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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Adult Adoptees Sharing: Sealed Records are Misguided and Unfair

One theme that emerges again and again in adoptee writing is that the process of adoption is not a one-time event.  Many adoptees have written on-line articles this month in honor of National Adoption Awareness Month to share adoption as it is, not as many agencies, right-to-life groups, and adoption attorneys tell us it should be.  There are post-adoption issues that many adoptees must confront in order to feel emotionally and/or physically healthy, and those issues are compounded by a legal system that still obstructs the adoptee's search for his or her own personal history.

Fortunately, in today's internet-connected world, adoptees can find and collaborate with each other, and many individuals and groups are speaking out about the need for adoption reform.  As an adoptee, I am grateful for internet connections and opportunities, as I have often found it difficult to get serious articles about adoption into the mainstream press, even though I have a writing and public relations background.

As many of us have found, the press is generally interested in sound bites and dramatic reunion stories -- not so interested in adoption history and the discrimination that has evolved as a result, particularly for adopted people and relinquishing mothers.

That's the reason, in my view, that blogging is so popular among adoptees and original mothers who are working for adoption reform.  The internet gives us an outlet for us to share what we have learned and how adoption can be improved as a result.  Of course I'd prefer to place my opinion pieces into the New York Times or the Newark Star Ledger, but on-line, I can produce one piece after another and target them to select audiences, like New Jersey state legislators and adoptive parent groups.

Through the internet, we can contribute something positive even as we're working to find a wider audience for the voices often ignored in adoption articles and discussions, those of adult adoptees and relinquishing mothers.  There is so much wisdom to be gained from the experience of those who have actually lived the life of adoption.

One of the many things that really annoys me about lobbies attempting to maintain the status quo in adoption is how they try to pit one adoptee against another, or adoptees as a group against original mothers.  During legislative hearings, these lobbies often showcase a young adoptee who "is just fine" knowing nothing about her original family.  The implication, of course, is that there is something amiss with those adoptees who are "not fine" knowing nothing, and that sealed records in this day and age are somehow defensible.

The fact is that more than half of all adoptees search, even with obstructive practices like sealed birth records in place.  So obviously, many are not "just fine" with the status quo.  Of course many adoptees have no interest in delving into the past -- my adoptive brother is one of them.  But that fact doesn't alter the basic truth that all adult adoptees are treated differently by law from other citizens -- and that is unacceptable discrimination.

Also, that young adoptee who is "just fine" with knowing nothing today may not be "just fine" with knowing nothing tomorrow, next week, or next year.  I spent all of my formative years trying to convince myself that my adoptee status had nothing whatsoever to do with who I was.  Who wants to be different from everyone else?  As a young adult, I delayed my search because I did not want to upset my adoptive family.

As many adoptees can tell you, life events such as the birth of a child or a serious illness can precipitate a major change in thinking.  In my case, it was a cancer diagnosis that prompted me to act.  In others, it is the birth of a child.  As adoptee Dorothy Sands points out, "As a child, teen and even young adult, a closed adoption system existed.  I did not question the system because it was too big and in the grown-up world."

For Sands, the turning point came when she gave birth to her first child.  "When becoming a parent," she explains, "we enter the world of genetic connectedness" and "we confront adoption in the daily ordinary events."

Today, Sands has found her original family, and she questions the ethics of secrecy in adoption.  The closed adoption system forced her to stuff her emotional baggage "in a dark closet in my mind," she says, and her adoptive parents too were missing "a lot of information that could have helped all of us."

Adoptee Deanna Shrodes, a pastor, writer and public speaker, agrees with Sands' view that adoptee feelings are constantly evolving.  "Once you have your own kids," she says, "it's almost impossible" to ignore the facts about your own adoptee status.

As a young person Shrodes accepted the narrative provided for her -- her original parents were young and unable to care for her, and they made the selfless decision to give her life rather than abort.  Later, Shrodes discovered that she was a "classic baby scoop baby."  The abortion option was not even legal when she was relinquished.  Her looming existence presented a "problem" that had to be solved for the convenience of the mature adults involved.  Her original parents were very young, they had no support and no real choices, and they felt coerced into surrendering.

"My opinions changed about adoption because I got brave for a moment.  And then I got brave for a little bit longer," says Shrodes.  For those who are not adopted, it must be nearly impossible to imagine the bravery that confronting the truth requires.

Most adoptees know that something unpleasant most likely precipitated their relinquishment.  So when they search for their original family, they know that they are opening themselves up for possible disappointment.  In addition, many adoptees fear hurting their adoptive families -- I know I did, because the culture during much of my life was not supportive.

"Loyalty to the adoptive family and hurting people's feelings is one of the biggest reasons adopted people postpone their search," writes adoptee Lynn Grubb.  "Fear is the enemy of all searching and fear of upsetting the adoptive family is very powerful."

