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Adoption Challenges in the Digital Age: Ethical and Clinical Issues

By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, and Deborah H. Siegel, PhD, LICSW, DCSW, ACSW

Massive changes in today’s digital world confront everyone touched by adoption. This includes the birth mother and father, adoptee, and adoptive parents, along with the birth and adoptive parents’ extended families, social workers, lawyers, health care personnel, friends, neighbors, classmates, teachers, and others who have knowledge about the adoptee’s birth and adoptive families. Adoption is no longer what was once known as a “triad” composed of the adoptee, birth parent, and adoptive parent. Rather, it’s a “circle,” ever enlarging due to robust internet search engines, online social networking, social media, texting, email, artificial intelligence (AI), and other digital tools that affect members of the adoption circle from the preadoption planning phase onward.

Today, all people in the adoption circle can easily access online information about others in that circle and seek contact with them without the other person’s knowledge, consent, or active participation. This is possible using search engines and email messages from direct-to-consumer DNA testing services such as 23andMe and Ancestry (via email messages that invite the consumer to connect with yet unknown biological relatives). Using online social media such as Facebook, a person can share private information about another person without the other’s consent. AI has opened Pandora’s box filled with opportunities to misrepresent reality (for example, generating sanitized adoption ads) or someone else’s thoughts and voice.

A key byproduct of these adoption-related developments is that social workers face novel challenges regarding honesty. In the digital world, secrecy in adoption is no longer possible. Maintaining control over one’s privacy is difficult, if not impossible. These realities require that social workers involved in the preadoption planning process must help people who are considering adoption acknowledge and accept these new realities and promote honesty and transparency among them from the start. Social workers who work with members of the adoption circle throughout their lifespan must be equipped to help their clients navigate the ethical and clinical issues emerging from this brave new world.

The many challenges emerging from digital and online technology can be viewed through the lens of core social work ethical concepts and values. Here are some examples of how ethical challenges in adoption emerge in the digital age.

• Truth-telling vs deception. Social workers must avoid collusion with deception (NASW Code of Ethics standard 4.04) and must be scrupulously honest with expectant pregnant parents and parents of adoptable children about the lifelong losses they may experience in making an adoption plan. Digital advertising campaigns that lure pregnant women into the adoption arena under the false pretense of having total control over the adoption process and over access to their child once the adoption is finalized are unethical.

Birth fathers also have legal rights and a voice. Adoption agencies’ online promises that a child, once adopted, will always be properly cared for and never need an out-of-home placement can be misleading, as adoptive families, like all families, can run into distressing hard times too. Prospective adoptive parents who misrepresent themselves online in the preadoption process and beyond damage the trust needed to build a successful circle of adoption around their child; when the truth comes out over time via digital or online communications, feelings of betrayal occur.

• Privacy and empowerment. Privacy is different from secrecy. Parents, of course, have a right to privacy (see NASW Code of Ethics standard 1.07a) unless what they are keeping private is the child’s own story about the child’s own origins. Thus, people who are adopted have a fundamental right to information about themselves comparable to every nonadopted person’s birthright. Social workers must help birth and adoptive parents find age appropriate and truthful yet empathic ways to answer the child’s questions about their origins. At the same time, the child has a right to privacy; when birth or adoptive relatives share the child’s personal story on digital media, they may overexpose a child who wishes to control others’ access to that very personal information. Parsing the differences between privacy and secrecy in a digital world can require a social worker’s skilled guidance.

• Self-determination and autonomy. Today young children have easy access to computers and smartphones at home, through friends, at community programs, in school, and elsewhere. Thus, children, whether they are emotionally ready or not, can—without parental knowledge—seek out birth relatives online or respond to digital outreach by birth family members and others. Adoptive parents need information and guidance from adoption-competent professionals on how to prepare for this and then navigate the emotional and interpersonal issues that arise. At what age does a child gain self-determination and autonomy? How should the self-determination and autonomy of the adoptive and birth family members be honored and respected when their respective needs and wishes regarding the use of digital media clash?

The NASW Code of Ethics (standard 1.02) obliges social workers to respect and promote the client’s right to self-determination. When one thinks about the interconnected, interdependent participants in the circle of adoption, the key is being clear about who the client is. Always, the least empowered person, the child, is the one whose best interests should be primary. It can be difficult to differentiate what the child needs from what the parent’s needs are; helping parents navigate this takes clinical acumen and skill.

• Boundaries. Healthy relationships include freely agreed upon boundaries. This is especially true in adoption, whether there’s minimal indirect or frequent direct face-to-face or online contact. Before an adoption is finalized, social workers must skillfully help prospective birth and adoptive parents define their mutual expectations, needs, and plans for online and other contact. The plan must include how the participants will renegotiate the contact agreement over the course of their lifespan as people’s needs change.

The digital revolution has created opportunities for everyone in the circle of adoption to grow in self-awareness, compassion for self and others, courage to face facts, and develop skills that are life affirming for everyone touched by a child’s adoption. Adoption-competent social workers can serve as wise and skillful guides.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.

— Deborah H. Siegel, PhD, LICSW, DCSW, ACSW, is a professor at the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College in Providence.