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Season 1, Episode 2: Co-editors of the Routledge Handbook of Adoption discuss the first chapter of the Handbook that they co-wrote, providing an overview of the history of adoption in the US, current forms of adoption, and areas of controversy or tension in the field. Main themes covered include the intersection of race and class in the context of adoption, openness in adoption, and transracial adoption.

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Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Emily Helder: So we thought we’d like to go over chapter one a bit, and I’ll be asking some questions about some of the topics that are covered there, as well as the implications of some of that work.

So, Elisha, I’ll start with you. Since you wrote the beginning of chapter one. One of the things that I think is maybe not super widely known or really well understood is that formal adoption, like legal adoption is actually a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. I think maybe people just think that it’s been around for a super long time. So could you tell us a bit about some of its earliest origins?

Elisha Marr: Yeah. So, one of the things that we, when we think about adoption, we usually think of the adoption of adoptive parents adopting an infant. But if you look back through history because of, the need for the infant to have a lactating mother, that was really not a transaction that could happen very often unless you had a wet nurse.

And so it wasn’t really until the invention of formula that made it possible for an infant to be formally adopted into a family that’s unrelated. Right. But what we’ve had up until that point up until formal adoption has been, , all these different types of kind of child keeping, from, from different groups.

And so. one of the first things that we talk about is that, when, people who came from Ireland came to New York City and, and came to what we now know as the US. They, they were pretty poor. And, sometimes the, the parents died and there are kids who were orphans and really there is no system or facility to take care of those children. And so, what they would do is a family would take them in and adopt them, but they would essentially be workers in that family. Right. So, that happened not only in the Northeast area, but, there were a number of families in the West that said, Oh yeah, we’ll take some adoptees.

And we call them orphan trains where, some of these kids who had maybe been living on the streets and, causing a ruckus. Right. So, Yeah. You know, they were probably stealing. They were probably, you know, living in areas that, that were bothering the city, people in the city in general. They took those kids and put them on trains and then they got adopted into a family, but not necessarily into the family house, maybe into the family barn and they were workers there.

Then, we also have, the situation with, indigenous people, were people who were White Europeans when they first came to what we now know as US. They would kind of, keep each other’s children and for the people who are White, they, they thought, okay, we’re going to take this child, this indigenous child.

And, we’re going to civilize it. We’re going to, you know, we’re gonna, we’re going to adopt it. We’re going to give it all the privileges. We have, the Native Americans did not necessarily know that that wasn’t reciprocal and that it wasn’t, that it wasn’t temporary. So there was a point where the Native American said, Oh, wow, you’re not going to give us our kid back. Or this is not necessarily going to be a network where we work together. I don’t know if we necessarily want to put the word adoption associated with that, but that, that was some of the early types of adoption that happened. And in the African American community, or, I would say, both, during, slavery and then after emancipation, usually the, the community took care of the kids and there weren’t necessarily any formal exchanges of paper or names or anything like that.

But the African-American, and, and people who identify as Black in the US, you can still see some of those child keeping practices, , where, fictive kin will take care of kids. but not necessarily formally adopt them as, as we now know it.

Emily Helder: Yeah. And some of the things, you know, that you just described, I think highlight the fact that really from quite early on, there’s been some, racial and class inequities, as well as probably some ethical questions that have been associated with, with adoption.

So what, you know, in addition to what you’ve described, what stand out to you as some of these significant inequities in the area of adoption.

Elisha Marr: So even though, money, jobs, assets, those types of resources aren’t necessary to birthing a child and raising a child, those, make it possible for that, that child to have what we would consider to be a steady, and, and, and decent opportunity, a steady life and decent opportunities, in the world.

And so, what we find is that most women who give birth to a child probably would rather parent that child, but if they don’t have those resources, so if they don’t have the financial resources to, have a, shelter over their heads to be able to cloth the baby, to be able to get resources food to the baby then they might think about surrendering the child for adoption. Globally, we have a chapter about natural disasters and how things that are going on around a person, whether it’s war or famine or an earthquake, can make it possible for a, a mother who gives birth to a child to not feel like she has the resources to be able to parent that child.

