Self-important Adoption Officials

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[Tim Lee]

I was struck by this passage from the color-blind adoption story I linked to in my previous post:

Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who directs the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, believes that the concept of striving for color blindness is sound. She foresees problems if race once again becomes a key determinant...

"What cannot be done is have a pass/fail test that turns on whether you give the politically correct answers," she said. "If social workers are allowed to use training to determine who can adopt, there's lots of experience showing they abuse that power."

This reminds me of this excellent passage from David Friedman's Law's Order:

Some time back, my children decided that they wanted kittens, so we took a trip to the local Humane Society. It was an interesting experience. We ended up spending several hours waiting in line to receive one of a small number of permissions to "adopt" a pet, filling out forms, and then being interviewed by a Humane Society employee to make sure we were suitable adopters.

What was puzzling about the experience is that kittens are a good in excess supply. The Humane Society has more of them (and of cats, puppies, and dogs) than it can find homes for and, although it does not like to say so, routinely kills surplus animals. Rationing goods in excess supply is not usually a problem. Yet the Humane Society was deliberately making it costly, in time and effort, to adopt a kitten, and trying to select which lucky people got to do so, despite their knowledge that the alternative to being adopted was not another adoption but death. Why?

Part of the answer was that they gave out only seven adoption permits at each two hour interval because that was as many as they could process, given a limited staff and the requirement that each adopter be suitably checked and instructed. But that raises a second question. Since they did not have enough staff to process everyone who came, why insist on extensive interviews? Better owners are no doubt superior, from the standpoint of a cat, to worse owners, but almost any owner is better than being killed, which was the alternative.

So far as I could tell, the only real function of the process was to make the employees feel important and powerful, handing out instructions and boons to humble petitioners. That suspicion was reinforced when the woman interviewing us insisted very strongly that cats should never be permitted outdoors, stopping just short of implying that if we would not promise to keep our new pets indoors she would not let us have them. On further questioning, it turned out that she did not apply that policy to her own cat.

We left the Center petless, obtained two kittens from a friend (and very fine cats they have become), and I wrote an unhappy letter to the local newspaper with a copy to the Humane Society. The result was a long phone conversation with one of the women running the shelter. She explained that there were two models for such shelters: one in which animals were given out on a more or less no questions asked basis and one involving the sort of "adoption procedures" I had observed. When pressed on the fact that the real effect of her shelter's policy was to discourage adoptions and thus kill animals that might otherwise have lived, she responded that if they followed the alternative policy nobody would be willing to work for the shelter, since employees would feel they were treating the animals irresponsibly. That struck me as a kinder version of the explanation I had already come up with.

I wonder if something similar isn't happening in adoption agencies—that adoption officials spend a lot of time screening parents not because such screening is better for kids generally, but because doing more screening makes the adoption officials feel important. If this is happening, it's obviously a much more serious problem when the victims are children than kittens.

The chapter from which I got that passage is worth reading in full, especially the passage preceding it in which he makes a compelling case for legalizing adoption markets, which would obviate many of the problems with the current adoption system.

Incidentally, memo to David Pogue: Law's Order is freely available online, yet I purchased a dozen copies for a book club I was running a couple of years ago. Giving away an electronic version of something doesn't mean no one will buy a paper copy. In some cases, it might even bring more publicity to your book if (for example) it causes bloggers to quote favorably from it and encourage their readers to buy it.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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