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Part 2: Three problems with NCFA's new survey of adoptees. Cover image of report that says, "Profiles in Adoption: Adult Adoptee Experiences.

NCFA: The Organization Behind a New (Problematic?) Adoptee Research Survey

Controversy

In my last post, I shared 8+ lessons for adoptive parents I gleaned from a recent publication of the National Council for Adoption (NCFA). The report is the third and final part in a research series, this time a survey of adult adoptees. The previous two surveys focused on adoptive parents  and birth parents.

The release brought controversy, primarily from adoptees. Is the study valid? Are the data and conclusions reliable? (From a long ago stats class, I recall that validity refers to how accurate a research method is. In other words, does it measure what it intends to measure? Reliability is how replicable results would be if someone else ran a study with the same methodology. If you’re knowledgeable about this and have more to say, please weigh in.)

I’d like to more fully explore three main criticisms adoptees are voicing about it. I’ll start first with my observations of NCFA over the years, as well as what it means to listen to adoptees — as NCFA’s research team attempted to do. I welcome your respectful comments at the end of this post. As always, let’s aim to bring more light than heat to each other’s understanding.

Snapshots of NCFA: 1980, 2009, and 2024

Why and when was NCFA started? Who are its members? What is NCFA about today? You can read what NCFA says about itself. You can also read what adoptee rights group Bastard Nation said about NCFA’s original raison d’etre in 1980: to keep original birth certificates sealed from those directly affected in states across the country.

Members of NCFA are mostly adoption professionals and attorneys who rely on the Washington, DC-based organization to advocate “for the best interests of children and supporting families,” as well as to educate the adoption community on current research and best practices.

In 2009, I was trying to understand something incomprehensible: my children, then in grade school, would, as adults, be denied access to their original birth certificates (OBCs). Their non-adopted cousins would, as adults, be able to access theirs without any barriers. 

It was then that I interviewed NCFA’s new leader, a woman who would serve as CEO/President for only six months. Our topic was why NCFA did not support—in fact, actively lobbied against—a certain class of US citizens who, by circumstances of birth, could not gain legal access to their original birth certificates. (Colorado and 13 other states currently allow unfettered access to OBCs, with Minnesota set to join the open club July 1, 2024.)

At that time NCFA was 29 years into its existence and heeding the fears—the needs—of its members. That crop of adoption agency executives still clung tightly to the ideas that (1) birth mothers had been promised anonymity and (2) that chaos would ensue if the very people involved in an adoption had access to records of actual and true events around their adoptions. Keeping people and facts in the dark had served gatekeepers/power holders well for decades, and agency leaders weren’t ready to eliminate the veil of secrecy.

(In case you’re wondering why the old days of secrecy are no bueno, read my letter to a legislator in Texas, one who continues to block access for Texas-born adoptees, preferring to keep people and facts in the dark 🤔.)

Although NCFA dropped its opposition to open OBC legislation in 2014, it has yet to support it. It’s easy to see why adoptee rights activists are suspicious of NCFA.

Coming Around? Or More of the Same.

NCFA got new leadership a couple of years ago, and I see evidence of it tuning in more and more toward adoptee issues, seeking to better understand the adoptee experience from adoptees and share findings with constituents. I wonder if NCFA leadership and staff are trying to bring NCFA members along the path of truly listening to adult adoptees.

But what does that mean, “listening to adoptees”?

One could easily make the case that NCFA found what it set out to find in its research about adoptees, reflected in a report highlight on p6: “the majority of adoptees are satisfied with their adoption and have overall life satisfaction.” One could believe that researchers engineered such conclusions through the methodology of the study, through sampling and the questions asked. The same criticisms were leveled last year when the survey of birth parents came out.

