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Adoption: Overview

Abstract and Keywords

Adoption of children from foster care and international adoptions have accelerated since 1987. Federal policy changes have markedly increased the termination of parental rights and adoption of children in foster care. Adoption by relatives and single parents has also grown markedly. Open adoption is increasingly normative. Adoption outcomes are generally positive although there is substantial call for post-adoption support for children adopted from foster care. These services are emerging but their efficacy is still untested. More work is needed on post-adoption services because there are now more former foster children in post-adoption status than there are children in foster care.

Keywords: adoption, foster care, special need, transracial, open adoption, home study

Adoption creates a legal family for children when the birth family is unable or unwilling to parent. Yet, adoption is not a program only for children. Adoption creates new families, expands existing families, and engages adoptive parents in the priceless costs and benefits of parenting. Birth parents who voluntarily place their child with adoptive parents may also benefit from adoption because it frees them from the parenting role, which they judge themselves unready to assume. Those who involuntarily relinquish children may experience little relief and substantial loss (Fessler, 2006). Adoption also offers birth parents the hope of a better life for their child. At its best, adoption meets the hopes of the child, the adoptive parents, and the birth parents. American adoption law and practice have been developed to address the needs of this adoption triangle.

Communities also have an interest in the policies and practices of adoption. The future of our communities and society depends on our children, and their future requires an adequate family life. Many communities within our society, especially Native American tribes, ethnic communities, and other self-defined communities such as foster parents and gay men and lesbians are asserting their right to adopt or to have first claim on children available for adoption. Because adoption occurs at the intersection of love and law, it evokes a powerful response from these communities. Adoption is a social and legal institution that reflects the status, interests, and moral views of nearly every social entity. The Donaldson Adoption Institute estimates that 60% of Americans are involved in an adoption. For the first time, the U.S. Census asked in 2000, if the child was an adopted or a natural-born son or daughter—about 2.1 million children in U.S. households are adopted, about 8% of all the children of householders in 2000 (Kreider, 2003). Though the percentage of adopted children under the age of 18 is 2.5%, this varies considerably at the local county level, from less than 1.9% to as high as 15.7%.

History of American Adoption

Early in U.S. history, children were more likely to be indentured than adopted. Nonetheless, adoptions date back to the beginning of the republic: The first governor of Massachusetts was an adoptive father of an older child. The end of slavery and indentured servitude resulted in the growth of orphanages, and individual states first began to legislate and regulate adoption practices at that time (Whitmore, 1876). Regulations emerged to protect birth parents' rights to give or withhold permission for the child's adoption, adopting parents' rights not to have their child reclaimed, and children's rights to be cared for by suitable adopting parents.

By 1929, every state had adoption statutes. Statutes varied on several counts, but all reflected concern that adoption promote the welfare of the child. The first regulations required social investigations of prospective adoptive parents and trial placement periods in prospective adoptive homes (Heisterman, 1935). A few states also required home visits by agents of the state child welfare department, the precursor to today's home study, although the rationale for the visits was rarely clarified (a legacy that remains, in part, even today in the home approval process).

Foster care and adoptions were intertwined in the late 19th century. The great expansion of foster care and adoption is often associated with Charles Loring Brace (1859). The middle-class leaders of child care agencies expected to save both souls and money by placing poor children in good homes (Clement, 1979). Placing agencies were concerned less with the needs of the children than with the social and moral problems children might create in the larger community. The most common reason for placement was poverty, not protection from child abuse or abandonment. This rationale for foster and adoptive placements was judged unacceptable by the 1920s.

The nation's involvement in adoption in the middle part of the 20th century was primarily through placement of infants of young unmarried women, who were often not so voluntarily having their newborns placed with decidedly middle class married couples. Adoption was firmly controlled initially by private, and later, public agencies, which made the arrangements after screening and choosing the parents. The dominance of this form of adoption began to wane with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1974, although infant adoptions of a typically more open and voluntary form continue.

Adoption of older children began to reemerge after World War II. In 1949 the Children's Home Society began a “new type of child care program in North Carolina to provide ways and means of placing older children in institutions, in family homes for adoption” (Weeks, 1953, p. i). This effort was partly in response to waiting lists to place children in orphanages. In 2008, all American orphanages are closed or converted to residential care, and foster care is the typical setting for older children awaiting adoption.

