With seemingly ceaseless regularity nowadays, most recently in the coverage of Steve Jobs' passing, we are inundated by conflicting messages relating to adoption.
For the next few weeks, the wonder of adoption will be on display. November is National Adoption Awareness Month, so media outlets nationwide will be -- and should be -- writing stories about children whose lives are improved as a result of moving from foster care into permanent, loving families. President Obama will even issue a proclamation, as he and his predecessors have done routinely in past years, saying something to the effect that our country is blessed by this extraordinary institution.
At other times, of course, a very different picture is transmitted. Sometimes the focus is on adoptive parents who seem to regard adoption as child rental (remember the mother who "returned" her son to Russia?) or ones who purportedly use the child welfare system as a means of getting monthly support payments; the most sensational case took place several years ago in New Jersey, where a couple allegedly starved their four adopted sons in order to retain more of their state subsidies.
Press accounts cast an appropriately suspicious eye on parents who commit such horrid acts but, all too often, they also raise broader concerns about the competence and motives of adoptive parents per se; in particular, they implicitly or explicitly suggest that people may adopt children for dubious reasons or even that adoption itself is somehow a less-legitimate or less-desirable means of building a family than is childbirth. In the coverage of Jobs, for instance, we're regularly seeing and reading reports that question his being "given away" by his "real parents" -- language that hardly affirms adoption as a positive option.
So which is it? Lucky kids or kids relegated to second-class families? Good people trying to do the right thing for their children, either by placing their children for adoption or adopting them, or desperate people with suspect motives? What are we to think when we receive such disparate impressions, not just today, but time after time when there's a high-profile story involving adoption? Or even when adoption is depicted in either very positive ways ("Modern Family") or chillingly negative ways ("Orphan") in the movies and on television?
Based on available research and extensive experience, two unambiguous images emerge: that most adoptive parents are doing the same things as most biological parents -- that is, providing their children with all the affection and care they humanly can; and that, with rare exceptions, boys and girls are far better off in permanent families than in foster care, orphanages or any other temporary or institutional setting.
But adoption's history of secrecy has afforded us with too few opportunities to learn about its realities. So we tend to assume we're learning far more from singular, usually aberrational experiences -- man bites dog is a story, after all, while dog bites man is not -- than we usually are.
Yes, financial payments intended to increase the number of adoptions from foster care can cause complications, but that's the clear exception. And, yes, families sometimes struggle as a result of the challenges their children face as a consequence of having been mistreated and/or institutionalized before they were adopted. But there is no indication that horrors such as the ones that typically make the news are being repeated with any regularity elsewhere, even though many thousands of parents throughout the country receive state subsidies -- and even though the number of children being adopted from foster care is at historic highs.
Moreover, even in the most troubled systems, good things are happening daily. Most children are being reunited with newly healthy mothers, fathers and other biological relatives, while a fast-growing number of kids -- over 52,000 last year alone and over 57,000 the year before that -- are being adopted by loving parents who treat them well. The same is true for the hundreds of thousands of girls and boys who have been adopted from orphanages abroad over the last couple of decades.
It's hard to learn much from secrets, so we as a culture don't yet know enough about adoptions from foster care and institutions to put the aberrational stories in perspective. That's changing, to be sure; organizations such as the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I'm proud to lead, are providing more and better research and knowledge - please take a look at www.adoptioninstitute.org to read our most recent work - and, partly as a result, the media are doing a better and better job of informing the public, policy-makers and others who profoundly affect the tens of millions of children and families for whom adoption and foster care are daily realities.
Even as we make progress, however, the still-widespread lack of knowledge has tangible, negative consequences that play out in the attitudes all these people encounter and the policies that impact their lives.
I am not defending any system that does less than everything possible to protect the children within it. But we live in a society in which nearly every program that helps vulnerable children receives insufficient resources; in which well-intentioned quick fixes replace (rather than augment) thoughtful, long-term solutions such as post-adoption services; and in which cases like the ones I've cited above fuel our worst stereotypes about adoptive parents, birth parents, their children, and adoption itself.
A positive and fair question for the media to ask (but I haven't yet heard it asked) would be something like this: Would the world have had Steve Jobs without adoption?
During National Adoption Awareness Month, states across the country will celebrate by holding public ceremonies at which hundreds upon hundreds of children will receive the opportunity to move into permanent, loving and successful families.
I'd like to suggest it's also a good time for all of us to start learning more about adoption, foster care and institutionalization (orphanages), because the problems will be fixed more rapidly if faulty stereotypes are replaced by genuine understandings. And the ultimate beneficiaries will be the hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, in our own country and others, who will still need homes long after we turn another page on our calendars.