But not everything in NCFA’s adoptee report is glowing. The report also offers viewpoints of adoptees not in a rainbows-and-unicorns crowd (direct quotes from adoptees are in italics):

  • “Adoptees also noted the need for accessible support and services, particularly therapy and mental health services for children and adoptive parents. A few adoptees suggested the costs of these services should be covered for life.” (p26)
  • “Some respondents believe adoption means participating in a problematic system, referencing issues like birth parent coercion.” (p38)
  • “…the day the adoption was finalized are joyful for them [adoptive parents]. Those days may not be joyful for us [adoptees].” (p39)
  • “If you want to adopt because you want a baby and can’t make your own, someone else’s baby isn’t going to fix that. Adoption isn’t for you.” (p40)
  • “Many adoptees recounted instances of parental defensiveness or fragility regarding their adoption or birth family, which contributed to feelings of split loyalty, insecurity, guilt, and shame.” (p42)

 

While the findings of this survey may not go far enough in advancing adoptee rights issues, I believe that the survey does encourage adoptive parents and adoption professionals to tune their ears more towards adoptees and heed their suggestions and cautions.

Forward Movement?

From NCFA’s origins in 1980 to my introduction to it in 2009 to today, I see progress. In fact, I collaborated with NCFA staff on two projects last year. I wrote an edition of the Adoption Advocate with one of the survey’s lead researchers as my editor, and I co-presented a webinar with NCFA’s education manager, who is also a adoptee and a birth mom. I am more familiar with the organization and its current staff than I have been previously, acknowledging that this may lead to my own bias.

NCFA has always been a force that shapes society’s understanding of adoption. What may be emerging is that NCFA is beginning to understand it must listen to adult adoptees, for it realizes that adoptees, too, are a force.

Even if NCFA is not taking giant steps forward in adoptee-centering, I do hope that it continues to truly focus more and more of its listening on the adults who once were the child about which “best interests” are supposed to center. Not the adoption professionals, not the adoptive parents, not what we think is best for the child, but what now-adult adoptees can tell us.

After all, back when we “knew” what was best for adopted children without consulting adopted adults about their lived experience, we came up with harmful  and now-debunked ideas like babies as blank slates and parents as wholly interchangeable. We based modern adoption practice and policy on the premise that separation doesn’t matter, but we know today that it matters – more than we could have imagined.

Three Criticisms of the NCFA Adoptee Report

Adoptees note three glaring problems with  the NCFA adoptee report (there may be more, but these are the top ones I’m hearing):

  1. The research was not conducted by adoptees;
  2. Questions were phrased in a way that led to the desired responses; and
  3. The sampling was faulty.


Assuming none of the researchers is an adoptee, the first point is valid. If there had been adoptees formulating the questions, perhaps a bent towards positivity could have been detected and avoided, or at least checked. (Then again, I am not trained in research, so feel free to weigh in here with your thoughts, those of trained in such things.)

Leading questions is one reason some of the “out of the fog” adoptees – those who have begun the process of coming to consciousness – looked at the survey but did not complete it. Consider the following three questions

  • Overall, I am satisfied with my adoption.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.


For each, the choice of responses was Strongly disagree, Disagree, Neither, Agree, Strongly agree.

One adoptee said it was not only impossible but also ridiculous to attempt to sum up the complexity of an entire life in a one- or two-word category. She also pointed out the sliding doors nature of the questions. To answer them in any way but affirmatively means negating most or all of your actual lived life – along with your loved ones in it.

It’s no wonder adoptees are suspicious of the aforementioned top-listed report highlight. In the minority were only those who answered in the lower two categories (Strongly disagree, Disagree), perhaps reducing their entire lives to a singular thumbs-down and discounting anything that might be thumbs-up (these and other questions can be found on pp13-17 of the report).

Due to the survey not being adoptee-led and to the leading nature of the questions, some coming-to-conscious adoptees declined to participate.

Who Shall We Listen To?

Now to the sampling issue. Ultimately, NCFA’s adoptee report included 1247 adoptees who opted in “via email and listserv invitations from National Council For Adoption (NCFA), its stakeholders, and adoption community contacts. Participants joined the study by clicking on the survey link, which directed them to information about the study (i.e., the informed consent page) and those who chose to move forward answered questions confirming their eligibility” (p7).

So did NCFA cherry pick respondents and responses? Did it paint a rosier picture than some think is accurate? A darker picture than others think is accurate? 

This brings me to a question that keeps coming up for me. What would be a representative sample of adoptees? Of the 5 million Americans (an estimate from 2012; we can assume it is higher now), what portion of them have started their journey “out of the fog” and into adoptee consciousness? Would these adoptees’ viewpoints deserve more weight than those who have not yet thought critically about adoption?

