Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Adoption Policy and Practice in the U.S.A.: Interview with Ruth McRoy, Ph.D.

[Episode 63] Today's Social Work Podcast is a broad overview of current policies and practices associated with adoption in the United States. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, 6 in 10 Americans have had experience with adoption, meaning you, or a family member or close friend was adopted, adopted a child, or put a child up for adoption. Although most Americans have experience with adoption, as you'll hear in today's interview, the world of adoption is incredibly complex. For example, is it ever acceptable to consider the race of a prospective adoptive family when making placement decisions? For example, you're looking to place an African American child. You have three prospective adoptive families - two African American and one White. Assuming all things are equal, could you use race as an exclusionary criterion? What about if the child was White, Latino, or Native American? If you know the answer - congratulations. If not, keep listening. And even if you know the answer, keep listening.

My guest, Dr. Ruth McRoy, has been an academician, researcher, practitioner, trainer and lecturer in the field for over 30 years. She is a member of the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) Board and is a Senior Research Fellow and member of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute Board. In today's conversation, Ruth talks about different kinds of adoptions such as transracial, international, infant placement, and foster care adoption. She talks about the role of the social worker in adoption, from pre-placement to post-placement. She talks about some of the national and international laws that regulate adoption, such as the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act. We end today's conversation with some resources that you can tap for more information about adoption, including the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, the National Resource Center for Adoption,, and the North American Counsel on Adoptable Children.

One quick word about today's Social Work Podcast: I recorded the interview with my Zoom H2 digital recorder. Ruth and I were sitting in an empty lecture hall at the Oregon Convention Center during the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social Work Education. Empty rooms are something of a commodity at conventions and I've done my best to edit out the sounds of people opening and closing the door looking for their own place to get some privacy. And now, without further ado, on to Episode 63 of the Social Work Podcast: Adoption Policy and Practice in the USA: Interview with Ruth McRoy, Ph.D.

Download MP3 [31:23]

Dr. McRoy has authored or co-authored eight books and more than 100 articles and book chapters on child welfare issues. Her recent honors include the 2004 Flynn Prize for Social Work Research from the University of Southern California, the 2005 George Silcott Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Administrators in Child Welfare, and the 2006 Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR).

An academician, researcher, practitioner, trainer and lecturer in the field for over 30 years, McRoy's work has focused on topics such as open adoptions, adoptive family recruitment, transracial identity development, family preservation, adolescent pregnancy, African American families, kinship care, and disproportionality in child welfare. She has received major research funding from public and private agencies such as the US Department of HHS, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, and the Hogg Foundation. She is a member of the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) Board and is a Senior Research Fellow and member of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute Board.


Jonathan Singer: Ruth thank so much for being here today and talking with us about adoption, and my first question for you is, what’s the current state of adoption?

Ruth McRoy: There are a number of different issues on adoption these days. When you think about the placement of a child that came from one set of parents placed with a family, non-biologically related as we have typically defined it, there are a number if different types of adoptions that we talk about. There may be trans-racial adoptions in which a child comes from one set of birth parents of a particular racial background, and is being placed with a family of a different racial background, for example an African American child being placed with a Caucasian adoptive family. There are also inter-country adoptions in which a child may be coming from one country, now being placed in a different country, maybe a child from China that is being adopted by a family from the U.S., or a child from South Africa who is being adopted by a family from Sweden. All kinds of things brings up a lot of different issues. There are also, now we’re talking in terms of infant placements, related to the age of the child, a very small child being placed after birth with adoptive families. There are children who have been removed from their birth families and placed in foster care, and when those children are adopted, those are typically referred to as foster care adoptions, adoptions from care, many of those are older child placements, some of those involve placements of sibling groups, some of those may be a trans-racial adoptions as well. Many of the infant adoptions are done by private agencies, sometimes by independent programs or attorneys. In addition to the infant placements and the foster care adoptions, now we are also having kinship adoptions, in which a related family member may adopt the child, whose parental rights have been terminated but relatives might adopt the child. There also foster parent adoptions in which individuals who have served as the child’s foster parents, now will legally adopt the child.

