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Season 1, Episode 25: Dr. Elisha Marr & Dr. Emily Helder discuss research regarding religiosity and adoption. Dr. Marr outlines the findings from existing nationally representative datasets regarding the link between religious affiliation and likelihood of pursuing adoption, linking this with macro level trends such as the Evangelical orphan care movement. Dr. Helder then discusses research on religious motivation and religious meaning making among adoptive parents. Dr. Marr and Dr. Helder then identify challenges in discerning patterns in the research due to variability in research approach and also outline gaps in the existing research on this topic. They end by thinking through the implications for adoption agencies and adoption professionals.

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Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Dr. Emily Helder: Hi, I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Elisha Marr. She’s an associate professor in sociology and the gender studies program director at Calvin University. She’s also the co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Adoption and together she and I wrote a chapter for the Handbook of Adoption entitled “Religiosity and adoption.” So we’re just going to spend some time talking about some of the themes that have come from from that work. So, yeah, Elisha, I’ll kick us off, would you maybe start us off at the beginning, we can kind of briefly describe what’s existing already in terms of scholarship on religiosity and adoption in the U.S.

Dr. Elisha Marr: The National Survey for Fertility Barriers talks about religion and talks about , asks questions about how often do you pray how you know, how, how important is religion to you, but they actually don’t ask the religious affiliation of the people involved. They just mentioned that it’s mainly people from the Midwest and they, based on just the Gallup poll and, and other information they say, so they’re most likely to be Christian. So a lot of the work that’s out there is predominantly about Christianity, even though we found a few different articles that referenced Judaism and Catholicism.

Dr. Emily Helder: So in thinking, too, about the chapter, we were really able, and you were really able to look at how some of the macro level movements compared with some of that actual data for who’s adopting, who’s considering adoption really from a demographic standpoint and you know, I wondered, could you say a bit about how those nationally representative analyses that you took a look at how those compared with some of the macro level movements, more of the narrative level that’s linking religion and adoption.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Yeah. So there’s a lot of work out there about the evangelical orphan movement, which involves different adoption institutions and agencies pairing with, with churches and informing their congregations about what the the options are with adoption, how much it costs , what the benefits are to the children.

So kind of creating those types of partnerships and the, a lot of the research that has been , that is readily available to the public is about how this has increased the numbers of adoption  out there, that like this has helped give more children homes. The more sociological, more recent critical analysis is that this may be more anecdotal rather than necessarily reflected in the adoption trends.

And they looked at foster care to see if maybe foster care needs were decreasing because of the evangelical orphan care movement and didn’t really see any any, any patterns in that way of saying that there’s, there’s fewer foster children available because so many evangelical families are adopting them.

What I did as a sociologist, who’s looking at demographics statistics on adoption. I looked at the National Survey of Family Growth. Now this is one of the main sources of information about adoption, because it, it has been the survey has been in process since 1977.

And they used to collect data periodically, like 1977. 1980s. And now it’s actually just continuous where they’re always asking certain segments of the population, these questions about family growth. Family growth, being anything like marriage and having a biological child , adopting , and even includes things about divorce and birth control.

So all the different ways that people create families. So this is a nationally representative survey. And over time you can see the number of women who have considered adoption, the number of women who’ve considered and took steps to adopt, and also the number of women who’ve adopted. Now I’m specifically not mentioning adoptive fathers here because these questions weren’t asked of them throughout pretty much all of the years , men weren’t even added until recently. And and even then the adoption questions that are asked of them are about adopting a stepchild or a child that they already have relationships with. So this National Survey of Family Growth has been the, the source of much of the research on adoption.

And what, when I looked at the information from 1977 through 201 5 about adoptive mothers and their associated religious affiliation. What I found was that the percentage of adoptive mothers who identify as Protestant has actually increased over time. So a little bit different than the idea that Protestants aren’t necessarily going out there adopting. Like there’s actually, Protestants are adopting.

However, the number of adoptions has stayed pretty much the same. So it isn’t necessarily that the Protestants are adding to the number of adoptions, but that of those who are adopting more of them are identifying as Protestant. Now, one of the things that people would often say is, well, isn’t that just simply the reflection of the US population that, you know Protestantism is the most common religious affiliation.

I compared that as well.  And that the numbers of people identifying as Protestant  have increased, but haven’t increased as much as the number of people who identify as Protestant who are adopting. So there is definitely a statistically significant difference between the number of women who identify as Protestant and adopt and the number of women who identify as Protestant.

So there’s overrepresentation of Protestant women. But again, just want to to mention that looking at this, this, this macro level, that we’re not really seeing any increases in the numbers of adoption, it just the content of the, the people who are adopting and the religious affiliation has been changing.

