New Worlds of Adoption Conference Update

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the New Worlds of Adoption Conference:  Linking Research with Practice hosted by the Center for Research on Families’ Rudd Adoption Research Program at UMass Amherst and the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.  The conference featured a number of nationally and internationally renowned scholars, academics, clinicians etc.  I think what was most eye-opening for me, was seeing where the field of adoption studies is now, and where it is going.  Yet, at the same time, it was also an opportunity for me to actually hear the perspectives of social workers who work with adopted people.  The following are a few rambling thoughts I have about the conference and the adoption studies field in general.

Where Are We Now? I’m not an expert on adoption studies (yet).  But I do know there have been some largely innovative strides made in the past decade.  In fact, several speakers said that this is perhaps one of the largest challenges facing researchers and clinicians alike.  The amount of new information and studies that are available is staggering.  For many clinicians, it is exhausting staying current on the latest evidence based intervention methods and many other techniques that have been studied.

Dr. Richard Barth at the University of Maryland’s Social Work Program urged people to understand these very methods, but also acknowledge the context for which clinicians employ these interventions.  Taking various elements and applying them can be a useful practice for clinicians.  There’s no “prescription,” and therefore, it’s important to understand the limitations of strict interpretations of these methods and interventions.

The field is rapidly expanding to encompass not just those in social work, but in many other fields.  And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Dr. Hal Grotevant, Rudd Family Foundation Chair in Psychology and organizer of the conference said that he sees much of the future of adoption research to be interdisciplinary.  There are so many barriers to successfully understanding the needs of adopted children and adults that an interdisciplinary approach is necessary.

The funding for such research is also limited.  From what I understand, it is very hard to find federal funding to support research on adopted individuals, especially regarding mental health issues.  Adoption is not necessarily a “condition,” and so therefore, federal funding can be hard to find.  For instance, I got the impression that NIH currently does not support research on adoption.  Is this really true?

What Do We Know…or…What Do We Think We Know? Times have changed, ideologies have changed, but still, there is a need for sweeping changes on structural and policy levels, clinician and professional levels, and most importantly to me, an educational level.

I’m often struck by how difficult it is to understand how the adult adoptee community should move forward.  Have we really helped each other in meaningful ways?  Are we making strides to help the next generation of transracial adoptees in China, in Africa and beyond?  Are we doing enough to remove the misguided ideologies from the psyches of adoptive parents, adoption agencies, the media and society at large?

Dr. David Brodzinsky, Professor Emeritus of Developmental and Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, co-founding member and Senior Research fellow of the E.B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, thinks that there are unrealistic expectations placed on adoptive parents to understand their adopted children.  He says that perhaps it is this that needs to be corrected before any solid strides can be made moving forward.

And while I do believe that these expectations may seem daunting, I don’t find them any more daunting than an expectation that if an adoptive parent decides to adopt transracially, then he/she should make an effort to understand the complexities and ramifications of raising a child of color in America.  Perhaps it’s not the expectations that need to be reduced, but the methods and ways in which we educate parents both pre- and post-adoption.

Yet at the same time, Dr. Brodzinsky also brought up some important issues regarding the status of post-adoption services.

1)  Inadequate Training of Professionals – Both for child development and in mental health capacities, professionals are just not being trained well enough to support the needs of adopted children and families.  And as I mentioned before, he believes it’s hard to stay current on newly emerging research and intervention methods.

2)  Insufficient Financing and Staffing – As many adoption agencies know, resources dedicated to post-adoption services is tough.  And Brodzinsky makes no mistake in calling out this large barrier.

3)  Inadequate Guidelines – Dr. Brodzinsky feels that agency provided trainings are not universal and that expectations can clash with the realities of what an agency able and is willing to provide.

4)  Adoption Issues vs Non-adoption Issues – He says that all too often, adoptive parents and clinicians make the mistake of either overly pathologizing their child’s perceived adoption-related issues, or downplaying its significance.

5)  Few Adoptee Professionals/Clinicians – There are very few adoptees doing these trainings.  (Although I don’t necessarily agree that it is OUR job completely to be educating others.  There has to be reciprocity here, for many adoptees, we have reached our hand across the aisle any number of times only to be lectured, belittled, or exploited for our opinions and research).

6)  Adoption as a Business – All too often, adoption has become a business and less about supporting placements.

