As David Popenoe reports elsewhere in this issue, after long debate hardly anyone still denies that two-parent, married families are crucial for children. Certainly most Americans are alarmed at the greatly increased number of children (now almost one in three) born out of wedlock and living in single-parent homes—circumstances that put these children at high risk of living in poverty, dropping out of school, engaging in crime, and suffering substance abuse and emotional problems.
Concern for these broken families has helped drive several public policy debates, from welfare reform to the tax code. But one valuable way to attack these problems has been virtually ignored and is even in danger of extinction: adoption.
Adoption offers the opportunity of a stable family life to children who would not otherwise have that chance. By almost every conceivable measure, children growing up in two-parent adoptive families do as well as children raised in two-parent biological families—and significantly better than children growing up in single-parent or step-parent families. The largest study ever of adopted children—a 1994 Health and Human Services report, Growing Up Adopted—found that adolescents adopted as infants are far less likely than children raised by single parents to be involved in alcohol abuse, vandalism, group fighting, police trouble, weapons use, or theft. Indicators of school performance, social competency, optimism, and volunteerism for adopted children approach—and in some cases exceed—those of children raised in two-parent, biological families. Finally, adoptive parents on average have lower rates of divorce; so adoptees are more likely to receive the nurturing and love of the same two parents throughout their entire childhood.
Help for Mothers
While the benefits children receive from adoption make it worthy of legislators’ encouragement and society’s support, these are only half the story. Adoption works for birth mothers as well. Compared to women who choose to raise their children alone, mothers who plan adoption for their children are more likely to finish school and less likely to live in poverty or to receive public assistance. They delay marriage longer but are more likely to marry eventually. They are more likely to be employed 12 months after birth and less likely to repeat an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Finally, they are no more likely to suffer negative psychological consequences, such as depression, than are mothers who rear their children alone.
But despite these encouraging outcomes, adoption rates have plummeted over the past 30 years. Adoption as we traditionally think of it—the voluntary relinquishment of a child by a birth mother or birth parents—is in danger of utter extinction in the United States. For all never-married women under age 45, the proportion of birth mothers who relinquished for adoption fell from 8.75 percent in 1973 (the year the Supreme Court gave unmarried fathers the right to challenge adoptions) to 0.9 percent between 1989 and 1995. For black women in the same category, the decline was from an already meager 1.5 percent in 1973 to a number so low that it is statistically unmeasurable. For white women, voluntary adoption decisions dropped by over 1,000 percent—from 19.3 percent before 1973 to 1.7 percent between 1989 and 1995. Today, the adoption numbers of never-married white women under 45 look like the numbers for black women 30 years ago.
If these trends are not reversed, 30 years from now voluntary adoption could cease to exist in the United States, as it has for all practical purposes in Western Europe. Thousands of American children will never know the love and stability of a permanent family, and the already large number of children growing up in state foster care will surely increase.
These grim trends are not related to any shortage of couples wishing to adopt, as the skyrocketing number of adoptions of overseas and older children shows. In fact, there are far more couples seeking to adopt than there are children available for adoption.
Behind the Decline
If adoption has such good consequences for children and unwed mothers, why has it declined so precipitously? One reason, clearly, is that since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Lehr v. Robertson, the courts have given unmarried, uninvolved birth fathers the right to interfere with a woman’s adoption plan. In many states a father can veto an adoption even if he is unwilling to provide financial support, essentially forcing a woman to become a single mother.
There are several other important factors in the decline of adoption. One of the most significant is the greatly increased acceptance of single parenting, despite the challenges the life poses for many women and their children. Then there is the scarcity of accurate adoption information in schools and family planning settings, and the lack of philanthropic support for adoption, especially compared to support for abortion alternatives and single parenting. Inadequate and sometimes biased adoption research as well as sensational media stories about botched adoptions or “baby-selling” have undermined public confidence in adoption.
In addition, racialist practices that hinder interracial adoptions keep minority children trapped in foster care, despite the existence of many families happy to adopt a child of another race. Finally, there has been a slow erosion of our sense of adoption’s purpose: finding families for children who need them. Too often, adoption is perceived as finding children for families who want them.
