Social work professor’s research to explore outcomes for adult adoptees and foster care alumni

Hollee McGinnis' project will help her continue her research on adult adoptees and alumni of foster care.
Hollee McGinnis' project will help her continue her research on adult adoptees and alumni of foster care.

When Hollee McGinnis was a college student, questions about her identity as a transracial adoptee from South Korea raised in an Irish-Catholic family sparked her undergraduate thesis and questions that have shaped her career.  

“I grew up during a time when adoption practitioners encouraged a ‘color-blind’ approach without recognizing the challenges of growing up as a racial minority in the U.S,” she said. “When I reflected on my experiences, I thought how helpful it would have been to connect with others who shared my complex family.”

Since then, McGinnis has been studying adult adoptees and working on adoption policy. In 1996, she founded an organization for adult intercountry adoptees, Also-Known-As, out of the desire to build a community where adult adoptees could become resources and mentors for the new generation of families formed through intercountry adoption. Now, as a third-year assistant professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University, McGinnis, Ph.D., has received a major funding award for her research on adult adoptees and alumni of foster care, having been selected as one of this year’s 16 recipients of the university’s Presidential Research Quest Fund

Her project, "Adoptees & Foster Care Alumni Networks Study (AFCANS): How Connections Promote Adult Mental Health and Well-Being," fills a gap, she said. Despite the growth over the past two decades of organizations for adoptees and foster care alumni, there is limited scholarship on this population once they reach their 20s and as they get older. 

“This is a new project,” McGinnis said, “but it connects to work I had done a decade ago while working as the policy director at the Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City. That was a national study on adoptive and ethnic/racial identity among adopted adults that was informed by my work I did as a community organizer and founder of Also-Known-As. 

“This study promises to be one of the first to examine adult outcomes of adoptees and/or foster care alumni and explore how their connections, through formal or informal networks, influence outcomes.”

I grew up during a time when adoption practitioners encouraged a ‘color-blind’ approach without recognizing the challenges of growing up as a racial minority in the U.S. When I reflected on my experiences, I thought how helpful it would have been to connect with others who shared my complex family.

The research will further McGinnis’ position as an expert on the topic. Recently, the BBC interviewed her about a landmark legal ruling in South Korea involving an overseas adoptee seeking to identify her biological father. McGinnis’ work through Also-Known-As helped to organize the Gathering of First Generation Adult Korean Adoptees in Washington, D.C., in 1999.

“The Gathering really elevated our consciousness: ‘Oh, we are a community,’” she said. “Now there are adult adoptee groups in almost every state. Around the same time foster care alumni were also beginning to form groups for adults who left the system.” 

Her research partners are VCU colleagues David Chan, Ph.D., from the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Michael Broda, Ph.D., from the School of Education. The team manages the Active and Supportive Personal Networks Lab, which focuses on social support networks and how they affect mental health and academic success.

“This study will seek to understand how [adoptees and foster care alumni] are doing throughout the life course and will provide important information on mental health, physical health and well-being,” McGinnis said. “So on the one hand, this is an epidemiological study. We don’t know how kids who have been in alternative care do once they are grown up.  

“There is a lot of research that would suggest that because of adverse childhood experiences, these populations would be at greater risk for later health and mental health problems. We haven’t connected all the dots, and we’re hoping that’s what this study will do. 

“Furthermore, this study will build knowledge on how connections with peers with a shared lived experience may be a resource for adult adoptees and foster care alumni. Findings from this study could also be used to reshape the child welfare system to focus not only on getting youth through childhood, but setting them up for thriving adulthoods.” 

The project is seeking to recruit 1,000 U.S. adults 18 or older as study participants through formal organizations, online groups of adult adoptees and foster care alumni, adoption agencies and adoptive parent groups. The survey will run from January to July 2021. Anyone interested in participating should contact McGinnis at hamcginnis@vcu.edu.

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