Another virtue of my effort to attend ICAR5 was the opportunity to meet with Hal Grotevant. I'd exchanged emails with him as an early connection in the adoption field. It was he who first recommended I take a look at ICAR.
I attended his key note (on his landmark longitudinal study) and spoke to him afterwards about my intention to travel to the US. He invited me to Amherst and after landing back in the UK made a start on arrangements to spend some time with him and his team(s).
On the afternoon of the 28th I hopped on a coach from downtown Boston for a four hour journey to Amherst. It's host to several colleges and learning institutions, but is the primary home of the University of Massachusetts (UMass), a sprawling and impressive campus combining greenery and diverse architecture. Hal was recently elected the Chair of the psychology department there. Among his various commitments there is the Rudd Adoption Research Programme. It was here that I was homed for two days as I met with staff, lab groups and local agencies to add to my understanding of innovation in adoption.
Marla Alisan - Full Circle Adoption
After a nights rest my first stop was with the Director of Full Circle Adoption, Marla Alisan.
Marla is a lawyer by trade and leads this agency with a rigorous passion for ethics. I was joined by members of her small team including a case worker to discuss some of my ideas to date. Full Circle Adoptions is a fully licensed and Hague Accredited nonprofit adoption agency. The agency provides comprehensive adoptive services for families throughout the US and other countries as well. The agency provides adoption services to expectant parents, prospective adoptive parents and children. Expectant parents can be living in any state. The agency does not require expectant parents to travel - we work with adoption professionals close to where you live. Adoptive parents can live throughout the US and in other countries.
Marla was interested in a an online system that might remove the marketing aspect of adoption; connecting people to ethical social workers. Adoption is a lucrative business (as you will see from comments below).
We riffed on the idea of 'Tender' - an online matching app that allowed kids and families to meet one another online. It was an amusing exploration of matching technology trends with demands in the sector. We realised that in reality, matching social workers would be a better goal - they could then use their expertise to facilitate effective matching. It goes back to the 'worker to worker' ethos of MARE in Michigan. It also helps to moderate the activity of young people online. I am all for promoting ownership and independence in young people when it comes to their adoption experience, but either through supportive parenting or vetted and secure online systems
NB: I asked about state adoptions compared to private adoptions, the later of which had been the focus of all discussions since arriving in the States. Each year there are between 10-15,000 private adoptions compared to around 50,000 from State care. The influence of private adoptions seems to me to outweigh the the ratio of adoptions across the country. Data for adoption from foster care is good and it is free to adopt from the State. Private adoptions, though licensed, lack a degree of regulation in order to prevent exploitative practice affecting the sector as a whole. One (extreme) example of this is an agency who sent a birth Mother who gave up her baby for adoption an 'referral coupon' for any one she knew who might want to do the same. The commercialisation of adoption is very real in the US (Marla calls it the Walmartisation' - large agencies pushing smaller groups out of the market with aggressive tactics and large advertising budgets).
I was also reminded of the hierarchy of law that exists in the States - Adoption Law is Family Law is State Law - as such there are 50 different approaches to adoption practice. Efforts have been made to consider national laws to help equalise adoption approaches, but this is understandably ambitious.
- Adoptionlearningpartners.org - a repository of training materials
- Heart of the Matter Education - another resource which also allows practitioners to assemble credits for social workers and adoptive parents.
- Gender - we talked about the fact that on one hand there is a devaluation of working with children that may cause more women to work in the field than men - conversely, high powered executive roles in NGOs and agencies are likely to be held by men such is the earning power in these roles.
Rudd Adoption Research Lab
The Rudd Adoption Research Program homes a lab group, where students and staff connect to discuss and develop ongoing research. I met with four students to introduce my research and get some inputs on how they view technology. We had an undergraduate, a fifth year student and a research assistant among the group.
Broadly, we agreed that the new challenge that technology presents is the immediacy of the Internet to confront adoptees with information about their lives. Accessing this information isn't necessarily the problem - being unprepared to deal with it is, alongside the potential lack in support from peers or parents if children are going about this process alone. AMP (see below) goes some way to dealing with this, as a student gave an example of a mentee who talked about this experience with their mentor (highlighting how difficult they found it to speak with their parents about these things!).
In their experience, most depictions of the adoption experience online were negative (this was taken from a South Korean support group that one of the students worked closely with). This surprised me a little. But in spite of this negativity, the process itself was positive in that those sharing their experiences were doing so in solidarity with others. This social support and validation of experience was crucial to the success of that support group - and to me, forms the basis of technology's ability to support better experiences for young people.
We also talked about genealogical testing, a practice becoming more common in the States. It is closely tied to securing and forming personal identities; the research assistant in the group is themselves from Columbia but doesn't know his ethnic background and so cannot subscribe to it in the same way that other people can. It's something he wants to know eventually. For $200 you can order a kit online, in the post - and depending on the service have returned within weeks a detailed breakdown of your ethnicity, health or family lineage. Some organisations even assist in connecting you with relatives (typically cousins) who are also in their databases, sparking a search for more birth family.
When I asked the research assistant about his early life as an adoptee (I'd typically keep identities hidden but his gender is important and relevant to this part) he echoed a discussion I'd had with Kris Freeark; children are inquisitive when they are young, becoming closed as adolescence starts (in relation to their growing social identify), only opening again when they approach adulthood. It seems to me that if open communication is not embraced at an early age, young people are at risk of suppressing their emotional development in a variety of ways - it is likely to result in more destructive experiences with search and reunion or result in more problematic social adjustments as adults (starting families, for example). The mentoring model is one example of bringing generations together to create shared, cathartic interactions.
Note to self: explore eCounselling trends in relation to online mentoring/peer support!
AMP - Adoption Mentoring Programme
The Rudd Centre have created a successful mentoring programme. There are currently 10 ongoing mentorships (importantly, with just two of them male) that run over a semester. Mentees are 8-12 years old and are matched to adopted mentors based on race, ethnicity, gender and adoption story.
I have agreed to stay in touch with the programme as I start my own mentor relationship in the UK through Mentoring Plus. It will offer two living case studies to help explore opportunities to create a broader mentoring network, utilising online technologies such as Skype or Google Hangouts (for video interaction) and Storyworth for facilitating Q&A sessions between adoptees.
This programme hopes to expand but has so far limited use of remote mentoring to a couple of cases; the face to face element of standard mentoring has undoubted benefits. Can a programme like this work purely online?