TW Interview by Fran Cronin
Why “Adoption Nation” Is Changing—and Keeps Changing
Adam Pertman is a busy guy. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Pertman seems to be everywhere at once: lecturing, writing, appearing on the Today Show or NPR. And like a doctor on call, he’s always available to help enlighten the general public about the once-silent world of adoption.
Since writing a Pulitzer Prize-nominated series about adoption for the Boston Globe in 1998, Pertman has transformed his experience as the parent of two adopted children into his life’s work.
His acclaimed book Adoption Nation was first published in 2000; a new edition came out this year with the revised subtitle of "How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—and America." As Pertman told me, "I rewrote a big percentage of the book."
For almost a decade, he's served as the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, a nonprofit that’s the go-to organization for adoption-related research and policy. Pertman is also associate editor of Adoption Quarterly, and he coedited the new anthology Adoption by Lesbians and Gay Men with David M. Brodzinsky.
At 57, Pertman has enough gray in his floppy hair and Van Dyke beard to convey an earnest man-on-a-mission. He hurried into our prearranged meeting this October at a cafe in Newton, Massachusetts, noting the moms in a mommy-baby group that had just dispersed. He ordered a dark coffee and darted to the table I’d cleared, removing papers and books from under one arm.
Before we even sat down, Pertman had started talking.
TW: It’s uncanny we should meet today. Yesterday Steve Jobs died, a famous adoptee and very private man. What does his story tell us about adoption?
AP: Last night, ABC’s Nightline did a piece about Jobs and described him as a “baby his parents didn’t want,” which is such a negative and bad thing to say. Just shows how little is known about adoption. There’s this impulse to revert to negative stereotypes.
Jobs was a reunited adoptee who searched and found his mother and got to know a lot about his heritage. His father was an immigrant from Syria, and his biological sister is the author Mona Simpson. He was private but open about his adoption. He liked to talk about being adopted in his commencement speeches.
We’ve made enormous progress, but the misunderstandings remain profound. When something is kept a secret for generations, how are people ever going to learn about it?
TW: It’s obvious your own story as an adoptive father has influenced you. What made you want to write your book Adoption Nation in 2000 and then revise it this year?
AP: As an adoptive father, I was an expert on my kids but not about adoption. At the time, the general public’s knowledge about adoption was not very good, either. How could it be? Adoption was a closely held secret for so many generations.
But during this last decade, there has been enormous change, and I felt it was important to show that the revolution in adoption is still in progress.
Ten years ago, adoptions from abroad were starting to soar. Today those numbers are plummeting, while adoption from foster care has been steadily rising and is now the most common form of non-family adoption.
Today, adoption is also much more diverse. Gays and lesbians now adopt in disproportionate numbers. This change has really helped to normalize and broaden the term “family.” We better understand that adoption is not just something that touches someone else’s life, but now touches all our families, our communities, and our country.
Plus, not to be too corny, every father’s dream is to make the world a better place for his kids. I thought this book would give me the opportunity to do that.
TW: In the past ten years, the Internet has also become a much bigger force. Can you describe the Internet’s impact on adoption—such as the new tools it gives birthparents and adopted kids to search for one another?
AP: The Internet is changing everyone’s world. But adoption is one of those worlds where the changes have not yet been closely examined. It’s like the Wild West. There’s been an explosion in search and reunions in all directions: kids looking for their families, and parents looking for their kids.
The best upside to the Internet is as a resource to help people with placement and searches. People are finding birth families in Africa, China, and Korea. You can just imagine that at some point a chat room will surface.
The downside is the lack of supervision. There is no monitoring, no counseling, and no understanding of what constitutes good practices. The adoption world is full of vulnerable people who could easily be taken advantage of.
TW: Another big change in the past decade is the expansion of open adoptions, in large part due to the advocacy of Betty Jean Lifton, who died last year at age 84. How has adoption changed as a result?
AP: Long ago, we made the mistake of trying to make adoption replicate the stereotypical biological family, and most babies were adopted from white unwed mothers. We mentally aspired to an ideal norm.
As in any culture, we thought there was a right way to form a family: get married and make babies. When we could not do this, we thought the alternatives were second best. Set in this context, we sent adoption underground. We tried to hide our kids.
Today, open adoptions of domestic infants are most prevalent, which I think is the best practice. People like not to think about where adopted kids come from, but they come from real people, real families. Openness is better for the kids, but usually more complicated for the adults.
But we teach our kids something by being open. It’s only normal that kids want to meet their bio parents. Adoption may be different or feel harder, but we need to internalize it as our normal. It helps us appreciate our kids on their own terms. And I like to think honesty and openness always trump shame.
TW: For the past thirteen years, you’ve consistently advocated for adoption to be part of our social landscape. You call this a revolution. Where do you see the next big battle in our effort to make adoption part of American society?
AP: If you add up the numbers, almost 80 percent of the kids adopted today are either from foster care or from abroad. That means the majority of adopted kids were either institutionalized or are on the rebound from a family in which they experienced abuse or neglect. Before they were adopted, these kids had experiences that their new adoptive families need to help them work through. It takes a lot of nurturing and love.
In October 2010, we [Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute] released a research study titled “Keeping the Promise" about the need for post-adoption services. Think about it: We move children from one country to another with the implicit promise that we will give them better prospects for their future. But we don’t keep that promise. Instead, we look at adoption as a statistic, like the number of kids that are moving from foster care to families, and say, “Aren’t we successful!”
We need to change that paradigm. We need to shift from placement as the goal. Parents want to help their kids overcome the traumas that occurred prior to adoption. Our priority should be to help these kids and families succeed. We have to rethink and restructure what we do at the state and government levels in providing education and support. If we don’t understand how to better help these kids, then we will really mess up.
This country has yet to fully understand just how pervasive the impact of adoption is on our culture. If you add up all the connections, there are 100 million people in adopted families. This is not a silo issue. This is about us.
Where to Find Adam Pertman
- Boston Globe adoption series by Adam Pertman (1998).
- Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—and America by Adam Pertman, originally published by Basic Books, 2000 (Harvard Common Press, revised edition, 2011).
- Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
- Adoption Quarterly
- Adoption by Lesbians and Gay Men: A New Dimension in Family Diversity edited by David M. Brodzinsky and Adam Pertman (Oxford University Press, 2011).
- “Keeping the Promise: The Critical Need for Post-Adoption Services to Enable Children and Families to Succeed” (in pdf) by Susan Livingston Smith (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2010).
- Adam Pertman’s website
Stunningly, marvelously, for the first time in history, adoption has come into vogue. At a dinner party with a half-dozen friends, I once offhandedly cited a well-known statistic among researchers—that only about 1 percent of American women relinquish their babies for adoption today, a precipitous drop from a few decades ago—to which one woman at the table responded: 'Are you sure it isn’t much higher? Just about everyone I know with children adopted them.'"
— from Adoption Nation by Adam Pertman