Adoption Education – Learning On Both Sides of the Desk

As a guest lecturer in Professor Grotevant’s adoption class at UMASS/Amherst, I thought to lead the students in an exercise that would give them a sense of the domestic adoption experience. As often happens when one teaches others, I also left class enriched with new insights and thoughts for the future.

I divided up the class into roughly two groups – one group was to be ‘the expectant parents’ (EPS) and the other group was to be ‘the prospective adoptive parents’ (PAPs). My instructions to each group went like this – “The expectant mother is due in one week, she and the biological father would like to make an adoption plan and they’ve had several months of expectant parent counseling. We need to clarify terms regarding post placement communication.”

To the EP group – “Appoint a spokesperson and after you’ve deliberated, let me know what you want for post placement communication in the days ahead. Specifically – do you have any request that the adopters keep a chosen name? What do you want in terms of number of in-person visits per year? What do you want by way of frequency of photo/letter updates?”

I asked the same general question of the PAPs except I asked them to clarify what was the most they imagined they’d be willing to give and to let me know if any request would be a deal breaker – in other words, could they imagine requests that would lead them to decline to be the chosen adoptive family.

Three students had been separated from the class and had been told to wait outside. One was to be ‘the adoption social worker’ and the other two were the verbal and written components of ‘the adoption attorney.’

Everyone who teaches has an idea of what they’re hoping the class will learn. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that the expectant parents would want to choose a name that the adoptive parents didn’t like. I hoped to simulate a complex moment seen not infrequently in domestic adoption – would the adopters see a name chosen by the birthparents as a gift they would cherish and something that would warm the heart of their child. Or would they see this as encroachment on their experience of early parenthood?

I was also hoping the expectant parents would want more post placement contact with the adopters than the adopters envisioned feeling comfortable with – hoping to simulate the leaps of faith and extension of self that is often called for by adopters at this critical juncture.

There were some surprises and some reminders of real life. The EPs group had a harder time deliberating. “We all want different things,” shared the spokesperson. I reflected back to them – “I suspect that expectant parents often have a number of different voices inside of them, too. They also have the many perspectives of their parents, siblings, friends and others with whom they talk and deliberate. Work on this some more. You’re due in a week, what do you want?” While no one wants expectant parents to feel rushed and we all do as much as we can to buy them time to reflect on the parameters of a plan that will suit them short and long term, many EPs wait until the last minute and want to make these decisions promptly to avoid having the child in neutral foster are.

After another round of deliberations, the EP group announced through their spokesperson that they wanted to give the adopters the experience of naming the child and they wanted one photo-letter update a year and one visit a year. This seemed typical – so often expectant parents have a hard time asking for much for them. Their self-esteem is low and I’ve often suspected that there’s a bit of ‘cognitive dissonance’ at play as well – namely, it’s hard to be in the mode of placing a child with another family and wanting something for yourself as well. It’s hard to let go and want more at the same time.

Meanwhile, the prospective adopters had found their comfort level very easily and quickly. They found themselves waiting, with nothing to do, while the expectant parents deliberated, got counseling, and deliberated some more. What’s your experience? I asked them, like a roll call at a basketball game. “To wait!” they shouted in unison.

Their desired terms were the surprise for me. They were open to considering potential names for the child that the EPs might propose. As for contact, they felt their upper limit was a visit every other month and a photo/letter update on the ‘off’ month, but, essentially, with the same frequency – every other month. The prospective adopters were willing to have monthly contact – either a visit or photo/letter update each month.

I dispatched the ‘adoption social worker’ to talk with the expectant parents –“remind them this is a plan for the next 18 years, they might want to ask for more than what they want now. They’re in a mode of letting go right now. They might be in a different place in their lives 5, 10, 15 years from now. Ask them to imagine what they might want, later, and ask for that now. If they don’t want to make use of it, they don’t have to, but at least they have the option and opportunity.”

After further deliberations, ‘the adoption attorneys’ were brought in – the agreement had a pattern that I’ve never seen in real life – the EPs and PAPs agreed that, at minimum, they would get together once a year and, at maximum, they’d get together 6 times a year. The same frequency for photo/letter updates. They imagined negotiating this each year, anew, taking into account the other realities in their lives. They anticipated feeling warmly with and towards each other in the years to come and imagined being able to easily negotiate a comfortable balance of contact, year to year. Whether this was grounded or inexperienced, one could not know in that moment, but I welcomed their optimism that the EPs and PAPs could avoid a power struggle or differences and easily harmonize for the child’s sake.

I smiled at Professor Grotevant and explained my broad grin. When I was in college, my otherwise superb psychology department focused on behavioral psychology – anything involving operant conditioning of rats and pigeons could be a source of endless scholarship. In law school, one half of one class in Juvenile Law addressed adoption; that was it for the entire, otherwise top rate, law school’s adoption-related academic offerings. And, at the time that I attended social work school, despite the fact that key members of the faculty were adoptive parents, I don’t recall a single class focusing on adoption. The students in Professor Grotevant’s class had no idea how lucky they were to be able to study adoption in a concerted fashion over, not only one semester, but a number of semesters in the Rudd Adoption Program.1

My smile was also a smile of hope – if students can learn in college (dare I imagine high school) and at every level of education about the virtues of open adoption for children, perhaps this will have a transformative effect on the ‘negotiations’ that are often a part of the domestic adoption experience. What if, due to education, empathy for the EPs experience expands and there is an increased capacity to focus on what is known to serve the best interests of the child?

Not only were the students getting an education, but they were teaching the teachers as well. We were learning that, with education, there is a chance to reshape attitudes and understanding. There is a genuine opportunity to change the experience of adoption in ways that amplify the best interests of children for the future. I thank the class for my education and look forward to further lessons in how we might dream large and hopeful for adoption in the years to come.

1 Note: The course referred to in this essay is “The Psychology of Adoption” a university undergraduate psychology seminar offered as part of the Rudd Adoption Research Program at UMASS/Amherst. The Rudd Program has a number of facets, including: academic offerings, a mentoring program that matches UMass adopted undergraduates with adopted children in the community, collaborative longitudinal research on openness in adoption, a program examining issues in foster care, a program to draw together the wisdom of seasoned adoption professionals in the field and an annual adoption conference.

The Annual New Worlds of Adoption Conference, held on April 11 & 12, 2013 focused on, “Contact between Adoptive and Birth Families: What Works?” where parents and those who joined their families through adoption, adoption and foster care professionals (therapists, DCF child welfare staff, directors and staff of non-profits); researchers; students; and community members came together to amplify wisdom and insight into what is most helpful in post-adoption contact. This essay’s author, Marla Allisan JD, LICSW, was one of the presenters on the topic of clinical and legal aspects of post-adoption agreements. Attorney Allisan represents families who are not FCA clients in the development and implementation of post-adoption communication agreements. Further information about the Rudd Adoption Research Program can be found at as well as on Facebook.

Marla Ruth Allisan JD, LICSW