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Season 1, Episode 12: Dr. Mary Hansen, professor of Economics at American University, describes her research and policy work in the area of child welfare. She outlines the important ethical tensions inherent in adoption and ways that an economic lens is helpful in understanding and seeking to balance these tradeoffs. She reviews various changes in adoption law and policy and their impact on international and domestic adoption. She then discusses efforts to improve child welfare policy to remove barriers to permanency for children in foster care and promote positive outcomes through standardizing home study processes across states.

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Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Dr. Emily Helder: Welcome. I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Mary Hansen. She’s a Professor of Economics at American University, and one area of her research focuses on child welfare and the ways that policies impact the safety, stability and permanence for children.

She’s also the author of a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption entitled “An economic perspective on ethics and adoption policy”. So thanks so much for being here.

Dr. Mary Hansen: Happy to help.

Dr. Emily Helder: So tell me a little bit about how you initially got interested in child welfare and policy and what you really find rewarding about that area.

Dr. Mary Hansen: Yeah, so, you know, this is a story that a lot of people I personally know who do work in child welfare, share. I started my research on adoption and child welfare at the same time, my family was in the process of adopting. And so I was facing these decisions that I’m studying. And as an economist, I think about these things and I say, I wonder if this policy works, right.

It’s just a natural aspect of, you know, how I look at these things. So I’ve been doing this, gosh, I’ve that child is 21 – so I’ve been doing this work a long time. The most rewarding thing about doing it has been, how my work has helped to make local, state, and even some federal policy, more supportive of families, especially families formed through adoption and foster care.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, very exciting. You’re right, there’s a lot of members of, the authorship of this book that are various members of the adoption kinship networks. So yes, thank you. So at the beginning of your chapter, you really nicely point out the fact that adoption presents a lot of ethical problems or tensions and I think that your chapter really helpfully underscores the idea that adoption is complicated, and really ensures that we avoid simplistic  narratives, that sometimes exist around adoption. So can you outline what you see as some of the major ethical tensions?

Dr. Mary Hansen: Yeah. Yeah. It’s fun to hear an economic idea, tradeoffs, expressed in this different vocabulary, ethical tensions, but I think it’s really important for us to be able to talk across disciplinary lines. And that was actually one of the reasons why we started together and some coauthors who are in law, this line of research about ethics. So the trade offs, the ethical tensions, there are a lot of them.

Let me, let me just point out two that I think are the most important, right? So in private and international adoption, we want to encourage the adoption of children who don’t have families, but we don’t want to create incentives for traffickers to abduct or buy children, okay. In adoption from foster care, whether it’s in the US or anywhere, we want to make sure that children are raised in safe families, but we don’t want to intrude too much on the rights of birth families or on the rights of adoptive families.

So these are all trade offs. There are good things everywhere, but they’re not working in the same direction all the time. 

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, in different members of the adoption kinship network are going to have different, pulls and pushes along those lines. Yeah, so why do you see economics as a really helpful lens for understanding those tensions or trade offs?

Dr. Mary Hansen: Right. So economist study tradeoffs, right? That’s what we do. So we just described these tradeoffs and the ethical tensions. And economics is a systematic way to think about how to balance those trade offs. So, that’s why it makes sense to use economics here. Economics typically takes what a philosopher would call a utilitarian approach to policy.

Right? We begin with the supposition that we, society, intends to do the best we can do for everybody. And so an economic analysis of adoption policy starts with the idea that policies should be designed to maximize the wellbeing of the members of the adoption triad, but also of society at large. So as we just said, right there, there are these tensions working in opposition to each other.

So these ethical tensions are, in adoption in particular, are related to some common problems in resolving these trade off issues that economists study all the time in sort of more normal economic contexts we call them market failures. Market failures in adoption that are called imperfect information, which means, information and adoption can be imperfect as one example because a prospective adoptive family might not be able to find out for sure if a child was trafficked or if the child has special needs prior to an adoption, that information just might not be available.

Another common problem is a problem of positive externalities and what that means is externalities means side effects. So there are side effects, positive side effects, of adoption all over the place. Right? Lots of people outside of the adoption triad, benefit from adoption, right.

Society as a whole benefits from adoption. And so, these are two examples that I use in the chapter that comes straight out of economic analysis.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. And you talk a little bit too about some barriers that exist, that, you know, if our goal ultimately is that all waiting children are achieving permanency, there are some barriers to that.

So what do you, in your research, what do you see, the role of policy in addressing some of those barriers that exist?

Dr. Mary Hansen: Right. So, My expertise is mostly in adoption from foster care child welfare. So let’s focus, if you don’t mind, on children waiting in foster care to be adopted, cause that’s something a country can control internally. Right? And let’s look at a policy success story. So many of the children waiting in foster care in the US are school aged kids. They’ve been through a lot. A lot of them are not on track in school, adoptive parents, they know that these kids are going to need a lot of support. They’re going to need a lot of support to become as kids, but especially to become independent adults. And these kids are probably going to be older than 18 before they’re ready to be on their own. The subsidies that support adoption from foster care used to end at age 18. A lot of families, who were willing to take on the challenge of adopting school aged kids who’d been through a lot realized that they weren’t going to be able to swing it if the child was going to be a dependent without any, any financial support or medical insurance, past age 18. Right? So we fixed that. It was really fun. Now adoption subsidies for those kids continue to age 21.

