Total Pageviews

Sunday, February 24, 2013

When will adoption law catch up with the reality of people's lives?

Recently, I read two reunion stories that once again confirm the absurdity of adoption laws that attempt to deny adopted adults the truth about their own lives.  One is the five-year quest of 47-year-old Terri Vanech, a Connecticut resident who just this month reconnected with her first mother.  The other is the story of Astrid Dabbeni, an adoptee in her early forties who found her first mother in Colombia last year after being featured in a local newspaper article there.  Vanech  and Dabbeni share some similarities:  both have loving and supportive adoptive families, and both longed to know more about their beginnings and personal histories.

Some of Vanech's motivation to search is explained in an article she wrote last year, urging New York legislators to approve an adoptee rights bill.

"Imagine if you didn't have a medical history to share with your physicians," she said.  "Or your children's physicians.

Imagine having to play detective -- and maybe even pay someone -- just to learn your ethnicity.

Imagine if in middle age your home state still treated you like a child and made decisions on your behalf about personal information that everyone else has a right to.

Imagine how your relationships and interactions would unravel, if in your heart you always felt the sting of rejection -- despite having loving, supportive adoptive parents and hearing many stories about 'privacy' and 'best for you.'

Imagine, too, if you were one of the thousands of birth parents who wonder every day about the children they had to let go of."

Vanech persevered in her journey to find her first mother, in spite of some formidable odds and New York State's sealed record system.  Gradually, with the help of search angels, she assembled some clues.  Her mother was 18 when Vanech was born, and she had lived at St. Faith's Home for Unwed Mothers in Tarrytown, New York before the birth in Yonkers.  Her mother was Episcopalian, and she had had her baby daughter baptized at Christ Church, located next to St. Faith's.  Through the baptismal certificate, Vanech learned her original name.

More detective work was required before Vanech was able to locate her first mother, still living in New York after all these years.  Vanech became discouraged and at some points, felt her mission was hopeless.  As she recently wrote to search angel Priscilla Sharp, "Thanks for making sure I didn't give up, because I was surely going to -- more than once."

When Vanech found her original mother, she proceeded slowly.  She and her first mother initially spoke by telephone.  Last week, they met in person.  We who had followed Vanech's journey on-line shared in her apprehension as she prepared for her luncheon, and in her elation as she later sent out a picture of her and her first mother arm in arm, both looking beautiful, and both sharing the same smile.

What a happy ending, and how prophetic Vanech's prediction about the "birth parent privacy" issue turned out to be!  As she had earlier written, "I'm not at all sure anyone actually asked (my first mother) for her thoughts on the privacy thing."  As we know now, mothers who relinquished babies in the past seldom had any choice in the matter, and few were able to move on as if the birth had never happened. 
The happiness and closure Vanech and her first mother experienced might have come earlier, had Vanech not been a victim of the sealed birth record system now in place in New York and the majority of American states.

As Vanech wrote the day following her first meeting:  "Still pinching myself. Woke up swearing it must all be a dream, but no, I got to meet (my first mother), hug her, see here, talk with her. And then I spoke to one of my brothers for the first time, was showered by an incredible amount of love here on fb, was honored to be friended by two "new" cousins and have my neighbor lie in wait for me with tears in her eyes and a box of chocolates. Apologies in advance to everyone I come in contact with today. My head is in the clouds and my heart is overflowing. The brain cells are not working!"

Now you might be thinking at this point, "Not all stories turn out this way."  And of course, they don't. My first mother was not comfortable sharing the circumstances of my birth with anyone, not even her other children.  But I have spoken to her, and I do know the truth.  I don't have to wonder whether my agency's information is accurate, or suffer the indignity of trying to contact her through a state-appointed intermediary I do not know.  As the saying goes, "The truth will set you free," and in my case, it did.

The thought that an agency's information might be inaccurate is not far-fetched.  Consider the case of Astrid Dabbeni, whose parents adopted her and her sister from Colombia through an established and reputable agency. Yet when she met her first mother in Colombia, Astrid learned that her mother had never even approved of or consented to the adoption.

Fearing for her safety and that of Astrid and another daughter, Maria, her mother along with the girls had fled a troubled marriage.  She struggled to support herself and her young family, experienced homelessness, and at one point left her daughters in the care of her landlady as she pursued a better-paying job in another city.  She sent money for her children's care to the landlady regularly, only to find upon her return that the landlady, her possessions, and the girls had disappeared.

