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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Shading the Truth to Ease the Fears of Adoptive Parents

I recently had a conversation with one of my daughter's closest friends, who had struggled with infertility for several years before becoming pregnant.  As we talked, she related that she and her husband had briefly considered adoption -- both yearned for children, and both were hurting because they so badly wanted to begin building a family.

While she saw the merits of open adoption from the beginning, her husband was wary and initially favored a closed arrangement -- he was afraid that the child might feel more loyalty to the biological parents than to them.

While such fear and insecurity is totally understandable in a couple who has struggled to conceive and who want desperately to become parents, it is a fear and insecurity that needs to be addressed directly by adoption professionals, and here is where many who negotiate adoptions fail so miserably.

Research about adoption shows clearly that secrets never serve the best interest of an adopted child.  An adopted infant has two sets of parents, and each set contributes to the child's unique disposition and personality.  Pretending that the original parents don't exist or negating their importance is a disservice to the original parents, for sure, but it is also a grave disservice to the adopted child and the adoptive parents.  Building a family through adoption is not the same as building a family biologically.  Certain challenges must be confronted and met in order to serve the best interests of the child.

Instead of educating prospective adoptive parents about those realities, too many adoption brokers cater to the adopting parents' understandable fears and insecurities.  Consider this excerpt from a booklet for hopeful adoptive parents issued by the New Jersey State Bar Association:

"While open adoption is a legal option in some states, it is not legally enforceable in New Jersey.  In other words, while adoptive parents may agree to permit some form of contact between the child and the birth parents, they are not legally bound by these promises, even if they are made in writing."

Another section reads: "In New Jersey all records relating to adoption proceedings ... are sealed by the court clerk, and may not be opened to inspection or copying without a court order, which almost never occurs."

So adoption attorneys go out of their way to assure prospective adoptive parents that they needn't have any contact with original parents -- ever.  They have nothing to say about the fact that most adult adoptees feel they have a right to know who they actually are and where they come from.

Adoption attorneys have a vested interest in reassuring prospective adoptive parents, the paying customer.  But are they really helping these parents for the long term when they say, in effect, that the original parents are irrelevant?  For the adoptee, the original parents are rarely irrelevant across an entire lifetime, whether she talks about her deepest feelings or not.

I loved my adoptive parents, just as they loved me, and they shaped me in many ways.  However, I believe the practice of adoption is deeply flawed.  My parents and the practice of adoption are two separate things.  My genes, obviously, come from a different set of parents, and I greatly resent the fact that all kinds of legal roadblocks exist to keep me from knowing more about them.  Should I be automatically disqualified from having any interest in genealogy just because I was adopted at the age of three months?

The fact that people profit from the practice of adoption causes all kinds of ethical dilemmas, much like adoption attorneys leaving out pertinent details about what actually best serves the interest of children.  As Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR) states on its website: "Adoption should be about the formation of a family for the benefit and best interests of children, not the destruction of identity."

Last May, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a column for the New York Times entitled "Markets and Morals,"  In it, he quotes Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel, who asks in his book What Money Can't Buy: "Do we want a society where everything is up for sale?"

While the free market can provide great solutions in many areas, says Kristof, some things simply should not be for sale.  I would say that babies are one of those things.  "Where to draw the line limiting the role of markets isn't clear to me," Kristof writes, "but I'm pretty sure that we've already gone too far."  In the field of adoption, where Caucasian babies cost more than African-American infants, and in the field of reproductive technology, where again, Caucasian infants cost more than half-Indians who are the product of an anonymous sperm donor and an impoverished Indian surrogate, the lines were crossed years ago.

The history of adoption demonstrates quite clearly that secrecy and a lack of transparency invite  dishonesty and fraud.   Am I saying that every adoption should be fully open?  Not necessarily.  There may be some cases in which a child could be harmed by exposure to original parents who have addiction problems or who suffer from mental instability.  But these cases are the minority, and there is no doubt in my mind that every adopted individual should have access to his or her legal document of birth as an adult.  While children may need special protections, adults do not, and they are entitled to the truth about their own lives.

