Book review: Selling Transracial Adoption

downloadI recently finished Liz Raleigh’s book, Selling Transracial Adoption: Families, Markets and the Color Line.

The research that is the basis of this book is incredibly important and ground breaking. As a self-described systems person, I was thrilled to read a book that really explores practice, and Dr. Raleigh’s research does this well. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the research approach itself and the care in which the stories of the adoption professionals are told.

Throughout this book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement often; I’ve heard similar things from adoption professionals I’ve worked with over the years, and in an interesting turn, many of the things I’ve heard from adoptive parents over the years are echoed in this book as well. There were multiple times when I wanted to say out loud to someone, “Yes! What this worker said is almost word-for-word what [adoptive parent] said!”

…which then led me to a question – in what ways is the “script” so entrenched in our culture that the discourse of adoption is not just predictable, but frighteningly verbatim? It’s almost as if certain discourses of adoption are so culturally embedded that when we think we are describing processes, feelings, behaviors and/or thoughts about adoption in our own unique way that in reality we are only parroting what we have heard a million times before? I almost wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of Selling Transracial Adoption to my dissertation study because the discourses are so parallel.

But to get back to my original review: another part of what I appreciate so much about this book is that it shows the systems processes that are often larger and broader than what individuals tend to recognize. Adopting a child is very much experienced as an individual/family action with individual and/or a couple’s motivations and desires. Whether a person is adopting or parenting children born to them, most of us don’t think about how our own parenting motivations and processes contribute to larger social, cultural, capitalist, bureaucratic and institutional systems. Within intimate family spheres, we also can dismiss the injustices that are present in the larger systems and when it comes to adoption, this is particularly true when thinking about race and disability.

Some readers might be challenged with the main arguments of this book, particularly if you come from an individualistic perspective. Some parents might also feel that their choices to adopt are pathologized; I encourage you to read through and think less of your own particular story and really pay attention to Dr. Raleigh’s sociological analyses. This isn’t about any one family or any one adoption agency. I thought it was very clear that this book is not about blaming individual adoptive parents, adoption workers or adoption agencies. This book does, however, ask us to thinking about how the racism, ableism, and adult-focus (even within a supposed “best interest of the child framework) of our culture and society (in the U.S. at least) plays out the way we practice adoption. This book really asks us to step back from our own personal stories and ask a couple of important questions:

  • In what ways does our social and cultural environments mask our individual choices? That is, are we being misled to believe we are making independent and ethical choices regarding adoption or is the structure of the adoption industry actually leading us through well-established channels in ways we don’t even know?
  • Why has adoption become one of the social services that has become financially stratified in ways that mirror consumer/business services – where the child becomes commodified?
  • How can adoptive families reconcile the reality of this racially commodified “service?”

I highly recommend this book – if you are a social worker and you work in, or are considering, child welfare/adoption work, this is a MUST READ. I would include this as a required text for anyone who thinks they want to do adoption-related work.

Social Work Blog awards

Natalia at Active Social Work blog is hosting a Social Work Blog Award!


The categories are:

  • Adoption/Fostering: this category should include blogs written under the topic of adoption or fostering services.
  • Children and Families: this category should include blogs written under the topic of Children and Families social services.
  • Diary/Personal: this category should include blogs written by social workers or social work students who maintain a journal about their activities.
  • Educational: this category should include blogs written for or by social workers with educational value.
  • Informative/Policies: this category should include blogs of informative nature about social work policies, news, etc.
  • Adult Social Services: this category should include blogs written under the topic of Adult Social Services and includes palliative social work .
  • Mental Health: this category should include blogs written under the topic of mental health services

The submitting stage will last until the 1st of September 2010, followed by the voting stage until the 31st of December 2010. And the results will be announced on the 1st of January 2011.

Do you have a favorite social work blog? Go to Active Social Work to see the submission guidelines and send in your nominations!

Glass half empty


I found out about this interview with Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich through the Jezebel blog and thought the analysis by Jezebel (and Racialicious) blogger Latoya Peterson was really interesting.