7)  Tensions Between Professionals and Parents – Brodzinsky says that trust is essential for those who work with adoptive parents.  If that trust is not there, then it is highly likely that these adoptive parents will be unwilling to listen.  And unfortunately, some social workers’ “biases” (I call them prejudices, but that’s ok) can be read by adoptive parents and of course this leads to this lack of trust.

8)  Inadequate Adoption Records – What information is available to adoptive parents at the time of adoption?  Unfortunately, some parents are not given the complete story of their children and, as you can imagine, this can lead to problems later on.

9)  Inadequate Post-adoption Services – Understood.  There are very few programs and services available.  Location matters.  Metropolitan cities will always have more than more rural areas.  How do we bridge the gap?  But most importantly, I would argue that the definition of “post-adoption services” in the clinical sense is all too limited.  It excludes a wide array of incredibly important programs and services that can have positive outcomes on adoptees in relation to identity formation etc. etc.

10)  Comfort Levels for Adoptive Parents – Adoptive parents still struggle to be open to understanding and discussing sensitive issues.  Unrealistic goals, he explains may be a factor at play here.

Ok, I won’t add any more for now, but I think you get the picture.  How do I feel about his points?  Well, generally I agree with him.  But, I do think that there are so many other problems with post-adoption services that either go overlooked by non-adoptee social workers/academics or unstudied.

Where Are We Going? Easy…I don’t really know.  🙂  But I do know that research is rapidly expanding.  More vantage points from other disciplines are weighing in and inevitably, the field is expanding and hopefully moving in the right direction.

Dr. Richard Barth’s work from what I understand, is groundbreaking.  He delves into neurobiology where he measures adopted children’s cortisol levels in the brain related to the stress of family disruption.  Interesting stuff, but honestly it’s way over my head (no pun intended).

In many ways I was encouraged by the work regarding Ethnic-Racial Socialization Theories by Dr. Ellen Pinderhughes, Eliot-Pearson Dept. of Child Development at Tufts University.  Her work focuses on Chinese adoptees but its implications speak to the intricacies and complexities of transracial adoptees’ ethnic-racial socialization.

I missed the first part of her talk but I am most interested in her work as I move into my social work program.  I think race plays a critical role in the lives of transracial adoptees and should not go overlooked.

Perhaps what was the hardest aspect of Dr. Pinderhughes presentation was hearing from social workers and adoptive parents about challenges they have faced.  It was in many ways interesting for me to finally hear what challenges they have identified and how they are dealing with them.  But in many other ways it made me feel as though there is still a LONG way to go for many of these clinicians.  Their acknowledgement of race and white privilege was encouraging, but their level of understanding seemed lacking in many ways.  One individual said that research done on “whiteness” was “really interesting stuff, and you should all check it out if you can.”  Oh yeah, how is it interesting?  How does apply to your work?  And really, it is not as trivial as you make it sound.  It is SO important to understand.  Especially if you are the one “helping” adoptive families understand whiteness or white privilege.

I’m really excited to be starting a social work program this fall.  And in many ways (as you can tell) this conference has me fired up.  I think there have been strides, but unfortunately those strides have glossed over some incredibly important areas for improvement and advancement.  I’m encouraged by the existing scholarship, but I’m also interested in really cranking it up a notch in areas that have not been explored.  Hope this post hasn’t been too boring, but I figured it was also a good opportunity for those interested in this work to hear what was discussed.  Feel free to weigh in, I’d love to hear what you have to say!  -GS

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5 Comments on “New Worlds of Adoption Conference Update

  1. Interesting post & very informative – thanks for sharing! It seems that there are more & more of these adoption conferences popping up; however there never seem to be very many on the west coast. =) The things that David Brodzinsky said are interesting, although I’m not sure I really agree with his thoughts re: adoptive parents & “expectations.” Whose expectations? Society isn’t really placing pressure on adoptive parents to do much after the act of adopting. Is he referring to the expectations of their adopted (adult) children? This reminds me of the film, “Adopted”….

    I agree, I think there is so much to be done in educating clinicians…. I get asked many times for referrals to therapists in the Seattle area who are well-versed in TRA issues (many times it’s adoptive parents or adult adoptees asking me), and the resource pool here is almost non-existent. A lot of this plays into the massive email I sent to you & JR. =D No rush on responding to that; although I am curious to hear your feedback!

  2. Hey Sarah – Don’t worry, I’m just processing that email you sent me. I will definitely reply with my thoughts.

    But yes, I think I was a little uneasy with Brodzinsky’s “Expectations” theory. I wasn’t the only one who disagreed with him though. It appeared as though he and Barth did not agree on a few levels as well.

