Season 1, Episode 10: Dr. Darcey Merritt & Rachel Ludeke, LMSW discuss their research regarding post-adoption services, identifying ways that service needs may vary based on adoption type (private infant, domestic foster care, international). They outline barriers that exist for accessing various post-adoption services and also ways that these services could be improved. They highlight the importance of ensuring that the preferences and experiences of adopted and foster youth take center stage in the creation and implementation of services. Throughout the interview, they examine the many ways that race and class intersect within adoption, and child welfare more generally.
Listen Now (Transcript Below)
For More Background
Dr. Emily Helder: Hello. I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Darcy Merritt and Rachel Ludeke. Dr. Darcy Merritt is an associate professor at the NYU Silver School of Social Work, and also a faculty fellow at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.
And Rachel Ludeke, LMSW is a PhD candidate at the Silver School of Social Work. So thanks so much for being here. Together they wrote a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption entitled, “Post Adoption Services Needs and Adoption Type”. So I’d love to begin by just hearing from both of you about some of your current research interests and what experiences you’ve had in your work with the child welfare context.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: So, I guess I’ll start. So thank you for that introduction, I’m happy to be here to introduce our chapter and provide a little extra context for readers. So I have over 20 years of experience in both the public and private child welfare arenas. I, mostly, on the West coast in California, so I worked with adoption agencies, I did pre-placement home assessments, I worked with a private foster family agency wherein I assessed families for appropriate foster and kinship care settings. And for those children, and I also worked as a supervisor for inclusion facilitators, and those are people who work with children with disabilities.
So in my studies, I was trying to address questions that were unanswered in my practice years. And most of that centered around the fact that the literature does not highlight the voices and the lived experiences of the people that are interfacing with the child welfare system. So I wanted to really get in there and do some deep dives into their lived experiences and perceptions about how they parent and how they handle their family dynamics – in the context of child welfare oversight and all of the processes that are involved with that. So that was the catalyst for me getting into the Academy, to try to answer some of these unanswered questions. My research, my dissertation focused on, children’s perceptions of permanency while living in care.
So I had, kids who were living in kinship care, kids who were living with foster families and kids who were still living in their birth homes in my dataset, and I wanted to find out what they thought about permanency and a specific question was, did they want to stay in their particular temporary homes permanently?
And I found some differences based on their ages. For instance, older children preferred to not to be adopted, yet they still wanted to stay in their temporary placements. I think because developmentally they had a better sense of what adoption meant. And they might not have absolutely needed to have, say, forever home with all of the bells and whistles they just needed to be able to have some place safe.
Whereas the younger kids were more likely to say that they absolutely wanted to be adopted. So it’s been published in a few different articles, but so I found that to be really interesting. And what was more interesting and also troubling was that nobody had been asking the kids, how they felt about these experiences in these newly formed families.
Equally not many people or scholars are asking their parents how they feel about this. One of my mentors, Trudi Festinger, who did a seminal work called “No one ever asked us”. And she was one of the first scholars to really query children who were, had interfaced with the child welfare system on their lived experiences, and so I wanted to follow in her footprints in her shoes.
And so, the work that we did that led to this chapter, we were trying to tease out the specific differences, according to service type, according to child welfare, I mean, adoption placement types, international adoptions, private adoptions, adoptions from either foster or kinship care – there are differences.
But what remains the same, and which is the crux of my current work is that the child welfare system is better suited to serve more meaningfully those with more privilege, for instance, people who do international adoptions, generally speaking, have more resources because they’re very expensive. Other people and families that interface with the child welfare system, the people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those Black and Brown people tend to fare less well because of the oversight and the surveillance that is imposed upon them as they navigate services.
They also come to the attention of child welfare services, in disproportionate ways due to the disparities that are directly linked to their economic status and their ethnicity and race. So that’s problematic across the board. But in regards to the adoption services, it’s less well studied because adoption is considered as, well, it’s wonderful, but it’s also at the far end of the child welfare system spectrum. So we’re moving kids into permanency, which is the goal, and we tend to pay less attention to how they’re doing and what has impacted their wellbeing and, you know, the way in which they navigate their lives, moving forward in their new homes. So my current research, I’m doing a few pilot studies now I have an R21, and I’m trying to understand the perspectives of parents with regard to two different forms of neglect, supervisory neglect and physical neglect. My mission is to make sure that we have in the literature and infused throughout policy, that parents don’t generally intend to neglect their children.
It’s regularly use due to some sort of lack of resources, low socioeconomic status and inappropriate housing, nutritional sustenance, food deserts, overcrowding in homes. There’s a whole host of things that are outside of their control. Yet they end up interfacing with the child welfare system and being blamed for poor parenting.
