Researcher initiates study to look at health and social influences for older adoptees | By Martha Vickery (Winter 2023)
She has been at adoption research for 25-plus years, a long time in a scholar’s career. If circumstances had been different, adoption researcher/activist Hollee McGinnis might have decided to put adoption-related research away for awhile.
However, some significant recent events, including a life-altering bout with cancer, and the introspection brought on by pandemic times, has motivated her to give adoption research another look.
Specifically, she wonders if answers to some key questions might help her own peer group, the more senior members in the community of international adoptees, to understand their identity and their health as they get older.
Her current project, ongoing but still taking shape, is a study of older transracial adoptees and what is important to their identities and relationships. The project, under the umbrella name Collaborative on Adoption and Alternative Care Research (CAARE) will receive research on adult adoptees, a seldom-studied group, and results will be shared with the adoption community.
The project is starting with a survey questionnaire intended to “map the life course of adoption.” McGinnis will administer this initial research, called the MAP study, with help from other adoptee researchers and adoptee organizations. The information gained from this and future studies is intended to build “a practice of collaboration and co-creation of knowledge and wisdom by and for adoptees,” according to the website.
College to community organizing
When in college, McGinnis changed her major from Asian Studies to American studies “to learn more about who I was as a person with an Asian face, an Irish name, and a blond-haired mom.” Being an Asian Studies major was wrong for her, she said, because “my Asian studies aim was to learn about being Asian to fulfill everyone’s expectations about what I should know to be Asian.”
Her instincts continued to lead her to research her own group. Her senior project looked at Korean adopted young women, and collected information on how they viewed their own identity. “I was basically studying myself,” she said.
Following that, in 1996, she enrolled in a self-expression and leadership course that challenged participants to do a project in one of their own communities. There were a lot of younger Chinese adoptees at the time, which was the impetus for her co-founding, with a group of adult Korean adoptees, the New York City-based Also Known As (AKA). The group celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021. It was created, in part, to give international adoptees a structure for creating mentoring relationships with younger adoptees.
AKA was in a small group of the first adult adoptee groups to form, and a network grew as a wave of other adult adoptee groups formed around the same time. The growing power of internet technology also helped this quiet revolution gain strength. Finding Korean adoptees is easy now, she said, “but back then, I never would have imagined there would be such a community. In 1996 you could not google “adoptee” and find an adoptee! I had to go to adoption agencies and adoptive parents’ groups and it was hand-to-hand, phone-to-phone kind of effort to find each other.”
One goal of the MAP study
One of the two goals of the MAP study will be to discern the significance of adoptee organizations to adoptees’ in their adulthood. McGinnis’ own experience and her observation of the work done by many other adoptee organizations indicates to her that adoptee organizations are important. However, no researcher has inquired into the ways they are important, and to what extent they are important in adoptees’ lives.
Getting the participation of adult adoptee organizations for the study will be the easy part. She will be calling on the member organizations of the International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) for networking help. Choosing a “control group,” the people who have not been involved with adoptee organizations, is the only way to show if adoptee organizations have had an effect on adult adoptees. Finding those participants will be more challenging.
By talking to AKA members and others in adult adoptee groups, McGinnis said many have told her they realized the importance of the group to their lives only after they stumbled into the group or went because of a friend’s invitation. “It’s not like other affinity groups,” she said. “Like ‘oh, we’re all adopted – let’s go hang out?’ It may not make sense at first.”
“When I decided to reach out and connect with other adoptees and their experiences when I was 24, it was like multiple refractions of my experience mirrored back at me,” she said, showing her all the directions her life could have taken, but didn’t.
“There’s no way for you not to begin seeing your own life in different ways when you are hearing other people talk about their own experience. That’s how you suddenly see what you couldn’t see.” But, she added, the adoptee has to be developmentally ready to really hear other’s stories, and to think about them in the context of their own life. That developmental step occurs at different times for adoptees, she added, and some are not ready to get the full benefit of an adoptee group until they are in their 20s or older.
In 2009, for her Ph.D. dissertation, McGinnis studied the mental health of Korean school children who were raised in orphanages. When she started her job in 2017 as an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, her youngest son was barely two. She wanted to do more research in Korea, but with young children at home, she decided not to go that route.
For the Eva B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, McGinnis led a study dubbed Beyond Culture Camp. She learned that, from a 486-person sample of 50 percent Korean adoptees and 50 percent white adoptees, adoption identity became stronger over time. In the same group, the importance of racial/ethnic identity became less important over time. She always wanted to follow up on this finding.
The Beyond Culture Camp results hinted that adults are not done with adoption when they are 18 or 20 or even 50 – a good reason to look at the significance of adoptee groups as to adoptees as they grow older, she said.
“I began to think that there was a need to literally map the life course of adoption,” McGinnis said. “We have not done that yet. That’s what I am hoping this project is going to be the beginning of.”