Questions bring up more questions. Which adult adoptees merit the mic—all of them or a select subset? If the answer is a subset, what would be the criteria for inclusion, and who gets to decide that?  

Which voices do you think should be heard, and which sentiments should be relayed to parents, professionals, and policy-makers?

I’d love to know your thoughts on any of this—the criticisms of NCFA’s adoptee report, NCFA in its current state, and what it means to listen to adoptees.  Please share below and state what your role(s) in adoption are and any other context that helps us know where you’re coming from.

Thank you for exploring this NCFA adoptee report and for being curious with me.

NCFA has always been a force that shapes society’s understanding of adoption. Maybe it is beginning to understand that adult adoptees, too, are a force.

~~ Lori Holden, LavenderLuz.com

Want to Take a Deeper Dive?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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4 Responses

  1. My experiences with NCFA were mostly in the late 1980s and ’90s when my children were young, and my attitude was pretty much boiling rage at their attitude toward openness and OBCs. (I’m an adoptive parent.)

    It seems likely that adopted adults who have NCFA on their radar enough to learn about the survey and consider participating are an less-than-representative subset. But that’s supposition. Certainly adults who were adopted have a right to be satisfied with their adoptions and to say so. They also, obviously, have a right to feel differently, or to change their views over time.

    All of those responses, in my opinion, operate outside the basic right of people to know their own origins. If most or all adoptees were ok with closed records, that still wouldn’t justify denying that knowledge.

    I do think NCFA continues to be “for adoption,” with a vested interest in adoption practice continuing as is, maybe with some tweaks here and there.

  2. You make some really important points, Lane.

    1. That even if a majority of adoptees (and birth parents) were OK with closed records, that doesn’t make such secrecy the right way to handle facts and records about one’s own life. It’s why they are called “vital” records.

    2. Yes, yes to this: “Certainly adults who were adopted have a right to be satisfied with their adoptions and to say so. They also, obviously, have a right to feel differently, or to change their views over time” — especially leaving room for people to develop their views over time.

  3. Hi Lori,

    Thanks for starting conversation on the NCFA report. It is good to see research being advanced to wide audiences.

    Before I comment on the report, a bit about who I am:

    1) I am an adoptive parent of a wily two-year-old boy with whose first mother we are in a fully-disclosed, open adoption relationship.

    2) I am an adopted child from a kinship adoption (by my stepfather) that occurred after my biological father died when I was 8 years old, in a drunk driving accident with me in the car. Although I had the benefit of being raised by my biological mother, my stepfather did all he could to erase my ties with my biological father (e.g., he forbid me from calling my biological father “daddy” and forced me to call him “dad” or “daddy” instead) and replace him completely as the father in my life.

    3) I am a trained academic researcher in human development and family studies and I am currently making my first foray into adoption research with a study of relationships between first and adoptive parents. I am a professor at a private Christian university who also worked for ten years at a public university in a high-poverty area of the U.S.

    I said all that not to gain credibility as an authority on adoption, but to state from what perspective I come to adoption issues and research.

    As to the NCFA report and its stated research methods, I find that it was somewhat sound methodologically as a descriptive study, but had several significant weaknesses.

    Sampling

    The sampling was strong in that the researchers gained a large, national sample that was demographically representative of adoptees along type of adoption and race. It was less representative along sex (i.e., far more women participated than men), but most human science research suffers from that weakness; women just participate in research more than men do.

    Some other weaknesses were that the study was susceptible to sampling and selection bias (i.e., use of the NCFA’s own listserve as a primary recruiting tool is a convenience sampling method; only those interested in participating in a study they knew to be conducted by the National Council for Adoption were sampled). Also, the researchers did not seem to engage in any kind of random sampling (i.e., assign random numbers to participants in a pool and select only the odd or even numbers) that would increase generalizability by reducing the chance of sampling or selection bias.

