Good Intentions Gone Awry..Politically Correct Obstacles to Adoption .
May 5, 2013
Recently, our Supreme Court heard argument in a lawsuit that pits the rights of an Indian tribe on behalf of one of its adult members against the rights of adoptive parents. A federal law (the Indian Child Welfare Act, commonly called ICWA) grants certain rights to Indian tribes to preempt parental decisions regarding placement of children for adoption. The idea is to maintain tribal integrity and provide cultural security for Indian children, who suffered the tragic history of being removed forcibly and for no good cause from the Indian community and placed with white families.
In the case before the Court, an Indian father failed to comply with state law in asserting his rights to parent a child, a two year old called Veronica, who had been placed at birth with an adoptive couple by the birth mother. The father had voluntarily surrendered his parental rights in exchange for being excused from child support obligations, but later claimed that his understanding was that the birth mother would parent the child. The birth mother placed the child for adoption. He successfully claimed that ICWA trumped the state’s law and therefore the child, now two years old, was returned to him from the adoptive home the child had thrived in since birth.
As a former adoption attorney, the facts of this case sound familiar. More than once my first contact with a client was a panicked phone call from a courtroom in Oklahoma, or New Mexico, asking me what this “ICWA” law was and why this long-awaited child in their arms was going to be taken away. Had these adopters been properly advised at the first hint that the child had Indian eligibility, I would have warned them off the placement. In this case, however, the adoptive parents did not have independent counsel to advise them of the risk. Their lawyer was also representing the adoption agency.
But the much bigger question is this. At what point do we sacrifice a particular child on the altar of the greater social good? Other altars… race-matching when it comes to placement of children of color, or national pride when it is applied to stop international adoption, are justified with the same sanctimonious ethic that underlies obstacles to placement of children of eligible tribe members. These obstacles have literally resulted in the abandonment and in some cases, death of children in institutions and on the streets around the world.
We can all acknowledge that the policy objective of ICWA has great merit, addressing as it does both tribal integrity and reparation for the loss suffered in the past. But whether it is tribal integrity, or preventing fraud and abuse in the adoption industry, or addressing the inextricable twining of poverty and neglect, the everyday fact is, the rights of individual children are being sacrificed to our grand and good objectives.
While we walk the road to recruiting safe and effective permanent homes within the child’s ethnicity and culture, attacking poverty, embracing openness in adoption…all roads which deserve our 100% effort and commitment.. there is an individual child like Veronica who will be torn from the only family they have known, a family that includes not just parents, but also aunts, uncles, cousins, maybe siblings unless we first honor a paramount premise. That each and every child is entitled to a permanent, safe, stable family, and that right trumps everything else.
The fact is, I don’t care about this birthfather and his rights. I don’t care about the rights of the birth mother or the rights of the adoptive parents either. They are adults. They can grieve, mourn, go to court, speak for themselves, writ, vote, etc.. And what “rights” do adults have in children anyway? Unless children are still considered chattel as historically they were, the concept of a human having a “right to” or owning another human is perverse.
All I care about is the child. We should start to make the child’s right to a safe permanent home the paramount guide to these difficult decisions. Will this result in “unfair” outcomes to a particular parent? Yes it will. I don’t care. A child who has been in a safe, secure, home and has thrived there is not living with “strangers”, she is living with family and she deserves to stay there.
When Adoption Comes Home to Roost
We adoptive parents have absorbed the message and lived the reality. My two came to me as baby girls in the olden days, when background information on their birthfamilies was minimal. What “I’m adopted” means to your kid changes on her personal schedule, toddlerhood to childhood to adolescence to those oh-so-fun teenage years. The needs and moods and attitudes and levels of curiosity move in and out and up and down within and through all those stages with no obvious triggers other than normal development.
The years proceed with “ I love you Mommy !” exclamations, which emerge as spontaneously as “I wish I were born in your tummy” to “Why did my Mommy give me to you?” to “You can’t tell me what to do ..you aren’t my real mother !”.
There are some great books with plenty of advice on answering these questions and raising the adopted child, and I certainly relied on those and deep breathing exercises (okay, and a little chardonnay) to get me through those years.
