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Figure 1: The Adoption Triad
by Shelley Steenrod, Ph.D., LICSW
Through the use of strengths and empowerment perspectives, social workers are in a unique position to support all members of the adoption triad (see Figure 1) including birth parents, child, and adoptive parents. Consider the following three scenarios.
Stacy, a Caucasian 15-year-old high school student, is five months pregnant. She has decided to place her child for adoption. A social worker in a private adoption agency is working with Stacy to interview and select a family for her baby. Together, they will discuss and plan for the type of relationship Stacy wants with the family going forward. The social worker will support Stacy with her feelings following the adoption.
Jasmine and Jayden, a multi-racial couple both in their late 40s, have had numerous failed attempts at infertility treatment. They have decided to adopt a child from Africa and are working with a private adoption agency with programs in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. After meeting with a social worker several times, they have decided that they would like to adopt an older child, many of whom are harder to place than babies. Jasmine and Jayden’s social worker will not only help to match them with a child, but will assist with the emotional transitions of the parents and child following the adoption.
Rose (18 months), Alana (3), and Rowan (5) are a sibling set in need of a permanent home. They are currently in separate foster homes and in legal custody of the public child protection agency in their state. The social worker in charge of their case is searching diligently for a family that is able to adopt all three children together, knowing that it is in their best interest to be together. The children’s social worker will either provide for or link to post-adoption services for the entire family.
These case studies illustrate the three primary types of adoption—domestic infant adoption, international adoption, and adoption from foster care. Domestic infant adoption occurs when a pregnant woman seeks help from an adoption agency to select a “forever” family for her child and when a couple who wants to adopt seeks help in finding a baby. International or inter-country adoption is facilitated by agencies with programs in host countries. In international adoption, children have generally been relinquished by their families of origin as a result of death, disease, or extreme poverty. Foster to adopt programs can be delivered by public child protection agencies, which often have children in their care as a result of neglect or abuse.
Whether public or private, domestic or international, adoption agencies hire social workers to conduct home studies, provide pre-adoption education, match children with families, and offer post-adoption support. A brief description of each service is described below.
Home study: This is the process by which a social worker decides the suitability of an individual or couple to adopt. A home study is a comprehensive evaluation of each potential adoptive parent’s emotional and physical health, experience or ability to parent, finances, home environment, and general ability to provide a safe, consistent, and nurturing family for a child. A home study generally involves meeting with and interviewing the individual or couple over several sessions.
The social worker asks specific questions and invites discussion pertinent to parenting and adoption. Some of these questions include: Why adopt? What is your parenting philosophy? How do you resolve conflicts? What are your expectations about the process? What is your worst fear about adoption? How do you intend to balance work and family? What specific medical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive issues are you prepared to handle? What are you prepared to do to help your child in the attachment process?
In addition, the social worker visits the family home to ensure that there is appropriate, safe, and adequate space. Ultimately, the social worker writes a formal home study document that is submitted to domestic and international courts and governments as appropriate.
Pre-Adoption education: Pre-adoptive parents often have romantic notions of what parenting is like. First time parents may expect an adorable, sleepy baby who likes to cuddle. Instead, they may be faced with an inconsolable, teething child who won’t sleep unless he or she is held. Parents adopting from other countries may expect a child who is grateful to have a full plate of food, and instead be met by a child who wants to return to his or her native country despite extreme poverty and despair.
Social workers provide pre-adoptive education to prepare families for both the realities of first-time parenting and the challenges of parenting children from hard beginnings. Some examples of workshops and trainings that social workers facilitate in this domain include topics such as: grief and loss, attachment, the effects of institutionalization, cross cultural issues, transracial parenting, and open adoption. Most, if not all, agencies require prospective adoptive parents to participate in a set amount of pre-adoptive education and show proof of completion.
Matching Children with Families: Social workers are tasked with finding the best family for children, not the best child for families. As such, they rarely make child placement decisions in a vacuum. Most agencies have committees that meet regularly to consider the mutual needs of children and families and to make matching decisions together. In these profound decisions, social workers can utilize their hard-earned knowledge from BSW or MSW courses on child development, human behavior, child and family welfare, research, cultural diversity, and values and ethics.
Post-Adoption Support: After adoption, social workers are an important part of a child’s and parents’ “village.” Individuals and couples who adopt are not only faced with the same challenges of first time parents; they may also be faced with special issues—especially when adopting internationally or from foster care. Children from hard beginnings may bring with them a host of medical, neurological, emotional, and behavioral problems and require extra support and specialized parenting and educational strategies. An extreme example of the need for professional post-adoption support is the case of adoptive mother Torry Hansen, who in 2010 bought a one-way ticket to Moscow to return her 7-year-old son, whom she had adopted from Russia.
Some social workers have private practices that provide specialized counseling services to each member of the adoption triad. For example, adoptive children may bring issues of loss, guilt, shame, anger, and cultural dissonance to therapy. Birth parents may bring issues of loss, guilt, and shame, from their own unique perspective. Adoptive parents may have residual issues around infertility or question their true legitimacy as parents. All members of the triad may experience anxiety about searches or reunions between birth children and parents. Social workers in private practice apply various theoretical perspectives, especially family systems theory, ecological theory, and person-in-environment theory.
Are you interested in adoption? BSW and MSW students can test their interest by requesting field placements at public or private adoption agencies. New graduates should consider employment in adoption agencies. Finding families for children is truly life-changing work, and clients like Stacy, Jasmine, Jayden, Rose, Alana, and Rowan will all benefit from the knowledge, skills, and values that you bring to work each day.
Dr. Shelley Steenrod is an associate professor of social work at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She received her Master of Social Work from Boston University and her Ph.D. from the Heller School at Brandeis University. Dr. Steenrod, a mother of four, has become interested in the role of social workers in the field of adoption since adopting siblings from Ethiopia in 2010.