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Adoption Trauma

In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any unplanned pregnancy nor infertility; there would be no child abuse, and adoption trauma would not exist. Every expectant mother would be fully prepared to parent in every way, every babydaddy would voluntarily start child support prior to birth, and every child welfare worker would be a Powerball lottery winner.

That is not, however, the world in which we live. And given the imperfections of life and the stressors of disrupted parent-child attachments, adoption trauma is a Very Real Thing that deserves wider attention than it commonly gets.

In the world in which we live, a multitude of life crises contribute to the reasons that adoption exists. Inadequate birth control and grinding poverty can become a devastating combination. Parents abused as children often become abusive parents themselves. People who are addicts routinely choose their next fix over their kids. Children of single moms are forced to grow up without the security of a full-time father. Abusive adult relationships became a danger to children whose parents will not seek help. Teen parents with inadequate family support find themselves expecting again (and again) far too often. Homeless families find long-term stability and financial assistance hard to come by. And American kids are warehoused in state foster care because the number of parentless youth far outweighs the supply of adoptive parents open to adopting children who are other than healthy white newborns.

There are those who wrongfully claim that money is the answer to all of society’s ills, but nobody has enough money to fix all the issues in the paragraph above. For the children of parents who cannot or will not parent the little ones born to them, adoption is an option by which the needs of children can be met through an alternative parent or set of parents, provided the original parents agree to forever surrender their parental rights and forfeit their parental responsibilities; this is what we call “voluntary adoption” and the existence of this option is why America no longer has foundling homes and orphanages as drop-off centers for unwanted children (like other, third-world countries.)

Adoption can be voluntary, but trauma is not

It’s a common misconception that children adopted “through the system” at an older age are more prone to adoption trauma than are babies placed for adoption privately. In fact, adoption trauma can potentially impact any adoptee, whether his or her adoptions was public or private and whether he or she was adopted in infancy or later in life.

Adoption, too (even the best of them) can be marred by trauma. The separation of a child and his or her original parents is always a traumatic loss, even when it occurs under the “best” of circumstances, and this is why all the joys of even the most open of adoptions cannot cancel out the grief of this “primal wound.” adoption-trauma(Once you’ve been separated from your first family, many adoptees reason, what guarantees that the next one will always stick around? And even if they do, there’s no promise you’ll feel as if you fit in, right? Or that they’ll treat you as they should, or understand your needs more than their own?)

This is why many adopted persons struggle with a lifetime of loss, anger and/or sadness, even if they had the very best of adoptive parents and every other advantage life could offer. Adoption trauma is a very real and yes, normal outgrowth of a jarring alteration in the primal tapestry, and this truth must be acknowledged, for birthparents and adoptive parents often also feel the weight of adoption trauma, sometimes for years afterwards.

The legal system generally compounds this trauma, too, through the cold legal language of the paperwork and through laws that fail to uphold open adoption contact agreements and refer to the birthparents’ loving choice as “termination” and refuse even adults adopted decades before access to the unfalsified records of their own births, even in cases of compelling medical crises.

The American concept of voluntary adoption is not without its problems, of course, and it is a constant struggle for ethical adoption providers like Abrazo to remind society of the vital and necessary differences between social services and free market industries. But herein lies one of the most painful truths: even in the best of stories, life– from before birth through marriage to death– life is filled with trauma, and nobody ever gets out unscathed, adopted or not.

Every living person is a survivor of birth trauma, on some level. Moving from the safety of the womb to the risks of the outer world is a journey filled with trauma. Childhood is filled with trauma, from bullying at school to child abuse and romantic loss. Sex can be a traumatic experience when it’s non-consensual. Marriage is traumatic when it is threatened by violence or infidelity or divorce. Death is often traumatic for those who succumb to it as well as those who witness it. Adoption trauma is a reaction to the stressors of adoption, and the resulting behaviors and coping skills can prove extremely challenging for both children and parents, alike.