Types of Adoption

Adoption occurs through a variety of means involving different types of agencies and auspices, each with unique procedures and requirements. Taken together, approximately 119,000 children were adopted in 1990 (Flango & Flango, 1993). This number grew slightly to 127,000 children in 2000 and 2001 (Flango & Caskey, 2005), although the types of adoption placements have changed considerably. Generally, adoptions are grouped into four categories: stepparent, independent, relinquishment or agency, and intercountry. In 1992, 72% of all adoptions were private, independent, kinship (non foster care) and tribal (non foster care) but this number dropped to only 15% by 2001 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2004). The major growth areas are international and foster care adoption.

Stepparent Adoptions

Stepparent adoptions refer to the adoption of children by the spouse of a parent. Stepparent adoptions differ from other adoptions because the adoption involves a child who is already legally in the family. In most states, stepparent adoptions are about twice as common as nonstepparent adoptions. Stepparent adoptions are typically administered separately from nonstepparent adoptions and, because of their impact on the distribution of family property, are often overseen in superior court or probate court.

Independent Adoptions

Independent adoptions occur when parents place children directly with adoptive families of their choice without an agency serving as an intermediary. Intermediaries are most often counselors or attorneys. In the 1950s, agency adoptions and independent adoptions were about equal in number and primarily involved infants. Independent adoptions held steady at about 20% of all adoptions in the 1960s and 1970s (Meezan, Katz, & Russo, 1978) but have increased to nearly one-third (National Committee for Adoption, 1989). As of 2006, only four states (CO, CT, DE, and MA) had outlawed independent adoptions (McDermott, 2007). Nationally, between 15,000 and 17,000 children were adopted independent of agencies in 1992 (Placek, 1999; Stolley, 1993) and this number may have dropped since then, to about 13,000 in 1996 (Placek, 1999). No statistics on independent adoptions are available for more recent years, consistent with the lack of federal involvement in independent adoption practice or policy.

Agency or Relinquishment Adoptions

Agency or relinquishment adoptions are those that follow the voluntary or involuntary legal severance of parental rights to the child and are overseen by a public or private agency providing foster care and adoption. The intent of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 and of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was to increase the number of relinquishment adoptions. This has occurred. Although good national data has only recently emerged, data from AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System) shows a doubling of the number of children adopted from foster care from about approximately 25,693 in 1995 to a high of 52,468 in 2004. This growth appears to have been leveling off since 2002. At the same time, the number of parental right terminations has risen to about 70,000 per year and is also leveling off.

Little information is available to compare independent and agency adoptions. Evidence comparing independent and agency adoptions of infants found few differences in outcomes between them (Meezan, Katz, & Russo, 1978). Parent satisfaction is high for both (Berry, Barth, & Needell, 1996). Efforts to make the infant home-study process more intensive, to screen adoptive families more rigorously, or to require extensive agency review of placements, have not been founded on evidence that independent adoptions are less satisfactory than agency adoptions. Although fingerprint checks for felonious criminal behavior and assessments of the safety of the household are undoubtedly warranted to screen adoption applicants, adoption policies must be circumspect about using additional criteria to screen out families seeking to adopt children. These additional criteria add barriers to the recruitment, approval, and retention of adoptive families and may prevent adoptions. Adoption agencies are especially helpful when they focus on assisting applicants to determine the best kind of adoption for them and provide necessary pre-placement training and post-placement support for adoptive parents caring for children with special needs (Emery, 1993). Innovations in home studies—including SAFE (Structured Analysis Family Evaluation)—are endeavoring to standardize the home study format so that it can be used for foster care and adoptive placements across agencies and jurisdictions (Crea, Barth, & Chintapalli, in press).

Intercountry Adoptions

Intercountry adoptions involve the adoption of foreign-born children by adoptive families. In the United States, intercountry adoptions are a small but significant proportion of adoptions. Federal law requires a satisfactory home study. Private adoption agencies assist families by conducting family assessments for Latin American, Pacific Rim, or Eastern European adoptions. Also, children who are adopted must clearly be orphans. These adoptions raise a number of policy issues such as proper safeguarding of birth parent rights, cultural genocide, and resolving citizenship for the child. The nature and function of international adoptions merit careful review and analysis. More than 9,000 foreign-born children were adopted in the United States in 1991 (Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1991); the number grew to nearly 18,000 in 2000, increasing from roughly 5% of all adoptive placements to 15%. (Flango & Caskey, 2005). The percentage of adoptions from foreign countries has increased from 5% in 1992 to 15% in 2001 (p. 40). Trends include new restrictions on Korean adoptions and an expansion in the number of countries from which children are being adopted, including Eastern European countries and, especially, China, which accounts for about one-third of all U.S. international adoptions (U.S. State Department, 2007).