What can the philanthropic sector do to ensure that adoption remains a viable option for women facing an unplanned pregnancy? First, get in the game. Very few foundations list adoption among the areas they fund. Those foundations that do so tend to focus exclusively on the hard cases of children in the public foster care system. Such a focus is good and necessary, but foster care children are only one part of the adoption picture. If traditional adoption of newborns is allowed to collapse in America, the experience of Western Europe suggests that the adoption of hard-to-place older children from the public system will not be far behind. Today, virtually all adoptions in Western Europe are of orphans from other countries—and even those are increasingly under attack.
What Philanthropy Can Do
There are three broad areas in which foundations could work to stem the erosion of adoption: legislative initiatives; the professional culture of social workers, including the colleges that train them; and the popular culture.
At the federal level, much has been accomplished over the past decade to promote and strengthen adoption. The Adoption Tax Credit made adoption more affordable for middle-class families willing to open their homes to a child in need. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) seeks to end the limbo that foster care has become for too many children by forcing social service agencies to find permanent placements in a timely fashion. Before ASFA, abusive parents could promise to clean up their act indefinitely as their children languished in foster care. Now ASFA has forced social workers and parents to move quickly to resolve the problems that forced state intervention—or else find the kids a permanent adoptive home. In addition, the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act and recent amendments to it seek to break down asinine race-restrictive policies that have kept so many black children out of loving adoptive homes.
Still, most adoption law is state law, not federal, and a great deal of work remains to be done. At both the state and federal level there must be a concerted effort to ensure that adoption laws remain child-centered. Again, adoption exists so that children in need can find families, not so that families who want them can find children. This seemingly innocent distinction has important ramifications for the ways adoption laws are drafted and adoption practices are sanctioned. If adoption is to continue, it must remain a social service that is focused on the best interests of the child and her mother and that provides adoptive families with the certainty and confidence to welcome a child unconditionally into their hearts.
In addition, state laws must allow for the option of confidential adoption while providing a mechanism by which individuals can voluntarily waive their privacy, such as the mutual consent registries that exist in a growing number of states. These registries need to be better publicized to increase their voluntary use and to help stop aggressive attempts to violate the privacy of birth mothers. Again, Western Europe provides a cautionary tale. After Great Britain ended the option of confidentiality for birth mothers, adoption effectively ceased to exist.
Much could also be done to change the professional culture of social service providers so that they better understand the facts of adoption themselves and better present adoption to their clients. Even among health care professionals—the first professionals to serve a pregnant woman—a number of myths and negative stereotypes persist. In Orientations of Pregnancy Counselors Towards Adoption, Edmund Mech found that 60 percent of pregnancy counselors never mentioned adoption to their clients. Of those counselors who did mention adoption, 40 percent gave inaccurate or negative information.
When the information was corrected, Mech and his researchers saw a nineteen-fold increase in the number of women who planned adoption. In truth, many social workers have an ideological bias against adoption, since they are trained to view “success” as either reuniting children with biological parents (whether or not those parents have proven themselves dangerously deficient) or as assisting a woman to be a better single parent. Philanthropists could help to educate both professionals and the popular culture by funding accurate adoption statistics and research—now terribly lacking—and also helping to publicize such research far more broadly.
Changing Minds and Hearts
Finally, there is a great deal that needs to be done to change the popular culture. On this score, there is reason for optimism. Polling consistently shows high support for adoption among the American public. But that support is tested every day by sensational media stories that portray adoption as risky or dangerous, and adoption myths that are reported as sound research by well-intentioned but uninformed reporters and producers. More rigorous adoption research needs to be funded in order to find out what works best for children and their mothers in the adoption process and what makes prospective adoptive parents feel secure enough to proceed with adoption.
Our modern adoption statutes grew out of the recognition that the best setting for children is not the orphanage or the almshouse but the family. The largest study ever undertaken of adopted adolescents concluded that “the bottom line is that most adopted children and teenagers succeed” and tend to do as well as their peers. But what matters most isn’t how adopted children fare compared to ordinary children—it is how an adopted child’s life compares to what his or her life would have been without adoption, which almost always means a childhood either in a struggling, one-parent family or in the grim foster care system.
By that standard, adoption isn’t an option producing equal results. It is a vastly more humane alternative that helps the most innocent Americans flourish. It is important to bring this truth home to every mother, legislator, social worker, and private citizen in the country.
Patrick Purtill is president of the National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C.