Thoughts about the MN Supreme Court ruling in contested adoption case

I was honored (and more than a little overwhelmed) to be interviewed on MPR News to discuss the implications of the MN Supreme Court case ruling in favor of foster parents over paternal grandparents in a contested adoption case. 

You can listen to the interview below:



In preparing for this interview, I read over the court's decision, as well as the dissents (
Download MN Supreme Court Opinion – Dunning case). I wanted to share some of my thoughts about this case, the court's ruling/dissents, and expand more on the implications of this case. 

I am not a legal expert or scholar so this is my perspective from a child welfare scholar standpoint. Back in early January, I was contacted by Olivia LaVecchia from the City Pages. Olivia was writing a story about this case and was looking for my thoughts as a child welfare scholar. Although none of my quotes were included in the article (the executive director of my Center, Traci LaLiberte, was included) Olivia did let me know later that I was helpful in providing broader contextual information for her as she wrote the story.

As I shared with Olivia, and mentioned briefly in the MPR interview, I saw this case as a story about what happens when systemic issues and communication and collaboration between systems fail. There have been comments on news sites, blogs and facebook discussions that largely are sympathetic to the foster parents, in sum pointing to the attachment and bonding that has been formed by both the children to the foster parents and vice versa. And there is no doubt that that has happened; there is no doubt in my mind that these parents have been wonderful, stellar and committed caregivers to these children; nor is there any doubt in my mind that to disrupt this placement would be very traumatic and emotionally heartbreaking to the children and the parents both.

The problem to me is that had earlier issues regarding kinship identification, kinship placement, and interstate collaboration and communication been practiced as required and with the best interests of the children in mind, then we wouldn't be having this discussion at all because these kids could have been placed with the relatives as their first placement, and the bonding and attachment would have been with the grandparents.

I had several pages of notes prepared for the interview and had such a short time to discuss with Mr. Picardi, but here is some expansion of some of the systemic issues that I believe were at play in this case: 

1. The interstate compact on the placement of children (ICPC) is an agreement that is in place in all states to provide assistance and oversight in placing children in foster and adoptive placements across state lines. But the ICPC is problematic to actually practice in real life and often fails children and families. Each state does adoption differently; how each state practically processes ICPC requests differ as well. 

2. One of the things that complicated this particular case is that a federal law that regulates how long children can be in placement before moving ahead with the "permanency plan" (that is, terminating parental rights and moving toward adoption or legal guardianship if reunification with family is determined to be not in the child's best interest) called the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Since these two girls in this case were placed as newborns, the minute they are placed with the foster family, that timeline clock starts ticking, and for children under 8, that means six months before the permanency review hearing is supposed to take place determining their plan for permanency.

Think about how this disadvantages relatives who come forward to adopt. In this case, because of the delays from the grandparent's state, the paperwork for the ICPC wasn't done in time to comply with the law. So the grandparents were screwed in part because of the fact that their state did not complete the ICPC process in a timely way, and because Minnesota did not have the resources or the ability to make the other state finish the paperwork.

3. We now practice something called "concurrent permanency planning" in child welfare which means that instead of planning for a child to be reunified with his or her parents and then, if that does not happen, we start planning for permanency (adoption or legal guardianship) in a sequential way, we are now by law required to do both at the same time. So the track is to place the child in the first foster placement with someone whose job is dual – to help support the child's reunification with the parents and also commit to adopting the child (or assuming legal guardianship) in case there is a termination of parental rights.

This is a terribly difficult job to do. To work to care, nurture and support a child, while helping support the child through the reunification process, and then to also adopt is asking a lot of families. As a result there is an unintended consequence to setting up the system this way. Many families sign up to do concurrent permanency planning (also known as legal risk placements) as their first choice for adoption because they often get babies and younger children (as in this case – both girls were placed as infants from the hospital).

Many social workers I've worked with have talked at length about how difficult it is to have foster parents who are concurrent permanency placement homes really do a good job helping in the reunification process  - and can you blame them? It would be difficult. For those doing this type of placement, in Minnesota the chance of the child becoming available for you to adopt is about 20%. That means most families will see 4 out of 5 of the children they care for reunite or go to relatives. For famililies who hope to adopt by becoming a concurrent permanency placement, it means lots of loss and lots of unknowns.

