Season 1, Episode 21: Dr. Danielle Godon-Decoteau describes her research in the area of search and reunion with birth/first family among adult transracial adoptees. She begins by outlining the range of perspectives and thoughts that transracial adoptees have about searching and the factors, both macro and individual, that may impact an adoptees interest or lack of interest in searching. For adoptees pursuing searches, Dr. Godon-Decoteau identifies the variety of resources and approaches, highlighting the ways that the internet and DNA testing have impacted the search process. She then moves on to discuss the wide range of potential outcomes of the search process, highlighting the ways that search and reunion is more complicated than simple narratives often presented in the media. Dr. Godon-Decoteau ends by identifying coping strategies that adoptees use throughout the search process and underscores the importance of adoption-informed professionals who can support adoptees.
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Dr. Emily Helder: Hello. I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Danielle Godon-Decoteau and she’s a visiting lecturer at Mount Holyoke College in the psychology and education departments. Her research focuses on race, ethnicity, and culture, internalized racism, transracial adoption, and Asian-American mental health.
She, along with Dr. Patricia Ramsey, co-authored a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption entitled “Transracial adoptees: the rewards and challenges of searching for their birth parents.” So thanks so much for taking some time to talk with me about your work.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Thank you, Emily. I’m honored to be here.
Dr. Emily Helder: So with your chapter being about transracial adoption and the experience of search, I wondered if you could say a bit about how you became interested in that area of research and how that’s played out over time.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Yeah, so, so I am a Korean adoptee myself and I started grad school and had not a lot of interest in adoption until I took a class on it. And once I took that class I started thinking and having questions about my own adoption story. Thinking about my, my birth mom, my Korean mom as as a person and not kind of like this background figure that predated my actual life.
And so I think as that identity developed a bit my interests, my academic interest in searching developed as well as my personal interest as well. So there’s been a lot of connections there.
Dr. Emily Helder: Great. So your chapter focuses on talking through the research that examines experiences of transracial adoptees, especially as it relates to searching and perhaps establishing contact with birth or first family. And one of the themes that I really saw running through the whole chapter is that there’s quite a broad spectrum of desire and interest to search among transracial adoptees. And I wondered if you could give us a bit of a picture of the different perspectives along that spectrum.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Absolutely. So there is quite a big spectrum and I tend to think that we have a tendency to view searching as a spectrum that goes from like, no, I don’t want to search, maybe I have some interests, maybe I have more interests, to I really want to search and I’m going to conduct it. I think perhaps though a different way to think about it is not as a spectrum, that necessarily goes from low interest to high interest, but more so as, as multiple spectrums. One that has to do with motivators for a person to want to search, and one having motivators that would prompt the adoptee not to want to search.
So there’s situations in which there’s a lot of reasons the adopted person may not want a search. For example, I don’t want to hurt my adoptive parents, I don’t want to deal with the emotional turmoil that might come up from a search and at the same time, there could be very few good reasons to search.
So, you know, it’s not really like I have much of a connection to my birth culture, so why bother. So for these folks, I think they would be toward the lower end of the spectrum, like probably not going to search but that decision it has been examined. It’s somewhat clear in their desire to not search.
You also have folks kind of in the opposite scenario so there might be a lot of reasons motivating search interest. For example, I’ve always wondered if I have biological siblings or I wanna know my medical history and then not really any big reasons why they wouldn’t want to search either.
