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Psychological And Social Service Issues In Adoption

A number of psychological and social service issues in adoption have arisen since the 1970s. Some of the more important issues include: (1) the psychological risk associated with adoption, (2) special needs adoption, (3) transracial adoption, and (4) openness in adoption.

Historically, adoption has been viewed as a highly successful societal practice for children whose biological parents could not or would not care for them. Evidence of the benefits of adoption is obvious when comparing the more favorable medical, psychological, social, and educational outcomes for adopted children with the increased problems manifested by those children who grow up in institutional environments, foster care, or neglectful and/or abusive homes. Furthermore, adopted children, on average, also have been shown to fare significantly better than those who come from socioeconomic backgrounds similar to the ones of the adopted children's biological families. Yet despite these benefits, many mental health professionals have expressed concern about possible psychological risk associated with adoption. Although research has documented that the vast majority of adopted children are well within the normal range of psychological and academic adjustment, the data also show that adopted children are more likely than their nonadopted age-mates to be referred for mental health services and to display a variety of diagnosable psychiatric conditions. In most cases, these conditions are associated with one or more of the following problems: inattention, impulsivity, defiance, aggressiveness, attachment difficulties, depression, learning disabilities, and substance abuse. Although numerous theories have been offered to explain the adjustment difficulties of adopted children, a common theme that runs through most of them is the psychological impact of adoption-related loss.

Today, a growing number of children are entering adoptive homes after experiencing life within the foster care system. Typically, they are older at the time of adoption placement and have histories of neglect and/or abuse. Some have significant medical problems. Others manifest serious psychological and learning difficulties. Prior to the early 1980s, these special-needs children were considered unadoptable. As a result, agencies did little to find permanent homes for them. Starting in the early 1980s, however, adoption agencies, guided and supported by federal legislation and financial incentives, became much more successful in placing these children with adoptive families. Although research has shown that special-needs adoptions are associated with less placement stability and greater adjustment problems among family members than are infant adoptions, the more remarkable and encouraging finding is that the vast majority of these placements remain intact and family members report a reasonably high degree of satisfaction with the adoption outcome.

Another area that has received considerable attention in the adoption field is the placement of children across racial lines. Critics of transracial adoption have argued that this practice not only undermines children's self-esteem, racial identity, and emotional stability, but also promotes racial and cultural genocide. In contrast, individuals who support transracial adoption emphasize that children's interests are best served by placing them in a nurturing and stable family as quickly as possible, even if the children are of a different race than the parents, rather than waiting until an in-racial adoptive placement can be achieved. Although research has shown that most children who are placed across racial lines show similar patterns of psychological adjustment as those individuals who are adopted in-racially, questions still remain regarding the long-term impact of transracial adoption, especially in relation to the development of a secure racial identity.

Perhaps the greatest controversy in the adoption field since the 1970s has been the emergence of openness in adoption, including the movement toward un-sealing adoption records. With the creation of the adoption agency system in the early part of the twentieth century, emphasis was placed on maintaining confidentiality in the adoption process. Adoption records were sealed by law, and birth parents and adoptive parents were prevented from sharing identifying information with one another. As a result, adopted individuals grew up knowing little about their background, having little or no contact with birth family members, and being prevented from having access to their original birth certificate. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, however, there was a Since the 1970s, many of the restrictive criteria for adoptive parenthood have been eliminated. As a result, adoption has become a remarkably complex social service practice and a highly diverse form of family life. (AP/Wide World Photos) substantial shift toward greater openness in adoption. It has since become quite common for birth parents and adoptive parents to create an adoption plan in which the two families share information on an ongoing basis and even have periodic contact with one another. A number of states (e.g., Tennessee, Oregon, Alaska, Kansas) have also passed laws allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificate. In addition, a growing number of adult adoptees and birth parents are seeking to make contact with one another. Although critics of openness in adoption have expressed concerns that these types of changes in adoption policy, practice, and law will have dire consequences for birth parents and adoptive parents, as well as for adoptees, research has thus far failed to support these concerns. Still, most social service and mental health professionals do not view either open adoption or the unsealing of adoption records as a panacea for the problems experienced by birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees. Rather, the movement toward openness is seen as a way of removing the veil of secrecy that has been associated with adoption for some time, thereby offering all parties a greater sense of personal control over their own lives. It is still too soon to know how these changes will influence the lives of individuals who are touched by adoption.

There is no question that adoption, as a social service practice, has become exceedingly complex. In turn, this complexity has given rise to many controversies among social service and mental health professionals, and has fostered a greater degree of challenge for adoptive family members. Yet for all the changes that emerged in this field in the twentieth century, it is important not to lose sight of one important point: Adoption was created, in part, to provide family permanency for children and to foster their physical, psychological, educational, and spiritual well-being. Although certainly not a perfect system, adoption has been quite successful in achieving these goals.


Brodzinsky, David M., Daniel W. Smith, and Anne B. Brodzinsky. Children's Adjustment to Adoption: Developmental and Clinical Issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

Brodzinsky, David M., Marshall D. Schechter, and Robin M. Henig. Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Grotevant, Harold D., and Ruth G. McRoy. Openness in Adoption:Exploring Family Connections. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

Melina, Lois R. Raising the Adopted Child. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.

Register, Cheri. Are Those Your Kids? American Families with Children Adopted from Other Countries. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Reitz, Miriam, and Kenneth W. Watson. Adoption and the Family System. New York: Guilford Press, 1992.

Sachdev, Paul. Unlocking the Adoption Files. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989.

Schulman, Irving, guest ed. "Adoption" (special issue).Future ofChildren 3, no. 1 (1993).

David M. Brodzinsky

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 1Adoption - The Changing Nature Of Adoption, Psychological And Social Service Issues In Adoption