Dr. Emily Helder: Sure. Sure. So they’re like a bigger piece of the pie essentially. Yeah. Yeah. Say more too, cause I know you took a look at sort of the intersection of race and ethnicity and some of the stuff you’ve been talking about, so how, how does some of that change or stay the same, you know, depending on what racial or ethnic groups you’re looking at.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Well it’s kind of interesting because number one, it hasn’t been asked in any, I would say unanimous fashion over time. So 1977, they looked at white women and Black women. And then at some point in the 1980s, they called, they said there were white women and nonwhite women. And so nonwhite women is different than Black women. There was actually an article the analyzed Hispanic women and non Hispanic, white women. So we, it’s pretty difficult to compare the numbers over time. But one of the patterns that we do see is that religion seems to make more of a difference in whether a woman who is non Hispanic, white considers adoption, or take steps to adopt than it does for a woman who is Black or a woman who is Hispanic.

And we just, but, we just have a couple of articles on those. When I summarized it in the chapter, I said that this is a trend that we’re somewhat seeing, but it’s not enough to hang your hat on that it’s, it’s, it’s not consistent. And especially because we’re not measuring it the same way  we can’t necessarily say that this is the pattern of the future.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, well, and I want to follow up on that measuring it the same way piece. Cause I think both of us really had a lot of challenge when we were looking at the literature kind of discerning like patterns or meaning from it because there was such a huge variety of ways that the researchers were actually defining religiosity.

Can you say more about that from, from your perspective?

Dr. Elisha Marr: Yeah. Yeah. So we both, we both did struggle with this and what , part of it is that the two biggest national databases on that include information on adoption, so the National Survey of Family Growth, which I was just talking about. And then in the beginning I mentioned the National Survey of Fertility Barriers. They’ve been working, I would say around maybe 10, 15 years.

But both of them ask different questions such as one might ask how important is religion to you? And the other one might ask.  How often do you pray each week? There are some that will ask the importance of prayer. There are others that will that will ask the religion that you identified at age 14, and then the religion that you’ve identified as now.

So  there hasn’t actually been any, I would say consistent measures of religiosity. I would say the National Survey of Family Growth asked the same questions over time. However, the way that people have analyzed it, they’ve taken just different aspects of it and decided, okay, this is the aspect that I’m going to use to evaluate and to analyze religion with one saying, all right, I’m going to analyze it as the, the age that you at 14,  what was your religious affiliation? And another one used a combination of religious importance and and religious attendance. And so, and so we do have some efforts at measuring , using the same measures in the in the different surveys.

But as far as the analyses, it’s all over the place.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right, right. Yeah. It makes it really hard to compare one study to another, their findings.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Yeah. And you, and you had a problem with this as well, right? Like when you were, when you were measuring, when you’re talking about religiosity and adoption and meaning-making.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, yeah. I had the same thing. You know, researchers were talking about Asking families specifically about their motivation to adopt and whether there were religious motivations as a component of that. There were researchers that were just looking at religious affiliation or frequency of attendance and behavior.

And so again, I ran into the same problem where it was really hard to discern a pattern across multiple studies because everybody had defined it or measured it or analyzed it in a different way.

Dr. Elisha Marr: So how, when, when you’re thinking about the ways that that religiosity is defined and measured, how does it impact the scholarship on on religiosity and adoption?

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, I think you know, we’ve, we’ve learned some, we have some, maybe some common themes, I can talk about those. But even those I view tentatively, just because of how there’s kind of very little research and what’s there is it’s done so differently, but one of the, I think one of the big things I learned in looking at the research is that religious motivations are fairly common.

So usually like they’re in the top five of the motivations that, that adoptive families are listing . If you ask samples, you know, whether religiosity was a motivation for them to adopt somewhere in the neighborhood of like, 10% to a quarter of the families will say yes. Although it varies a lot in terms of how religious the sample is that they’re drawing on.

So religious motivations are present for you know, a significant minority, I would say. And it does seem to impact the decisions that they make in the adoption process. So there’s some pretty good research, I think, that suggests, you know, more religious families who are motivated by religiosity to adopt, tend to be adopting older kids. They have a larger family size. They are more likely to adopt a child who has a medical condition or disability. And that’s probably where I would say, like, I end with like my, my confidence. The, the rest of the research is, is pretty small. There there’s some that’s looking at, you know, how does religiosity impact parenting  in the adoptive family.

