Profile: Gary Mallon, Ph.D.

MallonDAI is honored to profile Gary Mallon, the Julia Lathrop Professor of Child Welfare at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City as well as Executive Director for the National Center for Child Welfare Excellence.

Gary has spent his entire professional life working in child welfare. Since starting as a line child care worker at St. Dominic’s Home in 1976, he has served as Director of Grace House (1979-1986); and worked at Green Chimneys Children’s Services (1987-1997), the first mainstream child welfare agency in the country to work toward improving practices and policies that enhanced the lives of lesbian, gay, bi, and trans children, youth, and families.

How long have you been working in adoption and foster care?

I started in child welfare on January 24, 1976, so just the other day was my 39th year in child welfare.

What motivated your initial interest?

As a kid I was part of the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) and we did social justice work at a place near where I lived called St. Dominic’s Home for Children in Blauvelt, NY – we called it an orphanage – but it was a child welfare agency, we had no idea at the time. I thought after volunteering there, this would be a great place to work, helping kids and families. I then went to Dominican College, also in Blauvelt, NY and while going to college, I started working as a child care worker in a cottage with what we called in those days, “the baby boys” – ages 6 -13 years old. Working as a child care worker was very different than I thought it would be, the kids had lots of challenges, all the kids were African American and Latino and the staff were all white –we had, in those days, no cultural competency training and there was a lot of ignorance on our part about the families of the children.

Gary, you literally wrote the book on “Gay Men Choosing Parenthood.” So much has happened in the last 10 years, how do you think the book would be different if you were writing it today?

Oh, I think I would have many, many more people to interview and probably lots of Dads with very different experiences. I interviewed a group of 20 men who I called then, the pioneers of the Gay Dad movement, so I think if I were to re-write that book today, it would be a very different story than the stories of those 20 brave men and their children.

Much of your academic and practical work has centered on LGBTQ youth in foster care. What are some of the unique challenges they face in finding permanent families?

I think all youth in the foster care system face challenges in finding permanency. LGBTQ youth, although things have gotten much better for them in many child welfare settings, depending on what part of the country they live in, have some unique challenges. But the challenges lie with our society and the adults that care for them, not the youth themselves. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done here. Working with LGBTQ youth in foster care was one of the greatest joys of my professional life — I adored them – loved working with them — I cannot understand why some still have such an issue with them. That frustrates me, but, we have come a long ways, and yet still more needs to be done.

How has your personal adoption experience inspired or influenced your work?

I am deeply affected in my work, by my own personal experiences with foster care and adoption. I have been a foster parent and I am an adoptive parent, so I always say that I talk, the talk and walk the walk. Doing it and talking about it, are two very different things. I feel like, I know about foster care and adoption on a much deeper level than the person who “studies” adoption and foster care – not to say in any way I am better than they are, not at all, but my personal experience has informed my work in deep and meaningful ways. I am still affected every day when of my former “kids” reaches out to me on Facebook or when my daughter calls me to tell me something that happened to her that day.

How has your work changed over the years?

I am older. After 39 years of doing this work, I am still thrilled and delighted that I made the choices that I have made, but some days I realize now as I am aging, that I can only do three things, not the five or six things a day that I used to do. I am also distressed some times, by some of the changes I have seen in the field – too much blah, blah, blah about outcomes and evidence based practices – what happened to care, compassion, empathy, competence, building relationships and meaningful engagement of families? I am all for using science to inform our practice and holding folks accountable via measuring outcomes, but some of the professionals who are leading the way in this regard, have never spent five minutes in the field and that bothers me. And, now that I’m old, I can just say that and not worry about what people think of me for saying that. I think in some ways it is a natural process of aging both in the body and in the profession; it’s not the same field we initially started in. But, despite that, I still very much love child welfare and what we do as a profession, I have never done anything else, never wanted to, and it has been a worthy lifetime commitment for me.

If you could change one thing about the practice of adoption/people’s attitudes toward adoption what would it be?

I would LOVE to get professionals to believe that youth really need permanent, loving, lifetime families. I still hear way too much – “Oh, these kids don’t want a family, they want to be out on their own.” I know some of my former kids who at 33 and 43 are still floating out there, like a boat without an anchor, because we did not do our jobs and connect them to lifetime families. So, yes, if I could change one thing it would be to change our professional colleagues’ mindsets that older youth do not need or want families.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a bunch of projects. My colleague, Peg Hess and I just published the second edition of Child Welfare for the 21st Century, published by Columbia University Press. I have a couple of other writing projects that I am doing, I have been around so long that I am now doing the 2nd and 3rd editions of books I wrote in 1998. I am also doing some wonderful evaluation work on caregivers for older adolescents, family finding, and continue to do training and technical assistance on LGBTQ issues and foster care – so, I am still busy and still feeling passionate about this wonderful work that we have been called to do – I hope to continue for as many more years as I am able to be productive, and then I am gonna retire and raise French Bulldogs.

