Season 1, Episode 16: Dr. Bibiana Koh, Dr. JaeRan Kim, and Dr. Ruth McRoy discuss the importance of thinking about adoption competency as an ongoing area of development for professionals, rather than an endpoint that can be reached. They outline their research findings from a study that surveyed faculty about their coverage of adoption content in higher education programs. Drs. Koh, Kim & McRoy provide suggestions about adoption related topics that are important to cover at the undergraduate and graduate level of training and also the ways that post-graduate certificate programs can deepen knowledge and practice skills. They describe barriers to the inclusion of adoption content in a variety of fields, despite it’s interdisciplinary relevance, and provide policy recommendations for increasing adoption coverage in higher education. 

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Dr. Emily Helder: Hello, I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Bibiana Koh who’s an associate professor and MSW program director, as well as the Batalden Scholar in Applied Ethics at Augsburg University in Minnesota, as well as Dr. JaeRan Kim, who is an assistant professor and BSW program director at the University of Washington in the School of Social Work and Criminal Justice program.

As well as Dr. Ruth McRoy, who’s the Donohue and DiFelice Professor Emerita at the Boston College School of Social Work and a Research Professor and the Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. While they all each have well-established individual research programs we’re gathering here today to talk about a chapter that they co-wrote in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption, entitled “Adoption Specific Curricula in Higher Education.” So thanks so much all three of you for being here.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Thank you.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: Thank you.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. So I’d like to start, the, the framework that you’re chapter really rests on is this idea of adoption competency and increasing access to adoption competent professionals.

And I wondered if you could start by just describing what’s meant by adoption competency and why access to these kinds of professionals, are so, is so important.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: Of course. Yeah. Adoption competency in the literature is defined as educated, licensed mental health professionals with the knowledge, skills, and expertise, or excuse me, experience to work in adoption.

That definition has been expanded in terms of it defining the education and training of adoption practitioners that reflects the diverse and complex range of developmental issues. We understand that this is how the literature defines adoption competency. We also caution people to think about competency as not an endpoint.

And so in some ways we question this idea of competency, much like the literature we’ll talk about, cultural competence. And the reason is because adoption is moving so quickly, rapidly changing, and to truly be knowledgeable and have expertise in this area, you really have to be up to date, in terms of changing trends, demographics, issues, et cetera.

And so, again, we acknowledge that it’s defined this way, but we also do not want adoption professionals to think of there necessarily as being an endpoint in gaining some of this expertise as it’s defined in the literature. And I know JaeRan and Ruth may also want to add

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Yeah, I totally agree with Bibiana. This is just adoption is sort of what I call an ongoing process. There’s so many things, so many to look at. There’s so many different types of adoption. Are we talking about transracial or intercountry or in-racial? Are we talking about open adoptions, mediated contact adoptions, closed adoptions, just, just an array of topical areas to be explored in adoption.

So it is something that it’s, there’s no beginning and end. There’s a beginning and we’re moving through the process of learning more about each of these areas. And there are so many different components of adoption competency today.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Yeah, I would agree, and I think more recent research that’s been done in the past decade, especially shows us the topic areas we need to increase our competency around have, they have expanded. So I’m just thinking right now about a lot of the work that’s being done on LGBTQ families, on adult adoptees, on ongoing relationships between first families and adoptees and adoptive families when adoptees become adults.  There’s some research now around birth parents who are now grandparents, because the adoptees have children and what those relationships are like.

And so in order to be competent and to increase our competency, we need to kind of we’re, we’re also following what the research is showing us as well.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. Yes. It was so interesting to work on the Handbook and see all these new topics and aspects of chapters as they came in. One, I was really interested in was the impact of social media on search efforts as well as some of the direct to home DNA testing.

So there’s, yeah, there’s just so much new all the time. Yeah, I wanted to  talk a bit too about how your study was actually conducted and aspects that you learned from it. So, just for, for folks who haven’t read the chapter yet, the things that you were reporting on were from a survey where you were collecting data from faculty who were teaching adoption relevant coursework, in a variety of different fields and settings.

And you outlined also some of the postgraduate certificates that are currently available. And again, you know, you, you all emphasized that really adoption competency there’s not an end point. So thinking about it as something that does develop over time, I was curious what sorts of things you would like to see, undergraduates exposed to, you know, what things are they ready for versus graduate students?

All, all of you have been involved in education in, in both of those settings. So I’m curious to hear what your experience has taught you?