Special-Needs Adoptions

Federal law describes special-needs adoption as indicating that a child in foster care cannot or should not be returned to the home of his or her birth parents and that the child has a specific factor or condition (such as ethnic background; age; membership in a minority or sibling group; or the presence of factors such as medical conditions or physical, mental, or emotional handicaps) that make it reasonable to conclude that the child cannot be placed with adoptive parents without providing adoption assistance or medical assistance. In addition, the state must find that a reasonable but unsuccessful effort has been made to place a child with appropriate adoptive parents without providing adoption or medical assistance. This latter requirement can be, and often is, waived if it would be against the best interests of the child. State regulations vary widely in their interpretations of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, but generally identify special-needs adoptions as involving the adoption of children aged three years or older, ethnic children, handicapped children, emotionally or intellectually impaired children, or sibling groups of three or more. Almost all (88%) the children adopted from foster care are judged to have special needs—the proportion of these children ranged from 16% (CT) to 100% (SC) in FY 2001 (Dalberth, Gibbs, & Berkman, 2005).

Between 1982 and 1986, the number of special-needs adoptions showed little or no growth (National Committee for Adoption, 1989), but the foster care population grew by 7% (Tatara, 1994). In contrast, by 2000, the growth of the foster care population was flat and adoptions were growing. Special-needs adoption of foster children accounted for about 10% of all exits from foster care in the early to mid-1980s (Barth & Berry, 1988). Between 1995 and 2004, about 19% of exits from foster care were by adoption. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007b).

Major Adoption Legislation

Indian Child Welfare Act

For the first 200 years, American adoption was legislated locally. The first major piece of national legislation influencing adoption was the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978. The legislation provides legal guidelines to promote the stability and security of Native American tribes and families and to prevent the unwarranted removal of Native American children from their homes. The passage of ICWA was fueled by the recognition that as many as 30% of Native American children were not living in their homes, but were residing in boarding schools, foster homes, or adoptive homes. Founders of the Act asserted that the viability of Native American tribes was dissipating in the face of the removal of its children. The Act emphasizes protecting tribal communities.

Within this broad Act are protections specific to adoption. Most notably, termination of a Native American's parental rights requires the highest standard of proof. Child welfare authorities must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Native American custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child. Thus, the court must find with virtual certainty that the child will be seriously harmed in the future before he or she is freed for adoption. This high standard protects tribal rights but leaves little latitude for overseeing the child's right to be safe.

Section 1915 of the Act legislates the adoptive placements of Native American children after termination of parental rights. Preference is given to placement with a member of the child's extended family, other members of the child's tribe, or other Native American families. The Act places the rights of the tribe above those of the birth parent. For example, Native American parents who are tribal members cannot place their children for adoption with non-Native American families off the reservation; placement of tribal children is governed by the tribe.

As a result of these stringent provisions, ICWA has never been without controversy. Fischler (1980) argued that the greater sovereignty for Native American adults places Native American children in jeopardy: Further, by regarding children as the property of parents, families, and tribes, ICWA does not protect children adequately. Defenders of ICWA argue that a child's right to a lifelong cultural affiliation deserves at least as much protection as the right to household permanency (Blanchard & Barsh, 1980). They propose that the choice to protect culture is what tribal child welfare professionals have made explicit in their support of ICWA.

The impact of the Act has undergone little evaluation. The only assessment of ICWA implementation indicates that, as envisioned by the framers of the Act, an increasing proportion of Native American children are being placed in foster and adoptive homes with Native American parents. Yet, Native American children in care are less likely than other children to have a case plan goal of adoption (Plantz, Hubbell, Barrett, & Dobrec, 1989). When they are adopted, this is very often by aunts and uncles or other relatives (Barth, Webster, & Lee, 2002). State and federal courts have yet to achieve a consistent balance between the interests of tribal survival, child welfare, and parental authority. The conflict is especially vexing when the parents of a Native American child want to place the child in a non-Native American family or a tribe seeks to place a child on an unfamiliar reservation in which the child has no close family (Hollinger, 1989). These cases continue to be contested (Cross, 2006). The relationship between ICWA—which contains a very high standard for termination of parental rights—and subsequent child welfare legislation that requires time limits on foster care placements and termination of parental rights when those time limits are exceeded, is only now being explored.

Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act and Adoption and Safe Families Act

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) was passed in 1980, followed by the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997. The broad mandates in the AACWA require that child welfare agencies implement preplacement preventive services, programs to reunify placed children with their biological families, subsidized adoption, and periodic case reviews of children in care. Perhaps most importantly, AACWA instituted a time line of 18 months for reunification or a decision to free a child for adoption. To facilitate adoption, a federal subsidy program was included that allows federal dollars to be used to match state contributions made to give subsidies—which could not be larger than the prior foster care payment—to families adopting children with special needs. In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) to strengthen these provisions. The time frame for making permanency decisions was shortened to 12 months and the expectations that a child would be free for adoption, even if there was not an immediately available adoptive family, were added to the law, along with many other provisions.

The changes in the focus and completion of adoptions have, subsequently, been dramatic. In 1982 more than 50,000 children were legally free from their parents and waiting to be placed (Maza, 1983). About 17,000 of these children had the specific permanent plan of adoption and approximately 14,400 older children were placed for adoption in the United States (Maximus, 1984). By 2004, more than 118,000 children were legally free for adoption and more than 52,000 children were adopted, almost all of whom were given adoption subsidies. The massive increase since 1975 in the placement of older foster children and special-needs children for adoption has greatly changed the historic purpose and scope of child welfare services.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act encourages states to develop adoption subsidy programs for special-needs adoption and reimburses the state for 50% of the subsidy costs. The intent was to ensure that families were not penalized financially for adopting. Reforms to make subsidies available to families that adopt special-needs children were passed, over the objections that sentiment should be the only consideration in adoption. Instead, law acknowledged subsidies as a means to facilitate the adoption of special-needs foster children and promote new adoptions. Subsidies are meant to encourage families to adopt. Families that adopt special-needs children are entitled to subsidies without a means test, although their financial condition can be taken into account.

Adoption assistance payments are now provided in all states, and state adoption subsidy programs operate in virtually every state. Nationwide, adoption assistance payments rose from $442,000 in 1981 to an estimated $100 million in 1993 to more than $2 billion in 2007 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007a; U.S. Senate, 1990). In 2006, more money was expected to be spent by the federal government, each day, on adoption subsidies than on foster care payments (Spar & Devere, 2001). Concerned about the growing number of children receiving adoption subsidies, some states have endeavored to cut adoption subsidies, despite the fact that they are already lower than foster care or group care payments and are much less expensive than paying for children who grow up in out-of-home care (Barth, Lee, Wildfire, & Guo, 2006). Court challenges to cuts in existing subsidies have successfully argued that they could not make such cuts for families that had accepted children into their families with the understanding of a higher subsidy payment (Eckholm, 2006).

Multiethnic Placement Act and Interethnic Adoption Provisions

The passage of the Howard M. Metzenbaum Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 prohibits any agency or entity that receives federal assistance “to categorically deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or a foster parent, solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child, involved; or delay or deny the placement of a child for adoption or into foster care, or otherwise discriminate in making a placement decision, solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child involved” (S. 553(a)I(A&B). Initially identified as a “permissible consideration,” agencies could consider the cultural, ethnic or racial background of the child and the capacity of the prospective parents to meet the needs of the child as one of a number of factors in determining the best interests of the child. This was later stricken in the Interethnic Adoption Provisions, which amended the Multiethnic Placement Act and added penalties for failing to comply with this Act as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Acts also require that states provide diligent recruitment of potential adoptive and foster families that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of children in the state for whom foster and adoptive homes are needed.

The passage of this Act may have increased the likelihood of adoption for African American children; however, this is not a clear result of the law. The U.S. DHHS has done little else to try to study the impact of the law. Shaw found no change in the proportion of multiethnic adoptions in California since the law. Several states have been successfully sued by the Office of Civil Rights for failing to implement the law; Ohio received a $1.8 million fine (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Departmental Appeals Board, 2006b). At the same time, the lengths of stay in foster care for African American children are declining because of more movement into guardianship and kinship adoptions (Wulczyn, 2003).

Current Adoption Practice

Recruitment of adoptive parents for foster children is arguably the most important element of adoption practice because once adoptive placements are made, adoptions generally require few ongoing services. Recruitment is especially critical for African American children because they remain strikingly overrepresented in foster care. Although adoption practices vary broadly, practitioners struggle to decide how to keep pace with emerging trends in a way that fits their agency and is in the best interests of children, families, and the community.

