Prof. Harold Grotevant, leading adoption researcher, discusses mentoring

Prof. Harold GrotevantQuestions for Harold Grotevant (HG), Rudd Family Professor, Psychology Dept., UMass Amherst. Interviewed by Laura Yoviene, Ph.D.

LY:  As the nation’s leading adoption researcher,  how did you first become involved in adoption research?

HG: Thanks for the compliment, but let me hasten to say that I’m very excited by the increasing number of great adoption researchers in the field. I’m proud to be among them. For me, it all started in graduate school. I was in the doctoral program of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, where one of the faculty (Prof. Sandra Scarr) had just gotten a large grant to examine genetic and environmental influences on adolescent development. She was hiring research assistants to interview adoptive and nonadoptive families for the project, which I did for three years. I developed my dissertation from that study (1977) and have been involved with adoption research ever since. What intrigued me then were the many and varied ways in which adoptive families dealt with difference. The adopted children were not genetically related to their parents, and they often looked different and had different interests and talents than their parents and siblings, but the families and adolescents had to make meaning of these differences. How do we fit together as a family, even though we don’t particularly look alike or have similar interests? The study of adoptive identity (“Who am I as an adoptive person, and where do I fit into the world around me?”) has been a source of considerable research interest to me ever since. It was a privilege to work on the Scarr and Weinberg adoption projects back then, and I am grateful to Sandra and Rich for mentoring me to become a faculty mentor. In attachment theory terms, they instilled in me an internal working model of what it means to be a faculty mentor, and my students have benefited from that in turn.

 LY: What has your experience been with the changing attitudes and practice surrounding adoption over the past 30 years?

HG: Those changing attitudes and practices are very real; it often feels like I’m conducting research while on a moving sidewalk. I have seen this so clearly in our work on open adoptions. Prior to the beginning of our study in the mid 1980s, most U.S. adoptions were closed; that is, there was no contact between the child’s adoptive and birth family members. Now contact is the norm in infant adoptions; birth parents often choose the family into which the child is adopted and have contact after placement. Teens and adults who have had no contact are finding birth relatives on Facebook and other social media. The changing attitudes and practices also keep us humble about our knowledge. Today, one might be tempted to look back thirty years and bemoan those unenlightened practices. But I ask my students, “What will adoption look like thirty years from now?” Will the professionals of 2043 look back at 2013 and say how unenlightened we were? The quickly moving sidewalk is a reminder that our knowledge and our decisions about practice and policy are historically and contextually bound. The study of adoption provides fascinating opportunities for understanding how history and culture influence the construction of knowledge and the meanings that people bring to family.

LY: What are some of the greatest challenges facing the area of adoption research?

HG: I would cite three. First, research needs to do a better job of integrating biological (genetic and physiological) and social influences on development. At present, most studies focus on one or the other, but few studies bring them together very well. Second, we need improved measures about adoption-related constructs that are developmentally calibrated. This would include measures of self-concept and identity as well as measures of family processes distinctive for adoptive families. A third challenge is that the adoptive population is relatively small (about 2% of the U.S. population), and so large samples are hard to recruit. The samples get even smaller when researchers have specific interests, such as transracial adoption, open adoption, or adoption by same-sex parents. This situation could be remedied if some of the large ongoing nationally-representative data collection efforts were to include a set of questions that would identify key adoption variables, so that comparative studies could be undertaken.

LY: Given the recent creation of the Adoption Mentoring Partnership (AMP), what are your impressions of mentoring and how does it overlap with your adoption research?

HG: As a relative newcomer to the field of mentoring, it has been very exciting to see its power firsthand. In AMP, we are examining how adopted college undergraduate students can serve as mentors to adopted children in the community from similar ethnic backgrounds, but we are also studying the mutual mentoring that occurs when we bring our cohort of college students together in biweekly mentor group meetings, under the supervision of graduate students who themselves were also adopted. AMP provides a venue for studying adoptive identity, both in the developing pre-adolescent mentee and in the college student mentors. Let me give a quick example. Many of our college student mentors have told us that they didn’t discuss adoption very much with their parents, certainly not during their teen years. As part of their affiliation with AMP, the mentors developed trusting relationships with each other in which they shared closely-held feelings about adoption. For many of them, this experience stimulated new communication with their adoptive parents about a topic that had not been discussed much in their families. One mentor conducted an undergraduate honors thesis on adoption and invited his parents to attend his presentation at the statewide undergraduate research conference. I was awestruck at the power that mentoring had had in his life, and the experience rippled outward into building even closer bonds with his parents. We have many new discoveries awaiting us!

LY: Any future directions for your research?

HG: In addition to continuing our research on AMP, we are in the midst of collecting a fourth wave of data in the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project, our longitudinal study of contact between adoptive and birth family members, which I started with Ruth McRoy, who is now at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. ( ) We have been following 190 adoptive families and 169 birth mothers since the late 1980s; the adopted children are now in their 30s and having children of their own, so the study has become intergenerational. I am also collaborating with Dr. Rachel Farr at UMass Amherst to continue her pioneering longitudinal study of lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive families. The families were enrolled in the study when the children were preschoolers; now they are moving into the school transition. All three studies contribute to our basic knowledge about interpersonal processes and human development; they also have important implications for services and policies that will benefit children and families whose lives have been touched by adoption.