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Yeah. So, as we were, the three of us were discussing this question you know, we thought, well, we’ll start with the undergraduates. We believe that one of the things that they really need to come away with is just understanding how complex adoption is.

And so oftentimes, I think what people come to it is their own experience with adoption. If they have any kind of personal experience, if they’re an adoptee or an adoptive parent, or have a sibling who’s adopted or a friend, but understanding that adoption is way more complicated than their own personal experience might, might have led them to, to know at that point.

Another thing we think undergraduates should really come away with learning about in their programs is the ethical considerations around adoption. And that there’s a lot of ethical dilemmas that are really directly a part of the adoption process and adoptive families, and to understand kind of all the different kind of ethical dilemmas that can be involved in an adoption.

And then the historical context we thought was really important. So understanding the history of adoption, especially in the United States, how it started, what its looked like, the shifts in practice over time. So also related to that to different policies and the adoption laws that have governed how adoption is practiced.

We think those are kind of the fundamental things that undergraduates should, should learn about.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: I was just going to emphasize in terms of what JaeRan added that we thought that the, the larger framework for what we think is important for undergrads, we would probably echo that for graduate students as well.

Um, and I just wanted to highlight one aspect in terms of the second point that JaeRan talked about and the importance of ethics and adoption and how so often it is more implicit than explicitly discussed and we think it’s really important to develop that foundation, particularly at the undergrad level, and understanding ethical issues of adoption

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Well, just building on that. There are so many topical areas that we need to have. I can recall starting out in the field of adoptions, placing infants and having never taken a course on adoptions and understanding what the implications are of a family adopting an infant. An infant comes from two, a set of birth parents who knows information about them.

The, in terms of, what are the issues in terms of identity and how do you connect with birth parents? So much of the issues that I noticed, or you know, that people did not know about frankly at that time. And how do you begin to look at some of the developmental issues over time, dealing with grief and loss of a child that is coming from one set of parents going to another set of parents.

How does the child adjust? How do you begin to communicate about adoption? There’s so many different issues. And I recognize that when I began this process of placing infants, I’d had no training in any of this. And there’s been an evolution over time of additional knowledge as we’ve gotten involved in much more research, but still so much more is needed to fully understand.

And we will need to continue this process for many generations to come because there’s so much new that has, so many things have changed. We used to have a totally confidential adoptions for many years. Now there’s so many fully disclosed, open adoptions. Things have changed. How do we learn from the knowledge that we gained. It’s essential.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. Thank you. Thank you. And thinking about how, you know, as students enter into their graduate training, are there additional topics or experiences that you see them ready for at that stage of training?

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Well, I mean, I think that when we’re, there’s depends on which field you’re in and what you’re learning. So I think if you’re going a clinical route, I think really expanding more on the concepts around grief and loss and working with the adoption constellation. And, you know, I think as a general undergraduate concept, understanding the adoption constellation is, is critical and a key understanding there, but as you enter into more clinical work, if you’re going into a graduate program, then thinking about what that looks like for all these different members of the constellation and how expansive these connections are. As we were talking about before, you know, we are now understanding that through these DNA tests, direct to consumers, you’re finding first cousins and aunts and uncles, and not necessarily what we would think of as the birth family itself.

And so these relationships, separated siblings are finding each other. And so really having a, a good understanding of that, those clinical implications, I think for graduate students would be really critical. And then I think from, so social work field, if they’re going into maybe child welfare, they’re going to be practicing at an agency, whether it’s a public agency or a private agency, there’s numerous practice considerations that I think can go much deeper and further in a graduate program, thinking about those practices and, you know, how do you determine what the best interest of a child is, should they be placed with siblings or not in an adoptive home or, recruiting families for older children?

You know, so I just think there’s a number of practice implications that we can really go much deeper in for the graduate students.

Dr. Emily Helder: So I would also like to ask you a bit about post-graduate certificate programs. So in, for example, in our Handbook, we have one that’s described in more detail, the Training in Adoption Competency, by C.A.S.E., and I was curious, are there aspects of adoption competency that fit best within these more post-graduate certificate programs.

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Yeah, we think that those programs are really important. We know that the, as you mentioned, C.A.S.E., the Center for Adoption Support and Education, provides that. Also there is a certificate program of adoption that Rutgers University, it’s a continuing education program, has offered. I think more and more schools are beginning to look into this because there’s a need for deepening adoption knowledge and skills, and there’s so much, you know, you may take an initial course in undergraduate or graduate, but there’s so much more information out there, especially based upon some of the research that has been conducted. So we think that it’s critical that there be a focus on this topic that in some of the Title IV-E programs that there’s, we enhance the education of both graduate and undergraduate programs, students focused on permanency, how to achieve permanency, the various strategies, what we’ve learned, looking at the research outcomes.