And then, even just in general, when we think about, racial inequalities, because racial inequalities, occurred throughout the world, most people of color, having less, fewer resources disproportionately, than people who are white.

So what we see as a pattern where, people who are white, who live in the US who are middle class or upper class people with more resources, when they want to reproduce, they can biologically reproduce or they could also adopt a child.

That’s an option for them because they can afford those expenses. And the children that are usually available are usually available because the, the, the birth mother and the birth parents were unable for some reason to, to raise the child that they bore. In the US we see, people of color, particularly people who are black, either surrendering their children for adoption or having their children involuntarily removed through some type of, child protective services. And, and so we have this disproportionate number of, adoptees who are Black in the US and then, adding the social class to that that, a lot of the children that are available come from people who are disenfranchised. Right. So, this is something that has been written about, quite extensively, but in the first chapter, I really just wanted to kind of lay it out for people so that they understand that, when we think of adoption, we often think about, the two adoptive parents and the child, but there’s actually, an invisible portion of the adoption triad, I sometimes say, where there’s, a birth parent or birth mother who’s unable to parent the child that, that she bore. And, those decisions are very much based on resources and environment.

Emily Helder: Yeah. I’m really happy that we, that you wrote that section that you included that I think any conversation on adoption is not complete until we have a more nuanced and complex understanding of adoption and some of those kind of bigger structural contexts in which it occurs.

Elisha Marr: Yes. I agree. It’s, it’s difficult because facing things that are outside of your control it, it challenges you to think about different systems in the world.

And, sometimes we’d rather just focus on this child needs a home. Here’s a home for it. Adoption is great, but it’s indicative of a larger issue, which is inequality, both, nationally and by race, by class. And, even to some extent, by sexuality.

Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. I think we’ve one thing that I want to make sure that we clarify too, or talk some more about are the different forms of adoption, because we’ve been sort of throwing some of those terms around, but it’s probably good to, to clarify that.

So, so in the U S anyway, there are these three primary ways that adoption occurs, private infant adoption and, and Elisha, you talked a lot about that form just recently, and then international adoption and then through public means, through like foster care. So, Gretchen, do you want to talk about private infant adoption as, as a means for adoption? Just because that’s what some of your research is with?

Gretchen Wrobel: Most people think about an adoption agency where birth mothers will contact them to say they want to place their child and that, prospective adoptive parents will contact the agency saying we would like to adopt a child and the agency itself will make a match. And so, they’ll make they’ll vet the families through a home study that many have heard about. The adoptive families, they work with birth parents to help choose an adoptive family for their child. That hasn’t always been the way.

Earlier in the history, adoption agencies, the adoptiom professionals at agencies made the matches themselves without input from the birth parents. Birth parents today have a lot more say about what type of family and where that, where their child will, will be placed. There’s also private adoption through an attorney where two parties will get together to say that, yes, I will place my child with you.

And then the attorney negotiates that transfer of parental rights. And it’s not an adoption agency that does that. One of the things that changes for that, we’ll talk a bit later, is that private adoption is changing in the United States. And for the most part, that there is contact between birth and adoptive families. Now through private adoption, through agency, or a private party.

Emily Helder: And there’s a lot of similarities for international adoption in that process. So, there’s still that, vetting of adoptive families, there’s less say from the, from the birth parents, you know, often in an international adoption context, children are in institutional care or foster care in another country.

And, the family has given the referral or the information about that child. And then they’re able to accept that referral, travel to that country and adopt that child. International adoptions changed a lot, since even since the early 2000s, it’s dropped a lot in frequency, because of a variety of factors, but, many more of the kids that are coming into the US adopted through the international process, are older than what they were, you know, 10, 15 years ago, or have other special medical or developmental needs that make it more difficult to place them in their country of origin, their birth country. So, and then the third method for adoption in the US is adoption from foster care. And so Elisha, you’ve mentioned a little bit about kinship care that, that there is often the emphasis in the foster care system to find a someone related to the child to be able to parent them.