Adoption Planning for the Child

Permanency planning legislation provides grounds to free many children for adoption, but agencies have been slow to implement the specifics of the legislation, and many barriers to placement and permanence remain. Determining a child's eligibility for adoption continues to be a confused mixture of answers to three questions. Is the child (1) easily interested in adoption? (2) likely to be adopted? (3) likely to remain adopted? Adjusting practice to the needs of these older children includes recognizing that some disruption is inevitable. As Cole (1986) wrote, “The only failed adoption is the one you didn't try” (p. 4). Workers who recognize and accept the possibility of disruption in adoption find creative ways to facilitate adoptions for all waiting children and support the placement in accordance with the risk involved. Recent innovations in adoption practice are resulting in adoptions even when the person adopted is older than 21 (Barth & Chintapalli, in press).

Not every child will be better off adopted than in long-term foster care or guardianship. Although many adoptive families struggle and may need post-adoption assistance, the general evidence of positive adoption outcomes is powerful (Barth, 2002; Triseliotis, 2002). The value of adoption and the relatively modest disruption rates of about 11% (Smith, Howard, Garnier, & Ryan, 2006) make adoption an excellent alternative over foster care. Experienced child welfare workers have lower adoption disruption rates for families that had been in their care. At the same time, children who are not adopted but whose parents have had their parental rights terminated are likely to experience a variety of significant legal and personal disadvantages (Barth & Chintapalli, in press).

Speedy efforts to place children while they are young and better able to fit into an adoptive family's home represent the starting point for successful adoption. Adoption delayed is often adoption denied. Efforts to terminate parental rights more quickly when reunification is improbable and to move children into foster-adopt situations deserve full support and dissemination. At the same time, older children, whose parents' rights have been terminated, are too often unable to be adopted and are, therefore, suffering the legal consequences of having no legal family ties.

Recruitment of Adoptive Parents

Agencies continue to engage in a variety of methods to find adoptive families. Recent years have seen advances in search methods that involve information provided by the youth who will be adopted. In these procedures, social workers help youth to identify people whom they have known and cared about and who might consider adopting them. In addition, there is a growing use of people finder firms to seek relatives of children in foster care.

In addition to exchanges, parent recruitment also occurs through community education. Broad education in the community can reach groups of potential parents who may never have considered adoption. Beginning in 1979, Father George Clements, a priest in Chicago, challenged every African American church in Chicago through the One Church, One Child program to accept the responsibility and opportunity to have one member of each congregation adopt an African American child (Veronico, 1983). Federal and state governments subsequently provided years of support to One Church, One Child to encourage its replication. Many states now have a version of One Church, One Child and focus on recruitment of families from other ethnic groups. The program continues to be used (Gibson, 2003) but has not yet been evaluated.

Another recruitment strategy that has shown promise involves using special features on television or in newspapers to present a particular child and a description of his or her strengths and needs. These media campaigns are modestly successful and inexpensive. Ethnic adoption fairs also bring interested parents and eligible children together in a picnic situation. Internet services are a growing tool for identifying children in need of adoption. More than 7,000 children listed on the Children's Bureau's Web site have been adopted, as of April, 2007.

Pre-placement Services

Home study is a nearly 150-year-old tradition and continues to serve the primary function of screening adoptive families to protect children from harmful situations (Crea, Barth, & Chintapalli, in press). A well-established but secondary function is to help adoptive families clarify their intentions and flexibility regarding the characteristics of children they seek to adopt. Since 1998, there has also been a greater use of the group process for training and support of preadoptive families so they are more able to parent special-needs children successfully. The group approach to preplacement provides particular opportunities for ongoing support. Many of these groups prepare participants to become either adoptive or foster parents. Groups may last for as long as 10 sessions and include guest presentations by current foster and adoptive parents. Prospective foster parents are told that they may change their minds and become adoptive parents instead. People who expressly want to adopt (and they usually outnumber those who want only to provide foster care) are oriented to the social services system and the legal and moral responsibility to facilitate the child's reunification with the birth family when that is the case goal. Adoptive families that begin the process in such multifamily groups often maintain contact with peers well beyond their time of contact with the social worker. Although group home studies have not been well evaluated, some evidence suggests that they strengthen high-risk placements (Barth & Berry, 1988) whereas other evidence suggests that they have little benefit (Puddy & Jackson, 2003).

Social workers try to provide adopting parents with all pertinent information about the child during preplacement services. Because of the inevitable coordination problems and some confidentiality concerns, much valuable background information is not shared. This inefficiency could be redressed by rethinking the type of information that is collected and how it is summarized and transmitted to the families. However they accomplish it, social workers with more years of experience are more effective in supporting families so that they succeed in their adoptions—for each year of worker experience the adoption disruption rate decreases by 2% (Smith et al., 2006).

