12/14/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

A New Chapter in Adoption History: For Millions of People, the Internet is Changing... Everything

It's hard to describe the extent to which the Internet is changing the everyday realities of adoption -- and the lives of the millions of people it encompasses -- without using words that sound hyperbolic. But a yearlong examination of the effects of this very new technology on a very old social institution shows that they are systemic, profound, complex and permanent.

Social media, search engines, blogs, chat rooms, photo-listings and an array of other modern communications tools, all facilitated by the Internet, are transforming adoption practices, challenging laws and policies, providing unprecedented opportunities and resources, and raising critical ethical, legal and procedural issues about which professionals, legislators and the personally affected parties have little reliable information, research or experience to guide them.

A groundbreaking new report by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I have the honor to lead, lays out the profound changes that are occurring, explains their consequences, and offers recommendations on how to meet the challenges they present. Among the findings in the 70-page report, "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption," are:

• "A growing commodification" of adoption and a shift away from the perspective that its primary purpose is to find families for children. This is particularly the case in domestic infant adoption, where a scarcity of babies available to be adopted heightens competition. Unregulated websites compete with traditional practitioners, sometimes by making claims and utilizing practices that raise serious ethical and legal concerns.

• Finding birth relatives is becoming increasingly easy and commonplace, with significant institutional and personal implications, including the likely end of the era of "closed" adoption and a growth in relationships between adoptive families and families of origin.

• An indeterminable but growing number of minor adopted children are contacting and forming relationships with biological siblings, parents and other relatives, sometimes without their adoptive parents' knowledge and usually without guidance or preparation about the complex emotional and interpersonal repercussions for everyone involved.

• There are a rising number of sites that expedite the adoption of children and youth who need families, notably including those with special needs. At the same time, there are more places to get information and education, networking opportunities, support services and other resources that are a clear, positive contribution to professionals, policymakers, researchers, journalists and the millions of personally affected individuals.

• Evidence that the Internet has many additional positive effects on adoption and the people it touches. For instance, there are growing numbers of opportunities for affiliation, support and information-sharing that would be impossible to achieve without the technology and reach of the Internet and, in particular, social media.

"Untangling the Web" is the first publication in a multiyear research project on this subject by the Adoption Institute. A key goal of this initial report is to stimulate a national discussion about the Internet's impact on adoption and how to regulate Internet-based adoption services to assure that they are legal and ethical, and that the interests of all those affected -- particularly children -- are protected. The report provides an overview of the evolving landscape; an explanation of the scope and impact of the changes; resources (albeit limited ones) to inform, protect and assist all those affected; and preliminary recommendations on legal, policy and practice reforms intended to better respond to adoption's new realities.

Our ultimate intent is to identify and promote policies and practices that enable this powerful technology to best serve the millions of children and families for whom adoption is part of everyday life. Toward that end, the preliminary recommendations in the report include:

• Professionals who deal with expectant and pre-adoptive parents should get training reflecting the certainty that many, if not most, of their clients will be able to find each other at some point, so they should be educated about the benefits of openness and the realities of such relationships.

• Practitioners should get additional training and resources to enable them to better assist the growing number of adopted individuals, as well as members of their families of origin and adoptive families, who seek help with search and reunion.

• Policy and law-enforcement officials should routinely review online adoption-related sites and activities for fraud, exploitation or other illegal and unethical practices, and they should take legal or regulatory action as warranted.

• Laws that impede the parties to adoption from gaining significant information, including statutes that prevent adult adoptees from accessing their own original birth certificates, should be repealed since the Internet obviates their main contemporary rationale (i.e., preventing the affected parties from learning about and finding each other).

The list of positive, negative and complicated changes occurring in the world of adoption as a result of the Internet goes on and on, with many already in place and others still evolving. The common denominator among them is that they are not best practices derived from lessons learned from research and experience; rather, overwhelmingly, they are a mostly unregulated, unmonitored tangle of transformations that are happening simply because new technology enables them to happen. Now, with the Adoption Institute's report as a starting point and for the sake of the tens of millions -- yes, really, tens of millions -- of people for whom adoption is an everyday reality, it's time to start straightening them out.