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