So if there’s trauma in adoption, then why do it?

Here’s the short answer: because more often than not, adoption still proves to be the lesser of the evils. There can also be devastating trauma in abortion, in maladaptive parenting, in child abuse, in family violence, in poverty, in child abandonment, in institutionalization, in foster care, in kinship placements, and in any other number of alternatives that befall children for whom adoption is not the outcome.

The adoption system, while admittedly imperfect, is still capable of providing children with parents who cannot, will not or should not parent and provide for them, with substitute family systems can can and will, and as long as adoption spares any child/ren the scourge of growing up without a stable family unit, then the more we should all dedicate our resources to promoting and improving the concept and its process, in the best interests of all children for whom adoption may ever become necessary.

And while we’re at it, let’s make an industry-wide project of educating the public about adoption trauma, and quit sweeping it under the proverbial rug. Let’s better prepare birthparents and adoptive parents for the impact of adoption trauma before and after placement, and let’s work together to raise public funding for adoption trauma research and treatment and advocacy. Let’s do more to support adoptees who are already suffering from the effects of adoption trauma, and de-stigmatize this condition so that those who are dealing with it feel less isolated and find more reason for hope and healing.

Towards this end, Abrazo is putting our money where our proverbial mouth is! Abrazo will make a cash donation to the Attachment & Trauma Network for every posted comment in response to this piece, so tell us what you think, and help change the world of adoption trauma as a result…

What Birthmothers Want

It’s a question that gets asked often, about what birthmothers want in an adoptive family?

For starters, though, remember this: no woman is considered a birthmother until they have given birth and elected to place their child for adoption… so expectant parents considering adoption should never be referred to as “birthparents” in advance. (That’s “putting the cart before the horse” at best and it’s presumptuous or coercive at worst.)

There are different contexts in which this question gets asked, so let’s explore them, one by one.

What do prospective birthparents look for in searching for a home for their child/ren?

In Abrazo’s experience, most expectant moms exploring the adoption option don’t start the process looking to place with a wealthy family. (Financially-stable, yes… rich, no.) They’re not looking for the family with the biggest house or the fanciest vacations. When Abrazo’s staff asks prospective birthparents what they want in a family for their child, the #1 response we hear is “… good. I want good parents for my baby.” what-birthmothers-wantGood is relative, though, so then we ask “what does good mean to you?” And that’s when more specifics tend to get discussed.

The majority of parents we talk with who are considered adoption for their child/ren initially hope to make first-time parents of a childless couple with infertility who have no other means of becoming parents. Prospective birthparents often ask us for a family from Texas, either because they hope to be able to see their placed child periodically via open adoption, or because they are native Texans who want their child to share that proud legacy.

Most of the potential birthfamilies who contact Abrazo seek to place with Christian parents, but very few come to our agency with specific racial requirements, unlike adopting parents, for whom race is often very important. The majority of birthparents are seeking to place with adopting parents who are their age or a decade older; rarely are birthparents open to placing with an adopting couple who are older than their own parents.

What do birthmoms want for their child/ren?

This is a loaded question, but the short answer is this: parents who are placing the right way and for the right reasons are never “in it for the money.” They may need to have pregnancy-related expenses covered during pregnancy, but it is the child’s best interest that truly comes first. And towards that end, what they want for their children is what any good parent wants for their child: love, safety, permanence, and security. (Plus all the little extras that make for an idyllic childhood: parents who are able to get on the floor and play with them, family trips to Disneyworld, a room of their own, two parents that love each other, the resources to get a great education, and maybe even a pet or a sibling or two?)

What do placing parents want for open adoption contact?

Most parents do not have clearly defined open adoption expectations in advance of placement. (This is why it is typically ineffectual for prospective adopters to ask prospective birthparents in a first contact “so what kind of contact are you going to want with us after the adoption is done?”)
Before actually becoming a birthparent, it’s hard to anticipate how adoption grief is going to impact you and how much contact you will or will not want to have with the adoptive family.