The strong confirmation by researchers of the importance of information sharing calls for prompt action (Barth, 1988). Better information is associated with better outcomes. Also, the success of a few “wrongful adoption” cases is forcing agencies to change their information-sharing practices and states to change their laws to reduce liability. Nonetheless, some social workers continue to withhold information to increase the likelihood of adoption (Schulte, 2006).

Open Adoption

The practice of open adoption, or the continuance of contact or correspondence between the adopted child and birth parents, is increasingly common. An estimated 55% of adoptive families in California during 1988 and 1989 had contact with the birth family in the two years following placement (Berry, 1991). Henney et al. (2003) examined the practices of 31 adoption agencies from 1987 to 1999 and showed that only 36% of agencies offered fully disclosed arrangements in 1987 but that, by 1999, 79% offered fully disclosed arrangements. At the end of that time, not one agency offered only confidential adoptions.

The benefits of open adoption are becoming more accepted, but remain controversial. On ideological grounds, because outcome data on open adoptions are scarce, Pannor and Baran (1984) called for “an end to all closed adoptions” (p. 245). They view the secrecy of conventional adoptions as an affront to the rights of adopted children. Kraft, Palombo, Woods, Mitchell, and Schmidt (1985a, 1985b) countered that open adoptions may interfere with the process of bonding between the adoptive parent and child. Other evidence suggests that the adoptive parents' control over their child's contact with birth parents is critical to the success of the placement (Barth & Berry; 1988) and the parents' comfort with the placement (Berry, 1991; Dunbar, Van Dulmen, Ayers-Lopez, Berge, Christian, Grossman, et al. 2006). Berge, Mendenhall, Wrobel, Grotevant, and McRoy (2006) examined adolescents' feelings on openness and found that “adolescents desired and benefited from having openness in their adoption arrangements” (p. 1036). Berge et al. also found that adolescents desired more contact with “birth moms,” which demonstrated that the contact with the birth mothers was not harmful. Von Korff, Grotevant, and McRoy (2006) ran a study to see if the degree of openness between adoptive and birth family members was associated with the behavioral and emotional adjustments of adolescents who had been adopted as babies. “The adoptive parents' reports indicate no significant association between openness and adolescent adjustment (p. 531).” Adoptee reports suggested that externalizing behavior is higher in confidential as compared with ongoing fully disclosed arrangements” (p. 534) but the authors make no claims that openness causes better outcomes. They recommend that openness arrangements be voluntary and that openness decisions be made on a case by case basis.

Whereas most open adoptions continue to be voluntary on the adoptive parents' part, recent case law has added stipulations to adoption decrees that provide birth parents with visitation rights (Hollinger, 1993). A few countries (for instance, New Zealand) have made open adoptions the requirement for all adoptions on the grounds that it is in the child's best interest. These changes are in stark contrast to the historical notion of adoption as a parent-child relationship equivalent to the birth parent-child relationship and without condition. This change occurred despite the absence of noteworthy evidence that children in open adoptions have better outcomes than other children.

The potential benefit of open adoption is that it provides a resource for coping with the typical transitions in the child's understanding about option as he or she moves toward adulthood. The danger for older children is that continued contact with birth parents may disrupt the development of the child's relationship with the new family. The older adoptive child and parent are trying to become a family and need a structure to do so. It may seem that the older a child, the less detrimental and more natural it is to retain ties to former caretakers. The danger in this logic is that older children have a more difficult time developing ties to their new family because they are also pushing toward independence and this development may be preempted by contact with birth families. Open adoption can perhaps best be viewed as an enrichment to a stable placement, not a necessity for all placements or a palliative for a troubled one.

Nontraditional Adoptions

The traditional requirement that adoptive parents be married couples who own a home, with a full-time mother at home, severely narrowed the field of possible adoptive parents. Although these requirements might have been helpful in reducing the field of applicants during the infant adoption boom, they were also erroneously promulgated to protect children from unsuitable parents. Instead, they limited the placement of special-needs children. The bigger pool of parents needed for these waiting children is not attainable without flexible requirements. Requirements for adoptive parents have typically been more flexible in public agencies than in private ones. Public agencies supervise adoptions with parents with lower incomes, lower education levels, older ages, and more children in the home than do private agencies (State of California Department of Social Services, 1987).

