There are somewhere near 120,000 adoptions a year in the U.S., and the annual number of adoptions has increased over the past decade. No two adoptions out of this large number are alike, and so are the many reasons why people choose to adopt. A few percent of these are kinship or inter-relation adoptions where family members agree to take in and legally adopt a child from a biological relative. International adoptions involve bringing a child from outside the U.S. through a private agency. Really, there are almost as many different types of adoptions as there are different faces of adopted kids. Recently, there have been a few media accounts of unsuccessful adoptions, although statistics reported to the Department of Health and Human Services suggest that 90 percent of adoptive parents and children report a positive, long-term outcome and satisfaction with their decision.
“We just never thought about bringing a child into our home that wasn’t ours,” described Jared, who adopted a two-year old with his wife Adriana. “Adriana has two sisters with birth children, so when we had trouble conceiving I think we just believed it was a matter of time. After a couple of years we looked into the cost of artificial insemination. We were lying in bed talking about it one night, and realized we really couldn’t think of a reason not to use the money for adoption instead. “ Adriana and Jared chose to have a private, open adoption, where there was some contact with the birth mother and the adoption was arranged through a private agency. A public adoption is arranged through county or state government agencies that are responsible for children in foster or group home care. There are around half a million children in foster homes and dependency care in America, and public adoption offers them the opportunity to gain some permanency in their lives. It is a common misperception that most children in foster care are damaged or maladapted because of a history of abuse. Instead, researchers make a distinction between children who are at risk for difficulties and children who already have those problems.
Can we predict which factors in the situation, the well-being marital stability of parents, the behavioral profile of the child, the costs involved in bringing in a child, increase the likelihood of success? When challenges do arise, what services and supports are available that can turn the situation around? A recent status report was provided by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute that gives us clear directions on these questions. The Keeping the Promise: The Critical Need for Post Adoption Services report boils down the statistical findings to help us understand the variables and realities in families that make adoptions more or less successful:
Understanding the special, increased risks of adopted children – As we would expect, there are increased risks in the behavior, health, and development of adopted children. These risks are usually associated with the child’s behavior, with the child’s health, or with the child’s development. Developmental problems include things like reaching developmental stages later, or having trouble in a specific area like speech development. Health concerns can be the result of early neglect, such as dental problems. Behavior problems don’t just include difficult behaviors, but can also include emotional issues such as depression. As I described earlier in this article, a risk is not the same thing as having the problem, and it is important to recognize that risks are statistics that are gathered from large groups of children, and may or may not apply to an individual child. The Adoption Institute article lets us know that we can use a variety of services and supports that help us manage the risk before it jeopardizes the adoption.
Temperament of the child – Like all kids, children in adoption have a variety of temperaments and personalities that make them special and individual. The temperament characteristic that impacts adoptive families the most appears to be how easygoing the child is. Think of this as flexibility or being able to adapt to changing circumstances. Children who are more negative, demanding, or inflexible understandably have a harder time helping the stability of an adoption. This is sometimes where behavioral supports after the adoption such as behavioral counseling, parent support resources, and school supports can help the situation.
“I didn’t really know what to expect” described Robin, a single parent who adopted two children from an international adoption agency. “One of my boys was warm and able to take in the love I had to give him, and the other one, well, he was harder because he was more irritable. I learned from his counselor that I had to be both consistent and supportive to get through that wall he’d put up.”
Expectations of the adoptive parent(s) – Researchers tell us that adopting parents need to have realistic expectations and good preparation prior to the adoption. One of the traps that adopting parent sometimes fall into is underestimating how long it takes to establish a stable attachment with some children. At its most problematic, adopting parents may be powered by a kind of rescue ideal that includes some unconscious expectations that the child will feel grateful or realize the importance of the choice the parent has made. Parents who adopt with this expectation may not recognize that they feel this way, but it may be reinforced by people constantly saying, “it’s so great what you are doing you’re your adoptive son.” When the child doesn’t show signs of gratitude, or stays distant from the parent because of how attachment develops slowly, then parents may feel like relationship is one-sided and lacking the normal rewards of parenting. Instead, if parents receive good pre-adoption education and take a good look at the realistic, early challenges they may have, then they are more free to create a positive outcome rather than trying to shape their relationship with their child into an impossible expectation.
Open communication and a warm parenting style – Warm parenting, of course, does not mean completely abandoning expectations or not having limits in the household. But being able to convey warmth, understanding, and support even when setting limits or giving out a negative consequence has the best outcome in working through behavioral issues with adopted children. The same thing applies to teachers or other adults in the child’s life. A strict, rigid parenting or teaching style where love and warmth are withheld because of discipline issues may not be the best fit for adopted kids.
Being willing and able to access services when they are needed – According to the Evan B. Donaldson report, adoptive families use clinical services at triple the rate of non-adoptive families. This partly reflects the increased risk that adopted children face, but also the willingness and greater knowledge of services available that adopting parents have at hand. One of the most forward thinking things we have done in social services in our country has been to develop and increase the types of supports available to adopting families long past the finalization of the adoption. Services that include behavioral counseling, parent support, educational supports, and health or developmental supports are available in some areas until an adopted child reaches adulthood. This is a promise that we have only partly fulfilled, because there are still too many areas in the country where services are underfunded or still to hard to come by. A good review of services that are available through a public or private adoption agency, along with some discussion with adoptive parents in an area, can give parents a good sense of what is available and what is hard to come by.
The trend of more and more parents adopting isn’t likely to shrink, and parents who are thinking of adoption can easily replace fears or worries with realistic information from many sources. Adoption is still one of the most beneficial gifts one human being can give to another despite the risk of challenges. The Evan B. Donaldson report can be accessed via http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/index.php.