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Monday, December 17, 2012

Media Stereotypes and Agency Myths About Adoption

Recently, the New York Times published an article entitled "Internet Use in Adoptions Cuts 2 Ways."  The story summarizes a research report just released by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute detailing how the internet is changing the practice of adoption.  While the New York Times piece, like the research, shows that secrecy in adoption is an unrealistic expectation in our interconnected age, it also repeats a persistent myth that continues to thwart the adoption reform movement.

The Times article includes the following assertion: "Social media sites have helped bypass a system that has made it difficult for adoptees and birth parents to connect: state laws that closed birth records to protect the identities of birth mothers."

While sealed record laws have made it difficult for adoptees and original families to connect, the intent of closing birth records, contrary to popular belief, was never to protect birth mothers' identities.  You can read the research of law professor Elizabeth B. Samuels on this subject here.

Samuels' analysis of surrender documents shows that the birth records of adoptees were sealed during the mid-twentieth century not to protect the identity of original parents, but to protect the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion" and the adopted child from the "shame of illegitimacy."  The fact that an estimated 40 percent of adoption decrees contain some identifying information, such as the child's original birth name, likewise shows that keeping a birth parent's name a secret from the adopted person was never the statute's intent.

We also now have decades of experience to draw upon from those countries and states that have allowed adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates -- and the data shows clearly that the vast majority of original parents are open to contact from their surrendered offspring.

So why do we so often encounter the blatant mistruth that birth records were sealed "to protect the identity of the birth mother?"  Why all the doomsday scenarios as to "what might happen" should we allow adopted adults access to their own birth records?  While some individuals and groups are simply misinformed, I believe that the Catholic Conference of Bishops and some adoption agencies and attorneys willfully perpetuate these misconceptions because the closed statutes allow them to operate without transparency and accountability.

When there is no transparency, Catholic Charities, other adoption agencies and attorneys are the all-powerful gatekeepers of the truth -- that is just what actually transpired during the relinquishment process.  They maintain the records, and whatever shortcuts, mistruths or ethical violations may have occurred are forever protected.

As the Evan B. Donaldson report points out, adoption is loosely regulated, and it is big business here in America.  In most states, adult adoptees are still unable to access their own legal documents of birth, even though there is no rational reason to maintain such an archaic and unjust system.  This injustice continues, even though England has successfully allowed its adult adoptees access since the year 1975, and the states of Oregon and Alabama have successfully allowed its adult adoptees access for 12 years now.  The states of Kansas and Alaska never sealed birth records from its adult adoptees.

The data from these countries and states also shows that adult adoptee access does not increase abortion rates, nor does it affect the number of adoptions.  How I wish the media would do a little digging of its own on adoption issues!  It is beyond discouraging that major media outlets continue to publish blatant mistruths about adoption and then fail to correct those mistruths publicly, deeming the subject, I suppose, as not important enough.

I, for one, am fed up with powerful lobbies, like State Bar Associations and Conferences of Catholic Bishops, that continue to perpetuate adoption stereotypes and block meaningful adoption reform.
I am likewise fed up with legislators who continue to respond to those lobbies, instead of to facts and research that cannot be disputed.

I am discouraged that some people continue to infer that adult adoptees are "stalkers" intent on destroying their original families or disrespecting their adoptive families.  I am likewise discouraged that those same people often paint original mothers as cowering figures consumed by shame, and who therefore need protective custody for life.

I am a 62-year-old mother of two and grandmother of six, yet I continue to be treated like a child by my state's adoption laws, unable to manage the most personal details of my life without outside assistance.  All of us touched by adoption are unique human beings of equal worth, and as adults we deserve to be treated like the adults we are.

