Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

The social justice of adoption

By Laurel Shaler June 18, 2018

The adoption journey is not an easy one. After three years and nine months of active pursuit, my husband and I finalized our adoption on Nov. 29, 2017. Through this process, I learned a great deal that has helped me grow as a counselor educator and supervisor. For example, I learned the benefits of being a part of a support group after involvement in several different adoption support groups. Although I have always valued such groups, and facilitated many, the personal experience of being a participant deepened my appreciation of their benefits.

I was also greatly reminded of the beauty and benefit of empathy. When those who supported us during our adoption process were able to put themselves in our place to the point of weeping with us (rather than for us), it was deeply meaningful. We talk and teach empathy as counseling professionals, but when we experience the other side of it, it allows us to more richly understand this critical component of counseling.

But what I learned more than anything is the many aspects of social justice involved in adoption. Merriam-Webster defines this term as meaning “a state or doctrine of egalitarianism.” We wouldn’t accept Wikipedia as a scholarly resource on a research paper, but the way the website expands on the definition of social justice resonates with me: “a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society.”

So, what does social justice have to do with adoption? Let’s take a brief look at the social justice for the birth parent(s), the adoptive parent(s) and the adopted child(ren).

1) Justice for the birth parent(s). There are at least two categories of birth or biological parents in the adoption process — those who choose to place a child for adoption and those who have their children removed from their care. In both instances, these children should be treated fairly.

For those who have children taken from their home, there is due process that government agencies must abide by. These parents have rights that should be respected.

Likewise, those who are choosing to place a child for adoption have rights. They should be fully informed about the adoption process and should be offered counseling to address the possible short- and long-term impacts. As a matter of social justice, they should be treated as equals — they are still parents who made a plan for their children out of love. This is also the motivation for the adoptive parent(s).

2) Justice for the adoptive parent(s). During the adoption process, adoptive parents should be treated with compassion and empathy. After the adoption is finalized, the adoptive parents should be treated like the parents they are. The word “adoptive” can and should be dropped. The adoption was an action that is now completed.

That certainly doesn’t mean that we should hide or be ashamed of the fact that the child was adopted. Rather, it is something to be celebrated. However, those who are raising children they have adopted should be treated as equal to parents who are raising biological children. Remember, social justice has to do with a fair relationship between individuals and society. This should also be explored for the children who have been adopted.

3) Justice for the adopted child(ren). Children who have been adopted are not adopted by their own choice. Rather, they are adopted because of someone else’s choices. Sometimes those decisions are good (such as the birth mother who recognizes that she is not capable of adequately raising a child, even with significant assistance, and makes an adoption plan). Sometimes those decisions are poor (such as the birth parent who abuses or neglects a child and is not able to meet the requirements to improve his or her parenting skills or meet the needs of the child.)

Regardless, the child who is adopted should be treated like every other child — just as precious and just as wanted. These children should also be provided the opportunity to receive as much information about their backgrounds as is age appropriate, depending on their ability to process and cope with the information.

Additionally, they should be offered counseling if the need should arise. We should not talk about children who have been adopted, but rather to them. Their right to privacy should be respected not only by the helping professionals in their lives, but by everyone who knows about their story. This is a fair relationship between these individuals and society.


According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, approximately 120,000 children are adopted each year in the United States. Therefore, counselors are sure to encounter individuals who have placed their children for adoption, who have been adopted or who have adopted children in the past. It is important for counselors to understand each of these three components — these human beings — as we work with them. We can learn a lot about social justice by looking at their experiences.



A national certified counselor and licensed social worker, Laurel Shaler is an associate professor at Liberty University, where she serves as the director of the Master of Arts in professional counseling program. Additionally, she writes and speaks on the intersection of faith, culture and emotional well-being. She is the author of Reclaiming Sanity: Hope and Healing for Trauma, Stress and Overwhelming Life Events. Her next book, Relational Reset: Breaking the Habits that Hold You Back, will be released in 2019. Contact her at



Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


    1. Bird

      Compassion only for adoptive parents though- the only time it is mentioned is in regards to those whove adopted. Thoughts?

  1. Lita R. Hennen, formally Lita Celine Christopher

    As an adoptee I disagree with so much of this.
    To begin with, there is NEVER social justice for the adoptee. You have taken that child’s name, and heritage away. You have replaced their bitrh certificate. You are attempting to replace their biological parents. This is never fair. This is traumatizing.
    Most adoptees will never be able to understand why they weren’t wanted. They will battle with low self-esteem.
    Many adoptees will suffer, because they will blame themselves for choices they had no part in.
    Never ever drop the word adoptive. It leaves the adoptee feeling as if their adoptive status is shameful. Only do this if the child indicates to you that they are not okay with it. Do not speak for an adoptee as if you can understand their thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, pain, and suffering. You can not. You are not an adoptee. You have not experienced what they have. Do not advocate for celebrating the adoptee’s trauma, it increases it ten-fold.
    I agree that the adoptive parents should be treated like the parents they are, which is Adoptive Parents. You are not a birth parent to that child. You should not claim them as ‘mine’. You have entered into a contract to love and raise the child to the best of your ability. You are not intended to replace their biological family. If at all possible contact should be maintained with the biological family.
    I could continue for ages. There is NEVER social justice for the adoptee. Please, don’t celebrate their pain. Respect the truth that they are adopted.

