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The Changing Faces of Adoption: Combining ethnicities and cultures, modern adoption approaches can foster loving families, researchers say

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Gone are the days when a typical adoption meant matching couples and infants by their blonde hair and blue eyes or other physical characteristics. Also gone is the secrecy surrounding adoption in which those involved agree never to discuss it.

Barriers and isolation have given way to more openness in adoption and increased numbers of transracial, transcultural, stepparent, older child, single parent, adoptions by foster parents and by relatives as well as gay and lesbian adopters.

Caroline and her husband, Rod, adopted Mia from China six years ago
Caroline and her husband, Rod, adopted Mia from China six years ago. Caroline describes Mia as a well-balanced child who “always has a good day.” The North Texas family believes adopting is a natural choice.

Read Caroline, Rod and Mia’s story.

“According to the U.S. Census (2006), 1.7 million households in America have adopted children,” said Dr. Ruth McRoy of The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.

“We have found that one type of adoption is not best for everyone,” she said. “The same glove does not fit every hand.”

McRoy has spent 25 years researching changes in adoption, especially the areas of open adoption, adoption through foster care and family preservation. She is the author of seven books and is a senior research fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York.

Studies of adoption are important, said McRoy, because it is reported that 90 percent of health and mental health service providers indicate a need for more education in adoption issues. More and more families are seeking adoption competent professionals. Each year, there are more than 135,000 adoptions in the U.S. and 51,000 of these involve children in foster care.

“Historically, adoption was all about matching children and families who looked like each other,” McRoy said. “But over the years, the number of healthy white kids placed for adoption has decreased dramatically in this country—from 37 percent in the mid-1960s to 2 percent currently.

“Today, there is less stigma associated with being a single mother, and more women with unplanned pregnancies are choosing to keep their babies rather than place them for adoption.”

Ruth McRoy
November is National Adoption Month, and Dr. Ruth McRoy of The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work has been researching changes in adoption for 25 years.

Historically, adoption was all about matching children and families who looked like each other, but times have changed and so have adoption trends, she says.

The trends have changed and more and more agencies are seeking to place older children for adoption through foster care or adoptions by relatives. There also are more people adopting children from other countries and more transracial adoptions, which used to be prohibited by law in some states. However, since the mid-1990s, laws have prohibited child welfare agencies that receive federal funding from considering race, color or national origin in the foster and adoptive placement of children except in extraordinary circumstances.

Most studies, said McRoy, have concluded that transracially adopted children of color do as well as other children on measures of general adjustment, although some differences have been found in terms of racial identity development.

Over the past 10-15 years, U.S. adoption agencies also have moved toward offering more opportunities for openness in adoption.

Fully disclosed adoptions are becoming more common while confidential adoptions continue to decrease, said McRoy, who is the co-author with Harold Grotevant of the book, “Openness in Adoption.”

In the book, the authors point out that adoption should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than a one-time event.

It is likely that most children desire information about their birthparents, possible birth siblings and their genetic heritage, they say.

“The increase in openness may buffer adolescents from problems because both the secrecy and uncertainty of their origins is greatly reduced,” McRoy said.

“With more openness, trust issues between everyone involved also are increased and adopted children have fewer fantasies about their birthmother and feel greater empathy toward her.”

Five years ago McRoy turned her attention to research on adopting from foster care.

In 2002, the Adoption Exchange Association was awarded a five-year contract from the U.S. Children’s Bureau to establish the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids in order to design and implement a national adoptive family recruitment and retention strategy.

As part of the collaboration, the Center for Social Work Research at The University of Texas at Austin was awarded a contract to conduct two Congressionally mandated research studies—one on barriers and another on successes in foster care adoption.

McRoy is directing both studies—research that has involved at least 25 students and staff in the School of Social Work.

Robert and Aaron
One example of the changing processes of adoption is that it is now much easier for single people to adopt. Robert Rodriguez and his son, Aaron, have been together for eight years. Rodriguez became so involved with foster care and adoption that he developed a non-profit organization that reunites separated siblings in the foster care system. He wants to adopt more children.

Read Robert and Aaron’s story.

Susan Ayers-Lopez has worked with McRoy over the years and is coordinator of the AdoptUsKids research project.