Yet many adoptees need to overcome their fear and discover their truth for themselves.  And as adults, they have an absolute right to own their own truth -- why as adults should they be bound any longer to the narratives of others, narratives that were often developed to protect someone else's self-interest, and narratives that in many cases are not even true due to the corruption that a closed system makes possible?

As Shrodes writes, "Maturing means being confident enough to identify real issues and deal with them. To discover my identity and first family whether those in authority wanted me to or not.  To go after my truth and refuse to be denied.  At some point," she adds, "I had to grow up."

You may wonder why so many adult adoptees, who are busy working and raising their families, feel compelled to speak out.  In my own case, I feel that the system of adoption hasn't changed all that much, and I don't want to see another generation of adoptees have to waste time and energy dealing with the same issues we've faced.  Most states in this country continue to seal the adoptees' original birth certificates when legal adoptions are completed, a strange and outdated practice that in my opinion, gets adoption off to a bad start from the get-go.

Yes, the majority of domestic infant adoptions have some degree of openness today, but in most states, those "open" agreements are not legally enforceable.  Adoptees still have to jump through all kinds of hoops to secure the most basic information about themselves.  Many agencies and attorneys continue to sugarcoat adoption issues, and as a result, many adoptive parents remain woefully ignorant about unique adoptee challenges.

As Shrodes writes, "There is so much work to do for adoption to reform and center around the child.  Not the agency.  Not the adoptive parents."

A more ethical adoption system will develop when we as a culture start highlighting, not hiding, the voices of adult adoptees and original mothers who have relinquished.  To their credit, more and more adoptive parents are reading adoptee and first mother blogs in their attempts to better parent their children.  But too many, both in the adoption community and the culture at large, would rather believe the industry's claim that an adoptive family is just like any other, and that the existence of sealed records is necessary for adoption to succeed.

Shrodes has compiled an excellent list of important steps to adoption reform, so I'll share a few of her thoughts here as to what the future practice of adoption should include:

(1)  No secrets.  Period.

(2)  Original birth certificates available to all adoptees -- no exceptions.

(3)  Adoption of infants should be a last resort, not a first response.

(4)  When adoption must take place, it should be centered around the needs of the child, not the adults.

(5)   Post adoption issues are real, and they must be recognized and addressed.

(6)   Confidential intermediaries should not exist.  (This recommendation hits home for me, since I have suffered through the indignity of dealing with an agency intermediary.)  As Shrodes says, "Let flesh and blood talk to one another unhindered, please.  Give them their rightful information and let them be."  (Give these people) "space to do whatever they're going to do with you out of the way."

(7)  "Non-identifying information should not even exist.  Adoptees have a right to know the specific details about where they came from, who they came from, their medical history and anything else that pertains to them personally."

As a mature adoptee, I agree with every one of Shrodes' common-sense suggestions.   They spring from a well of experience, as do the thoughts of the many perceptive adoptees blogging at Lost Daughters and on their own sites.

Adoptee voices are getting louder, and that's a good thing for the future of adoption.  Perhaps someday even state legislators will start listening and come to realize that the lobbies that continue to support sealed records are most concerned about their own self-interest and ideologies.  The health of the people actually affected by adoption is the last thing on their minds.

You might also like:

Personal Opinions Regarding Adoption

Reactions to Searching

Becoming a Parent

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries


  1. The only issue I take with your post is that in cases where the bio-mom cant be trusted and is a danger to both kids. For instance, my childerens bio-mom should have (and will have) no access to my childeren or their records. Once the childeren are 18 and we go and find her for them THATS when our copies of records will be given to them. This ensures that they are in control of the dynamic in their contact with bio-mom not her. To assume that all bio-moms have great intentions for "their babys" just isnt true.

    1. Hi Powerdad,
      I agree that there are some situations in which children must be protected. However, I believe that every adopted adult should be able to secure his or her original birth certificate, just as any other American citizen can do. At some point, the adoptee should be in charge of his or her own narrative. Adoptees do grow up, and in my view, they need to be treated like adults, not forever children. Indeed, the truth can hurt, but the truth to me is always better than secrets, denial, and evasions.

    2. iam not being treated like a child iam being abused by people for being adopted wich I didn't choose i cant have choices in life plus iam homeless that's unfair and mean to do that to me what is wrong with those mean abusive non adoptees

  2. Great suggestions for reform!

  3. you know whats unfair and mean is for people to be making my choices for me telling me I don't have a right to have birthparents and people forcing me to be homeless my life is awful and its peoples fault

  4. you know whats unfair is iam homeless and not one dam person will help me the government or the people will not help me that is so mean i hate people for how they treat me

  5. people are making my chocies for me and then people are mad at me because i am struggling in life i cant belive it the meaness that is put on me for no reason lets take aways people chcoices and then bitch at them for struggling in life see how they like it

  6. you cant have a good life if your not even allowed to have chociuses for your self why cant people see that why are people so dam mean

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