So I’m trying to point out that the system in itself is, needs to be kind of reworked so that we are not blaming parents for things that are outside of their control and understanding that the system has failed the parents and therefore the parents are not living up to what we deem as optimal parenting from our privilege perches of having all the resources that we need.
That’s in a really quick nutshell, I could go on and on, but there’s no time for that. I hope that gave you a good overview.
Dr. Emily Helder: It did. It’s such a great body of work, all the different lines of research and really was one of, we were familiar with your work and also with Trudi’s work and just, it was a big motivator for us in asking you to write this particular chapter.
So yeah, your work is very exciting to us as, as the editing team. Rachel, why don’t you say a bit about your own research interests and experiences as well? Okay.
Rachel Ludeke: So again, I’m a PhD candidate and I have been working with Dr. Merritt on that R21 parenting project, primarily helping her with scheduling and, data analysis for her transcripts and all of that lovely stuff.
I guess I could talk a little bit about my research background. Or my background in general. So prior to becoming PhD candidate/student, whatever, I actually worked as a project coordinator for several programs that were supposed to help with youth who were aging out of foster care, but attending college full time at Rutgers University.
So in my first professional experience, after getting my MSW, I worked as part of a state run program for youth who were receiving educational training voucher or ETV in New Jersey. Part of their requirements for receiving that voucher also was related to them receiving a supportive coaching.
We don’t call it counseling, because with young people, when you put forth, “I’m going to counsel you every week” or so they won’t come. But that’s primarily the type of work that I did. And then, I ultimately was able to get funding to start my own program that more broadly, not only helps foster youth, but we also, expanded the same sort of support program for young people who were orphaned or adopted or had some experience in foster care, but has since transitioned out.
So, I ran that program for about five years and in that time, adoption related issues are something that colored the students’ lives. So my experience, unlike Darcy’s, has always been with the young people, their lived experiences, and one of the reasons why I’m still working towards incorporating youth voices in child welfare outcomes, and that’s particularly my research interests, is because most studies are taken from the position of adult professionals. So in my view, the child welfare system works well on paper because adult professionals are discussing how they think the system should run. And unfortunately that doesn’t correlate to how the services are received by the young people, which we still have gaps in some of the services that they receive. In terms of post adoption services we see that, families that have a bit more money are getting more services, whereas in the child welfare related cases that end in adoption, usually it’s the non-kin, families that have a bit more of an advantage over the kinship related families and it’s due to barriers to their ability to actually access those aftercare services.
And so part of my overall research program is starting to incorporate the youth voice in everything that we do related to child welfare, particularly outcomes related to education and employment, or more broadly, like how can we incorporate children and youth voices in child welfare system to kind of counteract this adult professional, you know, lawyers, doctors, nurses, all of those people who aren’t necessarily living that experience right now. So I hope that answers your question.
Dr. Emily Helder: Definitely both of your work really does such a nice job of centering the voices of the people receiving the service, you know, on the receiving end and really the ones that should be driving the policy. So thank you so much. We got a little bit, into this, but I’d love to talk a bit about your chapter and some of the themes there.
So, at the beginning of the chapter, you really outline what sorts of post adoption supports are available. So you talk about, emotional supports, informational supports, concrete supports. And I wondered if you could discuss a little bit about the availability and accessibility of those supports, you know, is there one category in particular that tends to be more difficult for people to access?
You know, what are you, what are you finding with that?
Rachel Ludeke: So, I can start, in our research, again, we talked about the emotional, informational and concrete services, the types of post adoption services available to families. So with your emotional supports, that is related to child support groups, family counseling, crisis counseling, parenting education, and also, relationship help, especially for couples that are married, you know, adopting a child does change the entire dynamic of a family.
So emotional supports are important, and ensuring that the children or child is going to be placed in this new foreign environment are well received by the existing family structure that is already there. There are also informational services that, that can also include, more formal services such as workshops or, there’s even online resources that families have access to now.
And, It also to name a few, and some of these resources can vary according to what the state has available, which is kind of a theme in our chapter, and that one of the biggest barriers is like what is available to the family that has just adopted this child, whether it be a domestic adoption, an international or inter-country adoption or child welfare related adoption.
The final support that we talk about are concrete services and in my opinion, concrete services are often the hardest to be able to gain access to, and that’s related to that, like your, your childcare, tutoring for the child, any respite assistance or alcohol and drug treatment for the parents that are going to be involved in this adoption.
