Cover Story

Adoption is redefining the American family: International and transracial adoptions are speeding up the nation's diversity by creating more multicultural families and communities. And as more same-sex couples and single parents adopt, and more grandparents adopt their grandchildren following parental abuse or neglect, the 21st century American family has many looks and meanings, notes journalist Adam Pertman in his best seller "Adoption Nation: How The Adoption Revolution is Transforming America" (Basic Books, 2001).

In addition, adoption itself has changed over the last 20 years, experts say. Due to policy changes in many states, adoptions tend to be much more open than in years past, when adoption records were sealed and adopted children couldn't access their personal histories. Many adopted children have contact with their biological parents-or "birth-parents." In the case of many kinship or foster-care adoptions, they may also see members of their own extended family.

The increasingly diverse adoption population, and these changes in adoption policy and practice, are spurring the need for more research, say psychologists who study adoption. For starters, says longtime adoption researcher Harold Grotevant, PhD, of the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota (UM), researchers should be studying how to help children navigate their membership in multiple families and cultures. Research is also lacking on such issues as how adults adopted as children cope with issues of identity and loss, or with emotions that emerge when they start a family.

What's more, few practitioners specialize or receive graduate training in helping clients navigate these and related issues, such as the emotions that can accompany the decision to search out a biological mother. Those who do specialize in adoption or in disorders that may accompany international adoptions, such as attachment disorders, are likely to live in metropolitan areas and may be inaccessible to families in rural areas.

"More and more, people in small towns are adopting," says Cheryl Rampage, PhD, of the Family Institute at Northwestern University. "The factors that lead to adoption happen across the spectrum and geography of the country."

Research strides

Among those striving to fill the adoption research gaps is UM associate professor of psychology Richard Lee, PhD, who participates in the university's multidisciplinary International Adoption Project, a large-scale survey of Minnesota parents who adopted internationally between 1990 and 1998. In the project, led by developmental psychologist Megan Gunnar, PhD, UM researchers surveyed more than 2,500 parents about their children's health, development and adjustment. They also asked participants whether their employers offered leave for the adoption, how their kids have fared academically and how they managed adoption costs, among other topics.

Lee, a second-generation Korean American, says his personal friendships with many in the Korean-American adoption community spurred his interest in this overlooked segment of the Asian American population. He's using the data to explore cultural socialization practices in families who have adopted internationally. Some adoptive parents expose their children to their birth culture by sending them to language classes and culture camps or setting up playdates with other internationally adopted children. They may also make a conscious effort to talk with their child about racism and discrimination. But what's not known, Lee maintains, is how these efforts affect their children's well-being or cultural or ethnic identity, or provide a buffer against racism or discrimination as they grow older.

"We presume that if parents socialize kids in a certain way, those outcomes will be protective factors," says Lee. "But there is actually very little research on that."

Grotevant, also of UM, heads a separate longitudinal study, the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project, on how openness in adoption affects the adopted child and members of the "adoptive kinship network," which includes the child, the extended adoptive family and the extended birth family. Among the salient findings of the first two waves of his study-conducted when the children were between 4 and 12 years old and 12 and 20 years old-is that, within the group of families having some birth-parent contact, higher degrees of collaboration and communication between the child's adoptive parents and birth-mothers were linked to better adjustment in the children during middle childhood. Grotevant is now gathering a third wave of data as the children-now in their 20s-become adults. He's looking at how they transition from school to work, how they have fared academically, their identity and interpersonal relationships, and if they are searching for or have contact with their birth-mother.

"We know from the research literature that many adopted children are in their 20s and 30s when they begin to seek information about their birth-relatives," says Grotevant. He's also asking the young adults what advice they have for people considering adoption, which he hopes-along with the rest of his findings-can be used to inform adoption practice and policy.

Like Grotevant, Rutgers University psychologist David Brodzinsky, PhD, is hoping his findings from a national survey of adoption agency opportunities for gay and lesbian adoptive parents can guide future policy on adoption. The study, conducted in 2003 through the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, showed that 60 percent of the agencies he surveyed were willing to accept applications from gay men and lesbians, but less then 39 percent had made such placements. Only 18 to 19 percent actively recruited adoptive parents in the gay and lesbian community, he notes.

"The trend has been for supporting gay and lesbian adoption-most states do, but a few ban it or have barriers that make it difficult," says Brodzinsky, a senior fellow at the institute.

Serving families

The majority of adoptive parents turn to adoption agencies-or social work or adoption support groups-for postadoption counseling or services, but a handful of psychologists are also serving the adoption community. Take, for example, Martha Henry, PhD, of the Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. As director of education and training there, Henry teaches an eight-week adoption course to medical students each semester that covers such topics as how to work with adoptive and foster-care families and to discuss adoption with couples facing infertility.

When she's not teaching medical students, Henry educates elementary school teachers on ways to keep their classrooms comfortable for children who were adopted or are in the foster-care system.

"Lots of classroom assignments are based on that perfect family model with two parents, a child, a dog and a picket fence," she says, such as asking children to bring in baby pictures to teach about change. That kind of activity is inappropriate if a class includes an adopted child, adds Henry.

"There are other ways to do the same lesson with something that doesn't put a child in a situation of having to say, 'I don't have a picture from when I was a baby,'" says Henry.

Likewise, psychologist Amanda Baden, PhD, a Chinese-American who was adopted from Hong Kong, teaches a course on adoption issues-which she believes is unique in any psychology training program-as part of a master's-level counseling program at Montclair State University in New Jersey. In it, she covers many of the issues she sees in her part-time practice working with families and individuals who are part of transracial adoptions. Many of her clients struggle with such issues as whether to search for their birth-mothers and how to manage conflicts between their birth culture and race and their adopted culture and race.

Cheryl Rampage sees many of these same issues in the Northwestern University Family Institute's Adoptive Families Program, which offers counseling and psychotherapy to adoptive families and school outreach programs that train teachers on adoption sensitivity. The program also hosts the Adoption Club, a biweekly support group for local adopted 7 to 11 year olds. The club is geared to preteens because in these years, "for the first time, loss becomes a real issue," she says. Preschool-age adopted children tend to talk about their being adopted matter-of-factly, but at 7 or 8 these same children start to feel scared and sad when they think of this other family they lost, says Rampage.

Through the club, children draw family pictures, play games and write stories or perform plays about adoption.

According to Baden, the adoption community could benefit if more psychologists specialized in adoption issues like Henry and Rampage do.

"Psychologists often think adoption is social work's domain," she says. "Psychologists have a tremendous amount to offer....Adoption and the issues associated with it have moved beyond the domains of case management and adoption placements. It's time for psychologists to use their skills to develop treatment protocols and counseling process research."

Further Reading

The 4th Biennial Conference on Adoption will be held at St. John's University in New York City, Oct. 13–14, 2006. The meeting will include workshops, speakers and programs on adoption that are geared to teachers, mental health professionals and families. For more information, contact conference organizers Amanda Baden, PhD, and Rafael Javier, PhD, via e-mail.

In addition, the Second International Conference on Adoption Research will be held July 17–21, 2006 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. For more information, visit the conference Web site at www.icar2.org.uk.