Once again, an adoption horror story is in the headlines. And, once again, we are learning less than we think we are.
This time the spotlight is on New Jersey, where Raymond and Vanessa Jackson have been criminally charged with starving the four sons they adopted from the state's foster care system. The boys, now aged 8 to 19, evidently lived on pancake batter, peanut butter and plaster wallboard; the heaviest of them weighed less than 50 pounds when they were removed from their home Oct. 10.
Everyone who listens to talk radio, watches TV news or reads the paper knows these gory details, and also knows a few more things: that the foster-care system in New Jersey, as in many other states, is badly in need of repair; that children in the system generally have special needs; and, as reported in Wednesday's New York Times, that "some state officials and child welfare experts" worry that federal financial incentives meant to help kids get permanent homes instead may be "transforming adoption into an extended form of foster care and a possible peril to children."
Based on available research and personal experience, I think all those observations are accurate -- as far as they go. The problem is they do not go far enough or provide sufficient perspective. Even in the worst foster-care systems, good things are happening every day; many children are being reunited with newly healthy biological families, and a growing number of kids are being adopted by loving parents who treat them well. Yes, the boys and girls in public care are there because they suffered from abuse and neglect and they may bear painful physical or psychological scars as a result, but the unambiguous evidence from a multitude of studies is that those who are adopted improve and thrive far more readily than they would have if they had remained in the system.