    These are common sampling problems in human science research; they don’t make the research worthless, but they do call its generalizability into question. *As they should, the researchers expressed sampling as a limitation of the study near the end of the report.*

    Ideological representativeness in the study also may have been limited in that adoptees in the family preservation and “out-of-the-fog” communities may have had a much lower chance of being sampled. The report did not detail whether they recruited from these communities – only that they recruited through adoption community contacts – so a reader can only speculate to what extent such individuals were recruited and sampled. A look at the qualitative results indicates some were sampled (i.e., some family preservation ideas were expressed), so they may have been well-represented, but the report doesn’t give enough information to draw a conclusion one way or the other. On a related note, the sizes and make-up of the various ideological communities around adoption is unknown to the adoption research community, so it would be difficult for any researchers to determine ideological representativeness of their samples at this time, at least until more research is conducted.

    Data collection

    The data were collected through surveys, with mostly Likert-style items (rate agreement on a scale of 1-5) and a few open-ended questions (not interviews).

    The foremost issue I see with the data collection is that the researchers first approached an underrepresented population (adoptees) with survey questions, without previously conducting rigorous qualitative research that would have helped them ensure that the survey questions used in later quantitative, population-level research are the right questions to ask.

    This is a problem in the social and human sciences in general, and one that researchers are just coming to grips with in the last 40 years (which is not a long time in the grand scheme of research); most researchers in our field have training in the traditional scientific method and in quantitative research, so most approach research in quantitative ways, testing hypotheses. This approach assumes that the researcher already knows the questions that need to be asked (maybe based on intuition, maybe based on past quantitative research) and knows the right answer, and the answer just needs to be tested. However, if a population is underrepresented in research, it is problematic for researchers to assume they know the right questions to ask and to form hypotheses from past research; their target population’s experiences are likely not represented in past research. They also may not be able to trust their intuition because they come from a biased perspective – *all* researchers have bias, like it or not.

    Therefore, it is best for researchers working with underrepresented populations to first conduct qualitative research that utilizes completely open-ended, non-leading forms of inquiry, and that accesses multiple voices and perspectives regarding the phenomenon being studied. This doesn’t have to be done all in one study (i.e., a jack of all trades is a master of none), but should be done across studies. Rigorous research of this type also may utilize diverse voices on the research team to manage researcher bias and minimize its impact on data collection and analysis.

    Now don’t get me wrong.

    It isn’t necessarily wrong or bad practice for researchers to survey adoptees in quantitative studies without first conducting qualitative research. Quantitative, survey-based studies can yield excellent data and results if the surveys are well-crafted based on past research and studied before deployment in descriptive or probability research. However, from what I can see in the NCFA report, the researchers probably did not put all of their survey through rigorous study (e.g., factor analysis, test-retest reliability, convergent and discriminant validity). Part of the survey – the Satisfaction with Life Scale – was a previously validated survey instrument, but the rest seemed to have been first deployed for the purpose of the current report.

    NOTE: There is nothing wrong with researchers using non-validated survey instruments in research and reporting on the results, but they should address it as a limitation. These researchers did not.

    Another test of measure validity is face validity, where the researchers ask non-affiliated researchers and sometimes laypeople to look at a survey instrument and determine whether it measures what it purports to measure. When I look at the Openness in Adoption questions on the survey, I don’t see much face validity. I see questions about how much information adoptees have about their birth family and whether the adoptees perceive their adoptive parents as open to them communicating or having a relationship with their birth family, but I see no questions that objectively assess actual contact arrangements and behaviors. The researchers only got to part of the openness question.

    Analysis

    Percentages of answers to the survey were reported well and broken out by group instead of lumped together. The thematic analysis of the answers to open-ended questions was done well, too, as far as I could tell without viewing the raw data myself.

    The researchers’ report of inferential statistics (correlations, statistically significant mean differences, interaction effects, etc.) was lacking – they reported only a few results as statistically significant mean differences – but the main purpose of the report was to describe adoptee characteristics, not infer group differences or predict outcomes, so this is less important as a weakness.

    Overall, I think the report is useful for understanding that adoptees carry a wide variety of perspectives on adoption. However, the sampling and data collection methods limit its usefulness in showing just how widely those perspectives vary and the analysis methods tell us little about why they vary.

  4. Shaun, thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative response. I was really hoping someone who understands research better than I do (which is almost anyone) would weigh in and explain in a way that helps me (1) get it better, and (2) see this particular study through your eyes.

    I wish you the best with your foray into adoption research, and now I know the landmines of such research a little bit better.

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