So for those folks, their interest is going to be higher and again that higher interest is clear. Where I think it gets more interesting is one where, when there’s somewhat of a dissonance between motivators to search and motivators not to search. So for some folks there might be no explicit reasons why they don’t want to search but there’s also not a lot of reasons to search either. So while these folks might also look kind of low in the search interest desire end of things it’s more from an indifferent attitude towards searching or an unexamined attitude versus the folks who have thought about it: there’s reasons to not search, there’s no reasons to search. So they’re more clear. I think where it gets really interesting and where a lot of folks might find themselves is when there’s ambivalence. So when there’s a lot of reasons why someone does not want to search, maybe they think, you know, I don’t have any good chances of ever finding my birth family or my first family. But then there’s also a lot of reasons why they still want to, for example, I want to know more about my story. I want to have some clarity on, on why I was relinquished. And so in terms of working with a therapist, or working with someone who’s supporting, it’s helpful to kind of consider those multiple aspects of it.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, that’s so helpful to frame that in that sort of approach avoidance, like both, both spectrums. Thank you. In thinking about the folks who do have that motivation to search that that aspect of it as a little bit stronger for them, your chapter also talks about both larger social cultural contexts in which that’s occurring as well as some more individual processes, which it sounds like you’re kind of starting to describe a little bit. And I wondered if you could say more about how some of those micro factors and macro factors might impact their search process and how even those might interact with each other.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Sure. Yeah, in the chapter we talk about Muller and Perry’s framework for thinking about search interest. So considering those socio-cultural norms, normative individual factors, and then what we call psychological factors. So in most cases the kind of glorification of biological connectedness and the way in which people in media tend to romanticize birth family searches. Those might motivate transracial adoptees to want to search at the same time for some adopted individuals, socio-cultural norms about family might also make them reluctant to search.
So for example, not wanting to play into the existing narrative or emphasized dissimilarity with their adoptive family. I think it’s really important to understand the motivations behind searching and not searching. So an adoptee may have similar attitudes towards search but for vastly different reasons.
In relation to individual factors, searching for birth family can be a way of understanding and really making meaning of one’s life, their self, and their identity. In addition to general identity development, I think when we’re talking about transracially adopted folks, racial and ethnic identity might be particularly relevant as well.
So a transracial adoptees’ experiences of growing up as a person of color in a white family and oftentimes white community may motivate again or de-motivate search interest. So for example, adoptees’ individual responses to racial isolation or not having a solid understanding of their birth culture, perhaps misplaced assumptions about their race and culture.
All of those things are reflections of both racial and ethnic identity and they’re also inherently connected to the larger socio-cultural context of race, ethnicity, and culture. Individual adoptees also have personal interests and social groups, which I think matter as well. So a transracial adoptee who has grown up in a diverse community with a racially and ethnically diverse friend group might feel differently about searching than someone whose support systems are predominantly white.
Given that searching for birth family can be seen in the context of like a larger search for identity I think exploration of birth culture and country could motivate search interests again or satiate them depending on the individual.
Dr. Emily Helder: Right. If we think about international adoptees in particular, you know, when they move into this pathway of deciding to search and getting started with that, I would think that there would be some additional barriers for them. And so I wondered if you could talk through what you’ve heard in terms of resources that are available or approaches that, where that’s been successful and especially thinking about how that might been changed recently with technology changes in the last, you know, 10, 15 years, especially.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Yeah. So, unfortunately to my knowledge there is not like a single clearing house of adoption search related resources, although that would be really cool. Regulations, technology, resources, all of that stuff is changing so constantly. That being said in the chapter we talk about some suggestions for folks who want to conduct a search, particularly internationally.
So as a first step, it makes sense to start with the adoption agencies, both the domestic one and the one abroad, so see what information is available. For some adoptees, a kind of pre-step to even that might be to have a conversation with their adoptive family on what information they have because there may be cases in which those conversations haven’t happened yet.
Homeland trips, those are accessible to both adult adopted folks, as well as adoptive parents who have young adopted children, or adolescent adopted kids. Homeland trips are usually with other folks who are adopted as well. And you can visit major cultural landmarks as well as have like more of a personal touch too. So maybe it’s visiting each person’s orphanage or abandonment location and reunification assistance, if that’s possible. I also want to mention there’s, particularly in the Korean adoptee community, quite a few grassroot adoptee founded and run nonprofit organizations that help with searches.
So GOAL, global overseas adoptees link, is an example for Korean adoptees. They do homeland trips amongst other things. They provide support for Korean adoptees who are searching for birth family, as well as post reunion support and then a whole wealth of other great resources, translation services, help obtaining dual citizenship, et cetera. To your, the part of your question about shifts more recently, I think it’s so interesting and so important because the internet, social media and DNA technology have changed the searching landscape in I would say significant ways. There’s a wealth of resources online. So people are finding relatives by Googling, by looking on Facebook, there’s also ways in which social media has connected adoptees with other adoptees who are at various different stages of their own search process who can help offer guidance. More recently, DNA has become a big thing. So home testing DNA kits, there’s an adoptee initiated and led nonprofit called 325KAMRA, whose mission is to reunite Korean families who have been separated by adoption and other things through DNA. This I would say is a huge breakthrough, because it makes reunion possible for adoptees who might not have had other options in the past because they were lacking solid records or whatever context made it difficult.