Since we got that changed, more older children are getting adopted. The chapter references a cost benefit analysis of adoption from foster care, that I wrote. The benefits to society from adoption, especially of these older kids come from the fact that the kids do better as adults. So we spend some money now, but what happens is that down the line, the kids who are adopted do better than kids who age out of foster care.

Kids who are adopted use fewer social services, for example, and they pay more in taxes. So every time we spend a dollar to support an adoption of one of those kids today in the long run we get $3 back. So the barriers to adoption, that policy sort of set up, early on. We can change. We can fix.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right, its so rewarding to see I’m sure to see policies that, you know, you’ve been studying, be enacted and be a part of that to make some of those positive changes at the societal and individual level.

Dr. Mary Hansen: It is fun.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Another thing that your chapter discusses are some of the laws that have been put in place and how those have impacted adoption trends and one in particular that I was interested in talking some more about was the trend where international adoptions have been decreasing since the early 2000s. There’s a couple other chapters in our handbook that address some of that. And, I just recently had a conversation with, the folks in Ethiopia that are working to set up domestic adoption situations there.

So, yeah, I’m really curious to hear, you know, your chapter discusses more about the cost of certain regulations and bureaucratic inefficiencies that some of the laws that were enacted, you know, are maybe contributing to the decline for international adoption through that route. And I’m curious how that explanation, you know, compares with some of the other potential causes for the decline.

Dr. Mary Hansen: Right? The two things are actually not in opposition. They go exactly together. The causes of more  domestic adoptions and in any country, especially lots of sending countries, leading to a sort of concentrated pool of harder to place kids stem from a change in international law, and then the implementing legislations in all the different countries.

So, we’re talking about the Hague Agreement, you know, you learn about  that when you read the handbook, right. In that agreement, both sending and receiving countries agreed to do better to prevent trafficking. And they agreed that there should be domestic options for children. So of course, removing trafficked babies from international adoption is unambiguously a good thing for everybody. That’s a decline in international adoption we are all happy to see. That was really the point, the main point. But the US law that implements the Hague agreement, to make sure that US parents don’t receive trafficked children, increased the cost of providing those adoption services.

Because as one example, there are new requirements for liability insurance that adoption agencies had to buy. That increase in the cost of providing international adoption services, decreased international adoptions pretty quickly after the Hague agreement, after the intercountry adoption act was passed in the US and got implemented, it took a long time to actually do that.

But, you know We’ll leave legislative history to another day, because that is a long story. But the problem here, right, is that that left a bunch of kids stuck in sending countries. Long before those sending countries had had a chance to put into place the domestic options for those kids. So those kids are stuck in foster care and that was a cost that we could have avoided, or we could have done a better job avoiding.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, and I think you make your chapter ends with a number of really, I think, interesting and helpful policy suggestions. So I encourage people to check out the end of the chapter specifically, if they’re interested in exploring those more, but one in particular was, some detail about improving, the matching process and standardizing the home study a little bit more, making it more rigorous and more consistent across place.

And so I wondered if you could talk a bit about how that policy change in particular would increase placements for kids and, and stability.

Dr. Mary Hansen: Sure. So, that example really is another domestic, US adoption, issue. And I focus on the foster care adoptions portion, although it has been argued, this could also help increase adoptions overall, even through private systems.

The barrier that this is really about is comes from the fact that States have different systems for evaluating the strengths of prospective adoptive families and the needs of the children who are waiting for families. So, for that reason, States don’t always accept other States home studies. So imagine there’s a waiting child in state A whose ideal family lives in State B.

And then, think about the idea that State A won’t take State’s B home study of the family. Instead state A places the child with an approved instate family. That’s good, but that’s not the ideal family for that child. Right, so that’s a loss to the child and to society as a whole. Cause that child may do fine, but not necessarily as well as they would do with the ideal family.

Or maybe it’s even worse. Maybe State A won’t take that home study from State B. And also has no families that meets that child’s needs. And that child just continues waiting until a family comes up in state A that can meet that child needs. That that’s a real problem. Right. so we can do better both by the child and by the prospective adoptive families, if we can create a well-designed and common home study.

And that’s a pretty easy and relatively inexpensive way to get rid of this barrier. And so then we can compare home studies across States and be confident, that they’re meaningful.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right. Right. And then I would add too, probably that matching piece, if that was done in a more careful way, it seems like the research suggests that the adoption disruption and adoption disolution could go down too.

Dr. Mary Hansen: Right and that’s what I mean by doing better by that child and by that family. Right? Because not only is adoption disruption sad. But it is really hard on children, and families, right? When you place a child with a family that can’t meet that child’s needs, it’s heartbreaking.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, it is. It is. Yeah, well, thank you so much for your time for sharing your knowledge and experience about this.

I think it’s really valuable to have a variety of perspectives. And so the economic lens in the handbook is really valuable. So thanks so much.

Dr. Mary Hansen: You’re welcome. Have a good day.

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