Now, I've always been a half-glass-empty kind of gal and have had to try and stretch myself to be more positive. Mr. Harlow's Monkey says I'm really an optimist at heart and that is why I get so down when I see injustice. But whatever, he's just being kind (see why I love him? He's the ying to my yang).


Anyhoo, Ehrenreich's newest book is Bright-Sided, which delves into the history and promotion of "positive thinking." (I remember reading Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking when I was in high school. It didn't really help). Ehrenriech says in her interview with Elle that it was while she was being treated for breast cancer that she really noticed the pervasiveness of the positive-thinking movement. Says Ehrenreich,

"I just couldn’t understand this message that was being beamed at me
from so many sources about being upbeat and positive and embracing your
cancer, thinking of it as a gift. It drove me crazy. A few years later,
researching a book called Bait and Switch, there it was again,
now being told to people who are laid off—another great crisis in their
lives: Change your attitude and everything will be okay…As I began searching around and noticing it, the message was
everywhere: Any problem you have, just change your attitude or
visualize what you want and it will come to you."

I haven't read Bright-Sided, and I admit that I did have some problems with Nickel and Dimed,
but I do find Ehrenreich compelling and will probably read the book and
assess it more later (like when I actually have time to read something
other than textbooks).

The part that Latoya addresses in her Jezebel piece is the way "positive thinking" ties into conformity and social injustice. Now, this seems completely counter-intuitive, right? Aren't all of us who are into social reform and social justice optimistic, do-gooders? Turns out, maybe not, or maybe that's why most of society isn't really backing our causes. In fact, as Latoya points out, what Ehrenreich is saying is that "positive thinking" actually serves to squelch those who are critical about injustices. Ehrenreich states,

"[Positive thinking is] an all-purpose buttress for conformity and acceptance of the
status quo. In fact, most of the measures of quote-happiness-unquote
that the positive psychologists offer are really about how much to
accept the status quo."

I find this part really fascinating. I suppose because of my own experiences as a transracial/transnational adoptee and as an Asian American woman who grew up in and has largely worked in non-diverse, White majority settings, I am sensitive to this language of "just try harder." As in, "try harder not to be over-sensitive about racism and discrimination," and "just try harder to not be upset about losing your birth family/culture/country/language." The "think positively/make lemons out of lemonade" seems mostly to serve a need to discourage people from whining and complaining. It's a way to deflect how crappy life actually is for some people. And if they continue to have problems, it's their fault for not being "grateful" or "positive." Oh, and I don't know about you, but the most pervasive criticism I've received for not being "grateful" enough or for being too "negative" often comes from people who have been subject to great oppression or trauma in their own lives. Sometimes I get the feeling what is being said is, "Hey, I had to live through it, so quit your bitching." I wonder if those of us who have experiences trauma end up being the inadvertent perpetrators of the "be grateful" train.

Says Ehrenreich,

"No question. Determination, energy, ambition, all these sorts of things
play a big part in our lives. But when this gets turned into a total
mind-over-matter notion of how the world operates, that’s crazy. The
trick is always trying to do as much as you can do, but then also
realizing that there are a lot of forces lined up against you that have
to be addressed in another way entirely. Maybe you need social change!

…I think if you’re not at all bothered by human suffering—hey, it would
be great. But if you have a vision of human happiness that includes all
those people who are currently suffering, you’ve got to do something
about it."

Is it true? Is this pervasive "think positive" mentality meant to crush complaints of injustice? If I think about it, many of the big social movements in the United States did happen because people fought against the status quo, which historically benefited you know who. I don't consider being subject to racial and gender discrimination a "gift." I think it's a pain in the tukus. And when faced with said racial or gender discrimination, I do not get all thoughtful and zen and "think positively" about it, I take action. Ehrenreich agrees. She says,

"have you read the Old Testament? It’s full of righteous anger. But anyway, righteous anger is not an acceptable emotion"

But a few last thoughts. I grew up in an evangelical christian home, and I was taught from a very early age that any time I had "bad" thoughts or was "tempted" that I should just say, "Satan, get behind me!" and if I was a true believer, I would no longer be tempted and/or my "bad" thoughts would go away. You can guess what happened. If those bad thoughts didn't go away, then it was my fault. I wasn't enough of a believer, I wasn't a good enough Christian.

