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10/2/14 - "A Journey of Curiosity and Contemplation to Research and Dissertation" by Dana Naughton

A Journey of Curiosity and Contemplation to Research and Dissertation

by Dana Naughton, Ph.D.

Dana Naughton, Ph.D., Adult Education and Comparative and International Education, received an ARC research grant in Fall 2012 for her project entitled "Learning Through Adoption: The Intercountry Adoption Experiences of Canadian and Dutch Adopters of Children from the United States".

Several years before I entered the doctoral program in Adult Education and Comparative and International Education (CI ED) at Penn State, I worked as the Assistant Director of an international social service agency. The agency worked on micro and macro issues relating to family reunification across international borders, repatriation, international child-parental abduction, international adoption issues, and numerous other areas related to forced or voluntary migration. The work was unwaveringly fascinating and required collaboration with a global network of social workers, lawyers, and other professionals engaged in social welfare cases, policy, and laws across international borders.

While there, I became particularly intrigued by a subset of the cases the agency handled. These had to do with international adoptions (ICA; also known as intercountry adoption), a child welfare practice in which children of one country are legally transferred to the custody of citizens (adoptive parents) in another country. International adoption, while generally perceived as a (contested) child welfare solution, is very much an immigration process, and has been called “the quiet migration” (Weil, 1984, p. 276). One aspect of my work involved reviewing and approving ICA files, mostly adoptions by U.S. military families or expatriates living abroad whose adoption files needed to be reviewed by a U.S. agency. However, a small but steady stream of files that came across my desk were notable because they seemed to be going the wrong way. These adoptions involved U.S.-born children, and they were leaving the country to be adopted by families in Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and other countries. At a time when U.S. citizens were adopting foreign-born children in record numbers, this adoption journey, I knew, did not fit the conventional paradigm of international adoption policy or practice.

Generally perceived as a “receiving” nation of international adoptees, the U.S., I came to learn, is, paradoxically a “sending” country, sought out by prospective adoptive parents across the world as a source country of adoptable children. These adoptions are called outgoing cases (United States Department of State [DOS], 2011) and in the last decade, families from a host of nations have adopted approximately 2,000 U.S. infants and young children (Selman, 2012). Most, though not all adoptees are Black, bi-racial or minority children. Similar in many ways to conventional paradigms of transracial and international adoption, these adoptions nonetheless fall challenge constructs of ICA practice in profound ways. For example; ICA is typically entwined in conflicting tropes of humanitarian rescue and post-colonial exploitation involving families from high-resource nations offering homes to children of low-resource nations who are abandoned because of extreme poverty or cultural-political forces that impact family size or constitution. The South-to-North migratory route frequently seen in ICA practice, in outgoing U.S. adoptions is revised. Although children may be placed “north” in Canada, their transnational journey is unquestionably from one high resource nation to another.

Birthparents in the contemporary ICA paradigm are highly marginalized. Most often they must be deceased (thus allowing the child to be a true orphan), unknown (for example as in China where it is illegal to abandon a child), or have permanently relinquished their child to public care. In contrast, outgoing U.S. adoptions are, in part, predicated on the U.S. birthparents’ right to choose their child’s adoptive parents. Moreover, U.S. birthparents could be in mediated (agency-facilitated) or direct contact with foreign prospective adoptive parents pre-and post-adoption—a practice not found in the contemporary paradigm. Additionally, child placement could occur within hours, days or weeks of a child’s birth – a timeline unheard of in conventional ICA practice. Finally, these adoptions occur within a complex racialized and socio-legal landscape. Researchers (Avitan, 2007; Dorow, 2006a, 2006b) suggest Black and bi-racial infants are available for adoption because White U.S. families bypass them in favor of less racially defined children (from China, Eastern Europe, or Russia) or foreign-born black children (from Ethiopia or Haiti) whose adoptions may be tethered to humanitarian notions of rescue.

