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.

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.

The less controversial practice of putting a child's photo on TV or the Internet, for example, can also be delicate, especially if the child's classmates see it.

For Sue Minichiello, communications director for the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE), which sponsored the event at Fenway ballpark, the bottom line is that the parties work. But she stops short of saying she'd do anything to find adoptive families.

She cringes, for instance, at the mention of a now-notorious adoption party held several years ago in Tennessee, at which children put on a fashion show for potential families and shoppers in a mall. "We never would have done that."

MARE, a private, nonprofit agency that works with the state, sponsors four to six adoption parties each year. At every one, she says, the children attend voluntarily and have clear expectations, which don't include finding a family that day.

The success varies. This year, MARE, which has 300 to 400 kids registered at any one time, has placed 37 kids as a result of adoption parties, not including the Fenway event. In 1996, just six placements were attributed to parties.

And one adoption expert says that, in his experience, the benefits were minimal, at best. "In the two years [we'd had adoption fairs], there may have been a couple hundred kids at the fairs, maybe more. I think 11 kids were adopted," says Patrick Murphy, a public guardian in Illinois' Cook County who helped convince local agencies to stop holding them several years ago.

Still, MARE staff say that beyond making matches, the parties raise awareness. More than half the families at Fenway, Minichiello says, are only beginning to consider the idea of adoption, and may still be under the misperception that it is expensive or that potential parents need to be married or have a certain income.

At the Fenway event, the 180 children looking for permanent homes play with friends and take a swing from home plate. Some 500 families flip through a photo book that tells them David loves being outdoors, Taneal wants to be placed with her brother and sister, and Miguel would do well in a consistent, loving home. In addition to a social worker, each child is accompanied by a volunteer, who shadows the child all day for his or her safety.

Many parents here agree that the party is helpful. Glenn Peloquin, a soft-spoken man from Bellingham, Mass., says he and his wife, Sandy, went through the orientation and study necessary to adopt several years ago. Originally interested only in a younger child, he and Sandy decided to come to the event, even though it targeted older children. Now, he can't tear his wife away from a 14-year-old girl he says she's fallen in love with. "She's a nice kid. Smart, too. We're going to look into it."

For Luis Carmody, one of the hundreds of volunteers, watching the kids brings back memories of his own experience waiting for a family. "It breaks my heart to see so many kids in the [foster] care system," he says.

Mr. Carmody, now an eloquent, confident junior at Curry College in Milton, Mass., spent six or seven years in foster care before being adopted at age 12. "It was horrible," he says. "Unless you've been through it or you're a foster parent, you have no idea." The young boy Carmody is shadowing today, and with whom he's clearly struck up a friendship, has already spent three years in the system. Carmody shakes his head. "Three years is way too long. Three months is way too long."

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