So that’s, I would say a real game changer.
Dr. Emily Helder: One of the things I really appreciated about the chapter is it helped add a lot of complexity to narratives about possible outcomes about searches.
So sometimes the way they’re portrayed in the media are just these such simplistic narratives. And so I wondered if you could say more about really the range of possible outcomes when there is “success” in the search in terms of establishing contact and reuniting, what is that range?
What kinds of things predict where people are going to fall on that range of outcomes?
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: So that range is vast, perhaps even infinite. I’m not familiar with a substantial literature base in terms of predictors of possible outcomes, although that would be a really interesting thing to study.
But, but I do think to your point in terms of like this huge range, searching and reunification is not necessarily a straightforward: look and you’ll find your first family and everyone lives happily ever after, the end. And oftentimes that’s the impression that people might have because that’s how adoption and search and reunification is talked about and portrayed in the media.
And so in our chapter, we were really trying to open people up to like, you know, there’s a whole realm of possibilities. I’m sure we’ll talk about it in a little bit, but for some adoptees search might not necessarily lead for reunification in the first place for various different reasons.
But if contact is established, then it might not look like how the person imagined it looking like. Maybe it’s the kind of teary warm embrace at the airport that you see videos of or maybe it’s sitting on zoom and emailing back and forth through translators. Something else to consider too is what are the expectations and the hopes on both sides? So is contact going to be a one-time thing? Or is it ongoing after the initial reunion? How much of a relationship do folks want and that relationship extends beyond just the adoptee and the first mother or the birth mother.
So if there’s reunification with a birth father there also may be siblings involved and adoptive family, too. When an adopted person has a child, is that child their first families’ grandchild? So what is the nature of the relationships? How often are we going to communicate?
And what are the expectations too, particularly for international adoptees, these expectations might vary by culture. And things come up, for example, like what happens if the first family asks for money? There are complicated situations in which the parties might have to negotiate travel, translators, logistical aspects, too.
So I guess, to summarize my long-winded thoughts about that, I would say there’s not a lot of research on it, but, but how prepared and open the person is in terms of potential outcomes probably plays a role in predicting how well the reunion goes. I’d also imagine that what happens at the reunion makes a difference as well. As in addition to alignment in expectations about what the relation looks like afterward, too. And again, for adoptees, those cultural expectations and barriers probably contribute to the outcomes.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, all that’s so helpful. There’s a couple things in there I’d love to pick up on. One is where you mentioned, you know, sometimes there can be a search and then for a variety of reasons, you know, they’re not able to establish contact, maybe lack of information or first family has passed away or, you know, even an unwillingness of first family to establish contact. And I’m wondering how you’ve seen adoptees cope with those experiences. What approaches seem most helpful in those circumstances?
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Yeah. So search attempts that don’t result in what the adoptee was hoping for can be really, really tough. And it happens and it happens quite frequently. So the likelihood of a quote unquote, successful search attempt, it depends on a lot of things like where the adoptee is from, how old they are, the circumstances around their relinquishment, and more. So it can be helpful to provide that context both before and during the search process for adopted folks.
I talked to a friend who is also an adoptee and works at one of the major adoption agencies and in addition to providing that context in terms of like sometimes searches don’t lead to reunification, he also said that it’s really important to provide validation. So you are not alone, knowing this and knowing that there are other adoptees in similar situations can sort of relieve like a psychological burden, he described it as, he also noted that some adoption agencies offer support, guidance, and processing for adoptees who search and are unable to establish contact.
Adoption agencies also might have good leads in terms of finding adoption focused therapists. Final point that I want to add on here too, is that sometimes I think it can be hard to tell if and when contact is unable to be established, especially with the social media context and advances in DNA technology, reunions that weren’t happening before are possible now. And also circumstances and people change. So first families who are initially unwilling to establish contact might change their mind. Other birth family members might decide that, you know, if mom doesn’t wanna establish contact, fine, I want to establish contact with my sibling.
