Alumnus Dr. Dana Johnson Speaks on Adoption Issues on NPR

Alumnus Dr. Dana Johnson Speaks on Adoption Issues on NPR

CHICAGO, IL (May 24, 2010) – During a recent NPR Weekend Edition broadcast, Dr. Dana Johnson C’70 shared his insights into some of the difficulties that adoptive parents can face when adopting children from abroad, and outlined paths to getting around those obstacles. This interview is one in an expanding series of speaking events, guest expert segments, and consultations in which Dr. Johnson helps educate adoption advocacy organizations and the public about the medical and developmental issues of orphaned children.

Director of the division of neonatology and the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Johnson has devoted more than 25 years of his career to the study of the effects of early institutionalization on growth and development and the outcomes of internationally adopted children.

North Park University awarded Dr. Johnson the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2008, one of many honors he has earned for his work. We caught up with Dr. Johnson about the roots of the International Adoption Clinic, its major successes and challenges, and his memories of life at North Park.

NPU: What motivated you to found the International Adoption Clinic?

Dr. Johnson: In April of 1984, I traveled to a nursery in Calcutta, India, where premature infants were nursed back to health and then placed for adoption in Europe and the US. Our family had always talked about adopting, and this visit sealed not only that decision, but also the choice of the nursery from which we eventually adopted.

During the next two years, I fielded numerous questions about medical issues from families who adopted from this nursery. Most questions were related to the problems of prematurity, which I felt very comfortable answering, as I am a neonatologist specializing in care for these high-risk children. However, there were some questions I couldn’t answer, as there were little—if any—data available.

After my son Gabriel arrived in our home from Calcutta in September 1985, I gathered three colleagues in pediatrics and proposed starting the clinic to counsel families prior to adoption, to provide care to children after adoption, and to establish a research program to further characterize problems and needs of international adoptees. The clinic opened in the spring of 1986.

NPU: What projects or initiatives is the Clinic working on now?

Dr. Johnson: Through our work in outcomes of international adoption, we seek to document the overall success of international adoption and to identify, shortly after adoption, the small number of families who struggle so effective intervention can be offered.

In researching short- and long-term effects of early deprivation, we have focused on determining the effects of early social deprivation on cognition, growth, language, attachment, and mental health. All areas are impaired in children institutionalized beyond six months of age. Deficits are profound, progressive, and can be permanent. Recovery is also age dependent, supporting the hypothesis that the earlier a child is placed in a permanent family, the better the outcome.

We have spent the last two years developing a protocol for providing mental health services for international adoptees to support families who adopt internationally. Early, frequent visits, coupled with evidence-based interventions, will assist children in making a successful transition into their adoptive families.

Orphanage improvement is an important area of need, and we’ve been working with the Half the Sky Foundation and the Ministry of Civil Affairs in China to improve nurturing within Chinese orphanages using programs designed to enhance caregiver-child interactions. This has become a national program in China over the past few years.

We are working on early identification of alcohol-exposed children. Many adopted children have been exposed to alcohol during gestation. Unfortunately, most are not identified until later in life, when intervention programs are less effective. We are attempting to identify such children at an earlier age using computerized testing of frontal lobe function in the brain.

NPU: What have been the most successful and challenging aspects of your work?

Dr. Johnson: The most successful aspects have been helping establish the field of adoption medicine as a specialty in pediatrics, identifying and publicizing the special medical and developmental needs of adopted children, exposing the detrimental effects of early social deprivation, and highlighting the remarkably beneficial effects of placing such children in permanent families.

The challenges are knowing that millions of children around the world will never experience the joys and benefits of being part of a permanent family, and facing the failure of governments to enact evidence-based child welfare policy, the result of which is continued reliance on institutional versus domestic adoption and foster care.

NPU: How have your biology studies at North Park informed your work today?

Dr. Johnson: My studies in the sciences were the foundation of my medical career. My exposure to classes in philosophy, ethics, and the social sciences vastly expanded my worldview.

However, my interactions with faculty members and participation in the religious life on campus were the most formative, as they solidified my view that the great commission to “go into the world” was not only to teach the gospel but to live Christ’s message of love for the world.

NPU: What are your plans for the future?

Dr. Johnson: I will pursue the goal that every child be part of a permanent, loving family, continue to identify the special medical and developmental needs of children deprived of parental care, and formulate effective interventions to assure that each child reaches their full potential.