Skewed views

Kathryn A. Sweeney at Purdue University Calumet conducted a research study called The Culture of Poverty and Adoption: Adoptive Parent Views of Birth Families. The results were published in 2012 in the Michigan Family Review. Here’s the gist of it:

This study used data from 15 in-depth interviews to better understand how perceptions of birth families by White adoptive parents rely on and challenge cultural perspectives of poverty. Findings show the complexity of their views: even when adoptive parents recognize structural causes of poverty, they tend to rely on the idea that birth parent poverty results from inadequate choices made by individuals. Findings have implications for agency practice, relationships with birth families and adoptee identity.
The study identifies several broad categories of opinions held by the adoptive parents who were surveyed. Respondents characterized a woman's decision to surrender a child in several ways: as a choice, as an act of courage or altruism, as the result of bad life decisions, or as a response to structural or societal constraints (such as China’s one child policy or Korean society’s attitudes toward single mothers and children born to unmarried women.)

You can recognize in these the labels often applied to surrendering mothers: the woman who "signed the papers," the selfless saint, the sinner, or the poor oppressed woman. It was particularly interesting to me that some respondents raised feelings of guilt at taking a child from another woman, but quickly resolved them once their adoption agencies couched the surrender in terms of a woman's choice.

Dr. Sweeney finds this problematic:
The focus on birth parent choice is problematic because it encourages culture of poverty perspectives, which may restrict the ability of adoptive parents to recognize important structural factors. As indicated by the findings of this paper, the focus on choice may stem in part from how agencies portray birth parents. Quiroz (2007a) provides some insight into the language used on agency websites, but additional research is needed to understand how agencies influence the ways in which adoptive parents view the process, their options, and birth families. Adoptive agencies should consciously evaluate how they portray birth parents since their portrayal may influence adoptive parent perspectives and ultimately the well-being of adoptive children who are the recipients of the stories their adoptive parent tell about their birth families.
I agree. But I believe the study misinterprets the factors that affect a woman's ability to make an empowered choice. It states that poverty and structural factors (like societal attitudes, laws and regulations) limit a woman's ability to choose parenting over surrender, but doesn't talk about any of the other subtle and not-so-subtle influences (from family, friends, community, counselors, clergy, and institutions) that affect their decisions. Coercion comes in many forms, but this study seems to focus only on the most obvious.
Future research should compare adoptive parent perceptions across different groups such as marital status, sexuality, socio-economic status, adopter race, and type of adoption. Existing research also lacks information on the role of biological parents and the relationships between birth and adoptive families. Additional research is also needed to better understand how adoptive parent perspective affects adopted children.
Yes, we need to understand how adoptive parent perspectives affect their children. It's actually more important, in my opinion, to debunk the things adoptive parents believe that aren't true. This study leads readers to believe that as long as a woman has economic means, her decision to surrender is a free choice. Mothers who have lost children to adoption are telling us that this isn't true. We are learning from them that women with means are as subject to coercion - from their children's fathers, their families and friends, clergy, counselors, and adoption agencies, to name just a few - as those who come to adoption out of desperation. We need more studies by and for women who have lost children to adoption to set the record straight and stop coercive practices.

Claudia recently took on this topic from a mother’s perspective in Irresponsible Whores or Strong Family Building Angels. No one could characterize the danger of dismissing surrendering women's feelings better than she does:
A Birthmother feels nothing less than the next mother on the street even if her own life is damaged in some way, even if she is lacking, deemed a loser, or made poor choices. The mother of a kidnapped teen, a missing adult child, siblings lost in a custody battle, the victim of a shooting, an illness such as cancer; we acknowledge and sympathies in that mother's pain, but the birthmother is damned or sainted while her same feelings are dismissed.


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