As I got older, the basic message was the same but the secular world, in addition to the religious world, just replaced that idea with "positive thinking." Sad about adoption loss? Mad about racism? Just be glad I didn't have it worse. Be grateful. Stop complaining. Make lemonade. Whatever you do, don't go wallowing in your sorrow and expect others to do anything about it. It's nobody's fault but your own. And if you're still sad/discriminated against/oppressed, then it's your fault. Stop being a Debbie Downer. Just try harder to be positive. If I still felt sad and unhappy, well then I must not be trying hard enough to be positive.

I suppose I feel a little bit comforted that I'm not the only one who dislikes "just be more positive." It's not that I'm not happy or grateful about the good things that have happened in my life. And, even more, I definitely believe that surviving the not-so-great things that have happened in my life has made me learn things about myself that have "positively" impacted my life. But bettering my life didn't happen because I sat quietly and "thought positively." The good things in my life happened because I made them happen to the best of my ability and sometimes I was just lucky. 

Rather than thinking positively, I would like to see that changed to actively working for change. I'd be more than happy to drink that kool-aid.

Read the Elle interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here, and Latoya's piece on Jezebel here.

Slaying the dragon

When I was in school for my bachelor's in social work, I had a wonderful professor who also happened to be the first Hmong American to earn a MSW. After a lengthy career as a child protection worker, he had gone back to school and studied law and earned a PhD in Education. I was fortunate to learn so much from Professor Thao.

I clearly remember the day in a Social Work Policy class when Prof. Thao shared with us this folk tale he had learned from his elders.

Once upon a time there was a village settled next to a flowing river. The people of this village were kind and brave. One day, one of the villagers saw a man in the river, being carried downstream by the rough currents. The villager called for help from his fellow friends and neighbors and together they managed to pull the man out of the river and saved his life.

The next day, to the surprise of the villagers, another man was spotted in the river, being pulled down stream. Again the villagers rallied together and pulled the second man out of the river. The next day, there were three people in the river, this time two women and a man. Again, the villagers worked together to save the lives of these people.

Every day for the next several weeks, the villagers found themselves pulling people out of the river. It was exhausting work and they met to try and figure out strategies for faster and safer ways of pulling people out of the river. It was hard for the villagers to get their work done when every day they were pulling people out of the river. Each of the villagers had different ideas. Each idea was attempted but still, each day, more and more people were being carried down the river. Sometimes there were too many people in the river and the villagers could not save them all.

Finally, one of the villagers said, "what's going on upstream?" The elders sent a band of villagers up to the mountains, to the source of the river. To their horror, they found a dragon at the mountain top. This dragon was taking people from the village at the top of the mountain and throwing them in the river. The villagers then realized that until they slayed the dragon, they would never be able to save all the people drowning in the river.

 I've never forgotten this story, and to say that it's been the paradigm for my view of the purpose of social work is pretty obvious. We cannot continue to only look at the person drowning in the river. Of course, that is where we act because it is immediate and it is critical. But if we are not able to focus as much of our attention to the dragon at the top of the mountain, then we will always be merely reacting to the immediate crisis instead of preventing the crisis from happening in the first place.

Prof. Thao used this folk tale to demonstrate how social workers must spend their focus on both the immediate needs of people but also to look at eliminating the causes (oppression, poverty, etc.).

In adoption, we have been way too focused on pulling people out of the river. In fact, we form committees on how best to pull people out of the river, faster and easier ways to pull people out of the river, and provide books and therapeutic services to address the aftermath for the victims that were pulled out of the river. We go to other rivers to look for ways to better pull people out of the river. We create laws about how to pull people out of the river.

When are we going to focus on slaying the dragon?

