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July 19, 2023 Feature

Respecting Children’s Cultural Backgrounds in Adopted or Blended Families

Elizabeth Vaysman

Respecting a child’s background in an adopted or blended family centers on providing the child with access to their racial and cultural identity and allowing space for all parties to understand the child’s lifelong journey of belonging.

The adoptive family can support and respect the child’s background by agreeing to an ongoing connection with the biological family, such as through a Post Adoption Contact Agreement. In addition, your attorney can assist with accessing your adopted child’s sealed adoption records or original birth certificate through the court system or vital records. Due to the complex needs of adoptees, and those with transracial and transnational dynamics, care by adoption-competent medical and mental health providers for the child, and connections to other adoptees with similar backgrounds, will further help the child to understand their own background.

Children who experience transracial and transnational adoption may struggle with their identities in terms of feeling that they do not belong and fit in, an everyday clash of culture and race. Adoptive parents and the professionals who support them must help guide the conversation of openness and access to information to provide the child with the tools to make their own decision about connection to their birth family and background. Prior to beginning the process of adoption across racial or cultural lines, you should speak to an adoption attorney to understand the challenges that arise from transracial adoption and address and commit to the lifelong process of respecting and encouraging a child’s journey to their identity.

Adoption was often a process based in secrecy, with adoptive parents and subsequently the child having little or no information on the biological family and potentially no way to access such information with outdated agency records and sealed court documents. Recently there has been a trend toward openness—states enacting laws to maintain contact and allow for open records, the internet and modern DNA testing allowing for direct connection, and society shifting to address birth parent rights and the importance of a child’s connection to their background. Our country has a history and ongoing narrative surrounding transracial adoption.

In an adoption, whether from birth where the child has no time to bond with their birth family, or arising from placement of an older child through foster or international adoption, the adoptive family has the burden and privilege of involving and embracing the child’s background. The adoptee has and will have their own experiences distinct from their adoptive family.

Adoptee Connection to the Biological Family

A consistent theme in adoptee perspectives is the option for openness in post adoption contact and access to information regarding their origin and birth family. Depending on the type of adoption, such as whether the child was in foster care and with family or siblings, placed for adoption from birth directly or through an agency, or an international adoption with little to no background, the adoptive family will face special circumstances in providing a connection to the child’s background.

Providing the child with access to information on their background is not only beneficial but necessary to allow the child to form their identity and understand their racial and cultural heritage. Conversations around adoption have shifted from the “give up” a baby mindset to “make an adoption plan,” and enabling expectant parents to select the adoptive parents of their choosing, including their preferences for contact after the child is adopted. This dynamic occurs differently in foster and kinship placements, where the child is placed against the will of the biological parents and the child may be older with siblings in care and their own lived experiences. Along with the societal shift towards connection and lack of anonymity with the internet, social media, and modern DNA testing, states have enacted laws that require or allow options for post adoption contact.

The adoptive family and the birth relative can agree upon a certain level of contact, solidified in “post adoption contact agreements” that outline specific levels of contact as a minimum (for example, two visits per year and quarterly updates with pictures by email). Whether or not these agreements are enforceable will vary by state law.

Adoptive parents and birth parents may voluntarily enter into a post adoption contact agreement, arranging for contact such as visits or phone/video contact between the child and their birth relatives. Such agreements may be with a birth parent, sibling, aunt/uncle, grandparent, or foster parent and the child. These agreements may be informal arrangements between the parties, whether written or not, or may be formal contracts signed and entered with the court of the finalizing state. Some states allow for enforcement provisions and guidance on how to try to require the parties to fulfill the agreed-upon post adoption contact. By maintaining a direct connection between the birth family and the adoptee, the child will have a direct connection to their racial and cultural identity. In addition to building a relationship with the child’s birth family, such contact allows for a connection for any medical questions regarding the child and to keep contact regarding any siblings of the child.

