Amherst Day 2

During my second day in Amherst I was introduced to three more members of the local adoption community; Dr Patty Ramsey, David Sherer and Jen Dolan.

Patty is a Professor of Psychology at the local Mount Holyoke College and a close friend of Hal's. We spoke openly and freely about a range of topics over brunch; a nice reminder of the way that - in certain communities at least - it is as usual to talk about adoption as it is the weather or last night's ice hockey score. Although I suppose these kinds of conversations are fairly isolated (this was a pre-arranged meeting, after all), it reinforced how important it is to make adoption a normal thing to talk about, as difficult as it is to do this with socially sensitive topics.

Patty talked about parents, as she works extensively with parent support groups. She shared stories about websites that help people to find babies, rehoming already adopted children - some negative experiences that highlighted the apprehension around technology. Of course, these are activities that also took place long before the Internet had a part to play. It has made it easier to do these things, but not created the problems. We did reflect on the way that media (films and TV on this occasion) can - and does - present adoption in unhelpful ways, full of sentimentality, 'saviour' stories and 'bad seeds' rescued by their new parents. Having worked in international development and fundraising I see similarities with trends of orphan rescue and 'poverty porn'; where the act of 'saving' a child is glorified. The risk with adoption, I feel, is that this makes the child 'special' - this word is often used to describe adopted children, TO adopted children. They identify themselves as different when all they need is a childhood experience as close as possible to safety and security and support. The complexities of dealing with this status for traumatised children is misunderstood, ignored, or both.

More positively, we talked about the value of support groups for providing guidance about unexpected learning experiences, such as what it's like to change schools and how to navigate legal and medical systems. It's easy to forget that adoptive parents often become parents for the first time and so have to deal with all the usual challenges of parenthood alongside the unusual ones.

David Scherer is a child psychologist at UMass and an adoptive Father. We had a lovely conversation about his experiences; his profession gives him an interesting perspective into how children perceive and understand the process. We agreed that adoption is a process for children AND adults - that these processes sometimes work in parallel (chronologically) but also very differently (developmentally). Thinking about adults, David talked about the idea of scrapbooks for prospective parents made by children or adoptive families to help inform the learning process.

The role of technology, he felt, was to facilitate processes; of search and reunion, of education, of intervention. In the same way that adoption was exploited or mismanaged before the Internet, we shouldn't assume that technology or innovation will specifically create opportunities to search, reunite, educate or intervene. These processes happen anyway and it's about identifying the problems with these processes and making them more efficient or effective.

Jen Dolan joined David and I for a late lunch. Jen is the Program Manager for the Rudd Adoption Centre and contributed some of her own unique experiences. One that stood out was her effort to search for her adoptive child's birth family, herself! It made her reflect on a couple of things. First, the pace of technology and that pre adoption preparation would be key to to helping parents adjust more quickly to the inevitable speed of social and personal interactions online. Second, and in a more abstract way, it taught her about the porous family boundaries that affect the way control is managed, particularly for adolescents. I think this relates to one of Hal's specialist areas - Emotional Distance Regulation - which looks at the way that people, separated by distance, manage their emotional relationships over time. There are many deep layers of emotional and psychological experience that sit beneath what we see and understand about adoption. Technology benefits from being flexible, adaptable and customisable - attributes that will help any innovations supporting the ongoing intricacies of adoption to be successful.