Agencies are beginning to recognize the potential of unconventional adoptive parents, especially single parents. An early study of single parent adoptions (Branham, 1970) found that, in general, applicants were emotionally mature, tolerant, and independent and had a supportive network of relatives. Barth and Berry (1988) found that single parents adopted older and more difficult children with no more adoption disruptions than couples.

Modest changes in agency policy and practice have opened opportunities for adoption by gay and lesbian parents (Pace, 2005; Ryan, Pearlmutter, & Groza, 2004). In 2000, 29,000 adopted children lived with a female head of household and her unmarried partner and almost 29,000 adopted children lived with a male head of household and his unmarried partner (Krieder, 2003). These statistics do not indicate what percentage of these children live with same-sex partners or opposite-sex partners. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual foster parents face multiple challenges when beginning the adoption process, as it frequently begins by becoming foster parents (Downs & James, 2006). Despite being a valuable resource for our nation's foster children, Downs and James (2006) found that many gay, lesbian, and bisexual foster parents were met by lack of support, unsympathetic social workers, and even legal resistance. Results of a study by Leung, Erich, and Kanenberg (2005) indicated that children who were adopted by gay or lesbian-headed families had no negative effects for their parenting. Additionally, higher levels of family functioning were found in gay or lesbian headed-households with adopted children who were older, non-sibling grouped, and had more foster placements. These results indicate that gay and lesbian adoptions should be encouraged. Indeed, agency personnel have a clear understanding that gay and lesbian families are a vitally important resource for achieving the social goals of ensuring that children have loving, legal, lifetime families (Brodzinsky, Patterson, & Vaziri, 2002). A new generation of work is clarifying important considerations in the assessment and support of gay and lesbian foster and adoptive parents (e.g., Mallon, 2007; Mallon & Wornoff, 2006).

Adoption of children by kin who cared for them as foster parents has increased in recent years. Kinship foster care has become the most common type of foster care in many urban areas (Barth, Courtney, Berrick, & Albert, 1994) and kinship adoptions have also grown in recent years. Of the children leaving home care between 1990 and 2002, 26% of those who were placed in kinship care were adopted, compared to 21% of children entering foster care (Wulczyn, Chen, & Hislop, 2006). This is partially responsible for their finding that African American children are now more likely than other children to be adopted even though their rate of adoption is slower than other children (Wulczyn et al., 2006). Although this is generally a more protective legal arrangement for children than foster care, kinship adoptions are more likely than other adoptions to be by older, less educated, poorer, single parents (Magruder, 1994).

Post-placement Services

Agency support after placement may be needed for some children. Any placement will have challenges. The goal for the agency is to stay close enough to the family to be aware of these problems and guide the family to resources to aid in their resolution. However, many families are reluctant to seek services until it is too late because they are afraid they will lose their child.

Both the child and the parents have needs in post-placement services. Agencies typically maintain contact with the family during the first three to six months to reassure the child of continuity with his or her past and to enable the family to explore uncertainties without feeling lost (Fitzgerald, Murcer, & Murcer, 1982). The goal is to catch problems early in the placement before they escalate into unsalvageable disasters. The evidence is unequivocal that the needs of adoptive families for support and services last well beyond the first year (Festinger, 2006). Agencies must establish ways to provide services for high-risk placements throughout adolescence. Post-adoption services may be useful but they are specifically geared toward preserving placements on the verge of disruption. Rather, they tend to serve adoptees placed as infants, not older adoptees, and help them reconcile their adoptions, make decisions about searching for birth parents, and deal with their concerns as they become adolescents and young adults.

Many agencies have introduced support groups of adoptive families for parents and children. It is often helpful for new adoptive parents and children to talk to fellow adopters and adoptees about what is normal in adoption and to share realistic expectations and feelings about the process. These groups also facilitate supportive relationships that parents and children can fall back on when they need to. Support groups probably operate best when started during the home study, but successful versions have been developed after placement to support high-risk placements.

There is a clamor for the development of post-placement and post-legalization services that meet the demands of supporting older-child adoptions. The call is for something far more than mandatory visits soon after the adoption and the availability of crisis intervention services. Although the principles underlying this demand are sound, a few concerns arise. First, postadoption services should not be staffed at the expense of recruitment and home study efforts. Resources spent on conventional post-placement services are not as valuable to agencies and families as dollars spent on recruitment because most adoptions succeed with no significant agency effort after placement. Second, although referral to outside services is often useful, social workers or other adoptive families involved with the family should be available to assess the situation and coordinate post-placement services from other providers. Families are less likely to ask the agency for help when they lose contact with the worker who did their home study. The home study is a poignant process that builds strong bonds between the worker and the family. The organization of services should facilitate a continuous relationship among the family, social worker, and other adoptive families who can assist in times of duress.