2015: The Year in Adoption

The world of adoption has radically changed over the past decade. Declines in international adoption, the impact of the internet and social media, the movement of access to information including original birth certificates and tools like genetic testing, the shift to more openness and the spread of marriage equality are just some of the elements of the changing landscape of adoption as well as the modern family.

Here are some important topics we’ll be thinking about and acting on this year.

1. Access to Information: For many years adoptions were closed, meaning adopted people and their birth parents–who we also refer to as “first parents”–had no way of ever reconnecting. Today, 18 states offer varying levels of access (or are awaiting the start of such access) to adopted persons’ original birth certificates (OBCs). The debate rages on in the remaining 32 states, but in the meantime, adopted people and original families are turning to the internet, social media, volunteers, paid professionals, and DNA testing to uncover information and locate their families of origin. DAI will continue to support advocacy efforts to ensure that the OBC access movement presses on and we will be working to help set clear definitions and standards for openness in all aspects of adoption so every adopted person is allowed the basic human right of knowing who they are.

2. Openness in Adoption: Openness is becoming the norm (at least in theory), with closed infant adoptions shrinking to a tiny minority of about 5 percent, according to a 2012 DAI report. Of the remainder, 40 percent are mediated, which means there is an agreement among the first/birth parents and adoptive parents for some type of contact post-adoption, and 55 percent are In addition, 95 percent of agencies now offer open adoptions. Adoptive parents, birth parents, and adopted persons in open adoptions all report that these changes are positive: more openness is associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process and has life long benefits. Let’s face it, openness can be complicated, especically in adoption, as it challenges traditional ideas of parenting. “Yet, the changing landscape of the Modern Family presents all of us with new and different types of relationships, each of which come with challenges and strengths. The extended family of adoption is no different; although unique in many ways, the skills and resources we use in nurturing and responding to other relationships in our lives can easily be used in the relationship between birth and adoptive families. Look for DAI’s training “Openness in Adoption…What a Concept” to be released later this year.

3. Re-homing: The term “re-homing” is usually associated with pet owners seeking new homes for their animals. But a Reuters investigation shed light on a disturbing practice of unregulated child custody transfers in which parents seek to transfer custody of their adopted children to new parents, all without state oversight. These unregulated child custody transfers are a chilling example of why we need greater pre- and post-adoption support and education. It is an unethical and dangerous response from parents unable to continue to care for children they have adopted. Typically these families have adopted internationally; some have defended their actions saying that adoption officials did not tell them the truth about their child’s history and that they lacked support to manage their new family. Regardless of the reason, these illegal actions must be stopped. More comprehensive parent prep and access to services is needed along with continued investigation to ensure that adoption is safe and ethical. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently sought DAI’s input on unregulated child custody transfers, also known as “re-homing.” At the request of Congress, GAO is investigating the practice and we hope this is an indication of more attention being paid to this and other critical issues involving vulnerable children.

4. International Adoption: We can’t talk about unregulated child custody transfers without talking about the changes on international adoption. Rates continue to decline in the U.S., peaking in 2004 at 22,991 international adoptions and falling dramatically, to under 8,668 by 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State. The problem is not demand, which remains high. Rather, more countries are emphasizing family preservation and domestic adoption, and restrictions have gotten tighter as well. Policy-makers must ensure that stronger systems of checks and balances are in place to avoid fraud and post-adoption disruptions and adoptive parents and professionals have an obligation to be certain that all inter-country adoptions transpire ethically and in the best interest of children.

5. Race Relations and Transracial Adoption: Transracial adoption accounts for a significant percentage of adoptions each year in the United States. Yet race relations in the United States remain fraught, particularly in the wake of the deaths of young men of color at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing protests. Now more than ever we have to ask ourselves the hard questions: How do differences in race impact children who have been adopted by parents of another race? What additional supports are needed by these families to navigate and embrace the realities of becoming a multi-racial family?

6. Birth-Parent Rights: Countless women have lived for years with the emotional loss of separation from their children. While many women have lifted their voices in the spirit of healing and advocacy, many remain silent and alone and are often misunderstood. And what about first fathers? Birth-father rights have been diminished at best and outright discarded at worst, even when a biological father comes forward with the intention to parent his child. Some states, such as Utah, have decided to tighten some requirements to ensure birth fathers are not fraudulently disregarded in adoption plans. Other states are moving in the opposite direction. Advocacy is needed to ensure our current laws are not reflective of historical practices of the 60’s that traumatized many birth parents for decades after. DAI’s Lynn Franklin Fund is a unique, dedicated source of funding for research and advocacy on the issues and concerns that matter most to first/birth parents.

