Friday, April 24, 2009

The Conference So Far . . .

. . . has been fabulous! I feel like a bit of a groupie, though, as I'm excited about meeting some of the "names" whose work I've read or viewed. The keynote speaker yesterday morning was Dorothy Roberts, and I've used several of her law review articles in my classes. She's a wonderful writer, and I've been hooked on her since reading her article on prosecution of drug-addicted mothers. She starts with a really powerful illustration of how we divide our concern for the baby from our disdain for the drug-addicted mother: "A former slave named Lizzie Williams recounted the beating of pregnant slave women on a Mississippi cotton plantation: 'I[']s seen n***** women dat was fixin' to be confined do somethin' de white folks didn't like. Dey [the white folks] would dig a hole in de ground just big 'nuff fo' her stomach, make her lie face down an whip her on de back to keep from hurtin' de child.'"

Her talk at the conference was about racial disparities in the foster care system. Black children are 4 times more likely than white children to be placed in foster care, though the figure is higher is some locations. She showed statistics for San Francisco, where black children are 19 times more likely to be removed and placed in foster care. She noted that most services to children, most money spent, is for placing them in foster care, with only a small fraction for services that would improve their situations in their homes. We see parenting as exclusively private, with each family exclusively responsible for their own welfare. So social services are for families who have failed in their child rearing responsibility. That allows the solution to be "blame-the-parents" rather than looking at societal impediments to child rearing – poverty, job discrimination, lack of education, etc., and seeking to alleviate those problems so the conditions that lead to removal don't arise.

The second session I attended was entitled "Identity Paradoxes," and focused on conflicts in adoptees' identity formation. His theme throughout was that we should strive for "both/and" instead of "either/or." Instead of "I'm like my adoptive parents" or "I'm like my birth parents," it becomes "I'm like my adoptive parents in some ways and like my birth parents in some ways." The presenter used very entertaining photos to liven up his points. Not much new there, though.

The third session, entitled "Walking in the Shoes of the Relinquished Child," used experiential exercises to illustrate adopted children's life experiences. When we first started, one of the presenters picked out people to move to a different chair in a different part of the room, leaving all their stuff behind. Takes all of 1 second to see the point of that exercise, right?! In another exercise, we were given little mirrors, asked to look into it and name a feature or personality trait we got from someone else. Then we were asked to turn the mirror over to the blue-painted side. Does anyone not see the symbolism? Adoptees were asked not to participate in this exercise, which I thought was awkward, and then was infuriating when all the non-adopted persons were asked to describe how the blank side of the mirror made us feel, and the adoptees were not allowed to speak to this. So, some interesting exercises that would probably be good for training PAPs, but the presentation ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth.

Fourth, I attended an adoptive parent support group. I was sitting and chatting with "Nancy" before everyone got there, and then when it came to introductions and she said shat she did and that she'd authored two books I realized I was talking to THAT Nancy -- Nancy Verrier of Primal Wound fame! And a nicer, humbler person you'd never meet! I also exchanged blog addresses with another adoptive mom (Hi, Shannon!), and didn't realize until I got back to my room and typed in the address that I'd visited her blog many times before -- Peter's Cross Station.

Most of the adoptive parents attending the support group had older kids, and were disappointed at how little guidance they got about adoption issues at the time they adopted (20 to 30 years ago). Their kids didn't talk about their adoptions, seemed perfectly well-adjusted, and then the teenage years hit and the troubled kid inside came out. One adoptee is currently in prison, another in trouble with the law and in enforced counseling. The parents are here playing catch-up, trying to learn everything they wished they had known 20 years ago. Very sad, and very uplifting to see these adoptive parents are not giving up on their kids. But I'm not sure we're doing any better at training prospective adopters now -- yes, there is TONS of information available, but you have to dig into it on your own, without much guidance from adoption agencies.

Last, but not least, was the evening showing of Adopted. I had a chance to meet Barb Lee, the director, and she gave us a bit of an update on Jennifer, whom she says is doing fine. There's an update on the newer DVDs, but I bought mine early enough not to have that update. It was interesting to watch the film with this audience. When I watched it with my Adoption Law class, that audience didn't understand enough about adoption issues to groan and laugh and commiserate and boo -- THIS audience did! After the showing, several people in the audience said it should be shown to mainstream audiences, and Barb says it's been turned down by everyone -- HBO, PBS, you name it. She said bluntly, "People don't like Jen." That certainly was the reaction of my Adoption Law class, steeped as they are in the adoption myths about being lucky to be adopted, being grateful, etc.

So, that's the conference to date. The mix of attendees is interesting. At the first session, they asked people to stand up in groups -- birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents, professionals connected to adoption. Birth parents were the largest group, I think, and adoptive parents the smallest.


LilySea said...

That disconnect about Jen was really amazing to me. I definitely thought she was obnoxious but in a sort of desperate, pleading, hopeful way like a kid trying to get a parent's attention because she is hurting inside and doesn't know how to tell them. Ultimately, obnoxious or not, I found her very endearing and I was sooooo frustrated right along with her at her parents' lunk-headedness. It was clear to me they misunderstood what she was asking them for, but that they also weren't trying to understand. It seemed they were inwardly rolling their eyes and thinking "there goes our crazy daughter again, this time it's 'race'" rather than listening to her.