Fearful that the police might force her to return to her husband, the mother, Carmenza Castro, didn't report their disappearance, but she did spend every last peso she had to hire a private investigator. Unfortunately, his search yielded no results.   Castro eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized for a year.

It is not clear how the girls came to be delivered into the adoption system, but adoption corruption in Colombia was widespread at the time, and according to Laura Briggs, author of Somebody's Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, the victims of fraud were usually impoverished and socially isolated young mothers unfamiliar with the court system.  As Astrid came to learn, birth certificates and other relevant documents were often falsified and rarely reliable.  When Americans Chris and Norm Reynolds adopted the girls, their birth certificates indicated they were three and four years old. Actually, they were four and six and a half at the time.

Astrid had just a few adoption documents when she began her search, but she did have the 1974 passport photo of her and her sister Maria, and she had a document that indicated she had been born in the city of Bucaramanga.  Those bits of information would later become key, especially when Astrid  learned that adoption records were kept in the system for just 30 years -- and the records of her and her sister's adoption went back 36 years.

Not sure where to turn next, she decided to place a classified ad in a Bucaramanga newspaper and asked  a receptionist in the editorial office if she could squeeze the passport photo into the ad.  The receptionist returned to her desk with an editor, who became intrigued by Astrid's story and asked if he could write and run a feature article.  The morning the feature appeared, a friend of her first mother saw the story and called Castro.  That phone call led to the reunion between Astrid and her 64-year-old first mother.

Can we even imagine what this meeting meant for Carmenza Castro, whose children had disappeared over 30 years ago without a trace?  When Astrid embraced her, she sobbed.  Astrid, of course, was extremely lucky to find her.  Sealed records and in some cases forged records frustrate the pursuit of truth for so many adopted people.  Now the family has closure, and Astrid is improving her Spanish so that she can talk with her first mother regularly.  Astrid's adoptive mother Chris says "Carmenza raised two wonderful little girls, ... and now we have a bigger family."

How many more stories like Terri's and Astrid's will it take before legislators come to recognize that people affected by adoption have the right to seek their own truth and reconciliation?  Sometimes reconciliation comes: sometimes, it does not.  But it is unconscionable that most states in America, through antiquated sealed record laws, continue to block the path to truth, peace and understanding for so many people affected by the very imperfect institution of adoption.

Amanda Woolston in her blog post "Do We Really Know What Adoptees Are Thinking" puts it this way:  "Not every connection is perfect and I never expected my connection with my original family to be perfect -- just real.  I never would have had a chance to know how positive a connection I could have with my original family if I didn't seek it out."

Woolston, like many adopted people, was prompted to search following the birth of her son.  "I looked at my sweet little boy and I could not imagine never knowing anything about him or not seeing him again.  Yet my mother had lived almost 25 years without knowing with who or where her child was.  I accepted that my original mother might not want to know me.  But I believed that she deserved the chance to make that choice herself."

It frankly amazes me that adoption attorneys and special interest groups continue to lobby against adoptee rights bills, and that so little progress has been made nationwide, when the evidence in support of adult adoptee access to their original birth certificates is so strong.  As Terri Vanech so eloquently stated last year, "The great state of New York says I'm not allowed to know.  It is protecting me.  And (my first mother).  From what?!"

You might also like:

A plea to NY's lawmakers: Support the adoptee rights bill

Adoptee searches for her long-lost birth mother in Colombia: Family Matters

Adult Adoptees Sharing: Sealed Records are Misguided and Unfair

What drives the myth of confidentiality in adoption?


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Overcoming the myths that thwart adoptee rights bills

All of us involved in the adoptee rights movement have heard comments like these:

"Why do you believe adoptees should have all the rights in the world and birth parents should not? You go on and on about how adoptees have had this traumatic experience because they were adopted, and I don't want to discount that pain for I'm sure it is real for some; however, I find it disgusting that you conveniently forget how traumatic giving up a child can be for a birth parent, and if a birth parent does not want to ever be found by their biological child, they should have that right."

