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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

God's Plan: Cold Comfort or Greater Purpose?

Growing up I attended quite a few churches. My father being an appointed pastor accounted for three of them. My personal exploration accounted for the next seven. Spending that much time around churches and church people increases the likelihood of certain experiences. Being told that misfortune is "all part of God's plan" is one such experience.

There's another group of people that encounter this phrase more than most: anyone involved in an adoption. Couples struggling with infertility are often "consoled" this way. First families are told this to ease the pain and uncertainty of placing their children with couples they barely know. Adoptees often hear this to help erase the pain of their loss and difference. There is one significant problem with this.

It doesn't work at all. Though the intent is compassion, these words have none. They don't validate the person in pain. They don't even address presence of pain.

Instead these words serve a purpose entirely contrary to their common intent. They separate the supporter from the experience of the wounded. If pain is all "part of God's plan" the listener has no culpability in the situation. There is no risk for the onlooker because success is assured. If pain is part of the plan it takes on a moral quality. The pain becomes good pain. The pain is good because the person experiencing it is participating in "God's plan". The person has become a holy vessel. Holy vessels, uniformly, have been stripped of their humanity.

If this is true, why on Earth does this phrase get so much use? Because it comforts the supporter, not the vulnerable. The person in hardship experiences good pain. If the pain is good, for the individual and the world, there is no need to alleviate it. The person who would normally be called to take action has been let of the hook. Situations that are intolerable to think of, let alone witness, are acceptable if they are calculated sacrifices made by a faultless entity.

What happens to our attitudes if these sacrifices are not calculated losses outweighed by their benefit? Suddenly a person's pain is excruciating instead of purifying. A child placed for adoption is a desperate attempt to salvage some good from a terrible situation. Adoption is no longer a beautiful miracle. Unplanned pregnancies lose the glow of purpose. Suddenly rape is just rape and incest is shown fully as the horror it is

"It's all part of God's plan" isn't comfort to those who need it. It's a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card for those called upon to be the comfort others need.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

OAR Interview Project 2012: Meet Jenn

Adoption Bloggers Interview Project 
Last year I had the opportunity to work with Mrs R, an adoptive mother who writes at The R House. It was a great chance for both of us to learn about perspectives and experiences wildly different than our own (the interviews can be found here and here). This year Heather has done a great job yet again. I had the pleasure of getting to know Jenn, an adult adoptee. She is candid in her discussion of searching for her origins, making meaning of her experiences, and both the beauty and ugliness of adoption. She is very active in the online community, both on her blog and as a regular contributor to Lost Daughters.

Please introduce yourself to readers who may not be familiar with your blog.

For starters, my name is Jenn.  I’m twenty-five years old, and I was adopted as an infant.  When I was twenty-one, I started seriously searching for my natural family members.  Once I made up my mind to really search, it took less than twenty-four hours to find my natural parents thanks to the wonderful Internet.  I reached out to my natural mother and we started emailing back and forth.  Just under a year later I reached out to my natural father and started to get to know him.  I've since met both parents and my two sisters recently found out about me.  I’m currently getting to know the two of them and we’re all learning how to fit into each other’s lives.  I’m also living at home with my adoptive parents and my adoptive sister, something that adds other challenges to the mix as well.

What got you started blogging? What keeps you coming back? Is there a disparity there worth exploring? 

I started blogging after my reunion experience with my natural mother feel apart.  Things with my natural father were going wonderfully, but I was in a rough place because I was trying to balance my fear and excitement.  It was a hard time for me and I looked online for support.  I’d been following several adoptees on their blogs for a few months and figured that maybe it would help me to write about what I was going through.  I was never successful at journaling because there was no accountability.  By blogging, I felt as though I owed my readers a blog post every day.  I’m an all or nothing sort of girl so I just sort of jumped in.  I kept coming back because it helped.  I could go back and read what I was thinking and feeling and see the progress.  My readers give me valuable feedback and insights.  I had the opportunity to meet some of my readers which inspired me to keep going.  I think I started it for me, and while I still blog for me, it’s become something more at this point.

You obviously read quite a few adoption blogs. Can you talk about why you read the blogs you do (individual blogs and/or categories of blogs)?