What I’m Reading: The Professional Altruist

A80fc060ada0e6c980268110.L._AA240_ One of my goals during summer break is to catch up on FUN reading (I have a stack of books a mile high, it seems) but also to get cracking on my preliminary written exam bibliography list which is 125 books and journal articles long so far (and that's not including anything I'll need to read for my dissertation literature review).

First up – The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career 1880-1930 by Roy Lubove.

Boys and Girls

I attended a training yesterday, for professionals in the adoption world. The speaker was talking about what beliefs we as adoption workers bring to our work. I thought it really was an appropriate and timely discussion and I wish we talked about this more openly in our field.

One thing the presenter brought up was that in her experience (mostly with international and private agency domestic adoption) is that the majority of prospective adoptive parents want girls, and Asian girls specifically if they are adopting internationally. She says that in the international sphere at least (and she works for one of the biggest and most respected agencies in our area), they have to do special "marketing" for boys. The presenter wondered aloud why that was.

After the presentation, I offered my hypothesis.

1) Asian girls are seen as being submissive, obedient, and more easily assimilated. We’re cute, when we grow up we’re "exotic" and as one person in the audience today mentions, we’re "smart."

2) Little boys of color grow into MEN of color. And there’s nothing more fearsome than a Man of color. Unless it’s an Asian man, and then the stereotype is that of an emasculated man.

In my experience, the preference for girls (when adopting) is overwhelming, crossing all racial lines (same-race and transracial). Yet strangely, for people I know who have children by birth, the stated preference seems to be boys or no preference.

Summer Adoption Programs

I tend to have a hard time falling asleep at night, having suffered on and off with insomnia for the better part of twenty years. Late at night, I often flip through the channels hoping for some mindless show that will help me drift off to Nod. A few weeks ago, I was watching BET’s re-run of "A Different World," the spin-off of The Cosby Show that takes place at "Hillman College"

In the particular episode I was watching that night, Blues for Nobody’s Child, Freddie befriends a young boy named Alex who turns out to be living in foster care. She follows him to a "meet and greet" event – for those who aren’t familiar with this, it’s where kids and prospective parents interact with the hopes that a "match" will be made. If you think this is like speed dating, you’d be right. In this episode, Freddie is outraged when she sees this boy walking up to families, trying his best to get their attention, only to have the prospective parents fall in love with a younger kid.

Thanks to Rich for bringing this story about a "meet and greet" on steroids to my attention. This news clip brings a few things to mind. First it reminded me of the program in which Irish children are brought to the US for the summer and stay with a host family.

However, the point of this summer vacation is not to give children in a war-torn country a respite but to have them audition for a family.

I am disturbed by the "try out" aspect of this current story. When I worked for the County we often facilitated these kinds of "matching events" where kids and prospective parents interact (let me add as an aside that the kids are almost always teenagers). On the one hand, I have a huge ethical problem with them. As much as you prepare prospective adoptive parents that the focus of these events is to get to know kids beyond a piece of paper and a photograph and that the idea is to get to know who the kinds of kids in foster care are, inevitably there is always a PAP who blurts out to a kid, "Would you like me to adopt you?" And there is always at least one kid who goes up to a PAP and asks, "Would you adopt me?" There is no way to honestly and compassionately prepare these kids for the kind of rejection they are likely to face.

It’s heart-wrenching and yet, there are almost always at least a few adoptions that happen because of these events. Because for many PAP’s, they look at the kid’s profiles and can’t really get a sense of who these kids are. Because some have opened their hearts up to tough, tough kids after spending an afternoon getting to know them. In fact, last week I attended an adoption move-in ceremony for one of my former kids, who met his adoptive father at one of these events.

Ethically, I really struggle with these things – the photographs and descriptions of kids on web sites and flyers; the "matching events," and all the ways in which children are marketed for adoption. One of my youth on my case load told me, after watching his "Thursday’s Child" segment, "I feel like I’m being sold to the highest bidder, like I’m for sale."