BUT – that is what they signed up for. And so while it's hard, and while I empathize and have compassion for the difficulty, it is SO FRUSTRATING to work with foster parents who half-heartedly or half-assed support reunification because they're really hoping for a TPR so they can adopt. It feels like you're being lied to, as the social worker, and it feels like they're manipulating the system. Sometimes it even feels like they're sabotaging the reunification – and if there is a relative interested then watch out for fireworks because foster parents often feel claim to those children because they've put in the sweat and tears.

Again, I feel a lot of compassion for concurrent permanency foster parents. They have a TOUGH job. And they are underappreciated. But they do have a job, and that is to support reunification.

4. The relatives should, when at all possible, be the concurrent permanency placement option. When families live in different states, or even in different counties, this can be mishandled. This is politics at play, between states and counties. When done well, relatives that are the concurrent permanency option end up being able to keep children in the larger family systems, as well as provide the stability and safety children need, without multiple placements and transitions. So when states and counties do not do a diligent search for relative placements or don't engage with relatives from the beginning, then families lose out on the opportunity to become the concurrent permanency placement.

Now, readers will chime in and say things like, the families were not appropriate, we couldn't find anyone who could pass the background check etc., the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, the family wouldn't work with us, etc., etc. 

Yes, these issues always come up. And for most of them, the easy way out is to just go ahead and rule them out because why not? A worker only has so much time and here we have eager concurrent permanency foster parents jumping at the chance to take in the kids. So you can fill in the rest of the story. Engaging relatives becomes more of a check-list and a rule out, rather than using social work skills and really working with the relatives because you believe its the right thing. Instead of advocating on behalf of relatives who are scared of the system (particularly if they're families of color and they have historical reason to be suspicious of government agencies who separate families), helping them get good legal representation, working to help them push past red tape and other bureaucratic barriers what ends up happening? Social workers do all the above for the FOSTER PARENTS not the relatives. 

5. Contested adoption cases like these are rare, but when they occur they seem to have the following elements – foster parents, often who are white and middle or upper class, who feel entitled to keep the children, and have the means to hire the best and most prestigious/premiere adoption attorney and often with the support of a local or state legislator – and biological or relatives, often of color, working class, who do not have the knowledge of the system enough to know what kind of attorney would best represent them, and without support of local politicians. 

6. Then in many cases, there are racial issues too. They are not additional, or separate, but intersectionally entwined with everything else. 

7. In this case, the foster family said at one time that they would help make sure the children had a relationship with their relatives. Yet out of frustration with the court case, they expressed that now they no longer would do that. I hope that this is just momentary frustration but it shows how little this is about the children and how much it's about grown up adults acting like children. Also, I was personally disturbed that the child who is named after the grandmother is not called by that name by the foster family. One more clue that the foster parents don't value the relational connection to the biological family.

So, that is a very long post that doesn't even begin to cover this case! And keep in mind that there are details I don't know and/or can't begin to cover them all, but I want to end with this. 

Nobody wins, really, in this situation. The girls have lost their opportunity to be raised with their biological family and even if the foster parents do the right thing and change their mind about having a relationship with the grandparents, the girls will not know their grandmother in the way they could have. While the foster family and their attorney hired experts to say that the attachment would be traumatic to these girls (and I believe that yes, it would be very difficult), I feel they patently overplayed the reality that these girls have the capacity to attach to the grandparents. The kids who struggle with attachment are the ones who never had the opportunity to attach in early life. These girls, by the very fact that they are strongly attached, definitely would be able to attach to other caregivers. The people in this case who are having more difficulty with the attachment are the foster parents.