Life happened, time flew by, and in summer 2019, at the beginning of lockdown times, she was diagnosed with lump in her breast, and she had a lumpectomy. The lump was benign, but in the margins, there was cancer. The benign lump allowed the doctor to find the hidden cancer early.
The experience “catapulted me into some really deep soul work. I call it my ‘Adoption 2.0.,’” she said. She wondered why she had cancer, despite not having any genetic markers for it in any of her tests. “It was something environmental,” she said. There were no simple answers to the “why.”
While at home and recovering from cancer treatment, she noticed that Korean adoptees and other transnational adoptees got together more frequently during the pandemic. After being out of the adoptee community conversations for some years, she said, “I started to just kind of join in.”
She discovered that the people Zooming were a different population than those who were formerly active in adoptee organizations. Some had never participated in an adoptee event before. “They were like the people I missed 20 years ago,” when finding people to join Also Known As, she said. They were not averse to getting together with fellow adoptees – they were just “doing other things in their 20s,” she said.
The pandemic Zoom meetings made her even more curious about the 40-somethings who had never been in any group with fellow adoptees.
Mapping the health of transnational adoptees
Another wake-up call was that “in my close group of Korean adoptee women, maybe eight of us, about half of us were diagnosed with breast cancer in our 40s. That was another thing – what the hell was going on?” McGinnis had read research about complex trauma causing the kind of stress that creates physical symptoms. She wondered about her adoptee women friends, so many with similar early breast cancer.
Before getting too far into the project now online as CAARE, McGinnis said she reviewed the literature of adult adoptee physical and mental health. “We don’t really know very much,” she said. Because there have been no recent studies, the oldest research participants in any study are in their late 20s. Charting adoptees’ health in adulthood became the second aim of the study.
The goal must include mental health influences as well, she noted. She hopes to identify stressors and traumas, such as systemic racism, that may affect the physical and mental health of adoptees as they age. “Complex trauma is the way people internalize the things that have happened to them,” and how they talk to themselves about it, McGinnis explained. “In other words, the voice that says ‘I’m not good enough,’ and ‘I’m not lovable,’” she said. “Those are the things that, early on in life, get lodged in the mind and the body, and, I think, make you sick, potentially, if you don’t identify them, bring them up to the light, love on them, and shift them profoundly.”
As old as adoption research is, looking at adult adoptees as a research topic is still relatively new. Policies around child welfare have been around “rescuing children from what are perceived as dangerous situations, and getting them out of childhood, but not setting them up for what they need for a thriving adulthood.” One of her hopes, she said, is that “if we can map what adoption looks like in adulthood, we can go back and change policies so children can get what they need for thriving adulthoods.”
Sharing knowledge in the early stages
McGinnis plans to invite community discussions of initial study results, rather than the traditional approach of waiting for a final report. This sharing method, called the “decolonizing methodology” was developed by indigenous scholars who were tired of researchers extracting information from their communities, and never sharing with the communities it came from, McGinnis explained. With this approach, adoptees can “take that knowledge and make meaning out of it, and have it help them, instead of having it hidden behind some kind of expert paywall.”
McGinnis will discuss some initial results in a session to be held at the IKAA conference to be held in July in Seoul. Her presentation will be part of the Sixth International Symposium on Adoption Studies to be held during the IKAA meeting, on July 12.
The perspective of mid-life “makes us ask deeper questions about our legacy, meaning, and one’s sense of self – it is a different focus than adults have in their 20s.” Although experts always say that adoption is a lifelong journey, there is little information on how transnational adoptees view this lifelong relationship, and how social and cultural connections affect it.
The survey (website link below), for U.S. placed adoptees (international, domestic, or from foster care) age 18 and older, asks questions about physical and mental health, and tries to get at whether participation in adoptee-led spaces and groups affects adoptees as adults, and if so, how. It also asks participants about exposure to trauma as a child and as an adult, and any experiences related to loss. It takes about an hour to fill out, according to McGinnis.
As part of her legacy, McGinnis wants to help fellow adoptees to offer their experiences navigating adulthood as an adoptee to inform the perspectives of future adoptees and adoptive families. Going from community organizing, to work in policy, and then research, McGinnis describes herself as “still a story-teller, but I am trying to tell stories with data and patterns.”
For her, thinking about the data and patterns of adoption started with listening to adoptees’ stories. “That is an education you cannot get in a graduate program. It is profoundly transformative. I was always thinking ‘where are the threads?’ and ‘what are the themes in common?’ and ‘how are these stories converging and diverging?’ and that’s what I am still doing now.”
The website for the Collaborative on Adoption and Alternative Care Research (CAARE) www.caare-research.org and the MAP survey is on a clickable link on the site.
The annual gathering of the International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) annual meeting information is at: https://www.ikaa.org/2022/09/27/2023-ikaa-korea-gathering/
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.