Saturday, November 08, 2008
Numbers on need for adotive parents (especially from foster care) don't add up; possible implications for LGBT equality?
Jeff Katz has an opinion piece on p A17 of the Saturday Nov. 8 Washington Post about adoption that is relevant to our debate on moral values and shared responsibilities. The title is “Adoption’s Numbers Mystery” and the link is here.
Katz points out some basic contradictions within the usually reported numbers. He says that in the United States about 600,000 women seek to adopt non-related children. Many of these women say they will adopt older children, siblings together, children of other races, and particularly special needs or disabled children. But the “supply” of potential adoptees seems smaller that previously thought. Particularly, the number of newborns given up, and of foreign children is relatively small, partly because most women raise the children they bear as single mothers if they aren’t married (yes, that’s a problem) and because foreign governments have made adoption more difficult (look at Margaret Schwartz’s book “The Pumpkin Patch”, reviewed on this blog last December). It’s true, these numbers might rise if the pro-life movement were right and more babies were born and given up for adoption, and if foreign governments, particularly in the former Communist block (Romania, for example) fussed up to the horrible child care problems that they inherited from the Soviet domination area.
But the most interesting numbers occur with foster children. Katz says that the Department of Health and Human Services reports that there are about 129,000 foster children in the US waiting to be adopted. Some these wind up on NBC-Washington’s “Wednesday’s Child” segment series. Here is a good reference from DHS itself, if you like bar graphs. But only 8000 of these children actually get adopted. Only about 3% of women who call a social services agency seeking to adopt actually do so. Katz reports that social services agencies in many communities make the process uninviting and unpleasant, and make too much of a spectacle of weeding out “bad” prospective parents. Katz makes a sweeping statement that on foster care adoption, "the numbers don't add up" -- the first check any systems analyst demands on a report used to make public policy.
The confusing mismatch between the supply and demand of potential adoptive parents and actual children has other consequences for debate. In the past, I’ve read somewhere (in The Washington Times) that only about 1 in 400 heterosexually married couples seeks to adopt children. Yet the popular conception is that adoption is typically the first resort for traditionally married couples unable to have children. The media makes it look like the demand for adoptive parents is so great that openness to adoption is almost a moral imperative for every adult (for example, look at the Adoption Expo in downtown Washington DC in December 2007 sponsored by Freddie Mac). In some (supposedly more “socially liberal”) communities, like Minneapolis, local authorities have aggressively advertised to singles as potential parents, as with ads at bus stops. Hollywood has made several popular theater and television movies (“Raising Helen”, “Saving Sarah Cain”) and at least one television series (“Summerland” on TheWB) in which unmarried siblings are expected to raise children after a tragedy, or even as the result of a will in probate. Even the soap opera “Days of our Lives” had a sequence where an unmarried man (Nick) was tricked into taking custody of children.
Much of the debate over marriage (and equal rights for gays and lesbians to marry) come down to the likelihood that a marriage will result in raising children. And the concern over the likelihood of parentage is appropriate. Parents face challenges that the childless don’t (although the growing eldercare crisis will complicate this), and this adds to a lot of the tension of the “culture war”. A few states (Florida) have bans on gays (or sometimes unmarried couples, as with a recent law in Arkansas) adopting children, and the “supply and demand” issue would seem relevant to that debate.
Even as a more “liberal” administration takes power in Washington, it’s important to get the statistics on adoption right. It doesn’t seem like we are even close.
Update: Nov. 9
The Washington Post has a story by Michael Alison Chandler, "A Leap of Love: Adoptions of Children With Down Syndrome on the Increase," front page, link here.
Update: Nov 15
The Washington Post Metro section has a story by Petula Dvorak "For Teen's Adoption Dream, It's Never Too Late," about the adoption of older children in Washington DC. The link is here.