By Susan Dusza Guerra Leksander
In the United States, the practices of adoption are rarely oriented towards the goals of anti-racism, child-centeredness, and reproductive justice.
In this article, I present a model that strives to fulfill these goals. At Pact, an Adoption Alliance, the non-profit organization where I work as agency and clinical director, our mission is to serve adopted youth of color, and our approach to domestic infant adoption emerges from 30 years of serving Black, Latinx, Asian, and multiracial infants and their families. Based on our work with adopted children and adults of color, first/birth1 and adoptive parents, and adoption professionals, I will share our tenets of ethical adoption practice.
We begin by recognizing that the United States is a white supremacist and patriarchal society that has historically dehumanized people seen as unworthy of parenting. We name the painful history of family separation: enslavers selling Black children for profit as psychological torture, Indigenous children stolen and sent to boarding schools as genocide, unwed mothers forced to relinquish their babies as a means to punish and control.
Those who work in domestic infant adoption — social workers, attorneys, facilitators — must engage in rigorous self-reflection and recognize that this gruesome history still echoes in the hallways of hospitals, agencies, and courtrooms where first parents are portrayed as dangerous, adoptive parents are praised for “saving” children, and adoptees are told they should be grateful for their “better life.” At Pact we insist: adoption is a different life, with both gains and losses.
Ethical practice allows people experiencing unplanned pregnancy to explore all available options, including abortion and parenting. On occasion, Pact has provided options counseling to a small number of people who ultimately decided to terminate their pregnancy. Often times, when someone is interacting with Pact, abortion is not an option, either because of the individual’s preferences, the gestational age of the fetus and difficulty in obtaining an abortion out-of-state, or because the baby has already been born.
If abortion has been ruled out — either by choice or by law — then all subsequent decisions will determine whether and how a newborn child will be separated from their first/birth family and placed in an unrelated adoptive family that is government-sanctioned as suitably safe, loving, and prepared. The domestic infant adoption decision-making process requires balancing the interests of three different parties, two of whom – the pregnant/currently parenting people2 and the potential adoptive parents — are consenting to adoption. The third party is a minor, with no voice in the decisions being made on their behalf.
At Pact, we start by deeply listening to expectant parents. Some may be adamant that adoption is best, others may be ambivalent. We recognize that many expectant parents — especially women of color — experience systemic barriers to securing basic needs, and assume that many people considering adoption can parent if they are emotionally and practically supported. This requires an assessment of available resources, and the individual’s capacity and willingness to engage them. While time should be allowed to consider all options, a plan for the baby’s care must be identified before or soon after birth. A temporary placement with a foster family can create additional time, though this will require engagement with the child welfare system, which can create a risk to the parent’s ability to retain total control of their choices.
We do counsel some parents who do not wish to parent their child, even if they are connected with adequate resources. In those cases, we explore kinship placement next: are there family members who might take custody of this child? Sometimes the answer is that there are no kinship options, or none the parents are willing to consider.
If abortion, family preservation, and kinship care are ruled out, adoption by non-relatives is the option that remains.
In those situations, we prepare and empower expectant parents for whom adoption seems like the best choice. This means educating them about their rights, reassuring them they can change their mind at any point without guilt, avoiding the pressure of “matching” them with potential adoptive families early in their pregnancy, searching for potential families beyond our pool if needed who meet the expectant parents’ desires for their children, discussing the benefits of open adoption and the availability and limits of contact agreements, explaining what their placed child will need from them as they grow, and offering post-placement counseling. Ultimately, we receive their relinquishment of parental rights, if that is what they choose.
Pact is clear: we are not in the business of “finding babies” for people. We approach adoption as a child-centered practice. We believe that not everyone should adopt — including those who might be wonderful parents to children by birth — because adoptive parenting involves unique tasks that require specialized skills. These tasks include: helping their children at different ages understand the meaning and implications — e.g., emotional, legal, familial — of being adopted; helping the adoptee cope with adoption-related loss and trauma; supporting their curiosity about and relationships with their first family; and supporting their child’s racial and/or ethnic identity, which will likely be different from theirs.
We have hard conversations with pre-adoptive families about the realities of adoption, even if that means they choose not to work with us. We address the inherent losses and traumas in adoption for both children and first parents. We dismantle the notion that “so many newborns are in need of good homes,” as the number of infants being voluntarily placed for adoption in the U.S. has steadily decreased, and there is an oversupply of prospective adoptive families.
Ethical adoption practice means that parents expecting children of color should have the option to place their children with adoptive parents of the same racial identity, and that children have the opportunity to grow up in families where they see themselves and their racial and ethnic identities reflected in their adoptive families and communities. We recruit Black, Latinx, Asian, and interracial families who are interested in same-race adoption as their first, intentional choice.
White prospective adoptive parents are often “willing to consider” adopting a child of color to increase their chances of adopting. But white parents adopting transracially often do not have — and have not been required to develop — the skills to support their children’s healthy racial identity development, or to prepare them to navigate racism. Adult adoptees have been speaking for decades about the difficulties of transracial adoption. Ethical practice means prioritizing same-race placement for children of color, and requiring prospective transracial adoptive families to do intensive work to confront their own racism and prepare to change their lives in order to meet their children’s needs.
Pact’s organizational structure strives to provide a model for ethical adoption practice. While we are a licensed agency, placement is not the only service we offer. Because we offer consultations, educational programs, family camps, youth clubs, support groups, and mental health services, we do not rely on facilitating placements in order to financially sustain ourselves as an organization, and thus we are not under pressure to make placements. Additionally, we provide our services on an income-based sliding scale, because we believe domestic infant adoption should not be affordable to only the wealthy. This allows us to welcome a greater diversity of prospective adoptive families, and ensures we are not driven to meet the needs of affluent clients.
Pact knows that placement is not the end, but the beginning — adoption is a lifelong experience. Ethical adoption practice means offering support to adopted children and both of their families all along that journey.
1. Birth parent is commonly used to describe a parent whose rights have been terminated and whose child has been placed for adoption. First parent is a term that is coming into use more, to acknowledge that the connection extends beyond birthing and biology.
2. The vast majority of people considering DIA are still pregnant and identify as women. Pact recognizes that pregnant people considering adoption may identify as non-binary or as transgender men. The other parent deemed by law or circumstance as “father” may or may not be involved. Occasionally parents are seeking to place their older babies or toddlers.
Susan Dusza Guerra Leksander, LMFT, is the Agency and Clinical Director of Pact, an Adoption Alliance. She is a Latina transracial adoptee, a first mother, and a licensed psychotherapist.