Landmark Donaldson Adoption Institute Study Reveals Financial Difficulties, Social Pressures and Lack of Support – All Factors in Decision-Making for Expectant Mothers

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Study emphasizes urgent need for policy and practice changes to best support women.

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For far too long, we have not understood the experiences of expectant women and first/birth mothers connected to adoption and have shied away from the conversation that links adoption to women’s rights and women’s history.

Today, The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) officially released Understanding Options Counseling Experiences in Adoption: A Qualitative Analysis of First/Birth Parents and Professionals — the second phase of its research to better understand the experiences of women who relinquished their parental rights to adoption and the professionals who work with them.

This seminal research was conducted by Dr. Elissa Madden, Assistant Professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University; Dr. Scott Ryan, Dean and Jenkins Garrett Professor at the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Arlington; Dr. Donna Aguiniga, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work of the University of Alaska-Anchorage; Olga Verbovaya, Doctoral Candidate at The University of Texas at Arlington; Marcus Crawford, Doctoral Candidate at The University of Texas at Arlington; and Chandler Gobin, MSW Student at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.

Both the quantitative and qualitative analyses explored the decision-making experiences of women who have relinquished their parental rights to adoption within the past 25 years, as well as the context in which options surrounding unintended pregnancies are discussed with expectant parents by adoption professionals. This new study builds on the quantitative work released in November 2016 and includes the qualitative narratives of first/birth parents and adoption professionals.

In-depth interviews with 28 first/birth mothers and 20 adoption professionals provided insight into experiences that have been rarely studied and therefore understood.

Key highlights from first/birth mothers and adoption professionals:

  • Social Stigma - Many of the women expressed concerns of being judged and feelings of shame stemming from their pregnancy. For some women, the sense of shame stemmed from religious beliefs primarily surrounding having had premarital sex as well as the idea of being an unwed single mother.
  • Financial Stability - It was common for first/birth mothers to express concern about their lack of financial stability during their pregnancy. Financial concerns were a major reason why many first/birth mothers first considered, and then ultimately elected, adoption.
  • Social and Emotional Support - Many first/birth mothers experienced a lack of social and emotional support during and after the pregnancy and later after the adoption was consummated. A particularly painful way this lack of support manifested was when people in their lives avoided talking about their pregnancy.
  • Differences in Language - Adoption professionals reported the use of different terms to refer to parents experiencing a crisis pregnancy who are seeking information about adoption. Slightly more than half of the adoption professionals indicated that they prefer to use the term, “expectant parent.” Other adoption professionals indicated that they prefer to use the term, “birth parent.”
  • Variations in Information and Options Discussed - Much of the information that adoption professionals reported discussing with new expectant parents focused on adoption-related concerns rather than full consideration of all of the parents’ options. Less than half of adoption professionals specifically mentioned discussing information related to parenting their child or methods for helping expectant parents’ problem-solve how this might occur.
  • Confidence and Conviction - Despite the confidence that the professionals reported feeling about their ability to work and communicate with expectant parents, most offered suggestions for training that would help them strengthen their practice. More than half of the adoption professionals called for additional training on grief and loss related to relinquishment.

“I can’t think of a better month (Women’s History Month) to launch the qualitative portion of our Options Counseling Study,” said April Dinwoodie, Chief Executive of The Donaldson Adoption Institute. “For far too long, we have not understood the experiences of expectant women and first/birth mothers connected to adoption and have shied away from the conversation that links adoption to women’s rights and women’s history. Our hope is that our comprehensive work in this area via the Lynn Franklin Fund will provide a solid base to draw from to inform better policies and practices to help all women and the families they are connected to.”

Among the recommendations in this 39-page study:

  • Mandate adoption agencies and adoption attorneys to develop and/or provide free access to pre- and post-relinquishment services for expectant and first/birth parents. These services should be inclusive of individual and family counseling provided by a licensed clinical professional. Additionally, these services should be made available for first/birth parents to access at any time post-relinquishment, as research suggests that some mothers delay accessing supportive services for several months or years.
  • Mandate that adoption agencies and adoption attorneys must provide expectant parents with a standardized, informed consent that details the possible outcomes associated with relinquishment of parental rights to a child for adoption, as well as potential outcomes that the child may experience.
  • Increase and standardize education for expectant parents, and prospective adoptive parents, about the strengths, limitations, and legalities of post-relinquishment contact, including the rights of adoptive parents to decrease or eliminate contact.
  • Mandate biannual ethics in adoption continuing education for adoption professionals. This curriculum should address ethical challenges related to working with expectant parents, first/birth parents, extended family members, prospective adoptive parents, and other adoption professionals and lawyers. The curriculum should also emphasize the importance of options counseling, including full informed consent, and access to supportive services.
  • Conduct research on the implications of pre-matching expectant parents with prospective adoptive parents. While some first/birth mothers indicated they preferred having contact with the prospective family prior to their child’s birth, for several first/birth mothers, this contact had an explicit negative and coercive effect on their decision-making.

This project was underwritten by DAI’s Lynn Franklin Fund with initial funding by James Stevens. Brenda Romanchik (LCSW, ACSW, CTS and author of A Birthparent’s Book of Memories and other publications) served as the Project Lead. The Lynn Franklin Fund Advisory Council provided invaluable insight throughout this project.

Read the full Quantitative study here.
Read the full Qualitative study here.

Join us for an important Women’s History Month event highlighting DAI's most recent seminal studies led by researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington exploring the options counseling experiences of women who relinquished their parental rights to adoption. Register here for our “Women, Adoption and Family: Reclaiming our Narrative” event on Tuesday, March 21st at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

About The Donaldson Adoption Institute
Since 1996, The Donaldson Adoption Institute has been on a mission to improve the lives of children and families through research, education and advocacy. We investigate the issues of greatest concern to first/birth parents, adopted people, adoptive/foster families, the people who love them and the professionals that serve them. We educate and train professionals, enlighten parents and engage members of the community to make a positive impact on laws, policies, practices and perceptions.

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About The University of Texas at Arlington
The University of Texas at Arlington is a Carnegie Research-1 “highest research activity” institution. With a projected global enrollment of close to 57,000, UTA is one of the largest institutions in the state of Texas. Guided by its Strategic Plan 2020 Bold Solutions|Global Impact, UTA fosters interdisciplinary research and education within four broad themes: health and the human condition, sustainable urban communities, global environmental impact, and data-driven discovery. UTA was recently cited by U.S. News & World Report as having the second lowest average student debt among U.S. universities. U.S. News & World Report lists UTA as having the fifth highest undergraduate diversity index among national universities. The University is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is ranked as the top four-year college in Texas for veterans on Military Times’ 2017 Best for Vets list.

About the UTA School of Social Work
The School of Social Work strives to educate leaders to create community partnerships for promoting a just society. The School promotes the highest standards of integrity and excellence in research, teaching and service, and creates collaborative scholarly and educational opportunities for students and the community, with the goal of achieving a just society. As one of the largest schools of social work in the nation, it has a diverse student body of more than 2,000 students enrolled in three degree awarding programs: the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), Master of Social Work (MSW), and the Ph.D. in Social Work. The BSW and MSW programs are fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. With a commitment to social justice, the School is also home to the Diversity Studies Minor and Certificate Programs, where undergraduate students across the UT Arlington campus can enroll in a cluster of courses in diversity education. Click here for UTA School of Social Work admissions information.

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Heather Schultz
@adoptioninst
since: 03/2010
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