And those tend to find that families with religious motivation are more strict and somewhat less permissive in their discipline practices, which kind of mirrors larger research about religiosity and parenting. And then there is some research that looks at outcomes for kids. So if parents are religiously motivated to adopt does that impact anything about the adoptive child’s behavior? You know, the parenting stress, that kind of thing. And some studies found no impact and some studies found a positive impact. So, but it was very hard to really come to a meaningful conclusion with how small the literature was and and that sort of thing.

Dr. Elisha Marr: So a couple of conclusions, but not enough to necessarily  to identify a pattern that you feel like it’s supported by the literature,

Dr. Emily Helder: Right, yeah. Just a few studies here or there.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Now you were talking about the role of religion and motivations to adopt and then also, and parenting. What about how adoptive parents described their experiences?

Right. What what for these, these people who have adopted I think we, we talked about this as meaning-making right. Like what type of what type of role does religion play and meaning-making when it comes to adoption.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, I think the biggest disclaimer I have here is that the research that exists is all from the adoptive parents perspective.

So there’s really nothing at all from the  adult adoptees, for example. So this is a huge gap in the literature, but when they do ask adoptive parents these kinds of things , there are some themes that seem to emerge. One is that parents motivated by religiosity do use their faith as a way of coping with some of the maybe fear or uncertainty or challenges that they might encounter either before or after the adoption. So it sort of reinforces hope, I think for adoptive families. There’s also some themes about faith in God’s plan. So a lot of people were using that language.

Some going, as far as saying, you know, I feel like the adoption was a part of God’s plan or maybe just, I trust in God’s plan for my life that He has good things for me. And so even in the midst of difficulty, I can trust Him. So, so there’s that sort of theme. Probably another one is the social support angle of faith communities.

So both pre- and post-adoption, adoptive families talk about receiving a lot of support and care from, from their church communities. And then there was one set of studies that looked specifically at evangelical Christians and adoptive parents, and just talking about how they described a deepening of their faith and their understanding of different faith concepts.

And talked a lot about some of the adoption metaphors in scripture, in the Christian Bible and how those related to their own experience. So yeah, I guess in summary it was a range of things both providing hope, community , and then sometimes deepening faith. Again, just in the context of adoptive parents though.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Yes. So self-reports on the adoptive parents experience, but there’s definitely others involved, right? Like the the adoptee themselves. So

Dr. Emily Helder: yeah, yeah, yeah. They’re an important part of things. Yeah.

In thinking, I, you know, maybe we can both reflect on this, but I’m, you know, as you think about the research that you did take a look at to write this chapter and some of the data analysis you did. Do you do see some gaps in what is existing already in terms of research on this topic of religiosity and adoption.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Yeah. I was really surprised to find that religion isn’t necessarily, hasn’t been a focus of adoption research.

So I had all the literature I looked at it involved a lot of looking at income and education. It looked at infertility and whether the person had any biological children. It actually also looked at pregnancy loss or the death of a child as well. So those things were pretty consistently analyzed through all the literature.

It seemed like religion was almost an afterthought kind of like, “Oh, we’ll throw this in here, but I’m not necessarily putting a lot of thought into what measurement and what that, what measurement means.” So really pretty much all the research out there is , most of the research out there would, I would describe as looking at demographics.

And religion is one of those many demographics and is not necessarily even attended to in the literature review or even in the the explanations of the findings, the conclusions that much. So I really that surprised me because of the evangelical orphan care movement that that religion wouldn’t be something that people were interested in finding more about.

 In addition to that, Just thinking about the fact that many adoption agencies are faith-based, right. So they that that are associated with Lutheranism or being Lutheran or Catholic or and other, other religious groups. And so I was really surprised that with that aspect that, that no one really seemed to be curious about how much that plays a role.

But  I haven’t really seen that in the literature, and I really hope that in the future that it is included. So that we, when we are thinking about adoption and we recognize how the , how the evangelical orphan care movement talks about adoption and talks about our role in loving others and helping others, and actually makes those connections between adoption agencies and congregations that it could be something that could be happening in other religious groups, right. Or not. And I’ve been using the word religion, but as you know it’s both been religious religion and spirituality, right? So some people will refer to themselves as spiritual and having a spiritual community that’s not necessarily religious. But it seems like if those connections are happening on the ground, then we should kind of see what’s happening, like if they’re manifesting somewhere, is that, is that, is that is that the reason why there’s more people who identify as Protestant as the, the greatest portion of adoptive mothers?

Or is this something that if, if this evangelical orphan care movement is producing this, is this something that we could use to increase the numbers of adoption or even the opposite? How is this impacting the adoptees who are now being raised predominantly in Protestant home.

So I really hope that future research number one includes the questions when they’re collecting the data. And number two actually analyzes the information in very logical ways and ways that we can use it in the future.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah, I completely agree. I mean, there’s just such a lack of research about how, you know, the outcomes are for, for kids.