7. Adoption Equality: Although the majority of states currently permit same-sex marriage, the LGBT community continues to face discrimination when it comes to adoption. Some states, including Michigan and Indiana, are seeking to pass bills that, under the guise of protecting civil liberties and religious freedom, would allow institutions, including adoption agencies, to refuse service to LGBT persons. Equality should mean that lesbian and gay couples have the right to pursue the same family-building options as all other Americans. It is critical that legislation does not limit the right of people to become parents because of their sexual orientation and that the professionals that are charged with transacting adoptions are equipped to meet the needs of new family structures.

8. Child Welfare Worker Retention: There are so many needs facing the U.S. foster care system, but one of the most critical is retention and training of the all-important workforce. So much responsibility is placed on this core group of professionals and burnout is rampant. The impact of this high turnover on families must not be discounted, particularly for children who linger in the foster care system, suffer with multiple placements, and are without the love and permanency of family. We need practical solutions for child welfare agencies to maintain a consistent, steady and qualified work force.

Is 2015 the year in which a more unified effort from advocates, reformers, community members, professionals, and politicians succeeds in shifting perceptions about the adoption experience? Will family preservation be more a part of the conversation? Will we see changes in policy and standards surrounding ethics, openness and practical support and services for ALL families before, during and long after an adoption is final? Finally, can we move adoption and foster care from a series of transactions to even more thoughtful transformations? Let’s make it so.

How True to the Foster Care & Adoption Experience is the New “Annie”?

AnnieLittle Orphan Annie, the spunky girl with the can-do spirit, has been part of American entertainment since the 1920s. Now audiences can experience a new spin on this rags-to-riches story – and its complex themes of race, class and culture – with the recent release of the new “Annie” movie. What can we learn from the movie about how our culture views adoption in the 21st century?
1. Having Annie’s eventual adoptive dad represented as a person of color is an aspirational and hopeful message – although still far from the norm.  
The new “Annie” is no longer an orphan, she is a foster kid.  While no one wants to see any children experiencing the child welfare system or foster care, it is an unfortunate reality for many. A 2008 Donaldson Adoption Institute report “Finding Families for African American Children: The Role of Race & Law in Adoption from Foster Care” (over 100,000 downloads since it launched), finds that African American children who come into contact with the child welfare system are disproportionately represented in foster care, and are less likely than children of other racial and ethnic groups to move to permanency in a timely way. The National Survey of Adoptive Parents conducted in 2007 found that 63 percent of children adopted from foster care have white parents, as do 71 percent of children adopted within the United States, and 92 percent of children adopted internationally.

The report did find that a substantial portion of adopted children have black parents, including 27 percent of children adopted from foster care and 19 percent of those adopted privately within the United States. The modern day version of “Annie” includes a more diverse group of players (“Annie” is played by Quvenzhane Wallis and the “Daddy Warbucks” character now known as “Mr. Sparks” is played by Jamie Foxx). While children of color do indeed get adopted by adults of color, it is not the norm.

2. Annie’s quest to find answers and a connection to her biological family is all too familiar to those within the foster care and adoption community.
In both feature films (the 1982 and 2014 versions) as well as in the musical, Annie is on a mission to find a connection to the family that she has been separated from. Her authentic longing for answers and a reunion with her biological parents comes to life in the poignant song lyrics of “Maybe” where she fantasizes about her parents: “Betcha they’re good, why shouldn’t they be? Their one mistake was giving up me!”

Today, with fierce advocacy and activism, states are opening birth records and there is a movement towards more openness in adoption, which can ultimately benefit all members of the adoption community. A DAI report, “Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Openness,” found that the primary benefit of openness is access by adopted persons – as children and continuing later in life – to birth relatives, as well as to their own medical, genealogical and family histories. Adolescents with ongoing contact are more satisfied with the level of openness in their own adoptions than are those without such contact, and they identify the following benefits: coming to terms with the reasons for their adoption, physical touchstones to identify where personal traits came from, information that aids in identity formation, and positive feelings toward their birthmother.  Ultimately, everyone benefits from more openness and ethics in adoption.

