A Mother's Day gift for America: support services for adoptive families

While we've made big progress in placing kids in adoptive families, we've done little to provide post-adoption support to these children and their families. When we don't provide such services, we guarantee that some families will dissolve, at great cost to children, parents, and taxpayers.

Child welfare professionals have become increasingly proficient at finding enduring, loving homes for children who need them. Adoptions from foster care have soared during the last couple of decades, to about 58,000 last year alone. The increase of children adopted into the US from abroad skyrocketed during the same period, roughly tripling to over 20,000 annually before a decline began in 2005.

While we have made significant progress in the realm of child placement, however, we have done embarrassingly little in an area that virtually every mental-health and child-welfare professional agrees is of nearly equal or even greater importance: providing post-adoption services and supports that would greatly enhance the prospects for these children and families to succeed.

Adoption professionals and policymakers have learned enormous amounts about how to find families for children. They often do it imperfectly and with too much bureaucracy, or with too much attention to financial gain, or with too little understanding of or regard for the consequences of allowing young, vulnerable human beings to linger in institutions or in temporary care.

The question of how we can find a family for every child who needs one – through reunification, domestic adoption, and other models – is a vital one, and we need to keep getting better at it. And the question of how we can resuscitate intercountry adoption is not only vital; it is urgent.

Thanks to a growth in good research and improved policies and practices, however, adoption professionals and policymakers are getting better at it – even for children who are older, who suffer from disabilities, or who have other special needs. Indeed, I’m confident that when we get to the day that budgets and international treaties and government regulations allow us to do so, we will move even greater numbers of children into the arms of parents who will work mightily to nurture them and help them thrive.

The cost of not supporting families post-adoption

Studies are unambiguous about the multiple, complex deleterious effects on children of institutionalization (orphanages), especially for prolonged times. Research is equally clear about the negative impact on children of temporary living situations (foster care), especially when they are shuttled from one home to another for extended periods. In other words, many of the boys and girls for whom we have gotten so proficient at finding new families need mental health professionals, educational supports, and other help in order to heal. And, because love does not in fact conquer all, their new families need resources and services to enable them to help their children.

When state and federal governments do not provide such assistance, they guarantee that some of these families will dissolve, while others will be relegated to lives of constant struggle, marital discord, sibling distress, school problems, unnerving trauma, and, sometimes, violence. It’s a tough message to hear at this time of strained budgets, but the simple fact is that the human toll of not providing supports – or of cutting them, as many states are doing today – is incalculable.

And the financial repercussions are huge as well, since taxpayers are saddled with enormous costs when children are thrust back into the foster care system, wind up on the streets, are incarcerated, and so on.

A new report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute – entitled “Keeping the Promise” – provides the most thorough examination to date of post-adoption services, which ones seem most promising, and what good they can do. The good news out of the research is that most children adopted from foster care – where they are nearly always placed because of abuse or neglect – or from institutions (orphanages) make big strides after moving into families, and most of those families do very well.

Unfortunately, those positive conclusions do not apply to a sizable minority of children and families – and, unless we address their needs, we simply cannot claim that adoption has achieved its desired outcome.

We need to rethink what adoption means

What I am suggesting is nothing less than a paradigm shift, a rethinking of what we understand adoption to be. If we continue to believe it is just the placement of a child into a permanent family, then we can keep doing what we’re doing and erroneously declare victory.

But if we believe we make an implicit promise to children when we remove them from their original families; if we believe we make an implicit promise to them when we fly them to a new home in a foreign land, then we need to understand adoption to be more than just about child placement. And that necessarily means providing the services and resources that will enable children, and their new families, to succeed for the long-term.

Adam Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and the author of “Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families – and America.”

The Adoption Institute, in partnership with numerous other child welfare organizations, will hold a briefing and press conference on post-adoption services Tuesday, May 10, on Capitol Hill in Washington. For more information, please email

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