Back to top

Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love

Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love
Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Adoption Practice

An examination of race, class, and gender issues surrounding kinship and family formation in America, seen through the lens of adoption.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Number Twenty-Two

January 2010
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
199 pages | 6 x 9 |

Most Americans assume that shared genes or blood relationships provide the strongest basis for family. What can adoption tell us about this widespread belief and American kinship in general? Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love examines the ways class, gender, and race shape public and private adoption in the United States. Christine Ward Gailey analyzes the controversies surrounding international, public, and transracial adoption, and how the political and economic dynamics that shape adoption policies and practices affect the lives of people in the adoption nexus: adopters, adoptees, birth parents, and agents within and across borders. Interviews with white and African-American adopters, adoption social workers, and adoption lawyers, combined with her long-term participant-observation in adoptive communities, inform her analysis of how adopters' beliefs parallel or diverge from the dominant assumptions about kinship and family. Gailey demonstrates that the ways adoptive parents speak about their children vary across hierarchies of race, class, and gender. She shows that adopters' notions about their children's backgrounds and early experiences, as well as their own "family values," influence child rearing practices. Her extensive interviews with 131 adopters reveal profoundly different practices of kinship in the United States today.

Moving beyond the ideology of "blood is thicker than water," Gailey presents a new way of viewing kinship and family formation, suitable to times of rapid social and cultural change.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Profiling Adoption in the United States Today
  • Chapter 2. "Kids Need Families to Turn Out Right": Public Agency Adopters
  • Chapter 3. Transracial Adoption in Practice
  • Chapter 4. Making Kinship in the Wake of History: Older Child Adoption
  • Chapter 5. The Global Search for "Blue-Ribbon Babies": International Adoption
  • Chapter 6. Inclusive, Exclusive, and Contractual Families: What Adoption Can Tell Us about Kinship Today
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Christine Ward Gailey is Professor of Women's Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. She is also the author of Kinship to Kingship: Gender Hierarchy and State Formation in the Tongan Islands.


Adoption, like motherhood, has always been a woman's issue. It is women who give birth, and women have had their birth children taken from them because of cultural, political or economic forces; and it is women who sometimes feel they must relinquish their birth child in order to protect that child. It is women who choose or agree to take on the work of mothering.

Susan Wadia-Ells, The Adoption Reader


Race, class, and gender issues permeate and shape adoption in the United States. Adoption has always concerned race, from the first efforts by white settlers to adopt Native American children to the ongoing controversy surrounding interracial placement of children. It has an abiding location within a class hierarchy that draws children for adoption from the indigent or working-poor. Adoption today is also heavily gendered: women initiate the vast majority of adoptions; the preponderance of adoption social workers are women; and birth mothers are most often the sole parent for their vulnerable children. These hierarchies determine the structural risks facing children, the profiles of prospective adopters, and the institutions that operate foster care and adoption services.


Public and Private Adoptions


Adoptions in the United States today are arranged through three major mechanisms. Public agencies accounted for 40 percent of all adoptions in 2004. This represents a large increase from the 15.5 percent reported for 1992 (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2004: 1; Stolley, 1993). These so-called public adoptions, or adoptions of children from domestic foster care, generally are accomplished through state agencies or the private agencies contracted to them for specific categories of children, especially those labeled as "hard to place" or "special needs." In public agency adoption, effects of gender and class are palpable: the economic condition of adoption social workers, prospective adoptive mothers, and birth mothers are often not much more than two paychecks and medical insurance apart from one another. In international adoption, by contrast, the economic separation of adopters from their children's birth mothers and the social workers that sign off on the home studies tends to be extreme.


