International adoption has come under fire in recent years, resulting in a decline in the number of American families who adopt internationally. If a child dies while in the care of his or her adoptive family, or, as in one case, a family gives up and puts a child on a plane back to the child's country of origin, it's a newsworthy tragedy. But the bigger tragedy is the extent to which these rare cases lead to policies which discourage and reduce opportunities for international adoption.
Psychology professor and adoptive parent Rebecca Compton examines the research on international and transracial adoption and draws conclusions about adoption policies in her new book Adoption Beyond Borders: How International Adoption Benefits Children. Her subtitle is a big spoiler for the book. On the question of whether international adoption is good for kids, she says YES! (with all caps and lots of exclamation points).
The benefits to children are no surprise to adoptive parents and others who favor adoption. Compton doesn't stop with anecdotes and emotion; she surveys academic studies and finds consensus to agree with her "Yes!" There will always be anecdotes, such as the ones mentioned above, or allegations about baby selling or human trafficking. The real story is that adopted children are abused less frequently than non-adoptive children. In fact, something that seems obvious to point out, adoptive children are in many ways better off, as adoptive parents have to go through extensive screening, they tend to have higher incomes, more education, and are older than typical first-time parents.
Perhaps the most important policy point Compton makes is an argument in favor of earlier placement. Due to bureaucracy, political considerations, and some (somewhat) justifiable logistical and practical considerations, even a smooth, early adoption will often be preceded with a child spending long months and, usually, years in an institutional setting before going home with the adoptive family. In some cases, a match is made, the adoption is complete, but families are prevented from taking home their child because of red tape, visa requirements, or other barriers. When placement is delayed, "significant disruptions in postnatal caregiving" in institutions leave children with bonding and attachment issues, which get more pronounced the older the child is when finally placed.
I was particularly intrigued by Compton's objection to the common distinction between "biological" versus "adoptive" parent. She writes, "labeling the birth mother as the 'biological' mother primes the belief that the birth mother is the 'natural' mother and therefore the 'good' mother, with the implication that the adoptive mother is none of these." She argues that while there are obvious "biological mechanisms that serve to bond an infant and its birth mother," there are also "mechanisms that allow for bonding between unrelated parents and children." Again, this is no surprise to adoptive parents, but her biological and scientific description of this process of bonding is interesting and affirming. I think I'll stop using the "biological mother" distinction. (I'm thinking "birth mother" might be better. . . .)
Compton concludes that "research reviewed in this book overwhelmingly affirms the conclusion that international adoption benefits children." Her biggest policy recommendation is in favor of "placing children in family settings as early in life as possible to minimize the well-established effects of psychological deprivation." Further, she recommends putting the welfare of the children before concerns about nationalistic or ethnic identity, which sometimes causes unnecessary delays in placement. The sooner bureaucratic barriers can be overcome in order to begin attachment with the adoptive parent, the better.
Every child who remains in an orphanage, or who bounces around foster homes without a permanent place to call home, is one more child who will, statistically speaking, have a much harder adult life. I welcome Compton's affirmation of international adoption and her recommendations for improving the process for the benefit of the children. And that benefit should be foremost in the minds of those who are in control of the legal and political process.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for the complimentary electronic review copy!
2016 Reading Challenge: A book about adoption