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Season 1, Episode 19: Dr. Harold Grotevant holds the Rudd Family Foundation Chair in Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is the founding director of the Rudd Adoption Research Program. He, along with Dr. Ruth McRoy, leads the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project (MTARP), a 30+ year longitudinal study with adoptees and their adoptive and birth families. In this interview, Dr. Grotevant outlines the changes that have taken place over the last 50 years in adoption practices, especially as related to openness and on-going communication between members of the adoption kinship network. He describes his own research findings from MTARP as well as findings from other researchers that address the impact of openness for adoptees, adoptive families and birth families. Dr. Grotevant also identifies factors that are related to the ability to maintain openness and communication within an adoptive kinship network over time and the role of agencies and adoption professionals in supporting these arrangements. He ends by emphasizing the fluid nature of openness arrangements, highlighting that adoption is a life-long process and openness and communication will change over time within a kinship network. 

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Dr. Emily Helder:  So welcome. I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Hal Grotevant, who holds the Rudd Family Foundation Chair in Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he is the founding director of the Rudd Adoption Research Program.

His research focuses on relationships in adoptive families and on identity development in adolescents and young adults. It’s resulted in over 150 articles and chapters, including one in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption entitled “Open adoption.” So thanks so much, Hal, for being here. So your chapter really begins with a discussion of a shift that’s happened in the US, starting about 50 years ago moving from more closed adoptions to open adoptions.

And I wondered if you could just begin by taking us back in time a little bit and outlining some of the concerns that were initially expressed by folks who were more proponents of closed adoptions, what kind of intuitive concerns did they have about open adoptions before we really moved into that phase?

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Emily, thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this series. I’ve really been looking forward to it. And, I’m glad that we actually are able to use some of this technology now to be able to kind of disseminate some of our work and our perspectives more broadly. So I hope this is helpful to your audience.

I think you’re really right to want to go back in time a little bit to what things were like 50, 70 years ago. Because the whole kind of, our whole way of thinking about family was different back then, I think in the, and I’m talking mainly about in the United States and in Western Europe, but mainly in the US that we had a much narrower view of what family was, you know, there was, now we talk so much about family diversity in the many different forms that families take and many types of relationships and everything.

But back at that time, there was pretty much one kind of standard mold for families. And there was a fair amount of stigma associated with not fitting that mold. You know, so part of that, for example, was, I mean, families did get divorced back then, but there was a huge amount of stigma and some shame associated with divorce and being a single parent and so on.

And I would say for adoption, the stigma was more subtle, but it was there. And I mean that in two ways, one way had to do with adoptive parents, because the assumption was that if you’re married and you’re going to have children, you can do that biologically. And that’s kind of the typical way that you do that.

You know, now we call  that a bionormative view of the family. for couples who couldn’t do that, who were having issues with fertility and so on, there was a certain amount of shame associated with that, that they couldn’t do kind of what they were supposed to be doing. And of course the fertility treatments back then were not nearly as effective as they are now either.

And so a lot of couples, if they wanted to build a family, they needed to do it through adoption, because that was the main practical avenue that they could do. But, you know, the understanding of adoption in broader society was not great. And it was also, I think, at least by these couples to some degree considered like a second route to parenting. It wasn’t kind of the best one. It was kind of second place or something like that. So there was a certain amount of shame or stigma associated for adoptive parents. And, you know, for every adopted child, there are birth parents and there was of course shame and stigma associated with not being able to raise a child that you gave birth to and feeling a need to place a child for adoption. So there was a lot of shame and stigma associated with that. So out of that kind of zeitgeist of stigma and a certain degree of shame and kind of not fitting in with the societal norms rose a sense of kind of, it was beyond privacy, it was kind of secrecy.

Like people, people didn’t need to know about that and that everyone would be better off by just kind of assuming that that wasn’t the way you were building your family and you were just kind of a normal, typical family and adoption agencies even kind of fed that narrative by a process they called matching.