An increasing number of domestic adopters are sufficiently well off and legally connected to obtain children privately. They work through licensed businesses that often are no more than an individual known as a "facilitator," someone who brokers agreements between prospective adopters and pregnant women, mediated through lawyers. Although researchers know this form of adoption is increasing, particularly for infant adoptions, exact figures are elusive because states are not required to collect data on this arrangement. Another type of private adoption involves licensed local, regional, or national agencies that locate children with particular characteristics (typically age, sex, and/or race) either within the United States or elsewhere. Since many private agencies are faith-based, adopters pursuing this line of access often seek children of their own religion. Agencies associated with particular communities may contract with state child welfare departments for adoptions to and from that constituency. Other agencies maintain national networks or specialize in international adoption; some do both. Private agency adoptions account for most of the international adoptions today; the number of domestic adoptions through private agencies is less clear. Because of the way the Department of Health and Human Services collects and processes adoption data, about 40 percent of adoptions can no longer be separated statistically into private agency, kinship/stepparent adoptions, or adoptions through Native American tribal agencies (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2004: 1).


Adoptive Kinship in the Context of Class, Race, and Gender


In the reassortment of children across space, economic stratification, and social hierarchies, what does kinship mean? How do adopters perceive their children? How do they conceive of kinship and family? How and why do they prefer some children rather than others placed for adoption? How do they build relationships with their children?


This study involved extensive interviews with 131 adopters from many walks of life. Some received their children through public adoption agencies, others from private ones. Some arranged adoptions using specialized lawyers' networks or contacted birth mothers via licensed "adoption facilitators" over the internet. Some adopted their children from the foster care system in the United States, and some adopted children from public or private institutions or networks in other countries.


These adopters' commentaries enable us to see the tensions between ideologies and practices of kinship in the United States today. We see how ideologies of gender, race, and class crosscut and interact as people create families. Examining how these adoptive parents speak about their families and the various participants involved in their particular adoption experiences provides a lens through which we can glimpse the impact of dramatic social changes on children: class mobility, interracial kinship, or international migration, in addition to early upheavals of foster care or placement in institutionalized care. In assessing the ways adoptive parents speak of issues regarding nature and nurture, and how they have brought their ideologies to bear on family formation, we can see how adoption has challenged, transformed, or reinforced their commitment to these beliefs. In how they discuss their children's integration into their new communities, we see how parents' commitment to their adopted children interacts with their (usually unspoken) commitment to reproduction within their socioeconomic class.


Although many adopters might disagree, adoption in the United States is not a private matter. As both policy and practice, adoption involves people with different degrees of social power in a society of ever-increasing wealth differences, racial and ethnic hierarchies, and uneven but persistent discrimination by gender and sexual orientation. The state is always an interested party, and in the case of international adoption more than one state is involved. It is a process that often brings people from different social classes into coordination or conflict about one of the most intimate arenas in adult life: reproduction. How adopters speak of birth mothers/parents, social workers, foster mothers/parents, and so on gives a sense of the anxieties of class in reproduction today.


In the ways adopters speak of their children's needs related to early disruption and even trauma, we can detect the weight the adopters give their received notions of kinship, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and sometimes nationality and religion. The various responses of parents to their children reveals a great deal about some of the ways these families forge kinship that inadvertently or consciously subverts prevailing ideologies and practices. It also reveals how some of the parents subordinate the child's needs to their own desire for an idealized "American family."


To grasp the kinds of kinship that adoptive families in the United States construct, we must situate adoption practices in a national and global contexts: neoliberal policy shifts away from social services and social welfare in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the economic and social reforms in China, and the proliferation of capitalist markets throughout the world. Internationally, the desire for hard currency, whether on the part of the particular state, ill-paid bureaucrats, downwardly mobile workers, or underemployed professionals in regions newly opened to capitalist markets, episodically creates a practice of adoption that in effect trafficks in children.


Neoliberal reforms in the United States have diminished state regulation of major arenas of the economy, and this too has changed the face of adoption. Forms of adoption once considered to be a gray if not completely illegal market in children have now become the most prevalent types, excepting only stepparent adoption. So-called private and independent adoptions—arrangements between prospective adopters and pregnant women willing to relinquish their parental rights—are mediated through lawyers, private agencies, or individual brokers (called facilitators). In European countries where welfare state protections and regulations remain somewhat intact despite neoliberal pressures, such adoptions are illegal, considered to constitute a market in children. Public agency adoptions, drawing on a pool of children in foster care, once were second only to stepparent adoptions in frequency but are now a decided minority.


