Q&A: Adam Pertman on the Truth About Adoption

Adam Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national nonprofit that is the preeminent research, policy, and education organization in its field. He is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America.

The Paperwork

When You Feel Like You're Shopping for a Child in a Catalog

Q. My husband and I are at the end of our home study process. We will be looking in books that profile adoptable children. Can you give any advice on how to get past the (I don't know how to describe it) feeling that we are shopping for a child in a kid catalog?

A. It's not wonderful that we have to photo-list kids in order to get them homes; in the ideal world, society would provide the support and resources necessary to do outreach and education in better ways. I won't focus on those for now, but will say that state and federal governments haven't stepped up to bat sufficiently to help these waiting kids, so we've got to use the most effective methods we've got. And the fact is, as imperfect as photo-listings may be, they can work very well when done thoughtfully and ethically. So, whatever our qualms about the system's imperfections, we need to keep our eyes on the ball: that is, kids deserve homes and this is one way they get them. We fall in love with people we see and meet, whether they are dates or spouses or children. Focus on what's important, fall in love, and revel in the joy you'll have. The rest is extraneous.

    How to Deal with Contact Agreements

    Q. I'd like to know how adoptive and birth families make contact arrangements work. What are the scenarios? What are some ground rules?

    A. Many states -- and many families -- have contact agreements. They appear to work well, getting people to keep their promises. Never think of them as coparenting. The child's parents are the ones who take care of her, tuck her in, and help her with her homework. But the biological parents -- and sometimes siblings -- are also real parts of that child's life. And, unless there's a tangible reason to prevent contact, both research and experience indicate that it's a good thing to all concerned. That said - the "rules" are that all parties agree to what works for them in their particular circumstances, with the understanding that life changes as it goes on. If they focus primarily on serving the best interests of the child, rather than their own, it's a good process that appears to work in practice.

      The Judgment

      What If You Get a Messed-Up Kid?

      Q. What would you say to someone who asks, "Why are you adopting a messed-up kid if you can still have your own?" I was asked that the other day, and I was too stunned to answer.

      A. The child you adopt will be "your own." Period. What happens if you give birth to a "messed-up" child (that's an awful description)? Do you give her back? Of course not. We love and care for and raise the children we get, however they come into our families. And the satisfaction of giving a permanent, loving home to a child who needs one is huge. If the ideal of ensuring that all children live in families is a good one -- and it surely is, supported by every shred of research, experience, and moral fabric -- then why should only infertile people do it? One of the wonders of the revolution I write about in my book is that, for the first time, people who can make babies are choosing to make children who need homes "their own" instead. This is history in the making, and it's great for waiting children.

        To Tell or Not to Tell the "World" That Your Child Is Adopted

        Q. We adopted our daughter at birth and we shared the news with our neighbors. But after getting impertinent questions from some of them, we decided not to tell the new people we would meet about the adoption. Now that my daughter in school, I worry that someone who knows about her adoption and is in the PTA will tell others about it. What do I do? My daughter knows she is adopted and has not asked any questions yet.

        A. This is complicated. Of course your daughter is your daughter is your daughter. And everyone should recognize and respect that, regardless of how your family was formed. But keeping her adoption secret from people presents its own issues.

        Won't those people who know about the adoption think you've got something to hide (we keep secrets about things we're ashamed of or embarrassed about, right)? Can educators and others who might have a need to know (for instance, please see the Adoption Institute's new report on Adoption in the Schools on our Web site, www.adoptioninstitute.org) get information if we won't talk about a subject? And, most important, do you really want your daughter to find out (as she will one day) that you've been keeping something basic about her secret? We should be proud of our kids and our families. Period. Secrets don't convey pride.

        What your experiences tell me is that your neighbors and friends need educating; that's a big part of the Adoption Institute's mission, and we'll keep doing it and we'll keep making progress. But members of the adoption community need to be a visible part of the solution or we'll just keep perpetuating adoption as a closeted practice. It's fine that people know our kids are adopted, as long as they also understand our families are just as whole and real and loving as any other. Different isn't better or worse, it's just different.

        That's my two cents. Ultimately, what you do for your child and family is your personal decision. I wish you well.

          When Adoption Is Second Best

          Q. Did you ever reject the idea of adoption at first? I have a dear friend who has been trying to have a child for several years now, but when I mentioned adoption she said it is not an option for her. Did you at first feel this way, but perhaps later change your feelings? What made you change?

          A. I think it's an unfortunate reality that adoption is still too often considered second best. Alas. Almost anyone who has adopted (or was adopted) will tell you otherwise; it may often be second choice, but that's a different issue; in choosing many things in our lives -- picking a new doctor, for instance -- our first choices aren't necessarily on the mark.

          What we know from generations of adoption is that our families are just as whole, just as loving, just as fulfilling as any other. But the generations of secrecy that shrouded this institution prevented too many people from learning that basic truth. The good news is that it's genuinely changing, and that's a good thing for all the millions of people touched by adoption -- especially for the children, who have every right to expect to live in first-rate homes. A simplistic question for your reluctant friend (who should ultimately do whatever she's comfortable with): Does she want to have a child, or to be pregnant? Best wishes.

            The Risks

            Contact with Birth Relatives

            Q. We got our son as a foster child when he was 2 days old. His biological parents signed a voluntary termination when he was 6 months old, at which point the child's great aunt stepped up and said that she wanted him. (This aunt has our son's two siblings that are 1 and 2 years older than him.) My husband and I were granted the child, and we told the aunt that we wanted to maintain some sort of contact with them, but for fear we have not done so. My son is now 10 months old. Is it wrong of me to only suggest contact via mail or e-mail right now? Help!

            A. Contact with birth relatives can be intimidating and even scary. But unless there's some reason to think the child will be somehow jeopardized, it's usually the right thing to do. Complex families aren't unique to adoption; there are lots of families with stepsisters and half-brothers and remarried parents and on and on. We don't tell the kids they can't know their own siblings or other relatives.

            What we know from the research and decades of experience is that children (and parents like you) generally benefit from greater contact and ongoing information, even if visits and explanations get a little complicated. You'll one day have to explain why you didn't allow contact, too, right? That's at least as difficult a task. I deal a good bit with this issue in my book, so I recommend it to you. There's also good information available about the issues involved in making and maintaining contact with birth families, both in books and libraries (or the Internet). We teach our children that the truth is usually the best thing, even if it's sometimes difficult; that's a good lesson for all of us to internalize.

              When Adoption Doors Are Shut Because You're Single

              Q. How can I help my friend who has been trying to adopt a baby for quite a while? Recently, she realized her agency just wants her to adopt an older child. My friend is a single woman, divorced not long ago.

              A. Our desire to have babies is pretty powerful, isn't it? I can offer lots of answers to your questions, but they boil down to these:

                1. Your friend should expand her process to include other countries if she wants to improve her chances.
                2. If she doesn't feel well-served by her agency, she should consider going to another.
                3. It would be good for her to give some serious thought to which she wants more: to have an infant or risk not becoming a mother at all, because it's increasingly difficult for anyone to adopt babies, while there are a lot of older kids (some still young, but not infants) who are available who really need loving parents. This isn't an easy decision, but learning more about older-child placement may be worthwhile in case that's the route she ultimately decides to travel.

                  Related Links