  3. Sarah, I just sent you an email 🙂

    Nate, this was really a great synopsis. Thank you for taking the time to lay it all out! I will be referencing this post in the future for sure. I can’t wait to talk to you more about some of the points you raised in your summary here.

    There is going to be a tour de force of adoptee scholars and clinicians coming up. I think in another generation the world of adoption scholarship and research is going to look very different.

  4. This was not a boring post at all! I am quickly becoming a big fan of your blog.

    To preface this comment- I’m an adoptive parent of a non-white child. Our feeling (my husband & I) is that if you are not willing to fully embrace your child’s country of birth, refer to his/her biological parents as their ‘Korean/Chinese/etc **parents**, if you are not willing to travel to that country, or willing to relocate to a neighborhood in which schools, businesses, etc are primarily of your child’s ethnicity (or at the very least not entirely white), not willing to keep your child’s name from birth (or, move it as second name BUT choose a new first name from their culture) then maybe adopting trans racially is not a good idea.

    We were a bit naive when we started the process but thankfully worked with an agency which had phenomenal training before we were even approved to stay with them. It was long, difficult, confronting and there was much ‘homework’. We were fortunate enough to have 3 lecturers (1 social worker, 1 therapist 1 teacher-all adult adoptees).

    We don’t pretend to be experts, just trying to be the best parents we can. If our child grows up to be uncomfortable with his ethnicity, that is our fault. I lose patience when I hear adoptive parents unwilling to accept these responsibilities. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be so negative! If you made a decision to adopt, you can make a decision to open your eyes and mind to the realities of transracial adoption and the importance of how your child sees him/herself.

    I’m afraid I may not be articulating myself very well and I apologize; I hope you get the gist of what I’m trying to say.

  5. Thanks for this post. I am glad to hear more about the conference.
    My son was born in South Korea and what we’ve come to is that we have to recognize what works for us as a family. Korean School didn’t work for him–especially after the day he started screaming “I HATE KOREA!” on the way there. But what did and does? Watching B-Boys, finding cool Korean Hip-Hop to listen to, going to Korea and not making it about “this is your birth journey” but instead, hey, you love Lotte World? Great. Let’s go. Reading Korean and Korean-American literature and finding cool Korean graphic novels. Having books around like the great new Kip Fulbeck book, MIXED. Going to amazing Contemporary Korean Art exhibits in New York and Losa Angeles, and spending a lot of time where his dad and I are in the minority. It’s all a part of it, and instead of having it feel forced, it feels organic to who we all are. And it makes him more and more interested instead of the refrain “This is so boring for me!”
    It’s about recognizing that Korea is a part of all of our lives forever, but that it will be up to us to help our son develop his own sense of what it is to be Korean-American and a person-of-color in this country. There are things we can understand, but we also, as a family, need to help cultivate relationships in his life for the parts we can never FULLY understand, just by the nature of our being Anglo.
    To a certain extent, he will always be between cultures, but that means the model needs to change. We need to acknowledge that there is no one RIGHT way to be Korean-American or to be a person-of-color. Sometimes, it feels so prescribed–This is what you HAVE to be. I don’t buy that. Instead, I hope he grows feeling confident in secure in who he is, all the various parts of who he is.

    Recently, his class read a book called The Best Biscuits in the World for part of their pioneer study. (He’s 9) His most significant reading response was about how frustrated, angry, and unfair he felt it was that shopkeepers would not sell provisions to African-American settlers because they didn’t want them to leave white farmers without a cheap labor pool. To me, the fact that he recognized that injustice and talked about it meant that hopefully, we are doing something right with making race and ethnicity a continual part of our family discussion. (Can you tell I felt proud of my guy?) And bravo to his school for assigning a text that was complicated and spoke to real issues.

    I know this comment is endless but one more thing–he is also part of a cohort of friends who are growing up in a very different world that previous generations of adopted kids. His circle of friends consists of many adopted kids, some domestic, some international. His groups also is primarily kids with two moms. His friends are starting to, and will have, their own origin questions and that, I think, makes it easier for them to talk with one another and to share their stories. One of his friends just recently realized that yes, she lives with her birth mom and her other mom and that means she is adopted too. And has a birth father who factors in to that equation.
    I guess what I mean is that our kids are growing up in a complex and diverse world that hopefully, will begin to recognize that NONE of us fit in to one mold.
    Okay, getting off soapbox now. Thanks for letting me rant!

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