Professional News

Op-ed: Want to Improve Adoption? Listen to Those Who Have Been There

Photo of Jay Miller

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 9, 2021)  The following op-ed about Adoption Awareness Month was published in the Commonwealth Journal Oct. 28, 2021. Jay Miller is the dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky.

Every child, no matter the context, needs a permanent family. Having been in out-of-home care myself, I can personally attest to this need.

As a youth, I was placed in out-of-home care as a result of the death of my mother and my father’s inability to beat his addiction to substances. My sisters and I spent several years shuffled from place to place before being taken in by an aunt and uncle. 

I was 16.

For my sisters and me, the stability provided by our “forever home” made all the difference. The sense of safety allowed us to flourish. No more neglect. No more abuse. Frankly, if not for their willingness to open their home and their hearts, I’m not sure where I would be today.  

Since 1995, November has been marked as a time of deep introspect about adoption. This year, Adoption Awareness Month is focused on engaging young people’s "VOICE" and leveraging lived experiences to improve adoption.  

Perhaps now, more than ever, it is imperative that we all take stock of this focus.  

In Kentucky, there are more than 9,000 kids in foster care. Of those, almost one-third are waiting to be adopted. Certainly, every effort must be made to preserve families. This includes strong prevention and intervention services. However, the unfortunate reality is that some young people will need to be adopted.

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working with adoptive youth and parents at child welfare agencies at the local, state and federal levels. My personal experiences — particularly the time I spent in out-of-home care — have immensely impacted my professional practice and research with these young people. I choose to look at my personal experiences not as a hindrance, but as an asset. These experiences have given me a unique ability to connect with those who are in, or who have experienced, foster care and adoption. Throughout all of these interactions, I have come to two simple yet profound conclusions: Adoption stakeholders have a unique perspective on adoption processes, AND we, as a society, must work to integrate this perspective into adoption programs, policies and protocols. These stakeholders include youth, adoptive parents and siblings, birth families and others.   

Historically, the collective voice of adoptive youth has been excluded from the lexicon of child welfare services. Too often adoptees are excluded from research studies or in the conceptualization and implementation of adoption programs and interventions. Sure, adoptees are often invited to share stories of their experiences, usually at annual events or fundraisers. Unfortunately, these stories are often relegated to a moment in time that is more about tugging at hearts of potential donors and far less about learning from these experiences as a mechanism for system improvement.     

If the adoption system is to meet their goal of providing safe, stable “forever homes” for young people, agencies and programs must integrate the lived experiences and expertise of adoptees. However, incorporating these experiences will not be easy. Meaningfully integrating the perspectives of those who have experienced adoption will require a fundamental paradigm shift.  

In his seminal work, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Kuhn explained that paradigm shifts are necessary when existing frameworks and worldviews are no longer able to meet needs. The traditional paradigm of seeing adoptees as passive, incompetent beings participating in a system that needs to be directed by others, is no longer able to meet the needs of the child welfare system. As such, those working with, and in, the child welfare system must adopt a paradigm shift that is grounded on a singular principle: Adoptees have valuable knowledge, insight and expertise that needs to be integrated into child welfare education, practice and research.

In order to fully realize the potential of incorporating lived experiences into the child welfare system, we must change the lens through which we view adoption. Adoption is not something we do to children and families. Rather, in some instances, adoption is a process necessary for providing permanency to youth and their families. In as much, we, as a society, must take steps to explicitly improve that process. This includes ensuring that adoptees have a voice in polices, programs and services that impact them. We can attain this goal by supporting adoptee groups and associations, working to develop youth advisory boards and councils, and advocating that child welfare agencies hire adoptees as employees. No matter the method, we must be intentional about tapping into the unique perspective held by those who have personally experienced adoption.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.