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Nobody’s Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative

by Elizabeth Bartholet; 320 pp. Boston: Beacon Press. $17.50/$28.50 The Wrong Case for Adoption

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Foster care in this country is rife with complexities that defy simple solutions. Children who enter foster care are poor, and they are disproportionately from communities of color. Over the past decade they have entered care in growing numbers and remained in foster care far too long. In Nobody’s Children, Elizabeth Bartholet dismisses all subtleties to propose a one-size-fits-all solution: adoption.

Adoption has long been recognized as an alternative for children in foster care who cannot safely return to their families. This book, however, goes further; it transforms adoption into a rescue route for children from “dysfunctional” families and communities. At every turn, the parents and relatives of children in care are portrayed in the grimmest of terms—a strategy signaled by the very title of the book. Statistics and various opinions are mustered to paint a bleak, one-sided picture of these parents (who, according to Bartholet, are all hopeless and dangerous drug addicts) and of their relatives (whom she deems equally inappropriate by virtue of being related to their dangerous kin). Bartholet’s book fails to make clear that most children in foster care—those who enter care because of neglect and not torture—return safely to the very real “somebodies” who are their families. She also fails to acknowledge that even children who are adopted by other families are connected in powerful ways to the “somebodies” to whom they are biologically related.

Bartholet has chosen to make the case for adoption by demonizing parents, discounting kin, and disparaging communities. Nowhere is this tactic more disturbing than in the pervasive theme that children of color should have the benefits of the “larger”—that is, white—community, where competence and material advantage purportedly reside in ample quantities. She treats any service that references “family” or “community” as suspect—whether “family group decision making” (which, she says, is really about allowing abusive parents to team up with their relatives to exert “even greater power than they now have over the fate of their children”) or “community partnerships” (which, she claims, only involve the “poorest” and “most dysfunctional” communities in an ill-conceived attempt to protect children).

Bartholet devotes much of the book to her interventions of choice: criminal sanctions for child abuse (she believes that criminal prosecution has a “preventive” effect); mandatory home visiting services that put families under “surveillance” and facilitate the prompt removal of children; and more and faster terminations of parents’ rights, with far less attention to reuniting children with their parents, whom she repeatedly describes as perpetrators of “horrific” abuse.

Although it is indeed true that adoption has been underused in the past, significant changes in the child welfare system in recent years have resulted in far more children leaving foster care for placement with adoptive families. The case for adoption can be—and has been—made without diminishing the families and communities from which children come.

By Madelyn Freundlich, Policy Director, Children’s Rights, Inc., New York, N.Y.

Copyright © 2001 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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