In the foster care system, there are cycles of children placed in foster or kinship homes for generations, and often separating siblings who may not even know of one another. Though reunification is often the stated goal, once a child is in the foster care system, it can be extremely challenging for a parent to overcome the obstacles and standards to meet the state’s requirements. States often prioritize family-finding, and placing children in kinship homes, though each state and county has its own method and agenda. If the child does proceed to adoption, allowing the child to maintain connection with family members, such as parents, siblings, or grandparents, provides a direct understanding of their racial and cultural identity and can help to try to heal the trauma of displacement and lack of permanency. With a direct connection to the child’s birth family, whether through a formalized arrangement or organic relationship, children can better understand their own background related to their race, culture, and often socio-economic differences.

Understanding Open Records Laws

The court system has also shifted to allow for more openness in adoption and access to information for adoptees to understand their own identity, by providing access to their court records, for medical and social background information, and to seek information to communicate with birth relatives.

Most states have instituted procedures to allow an adoptee (once 18 years old), adoptive family, or birth family to seek access to adoption records and the original birth certificate. States must balance this openness with the privacy interests of adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth families, while being sensitive to the court records related to the child. As such, adoption records are kept confidential and out of the public record in most states, including the child’s original birth certificate, which is sealed upon the adoption finalization when a new birth certificate is issued.

Accessing Adoption Records

Working with an attorney to seek access to adoption records will help you understand whether the state’s laws allow for access to either nonidentifying information, such as redacted medical and social records, or identifying information that may include the birth parents’ contact information. States have instilled different methods of providing this information, including through the court system, through a registry specific to post adoption contact, through an agency or attorney that worked on the case, or through a third-party intermediary, such as a consultant/search agent or someone designated by the court to assist in such search.

In providing such adoption records, some states require consent from the biological families to share their information. One method is a mutual consent registry, which provides a platform for adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth relatives to share or obtain medical and social history about themselves or birth relatives. A court may require consent to share information in their adoption filings as well. An adoptee looking for their birthparents or records may be required to ask the court to get such consent first or may look to the file to see if the birth parents consented to sharing this information at the time of the adoption. In reality, birth parents may not know of such registries or have completed such information, may feel differently about contact years later, or may not have the same contact information once the adoptee is able to access those records, making it difficult to get the information the child is seeking.

Though the legal system has adjusted to allow for access to open records and post adoption contact, adoptees continue to face the bureaucratic challenges and outdated information in searching for their own identity, whether in their adoption records, birth certificate, or contacting their birthparents.

This process may take a significant level of expertise, time, funds, and, of course, emotional stamina just to access information that the child should already have available to them if they wish. As such, the adoptive parents should maintain copies of their records and create a path of communication with the birth family at the time of placement as it will help alleviate many of these unanswered questions for the child. This access to information, without the additional and unknown hurdles, at whichever level is appropriate for the adoptive family and the birth family, respects the child’s agency to have the information once they are old enough and to make their own decision as to whether they would like contact or more information on their origin, rather than again having to go through the court system. The Adoptee Rights Law Center is a resource for adoptees seeking information and has a review of state laws on access, and Child Welfare Information Gateway provides an overview of access to adoption records.

Specialized and Ongoing Support for Adoptees

Due to the specialized issues in adoption, whether stemming from foster care or placement from birth, transracial and international adoption, or an intersection of both, it is important to connect with adoption-competent medical and mental health providers to support the child’s unique needs based on the child’s background.

Adoption-Competent Mental Health Providers

With the lifelong impact of adoption, it is important to seek mental health providers who understand the specialized support that is needed by adoptees and adoptive families. The effects of separating a baby from their birth mother is a primal loss for the birth mother and for the child, one that impacts the adoptee’s relationships throughout life. This loss, that can manifest like ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief for adoptees, is not really recognized as the adoption aspect is usually celebrated. Such imbalance can lead to unique mental health struggles for adoptees. Additionally, aspects such as transracial adoption and international adoption can create a clash of racial and cultural identity between the child and adoptive family, which also has its unique mental health needs to address related to the adoptee’s self-identity.