But it is also possible for unrelated, parents to adopt children from foster care. Often those, those kids tend to be older, they’re they are less often infants that are adopted from that means, and that the numbers on that are a little bit more steady or stable over time.

Gretchen Wrobel: Yes.

Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. so at the end of the first chapter, we kind of the last half of it, or so we spend some time talking about important issues, kind of areas of controversy.

So I thought I would just kind of mention those and have, the person that wrote that section just talk a bit about what’s included there. So one of the things, and, and Gretchen, you kind of highlighted it a bit is we talked about openness,

Gretchen Wrobel: Right, right. And openness, is this the idea that there’s contact between birth families and adoptive families and most private adoptions today, and especially if their infant adoptions in the US contain at type of openness in there that can vary from, um, that you just get information at placement, confidential kind of adoption, which is waning.

It’s very rare, to agency mediated exchange of information, to information exchanged face-to-face between adoptive and birth families directly.

And that is the trend where more and more adoptions, domestic adoptions are. This is especially true for foster care adoptions that is non-infant adoptions is those children have families and contexts that they come from and they want to sometimes maintain those connections, even though they’re in a new adoptive family.

So openness has become very, very prominent in adoption. And it affects all the parties, you know, so it affects the parents, the adoptive parents, the birth parents, the adopted person themselves. And so there’s this negotiation that goes on in the context about, well, how much contact are we going to have?

When are we going to have it? What’s important? And what we’ve can find overall is if all of the parties keep the needs of the adopted person foremost, what do they need? The contact can be very successful.

It does wax and wane. It increases and decrease. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, due to just, it kind of just goes away.

It’s people don’t contact as much in a certain season. It can be maybe the relationships didn’t quite turn out, but contact and adoption has really influenced the idea of searching for birth parents. That’s a idea that was really with confidential adoptions. I don’t know who my birth parents are and I want to find them.

And that is still that’s still happens. But with adoptive contact, you basically have avenues to know, but searching doesn’t stop. Then people are still curious about what are my birth family? What do they like? What are my step brothers and sisters like? What are my half brothers and sisters like? So the curiosity does not end.

And so we talked a little bit more about openness, allows all parties to seek information about one another. And then how do we communicate with each other? We know that when we talk about contact, mostly now we’re talking about type and frequency; type can be, zoom calls, it can be letters, it can be exchanging photos.

It can be through the agency, or it can be “I’m going to go over and visit my birth mother.” I know where she is and I have access to her. So that’s kind of like, different types. And then also frequency of contact. How often do you get to do that? If your birth mother and, you know, she’s in the same city, it’s easier than if she lives somewhere else where you have to travel.

Also, some of the new trends that are happening in openness is that internet and social media sources allow for a lot of information seeking to take place. And we do know that a lot of people will use those resources to find information out about their birth and birth families. And a real cutting edge is now genetic testing.

Can you find a genetic related relative? one of the things that is that the commercial to home tests are ones that are opening up a whole new world about this, and it can lead you to a genetic relative that you may or may not know you have, And it also, the ethics of this are really in its infancy.

And so we have, um, some, we address this in the book, which I think is great, but it’s, it’s kind of the cutting edge of, well, I have a genetic relatives, so how am I going to negotiate contact, and type, and frequency and so on. And then just the ethics of how you find that out from genetic information. So that’s kind of where one of the cutting edges of openness and adoption at this point.

Emily Helder: I find that so interesting. The, especially the genetic testing piece, I’m really curious to see how that’s going to develop over time.

So the next section is in the chapter is transracial adoption and Elisha, that’s your research area, you know, you wrote that section. Could you highlight some of the inherent tensions in that area.

Elisha Marr: So, once formal adoption, became a practice, we started having adoption agencies, most of the placements where they matched not only by race, but also by religion.

And it wasn’t until the 1960s that they actually placed, some children of color with white families. So that was kind of the beginning of transracial adoption, but it’s always been considered to be second best to what we used to call it inracial. I’m currently calling same race adoptions where, the parents and the adoptees are of the same race.