So let’s say that a prospective adoptive couple went into an agency to talk about adopting a child. The worker at that agency would probably take, you know, get a sense of what they look like. Are they tall? Are they short? Are they, what are they, what is their physical appearance and so on?

And they would attempt to find a child who would match them phenotypically, almost so, in order for that child to kind of pass as a biological child of that couple. And so that whole matching process reinforced this idea. Well, if you’re having to pick a child that looks just like me, then there must be something wrong with this broader process.

So all of that kind of, all of those kinds of societal ideas kind of fit into this idea of shame and stigma. And then people began realizing, especially after the human potential movements of the 1960s and the sexual revolution, and the idea that more reliable contraception was available and infertility treatments were better and so on, people began realizing that there were more, you know, some perhaps broader ways to begin thinking about family and so on. And there were, I won’t say support groups, I would say advocacy groups really, especially of adopted persons and birth parents and the birth parent groups, especially one called CUB, Concerned United Birth parents, was supporting many of these women, mostly women who felt that they had placed a baby for adoption, but they never knew where that child went. They didn’t know what happened to them. And it really was a huge neg… it had a huge negative impact on their lives because they really found it hard to think about other things.

And so, with all of those other forces at play, some of the people in social work began to think maybe it would be okay if it were possible for that birth mother to actually meet that child’s adoptive family, you know, just so that they would feel reassured about who they were and feel some sense of maybe peace or you know, that, you know, and, and maybe they might even be able to have some contact over the years, just to get a birthday card or a picture once a year, just so that they know that their child is still alive and thriving. Because back in the bad old days, the birth parents did not know. They made a plan for their child, placed that baby, and then they never heard anything else.

So people were starting to experiment a little bit with this idea of contact, but immediately the red flags went up, you know, because people, and people were concerned about the possible negative effects on the adopted children, the adoptive parents and the birth parents. So let me just kind of mention those.

So people were afraid that adopted children would be confused. Because the idea again, of the more traditional idea of family, it’s like an ownership kind of model that you could just belong to one family and that’s it. And if there are any of these other people out there, kids are going to get confused about who their real parents are.

So that was one concern that was raised about the children. The concern raised about adoptive parents was that they would forever feel that there is that, there are these birth parents kind of looking over their shoulder, you know, and that they could never really be the child’s full parent, because there was always this other kind of second parent in the wings or something like that.

And there were even stories about people who had bad dreams because they would fantasize about taking their adopted child to the mall, to the shopping mall and that a birth parent might pop out from behind a potted palm, you know, and take their baby back, you know? And so there, there were real fears about that, based in part on negative stereotypes of birth parents that were kind of exacerbated by the media, really. And then there were also concerns raised on behalf of birth parents themselves, thinking that well, if they can kind of have contact with their child, if they have information about them, then they’ll never be able to kind of “get on” with their lives. And they’ll never be able to kind of have a sense of, bring that to closure and kind of move on.

And that was at a time when the, the idea of dealing with loss was that you kind of work through it, you get over it and you move on with your life. So those were some of the main concerns that were raised at that time.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for outlining that, I want to move to how your research has focused on really investigating those concerns intuitively that people had expressed.

So, just to give folks a little bit of background your work, is with the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Program, or MTARP, you and colleagues have been following this group of adoptees, and adoptive parents, and birth and first parents for really the last 30 years, I think, you can correct me if I’m wrong on that.

And I wondered how your findings in that study over that length of time period has really addressed some of those concerns that you’ve outlined.

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. Thanks. Well, yes, we really did start on that project just at this kind of important time when some of these changes were being considered. In fact, we were invited to begin the study by the vice president for social services at Lutheran Social Services in central Texas, where they were beginning to actually explore some of these ideas about having contact.

So then back at this time, so this is in the mid 1980s, so it’s about 35 years ago. Ruth McCroy and I started working together, Ruth is, was on the social work faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. And I was on the faculty in human development there. I’m a developmental psychologist by training.