3. Annie’s first/birth parents remain a mystery.
One thing is certain: Annie is deeply curious about her beginnings and committed to the dream of one day being reunited with her parents. We see Annie as she hangs on to tiny bits of her narrative and holds out hope for a reunion with her biological parents. What we don’t see are her actual parents. A couple pretending to be her parents surfaces to claim a payoff, but soon their motives are revealed, and Annie and the audience are left without answers.

In the movies and in real life, first/birth parents are often invisible or misrepresented. Advocacy and activism from first/birth parents and the wider adoption community — as well as more openness during the foster care and adoption process — are gradually lifting the secrecy, shame and stigma that have surrounded adoption for far too long. Resources like The Lynn Franklin Fund enable DAI to further its mission with a focus on positively impacting the lives of existing and future first/birth parents, as well as expectant parents who are considering their options.

4. In the end Annie gets adopted. How can we make sure there are more happy endings for youth in foster care?
While we are left to wonder if Annie ever connects with her biological family, in the final scene of the movie we see she and Mr. Sparks singing, “Together at last…nothing on earth will ever divide us.” This makes for a beautiful Hollywood happy ending, and while adoptions from foster care don’t usually end with a big musical number, many are indeed happy endings. Sometimes the happiest ending means reunification with the biological family.

Whether a family is reunited or an adoption is finalized, the key to happy endings for youth in foster care begin with sound laws, policies and best practices that are carried out by professionals that have resources to train and prepare parents. For many years, DAI’s national “Keeping the Promise” initiative has provided extensive examination of what post-adoption services states are providing, who is eligible to receive them and how they are being funded. This is just one piece of the puzzle in helping to move adoption and foster care from transaction to transformation.

Foster care and adoption narratives make for compelling Hollywood scripts, but the reality of the experience is often very different from the fantasy portrayed on the big screen. The new “Annie” offers us all an opportunity to take a look at how we can narrow that gap — and tackle the real-world obstacles standing in the way of real-world happy endings.

More discussion on pet adoption than human adoption during National Adoption Month

MEDIA ADVISORY: For Immediate Release 

CONTACT: April Dinwoodie – (212) 925-4089 –

New York, December 3, 2014 –The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) today released a social media analysis of National Adoption Month (NAM), revealing that conversations about pet adoption continue to be more robust than those about human adoption.

DAI, a research hub for ethical adoption laws, policies and practices, analyzed social media messages surrounding NAM and found that even with the legacy of powerful organizations focused on foster care adoption and the addition of new dynamic voices, the conversation about human adoption lags behind that of pet adoption.

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The Real Problem with Kim Kardashian’s Adoption Fairytale

Who says no to Kim Kardashian? A young woman named Pink, that’s who. During a family vacation to Thailand, the reality show star visited a children’s home and fell in love with Pink, one of the young women living in the home.

On Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim said, “I literally cannot stop thinking about her. I told Kanye, I was like, honestly, this girl is so sweet and so cute, like, I would honestly adopt her.”

Pink politely said “no thank you” to the idea of being adopted by Kim, saying she “realized it wouldn’t be good for me, because I would have to leave so much behind. I wasn’t ready for that.”

Pink has become the unexpected break out story of National Adoption Month – a time that has traditionally placed the spotlight on raising awareness of the need for adoptive parents for children in foster care. However, Pink’s story is an important one – and reveals the complex reality behind Kim’s adoption fairytale.

It turns out that Pink already has a mother – Rose – who lives in a nearby village and comes to visit her every day. Following the 2004 tsunami, the family has struggled financially. In an effort to provide her child better education and care, Rose made the difficult decision to send Pink to the children’s home.

“I spoke to my mum about Kim and she said, ‘When you finish high school and you can look after yourself, I will give you permission to go and live with Kim if you want to go,” Pink said.

Poverty should not be the driving force behind international adoption. In the United States, a family can spend up to $50,000 to adopt a child from another country. In many cases that money might be better spent on supporting the biological family of the child and keeping her within her community of origin. If Kim wanted to make a real difference for Pink, she could reunite Pink and her mother.

As Pink explained, “Everyone wants to have a different or a better life, I suppose. But when I thought about it, I realized it wouldn’t be good for me, because I would have to leave so much behind. I wasn’t ready for that.”

Intercountry adoption can be a viable option but only when transacted ethically on all sides and truly in the best interest of the child. Adoptive parents and professionals have an obligation to be certain that this is the case, every time. We already know so much about what works and what does not, now we need to be sure we share what we know widely to help dispel the myths so often in the public eye.

As both a professional encouraging adoption reform and an adopted person, I am grateful that more people have been properly introduced to Pink and see beyond the fairytale. Perhaps one young woman sharing the realities of her situation can help to shift the conversation and provide a more candid and productive discussion about the complicated realities facing children and families today.