Thursday, November 29, 2012

Social Workers Need Help Too

A while ago I received an interesting e-mail. It was from a gent who was representing a graduate social work program at University of Southern California (USC). Here's what he had to say:

Father of Festus

I hope this message finds you well. My name is ******* **** and I work in Community Relations for MSW@USC, the web-based Master of Social Work program at the University Of Southern California. I was reading through your blog Statistically Impossible and found some great posts about your experiences with open adoption. We recently published an inforgraphic, "Adoption in America," and thought it would be a great fit for your site.

The infographic highlights various details about the adoption process, including those involved; it also contains comparative adoption statistics from other countries around the world. In addition, the graphic provides resources for people hoping to adopt and/or social workers interested in pursuing a career in the field.

Given your connection with adoption, I thought that this infographic would resonate well with your audience and networks! If you'd like to share it on your website, please visit our blog or find the image directly, and also feel free to share this with your social networks via facebook and/or twitter.

If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to reach out to me, I'd really like to know what you think. I look forward to connecting in the future and sharing ideas.


I've removed his name in respect for his privacy. The infographic he referenced was this:

I took a while to chew this over. There were a lot of things that bothered me. In fact I was troubled enough that I didn't consider responding for a couple months. I couldn't bring myself to offer a useful critique. After a while I realized that if I didn't reply my frustration was useless. The information presented would go unchallenged. Yet another opportunity for a first father to communicate directly with those who shape the adoption experience would be lost. I replied thus:

Hello ****,

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to reply to your e-mail regarding the infographic your department put together. Looking at the infographic I've noticed arena's in which the information appears either fuzzy (not specific enough to provide functional data) or is presented in a less than optimal fashion (word choice problems). I hope you'll forgive me for focusing on the negative aspects rather than providing positive reinforcement. The truth is there's a lot of good information here. But I don't want to keep you stuck reading this e-mail. all day. So, on with the feedback:

The infographic preamble is likely to cause some controversy. It is mentioned that adoptions have increased 15% since 1990. What is the cut off for the data? For the sake of clarity it would be good to see that data presented within a spread of a specific perio od time, for example "adoptions have increased 15% from 1990 to 2008". Similarly the discussion of providing children with "happy and safe homes" and "bring[ing] joy to those longing to raise a family" tips the hand to a decidedly positive spin on adoption. If the goal is to promote adoption this makes sense. If, on the other hand, the goal is to provide relevant data to interested parties, this indicates a lack of impartiality that may make the data suspect. There are plenty of people who write about adoption that would ignore this research as pro-adoption rhetoric based on this belief.

Terminology issue - referring to all children with non-traditional parent relationships as "orphans" is a significant problem. I don't know any adoptees who describe themselves using this term, and it has very negative connotations for any members of a first family. In general the term orphan specifically carries the connotation that a child is separated from their biological parents by death. I strongly urge that this term be replaced with something less emotionally charged.

The preamble for "The Parents" again seems unnecessary and potentially inflammatory. It isn't really possible for an infographic to appropriately investigate the reasons people have for wanting to adopt children, just as it cannot thoroughly investigate the reasons parents have in placing children with adoptive families. It may be best to leave these attempts to explain motives out of the infographic.

The breakdown of demographic data for adoptive parents is interesting and very clearly presented. I would, however, be very interested in seeing correlative data. What percentage of parents adopt due to infertility or same sex coupling? How do those demographics relate to choices between domestic and international adoption?

The information and resources at the bottom of the graphic are a nice way to wrap up the ideas presented. They do a good job of presenting the information without hitting emotionally charged trigger words.

Thanks for sending this along to me. I hope the feedback is useful. If there's anything you'd like to follow up on, or that I didn't present clearly, please contact me again. It's important to me that information like this, and communication about it, be as clear and deliberate as possible.

I am

The data presented in that inforgraphic is potentially useful. Unfortunately it is filtered through inflammatory language and ideas about the adoption experience that are simply untrue. Future adoption professionals are being taught that it's okay to call everyone who was ever adopted an orphan. The graphic above was the work of a graduate department. This is coming from people who are a thesis away from entering the field. Bad social workers aren't born; they're taught. In order to change the opinions of adoption workers we must also change their education. For many that means educating them about our experiences. For some that means teaching their educators.

The quality of a person's education can dramatically alter their professional development. A high quality education (in this context, one that humanizes everyone touched by adoption) can also enhance personal development. Conversely a poor education does not degrade personal worth. Low quality education can be mitigated with high quality corrective experiences. It is the experience and education that need correction, not the person.