But the stage I did not see coming was the 20’s. The opportunities for long, consoling bedtime hugs and general snuggling are pretty much gone, although when they are home they seem to think they still fit on my lap, which is equal parts comical and lovely. The angst now arrives via text message instead of in those pre-sleep tearful conversations. Because now their friends are getting married, even having children. And the baby showers and wedding planning and dreaming seem to have as much if not more impact than the awkward and sometimes mean schoolyard questions did. These grownup triggers for them lead to the big question..what will my adult family life be? Will I adopt? If I have children, will the emotional balance I have worked out fall off kilter?
Through the years I was able to locate and contact both girls’ birthfamilies using my skills as an adoption lawyer, so the stage was set for them in terms of deciding what if any contact they wished to have. That huge part of their lives is now well out of my hands and in theirs. I have to exercise the discretion muscle and not ask too many questions for fear of invading their privacy while remaining available as a sounding board. But their future family lives will be impacted by their decision on how to incorporate their history, and that too is a tough one.
So do not think once those sweethearts are adults you get to step off the adoption tightwire. Instead, prepare to be wearing a blindfold from now on. And grab those hugs every time you get a chance.
SOMEONE GET ME SOME OXYGEN!
I may faint..the popular media are at it again. A new series on Oxygen network unfortunately entitled “I’m Having Their Baby” (actually, you are having YOUR baby and are deciding whether or not to place YOUR baby!) beginning this week.
I will be a grownup and wait to see the entire series before I share my final word, but I have to hope that this time the adoption stories, as compelling and dramatic as they might be, won’t focus entirely on the negative.
The rationale and research behind the series (summarized at http://www.thefutoncritic.com/news/2012/07/17/oxygen-media-study-reveals-women-say-yes-to-adoption-684504/20120717oxygen01 )gives me hope that Oxygen won’t join the already bloated ranks of adoption “horror” movie purveyors such as Lifetime, for example (“Adopting Terror”, anyone?). Despite research showing a substantial percentage of Americans “approve” of adoption, both scholarly critiques of the presentation of adoption in the media and in textbooks, and frequently observed negative depictions of the institution contradict the assumption that adoption is understood or well accepted. In the past few months alone, films such as Disney’s “Meet the Robinson’s”, television shows such as Glee, and articles in prominent newspapers including the New York Times, Boston Globe, the Pittsburgh Tribune and the Washington Post have all indulged in negative and hurtful stereotypes about adoption and members of the adoption family.
To repeat myself ad nauseam, adoption is always a challenge for adoptees, for adoptive parents and certainly for birth parents. It can be highly traumatic, especially when it is preceded by a history of neglect or abuse or accompanied by genetic vulnerability in the adoptee. But it does not inevitably spell doom and in fact for all three members of the adoption triad it can be highly beneficial, especially today when vastly increasing numbers of adoptions are accompanied by full exchange of background information and contact between the families of various sorts. Another factor improving the success of adoptions is the openness among adoptees to sharing their histories with each other (See, for example, http://adoptionwrites.tumblr.com, my daughter’s blog)
Two anomalies from the research supporting the series:
One: The study asserts that fully 33% of Americans have considered adoption. In 2005, a government sponsored study found that more than 25% of American women who at some point had been married had considered adopting a child. That is more than ten million American women who considered possible adoption. What this study doesn’t report is the pathetically low number of adoptions successfully completed. Of those considering, only 16% actually took concrete steps toward adopting; and of those who took concrete steps toward adoption, only 31% ( or only 1.3% of the total interested in adoption) had ever actually completed an adoption. This, despite the fact that at the time of the study it was estimated that there were 118,000 children in public foster care awaiting adoption. Why? Needless obstacles placed in the way by agencies and courts.
Two: The study reports that 90% of those interviewed believed birthparents were likely to be unwed teens. After twenty plus years doing adoption legal work for birthparents as well as adopters, I can honestly say this commonly held belief is way off base. I saw as many birthmothers in their forties who were trying to leave abusive marriages, college students, and women with too many children to care for in their thirties as I did teens.
So I am crossing my fingers and hoping against hope that Oxygen airs out the well-worn myths and stigma and manages to tell a true but hopeful story.
Slate (one of my daily online procrastination stops) recently published a story on yet another disrupted adoption. This time, the author Joyce Maynard acknowledged that she chose to end her adoption of two Ethiopian girls after bringing them to the U.S. and writing about them.