In addition we often, regularly, move children who have been in placements even longer, because it's the right thing to do. I sometimes use this analogy. Let's say a child has been kidnapped by a stranger who treats them like their own and years later is found. That child may have grown up attached and bonded to the kidnapper but once found, they will still have to be taken away and returned to the custodial parent(s). We have to because it's the ethical thing to do, the right thing to do, even if we know that it means causing trauma by separating the child from the only parent they know. Now, don't get angry and leave comments that I'm calling the foster parents or the relatives kidnappers because I'm not – but this just shows how easily we can justify certain elements such as attachment to caregivers in ways that benefit us when it is about us and not about the child. Rather than thinking about it in the larger context of what's best for the children.

For their part, the relatives also believed it was their entitlement to have the girls, and as a result they and the foster parents created an atomosphere that really poisoned what could have been a lifelong supportive system of care for these girls. 

There is a common saying among many of us who work in child welfare – a child can never have too many people love them. If only the adults in this case believed this as well. 

Discussing a contested adoption ruling on MPR


Tomorrow morning I am scheduled to be a guest on Minnesota Public Radio to discuss the Supreme Court's ruling in a contested adoption case. The conflict, which was profiled by reporter Olivia LaVecchia for the City Pages in January, centers around the adoption of two little girls. The lower court had ruled in favor of the foster parents that had cared for both of the girls since their births and the grandmother in Missouri who had been trying to adopt them for nearly the same amount of time. 

The show is scheduled to air at about 11 am. I'll post a de-brief after the show.

New report on the impact of the internet on adoption

Last week, lost amidst the horror of Friday's events, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute released a report, "Untangling the web: The internet's transformative impact on adoption." 


I first heard about the report via this NPR story that came across my newsfeed. I gave the article my typical 5 raspberries on a scale of 1-5 for it's framing and ignoring adoptees and birth/first parents, which is typical since MPR simply can't seem to figure out that anyone other than adoptive parents matter in this transaction we call adoption. In addition, this particular story comes perilously close to sounding like baby-buying. 

The New York Times, which I often give at least 5 1/2 raspberries to for its poor framing and coverage of adoptees surprisingly began its story discussing how adoptees and birth/first families have used the internet to search and connect and find support (I wasn't surprised after learning who wrote the story, however, as I have spoken with reporter Ron Nixon and have found him to be incredibly more nuanced about adoption than most reporters). 

The Adoption Institute report covers both – how the internet and social media and social networks affect the pre-adoption process as well as the life-long impacts on adoptees and birth/first families that most people don't even consider in the emotional first days of an adoption placement. 

As the report states, "the internet is having a profound, permanent impact on modern adoption." It has had many beneficial effects on my life both personally and professionally, and yet I also see the many ways that the internet and use of social media and social networking sites have also harmed people.

Before I was blogging, I found online discussion groups and that is where I found my virtual community. Even though I grew up in a state that claims to have the highest per capita rate of Korean adoptees, growing up I didn't know they existed. Internet groups were my way of dipping my toes in the water, reaching out to meet others and learn that my experiences were similar to others.

And then I discovered blogs and adoptee bloggers and for a while there was a whole group of us. Sadly most of the others have quit. The blogs were also where I found adoptive parents, domestic adoptees, foster alum and birth/first parents. Blogs were an amazing way for me to get to know the other parts of the adoption constellation. 

As a county worker I used social media sites and the internet to look for family members, extended relatives and other former important people for the youth on my case load. The internet was a place where youth's profiles were sometimes uploaded as a tool for recruitment. The youth also could create Foster Club accounts and connect with others in foster care. 

There tends to be a lot of concern about the ethics of the internet in both pre-adoption recruitment and marketing, as well as in the post-adoption search and reunion areas. I agree that both of these areas are ripe for unethical and illegal activities – however I believe strongly that the internet is a tool, not a cause- and that the internet and social media sites are merely one more place where people behave, in both positive and negative ways. The instantaneous nature of the internet makes such behavior visible on a larger scale, to a larger number of people and harder to erase (which is itself practically impossible these days). 