To combat such attitudes, we share facts like the following:  Original parents have never had the legal right to anonymity from their own offspring.  Every state has some mechanism by which adoptee birth records can be opened by court order, and two states never sealed birth certificates from the adopted person at all.  Also, research conducted by law professor Elizabeth Samuels shows that birth records were not sealed to protect the anonymity of original parents, but to protect the adopted child from the "shame of illegitimacy" and the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion."

Many, many adoptees find their original families without their original birth certificates, because many have some identifying information on their adoption decrees.  Estimates indicate that some 40 percent of adoption documents contain some identifying data; both my brother and I, for example, always had our original names. This fact alone should support Samuel's conclusion that records were not sealed for the purpose of protecting birth parent anonymity.

The viewpoint that allowing adults to secure their own original birth certificates will endanger the well-being of birth parents assumes that there are hordes of original parents out there in the world who wish to remain in hiding.  The data from states and countries that have restored original birth certificate access to adult adoptees, however, shows that a tiny minority of original parents -- one to four percent -- express a preference for no contact. 

Some of the most ardent supporters for adult adoptee rights, in fact, are original mothers, who tell us they did not choose anonymity -- rather, it was forced upon them by the adoption system.  Carlynne Hershberger, both an adopted person and a mother who years ago relinquished her child to adoption, explains her viewpoint this way:

"As an adoptee AND a mother of adoption loss I have to say that the rights of the adoptee to know their origins trumps anyone else's right to keep secrets. When I was being manipulated out of my daughter I was not promised secrecy or anonymity. I was TOLD to keep secrets and TOLD not to look for her because it could cause her harm. What mother wants to cause harm to her child? Once we are all adults, we all have the right to choose who to have a relationship with. The government, adoption agencies, brokers etc... have no business being involved in whether or not two adults speak to each other or meet."

The adoption system has done a great disservice by pitting original mothers against adopted people, as if the two parties must have some kind of adversarial relationship, and as if the original birth were so shameful, it must never be spoken of or referred to again.  If the original parents placed us out of love, as so many of us were told, why would they wish to never hear from us again?

Julie J explains the view of many adopted people like this:  "Adoptees do not discount the pain of their mothers. This is not a pain that adoptees created nor chose for anyone. They are both victims of a larger societal system. Mothers & their children are largely on the same side, they are not adversaries as others with ulterior motives try to paint them. Let the mothers speak for themselves instead of having AP's or adoption industry reps speak for them. Listen to the mothers. They are not the ones speaking out against adoptee rights. Reunion often brings about a level of healing that is very healthy for all involved, mothers included."

It is, in fact, very difficult to get original mothers to speak out for the sealed record system, even through other parties.  For example, in its efforts to thwart adoptee rights bills, the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) has repeatedly asked for birth mothers desiring secrecy to allow their attorneys to testify on their behalf.   A letter sent out by the NJSBA on January 5, 2007, literally begs for original mother input.  It reads:

"Dear Family Law Section Member:

We are once again, requesting that anyone who has a client who is a birth mother, who would be willing to let you testify on their behalf in opposition to S-1087 (an adoptee rights bill), please contact ...

So far, only one person has come forward willing to have their attorney testify on their behalf.  This legislation has already passed in the Senate and is poised for Assembly vote in the near future.  We desperately need others."

You can see why adoptee rights supporters become so cynical, when facts like these are ignored year after year.  The evidence is clear:  No legal document has ever been produced indicating that original parents were promised anonymity, and most original parents, in fact, are open to contact from their surrendered offspring.

Even legal decisions from the higher courts have supported the rights of the adult adoptee to access her own birth records.   Here's what the Oregon State Court of Appeals decided in 1999, after a small group petitioned the courts to overturn the law that would grant adult adoptees equal access:  The state may release original birth certificates to adoptees "without infringing on any fundamental right to privacy of the birthmother who does not desire contact with the child."

If that decision isn't clear enough, the U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Circuit) said this in 1997, after another group petitioned the courts in Tennessee to overturn the law that would grant some adult adoptees access to their own birth certificates:  ..."If there is a federal constitutional right of familial privacy, it does not extend as far as the plaintiffs would like."  The Sixth Circuit Court further explains:  "A birth is simultaneously an intimate occasion and a public event -- the government has long kept records of when, where, and by whom babies are born.   Such records have myriad purposes, such as furthering the interest of children in knowing the circumstances of their birth."