And we started working together on this project really, in order to see, what might the consequences be of having contact or not having contact. And just to, I mean, there are many details and we have lots of articles and things that people can read about that. And I’m happy to provide, well and the chapter actually gives a great overview of much of that, but just to kind of cut to the chase a bit about the concerns that people initially had. Remember I said that the, they were concerned that children would be confused and we found no evidence that children were confused. They, even the kids who had frequent and ongoing contact with their birth parents.

Many times they also had contact with a lot of other birth relatives, birth grandparents, birth aunts, and uncles, and things like that. And they weren’t confused by that. They knew that their parents, their adoptive parents are the ones who put them to bed every night, read them stories, take them to the dentist, you know, help them with their homework, do all those things.

And these other people have important roles in their lives, but they’re not their parents, you know? So we, we definitely have found that kids are able to manage and think about multiple roles just as in the literature on step parenting. People have found that children aren’t confused about the difference between their, you know, their custodial parent and their non-custodial parent or their step parent, kids are able to understand different roles.

So we’ve kind of been looking at that. And, and so that one seems to be kind of put to rest. The other one about the adoptive parents fearing that they aren’t actually able to be the child’s full parents. What we found was kind of interesting because actually the parents in the open adoptions were the least concerned about reclaiming or about their birth parent maybe coming back to take their kid back. They were the least concerned about it, partly because that was based on their actual relationship with the birth parents. So here the birth parents and the adoptive parents have an actual relationship, they know each other. And, you know, in many cases there was even a conversation like a birth mother might say to the adoptive mom, you know, I’m not going to be trying to take my child back because I entrusted them to you. You know, I felt that I was not able to provide the kind of home that I wanted and so that’s why I’ve entrusted them to you. But I would love to know how they’re doing and so on. So, and the most fear of reclaiming was in the totally closed adoptions when the adoptive parents only knowledge of birth parents was what they gleaned from the media and from scare stories that are out there. And, you know, of course the media’s goal is to sell papers and magazines and websites and all of that. And they don’t put boring, they don’t want just the ordinary stories of everyday successful life. They want things that, you know are enticing and so on. So there were a lot of negative stories that occurred in the news and that’s the stereotypes that people had. We also have birth mothers in our study. We have 169 birth mothers who participated in our study and we followed them over time to look at patterns of grief and loss and how they’ve dealt with that.

And one thing that we’ve clearly learned is that loss is, and the grief associated with that loss, it’s not something that you just get over with and move on. You know, I have, you know, we’ve talked to many birth mothers and not one of them has forgotten that they made a plan for their child to be adopted.

That’s a decision that they remember every day. They often think about their child every day, but they have figured out a way to come to terms with that and to come to peace with that in a sense. So the birth mothers who’ve been best able to do that are the ones who have contact because they know that their kid is okay.

They know that they’re doing well. They feel secure about that. And the ones who had the most difficulty are ones who actually had a little bit of contact at the beginning, but then it stopped. And that’s, that was really, really hard because it’s like, they had some contact, but then it stopped and now they don’t know what’s happening.

They don’t know what’s going on. So over and above all the feelings they have of loss, then they have to deal with the anxiety of wondering, you know, what’s happening for their child. So we’ve looked at many things in our project, but you know, I think one thing that I can say is that these initial concerns about openness have really not come to bear in terms of the data that we’ve been able to collect over this 35 year period.

Dr. Emily Helder: So valuable. As you think about these contact arrangements, really, it sounds like in, in reading your studies over the years, that you do have that full spectrum represented from really not much contact and a fairly closed adoption to open and regular contact with multiple members of the adoption network.

So I’m, I’m curious. And, and I guess too, I’ll, I’ll add your, you talk about how contact arrangements change over time. So I’m wondering if, if you’ve discovered any predictors, any factors that seem to be related to you know, which trajectory of contact, you know, an adoption network is going to follow.

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question. And there are, you know, a couple things going on. I think, I think one thing that I would start with is, is kind of thinking about what is the adoptive parents are, what are, what, how do the adoptive parents think about the meaning of adoption and the meaning of family, you know. For some of our families with the closed adoptions, their model of family was that more kind of constrained model that I talk about at the beginning. And it really doesn’t have a place in it for thinking more broadly about other, you know, key figures such as birth relatives or, or birth parents.

