Adoption parties: caring or cruel?
It's midmorning on a Saturday, and even though the Red Sox aren't in town, Boston's ballpark has a line stretching around the block.Skip to next paragraph
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Hundreds of kids swarm through the stands, stopping to get a balloon hat, trade cards, or play with the monkey one man is carrying.
They aren't after Nomar Garciaparra's autograph. They're here for something more important: a family. When Justin, a high-energy boy with a huge grin, is asked what he wants, he replies simply, "just a mom."
The event is an unusually large example of an "adoption party" - one of many methods agencies use to recruit families for older, abused, disabled, or otherwise hard-to-place kids. Agencies have thrown such parties for decades, but with a growing number of children up for adoption, both their number and the controversy surrounding them are increasing. Critics charge that such events, no matter how well-meaning, are little more than meat markets that lead to the merchandising of already vulnerable children.
But agencies in the 30 or so states that use adoption parties say that's a false perception, fueled by misunderstanding and sensationalized reports. They do everything possible to minimize the potential risks, they say. Children aren't put on display at the events; instead they mingle with the prospective families. In addition, their social workers prepare them beforehand to minimize feelings of possible rejection. Without such events, agencies say, they face the greater risk of never finding families and growing up in the foster-care system.
"There are differing views about how much risk [adoption parties] pose to the children in terms of psychological and emotional stress," says Peter Gibbs, director of the Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts. "On the other hand, we have around 130,000 people in need of permanent homes...."
Both critics and advocates of the parties agree about the need. Passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 has helped speed kids out of the foster-care system, but the number of kids needing permanent homes is still growing steadily. In 1999, the most recent data available from the Department of Health and Human Services, 581,000 children in the US were in foster care, 127,000 of whom were adoptable. Just 46,000 were adopted. The prognosis, according to Dr. Gibbs, isn't great for those who remain in the system. They're statistically more likely to drop out of school, be on welfare, or have unplanned pregnancies.
Critics and advocates also agree, for the most part, that adoption parties can connect children with families. But the two sides differ on whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
"It seems to me they're trying to successfully fix a problem by sacrificing children," says Kerri Houston, a policy analyst for the American Conservative Union who was adopted and who has called the parties "state-sanctioned child abuse." "How much more do you want to heap on these kids?"
Dixie Davis, president of the National Adoption Exchange Association and executive director of the Colorado-based Adoption Exchange, has a simple answer for such critics. "I ask: What do you think would be more effective? And will you get involved and help us do it?" She notes that parties aren't the only recruitment effort with potential risks to the kids.