National policy shifts in welfare, foster care, health care, and reproductive rights have shaped today's demographics of adoption with regard to the social class and ethnic or racialized profiles of adopters, of those available for adoption, and of birth parents. The typical patterns of marital status and sexual orientation of public versus private agency adopters, private agency versus independent adopters, and domestic versus international adopters also have changed. On the state level, legal battles continue over how and when birth mothers and birth fathers can cede legal claims to children and when the state can terminate such rights. Guidelines for placing children in foster care vary from state to state, based on definitions of what constitutes child abuse or neglect. States also vary in the regulation of public and private adoption agencies and the requirements that individual adoption facilitators must meet. The greatest controversy surrounds whether adoptive parents or adult adoptees can have access to original birth certificates and other adoption records: this controversy is widely known as the "sealed records" or "open records" debates.


In this country, economic trends that have resulted in fewer jobs capable of sustaining a parent with children, scarce or prohibitively expensive infant and child care, and a steady rise in the number of families lacking medical insurance have affected the number, ethnicity, race, and age of children entering foster care or experiencing legal separation from their birth families. Legislative changes in social welfare, marriage, child custody, immigration, and child protection intersect with these economic effects and often compound their influence on children becoming available for adoption.


The situation is even more complex when we consider the 15 percent of U.S. adoptions that involve children from other countries. In addition to the economic processes and legal changes in this country, there is variation in the other country's state-run or private foster care policies and arrangements, the stability and extent of governmental regulation and social service supports, and the differential impact of trade and international lending practices that make hard currency scarce and disproportionately desirable in the global South.


To analyze such a complex set of issues and connections that span from political-economic processes to kinship formation requires interdisciplinary research. To approach the intersections of race and gender in adoption demands familiarity with critical race theory and feminist theory. To evaluate to what extent a "culture of adoption" exists, or how adoption practices vary, participant observation as a research technique needs to be informed by critical theories of culture and comparative ethnology. The following section outlines the project design and how the research process raised issues of informed consent, researcher-participant relations, the role of emotion in research, and other dimensions of the broader sense of methodology. Here it is sufficient to outline the number of people in the study, their social profiles, and the kinds of adoptions they undertook.




Over a period of thirteen years, I interviewed 131 adopters of ninety children. In New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire I developed a snowball sample of ninety-three parents of sixty-one children adopted between 1991 and 1997. In Southern California from 2000 to 2004 I interviewed a snowball sample of thirty-eight parents of twenty-nine children adopted between 2000 and 2004. I selected the California sample to delve into patterns that had emerged in the earlier research, so I made no attempt to model the numbers after the northeastern sample or on federal statistics.


Both samples included single mothers, heterosexual married couples, lesbian couples, and gay couples. In the Northeast there were six African American couples, twenty-nine white couples, four African American single mothers, eighteen white single mothers, and one white father. The father was part of a gay couple, and three of the aforementioned single mothers were actually from lesbian couples: one African American, one white, and one African American and white.


In the California sample there were eleven married couples: two African American couples, three Latino/Anglo-white couples, one African American/white couple, and five white couples. There were two single fathers (both white) and fourteen single mothers: nine whites, three Latinas, and two African Americans. Of the fourteen single mothers, eight adopters (listed first) in fact represented lesbian couples: one Latina/African American, two Latina/Anglo-white, two African American, one white/Asian American, and two white. The two single fathers represented gay couples, one white/Asian-American and one white. Where I talk of gay and lesbian couples in the adoption process and in the sample, I use only the legal adopters, since gays and lesbians cannot legally adopt as couples, but where I discuss parenting practices, I have included both partners.


Of the sixty-one children adopted by families in the northeastern sample, public agencies placed thirty-six, private agencies nineteen, and private, independent channels six. Among these adoptions, forty-seven were domestic and fourteen were international; in Southern California, sixteen were domestic and thirteen were international. Fourteen of the twenty-nine Southern California adoptions were through public agencies or private ones contracted to the state for special needs adoptions; thirteen were international adoptions through private agencies; and two were independent domestic, that is, arranged privately through adoption facilitators and lawyers.