The first few blogs that I started reading were adoptee blogs.  They were people who had been through something similar and I devoured their stories.  As much as it stunk that someone else had gone through something so horrible, there was something comforting in the fact that I wasn't alone.  And I was able to hope when people wrote about the good things.  If they could be happy and functioning humans after rejection, I could get there too someday.  After I started blogging, I had several natural mothers start commenting on my blog.  I wanted to get to know my readers better so I started reading their blogs, which opened up a whole new category for me.  I started to see where my natural mother might be coming from.  She may not feel the same way as these women, but I started to see that there were shades of grey from these amazing women.  Last year during this interview project I was paired up with an adoptive parent.  I loved her story and her blog and loved how she was doing her part to learn about what her daughter might go through someday.  So I now read several adoptive parent blogs, especially the ones who focus on listening to adult adoptees and constantly educate themselves on adoption related issues in case their child ever experiences them.

Has blogging (as a writer or a reader) significantly affected your thoughts/feelings on adoption in general, or your personal adoption experience?

My thoughts and feelings have shifted over time.  I’m much more educated now that I used to be.  For example, I never thought about the language that I use to describe adoption before.  I've since read several very well written blog posts about why certain language is offensive and the history behind it.  I've since altered my language.  I used to not see a problem with adoption.  I personally didn't have a problem obtaining a passport.  Blogging as taught me it’s a legitimate concern for other adoptees.  I've learned from them about problems that exist in the system.  Before I started blogging, I couldn't tell you what an original birth certificate was and I had no idea mine was sealed.  This past year I joined a demonstration in the fight to open records.  I've learned and grown as I've been reading and blogging.  My ideas have shifted and I've become more comfortable with my stance.  There will always be grey and I appreciate it.  But I've see firsthand some of the wrongs and I think that we owe it to ourselves and future adoptees to find ways of fixing the system.  A good start to that would be opening records.

You have described your adoption as being good but difficult. Can you expand on this apparent duality? 

I love my adoptive parents and my adoptive family.  I had a fairly normal childhood.  I got a great education, found some amazing friends, and have experienced some amazing things.  I've met the most amazing guy in the world I’m going to marry next year.  I love who I am as a person and I know that some of the great qualities I love about myself have come from my adoptive parents since being in reunion.  Being adopted has always been a part of who I am and I do believe it’s helped to shape me as a person.  Growing up, I was more tolerant of other’s differences because I didn't know what my own background was.  I grew up in a wealthy town but the reason I’d been given for my adoption was that my natural mother was young and poor.  It was hard for me to judge those will less in my town because I came from a place that had decidedly less.  I think that way of growing up had its merits.  On the other hand, I wish I hadn't been adopted in an abstract way.  I wish I had grown up around people I looked like.  I wish I had parents who said “I was just like you at that age!”  I wish my personality lined up more with the people who raised me.  I would have loved to grow up knowing about my ethnic background and knowing my family history.  A family medical history would have drastically altered my childhood.  That’s not to say that I wish I’d grown up with my natural parents.  Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d been raised by them?  It might have been better, it might have been worse.  It would have been a different life.  I’m sure if I was the girl I would have been if I’d been raised by them, I’d say I couldn't imagine growing up any other way.  But I’m not that girl.  I’m me, the person raised by my adoptive family and the person who grew up with many missing puzzle pieces.  So while my life is actually good, I wish I hadn't had to face so many challenges and go through pain in reunion in order to get to this particular place.

Is there anything you wish you could tell every adoptive parent?

Two things.  First, be honest and upfront from day one.  Sometimes the truth hurts.  Sometimes the situation it really unpleasant.  And I understand 100% that you want to protect your children.  But when we don't know the truth, adoptees often fill in the blanks.  If you asked me what I thought of my natural parents when I was ten, I would have told you they were probably crack heads or something.  That's what I thought because my adoptive parents never sat down and explained my situation to me.  My natural parents are actually upstanding members of the community.  They are both active in their church, raised two amazing daughters, and are pretty neat people.  My parents didn't know everything, but they did know some things that would have helped.  My natural father was in the army.  That single piece of knowledge would have gone a long way while I was growing up.  Second, listen.  I didn't tell my adoptive parents about what I was going through.  I wanted to protect them from my feelings because I didn't think I had a right to feel the way that I did.  Most of the time I was a happy go lucky kid, but sometimes thoughts about those crack head parents I had invaded my mind.  Kids on the playground can be mean.  So when I did actually talk about things, I needed my adoptive parents to listen.  For the most part, they did, but I think that's something that every adoptive parent has to work extra hard at.  Even know when I'm in reunion, I need my adoptive parents to listen to me and hear what I'm saying.  When I tell them that it's not about them, it's about me, I need them to hear it.  When I tell them that I need them to just let me vent about the process, I need them to let me instead of trying to get me to see things from the other side.  So adoptive parents need to be honest with their children from the beginning and to listen to what their children are saying, even when they are adults.