Another issue I have is when adoptive parents over-share about their children, in particular the really negative stuff. There is one blog which I will not link to that several people over the past few months have told me to check out, where the adoptive parent gives great detail about her daughter's mental illness. While I fully support the intent to educate and find support, I think we need to remember that when talking about someone else's life, particularly a child's, we are adding vulnerability to an already vulnerable person. When a parent lays out their child's mental health problems, medical history, problem behaviors, it is out there for everyone. I think it's particularly hypocritical to be criticizing young people for sharing TMI on the internet when I see adoptive parents as being quite egregious in that department myself. Adoptive parents are not the only ones that share too much on the internet – adoption workers sometimes do as well. Agencies need to be thoughtful about what information about children is shared on the internet. Public profiles garner the page hits and inquiries, but may be violating the child's right to privacy. Just because a child is in foster care through no fault of their own is no reason to broadcast his or her information on the internet.

A few minor grievances: in the section about the internet's impact on information, support and affiliation for adoptees, the report perpetuates that adoptees are "young" by stating "[b]ecause they are by definition the youngest members of the adoption community…" (p.22). This is irritating since I am in my mid-forties and don't think adopted persons my age and older need to continue to be lumped together with children, youth and young adults – particularly since I am the same age or older as many adoptive parents and/or birth/first parents – so why are adopted persons always described as the youngest member of the triad? We are not children. Several of my adoptee friends are grandparents!

 I agree with the report's findings that key stakeholders need to come together to work on how best to safeguard children and families from unethical and illegal adoption practices and to craft a best-practices standard guide. However, the report lists stakeholders as "key organizations and experts in the fields of child welfare, foster care and adoption" (p. 53).  Last time I checked, adopted persons, first/birth parents and adoptive parents were both stakeholders and experts too and any best practice guide should also include those voices. 

For the whole report, see "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption" on the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute web page. You can also read the executive summary. 


ETA: 1:54 pm. I just learned today that Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, will be on NPR's Talk of the Nation discussing the report. I will link to it when it becomes available. 

4:27 pm. The link to the discussion is now available here. You can also listen to it here below.

MPR Talk of the Nation – Internet and Adoption

I’m tired of adoptive parent confessionals

Several folks have sent me links about the Slate article, "I did not love my adopted child" and the companion piece on NPR.

I hadn't written about it here because frankly sometimes it just seems too much. And because I'm trying to finish writing 3 research papers! 🙂

But I finally had to take the time to at least jot down a few thoughts:

  • I give her a few points because at least to some degree she recognizes that the typical "happy-happy-joy-joy" adoption narrative serves to hurt everyone involved who does NOT experience a smooth transition, a good "fit" between adoptive parent and child, post-adoption depression on the part of adoptive parents, post-adoption grieving on the part of the child and all the ways in which adoption is nothing less than this perfect way to "grow a family"
  • The author does clearly state what I think a lot of us have said in the past – prospective adoptive parents often think they're more prepared for the difficulties of adopting than they really are. It's easy, I think, for prospective adoptive parents to think, "not me, not my child."
  • To some degree I can even appreciate the "there- but-for-[fill in saving grace here]-go-I" sentiment, which I think all of us who claim to have an ounce of compassion often say

But –

  • I truly hope that the author is using a pseudonym. For the child's sake. I can't even imagine some day that child g00gling her adoptive mother's name some day and finding this article in which her mom confesses to not loving her
  • Is it not completely clear in this article that the child was TRAUMATIZED by being adopted? Being adopted as a toddler (3 years old in this case, which I really relate to because I was the same age when I was adopted) is considered by many to be one of the WORST times a child can be adopted. 
  • There seems to be a total lack of empathy for what the child went through being pulled from her foster parents to a strange white family in a strange country where EVERYTHING – language, food, sleeping, parenting, noise, environment, people – was different.

In general this was another adoptive parent's "I did it to help other adoptive parents" self-confessional, a la Tedaldi, but it once again attempts to elicit sympathy for just how hard it is for adoptive parents who have to struggle with pathologically ill-behaved adoptive children (or in other words, kids who did not live up to the adoptive parent's expectations of being so happy to attach to a new caregiver -  i.e. them). For parents who claim this is about the best interest of the child, whose interest is truly valued in these articles?