All of the sixteen Southern California public adoptees and twenty-five of the northeastern children adopted domestically were "older child" adoptions, over three years old when placed. All but two of the northeastern international adoptees were infants or toddlers when placed. Because the Southern California international adoptions were disproportionately those by non-governmental agency personnel or U.S. academics working internationally (eight of thirteen), more of the children were older than is typical of international adoptions in the United States. Six of these eight children were between four and ten years old. The five children not adopted by the NGO/academic group were all infants or below the age of two.


In all likelihood I oversampled gay and lesbian adopters in Southern California, although the statistical situation is so poor that one cannot be certain. I did this because for ethical reasons I could not use extensive interviews I had done earlier with the northeastern lesbian and gay adopters; they had expressed fears that the channels through which they adopted would be shut to others if their stories were published. Southern California lesbian and gay adopters, partly because of regional attitudes and partly because of shifts in state adoption practices, were less fearful.


To acquire a sense of the dilemmas faced by adoption workers, I interviewed six adoption social workers active during the period in the Northeast and in Southern California, and three adoption social workers and two staff members from private agencies that dealt almost exclusively with international adoptions. I had the opportunity to interview two birth mothers who had relinquished children through private adoptions, but it was legally problematic to interview the adopters.


To construct the snowball samples, I began with adoptive acquaintances that knew other adopters and the sample ramified. Snowball sampling generally overrepresents or underrepresents participants by class, race, gender, or sexual orientation. To develop the snowball, then, I was careful to locate myself in urban arenas where diversity would be commonplace: churches, adoption conferences, post-adoption social groups, grocery stores, public swimming pools, and neighborhood playgrounds as starting points. For the international adopter groups I began interviewing acquaintances in university settings, but I became aware quite quickly that at least among international adopters, academics were decidedly at odds with the national patterns. To explore this more deeply, I developed a Southern California sample of professionals and academics that had adopted from countries where their ongoing work with non-governmental agencies or their research had provided long-term ties to local communities. I have used this NGO/academic group, then, to compare and contrast with the sociologically more typical international adopters.


Because African American children disproportionately staff the ranks of children in foster care waiting for adoption in the United States, and because young and unmarried black mothers run the highest risk of losing children to foster care, I thought it was necessary to get a better sense of how shifts in welfare laws over the last decade have affected young African American mothers. To better appreciate the conditions faced by such single mothers, I interviewed five women who were in the kinds of circumstances that could lead to relinquishment or removal of children. I also interviewed the sister of one mother known by one of these women to be a crack addict.


The northeastern and Southern California sites, the ways ethnicity and race articulate with public agency adoption recruitment, and the vagaries of snowball sampling led to my sample including black adopters (Americans of Afro-Caribbean heritage and African Americans) and whites of various ethnicities, but few Spanish-speaking, East Asian, or South Asian adopters. I attempted to remedy this with the Southern California materials, though with limited success because of the snowball technique. There is considerable effective outreach by Southern California state agencies to recruit Chicanos and other Latinos as adopters that is not reflected in the study. Outside the region, outreach to Spanish-speaking populations is minimal. Neither of the pre-adoptive training sessions in the Northeast that I was allowed to observe, for example, included any Spanish-speaking participants. There were no alternative sessions for people speaking other languages. The necessary resources for such outreach were not available in the social services sectors of the northeastern states I investigated.


With all this in mind, how representative is this study's sample? It is an important question, but no one can answer it with any certainty. We simply do not know exactly how many formal adoptions take place in the United States every year, let alone how many informal ones occur. The existence and accuracy of available adoption statistics is lamentable; until the long-awaited census of 2000, there had not been even what could be called somewhat reliable figures since 1992 (see Stolley, 1993). In that year most adoptions were by stepparents or relatives (42 percent), followed closely by adoptions through private agencies or mediated through lawyers and privately arranged (37.5 percent). Only 15.5 percent of the 127,441 adoptions recorded that year were through public agencies, and only 5 percent of the total adoptions were international. We know that the number of international adoptions has increased from 1992 to about 15 percent of all (estimated) adoptions in 2006: those adoptions are tracked through the State Department issuance of visas, so the figures are reliable. But while we also know that privately arranged adoptions have increased a great deal, judging from internet facilitator and related sites, the figures are not tracked. Indeed, federal statistics merge adoptions arranged through Native American auspices, stepparent adoptions, and private domestic adoptions.