Many adoptees I know are distrustful of authority, and I can certainly see why.  A member of the reform community recently shared a photo by Don Stitt containing these wise words:

Morality:  Doing what is right regardless of what you are told

Obedience:  Doing what you are told regardless of what is right

I sought out my original mother for several reasons -- for medical information, but also for healing and emotional closure.  She and I share a connection, no matter what anyone says, and I knew deep inside myself that what was right for me was to privately seek a reconciliation with her.  If I had done what I had been told by law and by the uninformed, I would be that "obedient" adoptee playing a script that had been provided to me by others.  In acting as I did, I felt that I was responding to a higher morality.

As we all know, authority is not always right.  Unfortunately, in the case of adoption law here in the states, it rarely is.

You might also like:

The Silent Adoptee

An Adoptee's Perspective on Love and Why Truth Matters

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

The Media and Adoption Issues


  1. The phrase you use, "gatekeepers of the truth" makes me wonder:

    Why does the truth need a gatekeeper?
    Who is worthy of being the gatekeeper and what makes them so?
    Where does that power to appoint oneself come from?

    I like that difference between morality and obedience.

    1. Oh, Lori, if only more people thought like you do! Why does the truth need a gatekeeper, for sure. And why shouldn't full-grown adults be empowered to navigate the truth on their own?

  2. I remember a few cases about how adoptive parents were flipping out in the UK because their adopted children found their real mothers on Facebook. I'm sure this is why these stupid new laws have been passed. We can fight back though. Adoptees and first mothers need to put up our own websites, a multitude of them profiling what facts we do have about each other and pictures. The one thing the adoption monsters can't change is family resemblance and this can be very helpful in connecting with each other. And thanks to DNA tests a hunch or wondering if someone we see on the internet could be our mother, father or child can verify whether we are or not. We need to continue use modern day technology to go over the head of the lying control freaks, because quite frankly that is all they deserve.

  3. Despite the popularity of often expressed reasons for wrapping adoption in secrecy, it seems to me the most likely one is never mentioned -- inheritance.

    In my case, my birth mother, who, at first, desperately wanted to keep my birth a secret, eventually wanted to know how I'd fared. In the beginning, however, she had hoped to keep my existence a secret, especially from the man she married (not my birth father), the man she married very shortly after I was born -- in 1951.

    About two years into their marriage she spilled her guts. It all came out, putting a tremendous strain on their relationship. But it survived; they stayed together, and a couple of years later they had a daughter, to whom I'm now quite close.

    My mother's husband was a lawyer, a forward thinker concerned with contingencies, and my existence was a big one. Meanwhile, my mother eventually inherited a farm in Iowa. Over the years she began to wonder about me and it was clear from what my half-sister told me that if I'd found my way back into her life she would have welcomed me and she was likely to re-establish family ties. Perhaps include me in her will.

    However, her husband, in his capacity as an attorney, put an end to this possible dilution of their estate, rewriting her will to deflect and nullify any generosity of her spirit that might have driven her to share her assets with me. It seems it was his knowledge of her sentiments and anguish about relinquishing me that drove him to insulate their estate against my possible appearance.

    Though it's always said that adoption severs ties between parent and child, absolutely nothing stops one person from willingly including another in his/her will. It seems to me that some birth mothers, would, if they were financially able, add another beneficiary to their list of heirs.

    Sometime later tragedy struck. In 1979, my mother had a stroke and died. She was 55. Unfortunately, after her death, more than 20 years passed before I discovered her identity. By then her husband had also died, leaving only my half-sister as the sole survivor, who inherited the farm.

    Meanwhile, there's a long list of cases involving wealthy birth fathers who took steps to protect themselves from kids who might come looking for money. Bill Cosby is one. Al Neuharth is another.

    Chris Bischof
    Brooklyn, NY

  4. Susan, This is Dana from Death by Great Wall. I'm running a series this year called "On Being Adopted." I'm looking for adoptees who will write guest posts that illustrate thsir experiences. I'd love for your to participate. Could you email me at Dana(at)deathbygreatwall(dot)com for a little more info? Thanks.


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