This is really important. And to recognize that it doesn’t end with the completion of one course, we need to have certificate programs. We need to recognize and look at the data on an annual basis of what’s happening. How many children are being placed, how many children are aging out without a permanent placement?

What are the implications of that? What can we do to reduce those numbers? We need to be always looking at the data and thinking about what the implications are to make staff much more adoption competent, and to be much more successful in finding permanency for children.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: I’d like to add that I was part of putting a post certificate program at the University of Minnesota. And one of the things that I learned and really came away with is how these postgraduate certificate programs oftentimes have an element of case consultation. So many times these are practitioners who are coming to deepen their knowledge, but also I think deepen their practice skills. And by doing case consultations undergraduates may not have the opportunity to bring in a current case from their field practicum, but practitioners out in the field who’ve had, you know, any number of years certainly are dealing with those more complex cases.

And so I think these post-graduate programs can really be terrific for that. And that might be something that maybe graduate programs can, can think about adding in more elements of that if they wanted to enhance their, this content in their classes too, because, you know, I think there’s lots of opportunities to add more of that in, into our undergraduate and graduate programs.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: Yeah, and I would just love to add is Ruth and JaeRan have underscored the post-degree training is really a way of deepening knowledge. And in fact, one of the reasons we love this question is because it was what brought the three of us together and to do this study was the lack of adoption curriculum in higher ed. So I just wanted to add that.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, thank you. And that’s where I wanted to head too is just one of the takeaways I had in reading your chapter was really the limit of adoption related coursework that, that there’s actually very little, and, and that fit well with my own clinical training, to be honest, too.

And so I’m curious if you could talk through a bit of some of the factors that you think are contributing to that from your perspective.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: Yeah, we actually, when we talked about and thought about this question, unfortunately, we came to more barriers than anything. One of the things is that our study, one of the study findings too, was how the vast majority of programs, in undergrad or graduate are actually taught by those who have a connection to adoption, which is generally how coursework ends up landing in undergrad or graduate programs. You know, maybe they’re an adoptee themselves. They’re an adoption researcher, et cetera. So part of it is those that might have the expertise, the knowledge in an ever-changing complex field to be able to teach such a course.

The other thing is that in professional studies, and certainly the adoption curriculum is extremely interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. But in professional studies there are accreditation processes that I think also create a certain barrier where those national accreditors, for example, in social work, CSWE are saying that programs, people need to graduate at the undergrad or graduate level having focused in these particular areas.

So those are significant barriers that, will need to be addressed to be able to expand coursework at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Dr. Emily Helder: As you looked at some of the syllabi that came as a part of your study and were able to look at the topic areas that were addressed when there were places that had this coursework.

I’m curious if you felt like there were some topics either that were missing or were addressed with insufficient detail that you would give advice for folks who are maybe developing coursework around adoption.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Yeah, I think one of the things that we found too is that there was a, there were discrepancies between those that focus just on adoption and those that were on larger child welfare, where the adoption was a prominent theme, but it may not have been the only one.

And so there were some differences there and certainly the amount of attention you can devote to a topic if it’s a broader class than if it’s a broader permanency class, it may have less on adoption than just an adoption focused syllabi. Some of the content we saw was communication and processes related to the different types of adoptions.

So, many of the syllabi talked about, you know, what are open adoptions, what are closed adoptions and what are international or what are foster care adoptions. And then talking about, you know, same race adoptions, transracial adoptions, LGBTQ, but some of the things that we also felt needed, maybe more attention were again, kind of the ethical dilemmas around adoption.

So some of the, some of the syllabi did talk about ethics a little bit, or include that as a topic area, but not much information about how, you know, how deep they were going into that. Something that’s maybe kind of newer and this, again, goes to keeping up with the research, is around  microaggressions, specifically related to adoption.

And there’s been some more research around that, especially in the context of transracial and transnational adoptions. Also thinking about transracial, transnational adoptions as migrations. Thinking about in foster care, recruiting families, kind of reducing the wait times for permanency, multiple placements. I think the other thing that I’m seeing in my own research too, is talking about disruptions and dissolution from adoption. That’s something that wasn’t talked about very much in the past, but is increasingly becoming a reality. So more content around those areas.

Dr. Emily Helder: Thanks so much Ruth or Bibiana, anything that you would add, too?