The proportion of public agency to international adopters within the sample is parallel to the 1992 figures. Gauging the relative representation of private agency and independent adoptions in the study sample vis-à-vis national patterns is difficult, but it is safe to assume that the study underrepresented independent adoptions.


My sample differs from national patterns for a number of reasons. First, I did not include stepparent and other forms of kin adoptions. My concern was how kinship is constructed in a context of race, class, and gender dynamics that shape adoption practices. The presence of birth-related relatives would cloud important issues of claiming. Second, while private agency and privately arranged adoptions are far more numerous today, they also are the forms least accessible to researchers. Indeed, the federal data obscures their numbers. I located some private adopters because I had permission to participate in and observe a training program for prospective adopters at a private agency; others I found through conferences on adoption. Third, because I wanted to investigate how parents whose children had been through early traumas constructed parenting "in the wake of history," as I termed it, I needed to concentrate on older child adoption and thus more than the usual number of public agency adoptions. Because I needed both class and racial diversity to inform the study, I had to develop the public agency end of the snowball more extensively. The amount of media attention paid to international adoption mandated a focus on that category beyond the 5 to 15 percent of adoptions during the study period.


Alongside the snowball sampling, I was opportunistic about initiating supplementary interviews. For example, while waiting for an hour with my daughter in line at a major theme park, I struck up a conversation with two men and their young son in front of us. They were interested in the project and agreed to be interviewed about their gay adoption experience. While they were not part of the snowball, their perceptions and experiences have been used as illustrations where the snowball was inadequate.


My efforts to locate birth mothers were not as successful as the other parts of the project: I managed to interview five women who either had relinquished a child to adoption or had had a child placed in foster care with little likelihood of retrieving the child. I also interviewed relatives of women who were similarly at risk of losing legal rights to their children. I include their stories to give a sense of the conditions faced by those birth mothers who are not the much sought-after unmarried white women from "good homes" who found themselves "in trouble" and did not believe in abortion. Since today virtually all white birth mothers who relinquish their children are involved in privately arranged adoptions, I gained access to only two such women, one of whom was a single woman of Vietnamese heritage; her Anglo-Vietnamese son had been adopted by a white married couple. The other birth mother was white, single, and a fundamentalist Christian: her white baby was adopted by a white, married, Christian couple.


In an effort to analyze privately arranged domestic and international adoptions, I contacted eight lawyers nationally whose practices focused on adoption. Three of those involved in international rather than domestic adoptions agreed to be interviewed; each of these interviews lasted under an hour and all lawyers insisted upon complete confidentiality. Only one lawyer working in domestic, privately arranged adoptions agreed to be interviewed.


Within the interview groups I tracked basic socioeconomic status information, such as gender, occupation, educational attainment, approximate annual income, gender, marital status, number of birth and adopted children, whether either parent was an adoptee (none were), whether the parent(s) had experienced foster care themselves as children, and self-identified race or ethnicity of both parents and children. I did not ask directly about sexual orientation, although several single-parent informants informed me that they were heterosexual or lesbian.


I gave all married parents or those in a committed relationship the option of being interviewed alone, together, or both. The location for the interview was at the discretion of those interviewed; most opted for being interviewed at home in the evening, but a sizeable minority chose to be interviewed in a restaurant over lunch. Of those interviewed in the Northeast I re-interviewed about half of them five years after the first interviews (the others were either no longer in the area, had left no forwarding information when they moved, or declined follow-up). In these cases I interviewed the adopters under the same settings as previously. In the follow-up interview I asked questions about how they saw their children faring, whether they had adopted or otherwise acquired more children, what if any changes adopting had made in their familial relationships, whether they would do it again, and what advice or suggestions they would make to improve adoption in the United States.