How could these kids in these orphanages in Taiwan deal with knowing
that they had spent the summer with a prospective adoptive family only
to find out later the family didn’t want them? Just like one of my kids asked me, as we were driving to one of these events, "I wonder which one of these people will adopt me?" As it turns out, none of them did. And still today, a year later, he waits.

I know the result of these marketing efforts and programs means some children get adopted

— but at what cost to their dignity?

— And what about all the others who put themselves on the line and never get adopted?

Which family would you choose?

In Thursday’s post, I outlined a girl, "Jane," who was waiting for adoption and gave 4 family scenarios. Typically, I would receive a variety of home studies for all these types of families. Interestingly, most people think the Anderson family would have been their choice and some even commented that this decision was "too easy."

I was surprised that the following questions were not asked:

  • What race is the foster family?
  • How long has she lived in the foster family’s home (thus, in the school and community)?
  • What about the mentor, Tammy?
  • What is Jane’s feelings about the church she attends? Is it that she attends because of the foster family or for her own reasons? In other words, is it the choir or the doctrine Jane is committed to?
  • Has Jane expressed interest in her Native American tribal heritage?
  • What are Jane’s feelings about having adoptive siblings?
  • Are any of these families willing to continue having continued relationships with Jane’s siblings? In the previous post, I did not indicate that any of the families were open to continued contact; I only mentioned the Anderson family lived close by and that does not necessarily mean they will continue contact.

Some good questions were posed. Including:

  • What is Jane’s preference? Great question. Even though at 10, Jane can not legally say no to being placed in an adoptive home, obviously you would want to get her input since her acceptance will be a big part of how well Jane adjusts to her adoptive family.
  • The suggestion that the Connor family might be amenable to keeping Jane in her current school is a good call
  • Is age a factor? (and yes, it might be!!)

So let me add a few more things about each family and see if you still feel the same way.

The Anderson Family

Nobody mentioned what "the city" meant. It means, inner-city. Clues that the neighborhood is 50% African American and that they live in "the city" should have been a hint that they live in an area that many social workers will have an inherent bias against. Also this means the school district is likely a neighborhood school. So, some of the reasons workers might pick the Anderson family: two-parent
home, diversity, close proximity to Jane’s siblings. Reasons workers
would not pick the Anderson family: their ages, their neighborhood,
their school.

The Brown Family

One of the comments mentioned that home schooling could be good or bad for Jane’s learning needs, and it is true. Sometimes kids who don’t fit in to a traditionally structured school do much better with home schooling. This may not be an issue for Jane as I cited that she did well with supports despite her dyslexia. Some of the reasons workers might pick the Brown family: two parent
home, at-home parent (often very valued by social workers), home school (some feel home school parents
actually do better because they customize curriculum for all different
needs). Reasons workers might not pick Brown family: location, lack of
diversity in area, home schooling (some feel the home school education
might not be specific enough for learning disabilities). What if the Brown family lived a few communities away from a tribal reservation? Or, if they were willing to drive to the city once a month for visits and/or have Jane’s siblings visit her for weekends/vacations/holidays?

The Connor Family

I didn’t mention who the Connor family was friends with, I only said the community they lived in was about 10% diverse, and didn’t specify what kind of diversity that was. Given that the daughter in the family has the same ethnic make-up as Jane would want to make me ask if Ms. Connor has ties to the African American community. The Connor family is also the only family that lives in the community where Jane lives. If they would be willing to allow Jane to continue with her same school, that would be two areas that Jane would not have to make new changes. Also, it is easily possible that the Connor family could participate in Jane’s current church if desired; also could continue mentorship with Tammy. The Connor family is a single parent family, however there is a large extended family. Some reasons workers might pick Connor family: same community, daughter
has same ethnic make-up as Jane, has diverse network of family and
friends, close enough to continue sibling visits, and continued
mentorship with Tammy. Reasons workers might not pick Connor family:
single parent, does not attend church, wants to switch schools, is
Native American-focused.

