Promoting Successful Adoptions: Practice with Troubled Families


Susan Livingston Smith & Jeanne A. Howard

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    PROMOTING SUCCESSFUL ADOPTIONS: Practice With Troubled Families



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    To the families who created us and the families we created, with appreciation for your encouragement and patience


    Adoption is a unique phenomenon that involves profound life events—the creation of life and the creation of families. Although only about 2% of Americans are themselves adopted, adoption touches the lives of many more. Adoptive parents, spouses, and children of adopted individuals, birth parents who relinquish children, and other family members all confront issues in their lives that are linked to adoption. Those of us who are not directly affected by adoption often underestimate its complexity and effect. When helping professionals work with families touched by adoption, they need adoption-related knowledge, sensitivity, and competence.

    This book seeks to build on our own research on adoption disruption, adoption dissolution, and postlegal adoption services to provide a knowledge base for work with troubled adoptive families. We conducted a 4-year study of an adoption preservation program in Illinois that was developed to serve adoptive families at risk of child placement or adoption dissolution. We also completed a project for the U.S. Children's Bureau to synthesize the work of the approximately 65 postlegal adoption projects that it funded over a 6-year period. Through our research, we have come into contact with many adopted children and families struggling to heal from past losses and traumas. We have heard many painful stories of adoptive families' encounters with helping professionals that compounded their difficulties rather than relieved them. It is common for families seeking help from the Illinois Adoption Preservation Project to have seen many mental health professionals over a 5- to 10-year period without achieving any notable improvement in their family situations. In fact, some of these families felt that they had been harmed by professionals who encouraged them “to give their children back” (as if that were possible) or blamed parents for family problems.

    There is a great need for social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, residential treatment staff, teachers, and others who work with adopted children and families to understand the issues, dynamics, and strategies intrinsic to adoption preservation work. Such understanding is even more important for professionals working with special needs adoptive families. Our purpose is to present a comprehensive overview of adoption preservation work that is linked with the available empirical literature on adoption, theoretical knowledge underlying adoption practice, practice knowledge in this area, and the insights gained from our adoption preservation research.

    This volume is grounded in both empiricism and practice wisdom. As researchers, we are familiar with the body of adoption research and the need for empirical testing of long-held assumptions. We also are social work educators with child welfare practice backgrounds. In addition, through our close relationships with adoption clinicians, we have gathered many practice-based insights related to adoption work. In this volume, we are seeking to integrate theoretical, research-based, and practice literature relevant to understanding the variety of issues intrinsic to post-adoption services. These issues include attachment, grief, identity, the effect of trauma, common family dynamics in troubled adoptive families, and other topics. All case material in this book reflects real family situations, although the identifying information has been modified to protect the confidentiality of the families.

    It is important to recognize that the stories presented in this volume are not representative of all adoptions, or even of all special needs adoptions. The focus of this work is primarily troubled adoptions. All adoptive families must confront certain issues and tasks, which are discussed in this book. The majority of adoptive families are able to navigate their lives successfully without professional help. This is not to say that they may not benefit from special educational or therapeutic services from time to time as they confront specific adoption-related issues. It does mean that these issues do not pose extraordinary difficulties to their ongoing functioning as a family or as individuals. Yet, some adopted individuals and their families are not able to incorporate or to adjust to specific aspects of their adoption situation without the help of others having special understanding of adoption. This book is written for those families and the professionals working with them.

    Like all authors, we bring a set of assumptions to our work. Our views on adoption have been formed through our own research, the research and experience of other professionals, and the stories of adoptive families. Over time, we have developed the following assumptions about adoption, assumptions that guide our research and this book.

    First, we believe adoption to be a beneficial response to children in need of homes. We believe that society should promote adoption, particularly for children whose families have been proven unable to meet their basic needs. We believe that adoption typically is better for children than remaining in the child welfare system, and that every child deserves a permanent home.

    Second, we believe adoption is best understood ecologically. The process of adoption and the status of being adopted interact with a host of factors that can protect a child or predispose a child to difficulty. A child's adoption through the child welfare system often is associated with difficult life events—loss of attachment figures, abuse and neglect, insecurity and powerlessness. The history and personality of the child interact with the history and personalities of other family members. Both interact with a host of systems in the environment—the extended family, the school system, the neighborhood, the church, and friends. Further, adoption takes place in the context of the larger society. Thus, families are influenced by societal perceptions of adoption as a means to form a family.