“We wanted to find out what factors are leading to success in adoption from foster care and identify the barriers—agency, child and family factors—to this type of adoption,” Ayers-Lopez said.

Several federal initiatives in recent years have called for research in order to better understand the process of adopting and increase the success of adoptions from foster care, McRoy pointed out.

Study participants included a nationwide sample of 161 adoptive families, 300 prospective adoptive families and 544 adoption agency staff recruited through public and private adoption agencies in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

“Despite the dramatic increase in the number of children adopted from foster care, 114,000 children are still awaiting adoption,” McRoy said.

As the researchers interviewed these families, they heard good stories and challenges to adopting from foster care. Several families who participated in the study offered to share their stories as part of this feature article.

Thirty-eight-year-old Robyn and her husband adopted twin girls from foster care four years ago. The family has seen the effects of trauma played out in the twins’ lives at school, home and socially, but “nothing has been insurmountable.”

Another couple from Oregon, who had previously adopted privately and decided to adopt from foster care, also participated in the study. Their experience, however, was quite different from Robyn’s.

They tell a story of “mind-numbing” delays and a “chaotic and unstable” foster care system.

Patricia Cody, who has worked on McRoy’s foster care study since the beginning, said although interviewers heard some challenging experiences and barriers in trying to adopt, the majority were about successful adoptions from foster care and the families’ abilities to overcome challenges.

“Many of our families did describe challenges, but most were able to overcome them,” she said.

Cody recently received her doctoral degree from the School of Social Work. She has worked with foster children for the past eight years and developed a therapeutic horsemanship support program in Dallas to help children adopted from foster care who are experiencing emotional and behavior problems. The purpose of the program is to increase the self-confidence and self-esteem of the children as they learn to ride and care for the horses. Mothers and children participate in the program together.

Dustin and his pony, Lightnin' Bug
Dustin and his pony, Lightnin’ Bug, participated in a therapeutic horsemanship program developed by a University of Texas at Austin social work researcher. The program helps foster children increase their confidence and self-esteem.

“There are thousands of foster children available for adoption right now,” Cody said. “These children are amazing kids with tremendous potential. It is so important for our future and theirs that these children are raised in loving homes and that the families who foster and adopt are supported.”

McRoy found some couples decide to adopt from another country or decide not to adopt because of difficulties or perceived difficulties with the U.S. adoption system. She strongly believes that the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids project and her research findings can help identify and alleviate some of the problems—at least with adoption through foster care.

Besides foster care adoptions and studies on confidentiality and openness, more research is needed in areas such as birth family preservation, the impact of adoption on marriage, effective strategies to increase older child placement and the birthfather’s involvement in and adjustment to placing a child for adoption, said McRoy.

Few studies have included birthfathers, she said, adding that most are not included in the adoption process and viewed as “signers” only. Most, too, have never seen their babies for whom an adoption plan was made.

“Adoption impacts children, birthfamilies and adoptive families and in a very powerful way touches upon universal human themes of abandonment, loss, parenthood, sexuality, identity and sense of belonging,” said McRoy.

The Changing Faces of Adoption

Tracy’s Story

Tracy Eilers and her family are just one example of the changing face of adoption. She was asked three years ago by the Austin Community Foundation to create the Adoption Coalition of Texas, a collaborative effort of private nonprofit child-placing agencies working together to find families for abused and neglected children “languishing” in the foster care system.

As executive director of the new organization, Eilers worked closely with the children and started several community awareness campaigns like Forever Families, a television segment highlighting foster care children which airs on News 8 in Austin every Sunday.

She became hooked on the kids. Two years ago, she and her husband adopted a 13-year-old boy and just five months ago adopted another child who is 14.

“I never planned to adopt and actually didn’t know anything about adoption,” Eilers said. “I was a management consultant before deciding to jump in with both feet and start up this organization.”

Both of the children had been in the system for a long period of time.

“It hasn’t been easy, but kids in general aren’t easy,” Eilers said. “The boys have the typical teenage issues plus issues of being emotionally and academically behind. But they catch up quickly.”

The coalition focuses on teenagers because they are the ones who fall through the cracks, said Eilers.