Adjusting to older-child adoptions is often difficult. At times, the future of the adoption may be in doubt. With so much riding on the outcome of such a crisis, it is unwise to rely on conventional social casework counseling or office-based psychotherapy. Intensive in-home adoption preservation services may be needed. Since permanency planning, family preservation services have emerged in most states. They have been used primarily for keeping children out of the child welfare or mental health systems and not to help preserve adoptive placements.

Relatively few adoptive families now have the benefit of intensive home-based, family preservation services to prevent adoption disruption, an observation that has not changed since 1988. Yet, many states have developed at least some post-adoption services. For families in crisis, in-home interventions reduce the likelihood of alienation that can occur during out-of-home care. The specific presenting problems that precipitate adoption disruptions are those that signal the breakdown of other families, especially assault, running away, and noncompliance of latency and teenage children. Intensive services are costly, but if they are successful, their costs can be favorably weighed against the lifelong benefits that follow adoption. As of 2008, there are no models of post-adoption services that have been shown to be effective—admittedly a difficult evaluation challenge because these services tend to respond to families with a wide range of backgrounds and concerns. Despite the limitations in post-adoption services, there appears to be no greater risk of disruption in recent years than in the period when the adoption rate was only half as high (Smith et al., 2006).


Recent changes in adoption jeopardize its place in the child welfare services continuum. The child welfare service “system” is an amalgam of programs. The outcomes of efforts to prevent out-of-home placements, to reunify families, and to provide long-term care all depend on the quality of the programs that have previously worked with the children. Each program must work if the other programs are to do what they are intended for. If older children in the child welfare system are not adopted or are not able to stay adopted, then the rationale for moving quickly to terminate the rights of birth parents (after a determination that children cannot go home) is weakened. Indeed, even the pressure to leave children in or return them to unsafe birth families is intensified when permanent adoptive homes are unavailable, because social workers fear that children will experience more harm in a lifetime of foster care than at home. Many agencies will not free children from foster care until a stable home is all but guaranteed. Without the confidence that terminating parental rights and freeing a child for adoption will ultimately result in an adoption, judges lose their conviction to do so, time limits on foster care are rendered insignificant, and mandates for speedy permanency planning become moot. Successful older-child adoption services may not be the hub of effective child welfare services but they are critical.

Not everyone believes that adoption is of great value to children and American society. Adoption foes are gaining greater attention as they argue that adoption is a cause of trauma to children and birth parents and that both experience irreparable harm from their separation. If adoption is to maintain a powerful role in child welfare services, the arguments for the resilience of children's capacity to make attachments (Barth, Crea, John, Thoburn, & Quinton, 2005; Eyer, 1992), the benefits to the children of adoption (Rutter & Rutter, 1993), and the congruence between adoption and American values need better articulation and dissemination (Bartholet, 1993). Many social workers are not as sure as they once were of adoption's advantages over long-term foster care or guardianship and may fail to make a case about its value to foster families and children. Often, adoption is not viewed as a clear and desirable alternative to foster care.

Adoption is facing increasing scrutiny by all interested adult parties. Birth mothers and fathers, adopting parents, and adoption agencies and centers are developing new and more rigorous procedures for trying to ensure that their needs are met. These efforts may work against the interests of children who need adoptive homes. Despite the general success of adoption for all the parties involved, a considerable tightening of adoption regulation and more procedural barriers to adoption may occur in the next decade. These procedures may result in diminished interest on the part of potential adoptive parents who will instead choose to pursue surrogacy arrangements or fertility treatments with lower success rates. Such strategies will not lead to the adoption of children in need of placement. Of the utmost importance is the public policy goal of increasing adoptive placements. In addition, a substantial challenge exists to find ways to make adoption a way to create and affirm family, ethnic, and community relationships in all their manifestations. This involves supporting a range of adoptive arrangements that allow the child to recognize the significance of birth parents and siblings, racial and ethnic make-up, and cultural origins and give the child opportunities to act on that recognition.


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                                                                                                                                                    Further Reading

                                                                                                                                                    Brooks, D., & Barth, R. P. (1999). Adult transracial and inracial adoptees: Effects of race, gender, adoptive family structure, and placement history on adjustment outcomes. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 69, 87–99.Find this resource:

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