So part of it is how they think about that. And I think in terms of kind of predicting what might move one family versus another, in a particular direction. Part of it has to do with the kind of socialization that they got from the agency that they worked with.  So we did find that, you know, when, when a couple wants to adopt a child and especially during the day when we were doing our work, starting our work in the late seventies and early eighties.

At that point they didn’t know very much about what the options might be in terms of open adoption. So they would go to an agency, sometimes an agency they literally found in the yellow pages of the phone book. I don’t even think there are yellow pages anymore, you know, they would go through the yellow pages and, you know, here would be an adoption agency and that they would just inquire, and that was their concern was getting a child, you know? And so depending on the philosophy of the agency, some of them were more oriented toward encouraging and supporting contact. And others of them were more traditional and supporting more closed adoptions. So that was one factor that kind of got things launched.

But also around that time, there was much more of a discussion and much more emphasis and interest nationally in what this might look like. And the idea that people began thinking about was maybe this contact is really in the best interest of our child. You know, I think honestly, a lot of adoptive parents would not necessarily be seeking contact with their child’s birth relatives, just for its own sake. I think that the people who seek that out sincerely do it because they believe that ultimately it will be in the best interest of their child to know more about their birth relatives, to have some kind of contact because those kids as they grow up, they will have questions.

And so having the actual people available, you know, will help them answer those questions. So I think part, so your question was about the things that kind of move people along in one direction or another. So part of it is the agency. Part of it is the kind of ideas at the time. But the other thing is about interpersonal relationships.

Because open adoption arrangements are each unique, each one is individual and involves bringing strangers together around this really intimate idea of family, you know, and it means that the people involved, the adults involved especially, need to be able to figure out how to enter into this dance.

I kind of think of it as like a relationship dance. And we developed a whole model around this, we called emotional distance regulation. It’s like, when you meet somebody new, like let’s say you meet somebody you’re, you’re starting a new job. Or, you know, there’s a, a marriage in the family and they’re a bunch of new relatives or something like that, or you move into a new neighborhood. You know, you, you first kind of meet some new people and you know, like, I think it’s just natural that some of them it’s like, you might think, “wow, this person, this, this person could be really great. I’d like to get to know them better. You know, we might be able to have a really nice relationship” and other people you meet and be like, “Hm. Okay. Well, I’m glad to know that they’re around, you know, but that’s okay. That’s enough.” And so there’s this ongoing process of building a relationship and it has to do with building trust, with building, with using communication, with being flexible and all of those things. So I think the families that were most successful in really moving toward a broader kind of open adoption arrangement over time were the ones who not only believed it was in the best interest of the child, but also had those skills, like communication skills. And they, they kind of had the flexibility. They were willing to say, you know, gee, we invited you to come for Thanksgiving and you declined because you had to go somewhere else, you know, in some families that might be like, Okay, that’s it.

But in this case they might say, you know, I, I understand that. Why don’t we, you go there on Thursday and then come over to our house on Saturday. So a little bit of creativity and flexibility. So there are a number of ingredients, but, I think those are some of the factors.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, a lot of the work of, of the MTARP study was in the context of domestic adoption. And so one thing that is included in your chapter for the Routledge Handbook is also a review of some research on, in adoption in other contexts. So, child welfare adoption or international adoption. And, I was just curious how you see some of the research on openness and contact in those contexts comparing with what you found in your own studies. What’s similar? What’s different?

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think there are some similarities for sure, but I think both adoption from the child welfare system and international adoption, add several layers to it. So from the child welfare system, and I think this is a really important piece for future work as well, partly because that is the segment of the adoption population in the United States that is growing. So there are more kids being placed from the child welfare system. I think the main concern, well, there are a couple of things there, in the, in our study and in most of the domestic infant adoptions, those children are infants.

They are very young. The average age of children being adopted from foster care is in kind of middle childhood, six years of age or older. And so it’s not that they don’t know their birth families. They know their birth families. They live with their birth families. They know all of those people and yet they’re taken away from them.

