Professor’s Course Offers Insight into Complex Topics of Adoption

Kelly Newburg and Jill Shockey, Penn State

Jennifer Crissman Ishler and her husband, Matt, visit their daughter, Emily, at kindergarten. (Penn State Live photo)

UNIVERSITY PARK, – In recent years, the idea of adoption has been seen regularly in the public eye as celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Sandra Bullock are adopting internationally to grow their clans. However, there’s a lot more to be said about adoption, andJennifer Crissman Ishler, a senior instructor in human development and family studies (HDFS) at Penn State, has made it her mission to give students a crash course on the ins and outs of this complex process.

It is a challenge to portray an accurate and comprehensive view of adoption in the United States because secrecy is involved in some adoptions. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’Administration for Children, Youth and Families recorded 51,000 domestic adoptions with public child welfare agency involvement during fiscal year 2010 — the most recent data available and a figure that has remained relatively stable since 2002 but reached a high of 57,000 in 2009. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs logged 9,319 intercountry adoptions during the U.S. government’s fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30. During the last decade, intercountry adoptions peaked at 22,991 adoptions in 2004.

In summer 2009, Crissman Ishler recognized the lack of coverage the topic of adoption received at Penn State as well as at universities across America. Through her research, Crissman Isher has only been able to find one other course from universities across the country that specifically focuses on the topic of adoption — the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which offers a course on the psychology of adoption.

Since adopting her daughter from Guatemala in 2005, she holds the subject of adoption near and dear to her heart, and she believes it is an important topic for students to learn about.

“I had been in HDFS for four years and began looking at courses. There was an involvement gap with adoption. It wasn’t covered much,” Crissman Ishler said. “I approached my boss to ask if I could teach the course for professional development but also because a large number of people either know someone or have been directly impacted by adoption and would be able to relate to a course on adoption.”

Right away, students showed interest. “The first semester it was offered, spring 2010, the class had 45 spots available,” Crissman Ishler said. “Those spots filled up right away. I had to ask if we could increase the class for more students to join. It ended up filling to 90 students before we had to cut it off. It went very well.”

The course is designed to provide students with in-depth information revolving around adoption. Topics covered include open and closed adoptions, domestic and international adoption, domestic partner issues — from myths and stereotypes to states’ legal requirements of those seeking to adopt — and the positives and negatives that can occur throughout the adoption process. However, Crissman Ishler’s main objective focuses on encouraging her students to critically think about the emotional aspects of adoption.

“At the end of the day, I want students to know the five core issues — loss, rejection, guilt, grief, identity — that affect the three triad members — birth parents, adoptive child, adoptive parents,” noted Crissman Ishler. “It’s about learning the psychological and emotional aspects included in adoption and asking, ‘How are families formed?’ ”

“In general, just having an understanding of the different types of adoptions has expanded my thoughts and ideas,” said Kristi Bricker, a senior majoring in human development and family studies who has taken the course. “When you go into a course like this you think you have a good understanding, but I quickly realized my understandings were all the myths of adoption. No matter who you are, you will walk in thinking certain things and you will walk out with a new grasp on the idea of adoption.”

Crissman Ishler believes learning about adoption helps to broaden students’ knowledge base and encourages students to consider critical questions.

“Have they thought about issues of race? Stopped to think about the birth mom and birth dad, what about them? How has adoption affected them?” Crissman Ishler. asked. “This course encourages students to take a deep, thoughtful and critical look at adoption. It ties research into the idea of adoption and realizing it’s not just about pop culture — the Madonnas, the Brad and Angelinas. We’re required to ask the question, ‘How has adoption changed trends in the world?’ ”

“By taking this course I have already felt a calling into the adoption world,” said Bricker. “Whether it’s adopting children later in my life or working for an adoption agency, I feel that this is something that’s going to stick with me. Each class I walk out learning something new and expanding on what I have learned from the previous classes.”

In the future, Crissman Ishler hopes to continue providing this course, currently listed as HDFS 453, to students of all majors, years, races and genders.

“Adoption impacts everyone,” Crissman Ishler stated. “People are always connected to adoption in some way; whether they know someone who has adopted or were personally adopted. It’s a great thing.”

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