The reason why I consider that to be probably one of the hardest ones to get hardest supports to get. Has to be related to transportation – does your medical insurance actually qualify you for the services? And again, the availability of childcare subsidies to help kind of offset some of the out of pocket costs related to taking care of a child and especially in families where there’s not like this abundance of money, that’s somewhere that they can have access to pay for all of these things. Specifically for child welfare involved families, this might be an issue for domestic adoptions – this might be an issue. And so, when you have families that have the international or inter-country adoptions, we don’t think that that would be a concern, but you’re taking a child from a totally different environment and you’re placing him or her or them here, in the United States. And there’s going to be an adjustment period. So, having access to these concrete services that would immediately kind of help the child I think it’s important. Not to downplay the emotional or informational services, but the concrete services, I think, I still have a long ways to go in order to help the children and the families.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: I would add to that, and say that, I think that, you are correct Rachel, the concrete services are really very, very useful and it plays out differently according to adoption type. So we know that the intercountry or international adoptions are very costly, but so are the private adoptions.
So one would think – because of the money and cost involved in actualizing these types of adoptions that these parents have more financial resources to access their concrete services, private care, you know, they could have tutors – private tutors. It could be a lot more ease in accessing these types of services.
However, for the child welfare type adoptions, that’s more problematic because a lot of the child welfare families live in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods and environments. And a lot of these services aren’t offered in their neighborhoods. It’s hard to access them. There are many hoops to jump through and then adding on top of that: if these families come from kinship care, is they are adopted through kinship care, so they’re already living with their kin, one might think, “well, the family is already familiar with this child and therefore it might be easier”, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still need the same services that their original family needed, being in the, you know, in the extended family.
So I think the concrete and financial supports are much more, meaningful and important for child welfare involved adoptions, as opposed to the private or international adoptions, however, the international and private adoptions, those families might be more in need of emotional support, keeping in mind, they can still probably afford to have private therapists and such.
Dr. Emily Helder: Sure. Yeah. And this is so helpful, I think, to outline the differences by adoption type, because it seems like in planning for access to services and the types of services offered you want, you would want to work around those, those different types. Yeah. Are there, other besides adoption type, are there other demographic or situational factors that you’re finding influence families need for services or access to services?
Dr. Darcey Merritt: I would say cultural differences are important, especially with the international adoptions. So one needs to consider the culture where the child came from any trauma that the child, particularly if they’re a baby living in an orphanage or something like that, any trauma that the child might have endured, just moving anywhere, moving across the street is traumatic.
Nevermind moving into a new family from another country. So these things do need to be considered. Differences in schooling and educational expectations, depending on the child’s age, those might need to be considered, language barriers, there might need to be some needs that have to be addressed around that. Again, and the child welfare families are probably the most challengened with regard to needs for services. But our findings from my paper with Trudi indicated, a little bit of concern because we felt like those people that we anticipated would need the most services were actually the people that we’re not trying to access or saying they didn’t need these services as much.
So yeah, there is a difference in the way in which parents advocate for themselves. Again, this stems to socioeconomic status, so people who are from certain echelons of society are more accustomed to advocating for themselves and asking for help. Whereas, other people have different experiences with systems in this country might be more wary of us asking for help or might not wanting to have so much involvement from systems that have historically oppressed them in the past.
Rachel Ludeke: In the case of some kinship families, you know, after they’ve already gone through all of the issues related to being in child welfare and oversight, they might not necessarily take advantage of the services. Not because they don’t need them, but because they don’t want to have continued oversight or feeling like somebody who’s going to be telling them what to do with their child in their home.
They want to be able to get the environment back to like a normal status as much as possible.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, I mean, you’ve outlined so many the different complex barriers that, that we’re working on as a child welfare field. Yeah. I wondered if you could say a bit about, how your research finds that post adoptive services are related to even the pre adoption preparation that some families go through and how both of those things, those pre adoption evals and the supports that families get after adoption are connected with permanency.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: Hmm, well, I can speak on that. So, because I did a lot of assessments for pre-adoptions, I’ve brought many babies and children to their adopted families and left some there that were there in temporary care, and then the caregivers decided to adopt them. So it’s all in the questioning and the assessments at the pre-adoption phase.
Not only of the child, but also the family. So comprehensive assessments of a child’s needs, a full bio-psychosocial assessment. There needs to be a lot of information in order to determine and anticipate what might be needed. Not only in real time when the adoption occurs, but what issues might we anticipate need to be addressed as they grow, as the children grow.
As family dynamics change, family composition changes, that is directly related to the post adoption services. So, the more comprehensive ones assessment is at the pre adoptive phase, that will dictate what services are provided for the family post-adoption and that’s extremely important, but we need to move forward and not just say, okay, we’ve got you adopted now, and we’re going to monitor you for X amount of time and just leave you there.