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Yeah, I just agree these topics are so important and I do a lot of work with Adopt US Kids in which we’re focused on trying to find permanent homes for the thousands of children that are waiting here within the United States. And the question is how do we better prepare future practitioners to be able to do some of the things that we were just talking about, whether it’s recruiting families, what do we do about reducing the number of times children move from one home to another. I’ve read cases in which a child may have, you know, within one months period of time may have gone to several different homes and over a year, you know, multiple homes, what can be done, thinking about the implications of grief and loss for that child who’s moving from one environment to another. How do we better prepare families? How do we not only prepare families for bringing in children, but how do we prepare children for adoption? And many of them have still a lot of connections to their birth family, to birth siblings. They may have all been separated.

So how do we address some of those issues and really focus on improving outcomes for all of the parties involved?

Dr. Emily Helder: Thank you. Yeah. I am making a syllabus right now for a course I’m planning for next spring so I’m taking a detailed notes from all your advice. It’s so helpful. As you’re thinking about the interdisciplinary nature of adoption one thing that I saw in, in the chapter was that probably the majority of course work that was available was in the context of social work, housed in social work programs. I’d like to think through sort of the, both the benefits of that. What do you see as some of the positive aspects of that being the primary spot where some of this coursework is housed, but also are there fields or programs that you can identify that you’d like to see grow in terms of what coursework they’re offering?

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Yeah. I think that social work practitioners currently are some of the, you know, the primary professionals that are really facilitating adoptions.

And we have a lot of social work students that go on to work in child welfare agencies or they may go into private agencies,  some go on to become clinicians. They may be working in school settings as school social workers. And a lot of times they’ll come into contact with children that have been impacted by adoption there.

So there may be counselors, school social workers. They’re often working in child welfare agencies. They may be involved in recruiting families, trying to prepare families or there’s such a variety of opportunities for positions in this. And it’s because a lot of the faculty within the field of social work sometimes do have interdisciplinary connections with psychology and sociology and child development.

And as a result of that, they’re able to really encourage various fields to incorporate content on adoption in their courses as well. It’s really important to think about the fact that within our field of social work, we tend to look at the context, the environment in which children and families come and that’s different sometimes from psychology.

And so to be able to bridge the two together and not looking at just the individual, but the individual with being impacted by multiple systems and what the implications of that may be.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: Yeah, and I would just love to add that another, I know when I talked earlier, Emily, and you were asking about existing curriculum in higher ed, and I talked about the barriers, here’s an example of where the fact that so much of the curriculum is currently housed in social work programs, the benefit of something like Title IV E  in terms of expansion, if the, most of the coursework is in social work departments, then the nice thing is that there’s also this opportunity to make a barrier, to work or to counterbalance barriers, to maximize expanding potential under Title IV E. But I know that’s an area too of JaeRan’s expertise. So I don’t know JaeRan if you wanted to add about it.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Yeah. I was really fortunate to be at a university where I was asked to create an adoption and permanency course for IV E students.

And it was open as an elective for any of the social work students, but it was a requirement for the IV E students. And so in addition to their general child welfare course, that was a requirement. They also had to take this permanency class. So I just think that that could be a terrific model for all the other programs that have IV E relationships with their state agencies.

We strategized earlier about that as being maybe a potential policy response as  well. But because so many students going into public child welfare are going to be dealing with permanency and adoption. And so having that knowledge before they get into the deep end of practice where they’re thrown in with a bunch of cases where, you know, they may not have had any, any experience on it before would be, would be good.

Dr. Emily Helder: As you’re thinking, you know, we’re, we’re kind of headed in this direction, but are there programs that you can identify that you think of as, as model programs? You know, maybe, you know, the example you were just describing is a piece of that, but if you could either design your ideal program or maybe your, you know, see a program that’s already in existence that you think is doing a really excellent job. I’d love to hear your thoughts on who’s already doing some of this best practice work.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: Yeah.  First of all I really hope that in terms of this best practice work and being a model for interdisciplinary work in adoption expertise and knowledge that we see more programs like this, but the Rudd Center for Adoption Research, which is led by Dr. Harold Grotevant in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst is really an ideal model. It brings social work it brings psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy [MFT],  education. All kinds of disciplines and it brings together practitioners, those who have a connection to adoption, researchers, in this very interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary model.

And I know, that my colleagues here will likely want to add more.