    Not all adoptive families struggle unduly. Not all adopted children feel desolate or abandoned. Some adopted children and their families struggle mightily, however. Adoption is another aspect of family life, one that can pose significant challenges. It must be incorporated into the family's identity and functioning, as are differences such as divorce.

    Third, we believe that society has an obligation to support adoptive families beyond the point of adoption finalization. This obligation appears particularly clear to us for those who come to adoption through the child welfare system. The challenges presented by many of these children will persist. We believe that the public child welfare agency, in concert with a range of community supports, should provide families with the resources they need to function effectively.

    We now present the case for post-adoption services, along with an overview of the needs of adoptive families, common dynamics in troubled adoptive families, and a framework for understanding issues and interventions.


    Many people helped us make this book a reality. We would like to express our appreciation to the following individuals and organizations for their contributions to our work: the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, for its vision and responsiveness in the development of adoption preservation services tailored to the needs of families; our colleagues, Mary Campbell, Judy Pence, Karla Uphoff, and Ivy Hutchison, for their ideas and assistance in the preparation of this volume; the adoption preservation workers who spent hours sharing insights and discussing the nature of this work with us, especially Linda Matesi Wolter, Janet Yelovich, and Dave Matthews; Gary Morgan, whose dedication to children has been an inspiration; and the adoptive families who have committed their lives to children who desperately needed families. Finally, we thank our husbands, Jim and Rhondal, whose tolerance and encouragement helped sustain us to the end.

  • Appendix

    Table A.l Family Strengths (N = 331)
    Ability to communicate about concerns openly and directly74
    Parents committed to keeping adopted child72
    Demonstrate warmth toward the adopted child70
    Have previous parenting experience65
    Appropriately open about adoption65
    Have the ability to communicate openly with children64
    Have supportive friendships64
    Demonstrate confidence in the ability to parent60
    Have sustaining religious faith56
    Offer appropriately structured and stable environment56
    Reasonable degree of flexibility in dealing with children55
    Adequate financial base55
    Parents have interests outside the home54
    Have the ability to identify problems and generate strategies for resolution54
    Know and are comfortable with child's preadoptive history50
    Have supportive extended family50
    Demonstrate a tolerance for conflict45
    Have strong marital relationship44
    Demonstrate optimism43
    Have contact with others who have adopted35
    Table A.2 Association between Strengths Identified and Raising Dissolution
    StrengthChi-SquareSignificant Level
    Committed to keeping child40.54.0000
    Demonstrate optimism25.82.0000
    Demonstrate warmth18.10.000
    Tolerate conflict9.46.0088
    Contact with adoptive families8.04.0046
    Flexibility in dealing with child9.27.0023
    Maintain structured environment10.04.0182
    Parents open about adoption4.64.0312
    Communicate openly with child4.33.0376

    Table A.3 Current Feelings about Relationship with Child (in percentages)

    Table A.4 Mean Scores of Adoption and CBC Samples

    Table A.5 Percentage Scoring in Clinical Range on CBC Scales

    Table A.6 Behavior Problem Score by Age at Adoptive Placement
    Placement AgeBehavior Problem Score
    Under 114.34
    1–2 years11.25
    3–6 years13.03
    7 and up13.19

    Table A.7 Parent Responses on Support Group Items (in percentages)

    Table A.8 Parents' Responses Related to Children's Support Groups (in percentages)


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    About the Authors

    Susan Livingston Smith is Professor of Social Work at Illinois State University, and a licensed clinical social worker who has been practicing, teaching, and doing research in child welfare for 30 years. She has published studies related to child abuse—its etiology, investigation, and impact—as well as to special needs adoption. As Co-Director of the Center for Adoption Studies, she continues to strive to advance our understanding of the needs of children in the child welfare system and ways of facilitating their healing as they grow up in adoptive families.

    Jeanne A. Howard is Co-Director of the Center of Adoption Studies and Associate Professor of Social Work at Illinois State University. She has been interested in child welfare since her internship with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services over 20 years ago. Concern about what became of children who entered the child welfare system sparked her research into visitation by parents of children in care, adoption disruption, and the functioning of children and families after adoption finalization.

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