I think there needs to be some longitudinal work done and some regular checkups for a long period of time to reevaluate what services are needed. Again, if parents stabilize and children stabilized, they might not want it. Everybody has freewill to accept or deny services. But understanding at the outset, what families need, considering where children are moving to, school systems, cultural differences there’s a lot of research done on Black children who were adopted by White families and, you know, especially like for instance, in a time, like now that needs to be, be addressed. How are we dealing with that? What kind of education do the parents have on the trauma that Black kids experience just living in America? And how is that addressing what services might be needed? According to like glitches in societies, which is now.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and there’s so much research too, about how longitudinally kids adopted transracially, experience more of that, conflict and challenge in terms of identity development as they get older.
So it seems like you said that longitudinal work would be so valuable for those kids in particular.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: Absolutely, because we, you know, the developmental stages, there are different things that pop up as they should, because that’s why it’s developmentally appropriate. But we need to be concerned about how kids are navigating and coping as they grow into realizing that they’re different from their parents in any way that they are.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Rachel, anything you wanted to jump in with?
Rachel Ludeke: Yeah. There’s also a need to, consider these – I’m always thinking about the child in this sort of situation and especially in child welfare involved families, and also for the other types, what happens to the other children that are not adopted out of this situation?
I can only, I can speak specifically about the child welfare context, because unfortunately I have seen the aftermath of that, in the middle of running one of my programs, one of my clients, her sister got adopted and she didn’t, and she struggled with that because she didn’t find out about the adoption until months after it happened. And you know, there was like this period of time where it just kinda messed with her identity as a person, her self worth, like what made my sister so much better than she got chosen over me. And it unfortunately caused sort of a mental health crisis with her. And so I think another area of the research that we don’t really do enough of is just thinking about that from the child’s perspective and asking it from the person who didn’t get adopted.
I imagine that the sister that got adopted probably felt a bit out of place and awkward because now you’re placed into a better situation, you’re not in foster care, you have a stable place that you’re staying, but your sister doesn’t. And so, that would be something that I think that future researchers should consider, that, that child dynamic and how they relate to the adoption system, regardless of type, because I can see that in both domestic adoptions, and also inter-country or international adoption.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, the whole family system. Really, yeah, I wondered, and we’ve gotten to talk a little bit about this, but, one of the things I think your chapter really highlights is how much of the past research has really been centered on the adoptive parents’ perspective about post-adoption services, their satisfaction, their barriers.
And I wondered if you could say even more about, Either what, what research, you know, exists from the adoptee perspective, or additionally, what kinds of studies would be helpful in kind of rounding out the research and understanding more from the adoptee perspective?
Dr. Darcey Merritt: I think it’s really important, again, we always need to consider the lived experiences. So I think longitudinal research, looking at the lived experiences of adopted kids and post-adoption of course, retrospective data is always problematic because of memory recall and what not, that was some of Trudi’s work, like she studied, kids who had left care. but it’s still useful if we could understand, as children have grown into young adults or adults, what they can look back on and determine that they might have needed. I think that might be helpful. From a nuanced perspective, thinking about what was going on in the country, in the sociopolitical arena at the time, the context of their neighborhood and their environment, the socioeconomic background of their new family did, were they adopted by somebody that had a dearth of resources? or somebody had a plethora of resources? How that might’ve played a role in the services that they needed, their peer context and their friends and how they developed friends, living in a home where they in, you know, was it an open discussion about adoption? Like in terms of peer support, social support groups and things like that, or was it kind of hush, hush?
We’re just going to pretend this didn’t happen, when it happened. So I think as Rachel said, we need to make sure we’re querying those kids who have been adopted and maybe even at different stages, querying them when they’re going through the pre adoptive process, for a period of time when they’ve just been adopted, and then for a period of time after had been adopted and looking at what’s happened through that whole entire trajectory, that’s what I would, that’s what I would hope to have happen. Rachel, would you agree with that?
Rachel Ludeke: Yeah. And I also think that with that longitudinal research. We need to make it so that it’s accessible to policymakers and other people who are actually going to create these interventions so that we’re making interventions based not only on what we think is important to parents, but what is going to be actually usable for young people.
I think we also mentioned in the chapter that part of the reason why children don’t necessarily say whether or not at least in the child welfare type of adoption, they don’t necessarily say whether or not the adjustment is going well for them is because they they’re worried about losing the family that they just got, they worry about what’s going to happen to their network, especially for those young people who have already, had more than one placement before they were adopted.