    1. Amanda

      Once adopted those parents are parents. The child(ren) is/are theirs. They are parenting a child just as if they had birthed that child and loving them just as much. As an adoptee that was taken from one abusive home and adopted right into another I can still say that adopted parents are intended to take the place of biological parents that no longer have any rights (for whatever reason). The system is flawed and does not always work as intended but when good people adopt children that need loving homes they deserve the respect and title of parent (not adoptive parent). Does that mean they never tell the kid they’ve been adopted? Likely, no, they’ll tell them when the time is right. A child does not have to be biologically related to be yours and treated as such. I feel that forcing the title adopted parent also means constantly reminding the kid(s) that they were given away or worse taken away (especially in abuse cases); basically reinforces the you weren’t wanted feelings a kid has on a daily basis.
      We adoptees will vary in our perspectives on this but one thing remains constant; where we came from is not always a place to be proud of and be reminded of depending on the situation. If I had to walk around with my birth last name I’d RUN to a courthouse to change it! I respect your views on the matter and am truly sorry for the pain I sense in your writing; you deserved better than the childhood trauma that caused your pain.

    2. Roxanna S Croteau

      Thank you for sharing your voice and perspective. As an adoptive mother, I ask my two adopted children who are now adults about their experiences being adopted. They have a lot of anger about not having a voice as a child. I appreciate your comments to remind us about social justice, to listen and ask questions. I can never fully know their experiences no matter how much empathy I have.

  2. Rhi

    Social justice is far more than that, at its core it’s supposed to be about acknowledging privilege even when it’s intensely unpleasant or difficult or conflicts with a narrative that you’d rather tell. As a social worker and adoptive parent you have an almost ungodly amount of privilege which you don’t acknowledge at all in this article. Privilege almost always comes at the expense of someone else, in this case the first family and especially the adoptee who doesn’t even appear in your article until a 10th paragraph footnote, far behind both sets of parents. As an adoptee myself I can only say that I disagree with a lot of things in this article and hope that learn how to TRULY listen to adoptee voices which means putting your privilege and your wanted narrative to rest and actually LISTENING.

  3. Bird

    I’m an adoptee and am curious why in an article written about adoption we are considered last.. almost as an afterthought. There is no mention of OBC’s or adoptees being 4x more likely to attempt suicide than non-adoptees. I think it’s easy to celebrate adoption when you’re the one that benefits from it. There is no loss for adoptive parents in this scenario, but there is for adoptees and birth parents. I also noticed that the only time compassion and empathy were mentioned was in regards to AP’s… why is that? And why does the writer think the qualifier of “adoptive” should be dropped while also using the “birth” qualifier? Adoption isn’t just an event that is over once the paperwork is complete- it is something that adoptees live with forever. Even once the parents who made these decisions are gone. There is so much that this article gets wrong that it would be an emotional labor to address them all. I hope that the author reads this and is able to examine her adoption narrative and write a follow up .

  4. Celeste

    Your brief comment on birth parents who have “had their child(ren) removed is woefully inadequate and borders on the opposite of how you indicate “they” should be treated, i.e. with respect. Please give more thought to the issues.

    1. ANDREA

      I appreciated reading all the opinions and empathized with the feelings expressed both in the article and the responses. They all helped to highlight the complexity and the trauma of this topic. I am simply a Counselor and someone with a heart for children who also went through training to become a foster/adoptive parent. What I learnt in that training was heartbreaking. I am no expert on the topic but it was obvious to me that removing kids from their homes, from family, is a traumatizing event. A parent giving up a child voluntarily or involuntarily is a traumatizing event for both parent and child. Being adopted is a traumatizing event. How each child experiences this trauma and its impact on their future lives is unique to that child and the circumstances around the removal from family and their journey to and during adoption; however, statistics prove in the majority of cases this has negative effects as any trauma does. However, there are adoptees who have managed to rise above and live inspiring lives and others who struggle to live. I have co-parented children that were not birthed by me and loved them as my own. When I adopt I will not care if I’m called an adoptive parent or parent. I am not in it for my ego but for the children, therefore, I would respect the child’s wishes regarding that.
      I would have liked to hear suggestions on how society can better manage protecting children in a less traumatizing way when parents fail in their responsibility to lovingly care for their children.

  5. Susan Branco

    There are multiple gaps in this piece that include the following: application of the Multicultural and Social Justice Competences (endorsed by ACA) that can serve as a conceptual framework by which one can critically examine the privileged and marginalized statuses held by the numerous parties involved in adoption, a mention of the ACA endorsed Competencies for Working with Transracial Adoptees and their Families that can serve as a guide for working with all members of the adoption kinship network, and, has been mentioned previously, at minimum, an acknowledgment of the documented mental health (including suicide) and mental health risks faced by adopted persons. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was mentioned. What also should have been noted is the AAP publishings that include an entire book devoted to Adoption and Attachment (2014) and the 2015 AAP guidelines to working with adopted children and those children in foster care.


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