While many misconceptions about adoption persist, I am encouraged that more and more adoptees, original parents, and adoptive parents are speaking out about the need for adoption reform.  Consider this comment by adoptive parent Gayle Swift to one of my posts:

"I'm the adoptive mother to two now-adult children.  We've been fortunate enough to benefit from open access.  This allowed each of my children to reconnect with their birthmothers.  All of our relationships have benefitted!  Our culture judges adoptees for wanting access to their original birth certificates and their roots.  At the same time, "Who Do You Think You Are," a prime-time TV show, touts the joy and spiritual fulfillment of genealogy research.  It is human nature to want to understand where one fits in the flow of the generations.  Moreover, for health reasons, it is often essential to have access to birth family records.  My daughter asks me why she has to have a 'fraudulent' birth certificate that lists me as having given birth to her.  I have no reasonable answer.  I am her adoptive mom and believe her birth certificate ought to reflect that.  I'm not ashamed to be her adoptive mom and do not find it any less valid.  I do not need the sham of a birth certificate that is essentially a lie.  I vote for truth."

You can read Swift's beautiful article about this issue here.

What legislators considering adoptee rights bills should be asking themselves is this: Who is promoting sealed records in adoption and why?  And do documented facts support their positions?  Those entities that profit from adoption often shade the truth to ease the concerns of nervous and insecure prospective adoptive parents.  Such sales pitches are not rooted in the facts about adoption, and they are highly unethical.  We know better, and we can and should do better.

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  1. This is a fantastic post. I love this: "My parents and the practice of adoption are two separate things."

    So many people assume that trying to fix the wrong in adoption means "against" adoptive parents and the industry pits natural families against adoptive families all the time. In fact whilst they do cater for the adoptive couple's fears, they are also feeding them. For in the adoption professional's act to cater to the adopters and their fears, they confirm those fears are legitimate thus feeding the issue and making the situation worse.

  2. Probably what I resent the most about the adoption industry is the way it pits natural families against adoptive families, and even adoptees against other adoptees. During legislative hearings, the opposition always drags out a few adoptees who feel just "fine" and complete without knowing anything about their past. The implication is that those of us who lobby for equal access and equal rights are on the fringe. I always feel a little nauseated by the end of those hearings, where "religious" folks say so many adopting couples now go overseas so they don't have to be bothered with the birth family. They don't even know they are saying something offensive!

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Myst. Hopefully we'll see some positive changes in our lifetime.

  3. Great post! So fact based, with no hyperbole or self-pity. I like that a lot. I think the system, which normalizes closed adoption, is ripe to incite animosity between a-parents and n-parents. The fact that we keep birth parents a secret implies that there is something to fear there. Adoptees pick up on that subtle message. Since we adoptees came from the Other Mother, perhaps we internalize that there is something to fear about ourselves too. This has given me a lot to think about.

    I never was brave enough to arrange a meeting between my birth mother and my adoptive parents. There was no way I was going to be in the middle of that tension.

  4. I wasn't technically adopted (my family stepped in and raised me under guardianship) and I was raised with total knowledge of my bio parents. In fact, my bio mother was a major part of my life growing up even though I did not live with her. That being said, so many people do not hear me when I say that I have two moms and two dads. It's incomprehensible to them! One camp says it's only who bore me. The other camp says it's only who raised me. Why can't it be both? Children have bonds to people other than parents all the time. That doesn't lessen the love they have! Our culture doesn't think that having more than one child lessens the love you have for other children.

  5. As an adoptive mother of 2, I can understand the fear - I certainly felt it when we began to consider our options. Our daughters are adopted from China, (now 7 & 8) so finding birthparents is not an easy undertaking, but there are many families who are now searching, and both the internet and DNA testing have allowed this to happen - and there have been reunions.
    Because our family is trans-racial, not "telling" was never an option. I did a lot of lifebook work and found more of the reality of where my daughters came from and possible why's that they came into the system - and it's much more complex than the One Child Policy.
    At some point I realized;
    My gain was at a huge loss on the part of my children and their birthfamilies
    I love you so much that I am not afraid to share you
    I love you so much your sense of loss and incompletness is also my pain.
    I love you so much that I owe you every effort to try and ease that pain.
    I realize searching when a child is young has some controversy, but given how fast China is changing waiting until the girls are 18 may mean that any meaningful clues or conections are gone. Despite my oldesr daughters strongly expressed longing to know her birthfamily, when I told her we were hiring a searcher, she went into a funk. I finally got out of her that she was afraid of having to "go back" because she felt she "wasn't really Chinese anymore" and "I don't really know those people and I can't talk to them." I assured her that if we did find her family that she would be able to control how much contact. We did not get any results from that search and further investigation has lead to suspicions that she may have been trafficked for adoption, a whole other can of worms.But we still owe her the effort. There are other avenues to investigate. We shall see.....

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. Your story clearly shows the complexities of adoption. And the way it is governed now, it is so vulnerable to corruption. All of us touched by adoption need to be working together for more honesty and transparency in the system, and certainly for the rights of adopted adults to their authentic birth certificates. Good luck on your journey!


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