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Review of "Adoption Beyond Borders"

By Rebecca Compton
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Christian Perring on Sep 4th 2018
Adoption Beyond Borders

Rebecca Compton defends international adoption against criticisms and explains how it benefits children. She argues that the arguments against it are mistaken and that adoption can be the best option for orphaned children. One of the first issues she grapples with is the meaning of "orphan". The strict meaning of orphan, as a child whose parents are dead, does not generally apply in international adoption: but the parents are not available to act as parents, and so are not in the picture. Compton emphasizes the difference between growing up in an institution and growing up in a loving family, and she argues that institutions can cause terrible damage to children. She also argues that the younger a child is adopted and taken from an institution, it is likely that they will be better off. Children who have spent many years in institutions are more likely to have long term deficits as a result. Children who get adopted earlier and move to their new country are also more likely to pick up the language better, and that helps with integration into their new society.

Compton and her husband adopted a son from Kazakhstan, and she brings this experience to many parts of the book, both in the adoption process and the raising of their son. There were many difficulties in the adoption process which entailed that they ended up living in Kazakhstaan for a year. Compton examines the issues of race and culture that international adoptions raise. She mostly confines her discussion to cases of adoption of very young children, who have not already absorbed the culture they were born into. She raises the issues of the loss of culture of those children when they are adopted, and the bias they will experience when growing up, especially if they are conspicuously not a native member of the adopter's country. Compton argues that the situation is complicated since in the USA, whites are in the minority in several states already and will be in a minority overall by 2050. Furthermore, she argues that questions of what is the right ethnicity to raise a child from a different culture not an easy question to answer, so it is harder to judge adopters. She says that the empirical evidence is that it doesn't make any significant difference to the well-being of the children. She also says that adoptees often want to learn about the cultures they were born into and want to learn about the families they are from. She reports that most adoptive families are happy to enable the children to do this, although some are uncooperative.

In examining the bond between parents and their adoptive children, Compton argues that the investment of those parents is typically stronger than parents with biological children. She examines the evidence that genetic relatedness makes for stronger relationships and finds that is weak. Similarly, she argues that there is no good evidence that adoptive parents are more likely to abuse their children. She examines the available data and finds that on the whole adoptive families are wealthier and older than average, and can provide a secure home for their children. Most adoptive families are husband-wife couples, but there are also same-sex families and single-parent families, and the evidence is that they all provide good environments for children. The main factor linked to outcomes is wealth, and so whether there are one or two parents is only relevant for adoption insofar as it makes a difference how much money the family has. The experience of parenting is just as satisfying for adoptive parents as it is for natural parents.  There is evidence that parenting styles make a big difference to children, and not surprisingly, a stable calm home is better than one which is turbulent. For children who have emotional problems, there is little rigorous study about therapies aimed specifically at problems related to adoption.

Adoption Beyond Borders is written in clear English without jargon. It mixes the author's personal story with a wealth of data and there are many pages of notes and references at the end. It paints a very positive view of international adoption and dispels many myths about why it is a problem or is an inherently secondary form of parenting. It will be useful both to readings thinking about adopting themselves, who those who are interested in adoption policies at state and international levels. If there is a tension within the book, it is about children who have spent significant periods of time living in institutions or with series of foster families. Compton is clear that those children would probably be better off with adoptive families, whether domestic or international. But she says very little about the challenges of adopting children who have grown up under those circumstances before adoption, and to what extend that history affects the outcome for the child.

© 2018 Christian Perring


Christian Perring teaches in NYC.