Jonathan Singer: So really it sounds like there are a lot of different kinds of adoptions.

Ruth McRoy: Yes there are, and within those kinds of adoption, there are differences in terms of opportunities for contact between birth and adoptive families. Historically, once the adoption papers were signed, there would be no further contact between birth and adoptive families, but now we have varying degrees of openness in adoption, which include the traditional more confidential adoption with no further contact. We also have mediated adoptions, in which there may be information that is transmitted between adoptive and birth families, but that non-identifiable information is typically transmitted through the agency, between the two parties. Some of those transmissions may be time-limited, which would suggest a time-limited mediated adoption in which that transfer of information is for a specified period of time. Or there may be ongoing, fully disclosed adoptions in which the adoptive parents and the birth parents are exchanging identifiable information with opportunity for ongoing face-to-face contact. Or maybe contact that is between the two parties, maybe by e-mail or postal mail, but it is direct and not through the agency. Sometimes those contacts are ongoing, and then sometimes they are time-limited; one party stops sending mail or making contact. There are also variations in terms of the persons involved in such contact; maybe it involves the birth mother, once in a while, from time to time, maybe the birth father is involved, and sometimes there are contacts in which birth grandparents, and similarly adoptive grandparents. So there are a lot of different dynamics that are ongoing in these, what we call kinship networks that are formed through adoption.

Jonathan Singer: So the complexity continues. So I guess my next question is, what is a social worker’s role in all of these various, permutations of adoption?

Ruth McRoy: Well there are a variety of different roles that social workers may play. First of all, if we’re talking about adoptions that are arranged through private agencies, the social worker typically is on staff of a private agency. The social worker may be involved in working with birth families, or it may be a specialized agency in which social workers just work with birth families. Other social workers may work with the adoptive families, and in those roles they may be preparing a birth parent for the placement of her child, maybe preparing both birth mother and birth father. The social worker may be working with adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, and that role sometimes involves the recruitment of those prospective parents, or the preparation of those prospective parents. They may be involved in offering a preparation class, or individual home visits and agency visits to study the family. They may or may not use a standardized home study assessment in order to assess the probability of that family being a good adoptive family. The next step of course, is once the adoptive family has been selected using the social worker’s and the agency’s standards for adoption, the social worker is involved in matching the characteristics of a family with the characteristics of the child. If it’s an infant, that may or may not involve looking at physical characteristics, looking at the preferences of the adoptive parents for the child they hope to adopt, related to the gender preference, age preference, or they may or may not be willing to accept a child with a disability. All of those are factors that are being considered, and similarly the birth parent may have her wish list for prospective adoptive parents, maybe a preference for a two parent family over a single parent, or it may not make a difference to that birth parent. The birth parent may have a preference for the child to be placed within race versus trans-racial, all kinds of factors might go into that decision making. Social workers also are often involved not only at pre-placement, but also in assisting the child and family in the adjustment once the child is in the home, and then post-placement after the adoption is finalized, typically around six months after the adoption depending on the state laws. Then there may be post-placement services that are provided to the family, it could be in the form of opportunities for returning to the agency for counseling, or involvement in the openness in adoption arrangement. If that is the case, the social worker may be involved in encouraging families to participate in support groups, all of these might be options. In a public agency adoption, there’s typically a number of social workers involved in a case, involving work with the birth family in which typically there has been a termination of parental rights, it is often is an involuntary termination of parental rights unlike the situation of the voluntary termination with private agencies. In many cases the social worker might be involved in working with the prospective adoptive family; preparing them, taking them through a training process, helping them identify the kind of child or children that they may adopt, preparing them for the adoption of maybe older children, developmentally what their needs might be, preparing the family to consider what impact it will have on the family. Perhaps as an example, a sibling group of two or five coming into the family, and the family is already parenting birth children or maybe fostering children, or maybe already has adoptive children, helping that family evolve in understanding the relationships and the impact on the existing relationships with new children joining the family who have a history of their own, a history with a birth family, maybe a history of being in the foster care system, maybe having moved multiple times, maybe having experienced multiple attachments through that process, and may be coming in with a variety of different needs. Similarly, the social worker would be involved as well with the provision of post-placement services which are very much needed, in helping the family acquire adoption subsidies if eligible for such subsidies to support that adoption, helping the family adjust, helping the child adjust, all of those are among the multiple roles social workers might play in each of those systems.