So it’s a whole kind of different dynamic and I think the, like in our state, it’s called DCF, the Department of Children and Families, but the state agencies that deal with this, I believe really are working to try to make contact possible and work. But one of the issues is safety of the child because the children were removed from their families typically because of maltreatment.

And you certainly don’t want to put a child back into a family where they will be retraumatized in any way. But sometimes the, and so sometimes it’s not possible for that child to have contact with say their birth father or their birth mother, but maybe there are loving birth grandparents or birth aunts or uncles or siblings who care a lot about that child and want to have contact and can do that in a positive way.

So, I think finding, you know, finding the way to manage the, the contact in a way that provides safety for the child is a really key piece. And, you know, and it’s complicated. It’s complicated because sometimes it means that kids need to be involved in supervised visits. And, you know, often when I hear what those children say. It’s like, they don’t particularly like them because they’re very artificial. Sometimes they’re meeting in the office of a social worker with no windows and maybe just one or two toys. And it’s like, well, what am I doing? You know, this is not what we would be doing if I were home.

So there is a lot of interest, I think, in trying to figure out how to make that work. One of my colleagues, who’s doing excellent work in that area is Beth Neil from the University of East Anglia. And I know you’ve interviewed her as well, and she has a chapter in the Handbook as well. So her work is a really good in that area, but many of the same principles about communicative openness and about flexibility and all.

Many of those kinds of things apply as well. So I think that’s going to be certainly a challenge, an ongoing challenge for the future. In terms of inter-country adoptions, there you have all the layers involved with the differences in cultures and the differences in languages and so on. There is a lot of interest among adult adoptees from other countries in finding out more about their roots, both, sometimes it’s more finding out about their cultural heritage, you know, their birth country, the birth culture, but sometimes it is in terms of finding birth relatives specifically,  so I would say in some countries it’s extremely difficult. For example, in China, during the era of the one-child policy, a couple who had a second child, basically in order to prevent them from losing their home or losing their job, they couldn’t raise that child. And so the child often was taken to a police station or a fire station and left.

And there was no identifying information or no, so it’s extremely difficult for those kids to find birth relatives. But in other countries, it’s, it’s less, a little bit less difficult. Some countries like Korea actually facilitate that by having TV shows where let’s say, if you’re a Korean adoptee from the US you can go over there and be on a TV show and kind of talk about your, who you are and what you know about your past. And then they try to find birth relatives, but there are also concerns about how that works because in the, in different cultures, there are different degrees of stigma and shame associated with, you know, placing a child for adoption or with having a child out of wedlock.

And sometimes the, say birth mother has not told her husband or told other members of her family. So it’s a very delicate kind of thing to, to work out. So that’s another, so there it’s like both of them still have some of the same core issues, but other layers added on top.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. I, whenever people ask me about adoption, I always say adoption is complicated. That’s kind of my quick tagline. So that’s a good illustration of how, how that is. Yeah. A lot of what you’ve said so far is so practical in terms of its application for members of the kinship network. So, you know, if I’m thinking about like advice that you would give them if they’re seeking to maintain this openness or contact, you’ve talked about flexibility and communication and really that broadening ideas of family. Are there any other pieces of advice that you would add beyond what you’ve already said for kinship network members?

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. I think I would say, well, one thing I would say is that if we’ve learned anything from our, from our project, it’s that these relationships do change over time.

So it’s, you know, kind of like you should expect change. The other piece, I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about the adoptive parents and the birth parents, but, you know, kids grow up and they have their own ideas too, about what they want. And so I think an important piece is for all of the adults to listen to the children in terms of what works for them, you know, and the idea of forcing contact on a child who isn’t interested is probably not a great idea. You know, there might be ways for the adults let’s say that there’s a period where that child is just not interested or even, you know, doesn’t want contact, but there may be ways for the adults to be maintaining contact and sharing pictures and sharing stories and things so that when the child is ready, then they can participate without feeling that it was kind of forced on them or something like that.