The Davis Family

The Davis family lives in a suburb, but I did not specify how diverse it was. They have the same religious affiliation so maybe they would be willing to change the church they attend for Jane’s continued relationships she’s made there and for them to develop relationships to the African American community. They could also reasonably continue the mentorship with Tammy. Reasons workers might pick Davis family: two-parent home,
professional status of parents, attend same church denomination,
private lessons,possibility for continued visits with siblings, might be willing to keep mentor.
Reasons that workers might not pick Davis family: heavy work schedule,
lack of experience in parenting, no current connections to African American or
Native American communities.

Continue reading

How do you choose? An exercize in placing a child in an adoptive home

I thought I’d give you a tiny little glimpse of what being a child’s adoption/social worker is like, and how difficult the placement of a child into a home can be. This exercise is based on one that an agency I interned at had their prospective adoptive parents do on their first day of pre-adoptive parent training – at any given day, when I worked for the County, I might have up to 4-5 home studies for kid(s) on my caseload. So, the differences and similarities between types of families inquiring after children represented here are fairly realistic.

Keep in mind that as the social worker, you would be making this decision on top of a caseload of anywhere from probably 25-40 other kids (depending on the county/state you work for) and in addition to making all of the legal decisions about this child (foster care, school, and medical issues).

Finally, keep in mind that "matching" is based on how well the prospective parents match the needs of the child, not how much the child matches the needs of the parents. One of the questions I always have is how much workers/decision makers in foreign countries really consider the needs of the child when matching to parents – or, how to make this decision when the children are young and/or the workers don’t really have the time to get to know the child enough to make a match based on their needs.

Here is your child: "Jane"

  • 10 year old child, 1/2 African American, 1/4 Native American, 1/4 White. The Indian Child Welfare Act does not apply.
  • Currently lives in a foster home in the suburbs, but the family is not going to adopt
  • Likes her school a lot – public school in a suburb, about 10% diversity
  • She has two younger siblings ages 2 & 3 who were adopted by a family in the city. Jane wants to keep in touch with her siblings. Right now she sees them once a month and at holidays.
  • She attends a Baptist church that is majority African American and sings in the choir.
  • Jane would like to take music lessons and dance.
  • Jane has an IEP for dyslexia but does fairly well in school overall with additional assistance
  • She has a college-aged mentor, "Tammy," who is African American, who has spent a lot of time with her for the past two years. Tammy often takes Jane to her hair salon and they have their hair done together.

In Minnesota, you make a match based on the following factors:

1. the child’s current functioning and behaviors;
2. the medical, educational and developmental needs of the child;
3. the child’s history and past experience;
4. the child’s religious and cultural needs;
5. the child’s connection with a community, school and church (or synagogue, mosque,
    temple or other religious community);
6. the child’s interests and talents;
7. the child’s relationship to current caretakers, parents, siblings and relatives; and
8. the reasonable preference of the child, if the court, or other child placing agency in the case of a voluntary placement, deems the child to be of sufficient age to express preferences

Continue reading

Too white and middle class

From the Guardian UK comes this story about couples being discriminated from adopting because they are too white and too middle class. The story leads in with:

It’s a story that is both emotive and familiar. Couple wants children.
Couple finds they’re infertile, so they try to adopt. Couple is
ignored, rejected or humiliated by bureaucratic, impolite and
interfering social workers. Children are left languishing in care,
while couple is forced to adopt from overseas – if, that is, they can
afford it (and, let’s face it, they usually can, since the story goes
that the most likely people to be turned down for adoption are white,
wealthy and middle class). Now, where was I? Oh, yes: couple goes to
tabloid and tells poignant story of eventually getting their "miracle"
baby from China, but how outrageous it was that their noses were put
out of joint along the way.

The article continues with a story about a local family who ended up adopting internationally because local agencies would not consider them appropriate for adopting a minority child locally. But what is interesting with this article is that it seems, unlike most, to present multiple perspectives on what is going on behind the news stories that scream, "Social workers said we were too middle-class and white to adopt."

Continue reading