Jonathan Singer: So there are a lot of different kinds of adoptions, and sounds like there are roles that social workers play from pre-placement to post-placement, and everything in between, and I imagine that adoption is fairly regulated……

Ruth McRoy: Um hm

Jonathan Singer: ……and what are some of those regulations or laws that guide adoption practices?

Ruth McRoy: There are a variety of both state and federal laws that can guide adoption practice. There are in some states for example, laws that are prohibiting gay and lesbian adoptions, there are often proposals and some state legislation that may address some of those specific issues in terms of who can adopt. There are federal laws for example, the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act that was passed in 1994, the Inter-Ethnic provisions passed in 1996, which require diligent recruitment of families that are of the same racial and ethnic background as the children that are being placed, but also require that states not make placement decisions solely based on race. Those policies have a huge impact in terms of placement decision making in various states, those are federal laws.

Jonathan Singer: Can you give an example of what those laws might look like in practice?

Ruth McRoy: Yes. As an example, an interpretation of the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act that’s often made by agencies, is that since race is not to be considered, an agency can go out and recruit, but cannot just look at families of a particular racial background for a child. Let’s say they are seeking families for an African American child, they cannot limit consideration to just African American families, they must be open to all families that are making applications that have been approved to adopt, so race cannot be in any way a limiting consideration. Similarly, based upon the requirement within the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act for diligent recruitment, agencies must go out and look for families that are of a similar background but they cannot limit consideration to those families in making a decision about a particular child.

Jonathan Singer: And would that extend to religion?

Ruth McRoy: There are no existing federal laws that stipulate that a family has to belong to a particular background to match that of the child, no. There are other laws such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, which actually requires that agencies, and this law is very different from the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978 requires agencies to seek first a family that is of the same tribe as the child that is available for adoption. If that cannot be done, the expectation is to seek a family of another tribe but still an Indian Native family. If that cannot be done, if and only then would you consider a non-Indian family, and what’s interesting about that is it’s a specific law pertaining to the adoption of Indian children which is very different from that of the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act. There are other policies, for example the Hague Treaty Impacts Inter-country adoptions, which is kind of interesting because within inter-country adoptions there’s an expectation that families are prepared for such adoptions, they have to go through a specified number of hours of training to prepare them for the adoption of a child from another country. That kind of requirement for training is not there, in the case of trans-racial adoptions, so depending upon the country of origin, the type of adoption if it’s inter-country, if the child is Native or Indian, those laws are different than a U.S. born child who specifically comes from typically interpreted as an African American child within the U.S.. Now the reality is that the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act should apply to all U.S. children, but it seems to be applied in practice more to African American children that are the group being adopted, often by White families. There are also a number of trans-racial adoptions, of Hispanic children into White families, we know that as a result of the experiences of many of these families that have trans-racially adopted, they have unique needs that they often seek opportunities for participation and support groups after the adoption through post-adoption services, recognizing that there are some unique challenges that they experience and they may not have been prepared for, prior to the adoption.

Jonathan Singer: So of course that bags the question, what are some of the supports they’re looking for, what are some of the experiences and some of the ways in which these families are not prepared, that if perhaps they were adopting a baby from Russia or China or some other country, they would have been required to be prepared.

