Hard Start

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As an adoptive mother, I had a complicated reaction to this year's federal report on the status of children, which has a special focus on adopted children. Its most striking finding is that while just 12 percent of all children have a physical or mental health problem, that figure is 29 percent for adopted children in general and 45 percent for children who, like my child, were in foster care before their adoption.

Despite my worry that sharing this information will stigmatize adopted kids, I want to make sure that we don't miss this chance to learn something important about the ways that intensely stressful conditions early in life affect children. This report ought to raise alarm about the ways our tolerance for poverty harms the life chances of too many kids -- most of whom are not adopted.

Researchers are learning that abuse, neglect and other forms of trauma during childhood -- including poverty and exposure to community violence -- affect many aspects of health throughout life. The findings about the compromised health of adopted children bear this out.

Today, the majority of domestically and internationally adopted kids, particularly those who have been in foster care, have endured things that hurt their chances for healthy development -- including deprivation, abuse and disrupted relationships. Most adopted children thrive, but a substantial minority has significant emotional, physical or developmental problems. The ones most likely to struggle are those who experienced the greatest stresses in their early years.

With adequate resources, even children who've had a hard start in life can flourish. These insights should spur us to make it a priority that vulnerable children and their families -- adoptive or not -- get the help they need, and to reorder our priorities so that families don't have to raise their kids in unsafe and chronically stressful conditions.


With a Perspective, I'm Sarah Marxer.