But it is kind of a lifelong process and we’re seeing, I mean, we’re now following our young adults into adulthood as they’re beginning to get married and have children of their own. And so, you know, then there are questions about, okay, now my, my birth mother is now a birth grandmother to my new child and how’s my birth grandmother going to navigate her role with respect to my, with the adoptive grandmother, you know, because now we’ve got these two people who have to figure out, you know, like new roles with regard to each other. And that’s part of this whole thing is that there’s a lot of, there’s no kind of cookbook for this. There’s no instruction manual, you know, it’s like these different relationships have to be kind of figured out.

So that’s the other piece of it. They have to be willing to do the work, you know, they have to realize that it’s not that you just bring that child home from the adoption agency, and then you just do the same thing that other parents do. It’s like, it’s adding, you know, but, but the positive thing is when we talk to parents about whether they would do it again or whether they like, you know, and they say, absolutely, you know, parents say, yes, it’s been wonderful.

We would certainly do it again. Um, but it requires this additional attention.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, well, in, in navigating that I would think a lot of members of the network would appreciate support from, you know, adoption professionals, maybe from agencies, if there’s a continued relationship. I’m curious what you see as the role of adoption professionals or agencies in helping the members navigate these kind of open relationships.

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. Well, I would say they’re kind of two layers to that. And one, I think we’re doing pretty well at and the other one needs some work. So the one we’re doing pretty well at, I think, is a broader kind of educational opportunities out there. There are a lot of, I mean, I, you know, I’m at UMass Amherst and we have the Rudd Adoption Research program and we have conferences and videos and website and all of that kind of stuff.

And I know you’re putting together a whole series of videos and podcasts. And there, there are quite a few of these really good resources out there. So broadly speaking, I think we’re doing much better at that than ever before. I think where it gets, where we can use more work is at the level of the individual family who might be in crisis at a particular time.

Who can they turn to, you know, for some of them, if they adopted through a private agency, you know, the way adoptions are set up in the United States, these private agencies, sometimes they go out of business. Sometimes they change their mission. So sometimes even the agency that they would normally be, you know, their first call isn’t even there. So finding those services is trickier. And the other thing that we are working on that I think is a work in progress is infusing the idea of adoption competence into kind of both mental health professionals and into child welfare professionals.

Because, you know, just because you have a degree in clinical psychology or degree in social work or counseling or whatever doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve had any specific training in adoption and in the issues associated with that. So there is a national movement toward enhancing adoption competent training for these professionals.

And that means that when parents do find somebody that has that training, there’ll be more likely to provide good services, but the area, I would say this area post-adoption services for individual families is a little, that’s an area that needs more attention for sure.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. As your team, the MTARP team is considering sort of next steps and following now that the adoptees are in young adulthood, what kinds of future studies or research do you all have planned especially as related to openness?

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Yeah. Well, right now, I mean, we have quite a bit of data that we’ve collected that we’re still analyzing and among the, I would say the intriguing topics we’re looking at one is this transition to adoptees becoming parents.

And how does that transform their family? And how does that change the relationships among the grandparents and all of that? So we’re beginning to look at that in more depth and I think that’s going to be really, really, really interesting, because again, it is a lifelong, you know, kind of process. So that’s one of the big ones we’re looking at.

And we’ve also been looking at like identity development over time and what it means to be an adopted person and an adoptee. We have here at UMass, one of our kind of community partnerships is with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. And we have a mentoring program, we call it the adoption mentoring partnership, where we match college students who were adopted with, with little kids in the community who are adopted in a mentoring kind of relationship.

But we’ve been doing research with our mentors to find out about their process of enhancing their own self-awareness about what it means to be an adopted adult and how that’s working. So we’re looking at that now in more detail and also thinking about what is the effect of being a mentor on your own personal growth and development in terms of understanding of adoption.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right. All those sounds so interesting. I’m eager to follow and watch the results for that. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for both writing the chapter, of course, but also for setting aside a little bit of time to talk about some of the themes that, that came out of it. Thank you so much.

Dr. Hal Grotevant: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks.

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