Where is the acknowledgment of the adoptee's perspective? Why do these articles merely continue to pathologize adopted children without really recognizing the trauma of the adoption experience itself? Lots of attention seems to be spent on the pre-adoption trauma – the triple bad boys of pre-adoption experiences (abandonment, institutional life, pre-abandonment abuse or neglect). What about the trauma of ripping a child away from the only people this child knew and placing them in a foreign country? What would Dell'Antonia have wanted for her biological son if he had to have been taken away from her and sent to China to an adoptive family who wanted to "grow their family?" Would she have recognized the trauma her son would have felt in that scenario? My guess is yes. My guess is she never recognized that the fact her adopted child was so attached to her foster parents was in many ways a good thing – it meant her daughter had the capacity to love someone. My guess is that it didn't really matter. It was more about her daughter's lack of attachment to her. Which is ridiculous, right? I mean, you don't expect to go on a first date with someone and immediately fall in love. Why would you expect that from a child?

NPR story: Why did you opt for an international adoption?

A discussion about international adoption on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Talk of the Nation, April 7, 2009 ·
Americans adopt thousands of children from other countries every year.
The process can be tricky, and would-be adoptive parents often face the
question "Why not adopt an American kid?"

Guests: Isolde Motley, co-author of You Can Adopt, and mother of one biological child and two adopted children

Susan Soon-Keum Cox, vice president of public policy and external affairs for Holt International

You can hear the story here.

Request for Adult Korean Adoptees in Minnesota

I'm passing on this request from Minnesota Public Radio

What does ending adoptions from South Korea
mean to you?

Last month, South
Korea announced plans
to end international adoptions
by 2012.  Minnesota has one of the largest Korean American adoptee populations
in the country, and Minnesota Public Radio News wants to learn how this change
will affect our state.

If you were adopted from a family in Korea or know someone who was, how
will this halt to adoptions change your life or your community?


Share your insights by clicking

International adoptions, in general, have declined in recent years,
mostly as countries including the United States struggle to enact and
enforce fair practices.  Still, it’s been estimated that 50
of Minnesota’s
Korean Americans are international adoptees.  Now that the call to end
these adoptions is becoming a reality, how will your community deal with the

How, specifically, is your family and community reacting to this news?
Is this a victory for KoreanAmerican
adoptees, a defeat, or is it bittersweet?  How will this change affect you

your insights
and experiences, your fears and observations. Then please
pass this message along to a friend who has experience with this issue.


Whitney Stark

Minnesota Public
Radio News
Public Insight Journalism

“American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many”

American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many

This is a series from NPR that highlights the racist underpinnings of the forcible placement of the First Nations people into boarding school.

One of the things I take very seriously is the underlying philosophy of the boarding school idea. It is not that far a stretch from some of the things I hear said to justify international and transracial adoption – perhaps not as openly racist as saying, "that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man" (Colonel Richard Pratt, the founder of the first boarding school, in justifying the reason for forced assimilation of the Native children in Christian boarding schools).

(this photo is of one student before and during his time at the Carlisle boarding school)

I think we must look carefully at history and not blindly follow what seems to be the next idea of what is in the "best interest of the child." History often tells us that what we once believed so strongly and fervently as "best practice" is, in hindsight, potentially destructive to the very people we had hoped to protect.

We must all continue to constantly check for our own biases and prejudices.

Listen to the report at NPR here and part 2 here.

NPR: “Adopted Teens Face Higher Risk for ADHD”

People have wondered for a long time whether children who were adopted
in infancy are at increased risk for psychological problems. Now, the
first study of its kind has found that most are psychologically
healthy, though they’re at "slightly increased risk" for behavioral
problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or
oppositional defiant disorder.

Listen to the broadcast on NPR Morning Edition. For another look at the study, check out the Chicago Tribune story. I thought it was very interesting that the children in this study adopted internationally had less of a risk than domestic infant adoptees. From the article:

The researchers had thought that adoptees born overseas would be at
higher risk of psychiatric disorders than those who were born and
placed in the U.S., but they found the reverse was true.

