Worth Reading: Warm Welcome

David Pacchioli
May 01, 2004

In 2002, Americans adopted more than 20,000 children from other countries. That number, according to Lita Linzer Schwartz and Florence W. Kaslow, "may reflect humanitarian motives and/or frustration with the domestic adoption system." Whatever the case, it represents more than a doubling from just a decade ago.

Because restrictions regarding parental age, marital status, and sexual orientation are generally less stringent for international adoption than for domestic, the international route may present for some potential parents the only chance to have and raise a child. It also presents unique challenges. Winding through the international bureaucratic maze can be a frustrating ordeal. Children adopted abroad may have hidden health problems or adjustment issues. Transracial and transcultural adoptions create families that are obviously "different," and therefore forced to deal with what being different may mean.

There exists a growing literature on the children of international adoption: how they develop, and how they fare as adults. Much less, however, has been written from the parents' perspective. Schwartz, a distinguished professor emerita of psychology at Penn State, and Kaslow, director of the Florida Couples and Family Institute, address that oversight in Welcome Home! An International and Nontraditional Adoption Reader.

They begin with a summary of data gleaned from the Northeast-Northwest Collaborative Adoption Project, a survey of 1,500 adopted children and their families. Penn State psychologist Stephen Petrill is a co-director of this study, whose principal aim is to isolate environmental influences on cognitive ability and behavioral development. As part of the larger study, Petrill and his colleagues asked parents of international adoptees to comment on their experiences, then drew tentative conclusions about the characteristics shared by these parents (they tend to be well-educated and well-off), and their attitudes toward child-rearing (they tend to be suspicious of authority).

The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to first-person accounts written by adoptive parents of diverse background, who sometimes ask their grown children—adoptive and biological—to add their own viewpoints. These families reflect on everything from getting over infertility to supporting an adult child's need to search out a birth parent.

Many recall the "paper chase," the often-grueling process of vetting and cross-border legal procedure that international adoption requires. ("In many ways the paperwork process became a metaphor for pregnancy," says one mother.) Other common themes include the thrill and strain of traveling "in-country" to pick up a child; the wonder and excitement of becoming an instant family; and the developmental delays and emotional problems sometimes faced by children who spend early months or years in orphanages where resources and attention are all-too scarce—or, worse, in circumstances of serious abuse.

Later issues commonly faced include deciding how and how much to adopt the culture of a child's birth country as a way of respecting and fostering individual identity, and how to answer the questions that may arise—directly or indirectly—as children become adolescents and adults.

The challenges are real, according to the unanimous voices heard here, but the benefits transcend them. As Kaslow concludes: "Despite all the exigencies entailed, most of the parents decided to adopt a second, third, or even fourth child. What better testament could there be to the tremendous value they place on their children and the indisputable fact that the positives far outweigh the difficulties?"

Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D., is distinguished professor emerita of psychology at Penn State Abington. Florence W. Kaslow, Ph.D., is director of the Florida Couples and Family Institute, and a visiting professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Schwartz and Kaslow are co-editors of Welcome Home! An International and Nontraditional Adoption Reader, published in 2003 by the Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Last Updated May 01, 2004