Anyway, I dont' see how anyone could watch it and come away disliking her.

One more instance of me underestimating the greatness of white people's desire to never hear the word "race" let alone be asked to account for any harms done in its name.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how it is possible not to blame the parents in many cases. Don't know if you read Cindy Bodie's blog She has adopted many children who have come out of horrible circumstances. If you threw millions of dollars at the parents involved, would that have improved their parenting? How long and how much do you spend to try to change the parents before you give up? And isn't that why adoption in the US is in such bad straits? Because children are removed from bad homes, placed in foster care, returned to bad homes where the parents have supposedly tried to straighten up, but abuse the children again, returned to foster care etc. Then you end up with older children who are extremely difficult to parent after years of abuse from the system and their parents, and who is going to be willing to adopt those children? Adoption coordinators in my state have told me emphatically - do not adopt a child from the foster care system because you have a young child. Your child *will* be abused by the child you adopt. Not If. They have seen it happen too many times.

Elizabeth J.

malinda said...


I understand your point, and no one wants to see kids live with abuse. But I guess I'm still stuck on why so many black kids end up in care. Do we think that black parents are less capable than white parents of raising kids, simply because of their race? I bet you'll agree that the answer is NO.

So what, then, accounts for the disparity? One reason is that we are willing to allow government intervention into black families that we simply would not tolerate in white families -- can you imagine the hue and cry if white kids in San Francisco were 19times more likely than black kids to end up in care?! (reminds me of The Daily Show's latest segment, "Sh*t That's Never Gonna Happen!").

I think a lot of the neglect is really poverty. If we help the parents with poverty alleviation, we keep the kids out of the system.

And that -- keeping the kids out of the system and with their original families -- is probably the best cure for "children languishing the the foster care system." We seem to want to use speedy adoption as the cure, but there would be far fewer kids languishing in foster care if they never got there in the first place!

Of course, simply returning them to their original families or keeping them in troubled families isn't enough -- we then need to offer services to that family. And we don't seem to want to put the money into preventing crises in families, only in mopping up after the crises.

We need a paradigm shift, where the billions spent on foster care each year go to supporting poor families so they can parent better.

Climbing down from soapbox now!

Mei-Ling said...

You met Nancy Verrier? WOW!

What did you guys talk about?

E-mail me if you'd prefer to answer there. )

Anne said...

As someone who previously worked as a Child Protective Services caseworker for twelve years, I can assure you that the problems and solutions are not as simple and straightforward as they appear on the surface. Unless you have actually put yourself in a position of working with poor, minority, undereducated and disenfranchised people, you have no idea how difficult it really is, and I'm not sure how useful your input really is. Do you really think that caseworkers or the system randomly target black children for removal? Yes, I get it, racism is much more insidious than that. However, just to dismiss higher levels of intervention in black families as racist minimizes and ignores the fact that there are significant problems in the black community which need to be addressed. My opinion based on my professional experience is that one of the biggest problems is lack of intact families or almost complete lack of involvement and responsibility by the fathers. What I really want to hear from people who identify these problems is workable solutions, not just phrases like "alleviate poverty".

Anonymous said...

I believe that the reason more black children are in foster care can be directly linked to higher percentages of blacks living in poverty, but I don't think that the solution is as simple as reduce poverty. For one thing, living in poverty seems to invite issues like drug use. When you are living in conditions that you don't like and can't physically escape, you can mentally escape. I believe drug use is the real culprit, but is strongly linked to poverty. So if you have parents who are doing drugs/drinking, then need more money to keep up that cycle, and under the influence of these drugs most of the time, how can they take care of their children? Breaking out of the culture of poverty is what needs to be broken, and that is the almost insurmountable step. It can be hard enough to get out of bed every day and go to work to provide for your kids when you are healthy, well educated and have a good job to go to. If you have none of that and lead a life of no hope, how can you instill a complete mind set and lifestyle turnaround?

Elizabeth J.

malinda said...


If the only people who can speak to the issue are those who are in the system, then policy makers really can't do ANYTHING, can they? You can't talk about waterboarding as a form of interrogation unless you've interrogated someone? It might be that it actually takes someone OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM to think of an outside-the-box answer.

Do I think that caseworkers randomly target black children? No. I never said any such thing. You concede it is systemic. I agree. But if every time we mention institutionalized classism and racism, we get the same knee-jerk reaction personalizing it as an accusation of racism, we'll never find those workable solutions you're looking for.

malinda said...


It's funny, I don't remember much about what we talked about! It was just such a typical conversation with another adoptive parent. She talked about taking care of her grandson, and what a good relationship they had. She said she was 70, and I swear she looked 20 years younger than that. And because her writing tells harsh truths, I think I expected her to be harsh, and she wasn't.

Anne said...


So...maybe it takes both types of people working together, not just one or the other to really make a difference.

I would really encourage you to consider becoming a child advocate in the county where we live. I think it would give you a whole new perspective on some of the information you have obtained only from reading, and not actually being involved with people. I know the system could really benefit from all that you have to offer as a mother, lawyer, scholar, adoption advocate, etc.


malinda said...

Great idea, Anne, and I'll bring you Dorothy Roberts' book, and you can put your scholarly mind and your real-life experience to work on the issue!