No one knows exactly what transpired, but all of us in the adoption world cringe when this happens. I will not pretend to be above an immediate negative reaction, having weathered the challenges of adoption myself and seeing others I have known personally and professionally go to extreme lengths to find support and services to help themselves and their children get past the early losses and exposure to health risks that can test the adoptive family bonds.
But as a former adoption attorney who handled dozens of “voluntary” disruption cases, I have to take a step back. Indeed, some adopters are naïve and arrogant about the risks and close their eyes and ears to inconsistent or even negative background information. More than once, when I secured troubling background information, my clients just refused to believe it, or decided that love would conquer all. If only it did. But even more often, agencies and orphanages, sometimes desperate to place children who need to escape a horrible fate otherwise, outright lie about the child’s health background.
I have had cases where parents were assured that the child they were bringing home was healthy, only to learn after arriving back in the U.S. that the child was infected with the HIV virus, and that the positive test results were in the files when they were lied to. Children with serious heart conditions or fetal alcohol syndrome were presented as healthy in the medical reports provided to the prospective parents.
I have had cases where the agency declined to share the fact that both parents of a child in their care had been hospitalized with serious mental illness. I have had cases where an agency omitted knowledge of serious substance abuse or alcoholism in the birthmother during pregnancy. I have had agencies terminate placement services to parents who ask too many questions about the child’s health, often claiming that by asking questions the adopters reveal themselves as “unready to adopt”. Indeed, searching for background information is often outright discouraged on penalty of being “fired” from the agency, losing thousands of dollars as well as hopes of creating a family.
More often than not, clients who were fully advised of health risks went ahead anyway, martialing the services and support they needed with armed and ready. Contrary to popular belief, there are adoptive parents for those children; people who are informed, prepared, and willing to take on even the most challenged children.
But there are those adopters who know that they are simply not equipped to parent a child with a long and serious history of abuse, neglect or illness.
I have to hope that as adoption becomes more transparent and open, that the transparency will extend to sharing as much background as possible with the adopting family so that fewer children suffer disruption.
April 17, 2012
Last week, in the midst of the latest political kerfuffle over Hilary Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney’s work history (the one in which she averred that Mrs. Romney “hasn’t worked a day in her life”) the following tweet appeared on the account of the Catholic League:
“Lesbian Dem Hilary Rosen tells Ann Romney she never worked a day in her life. Unlike Rosen, who had to adopt kids, Ann raised 5 of her own.”
This from a self- proclaimed spokesman for the church which is implicated not only in widespread and horrible child abuse by its clergy, but also in the aiding and abetting of powerful governments around the world (Spain, Ireland, Argentina, etc.) in kidnapping infants and children and placing them for adoption without the consent of their birth parents.
As a long practicing and once devout Catholic myself, as well as an adoptive mother, this degrading and demeaning of adoption makes me sick. But curiously enough, as an adoption attorney and writer, it does not surprise me. One common reaction I get when I describe the book I am writing on the persisting stigma against adoption is that it’s just not true. That we all accept adoption with open arms. That we don’t have any bias against it.
Trust me, it is there.
Open Adoption For All? A Comment on the Recent Donaldson Institute Study
The recent release of a study conducted by the Evan Donaldson Institute on the prevalence of openness in infant adoption certainly squares with my experience as an adoption attorney for the past many years. Indeed, over the past twenty years representing over a thousand adopting families, I cannot remember even one private sector infant adoption case where there was no communication between adopters and potential birthparent. In the vast majority of my cases, an in-person meeting between the two families preceded the adoption, and some contact after the adoption was certainly the norm. I certainly encouraged both, and found that while some clients were initially fearful, almost all found contact to be a positive experience.
It is also my experience that this openness in its many forms clearly benefits the child, which should answer the primary question. But beware the dragons.
1.) Openness in cases where there is a history of abuse or neglect in the birthfamily can be highly problematic and even dangerous for the child, never mind the stress it can cause the new family;
2.) Openness in international adoption, while growing in frequency, is difficult to achieve after placement, but in many instances international law actually prohibits pre-placement contact between adopters and the birthfamily;
3.) Post placement contact agreements are sometimes used as a settlement weapon in a disputed adoption or inducement to place, and therefore rest on a shaky foundation of mistrust. In public sector cases, adopters who have fostered the child for months or even years are often handed a “take it or leave it” form contract on the day of finalization.
