Adam Pertman is the president and CEO of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, a nonprofit organization that strives to update child welfare policy and practice, so they focus on “family success.” Prior to founding NCAP, Pertman headed the Donaldson Adoption Institute and served as associate editor of Adoption Quarterly;he is also the author of the seminal book Adoption Nation. Previously, Pertman had a successful career as journalist for over two decades with the Boston Globe. He has spoken all over the world, training and lecturing on adoption and child welfare, and he has earned numerous awards for his work on behalf of children and families. He continues to write commentaries, papers and other publications.
What led you to becoming a writer?
I honestly didn’t think about becoming a writer until I returned to college in my early 20s, after a brief hiatus to travel and work. I attended a high school focused on math and engineering, so certainly wasn’t thinking about it back then. And then I studied to be an elementary school teacher, so my interests were elsewhere. Teachers told me I could write, but I never took that seriously. When I did go back to the University of Maryland, on a lark I wrote my first story for the student paper, the Diamondback, and that’s when I fell in love with writing and journalism. It sounds corny, but that’s how I felt, as surely as if I’d fallen in love with a person.
To this day, my love of writing, conveying information and still wanting to be an educator are what make me tick. To me, writing is a vehicle, a means to an end. I care a lot about the craft, too, but mainly it’s all about what I can communicate, especially since I found my passion for children’s causes. But I have always loved communicating important events and ideas, starting with my journalism career, then as an author and continuing to this day.
As an already-distinguished journalist, what motivated you to devote your career to adoption education and reform?
My wife and I found out we were infertile about 25 years ago, when we wanted to start a family, and – without any qualms – we were both on board to adopt. That said, we sure didn’t know much about the process and, frankly, didn’t do a good job of learning about it. We simply went to the agency that a friend at The Globe used and kept going from there. Today, the first thing I tell anyone who wants to adopt is to educate yourself. Learn about the issues and realities that will be part of your family’s life. Figure out what type of adoption you want to pursue, what you need to know for your sake and your child’s, and what resources you may need. In other words, do what prospective moms and dads often do to prepare for parenthood.
When Judy (my wife) went to the first introductory class at our adoption agency, I discovered a world I knew almost nothing about. And what does a journalist want to write about? Things that affect a lot of people, but that most people don’t know much about. What I saw was a world that’s misunderstood, full of stereotypes – most of them not exactly positive – and rarely written about in an informed way. So, with my journalist’s hat on, I decided it would be a good topic for a Globe series. It took years to get it done for lots of reasons, but once I did, it was really mainly a journalistic exercise. That said, the series got a lot of strong attention – including a Pulitzer nomination – because it looked at adoption through a very different lens than most previous work on the subject. It also provided a different perspective on adoption’s impact on millions of people’s lives and on society generally, and how the secrecy and shame surrounding the institution had negative, undermining impact.
I also learned from the response it received from readers that it personally touched a lot of people’s lives. So, by the time I went on to write my first book, Adoption Nation (which was based on the series), I came to understand that this wasn’t a journalistic exercise. It was about my children and all the children like them, along with all of their various parents and families. And it was about trying to level the legal and social playing fields for all of those people, because they certainly weren’t level back then – and, while we’ve made progress, they’re still not level today.
You tell a lot of compelling stories in your book, but you also have big themes and insights. What are the main takeaways from Adoption Nation?
I think and hope readers get multiple messages. For starters, that every child deserves to be in a loving, safe, permanent and successful family – with the parents who created him or her whenever possible, and in a new family whenever necessary. And those families can take a wide variety of forms; I love to say that different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different. I also try to drive home another central point: that secrecy, stigma and shame are not the hallmarks of a positive institution. We teach our children that honesty and pride in oneself are important attributes; we should feel the same way about the way we form our families. Lots of other takeaways, too, relating to leveling the legal, social and ethical playing fields for everyone concerned, from first/birth parents, to adopted people and all their families, to the professionals and policy-makers who are integral to making it all happen. Policy and practice relating to adoption were created at a time when people barely whispered the word and didn’t tell their own kids they were adopted, and we’re still living with the consequences of that corrosive reality. So, at the bottom line, I hope Adoption Nationprovides honest insights into how we got here and an optimistic roadmap for continuing to move forward to a better place.
The subtitle of your book is How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families – and America. What is that revolution?
It’s two-fold. The first part is internal; that is, how radically adoption itself has changed over the years, from a legal process that began primarily as a means for white babies who were born to white unwed mothers to be parented by white, heterosexual, married adoptive parents – and virtually every adoption was closed. Adoption from other countries was rare, and adoption from foster care was almost nonexistent. Today, the big majority of infant adoptions are open, the greatest number of adoptions are from foster care, transracial/transcultural adoptions are commonplace, and most children who are adopted are older, in sibling groups, aren’t white or all of the above. And the adopting parents aren’t necessarily white, straight or married. Pretty revolutionary changes all around. They both reflect a society that is radically changing, and they fuel the broader societal change.
That latter change is the external element of the revolution. Adoption obviously isn’t the only reason people increasingly have a different understanding of what families look like, how they’re formed, what’s a “normal” family and the like. However, it certainly has played a vital and mostly unrecognized role in shaping and normalizing this new, still-evolving reality. It also helps us to better-understand a range of issues that have – or should have – an impact on the broader society, from the effects of early-childhood trauma, to the importance of raising children who have pride in their own racial/ethnic identity, to the need to support parents so they can successfully raise the children they create, to the reality that all kinds of people can make good parents (adoptive and otherwise), and on and on.
Given these demographic and cultural shifts resulting from adoption, what are the main goals in terms of policy change that come with advocating for child welfare today?
No matter what kind of family children live in, they and their parents should have the wherewithal to be successful. That’s the bottom-line sensibility and objective that I believe everyone from social workers to policy makers should be infusing into their work around adoption and child welfare more generally. It’s not that all those people don’t want children and families to be successful; I’m sure most of them do. But the system we’ve created over time is less ambitious and more narrowly focused. That is, it’s built with one primary objective: to get every child into a safe, permanent and loving family. That’s the good part. The less-good is that far too many of those families and their children – many, many of whom have suffered from early trauma or have other special needs – don’t receive the education, training, resources, services or supports they require to have a real shot in life. To be successful.
That’s why I started the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP). Its mission is to advance adoption/child welfare policy and practice beyond their historical and current model – which is focused primarily on child placement – to a new paradigm with the objective of enabling children and families to succeed. People ask me, “What does successful mean?” There are lots of answers to that question: First, we’re finally asking the right question! Second, it means different things to different people. And, finally, just like safety and permanence and love, it’s aspirational. Our job should be to create a system that truly serves children and their families, as a matter of standard policy and practice, by providing them with the ability to deal with the complex issues they face every day. The way I see it, we need to stop putting patches on the system as it currently exists and create one in which all those things I mentioned before – education, training, resources, services and supports – are woven seamlessly into the fabric.