Between 1971 and 2001, U.S. citizens adopted 265,677 children from other countries. In the following single decade, U.S. families nearly matched that total with an additional 224,615 international adoptions, peaking in 2004 with 22,991 intercountry adoptions, according to the U.S. Department of State. 

Already in 1997, the majority of Americans had a personal connection to adoption, international or domestic, according to a survey (the most recent on record) by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

Calvin psychology professor Emily Helder with a student researcher.
Calvin psychology professor Emily Helder with a student researcher.

Paralleling the rising interest in international adoption is an increased interest in the adopted children’s adjustment and that of the adoptive parents. There are documented challenges associated with international adoptions such as language development, cultural differences, physical and mental health issues, and overcoming prior neglect and/or bonding issues.

Calvin psychology professor Emily Helder is well aware of these challenges. She’s been studying adoption, particularly of children raised in orphanages, since graduate school. Her most recent research project, “Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral Outcomes Following International Adoption,” is a comprehensive study in which Helder is testing and interviewing adopted children and their parents over a three-year time period in an attempt to learn more about the outcomes of children following adoption. (Many of the children in the study spent time in an orphanage prior to their adoption, but this research is not limited to those who did.)

“Some kids struggle; some kids do great,” she said. “We don’t know how to predict which ones will do well. If we knew what the typical pattern is for behavior, then we would know if a child is falling below the norm and that there might be a need for intervention.

“What we are trying to understand is the typical pattern so that we can get better information to schools and to parents.”

While some previous research has occurred in this area, there are gaps, Helder said. “There has not been a lot of long-term studies, and there is little known about recovery in children adopted at older ages,” she said.

Helder is attempting to fill in those gaps. So several hours each week this past summer, student researcher Brie Elzinga ’12, working with Helder, engaged more than 50 children—from 1 year old to 14 years old—in a battery of tests involving memory, language, attention, motor skills, academic skills and executive functioning. Puzzles, games and questions were all part of the fun.

“It was a steep learning curve for me,” said Elzinga, who plans to pursue a career as a neuropsychologist. “It was my first opportunity to be involved in direct testing.”

The questioning also included parents who are involved in the ongoing study. The results will be compared to those from last summer, when the research began, and those of next summer, when the research will be completed.

Tory Larsen, a December 2010 graduate, served as Helder’s research assistant last summer, funded by an Alumni Association grant. “I wish I could have stayed around and worked on it all three years,” said Larsen, who now works as a neurodevelopment technician in the special infectious disease division at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “I can’t wait for the results. That’s what I love about neuropsychology research; it has the human aspect that the hard sciences don’t have. We have the opportunity to apply our results to actual people.”

The application is what Helder is excited about, too. “It can be overwhelming for adoptive parents who don’t know what they’re dealing with,” she said. “Internationally adopted children can have more trouble with attention and impulsivity; they can be more distractable. What’s not known is if this is related to language development or cultural differences or other causes. Others can struggle with disobedience, defiance or anxiety issues.

“Parenting practices do seem to be related to outcomes, but it’s not clear how. We’re trying to determine and promote the things that parents can do to help,” she said.

Information like this would be helpful to parents, according to Greg VanWienen, a 1990 grad, who, with his wife, Jolyn, have adopted five children, four internationally. Though not a part of the Calvin study, Greg said they can relate to the issues raised by it: “When we have had parent-teacher conferences or counseling sessions for the boys, we discuss with the teachers or psychologist what part they think the issues addressed by the study might play in the boys’ behavior and/or classroom performance. The way we phrase it is, ‘Do you think this is orphanage stuff, adoption stuff, personality stuff or Seth stuff ?’[Their adopted son Seth was tragically killed in an auto accident in 2007.] And usually they shrug their shoulders and say they are not sure, which is frustrating for all, because it makes it more difficult to formulate a plan for home and school. Hopefully the study might give some guidance to all of us—parents, teachers and counselors.”

Phil de Haan ’84, who, with his wife, Sue Doorn ’85, have two internationally adopted children, believes the outcomes could also be helpful to agencies like Bethany Christian Services, through which the de Haans adopted their children. “I think the data from Emily’s research could be helpful to adoptive parents, but perhaps would be even more helpful to agencies like Bethany that assist in the creation of families via adoption,” he said. “After our kids came home we stayed involved in such things as Bethany-organized playgroups, the annual Bethany Christmas party, that sort of thing. I always got the feeling that the things Bethany organized sprang from their expertise as to what it took for an international adoptee to make a successful transition to a new country and a new family.”

Helder’s intent is to share the results with parents, psychologists and agencies as soon as possible. “These are families working to provide a supportive, loving home,” she said. “In some cases, especially among children adopted at older ages, there is a lot of brokenness in these kids—maybe from the death of a parent or neglect or having spent time in an orphanage. We hope we can contribute to the process of reconciliation.”

For Larsen, taking part in this research offered the opportunity to ruminate on its purpose at Calvin: “It’s a reflection of the love of Christ. We’re called to love our neighbors, and I think we’re doing our little part by affecting outcomes for children and hopefully applying them to the broader population in the future.”

Summer Research Sampler