Pact, an organization dedicated to serving adopted children of color and their families, supports transracial adoptees with support groups, camp programs, and youth clubs, and through its Center for Race & Adoption Focused Therapy, where it offers specialized adoption-sensitive therapy on a sliding scale. A resource for understanding the unique needs of therapy for adoptive families is “Finding and Working With Adoption-Competent Therapists.”

Adoption-Competent Medical Providers

When attending any doctor appointment, you are guaranteed to be asked to share your family medical history. This is something that comes easily to many, but is both difficult, if not impossible, and can be traumatizing for an adoptee. Beyond understanding how to work with adoptees, adoption-competent providers have specialized training to understand common medical concerns specific to adoptees, such as navigating certain behavioral traits or effects due to substance exposure. The Center for Adoption Medicine is one example of an organization that provides specialized medical support to adoptive families.

Outsource Lived Experience

In addition to adoption-competent medical and mental health providers, your child will inherently have different experiences in life based on their race and ethnicity. No matter how supportive or understanding an adoptive parent is of their child of a different race or culture, the adoptive parent has not had the lived experience of the child’s race or culture and cannot replicate that lived experience. It can be helpful to look for support for the child from someone who has lived the unique experiences of their particular race and culture, whether this is a birth relative, family friend, or member of the community.

Connections to Other Adoptees

Allowing a child to connect to other adoptees, especially those with similar backgrounds and home dynamics, shows children they are not alone in their feelings and allows the adoptive parents to also learn from other families. As the conversation around adoption, and especially transracial and transnational adoption, is just starting to open, there is no true roadmap for adoptees and families to follow this lifelong journey. Resources such as support groups, books, podcasts, youth groups, and camps, allow the child to connect with others with similar experiences.

The Adoptee Mentoring Society, run by Angela Tucker, a transracial adoptee and leading adoption expert, creates a space for adoptees to connect with one another virtually and learn to gain agency over their own adoption story. Support groups are a great way for adoptees to connect with others and may be available online on an adoption-specific forum or in a group on Facebook or locally in person through school, community, or religious groups.

Connecting and Learning for Adoptive Parents and Adoptees

By connecting adoptive parents to resources in supporting an adoptee, we can begin to change the dialogue around adoption to be adoptee-focused and allow for more understanding for adoptees.

Connect with specialized adoption attorneys through the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys.

Learn from and share fact sheets from Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Visit Harlow’s Monkey, a blog and resource center created and maintained by Dr. JaeRan Kim that takes “an unapologetic look at transracial and transnational adoption.” Harlow’s Monkey provides adoptees with curated links to books, websites, blogs, podcasts, and other adoptees to follow. The site also provides resources for adoptees by country of origin and podcasts that are all hosted by adoptees.

Listen to The Adoptee Next Door podcast hosted by Angela Tucker, the leading voice in transracial adoption, who interviews adoptees from all backgrounds, giving voice back to adoptees and shifting focus to adoption.

Read The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Verrier, referenced here, to understand the loss that is part of adoption and is part of the adoptee’s story.

Recommend Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience and Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton, who was an adoptee and leading advocate for open adoption reform.

Connect with “Pact,” an adoption alliance that provides lifelong education and support for adoptees of color and their families. Pact supports adoptees with support groups, camp programs, and youth clubs, and through its Center for Race & Adoption Focused Therapy, where it offers specialized adoption-sensitive therapy on a sliding scale.

Understand the racial identity model and theory outlined in The Harris Narratives—An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee, by Susan Harris O’Connor, a social worker and transracial adoptee. The Harris Narratives provides an introspective review of five different identity perspectives that a transracial adoptee may face.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Elizabeth Vaysman

Family-building Attorney

Elizabeth Vaysman is a family-building attorney in Philadelphia. Liz worked as an attorney for an adoption agency before starting her private practice in adoption and reproductive law. She is an adoption fellow with the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (AAAA).