And so reunification goes beyond the, the birth parents, it might look differently. I guess the take home point here is that things change and I say that partially as a hopeful thing, but also recognizing the reality that many adoptees may not be able to establish contact the way that they hoped or initially pictured.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and one of the things I’m sort of hearing from you now, and also picked up on in the chapter is that it’s really helpful to think about this search and contact and reunion as really not a one-time event just like adoption isn’t, you know, a one time event, and then done. It’s, you know, a lifelong process, a long-term experience. And so how do you see this whole navigation of search reunion experiences as more of a lifelong or developmental process.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Yeah, so meeting is not necessarily the end. It might be for some folks. But for others, it could be the beginning. So again it’s so important that adoptees have some idea of what they’re hoping a relationship may look like. And then again, openness that it might not look like that. As much as adoptees who conduct searches can prepare themselves for potential outcomes there’s a lot of unknown factors that they can’t control for, too. Like the hopes and expectations of their birth family. I think that once reunification is made relationships can build over time and be lifelong if that’s what everybody wants, or they may not. So regardless of whether the relationships themselves are lasting after contact and or reunion. I do think it’s significant that the adoptee has new information about their beginnings, new information about their first family, they also, if contact was made, have some experience of what that initial contact was like for them.
So, these things alone can be significant aspects, in terms of how adoptees are making sense of their, their narratives about their adoption and their life in general. And I think over time, these potential relationships or meanings about these relationships may change, especially as other significant life milestones happen.
So when adopted folks have decided that they want to start a family of their own when they are navigating intimate relationships, and also when loss occurs as an adult. I think we tend to talk about loss quite a bit when we’re thinking about adoption from a younger developmental perspective but as adoptees get older other losses occur in life. And so, making sense of that in the context of the earlier losses may come up.
Dr. Emily Helder: Right. Well, and that leads so well into what I wanted to ask you about next is I would imagine it’s so helpful for adoptees working through this process to have practitioners that, and supportive folks, who are, you know, adoption competent and your chapter, and really my favorite part of your chapter, was actually the advice to practitioners. Personally, as a practitioner, it was so helpful for me to really read through and think through some of the advice that you had there. But I wondered if you could say a bit more about, you know, why you think it would be so helpful for transracial adoptees who are even in the, considering a search or doing a search or even post-search, why having a practitioner who’s adoption competent would be helpful in that process?
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: I think the short answer to that is that practitioners who are not adoption informed are people who are subject to the same socio-cultural norms and assumptions that everyone is. Those norms about family, about biological connectedness, race and racism. Therefore, even the most well-intentioned clinicians may have stereotypes, because of all of the misconceptions about adoption that exist in the world. For example, a clinician may romanticize what search and contact could mean for the adopted person, or potentially pathologize the desire to search or not search, another way in which it could go is that a clinician might not think about or dismiss the role of adoption related experiences and feelings in the person’s life.
Or they may over-interpret the impact of adoption, too. So I guess I think the things that we were trying to really drive home in the chapter are one, be aware of the socio-cultural context that we are embedded in, particularly about racism for transracially adopted folks, as well as adoption and family in general.
And it’s helpful to facilitate conversations about this perhaps even with adopted family as well, understanding the role of the socio-cultural norms on search motivation could be particularly important. And then validating and normalizing search interest or lack of search interest or wherever the person falls, whether it’s somewhere in between, and encouraging adoptees to explore their own personal motivations.
Is it, are the motivations related to other social, emotional developmental needs or goals. So really kind of making sense of that, and understanding that interest may fluctuate over time. To my knowledge, I don’t think that there are any adoption informed therapies or competency credentials. That being said, I think that like to be quote unquote adoption informed is to have a balance of knowing that there is a literature out there that exists, and referencing that research to kind of have a frame or a starting place. But then it’s just as important, too, to understand that particular individual client and their specific contexts.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. That’s so helpful. Yeah. We have a couple other chapters in the Handbook for folks who are interested in adoption competency to kind of explore that a little bit more so that that’s a thread that we hope to pick up a little bit across the Handbook. Definitely.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: That’s so exciting.
Dr. Emily Helder: Well, thanks so much for spending a bit of time talking about your work. It’s so helpful, I think, understanding the adopted adults experience is really such a growing area and an important area of research. So I was glad to both talk with you about it and then also include the chapter in the Handbook.
So thank you so much.
Dr. Danielle Godon Decoteau: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.