The interviews covered the adopter's motivations to adopt, the decision-making process about when and where to adopt, the adopter's characterization of the home study and pre-adoptive training process (if any), how the adopter imagined the child, what the adopter wanted in a child, the story of how the parent(s) first met the child(ren), and how they "came home" and formalized the adoption. Beyond this, I asked the parents to characterize the child's adjustment to the new family, their own adjustments, how they characterized the process of bonding and attachment, what their arrangements were regarding child care and/or schooling, and how the extended family reacted to the adoption. I asked one intentionally very open-ended question: how did they think their child was doing after whatever amount of time had elapsed since "coming home."


In analyzing the narratives that flowed from the interviews, I paid particular attention to the language used to describe familial relations in general, the child in particular, silences, sighs, hesitations, and points of consensus or disagreement if two parents were involved. I noted where emotional tones involved in speaking of the child shifted (tears of joy or grief, anger, frustration, among others), facial expressions, and gestures. In drawing my interpretation of how parents related to children, all these factors were relevant.


Public Agency Adopters


Of the sixty-one adoptions in the northeastern sample, thirty-six had taken place through public agencies or agencies subcontracted to public agencies for adoption purposes. In other words, at the time of adoption these children had spent some time in foster care. Of these, twenty-three were girls adopted over the age of four and one was a boy age seven; eleven of the children (six boys and five girls) were adopted under the age of four. These public agency children went to thirty-two families.


Twenty of these families had adopted twenty-three girls who were between ages four and twelve at the time of adoption. Their daughters were between five and fourteen years old at the time of the interviews. Ten families had adopted ten black girls; these families consisted of two single African American women, three single white women, three African American married couples, and two white married couples. The remaining ten families had adopted thirteen older white girls. These families were white and consisted of four single women and six married couples. One single woman had adopted an older boy.1


The eleven married older child adopters in the sample were working class or professionals. The eight single women were professionals with flexible office schedules. This profile is substantially in keeping with other researchers' findings that public agency adopters usually have less education and lower incomes than those adopting through private agencies or independently through lawyers (see Barth, Brooks, and Iyer, 1995). What the figures do not reflect, however, is the growing number of single women professionals seeking to adopt through public agencies or their subcontractors. In my sample these women seemed more like the private agency single adopters in terms of education, but generally had lower incomes than the private adopters.


Private Agency Adopters


The adopters working through private agencies were seeking infants or toddlers: seven of the children (four boys and three girls) were from the United States and twelve (nine girls and three boys) were from other countries. The adopters were white: ten married couples and nine single women. The single women seeking to adopt were people who would have been categorically excluded from the public agency route in the state where they lived: some had been turned down already on grounds of being over age forty or being in a lesbian partnership. In one case the woman's age would not have mattered had she been willing to take an older child, but she wanted an infant.


Among the children adopted, all were infants or toddlers; of the seven U.S. children, two were considered Latina/os and two were considered to be "biracial" or "mixed race." Most of the children had been in foster care for short periods in states other than the ones where the adopters reside.


Independent Adopters


Children whose adoptions were arranged privately through the mediation of specialized attorneys included three boys and a girl from the United States and two boys from other countries. The adoptive parents were white and from professional middle-income and upper-income brackets. These adopters were college educated; the couples were dual-earners, with the exception of one of the wealthy international adopters, where the wife had no paid position.


The sole single-father adoption in the Northeast was in this group. He was a middle-income gay man who had cared for a woman with a young son while she was dying of AIDS. She had contracted the virus as an IV drug-user, but she had quit using by the time she became pregnant; her child was HIV negative. The mother had not known she was infected at the time she conceived. She specified in her will that this man be permitted to adopt her son, as he had been the only effective father the child had ever known. At the time of the adoption, the child was six but had known his adoptive father from birth. The relationship became virtually custodial as the mother's health deteriorated. In the local jurisdiction, the man's sexual orientation was considered an impediment by the family court judge, but his long-term caregiving and de facto parenting, in addition to the child's obvious attachment to him, were deemed by the judge to surmount other considerations.