Although I came to understand the (contentious) legal and policy issues that promoted or hindered these adoptions, the lived experience of these placements also intrigued me. How, I wondered, did European or Canadian parents help their Black or biracial child understand and create a racial identity or experience African American and U.S. life and culture? How did families tell their international adoption story to their child and others? Did they map it against familiar tropes of rescue or humanitarian assistance? How did they discuss with their child that his or her U.S. birth parents determined not just that another family was in the child’s best interest, but another culture and country as well? How did foreign parents prepare to adopt a U.S. child: What culturally related readings, training, resources, or activities did they draw upon before and after adoption, and what was the subsequent experience of the adoptive family as they engaged with their family, community and culture?

Despite my curiosity regarding these adoptions, my circumstances changed and I left the job, the region, and this line of work for a number of years. However, within months of entering my doctoral program at Penn State, I took the opportunity to explore dimensions of outgoing U.S. adoptions; at first, undertaking a pilot study with adoption professionals involved in the practice, and later, focusing my dissertation on the experiences of Canadian and Dutch families that have adopted children from the United States. Early on I realized that in spite of the vast canon of academic scholarship focused on policy, psychological adjustment, laws and other topics relating to international adoption and the U.S., the experience of foreign adopters of U.S.-born children was wholly absent from this empirical base. This gap in knowledge was important: It serves to inform academics, mental health practitioners, policymakers, families and communities, about child and parent experiences, education, and support when creating families though international adoption (Avitan, 2008; Balcom, 2011; Selinske, Naughton, Flanagan, Fry & Pickles, 2001; Wegar, 2008).

I addressed this gap in knowledge by conducting a field-based, narrative inquiry with adoptive parents in the two primary receiving countries of U.S. children: Canada and the Netherlands. Funding and support from Penn State’s Africana Research Center was instrumental to this field-based study.

My guiding hypothesis, generated from my pilot study findings, was that the adoption experience of these families differed substantively from that found in extant ICA literature. As a student of adult education and CI ED, I focused on the informal learning activities of adoptive parents and asked the following research questions:

  1. In what ways do personal experiences, knowledge, attitudes, or beliefs influence the decision of a Canadian or Dutch citizen to adopt a US child?
  2. How do Canadian or Dutch parents educate or prepare themselves – formally or informally – to adopt across racial, cultural, and international borders?
  3. How do accounts of Canadian and Dutch adopters of US children conform to or differ from discourses of ICA practice?
  4. In what ways has the adoption affected meanings of self, family, community, culture, country or worldview for the adoptive parents?

Research Design

The study followed a qualitative narrative tradition that focused on the participants’ account (story) of their lives, specifically the narrative of becoming a family through international adoption. I used a multi-perspective case study design with fieldwork in rural and urban communities in Canada and the Netherlands. I recruited families primarily through my former professional ties in international adoption work as an international adoption program coordinator, supervisor of outgoing adoption cases, and my network of contacts through my 20-year social work career. Twelve families in Canada and eight families in the Netherlands participated in the study. Eighteen families adopted Black, biracial or minority children, two families adopted White children. Ages at time of child placement ranged from approximately two days to three months.

Data collection for this study included: completion of a demographic questionnaire, participation in in-person and/or telephone interviews, and on-site observations of adoptive families in their environments (homes, neighborhoods, playgrounds, schools, etc.). Additional data sources included review of (a) adoptive family artifacts such as family pictures and memorabilia; (b) document analysis of ICA prospective parent training materials and curriculum and (c) review of Canadian and Dutch adoption laws, Hague Convention reports, relevant web documents and newspaper accounts of outgoing U.S. adoptions. With the consent of all participants, interviews were audiotaped and transcribed either by myself or a professional transcriptionist. I used NVivo 10 to assist with narrative and thematic analysis of the data.

