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.
Similarly, federal financial incentives intended to increase the number of adoptions from foster care -- which come in the form of annual payments to the states -- evidently have led some child welfare officials to lower their standards for adoptive parents in order to get the money. And state subsidies intended to pay for special-needs children's care have lured some people to adopt in order to get the cash. But there is no indication that horrors such as the one in New Jersey are being repeated with any regularity elsewhere, though nearly every state has received federal incentives and thousands of parents have received state subsidies.
I am not minimizing the tragedy unfolding in New Jersey or defending any system that does less than everything humanly possible to protect the children within it. But we live in a society in which nearly every program that helps children in need receives insufficient resources; in which well-intentioned quick fixes like federal incentives replace (rather than augment) thoughtful, long-term solutions such as post-adoption services; and in which people like the Jacksons can fuel our worst stereotypes about adoptive parents, about the children they raise and about adoption itself.
Alas, we have not learned as much as we think we have. That's certainly true of the "state officials and child welfare experts" who told the New York Times that adoption itself is at risk of becoming a "peril for children." Such thinking stigmatizes millions of Americans for whom adoption is a positive, everyday reality. Worse, suggesting that foster children may be endangered if placed in adoptive homes undermines their prospects for the future and robs them of one of the few treasures they have: hope.