“We are very proactive,” she said. “We go out and find families for the children—child by child. It has become my thing. If I could adopt all of them, I would.”

Caroline, Rod and Mia’s Story

Some people adopt internationally not so much because they think that U.S. adoption is difficult, but because they value different cultures and see a need in other countries to help children.

Such is the case with the North Texas family that adopted Mia, an abandoned newborn from China.

“I’m Hispanic, my husband is white, and we love other cultures and ethnic differences,” said Caroline. “We tell Mia every day she’s the most beautiful Chinese girl ever born.”

Caroline wasn’t part of the recent university study because she didn’t adopt from foster care. But, she met University of Texas at Austin researcher Patricia Cody when she volunteered for the therapeutic horsemanship program.

Mia is six years old now and is a very active child—with ballet, choir, swimming and soccer. Caroline taught her English, Spanish and sign language all at the same time.

“She is a well-balanced child who always has a good day,” Caroline said.

“Adopting is a natural choice,” she said.

Robert and Aaron’s Story

As a single male, Robert Rodriguez knew it would be hard to adopt. But he and his son Aaron have now been together for eight years.

“The face of adoption has definitely changed in the last 10 years,” said Rodriguez, who adopted through foster care. “The system used to not look at single people at all. But just about everyone today has realized that a nuclear family doesn’t have to fit a mother/father/siblings mold.”

Rodriguez became so involved with foster care and adoption that in 2002 he developed a non-profit organization that reunites separated siblings in the system. Among its activities, Family for Life runs three weekend camps a year in San Marcos.

“I have always wanted to be a dad having grown up in a big family with nine children,” said Rodriguez. “I lost my father when I was 16 and knew I hadn’t finished my life with him.”

Aaron is now nearly 16 years old. When Rodriguez adopted him at age 7, Aaron had been in the system for four and a half years.

“It’s been a long road with many challenges, but Aaron has come a long way,” said Rodriguez, who would like to adopt more children. “We were both new to it in the beginning, and he was fearful that it wasn’t something that wasn’t going to last.

“He’s been a real trooper to make me his father.”

Oregon Couple’s Story

A couple from Oregon, who had previously adopted privately and decided to adopt from foster care, also participated in the University of Texas at Austin study. Their experience, however, was quite different.

They tell a story of “mind-numbing” delays and a “chaotic and unstable” foster care system. After a long wait, the couple was matched with a child.

“We never even got a chance to meet her before we had to commit to parenting her,” said the couple. Five months later they made the difficult decision not to continue to parent the child after an extensive diagnosis revealed she had neurologically based severe Reactive Attachment Disorder—characterized by markedly disturbed social relatedness.

“Our family was falling apart, and we longed for the knowledge and support of how to help our daughter,” the couple said. “It was horrible.”

“We think that the system still tries to ‘place’ children rather than build families,” they said. ”We think adopting overseas is quicker. The classes, the home study, the laborious process to adopt here in the U.S. seems so at odds with how many children need good homes.”

Robyn’s Story

With a biological son, 38-year-old Robyn and her husband decided to adopt twin girls through the foster care system. The couple works at child placing agencies so they know and understand the processes involved.They fostered the girls for a year before adopting them.

“The girls were 10 at the time, are now 14 and doing very well,” Robyn said.

“I believe people don’t really think of older children—or children who have a known history of abuse or neglect—as the ideal child when they are thinking about adoption,” she said. “The general population still appears to have a serious stigma attached to ‘foster children.’”

The family has seen the effects of trauma played out in the twins’ lives at school, home and socially.

“But nothing has been insurmountable,” said Robyn. The girls were delayed in their education but are now making A’s and B’s in school.

“I think the fact that we came to know the children first made the most difference,” she said. “We were not looking to adopt.

“We were able to decide we wanted to adopt the children by virtue of casual interactions with them. We were able to fall in love with the girls instead of being required to fall in love with information about the children.”

Robyn says she is a strong advocate for adoption but believes there should be better advertisement for adoption of foster children and more venues for families to come in contact with them.

By Nancy Neff

Banner illustration: Guy Kingsbery

Photo of Dr. McRoy: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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