It is a rarity to encounter gay single father adoption in the United States, but among the few I located, until very recently there seemed to be only two ways men located children to adopt: either through a long-term connection to the child's single mother who had died, or becoming a single father as part of an adoptive or blended family when marriage to the child's mother ended and the mother did not seek custody. The latter situation is rare; in the two families I know, the children were boys who had severe physical or cognitive disabilities. The only other single father adoptions I have found did not involve gay men: these two were adoptions of pre-adolescent black boys in state care by African American men who were social workers and had grown up in foster care themselves. In California de facto social work practices have recently begun permitting, after exacting screening process, select gay men who are single or in partnerships to adopt children with special needs, particularly those who are HIV positive. Gay adoption remains an exception to exclusion, however, and most children are adopted privately or through a few sympathetic private and public agencies (see Mallon, 2000).


Business/professional strata private adopters from this same race/class strata focused on controlling prenatal conditions as much as possible. Outright purchase of children remains illegal for private domestic adoptions, but once these parents screened their potential birth mothers to rule out those who smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, or are HIV positive, they often subsidized her medical and dietary expenses. They also provided substantial gifts to the birth mother throughout her pregnancy and upon the birth of the child. Preserving the appearance of not paying the birth mother was very important to the adopters.


Throughout the research period (1992-2004), all the independent and private agency adopters had incomes of more than twice the national median, significantly higher than the public agency adopters. In terms of education and other aspects of socioeconomic status, they would be considered upper middle class or wealthy professionals.


International Adopters


Cutting across the private agency and privately arranged adoptions were the international adopters. Twelve of the fourteen children coming from other countries were infants or toddlers, that is, under the age of three at the time of adoption; the other two were under the age of five. Their parents were all white. Of the fourteen families, eight had gone through the adoption process as married couples and four as single women. Twelve of the families had adopted through private agencies and two went through adoption lawyers to locate their children. Four of these adopters were single mothers as far as the adoption agencies or lawyers were concerned, although two were in long-term lesbian relationships before, during, and after the adoption took place.


The families had each adopted one child: the children included four girls from China, two girls and a boy from Korea, a girl from India, two boys and a girl from Colombia, two girls from Guatemala, and a boy from Brazil. While it was not planned, the proportion of ten girls to four boys was close to the ratio (64 percent girls and 36 percent boys) in the 1992 NAIC statistics for U.S. international adoption. Despite this statistical serendipity, I was disappointed that there were no children from the former Soviet Union, Romania, or Bulgaria in the snowball sample from the Northeast: countries from Eastern Europe had joined the top-sending regions during the period of the study. I was gratified in the Southern California sample to interview two married couples who had adopted in Romania, and a married couple and a single mother who was married at the time when they adopted Russian children. To supplement this material I have used a range of secondary sources for information about these adoptions.


The international adopter group had the highest educational attainment and income levels of any of the people I interviewed for the larger study: all were college- or graduate-school educated, and salaries (of those who revealed theirs


to me) were at least three times the national median. Single or married, most had supplementary income from stocks, rental property, trust funds, and corporate bonus packages. Most of the couples had second homes and all had at least part-time nanny support in child rearing.


Lesbian Adopters


Apart from Ellen Lewin's path-breaking study of lesbian motherhood, there is little information about lesbian adopters in either the analytical literature or the memoir literature (see Lewin, 1993: 72-73). In the northeastern and Southern California sites, I located women who were parenting alone or with a partner. In Massachusetts in 1993 I contacted five self-identified lesbians who were adoptive mothers who were willing to participate in the study. Two international adopters had not identified themselves as lesbians to their social workers or agencies, but told me they had stable partnerships before, during, and after the adoptions. Two of the women who had adopted domestically through private agencies also were lesbians; one was parenting alone and the other was in a long-term relationship. One of the public agency adopters was parenting alone; she had disclosed her sexual orientation to her sympathetic social worker, who decided to suppress the information. The private agency adopters all had contacted the agencies because of referrals from other lesbian adopters. Only one had to be completely closeted to her agency.