The part of the reason why this is a struggle is, number one, race relations, in the US and throughout the world. There was an immediate backlash from the National Association of Black Social Workers who felt like, if Black children are adopted by White parents, then Black children, wouldn’t necessarily be able to, learn about, how to live in a racist society, that they would not be able to learn Black culture, that they maybe would lose some of their, their Black identity. And, this was not only important for the individuals. They said, you know, it’s important for the individuals, for kids, but also, we want to make sure that black culture doesn’t disappear. Right. So, and this was something that, that was a really, I would say realistic fear because of Native Americans who had their children as I said before, adopted, by, White families or put into boarding schools were, uh, told to, to lose their, their language of origin. They were socialized to, act like White people. They were told to, to worship a Christian God and they, they did lose, Native American culture. And so, in addition to African American groups and Black groups, opposing, transracial adoption, the Native American groups did as well now, they, I think they called it cultural genocide, right?

So what’s going to happen if White people adopt, all these children of color, we won’t have generations to pass on our, our culture to. Moving forward into the 80’s and 90’s, the number of transracial placements increased, frankly, the race relations got better and interracial marriages and families are, more, accepted in society.

And, and frankly there were fewer White infants available because of birth control and, the, the, abortion laws. Rita Simon and Howard Alstein both did work that showed that, that these kids were doing pretty well in their families are doing as well psychologically, emotionally as, same race adoptees. However, when it got to around 2000, when these adoptees started going into college and going out into the workforce and going out into the world where people did not know that they were adoptees and did not know that their culture was, what they sometimes considered to be White culture, American culture.

That’s when they started to struggle with identity issues, they struggled with, issues about who to, um, uh, who to date and how they are perceived by others and, why people would ask them where they were from. And so, and so even though transracial adoption increased over time and by the mid 1990s, we actually, created legislation that said that adoption facilitators, whether it’s adoption agencies or attorneys that they could not use race to delay or deny a placement of a, of a child. So if there was a child of color and, a family of color is not available, then a White family, it shouldn’t have any issues adopting that child. So that kind of, I would say solidified the idea that, transracial adoptions were socially accepted in society.

However, what I think the research says right now is that, yes, in general, they’re, they’re doing, they’re doing okay compared to other same race adoptees, but, but that, over their life course, it’s different once they actually move out of their adoptive family’s house because they start to be perceived as the race that others perceive them to be, rather than the culture of, of their adopted family.

Emily Helder: And there’s a lot of, I think, good research in the book talking about preparing families who are adopting transracially for how, how best to parent in a way that supports that identity development, you know, in, in kind of healthy ways. But yeah, I think that’s, that’s really key. Then the next section is on international adoption and I wrote that section.

So the tensions involved there, some of them overlap with what you, Elisha talked about related to transracial adoption, because so many international adoptions are also transracial. But some of the things that are unique there are that, I think people are balancing competing or different values.

So on, on one side, there’s really the inherent right that kids have to have family, you know, and a lot of kids internationally, if their country doesn’t have a robust child welfare system are in institutions, you know? And so we know institutions are bad for kids. So, we really want to emphasize how important those family placements are.

And at the same time, Elisha, some of the things that you emphasized about how the disproportionate power between the countries where these kids are coming from to the receiving countries, can create some potential for abuse of the system. So there’s been a highly publicized cases where, for example, families in particular countries didn’t realize that placement in a orphanage, you know, meant that their child was then going to become adoptable.

And, and, there’s been publicized cases of this , especially in Guatemala, for example, there were these examples of birth mothers being paid to relinquish infants. And so there’s been a lot of abuses in the system as well. And so I think there’s this, this tension to, to highlight the potential for abuse that’s possible and also the really significant loss in birth culture, heritage, language, access to birth relatives when international adoption occurs too. So there’s really these, these tensions that are challenging and at the same time, you know, balancing those is, is you have to do that in the context of the fact that many international adoptees have lots of love, closeness, you know, with their adoptive parents and at the same time, hold on to some of those losses that are significant in their lives too.

So thanks to both of you for talking a bit about both the book and about this first chapter, I’m excited for people to be able to see it. Thanks so much for all the work that you put into it, and also describing it a bit for us here.

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