The sensible and stressed recommendations incorporated in the study would go a long way toward slaying these dragons. But realistically, post placement services even now are sparse and getting sparser. The fact is, the thorough counseling and support needed to prop up troubled cases is not going to be available to the majority of families anytime soon, so the benefits of openness may be limited to those cases of private sector infant adoption where adopters have the resources to pay for the needed support.
Until we find a way to truly support adoption and adopted children the benefits of openness may be limited to a few.
POST: January 17, 2012: New York Times
I sent the following letter in response to a piece recently published in the New York Times about an adoption gone awry when the adopters learned their birthmother was not even pregnant.
Subject: adoption scams
My heart breaks for the Gilmore family. But unlike some of my fellow readers, I am not at all surprised that their experience has been so brutal. That is because for the past twenty years as an adoption lawyer, I have advised prospective parents on how to avoid the very risks that led to their bridge to nowhere. I only represented adopters, not agencies, knowing that these they are frequently the only parties to the adoption process who have no legal protection. The agencies’ policies, some of which are alluded to by Jennifer, are designed to protect the agency and secure a connection, however risky, as soon as possible. The birthparents are rightfully entitled to counseling and representation as well (at adopters’ expense). But the adopters themselves often are thrust prematurely into emotional relationships with birth parents who either are not ready yet to decide or are deliberately scamming. And yet, over time I found I could determine with surprising accuracy which situations were likely to be successful for all concerned, such that for those clients who followed my advice no one ever had an adoption disrupted. When adopters are given adequate and timely background information and the expert tools to interpret that information, they can avoid this heartache and expense. The recent revolution in domestic adoption policies and practices has vastly improved the institution by, among other things, pressing for openness in birth parent and adopter contact and information exchange between adopters, adoptees and birth families. The growing awareness of adoption among the general population as we approach the end of the era of secrecy has benefited all concerned, especially adopted children. But in this new era of openness, necessary boundaries are frequently approached and even crossed. More than once adopter clients of mine have been called in the middle of the night and asked to provide bail money for an incarcerated birth mother or father; asked to buy cars, makeup, jewelry, and provide under the table cash as well as covering the usual expenses of food, clothing, and shelter, medical costs and legal fees for the agency and the birth parents. These calls always seem to come at night or on weekends, and usually the threat of placing the child with another more accommodating couple is at least implied, if not explicit.
I have found that the capacity for adopters to change and learn is extraordinary. For example, many of the clients who at first are terrified of future contact with a birth family come to treasure that contact as they move along in the process. But please know that you are entitled to make these decisions and to stick to them, and that with the right guidance, you can be complete this adoption process with your integrity intact.
POST February 7, 2012: Who Are These Adopters?
Are they rich, selfish and entitled? Are they co-conspirators with malicious agencies or attorneys working to pry babies away from their innocent and unknowing mothers? Do they use money to buy babies? The average adopter, who has suffered with infertility, taken out huge loans to pay for infertility treatment and adoption fees and submitted to extensive testing and scrutiny in a home study is in no position to defend himself from these attacks. Indeed, many adopters are so terrified that they will be judged as troublemakers and again denied the opportunity to parent, they submit to unfair and hurtful treatment silently. Adopters are not “saints” for taking in parent-less children, but neither are they cold, heartless and pathetic.
The Department of Health and Human Services studied 200 families who had initiated the adoption of a child not known to them previously. Less than half of those families actually completed the adoption. These adopters, like most of those clients I have seen, indicated their willingness to adopt across race; willingness to adopt special needs children including those exposed to prenatal drug use, including those with possible learning disabilities and/or ADHD, including those who had been sexually abused. These adopters were willing to adopt older children up to age 11.
A recent study which looked at motivation to adopt found that 81% of adopters did so in order to provide a permanent home for a child; 69% wanted to expand their family through adoption and 52% reported that infertility was the reason they adopted.
