Honesty, flexibility help dispel the adoption mystique

Adopting a child today is not what it was 20 years ago. Although some critics complain that adoption agencies are not keeping up with the times, pressure from adoptive parents and those wanting to adopt, a new generation of social workers, and emerging societal attitudes are opening the way to rapid and creative change.

"Today the majority of agencies want to screen people intom rather than out of the process, be more open and flexible, and consider all children adoptable," says Elizabeth S. Cole, director of the North American CEnter on Adoption in New York City. "For the most part, things are moving."

But cynthia Martin, a counselor from La jolla, Calif., and an adoptive mother , is a critic of the way some adoption agencies are run. In her recently published book, "Beating the Adoption Game," Dr. Martin claims that the institution "has not remained vital . . . it has lost touch with the people it needs. . . ."

She speaks out against adoption agencies that turn away potential adoptive parents for inconsequential reasonS. She decries the secrecy that she says surrounds adoption. Dr. Martin has heard "birth parents" complain about pressure and harshness in the adoption procedure. There is not enough financial help, and few counseling services. In short, Dr. Martin says, the AGencies wield too much power.

There are between 1,800 and 2,000 licensed adoption agencies in North America , according to Elizabth Cole. It is hard to track them all, but she estimates that though a small number of agencies are "grossly" behind the times, the majority are average in their progress.

"Then there is a small number of agencies who are on the cutting edge of new ideas," says Mrs. Cole. She senses major changes in the past ten years. For example, ten years ago only a small number of maverick agencies placed children with special needs, who were physically or mentally disabled, of mixed racial heritage, older, or had siblings that agencies didn't want to separate.

"Now the majority of agencies see that these children can be placed, and they are doing it," says Mrs. Cole.

Changes in adoption services are due in great part to pressure from clients, say adoption experts.

"In the '60s and '70s there was a consumer movement in which consumers began to play a role in social services," explains Mrs. Cole. "It has been a tremendous influence, and will continue to play a major role. I don't think we could ever go back to the same kind of service that was being given ten or 20 years ago."

Cynthia Martin is quick to agree that adoption agencies are not wicked forces out to humiliate a "birth mother" or the people who are searching for a child. She acknowledges that some agencies have progressive programs, and she says people who want to adopt should try to go through an agency.

But Dr. Martin is ready with a list of reforms. For example, she would like to see agencies build up adoption as an alternative to abortion. There are supports, both financial and social, for these young women, says Dr. Martin. But many local clinics that offer help to young women focus on abortion.

Most agency workers do not feel that abortion is being talked up any more than adoption as an alternative for unwed mothers. And most do not see agencies going out to make a hard sell for adoption. They say that their job is to present all the options to a woman impartially.

"The emphasis is on helping a woman make her own decision," says Mrs. Cole. She is troubled, though, by a recent report that says many pregnant women do not know where to go for counseling.

Roger Toogood, executive director of the Children's Home Society of Minnesota in St. Paul, says there could be better education about the new trends in adoption.

"We have changed to allow the mother some participation in the type of family her child is adopted by," he says. His agency will show a birth mother a file outlining the background of several potential families, listing whether they live in an urban our country setting, what kind of profession the parents are in , and such. The birth parent can then have some say in where her child is placed.

"It makes it more human," says Mr. Toogood.

Adoption agency critics say agencies should reevaluate the criteria they use in selecting an adoptive family. Dr. Martin lists instances where couples seeking to adopt a child have been blocked out of the system because the couple was too old, the wife had a career, or the husband had lived in a boy's home from the time he was 12 years old.

Judith Anderson, publications editor for the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC), is an adoptive mother in Minneapolis. She agrees that the adoption process can be hard.

"These are professionals, who are not always welltrained, making important decisions for other people's lives," says Mrs. Anderson. "It can be very intimidating when they ask such personal questions. You do play some games."

She notes a positive trend of agencies using adoptive parents more often as resources. NACAC works to get adoptive parents involved in agencies' home studies of potential adoptive families.

Elizabeth Cole suspects that screening people out of the adoption process occurs most often when a couple is looking for an infant. Since the supply is much smaller than the demand, many agencies want to cut down the large number of candidates to a manageable number. Mrs. Cole says agencies are wrong to screen out potential adoptive parents simply because they say they want an infant. They may not have heard about special needs children, and might consider adopting one of these children.

Agencies admit that past selection practices may have been somewhat arbitrary , but they see progress now. Screening families into the adoption system means focusing on an educational approach -- what kind of children are waiting, what parenting skills are needed, and what to expect with an adopted child as he or she grows up.

"There is also a greater focus on flexibility in the criteria we use to select families," says Roger Roogood. In the past, adoptive parents have had to own a home, have a separate bedroom for the child. Now many placements in his agency are to families in trailer homes and apartment buildings.

"The important thing is what kind of nuturing and loving an adoptive family can give," he says.

Adoption agencies have been accused of being too secretive. But today, say experts, the trend is moving toward openess and honesty. Mr. Toogood reports that if a birth parent wants an update on his or her offspring, his agency will allow them to keep posted. Adoptive parents can send in confidential summaries for birth parents to read, and birth parents can send information about themselves, if the adoptive parents would like to share it with their child.

Moreover, Minnesota has passed a law that allows a birth parent to sign an affidavit at any time stating it is fine if the child make contact when he reaches majority.

"About 30 percent of the birth parents say that they would like to be contacted," reports Mr. Toogood. "Some people want to records to be totally opened. This is a good comprimise."

Adoptive mother Judith Anderson says she has no prolem with an open-record policy and thinks there should be an avenue for children and birth parents to find out about each other.

"I'm not threatened," she says. "I parented my children, and that is a strong bond."

Even critics such as Dr. Martin agree that one area of creative progress in adoption has been in the placement of children with special needs.

"There are lots and lots of kids who are available for adoption," says Pat Montgomery of Family Builders, an adoption agency in Oakland, Calif. "I think families would have taken these children all along, but agencies didn't consider the children adoptable."

Mr. Toogood has seen a "fantastic" response for special needs children sparked by a local news feature in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that spotlights a different child each week. Recently 71 couples were interested in one disabled child.

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