Dr. Ruth McRoy: As you mentioned that of course is a wonderful program. I have worked with Hal Grotevant, who developed it since I was in a doctoral program at the University of Texas and he served on my committee. I began searching for people who had expertise in adoptions, and I could not find anyone in my field, but found Hal in child development.

And we have connected for many, many years. And now he is at UMass and he does a wonderful program there through the Rudd Center, by  bringing in future scholars in the summer to bring them together, to learn about adoption issues to develop research, to begin to connect with one another, with the goal being that in the future, they will be able to continue to really improve our outcomes by doing research, to learn more about what works, what doesn’t work so well.

How can we modify our practices to become much more effective and to do this on behalf of the entire triad? So that program is excellent. No question about it, yeah, and continues to be and bring, and really highlights some of what has been learned over the years in terms of adoptions.

Dr. Emily Helder: I’ve been attending some of their recent virtual sessions that they’ve been putting online.

They’re just so excellent. As you’re thinking at maybe more of a macro level we’re headed in this direction anyway, and in what we’ve been talking about, but do you see some larger policy changes that could happen that would move forward some of the goals that you’ve been talking about related to adoption competency?

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Yeah, in terms of policy changes, when we think about Title IV E we think about it in terms of the Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], which is the accrediting body for schools of social work. Maybe there could be some changes in terms of requirements for content, for example, Title IV, you could require that adoption content be included in a child welfare course, not just an overview of all aspects of child welfare, but to have some significant content on specifically adoption permanency, we’ve also thought about it in terms of CSWE modifying its educational policy and accreditation standards, that would include such competencies, including specific content that should be incorporated into a practice course, into a policy course, not just child welfare.

But in many other, in research courses to begin to look at these issues, we need a lot more research to be conducted that focuses upon adoption training needs. And sometimes we think about the training, just being for people who are directly working in adoption, but there are many practitioners out there that will come into contact with somebody who has been impacted by adoption, whether it be a birth mother, a birth father, an adoptive parent, adopted child. And also it’s important to know that the siblings of adopted children also are impacted. There’s so many different ways in which this needs to be addressed. We need to clearly, do more research that looks at adoption training needs that looks at and tries to figure out how do we develop more expertise among the faculty in a variety of different areas, including social work, psychology and other program areas on adoptions. What are some of the post degree programs and how do we expand those? How do we have more conferences that specifically look at issues of adoption? We spoke before about the Rudd Adoption Conference, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, they have an annual conference. Those are all essential to have this kind of content. How do we also though expand it to provide this kind of information throughout our curriculum? Because so many individuals going through training, whether it’s social work, psychology, so many other fields, child development, education.

They’re going to come into contact with somebody who has been impacted by adoption. And so often have not had any sort of concentrated study on the issue and we’re, we have a lot more information out there now, more books are being written, more articles are being published. We need to make that information disseminated.

So that those that are out there who are working in the field and outside of the direct field of adoption, have knowledge about this very, very important topic.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: I agree. I just want to, to expand on that just a little bit. In my experience teaching the classes that I’ve taught with students who weren’t necessarily interested in adoption per se, in terms of their own practice, but had already in their experience worked with adoptive families or adopted youth or individuals. And so, for example, I used to say if you’re working at a residential treatment center, if you’re working in schools or one of the things that I think really we could expand on is the medical and health professionals, because just recently again, I was hearing adult adoptees  talking about the stigma that they experience when they go in for any kind of medical treatment and having a lack of medical history, for example, or invasive questions about their adoption history, those sorts of things, that I think a lot of professionals, medical professionals and healthcare professionals don’t have that awareness or kind of understanding they’re not really adoption sensitive.

So that’s another area that I think could really be improved if we want to expand what other fields are teaching adoption content.

Dr. Ruth McRoy: Absolutely.

Dr. Emily Helder: Bibiana anything that you’d like to add.

Dr. Bibiana Koh: No, I just, the conversation today has just really, again emphasized the importance of kind of expanding people’s knowledge and expertise across the developmental life span of adoption and in terms of how people are impacted, but bookending, not only undergrad and graduate, but also the post certificate programs and the Rudd program to help deepen. But the foundation, we cannot stress enough, I think. And it was really why we came together to do this work, is so important in terms of curriculum in undergrad and graduate for that matter.

Dr. Emily Helder:  Yes. Well, thank you so much. All three of you, both for contributing the chapter initially, and also for setting aside some time to add some context to that written work. I think it’s so helpful for people to hear these messages about how complex adoption is and how it, the ever-changing nature of the field really requires this constant updating of knowledge.

So thank you so much.

Dr. JaeRan Kim: Thank you.

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