It is possible to confront an idea without confronting the person espousing it. The idea and the person are separate entities. For example, the infographic above presents ideas that are hurtful and ignorant. The people who put it together didn't intend to hurt anyone. They did a lot of work to pull together information and present it in the most useful way they could. Those efforts deserve affirmation. They also need redirection. A little more reflection on the humans represented in the pie charts may have resulted in something profoundly useful and respectful. It is not a character flaw that caused the students to take a misstep.

Even social workers make mistakes. They aren't bad people. They just need enough quality information to make better choices next time. That information has to come from people like us. If we don't tell them what's wrong, how systems fail us, what needs to change, and why it's important to respect every adoption experience, no one will.


  1. Yeah, I see a few issues with the way this data was presented. The introduction needs to be completely scrapped and redone. The very first point they make is how people have the opportunity to create families through adoption, and then there is mention of the child. This suggests the skewed, and too often embraced, view that adoption is for the benefit of the adoptive parents first. Also, the statement that it provides happy and safe homes for children isn't always accurate. Adoptive parents are as human as the rest of us. They are not immune to divorce, emotional instability, and abusive behavior. I know of several adoptees who grew up in unhealthy homes. They go on to mention that adoption changes a child's life, but it doesn't even hint at some of the difficulties that adoption brings into an adoptees life.

    There are many other points I could pick apart, but you hit most of those, but there is one more I'd like to it just me, or is there very little representation for birth parents in this infographic? The one place we're mentioned actually suggests that birth parents may choose to place their children due to a lack of desire to care for their child. While this may be the case in some rare examples, I don't think its accurate to simplify it that much. True I never had the desire to be a parent, in the sense that I never wanted to create a child to begin with. But, once she was a reality, no matter if I parented or placed, I would be a parent to her. This is suggesting that you are absolved from all responsibility towards your child should you choose adoption, which any birth parent can tell you is far from the truth.

  2. First off, I love this:

    "True I never had the desire to be a parent, in the sense that I never wanted to create a child to begin with. But, once she was a reality, no matter if I parented or placed, I would be a parent to her."

    I've written pages upon pages trying to say what you did in two sentences. Second, you are right. Birthparents aren't mentioned. There is no real data to represent the birthparent experience. Functionally I believe the graphic was developed with adoptive parents in mind and social workers as a tangential audience. I don't believe anyone else was genuinely considered in its research and creation.

    1. Yes, this was definitely developed with the intent to inform social workers on how to deal with adoptive parents, which is exactly why there should be more focus on the affects of adoption on birth parents and adoptees. Not educating HAPs on the other two sides of the triad means you're sending them into a situation with far less information than they truly need to deal with it properly. Honestly, I wish the agency I went through would have done the same for me in regards to adoptive parents and adoptees, instead of me having to research these topics myself.

  3. I Am -
    Yes, a million times over. Social workers generally mean to do well, but we enter the field with theoretical knowledge, but limited life experience. Then we feel threatened because we're insecure about how limited our life experience is, and so we power-trip so that we feel like we present an authoritative image. Our clients, often going through difficult seasons, also sometimes respond in "fight mode" - and so we create conflict where we mean to bring healing.

    But social workers should be different. We should be humble. We should listen.

    And your post is different. You're insightful and helpful. You're humble without being timid. And you hit the nail on the head - that you can absolutely confront an idea without confronting the person who's espousing it. I really, really wish that social workers would learn humility as a core value, and effective listening/understanding as their primary skill.

    All that to say, from a social worker's point of view. We need help! Thank you for offering it.

  4. My first thought when I looked at the graphic was "why are you calling all these children orphans." And orphan is only a child whose parents are dead. If your parents are living, you aren't an orphan. As an adoptive parent, our daughter has 4 parents. She isn't an adopted orphan. She has her first parents and us.

    My second thought was what are the dates for these numbers? They have no meaning without dates. There's been many articles espousing that there have been 60k children adopted from Russia - that doesn't fit with the numbers in this graphic.

    Thirdly, I took issue with the section titled "the parents." In any graphic like this to refer to the adoptive parents as "the parents" ignores the existance of the first parents. If you're going to break down the demographics of the adoptive parents, why not the exact same breakdown for the first parents. Then we'd have information that was useable for more than pushing an agenda. We'd have information that might be able to be used to talk about meaningful reform.


What do you think? I'm curious.