Research Findings (the short version)

Participants’ narratives revealed several key findings. Prospective adoptive parents in Canada and the Netherlands shared similar psychosocial issues that led to them to form families through adoption. These included medical issues or being in later-age partnerships that precluded having biological children, coming from families in which siblings or other family members were adopted, or being in same-sex relationships and choosing adoption as a means to create a family. Socio-Cultural-historical factors affected choice as well. Acceptance of single parenting, social programs, reproductive education and options, and abortion have resulted in very few domestic infants being available for adoption, leaving prospective Dutch adopters to look to international adoption programs (von Hoof, 2010). Many Canadian families sought to adopt children from the U.S. because of comfort with U.S. culture, geography, and [English] language and a sense that adopting from the U.S. was similar to the Canadian private domestic adoption process. All but two of the twenty families interviewed expected to adopt a Black, biracial or minority child and all families in the study expected some pre- or post- contact with their child’s birth family.

Canadian and Dutch families substantially adapted and expanded their adoption-related learning beyond mandated or sponsored adoption agency, organization or state-based trainings as they prepared for, or subsequently adopted from, the United States. Canada and the Netherlands both require parent education when adopting (domestically or internationally) and families in both countries noted that their training overall was valuable and timely. Deficits noted in training included lack of information on adopting newborns, and lack of information on open adoption in situations of international adoption. Families in both countries engaged in significant informal learning activities to understand U.S. immigration laws; increase their knowledge of U.S. history - especially content around race relations and issues; gain facility in managing racialized encounters; negotiate adoptive-birth family relationships over time; understand racial and ethnic socialization processes and identity development of adopted and transracially adopted children; and, learn about and gain competency in hair, skin, diet and nutrition needs of their Black, biracial or minority children. Parents in Canada spoke of attending groups for mixed-race families, and/or calling upon the expertise of Black and biracial friends to help them anticipate and address the needs of their minority children. Families in the Netherlands socialized within a significant community of transracial adoptive families, most of whom had adopted Black and biracial children from the U.S. over the last 20 years.

The ICA experience of Canadian and Dutch adopters’ of children from the U.S. differed substantially from that found in the contemporary paradigm of intercountry adoption in process and in practice. Adoption applications were not handled by national authorities in the U.S. that matched foreign prospective adoptive families with available children (as is done for example in China, South Korea, India and other countries). Rather, foreign adopters completed adoption applications, met provincial or national Canadian or Dutch adoption requirements, created family portfolios and wrote letters to prospective U.S. birth parents in which they outlined their reasons for adopting and described the type of home and environment they would provide for a child. Adoption agencies in Canada with affiliations with U.S. adoption agencies or adoption service providers (usually adoption attorneys) forwarded these applications to the U.S. providers who in turn presented the family portfolios to U.S. birth parents as they made adoption plans for their child/children. For Dutch families the process was slightly different. For many of the adoptions in this study, Dutch families had to locate a U.S. adoption agency or provider themselves, a process known in the Netherlands as “Zelfendoers” [Do-It-Yourself] adoptions. This process has changed over the last several years and Dutch families now must work with Dutch agencies that have U.S. affiliates. The contemporary ICA paradigm follows a principle of subsidiarity in which a child’s family, community or country must first be considered before an international adoption placement is explored. However, U.S. adoption law privileges a birth parent’s right to choose an adoptive family and thus in U.S. outgoing adoptions, foreign families may be selected over U.S. families if the birth parent feels the foreign placement is in the child’s best interest and the birth parent’s state adoption court agrees to the placement. Another difference involved U.S. birth parents’ requests for contact with the prospective adoptive parents prior to, and after, a child’s birth. In several cases within this study, birth parents’ requested the prospective adoptive parents’ presence in the delivery room; in other cases, adoptive and birth parents have maintained contact long after the child’s birth and adoption. Some families in this study were in frequent contact with their child’s birth family through email, phone calls or even Facebook. One birth family had visited their child’s adoptive family in Canada and numerous families from both Canada and the Netherlands had visited birth families in the United States. These practices robustly challenge the contemporary ICA paradigm.