So according to several court decisions, there is no constitutional right to privacy for original parents.  At this point, opponents to adoptee rights might concede:  All right, there is no legal right to privacy, and most original parents are open to contact.  But what about that one to four percent who want to remain undetected?

I would reply that a human being has a right to know his or her own origin, and that it is unjust and discriminatory to treat an entire class of people -- adopted adults -- differently by law than we treat everyone else.   Who does the birth certificate belong to, really, other than the adopted person herself?

Adoptee rights bills usually allow the original parents to express their preferences for direct contact, contact through an intermediary, or no contact.  This is an option that original parents don't have today, and reunions are taking place all the time.  Fair adoptee rights bills, like those enacted in Oregon, Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, enable the adopted adult to secure her original birth certificate and become aware of any preferences the original parents might have.

Adoptees don't have a right to a relationship with original parents, but they do have a right to information because their birth history is actually part of them.  Adoptee Julie J explains the concept this way:

"While there is a right to choose not to have a relationship with anyone else, there is not a right to remain anonymous to the son/daughter a woman chose to bring into the world. That is called a preference, and very few mothers have that preference. Preferences cannot trump basic rights. Once born, he/she is a full-fledged citizen with all the rights that everyone else who is already here has. Knowledge of family & relationships with family are 2 different things. Relationships always require the consent of both parties. Knowledge of who you are & where you come from is a human right that everyone deserves. It does not require the permission of anyone else. That being said, the overwhelming majority of mothers do support these ideas and are overjoyed to be reconnected with their lost sons/daughters."

The key point here is, "Knowledge of family and relationships with family are two different things.  Relationships always require the consent of both parties."  I often wonder what opponents to adoptee rights think the adopted person is going to do if the original mother says she does not wish to have contact going forward.  Like all human beings, we do not wish to go where we are not wanted.  When, we wonder, will full-grown adults -- original mothers and adopted people -- be left alone to work out their very personal issues on their own?

Many people do not realize that adoptees once enjoyed full access to their original birth certificates.  Records were sealed to adoptees only in the mid-twentieth century as part of the shame-based "Baby Scoop" era, and often in response to the desires of adoptive parents.

As Julie J explains, "Adoptees are not asking for any rights that everyone else does not already have. Our mothers already have access to their own accurate record of birth. Our AP's already have access to their own accurate records of birth. We once did. We only want that restored. Doing so does not take away anyone else's rights to theirs; it makes adoptees equal to the non-adopted."

Equal rights for adult adoptees.  It shouldn't be the novel and controversial subject it is in legislative circles.  And it wouldn't be, if only facts, rather than myths and emotion, would inform the debate.

You might also like:

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption

Sealed Records are Wrong. Period

Sealed Records -- A Secret the Industry Would Like to Keep

Friday, February 8, 2013

Why Anger Is a Necessary Part of the Adoptee Rights Movement

Last month, blogger and adult adoptee Lori Jane wrote a sarcastic and pointed post entitled "Adopter Savior Syndrome."  She addresses her thoughts to adoptive and prospective adoptive parents who "experience the urgent and persistent need to adopt in order to become a complete person."  Symptoms of this syndrome, according to Lori Jane, include: "You feel threatened when the Adoptee asks questions about their family and culture of origin."

You may be susceptible, says Lori Jane, if "critical thinking scares you because you were taught to be positive," and "you believe in White Jesus."

Lori Jane's post generated 43 comments, some of them chastising her for being so shrill and angry.

One anonymous adoptive mother said this:  "Some people enjoy having a miserable outlook and a victim mentality. That is the 'syndrome' I diagnose you with. You get what you put out in the world. Karma baby. You are looking for the evil, girl. It's you who is the A.S.S. Love, an adoptive mother of a Korean daughter."

The subject of adoption unfortunately elicits so much hurt and anger!  Lori Jane is justifiably aggrieved because in her situation as an adopted daughter,  she has not been acknowledged for the unique human being she really is.  The view of the anonymous adoptive mother that Lori Jane should ignore the negatives and simply look for the positive is one that adopted people often hear.  As author and family therapist Corie Skolnick says, "From my point of view, the pressure that adoptees get to 'get over it, already' is all too often coming from sources that have a need for the adoptee to be 'fine.'"

