Recently, the Institute of Family Studies published a blog post taking on the difficulty with obtaining statistics on adopted children's educational outcomes. The author conducted an analysis of a longitudinal study starting in 1998 that captured data of 19000 kindergartners in which information from 160 adopted children and families could be found. From the data, the author concluded that adopted children, "display above-average levels of problem behavior, exhibit below-average levels of positive learning attitudes, and score below average on reading and math assessments, despite their advantaged family background." Three reasons were hypothesized to explain these disparity: attachment issues, past trauma, and "genetic endowment."
As this critique suggests, the report makes alarming generalizations regarding what we can know about adopted children from this data, and about attachment, trauma, and genetics. First, attachment should not be just casually mentioned considering how attachment theory and DSM criteria for attachment disorders is often misapplied in adoption to pathologize and blame children for their experiences. Second, addressing trauma was regarded as nearly hopeless. No credit is given to resiliency or post-traumatic growth. Third, the idea that adopted children are genetically inferior to their adoptive parents because birth parents must be genetically inferior, as evidenced by adoptive parent wealth and education, is outrageous at very best.
The Atlantic, no stranger to publishing adult-centric articles that pathologize children, took this one step further. Its highlight of the IFS post went so far as to say reading books to children, sharing family meals, and being involved in school makes adoptive parents more invested in their children. One study they linked to used these criteria (among others, such as owning a computer) to measure how invested adoptive parents are in raising children not biologically related to them.
What the Atlantic article doesn't mention is that when economic advantage was controlled for in the linked study, two parent adoptive families "invested" in their children at "similar levels" as two parent biologically-connected families. Which begs the question: why are we still using privilege and criteria of extrinsic value to determine who is a "better parent?" Furthermore, why is it a "paradox" or even unexpected that material wealth would not replace relational losses in a child's life? Why is owning a computer a measure of investment but being culturally competent, as 73% of all adoptive parents are white and transracial adoptions are nearing half of all adoptions (source), is not?
Transracial family coach and friend, Chad Goller-Sojourner, posted to his Facebook page today:
Imagine a factory where all the tools and machines where created by people over six feet five inches tall and consciously and unconsciously favored applicants over six feet five inches tall. Now imagine someone asking you why more people under five feet are not applying. Seems like a silly question, right? In many ways this is how foster care and adoption work. In both cases, the systems were created predominately by white people. Moreover, with white people in mind. This is because by default systems are created to favor the creator and those like them.
For example in both systems, criminal records work either against or bar you. However, at the same time, we live in a country where black people are 6 to 10 times more likely to be arrested for same and similar crimes then their white counterparts. Study upon study tells us that if a black person and white person are arrested for selling drugs. The black person is far more likely to go to jail, whereas a white person with a good attorney is far more likely to go to rehab or come away with a sentence that expunges their record if they do xyz.
Another of the many examples is how both systems; consciously and unconsciously favor applicants with higher levels of formal education. It is near impossible for someone with a MSW to sit down look at two files, exact in every way expect one couple are master level schoolteachers. And the other a cook and beautician with a GED. And not have a bias in favor of the former.
At the beginning, middle and end of the day our experiences shape our narratives, which in turn shape our beliefs/biases. Foster care and adoption are no different. So rather, than ask. Why aren’t more black and brown folks fostering and adopting? Perhaps we should #FLIPTHESCRIPT and start asking. Given the high number of black and brown kids in the system why are we still operating under a system built by white people for white people?
The framing of a "paradox" in The Atlantic article and others like it is perhaps indicative of the overall problem in child-serving systems where bias about race, ethnicity, education, resources, and other factors play a significant role in who is deemed worthy to parent. Kids of color, for example, face disproportional representation in foster care as well as a disparity in the level of services they receive while in care. They are both more likely to be removed from their biological parents and less likely to be reunited with their biological parents. Bias keeps us from seeing when parents are doing the best they can when they don't have what we think is important.
There are many paradoxes in adoption, like when some parents are encouraged to adopt children because "love is enough," while other parents are encouraged to surrender children because love is all they have to give. That the most invested families have the least thriving children? That's just not one of them.