Is there anything you wish you could tell every first parent?

At some point, my natural parents walked away.  They may have had excellent reasons for doing so.  And my adoptee brain understands those reasons.  My adoptee brain was able to forgive my natural parents for walking away a long time ago.  I don't agree with all their reasons, but I understand why they did it.  The thing is, my adoptee heart still feels like they walked away and that hurts.  No matter how good the reasons were, my adoptee heart still hurts from time to time.  Sometimes I get mad about it.  Sometimes I need space to get over it.  None of these things have anything to do with the actual reasons themselves.  So when these times roll around (and I think they do for a lot of adoptees), I know that for me, I just need a little understanding.  I need my natural parents to not get defensive and understand that no matter what, my adoptee heart is still going to feel that way.  In fact, what I want to hear is that they are sorry for doing that to me and that they love me.  My heart needs to feel like they aren't going to walk away from me again.  And my heart needs to hear it over and over again.  I wish my brain and my heart could get on the same page, but they can't.  And I've heard a lot of adoptees say this same thing.  So understand that sometimes your adopted child may lash out or feel hurt about things.  Its a side affect.  He or she probably wishes that they could control it, but they probably can't.  And what they need most is reassurance, love, and understanding.

Is there anything you wish you could tell every adoptee?

We all feel differently.  And that's OK.  One person's feelings or experiences cannot take away from another.  So if someone is happy to be adopted, then that's fantastic for them.  If someone is unhappy to be adopted, then that's valid too.  Just because one person is happy doesn't make everyone happy, and just because one person is sad doesn't make everyone sad.  I think that we all need that reminder sometimes, especially when blogging.  One adoptees truth is not everyone's truth.  We all are individuals and need to be respected as such.

Are there any specific examples of the support adoptees may need that differs from others (while growing up or as adults)?  Are there any specific examples of ways in which the support adoptees need is the same as others (while growing up or as adults)?

Adoptees are people too!  We need support just like everyone else for life's challenges.  If I go through a bad breakup, I need love and support just like my non-adopted friend does.  I will probably process my breakup differently (for myself, it would probably trigger abandonment issues) but I still need someone there who's willing to listen and hold my hand.  I still need a shoulder to cry on when I loose someone I love, the same as anyone else.  I still want to celebrate when I get a promotion (for me it might feel extra special because I've always felt like I have something to prove), and I still want to go to the bar and have a celebratory drink, the same as any of my friends.  There are small difference in my experience  but then again, my friends all have their own motivations as well.  For all I know, perhaps a friend had a traumatizing experience involving a corpse when he was a child (it could happen) so death triggers him differently.  Perhaps a friend miscarried a child and thus her breakup with the father is a lot harder to process.  We all have various things that separate us as adults (and children too) but we somehow manage to get along.  I think that listening is key, being supportive, and learning that while we can't fully understand, we can still be there for each other.

In many adoptee blogs and forums, a common theme encountered is "difference". It is often describing how the adoptee experience is "different" and how "no one can understand" the experience who is not an adoptee. As someone who is not an adoptee, this theme appears to strengthen alienation by association. Can you talk a little about your experience with alienation, difference, and community? 