The presence or possibility of a level of open adoption in an intercountry adoption process was at times a mediating agent in parent learning, experience and meaning. For example, one adoptive mother spoke of her need to adeptly care for her child’s black-textured hair as she sought approbation from her daughter’s birth family who always commented on it during their U.S. visits. Another family studied the religious traditions of their child’s birth family to facilitate the child’s participation when visiting its’ U.S. family and several families named their children in consultation with the child’s birth parents. Several Dutch families assumed that their U.S.-born children might return to the U.S. visit their birth families, to attend university, or to take advantage of professional opportunities and sought opportunities to ensure that their child or children gained competency in English.

Finally, U.S. outgoing adoptions revealed a new model of intercountry adoption practice. This research indicated that outgoing U.S. adoptions reflect a new, hybrid form of ICA which calls for new content in training and preparation for prospective parents, new levels of pre-and post-adoption support for all members of the adoption triad, and provocative new considerations for intercountry adoption stakeholders. Specifically, pre-and post-adoption contact between birth and adoptive families requires extending ICA training to include content on establishing, maintaining or discontinuing relationships between birth and adoptive families. Several families in this study argued passionately for this need. One family, for example, described a difficult situation in which they had to tell their adopted child that their birth parent no longer wished for contact, while the adoptive parents of two children from different birth families had to negotiate situations where they had ongoing relationships with one child’s birth parents but not the other child’s birth family.

For ICA stakeholders such as policy makers, adoption service providers and adoption-triad members, the U.S. model moves forward an international adoption paradigm in which open adoption is both a possibility and basis for the ICA protocol and adoption experience. At its best, the model considers the communicative needs and potential healing force of moving ICA from a practice that marginalizes and obfuscates adoption circumstances to building on transparent relationships meant to be negotiated over distances and time.

Additional thoughts

Certainly both this study with its 30 participants and my earlier pilot study with ten adoption professionals from the U.S. and Canada are small in scale. Another limitation of the studies is that only U.S. outgoing adoptions in the context of the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands are considered. Nonetheless, data from the studies illuminates numerous facets of the lived experience of adopters as well as policy and practice issues that should be considered by adoption stakeholders. Research with both U.S. birth families and U.S. adoptees is critically needed, especially as this practice continues. Outgoing adoptions remain almost wholly invisible in the public and academic arenas, even as their numbers increase.


Avitan, G. (2007). Protecting our children or our pride? Regulating the intercountry adoption of American children. Cornell International Law Journal40, 489.

Balcom, K. (2011). The traffic in babies: Cross-border adoption and baby-selling between the United States and Canada, 1930-1972. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Dubinsky, K. (2008). The fantasy of the global cabbage patch: Making sense of transnational adoption. Feminist Theory9(3), 339-345.

Dorow, S. (2006). Racialized choices: Chinese adoption and the `White noise” of Blackness. Critical Sociology, 32, 357-379.

Dorow, S. (2006b). Transnational adoption: A cultural economy of race, gender and kinship. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Selinske, J., Naughton, D., Flanagan, K., Fry, P., & Pickles, A. (2001). Ensuring the best interest of the child in intercountry adoption practice: case studies from the United Kingdom and the United States. Child Welfare, 80(5), 656–67.

Selman, P. (2012). The rise and fall of intercountry adoption in the 21st century. In J. Gibbons, K. Rotabi (Eds.), Intercountry adoption Policy practices and outcomes. (pp.7-28) London: Ashgate Publishing

US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, (2011). The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption: A guide to outgoing cases from the United States. Retrieved from

Von Hooff, H. (2010). International adoption of children in the Netherlands. Court AppointedAdvocates for Children (CASA), Judges’ Newsletter. Retrieved from

Wegar, K. (2006). Adoptive families in a diverse society. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Weil, R. (1984). International adoption: The quiet migration. International Migration Review

Summer; 18(2):276-93