Of those that adopted internationally, 45% had considered foster care and private U.S. adoption but 64.9% chose international adoption instead because they thought adopting from the U.S. would be too difficult. They were correct.
Of those who adopted from private sources in the United States, 46% had considered adoption from foster care first but rejected that route as too difficult. More than half (56%) of children adopted from foster care had parents who having lived through that experience, completed their subsequent adoption of other children through private means.
The primary reason stated for the discontinuation of their adoptions after they had “passed” their home studies and were approved as suitable families was “received no referral or received referral but child not placed”. For all these thwarted adopters: those that stopped the process early to those who continued but could not finalize, “agency factors” were reported by 80 to 100% of the families as posing the primary barriers to their adoptions. They reported lack of agency emotional support, difficult adoption process logistics, jurisdictional issues and agency lack of responsiveness as some of the barriers. Many of them were plunged into the volatile and expensive world of private international adoption, waiting for children from overseas, who, if they were in the U.S., would be considered “hard to place” due to their age and infirmities. Many of these families mortgaged their homes to privately adopt newborns in the United States, sometimes after being arbitrarily rejected as adopters by public child protective agencies. And many possible adopters who approached the state hoping to adopt were discouraged by the delays and uncertainties in the system or outright rejected, and decided to go on with their lives without parenting.
For the many years I have interviewed new clients, I can say that virtually all of them are legitimately afraid of subjecting themselves to the process of being judged like no other parent is judged. I can say that many of them have heard strange stories, sometimes true stories, of private adoption scams and baby selling horrors. I can also say that when I describe to them the process of adopting children from the state, and try to encourage that route, many have already had that door shut,and most know enough not to try to open it.
In 2009, of the half million children in foster care in the United States, approximately 115,000 had no parent other than the state and were ready and waiting-waiting for years, in some cases- to be placed in adoptive families. Where were the families these children needed?
A 1995 study led researchers to conclude that more than 25% of married American women had considered adopting a child. That is more than ten million American women who considered possible adoption. Only 16% of those women (1.6 million) actually took concrete steps toward adopting, and of those who took concrete steps toward adoption, only 31% ( or only 1.3% of the total of interested women) had ever actually completed an adoption.
These potential adopters were discouraged from adopting and abandoned their plans for several easily identifiable reasons, among them the scorn and disrespect with which they are treated by the state when they approach the idea of adopting abused and neglected children and the emotional black hole they suffer due to court’s unconscionable delays in terminating parental rights, even in the most obvious cases of abuse and neglect. When in frustration these potential adopters then turn to private and international adoption, the expense, sometimes up to $50,000.00 per adoption, is enough to end their dreams of adopting, and more importantly, end the dream of the child they might have parented.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are more than a sufficient number of families who would be happy to adopt children who are in state care due to neglect or abuse. The fact is, these potential parents are routinely discouraged from adopting from the public sector, leaving thousands of children without homes they desperately need. The substantial population of would-be adopters is turned away from adopting these children because of the man-made and unnecessary obstacles in their paths.
In public sector cases here in Massachusetts, both foster and pre-adoptive parents are frequently told that there is a four to six month wait before their home studies can even begin; that before placement they must also complete a lengthy multi-session parent training course which is offered only on a limited basis; and that even after placement, they must wait two to three years before they can actually finalize their adoptions. Even after a child’s parents’ rights have been terminated, it takes on average an additional fifteen months to finalize the child’s adoption. For 18% of children adopted in the period October 1, 2005 to September 30, 2006, more than two years had elapsed between termination of parental rights and finalization of adoption.
Adopters are extremely vulnerable, feel powerless and often, after years and years of degrading infertility interventions, just worn down physically and emotionally. Through no fault of their own, many of them they have been denied the most powerful and rewarding human experience there is, conceiving and delivering a child created in love with a partner. Furthermore, they are often victimized by fraudulent agencies (and even fraudulent birth parents) who exploit that vulnerability.
Whether they are doctors, lawyers, professors, or carpenters, bus drivers and school teachers, when they sit down across from my desk they invariably wear the same look on their faces I did those many years ago. They are sometimes sad, often tired and terrified. But over time, these same people have demonstrated the ability to pick themselves up, learn about what it takes to adopt, open their minds to the many demands of parenting adopted children, and find the emotional resources necessary to the task.