The four others were acceptable to their agencies in what one mother called a "semi-out" fashion. When I asked why, I was told jokingly, "They were more interested in two-parent families than in straight singles." As she explained further, the agencies made it clear that the adoption would be to her as a single mother and only that mother would be allowed to take the child to court for finalization, but that partners were welcome in the pre-adoptive training sessions and in the home study interview process. Like single women adopters in general, most of the lesbian adopters had been questioned about their attitudes toward sexuality during the screening process. When I asked the heterosexual couples about this point, none had been questioned.


In addition to these five women, in 1993 I made contact with a lively, close-knit network of lesbian singles and couples who had established an informal post-adoption support group. Most of these women were in long-term, stable partnerships. All had adopted through one particular agency and all of their children had come from one out-of-region locale in the United States. After considerable discussion within the group, the group decided to refuse access to me:


No reflection on you, but some of us are real paranoid: We know you'd keep our names out of it and all that, if anyone figured out who or where we were, maybe the agency would shut down to people like us and we just can't risk that. Some of us want to add to our families and it's so hard to find an agency that understands.


I asked if I could relate just the information above and they agreed. Given the degree of homophobia in the United States and the well-documented legal problems even birth mothers face in custody cases if they are openly lesbian (see Lewin, 1993: 163-179), I considered their concerns well founded. By the time I interviewed the Southern California lesbian adopters, lesbian adoption was still not acceptable throughout the country, but there were pockets where it was far more possible, and a few situations in which it was not difficult. The six "out" lesbian adopters in the Southern California sample were aware of constraints many of their friends or acquaintances from other parts of the country encountered, but were confident that things "really had changed" toward acceptance in their own localities. The ballot initiatives of 2008 would seem to make this confidence premature, if hopeful.


With these methodological and ethical considerations in mind, we can turn to key issues explored through the adopter narratives and the participant observation.


Adoption as Practice: The Politics of Claiming and Disclaiming


I posed several questions about adoptive kinship. First, how do gender, race, and class hierarchies and ideologies influence adopter perceptions of their children? Second, how do adopters come to prefer some children over others placed for adoption? Third, how do adopters conceive of families and enact relationships with their children? Fourth, based on the results of the first three questions, what does adoption provide to theories of kinship?


The following chapters consider how public agency adopters, older child adopters, transracial adopters, and international adopters spoke of their children and their parenting experiences. They reveal tensions between ideologies and practices of kinship, between gender and racial ideologies, and how in some cases the difficulties of class mobility for the children challenges the adopters' unspoken commitment to their own class reproduction.


Chapter 2 introduces public agency adopters, where class and gender dynamics intertwine with those of race. The issues of single-mother adoption and adoption by people of color and working-class married couples cluster in public adoption. Here, too, we encounter domestic, transracial adopters for the first time in the study. The public adopters also represent the only group in the United States that consistently adopts older children.


Chapter 3 delves more deeply into the experiences of interracial adoptive families, from the viewpoint of the parents. The stress here is on white adopters of African American and black children, as the issues of race in that setting are the starkest and the highest, given racial politics and the life prospects for African American boys and girls in the United States. Some of the issues of single-mother adopters range into this chapter as well, given the demographics of transracial placement in public agency adoption.


Chapter 4 examines the experiences of parents who have adopted older girls through public channels. It gives the reader a sense of the impact of gender on adoption practices in ways much of the literature fails to appreciate. It also links issues of race with gender, both among the adopters and adoptees.


Chapter 5 considers the experiences of parents adopting internationally, across cultural and sometimes color lines. Here we can discern the role of private agencies in addressing parental desires. Here again, although we are often trained not to see it, the role of social class enters strongly, and issues of class and gender also shape parental wishes and practices.


Finally, Chapter 6 addresses the questions posed in the study in examining kinship formation among these adopter groups. These adoptive parents' experiences inform the changing ideologies of kinship in the United States, but they do not do so in isolation. The structures and policies that constrain support for them and their children point to family formation as a highly contested arena.


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse