatives as the most important. A lopsided majority of the respondents – 86 percent – had taken steps to find their birth families. An unexpected finding was that a high percentage (49%) of the Korean adoptees had searched as well and 30 percent had experienced contact with birth relatives, despite the common assumption that those adopted from Korea have little access to information about their families of origin. For Whites, 45 percent reported having contact with birth relatives. This finding – like the one above – underscores the essential fact that adoptees, like their counterparts raised in their families of birth – want to know (as the cliché puts it) “who they are and where they come from.” A deeper understanding of this reality has broad implications for adoption law, policy and practice.
  • Different factors predict comfort with adoptive and racial/ethnic identity for Korean and White adoptees.This study sought to identify the factors that predict adopted adults’ comfort with their adoptive identity, as well as with their racial/ethnic identity. The strongest predictor of comfort with one’s adoption identity for White respondents was life satisfaction. For Korean adopted adults, three factors predicted comfort with adoption identity: gender (females were more comfortable with their adoption); satisfaction with life (higher satisfaction predicted greater comfort with adoption); and self-esteem (higher self-esteem predicted greater comfort with adoption).

While most Korean adopted respondents reported achieving some level of comfort with their race/ethnicity as adults, a significant minority (34%) remained uncomfortable or only somewhat comfortable. Two factors were significant predictors of their comfort with racial/ethnic identity: self-esteem (those having higher self-esteem felt more comfortable with their race) and their scores on the MEIM (stronger ethnic identification predicted greater comfort with their race/ethnicity). Also, experiencing less racial discrimination and having higher life satisfaction were associated with greater comfort with their racial/ethnic identity. For Koreans, experiences of racial teasing – which were prevalent – also were associated with lower life satisfaction and lower self-esteem.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Based on this study, as well as on the examination of theory and previous research which undergirds it (Appendix I), the Adoption Institute recommends a range of changes in adoption practice and policy to promote positive adoptive and transracial/cultural identity, including:

  • Expand parental preparation and post-placement support for those adopting across race and culture. Such preparation should include educating parents about the salience of race across the developmental course, instruction about racial identity development and the tasks inherent in such development, and assistance in understanding racial discrimination and how best to arm their children to combat the prejudice and stereotypes they will face. Preparation also should include the understanding that seeking services and supports is a positive part of parenting – i.e., it is a sign of strength, not failure.
  • Develop empirically based practices and resources to prepare transracially and transculturally adopted youth to cope with racial bias. This study, as well as previous research, indicates that perceived discrimination is linked with greater psychological distress, lower self-esteem, and more discomfort with one’s race/ethnicity. Hence, it is essential to arm transracially adopted youth with ways to cope with discrimination in a manner that does not negatively impact their identity.
  • Promote laws, policies and practices that facilitate access to information for adopted individuals. For adopted individuals, gaining information about their origins is not just a matter of curiosity, but a matter of gaining the raw materials needed to fill in the missing pieces in their lives and derive an integrated sense of self. Both adoption professionals and the larger society need to recognize this basic human need and right, and to facilitate access to needed information for adopted individuals.
  • Educate parents, teacher, practitioners, the media and others about the realities of adoption to erase stigmas and stereotypes, minimize adoption-related discrimination, and provide children with more opportunities for positive development. Generations of secrecy, shame and stereotypes about adoption (and those it affects) have taken a toll, as the respondents in this research make clear. Just as discrimination based on color, gender, sexual orientation and religion – all components of people’s identity – are broadly considered to be socially unacceptable, adoption-related discrimination also should be unacceptable. Professionals and parents also need to be better informed about the importance of providing diversity and appropriate role models.
  • Increase research on the risk and protective factors that shape the adjustment of adoptees, especially those adopted transracially/culturally in the U.S. or abroad. More longitudinal research that combines quantitative and qualitative methods is needed to better understand the process through which children, teens and young adults progress in confronting transracial adoption identity issues. Additional research is also needed on the identity journey experienced by in-race adoptees – and, pointedly, more of the studies of every kind need to include the perspective of adopted individuals themselves.

CONCLUSION

The findings of this study reflect the need to go “beyond culture camp” to provide children with ongoing experiences and relationships that promote positive racial (and adoptive) identity development. Our respondents valued cultural celebrations and other opportunities to learn about their origins, but such singular events appear insufficient. Instead, the research points to a need to move beyond strategies that promote cultural socialization to experiences that promote racial and cultural identification and comfort. Part of this work is to expand understanding of the importance of learning about one’s origins, whether by traveling to birth country or by seeking out biological relatives in the U.S. Further, there seems no question about the need to provide transracially adopted children with opportunities to be in diverse settings and have diverse role models. Some of our respondents also noted that their parents did not know or understand the impact of being a person of color in a predominately White community or the importance of connecting children to adults of the same racial/ethnic background to serve as sources of information, support and role models. The same can be said for adoption itself; that is, adopted children benefit from interacting with other adopted children, and from having adult role models who themselves were adopted. Adoption professionals and parents, together, can facilitate a broader network of these types of supports and opportunities for adopted children and youth, especially those adopted transracially.

The field of adoption is evolving. Early adoption practice sought to match children with parents who looked like them and had the same temperament or intelligence, in large part to make adoption invisible. Adoption, with its association with illegitimacy and infertility, was seen as a less desirable way to form a family. “Good” adoptive families minimized the importance of adoption. As families formed across racial, ethnic and cultural lines became more common, adoption necessarily became more visible. But until fairly recently in adoption practice, the impact and meaning of transracial/cultural adoption were also minimized. Commitment and love of the adoptive parents, exposure to positive aspects of the child’s culture, and perhaps connection with other families who had adopted from the same country were thought to be enough to support the development of positive identity. As this study demonstrates, the integration of “being adopted,” of one’s racial/ethnic identity and one’s identity as a person adopted from another country is a complex and continually evolving process. This understanding needs to inform the actions of parents, professionals and adopted persons themselves – as well as the laws, policies and practices that impact their lives.

 

 

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