Ruth McRoy: Um hm, um hm. There are a number of factors I should mention that agencies can offer a group, not mandated but can offer a group that would prepare families, but it cannot be solely offered to trans-racial parents, it has to be open to all families seeking to adopt, and that is different from the provision through Hague for inter-country adoptions, for families that typically need help with the child’s racial identity development, in the case of a trans-racial adoption. It is evident to the child and to others that that child is adopted because that child does not share the same phenotypic characteristics as the adoptive family, of course a child who does not share the same genotypic characteristics notices the differences. For example, often their skin color, their hair texture, and other physical characteristics are different than that of the family, they experience others around them often staring and asking questions, were you adopted? So this comes and children typically become aware of racial differences at an early age, typically around three or four years of age, and they often will ask questions. “Why is my skin brown and your skin is white?” “Why is my hair curly and your hair is straight?” They ask those questions, and they are asked that by their peers who will say, “Is that your real mommy?” “Is that your real daddy?” “You don’t look like them“. And the child is confronted with those kinds of things and then ask the parents. Parents often need help in trying to figure out, “How do I best explain this to the child at an early age?” “How do I explain about the adoption?” “How do I explain the racial difference?” Many of these families are living in communities in which the child may be the only one that has the characteristics that he or she might have and that becomes more evident, that the child is different from the family. Families often have questions about, “How do I reach out to a support group that looks like the child?” “How do I meet people within the community or outside of the community, so that this child has role models that look like him or her?” “How do I give this child an opportunity to play with other children that look like him or her because in this child’s school, that doesn’t exist“. So families typically have lots of questions related to this, “How do I answer the child’s questions about adoption, and the difference in racial identity?” Some families are seeking to have an opportunity to interact with other trans-racial adoptive families, “We want to talk with others who are experiencing the same kinds of things“. Some families are seeking very specific basic needs, trying to find, for example, a beautician that will be able to care for their child’s hair texture which may be different from the hair texture of parents. They sometimes are looking for someone to advise related to maybe something like dry skin, and not knowing who do I ask about those kinds of things. I talked with a family once who said, “We have no idea, do we just see some African American family walking around the grocery store and say would you help me?” “Would you help me with my child?“ As one family asked me one time, “Would you come by and sit with my child and expose the child to being African American because you’re the only one I know that looks like you, and looks like the child, how do I find those connections?” So many families have a lot of questions, and they often go back to the agency, and sometimes the agency will try to start a support group, and sometimes they might not. Many families who are trans-racially adopted, or maybe gay or lesbian, and so they have additional kinds of questions and issues that are being asked by the child in terms of not only racial identity, questions about gender and sexual identity, and the child often has questions that are raised to them, “Why do you have two mommies?”, “Why do you have two daddies?”, “Why do you have two mommies and two daddies that don’t look like you?”. They are of a different racial background, and the parents need to know that they can go to their family, with knowledge to be able to help them and address those questions.

Jonathan Singer: So we’ve talked about the different types of adoption, we’ve talked about the roles that social workers play, and you’ve just gone into some brief detail about trans-racial or multi-ethnic adoption, and I suspect that there are some listeners who might be hearing these ideas for the first time, and would love to know where to get more information, so can you suggest some resources for folks?

Ruth McRoy: Yes, there are a number of different websites that I would suggest, and parent groups. One I would mention is the North American Counsel on Adoptable Children, the acronym is NACAC, which has an annual conference each year typically in August, and brings together adoptive families they have provisions for children there, but it’s a wonderful opportunity for parents and professionals to get together and learn about many of the issues that I’ve been talking about. So again, that’s NACAC, on their website,, lots and lots of good information. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, out of New York City provides many well researched papers on it’s website, papers that are focused on such topics as the interpretation of the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, the post-adoption services, lesbian and gay adoptions, many different papers are posted there, lots of good resources for families. In addition to those two entities, the website for All Children All Families provides excellent information for gay and lesbian adopters, similarly those topics are often discussed on the NACAC website and the Evan B. Donaldson Institute website. One that is sponsored by the U.S. Children’s Bureau is the Child Welfare Information Gateway, lots and lots of interesting links to all kinds of information about adoption, about foster care. The National Resource Center on Permanency and Family Connections, located at Hunter College, is again a federally funded project, it has many resources listed there on different types of adoption. The federally funded projects sponsored by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, called, is a wonderful resource for adoptive family members, not only for families who have adopted but for prospective adoptive families. Adopt Us Kids offers a photo listing website that includes children that are waiting for adoption, and families that are waiting for adoption, there are over 4,000 children listed, there are over 4,000 families listed, lots of good information and resource materials, such as a publication called Finding A Fit That Lasts A Lifetime, which is a wonderful resource document for agencies trying to find appropriate families for children available for adoption. Both the Child Welfare Information Gateway and Adopt Us Kids presents information about the numbers of children awaiting adoption, currently there are about 114,000 children available for adoption, about 70,000 of those are legally free for adoption, those are represented among the population of children in foster care which is around 466,000 at this point. Each year about 75,000 or so children are adopted from foster care. Information about those adoptions and about those children can be found on many of those websites that I’ve identified.

