Adoption fairs are speed dating for kids. Families need 'arranged marriages' instead.

Adoption fairs, where foster children and prospective parents mingle, are like 'speed dating.' They're ineffective and damaging. I would know, as I was adopted by parents I met at one of these fairs. States should instead use 'arranged marriages' to match children with well-prepared parents.

Singles everywhere are still faced with the arduous task of finding love. It’s a job many children up for adoption know well.

Potential adoptees often engage in their own pursuit of love, a speed dating of sorts called adoption fairs. At least 20 states run adoption fairs these days. Children available for adoption are brought together in a party-like atmosphere to mingle with would-be parents. The idea is to see if there is a mutual attraction. And like speed dating events everywhere, there’s usually an imbalance in attendees (sometimes the adoptees outnumber the prospective parents) and everyone wears nametags.

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Alas these fairs are not all fun and games. Adoption fairs are ineffective, set the wrong expectations, and are damaging to the children. They should be eliminated. Instead of speed dating, kids would be better off if states used “arranged marriages” to place them in homes with certified “professional parents” – parents ready to handle all the challenges and joys that adoption brings.

I would know.

My adoption fair experience

When I was ten years old in the early 80s, I participated in an adoption fair. My family of thirteen – two parents and eleven children – was dismantled when my youngest brother died of malnutrition. I became a ward of the state of California at the age of three. By the age of ten, I was a veteran of several foster homes and, with my options dwindling, was residing at a group home – a sort of juvenile hall with the décor of a dentist’s office – where they stick the “hard” cases.

Being Hispanic and older, my stock was depreciating fast, so my social worker lined me up with about 20 other kids at an adoption fair held at the Los Angeles Arboretum.

There among the trees and in full view of the Queen Anne Cottage, at the time also the backdrop for the popular television show, “Fantasy Island,” a carnival atmosphere was devised. There were popcorn, games of chance, and games of skill. Couples and families looking to adopt milled about. Ricardo Montalbán, the star of "Fantasy Island," was rumored to be making an appearance.

The goal of the fair was clear to me, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated; I was supposed to sell myself. I stood next to a tree and did my best to appear good.

For a while no one approached me, and I watched other kids attempt to entice the Adopters with strong throws or pretty smiles. The fair encouraged mixing by holding games of leapfrog and partnered up Adopters with foster kids. Finally realizing, similar to a game of musical chairs, that parents were being snatched up, I waded in and leap-frogged a woman while launching a charm offensive on her husband.

I was all good manners and lots of smiles. The husband was brown like me, so I stood close to him hoping he would see himself in me and she, being of a lighter hue, would see what she liked in him in me. We made small talk while I walked the fine line between being pleasing and being obsequious, being engaging and being obnoxious, being energetic and being frantic. We spent about 40 minutes together.

The couple called my social worker a few days later and expressed interest in adopting me. Technically I was given a choice about whether I wanted to accept them as a placement. I say technically, because it’s hardly a choice when your social worker is telling you to get with the program or you’re going back to the group home.

Before I knew it and before the adoption was finalized, as is typical, I was moved into their house. It was pretty clear early on that things weren’t going well. There were red flags. But much like when you move in with a boyfriend, breaking up becomes harder to do. Plus, in the immortal words of my social worker, this was “my last chance.”

Turns out I “chose” adoptive parents who were wholly incapable of handling a ten year-old stranger in their home, much less their lives. I was a child, but I had already had a whole history – one that didn’t square with their expectations for a cute young girl, but was more akin to a distrustful, jaded old maid. It was a choice for me that resulted in some very difficult years until I turned 18 and moved out.

Relationships take more than chemistry

Approximately 120,000 children in the US are adopted each year. Proponents of adoption fairs will argue that the fairs lead to adoptions. They do, but few states actually track the numbers, and where it has been tracked, the numbers are limited. In Massachusetts, according to Carol Yelverton, the public affairs director for the Department of Social Services, adoption fairs count for only 10 percent of her state’s adoptions. At least one state, Illinois, has done away with them altogether.

Adoption fairs also create shaky grounds for building relationships. The setting promotes matches based on chemistry. Chemistry, however, is not what makes a solid relationship over time and often can hide real defects in the relationship. Foster children don’t need to spark with someone. They need sustainable, realistic bases for building relationships. Yet the adoption fair setting forces children to understand dating concepts with which even adults struggle.

Likewise adoption fairs can give prospective parents the wrong idea about what they are getting into. There are a number of wonderful people, who have an abundance of love to give. But as is the case in any relationship, love is not enough, and many of these same people are wholly unprepared for the realities of the match they will be making at adoption fairs.

My adoption was not a rousing success, and I know that others are, but I still believe adoption fairs are damaging. For me it resulted in a dread of self-promotion of any kind as well as a belief for a long time that I would only be valued or loved by others if I did everything to make myself more marketable, e.g., get good grades, a good job, etc. While some might argue the adoption fair therefore had a positive effect and declare my life since foster care a triumph, I know better. That one day at the Los Angeles Arboretum has never left me, and the whole concept – being marketed in such a way – created havoc in, of all things, my love life.

Unfair expectations

I thought that day at the fair that I was choosing love. But what I was really forced to choose was a relationship, and I was too young to even understand what to demand for myself in one.

It seems most child welfare services don’t either. While it varies from state to state and agency to agency, to be eligible to adopt usually only requires a background check, a home study (where a social worker checks references and interviews prospective parents), and, in some states, a pre-adoption course. That’s it. While the process can often take time, there is not much to it. There is even financial assistance for those looking to adopt.

Further, given the large load that underfunded social workers must contend with, children are not monitored very closely after placement and often not at all after the adoption is finalized. While there are organizations that provide post-adoption support, attendance is not required, and ongoing education, unlike that for an accountant or lawyer, is not mandatory.

Relationships, of all kinds, are fraught with problems. And that fact itself is the problem: The fairs give participants the idea that they’re signing up for a love connection. That’s not the case – at least not at the outset. Love takes time, and in the case of foster children, it takes superior communication, clear boundaries, and a lot of empathy for the child. It takes a professional.

A better vetting process for adoption

That is why, in the high art of finding love, in the case of foster children, I propose arranged marriages. The child welfare service’s role should be to find those who want to be parents for the sake of being parents, not whom it ends up parenting. The government’s role then should be to qualify those parents above and beyond the current system, to in effect license “professional parents.”

These parents would be required to have a minimum of a college degree, extensive training in child development concepts, and receive ongoing education on the many emotional and physical issues with which foster children, through no fault of their own, have to contend. These professional parents would be matched with children based on their needs only and the matching would be done by the agency – not based on chemistry.

Admittedly, there is already a shortage of parents wanting to adopt and requiring additional vetting would possibly deter some. But that is the point. I am not saying that children are better off in group homes or foster care but that the realities of adoption are minimized by adoption fairs. And the result is unfair to both parties.

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Speed dating is not for children. Adoption fairs send both children and potential parents alike the wrong message and are particularly harmful to foster children who are already struggling with the message that they are not valuable. Foster children deserve to be matched with parents who are trained to love another human being under the most difficult of circumstances – loving them because they are human. Looking for love is a high stakes game, but it shouldn’t be one foster children are expected to play.

Alicia Morga is an entrepreneur and creator of the iPhone app, gottaFeeling. She is an expert blogger on leadership for, which named her one of the Most Influential Women in Technology. She has also been profiled in Inc. Magazine. Alicia holds a J.D. from Stanford Law School and a B.A. from Stanford University.

via The OpEd Project

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