For example, it, you know, raised by families who have this religious motivation, we really have like kind of no idea. And there’s really ignoring of adult adoptees and their perspective on this. So there’s a lot of room for more study, I think. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Elisha Marr: That was actually going to ask you the same question.

What kind of gaps did you see in the literature?

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is the adoptee perspective. And I’m kind of planning a study coming up, looking at adult adoptees’ experiences and whether their family used sort of faith narratives or religious narratives to describe their adoption and what they thought about that as they grew up and how they make sense of that as an adult.

Is that something that makes sense to them now or not? We really don’t know. So I’m excited to kind of get that study off the ground. Yeah. Yeah,

Dr. Elisha Marr: I read about your work.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Thanks. 

As you’re thinking about some of the research that you read to write the chapter and some of your own data analysis that you did, I wonder what implications do you see for adoption agencies with that work?

Dr. Elisha Marr: So. When I mentioned that Protestants are the vast majority of adoptive mothers of adoptees. However, when we look at research that compares people who have considered adopting to those who’ve never considered; those who have taken steps to adopt compared to those who’ve considered; and those who’ve actually adopted compared to those who took steps but didn’t adopt, we see that that religion actually increases the person’s chance of considering and taking steps to adopt, but we don’t necessarily have concrete information on whether that actually translate into completing an adoption.

So there’s a chance based on the literature we have that,  that religious women, particularly Protestant women, will will be consider and take steps, but not necessarily go through with the adoption. And so for adoption agencies, this is their opportunity to say, okay, what, what is that factor that might be either having them decide not to adopt or decide maybe to go childless.

Or, and this is the other thing that we just don’t know, maybe they were going to adopt because they were struggling with infertility, but when they had a child, they didn’t go through with the adoption. So we should, we should probably get that information. So that way adoption agencies kind of know maybe the best ways that they can serve the needs of, of people who are religious and they’re making their interest to adopt possibly into actual adoptions. Right. The other thing is that ,  but when we think about adoptive parents I said that religion does not necessarily play a role in black mothers or Hispanic mothers, according to the literature and their interest in adoption and motivations to adopt.

And my theory is that maybe they have high levels  of religiosity already. So  that’s not necessarily the difference in and what increases their motivation to adopt, but we should at least examine that. Right. So that that bringing together, both the intersection of religion and race and how the impacts ideas about what adoption is and if it’s good or bad, and if it’s something that people can partake in. And then I, when I looked at the non-Hispanic white women, when I looked at that, them saying that religion increase their propensity adopt I also wondered with the number of faith based agencies out there, if there are certain groups, maybe racial, ethnic groups or maybe even social class groups that are either being discriminated against when they’re applying to adopt or that they have fewer adoption agencies that they even contact because based on based on religion, or a lack of a religious affiliation.

So that is something that we should also look at because rather than just saying, well, look at all these adoptive parents, most of them are Protestant. Protestants are the ones that like, you know are the ones that are most likely to adopt. Maybe they’re just the most able to adapt. Right? So and so th that’s something that adoption agencies. Would really benefit from having that information.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, interrogating that a little bit further. Yeah. Yeah. The other things I would add for the implications, at least for the part that I looked at with religious motivation and meaning making is that it is pretty clear that folks who are motivated by religious reasons to adopt are adopting kids who are older, who have special placement needs, you know, larger sibling groups, that kind of thing. And the agencies are looking to find you know, good homes that are a good match for those kids. You know, they can take advantage of that to some extent.

But at the same time, I would really love for faith-based agencies in particular to really have discussions with families who are expressing religious motivations and, and really sort of help them more deeply consider how those narratives that they have are how they’re impacting their parenting, what kind of messages they’re, they’re giving their children about adoption and its links or, or lack of links with faith.

Just so that they’re really appropriately nuanced. So that adoptees have an understanding from a young age that adoption is complicated. And, and to kind of avoid some of the more simplistic narratives. So  those would be kind of my, my pieces as well.

Dr. Elisha Marr: Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty neat how as a psychologist where you’re coming from, kind of talking to people and, and, and and, and getting that data, that’s more qualitative, more about people explaining about what’s going on.

And then I bring in the other side of looking at the more macro level national data, how they both compliment each other and both both actually point to very similar things that are needed for, not only the scholarship on adoption, but also for adoption agencies, adoption practitioners , adoptive families, adoptees, right?

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, definitely. I think we’re a good team. Well, thanks so much for taking some time to talk through what we wrote together. I am hopeful that it’s helpful for people as they’re processing our chapter. Dr. Elisha Marr: Yes. Thank you for interviewing me and thank you for working with me.

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