Jonathan Singer: That’s great, those are wonderful resources and I’ll make sure that we put them on the Social Work Podcast website so people can go link directly to them.

Ruth McRoy: There’s one more resource that I want to mention and that’s the National Resource Center for Adoption, and that is located in Spaulding, Michigan, again a federally funded initiative with lots and lots of excellent information There are opportunities for states to receive training in technical assistance at each of those resource centers, including the National Resource Center for Permanency, the National Resource Center for Adoption, and Adopt Us Kids, where consultants will go out into the states and work with state adoption managers and workers, focused on trying to find permanency for that large number of children in foster care that need adoptive families. Currently we have about 30,000 children who age out of the system, each year, who never achieved permanency through adoption. Large numbers of those children end up among the homeless population, many of those children end up in the criminal justice system, we have a great need to find families who wish to provide a permanent home for children in the system. So it’s extremely important for both public agency workers and private agency workers to partner, to increase the chances of those at this point, 114,000 children, that need to have a place to call home.

Jonathan Singer: Ruth thanks so much for talking with us today about this clearly urgent issue of adoption, for providing statistics and the real life aspects of why adoption is important for the kids, and is something that we should be considering as social workers who are involved in human rights and social justice. So thanks for being here.

Ruth McRoy: Thank you for inviting me, I enjoyed it.


References and Resources

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Host). (2010, December 29). Adoption policy and practice in the U.S.A.: Interview with Ruth McRoy, Ph.D. [Episode 63]. Social Work Podcast. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from


kat222 said...

Very informative podcast, thank you as I always learn so much from listening. Adoption does seem to be very complex these days. Adoption has had a impact on my life in a couple of ways. I found out that I had two older siblings about seven years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter. The sealed records were opened which seems to be an easy task, and I was contacted against my mother's wishes. My mother's secret world fell apart.. she was devastated and many emotions have unfolded since this discovery. I have witnessed first hand the recklessness from a desire to know your birth family at any cost. I am working on my MSW from USC and as a future social worker I will advocate for women like my mother to ensure their anonymity and caution siblings to be discreet. I understand the need to know your birth family but it doesn't always end like a fairy tale. In addition my daughter is from a donor egg. Will she feel the same desire? That's a whole new variable to add to the complexity of adoption.

Jae Ran said...

Thank you for highlighting the work of Dr. McRoy.

To kat222, your comment really raised a lot of red flags for me. I was adopted, and I feel your comment was insensitive towards adopted individuals, especially those who search for birth family. I have much compassion for women (and men) who felt they had no choice but to relinquish a child for adoption. However, I do not believe that their desire for secrecy and privacy trumps their child's desire or right to know who their biological parents are and/or their family history.

Adoptees who search are not attempting to be reckless, they are attempting to know WHO THEY ARE. Only those who know their biological histories have the luxury and privilege of being able to tell someone else it doesn't matter.

Your child may, or may not, have the same feelings. Right now, adults who were conceived via donor are, in fact, organizing and advocating.

As a fellow MSW, will you also advocate for the adopted individual? Or are you only willing to help birth mothers. I hope you also know that not all birth mothers and fathers feel like yours. There are many who want contact with their children. I hope you are willing to consider all the sides of the issue.