Adoption Nation’s Adam Pertman On How Openness Has Changed Adoption–And How Adoption Has Changed Us, Part 1

What do you do for an encore when your first book is not only called an instant classic, but is hailed as “an invaluable resource on all aspects of adoption” by the Sexiest Man Alive? (That would be Hollywood hunk and adoptive father, Hugh Jackman).

Add new material and update it, of course. And that’s just what Adam Pertman has done with the new, revised version of his 2001 bestseller, Adoption Nation.

How The Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families–And America” is the book’s new subtitle. But judging by my recent conversation with Pertman about open adoption trends in 2012, it might just as well read “How Openness is Transforming Our Families–And America.”

As the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and an adoptive father, Pertman has shared his thoughts in hundreds of articles, books and publications. He’s also the only adoption expert that I know who is regularly quoted in both the New York Times and People (including, as it so happens, today). So it’s a pleasure to have him here with us.

Due to space constraints, I’ve removed my questions and slightly edited and condensed his answers. You can find more about Adam and his thoughts about adoption at his website. And you can find out more about my conversation with him here on Thursday.

How adoption has changed in the 21st century

The biggest change in the world of adoption is in the type of adoptions that now take place. The adoptions that people historically think of when they think of adoption, infant adoption, is now the smallest minority. The majority are from the child welfare system.

This is the country that adopts more children than all other countries combined. And yet today, the number of infant adoptions is a) the smallest percentage and b) even within that it’s not what it used to be. It’s not mostly white infants born to unwed white mothers being raised by married white couples. Parents today are multiracial; they are sometimes gay or lesbian or single; and the kids are bracial or of colour.

And yet all the laws, policies, practices and attitudes about adoption today are still built on the platform of a type of adoption that barely exists.

How adoption has changed us

Child welfare placements make up by far the most adoptions in the U.S. But even that’s coming around. It’s more complicated. There are court orders. The kids are removed from their homes rather than placed voluntarily. But now there’s an understanding that knowledge, information, and even contact where it’s possible, is a positive thing for the people involved.

Another change we’ve found over time is that it’s not useful to put a square peg in a round hole. For generations we’ve tried to make adoption mimic the biological family formation because we were supposed to do it “right.” And that’s how we thought the “right” way to do it was.

But one of the things we figured out is that there’s more than one right way to do it. We don’t need to fit our square peg into that round hole in order to feel just as loving, complete and secure. So some of the realizations we’ve made are a) this child had another family before she entered mine. There’s grief and loss–that’s how I came to be a father. And b) that human being who made me a father is real and deserves compassion, understanding and inclusion.

Openness in adoption

Openness can pervade all types of adoption. It’s about honesty, information and contact with your own past and your knowledge of it. It’s about contact with your community or with your home country. Openness in adoption is profoundly taking over, even if open adoptions have a more limited scope.

We’ve made a lot of progress in openness and honesty from the days when people didn’t tell their children they were adopted. Although I have to say there are still people today who don’t do that. So we still haven’t reached our goals yet.

How openness has seeped into other types of adoption

Openness in adoption has an absolute overlay in all adoptions. The overwhelming majority of adoptions of infants today have some degree of openness. It’s rare for anyone to say I don’t want any contact or historical information, I just want a blank slate.

That’s not good practice. It’s not good for the kids and it’s not good for any of the adults in the picture. It happens in a very small percentage of time. Plus, there are other overlays: there’s search and reunion and the internet. So when you add it all up, the day of closed adoption is pretty much disappearing. But how much openness is another question.

Openness trends in international adoption

The trend in international adoption is that the numbers are plummeting. But the kids and adults who were adopted aboard are searching in unprecedented numbers. It’s a positive message for all of us because what we see is that adults are going back to find their birth families to get that information and meet people, if possible.

These people aren’t ingrates. They’re successful adopted people. And what they want is the same thing that everyone has as a birthright. They want to know where they came from, who they look like–all the stuff that the rest of us take for granted. And that’s a really big lesson for other realms of adoption. Because that movement toward international search and reunion and openness really started with infant adoptions.

What we’ve learned from adoptions from the past

We saw that it was alright for people to want this information–that women weren’t baby carriers for us, but rather were real human beings and mothers. We learned a lot –and that knowledge sort of seeped into other areas. The practice of international adoption became more informed and it became more open and honest because, as we all know, a lot of people have gone aboard in order not to have contact or openness in adoption.

Those insecurities that made them not want contact or connections aren’t good for them or their kids. Knowledge is good for you. Honesty is good for you and your kids. One informs the other. One feeds off the other and the trend line in that respect is toward greater openness.

What are your thoughts — how has openness or open adoption changed your life or your way of looking at things? Please leave your comments in the section below.