I think part of this problem (and yes, it's a problem) is that there really is a difference there.  I was cut off from my family completely and totally.  The closed adoption system made sure I had no contact with anyone I was genetically related to growing up.  I never heard "You look just like Aunt Suzie at that age!", "You've got Uncle Fred's eyes", or "I was just like you when I was young!  I guess this is payback..."  My relatives still said things like that, just about other people.  I always felt like I was on the outside looking in with my face pressed up against the glass.  I got strange looks in public.  People commented from time to time.  And people always looked for similarities that weren't there when they were introduced to my sister and me.  I learned that those things were important with how hard people would try to find similar.  Apparently we have the same facial structure (we don't really).  I've heard that at least ten times.  The thing is, we saw other people who weren't adopted.  I could see that my best friend looked a lot like her mom and her brother.  I saw that my cousins all laughed the same way as my mom.  And I grew up feeling different.  So that difference is there, and it's something that a lot of us have been aware of since we were small children (noting here that not everyone has this experience and some children were matched with families they would probably grow to look like).  I've seen instances online where some people (a small number) have tried to tell adoptees that we aren't really different.  I've seen people try to minimize that difference and act like it doesn't matter.  Only it does.  And that's when I've noticed adoptees getting defensive.  It's also hard to understand something that you haven't been through.  It's not individual to our community by any means.  I identify as a white straight female.  I will never understand what it's like to be a Native American lesbian.  I can listen to her story.  I can sympathize, but not empathize.  I think it's a glaring problem with our community because adoptees aren't supposed to be different (at least when I was born) and being adopted wasn't supposed to be different from being raised in the family you were born too.  So people don't understand this difference and try to explain it in other ways instead of accepting that we can't fully know the other's experiences from their point of view and work on the sympathy side of things.  Instead of finger pointing or having an "us vs them" attitude, I think as a community we need to embrace the differences and move forward together.  Then again what do I know?

Can you talk about the commonalities and differences of experience between adoptees and non-adoptees entering adulthood and struggling to establish a sense of "self"?

Well, I was adopted as an infant, so I don't really have a point of reference for the non-adopted.  I do know lots of non-adopted people so I guess I could take a stab at it.  I think that in general, our sense of self comes from our history, and our experiences   I'm a firm believer that you have to know the past going into the future.  History has a tendency to repeat itself, and I think that we can learn a lot from mistakes and successes in the past.  For adoptees (closed adoptions), we don't usually know our past.  It's hard to move forward when you don't know where you come from.  History is important.  At the same time, I know that I grew into my sense of self based on a number of experiences I had.  Being adopted had nothing to do with my love for dance and the experiences and lessons I learned from that.  I have friends who identified as dancers as well, and most were not adopted.  So in that sense, there are commonalities.  On the other hand, I have friends who used to brag about having ancestors who came over on the Mayflower.  That was a huge part of their "self" and that piece of history was important to them.  It was a part of their truth and personal identity.  I didn't have that.  I had to fill in the blanks or take guesses, but there were a lot of question marks for me.  So in that sense, we're different.  As I learn my history, I can feel my view of myself change slowly as it becomes more complete with less missing pieces.  It's an odd thing to happen as an adult, but now I know that I had ancestors in the US before the Revolutionary War too.  I have my family tree traced back to the 1400's on one branch.  So I guess now I'm trying to find a way to catch up with everyone else!

Thank you again to Jenn for your honesty and patience, to Heather for all your hard work, and to all the Interview Project participants for your courage. Jen's interview with me is here. Be sure to check out the Open Adoption Bloggers page for more exciting projects in the future as well as the exhaustive blog roll for more perspectives to read.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Are You F___ing Serious?!

There are several things in the works at the moment that I'm looking forward to posting. Unfortunately, all of those require more polish and editing before they're fit for public consumption. Despite this, I feel the need to share something.

While poking around online, Google Adsense has shown that it's finally started tracking my online behavior. So now I'm seeing ads for adoption agencies. This is an indication that I need to review my privacy controls and settings. But more importantly, I saw an advertisement today that I find profoundly disturbing.

The phrase highlighted was "you don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent". For the moment I'm going to ignore the issues I might take with this catch phrase and how poorly it conveys its intended message. What is important, however, was the associated image. It was a screen capture from The Odd Life of Timothy Green.The website, is using pop culture references in an attempt to make adoption more accessible. That makes sense and has been put to good use in many efforts to normalize ideas mass media isn't ready to embrace. It still sickens me a bit, but at least I understand it. The problem I have with this is the pop culture material being referenced.

If adoption professionals are going to use pop culture to approach people online about accepting adoption, maybe they should consider using material that accepts adoption. I'm not going to rehash the review of the film I did in August. It's not worth your time and it certainly doesn't deserve that much space in anyone's brain. But I can't help but wonder what the hell these people are thinking emblazoning on their advertisements images from a film that encourages emotionally damaging ideas about adoption. The only conclusion I can come up with is the person who thought up this ad campaign either never saw the movie, shouldn't be working in the adoption industry, or has firmly lodged their cranium into one of their own orifices.

Thank you for putting up with this rant. I hope you have a pleasant day.