I think it would be important to look at how that changes at first. And I mean, all of those network disruptions, and I forgot to mention that one of my other interests is in social network development of foster youth. When you have that many disruptions in your network, and every time you get into a new placement, you have to start over it doesn’t magically go away once you get adopted, you have to use all of those skills that you had to develop relationships before. To do all of that all over again. Some kids might not necessarily have the tools or the skillset to continue to keep remaking themselves. So I’d say in addition to like longitudinal research, based on like what the young people are experienced and we focus a little bit of that research on identity development and formation for those young people after they get adopted, like, is there a difference pre adoption versus post-adoption and, and I’m not necessarily saying it’ll be all negative.
I’m just saying that we need to look at that to make more interventions that are meaningful to our kids.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: Along the lines of what you’re talking about with the networks is we don’t really look at once children are adopted. What those relationships are that they had before they were adopted and how they’re maintaining them and how that’s helping them and how that is related to the use of services or not like if they’ve maintained a relationship with either birth families or friends, or they were in the same neighborhood, how that might’ve impacted their need or lack of need for a certain service.
Dr. Emily Helder: Right, that would be so interesting. We have another chapter in the handbook about respecting children’s rights and relationships in the context of making adoption plans and, that some themes that you’re bringing up were really prominent in that chapter as well. Yeah. I wanted to cause the chapter does a nice job of addressing some barriers to accessing services and we’ve, in our conversations so far, we’ve highlighted a few. But I wondered if you could, talk a bit about which ones you see as most significant most pressing, in terms of addressing.
Rachel Ludeke: I think it’s, it’s access to childcare subsidies, it’s access to just child related services in general.
We don’t really have, we need more of that. And unfortunately, because states can vary in terms of what types of services they provide for families who have adopted a child, those childcare services they’re going to be different. The other thing that I think is important to consider is as Dr. Merritt mentioned, is for some people in terms of like being able to actually get to those services. So transportation, the geographical location of those services, the quality of those services. We have situations for some child welfare involved families where they, the parents unfortunately have to leave their kids in not so great care centers just because they have to go to work and they can’t afford the higher quality childcare places that might actually, you know, take a better, take better care of their child, they take what they can get. And so I think that’s probably one of the biggest barriers, at least in my view is just, you know, When you want to be able to adopt the child and then you still have to go on with your life.
You want to be able to have childcare. If you don’t have great access to it, or what you have is not adequate it puts a strain on the family system as a whole.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: I agree. I think also with regard to this notion of identity formation, when you have, interracial intercultural adoptions, I think it’s really important that there be even a mandated set of services for parents and children to help them understand culture differences and where people are coming from and trends whether it’s domestic adoptions or international adoptions. I think we don’t do a good enough job at understanding the nuances of where we are, who we are as individual people and our cultures, and how to honor those identities within a new home environments.
And that’s a service that should probably be mandated for everybody, in my opinion.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Avoiding that sort of color blind approach, and really emphasizing, understanding the different identities and perspectives. Yeah, as we, and I’d wonder if you’d, reflect a bit about what you see as some of the major open research questions in terms of the effectiveness of the support services.
So are there, do you feel like the field in general has a good sense for what kinds of programs or services are, are most effective and what needs to happen or do you feel like this is an area that needs a lot more attention? You know, where, where would you put things right now?
Dr. Darcey Merritt: I think that, I think it needs a great deal more attention. I think right now the benchmarks are, did the adoption survive or did the adoption dissolve? And I think we need to move beyond that and really look at the, perception of experiences and the, and how children feel, and their own idea, idea of their wellbeing, not just, Oh, did we maintain this placement so to speak, but how well has the child thrived within that placement and over time, and what’s been needed, what’s needed to address any sort of glitches or, troubles along the way.
So I think we need to be, less stringent in just having a binary did it work or did it not work and really look at what it meant for the child and the parents and siblings?
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Rachel, what would you add?
Rachel Ludeke: I mean, I pretty much agree with, what Dr. Merritt said, but I’d also add, like, just focusing more on whether or not those children are surviving or thriving in their adoptions.
Like you’d want to be able to see more growth in them as a person, especially for the intercountry or international adoptions with some, young people coming over, not speaking the language, not knowing much about the culture. Are they actually surviving or are they just kind of going along with the plan because you know, the alternative, unfortunately in some cases is going back to where they were before.
So I’d like to see more work along that.
Dr. Emily Helder: Thank you both so much, for your body of research work for writing the chapter. I, we are so thankful to include it and hope that it’s challenging for folks who are reading it in terms of, you know, whether they’re policy makers, heading into the field of social work.
So thank you so much.
Dr. Darcey Merritt: Thank you for having us.
Rachel Ludeke: Thank you.