Adoption is often glorified in our culture, and the perspective of adopted adults is rarely sought.  Whenever we as adoptees criticize any aspect of adoption, we are often attacked and dismissed as being "emotional" or an exception to the rule.  As a mature adopted person, I see some serious ethical problems with the institution of adoption, and I realize now that much of what I believed as a child simply isn't true.  I try hard in my writing to be respectful to all the people involved and to direct my criticism to the adoption system itself.

I have seen the tendency for some in the adoption reform movement to castigate all adoptive parents for participating in an unjust system, and I have seen adoptive parents get defensive and angry in return.  I regret that there is so much infighting, but given the state of adoption law today, such emotional disagreements, I'm afraid, are inevitable.  As an adoptee, I think I understand Lori Jane's anger and frustration.  I would guess that in her adoptive family she was treated more like an object to be saved through an unbending ideology than the unique human being she was and is.

The point is that Lori Jane's story is her story alone, not the story of every person affected by adoption.  And if we can open ourselves up to really hear what she is saying, we can most likely learn something truly important.  As one commenter says to the anonymous adoptive mother, "Lorijane has really great ideas here. You may want to consider them and figure out how to be the best parent to your Korean daughter so she is not caused the anguish and heartbreak so many other adoptees have been forced to face including racism, otherizing, bullying, and abuse. This is an opportunity to grow, take seriously what is being said, and try to understand. You are not the expert on Korean adoption just because you are an adoptive mother."

Some adopted people and original mothers are going to write with frustration and anger because they  have been hurt so badly by the adoption system, and for a long, long time now, few people have acknowledged their pain.  As Lorraine Dusky, an original mother and co-founder of the First Mother Forum, explains, "When the adoption industry and adoptive parents in general have worked so hard to seal original birth certificates and obliterate the natural mother, the time for mild language is long gone."

My style is milder than that of some others, and I long for the day we can all work together across the adoption spectrum to bring about much-needed reform.  But it seems to me that anger is often justified, and that it is a necessary part of the adoptee rights movement.  Until we express our anger, no one pays attention.  For example, a group in New Jersey has been lobbying for an adult adoptee rights bill for over 30 years now, only to be blocked every legislative cycle by some kind of back room deal brokered by monied and powerful lobbies that benefit financially from the practice of adoption.  Just how long can grown people who are willfully excluded by law from knowing their own history be expected to remain patient and polite?

Some in the adoption reform movement are brash and uncompromising, and they are often the ones making the most progress.  It is hard to ignore the indefatigable Kevin Vollmers at Land of Gazillion Adoptees, for example.  When media outlets run adoption stories without the adoptee voice and position agency CEOs as the "experts,"  he calls them out on it, and we are just starting to see some change in that area.  When Vollmers publicly criticizes major stakeholders in adoption, he doesn't mince any words.  The stakeholders often call him back.  In my opinion, we need the "shrill" voices at this moment in time.

When one commenter complains about Lori Jane's offensive tone, another responds with this thoughtful observation:

"This reminds me of women being told to not be so 'shrill' when fighting for their rights at various points in history

I think there are times when the entire boat needs to be rocked in order to get something to happen. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said of the Civil Rights Movement: 'I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling Block in this stride towards freedom is not the white citizen's counciler or the Ku Klux Klan but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than justice.'

I think many adoptees are reaching the 'regrettable' conclusion that those who want them to soften their voices simply want the status quo of adoption to continue."

Our culture continues to discount the pain that many adopted people and original mothers have suffered, and it continues to be complacent about sealed birth records, a practice that cannot be defended by any empirical measure.  Until those facts are addressed, we can count on seeing a lot of angry comments and posts.  And when it comes to social justice, it is often those angry voices that finally make complacent people sit up and take notice.

(For wise advice on how to read adoption articles without getting offended, please see Amanda Woolston's post, "How to Read an Adoptee Blog Without Getting Offended.")

You might also like:

Maybe "Angry Adoptees" Are Just Well Informed

Adoption Reform and Political Games

Adoptive Parents and Pro-lifers who Cannot or Will Not See the Realities of Adoption

Gov. Chris Christie, Adoptee Rights, and Political Games