"Our hypothesis was that international adoptees might have faced ethnic
discrimination as they entered the school years and might have
experienced a longer period of exposure to pre-adoption adversity in
their country of origin, which would lead to a higher risk for
psychiatric distress," said Keyes, a research psychologist at the
Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research.

The assessments did find higher levels of separation anxiety among
international adoptees. Teachers also rated this group as significantly
more anxious in general than their non-adopted peers.

Debbie Riley, executive director of the Center for Adoption Support and
Education in suburban Washington, noted that teens who are adopted face
added pressure at a vulnerable time of life.

"Adoption is a significant event in an adolescent’s life which cannot
be ignored," Riley said. "If ever there’s a time when an adoptee is
likely to enter therapy, it’s during adolescence. . . . This is the
time when you form your identity—when you’re faced with, ‘Who am I?’

"These kids have this extra layer, and the issues are very complex."

Experts said other factors might include genetics, prenatal
malnutrition, drug and alcohol exposure, and the post-natal
environment, such as conditions in orphanages. Brodzinsky also pointed
to the significance of being cut off from one’s background and the
anxiety the experience can provoke, even when it occurs at an early age.

"When we experience losses, we grieve . . . but too often, adoptees are
told: ‘You should be grateful.’ They don’t get to grieve . . . and
blocked grief can result in pathology, such as depression," said
Brodzinsky, research director of the Donaldson Institute in New York

Keyes stressed that her study should not alarm adoptive parents. About
1.5 million children and teens younger than 18 in the U.S. are adopted.

The Power of Love to Transform and to Heal

The Power of Love to Transform and to Heal

by Jackie Lantry

Jackie Lantry

Nubar Alexanian

Lantry is a part-time hospital clerk in Rehoboth, Mass. She and her
husband have adopted two girls and two boys from China. When Jackie
asked her children what they believed in, they said "family."

Listen to the podcast here

Morning Edition, August 1, 2005 ·
I believe in the ingredients of love, the elements from which it is
made. I believe in love’s humble, practical components and their
combined power.

We adopted Luke four years ago. The people from
the orphanage dropped him off at our hotel room without even saying
goodbye. He was nearly six years old, only 28 pounds and his face was
crisscrossed with scars. Clearly, he was terrified. "What are his
favorite things?" I yelled. "Noodles," they replied as the elevator
door shut.

Luke kicked and screamed. I stood between him and the
door to keep him from bolting. His cries were anguished, animal-like.
He had never seen a mirror and tried to escape by running through one.
I wound my arms around him so he could not hit or kick. After an hour
and a half he finally fell asleep, exhausted. I called room service.
They delivered every noodle dish on the menu. Luke woke up, looked at
me and started sobbing again. I handed him chopsticks and pointed at
the food. He stopped crying and started to eat. He ate until I was sure
he would be sick.

That night we went for a walk. Delighted at
the moon, he pantomimed, "What is it?" I said, "The moon, it’s the
moon." He reached up and tried to touch it. He cried again when I tried
to give him a bath until I started to play with the water. By the end
of his bath the room was soaked and he was giggling. I lotioned him up,
powdered him down and clothed him in soft PJs. We read the book One Yellow Lion. He loved looking at the colorful pictures and turning the pages. By the end of the night he was saying, "one yellow lion."

next day we met orphanage officials to do paperwork. Luke was on my lap
as they filed into the room. He looked at them and wrapped my arms
tightly around his waist.

He was a sad, shy boy for a long time
after those first days. He cried easily and withdrew at the slightest
provocation. He hid food in his pillowcase and foraged in garbage cans.
I wondered then if he would ever get over the wounds of neglect that
the orphanage had beaten into him.

It has been four years. Luke
is a smart, funny, happy fourth-grader. He is loaded with charm and is
a natural athlete. His teachers say he is well behaved and works very
hard. Our neighbor says she has never seen a happier kid.

I think back, I am amazed at what transformed this abused, terrified
little creature. It was not therapy, counselors or medications. It did
not cost money, require connections or great privilege. It was love:
just simple, plain, easy to give. Love is primal. It is comprised of
compassion, care, security, and a leap of faith. I believe in the power
of love to transform. I believe in the power of love to heal.