Most placing parents do know, however, that they are going to want to know where their child is going, and with whom, and they want to know the door is going to be open if and when they do feel ready for contact. They want to know the adopting parents are genuinely kind people whom they can trust to do right by their child, and they want to know the adoptive parents will not seek to shut them out of their child’s life once the ink is dry on the adoption documents.

They want adopting parents who genuinely care about them and their child/ren, who will not judge their lifestyles and who will raise the adoptee to understand the intricacies of the decision made on their behalf.

Some will want primarily sent updates, while others will want periodic visits and others may be more comfortable with staying in touch through occasional phone calls. what-birthmothers-want Work out a written post-adoption contact agreement that gives everyone the ability to enjoy clear expectations about what is agreed upon, and then honor it faithfully.

Why do some birthparents search for their adopted child/ren years after the adoption?

The simplest answer we’ve heard to this question is this: “birthparents don’t go looking for what they know; they go looking for what they don’t know.”

Birthparents whose children’s adoptions have always been open don’t feel any need to search for a child whose well-being and whereabouts have always been known to them. (Makes sense, doesn’t it?)

But birthparents who have been cut off from contact, who have lost touch with the adopting family over the years or for whom there is reason to fear the child’s welfare is uncertain have every reason in the world to go looking for the child they placed. It’s what any responsible parent would do, after all? Most are not looking to disrupt their placed child’s life, but to ensure that the adoptee is safe and happy and doing well.

We know that oftentimes, adoptive families who get wind that their adoptee’s birthparent is trying to make contact after an extended absence may understandably feel anxious, but please receive their outreach with an open mind, and be as charitable and welcoming as possible? Assure the birthparent/s that you are open to rebuilding a relationship, as long as it meets everyone’s needs, but be transparent about holding off on involving any minor adoptee in those contacts until there is a clear understanding of trust, intent and boundaries.

Three needs are a common thread in all three of the scenarios above: the need for respect, access, and truth, and these desires should be easily understood by any adoptive parent.

What prospective placing parents and what birthmothers want– before and after adoption– is what any of us would likely seek, were we in their shoes, so keep this in mind and respond accordingly, as genuinely as possible.

Adoption Secrets

There is a horrific story in the news right now about the devastating toll that adoption secrets have taken in the lives of a Texas adoptee who grew up in New York. Unless you’re living underneath a rock, you probably know which one we’re referring to, and if you’re like us, adoption-secretsyou are reeling at the news and trying to make some sense of this tragedy.

Out of regard for some adoption professionals who fear that the retelling of that story will only be injurious to adopted people and those touched by adoption, we’ll defer to the philosophy of adoption secrets and not retell that sordid tale here.

Out of genuine concern for adoptees and their parents who may not be aware of the devastating toll that adoption secrets can take in the lives of both, though, we feel compelled to offer some advice.

Learn all you can about the dangers of closed adoptions and adoption secrets before adopting.

As a very wise adoption therapist recently reminded us: “trees without roots fall over.” (And she is right.) There is no circumstance in which any adoptee should be denied the truth of their origins all their life long. (Read that again: no. None. Zip. Nada.) And the best way to ensure that an adoptee grows up equipped to deal with that truth is to start early by helping them understand who their birthrelatives are and how they came to be part of their adoptive family and why. You don’t have to have all the answers, but as the parent, you do have to encourage the questions and support the adoptee’s interest in their own truth.

Adoptive parents and birthparents benefit from having genuine and healthy bonds between them throughout the adoptee’s lifespan.

Parents teach by example, so modeling for an adoptee what healthy adoption relationships look like is an essential parenting responsibility. Adoption visits and reunions should include everyone, because that’s what being family is all about, right? It takes work to keep open adoption relationships open and healthy, but the benefits for the adoptee definitely make it worth the effort in the long run.

Adoption counseling and education is an essential tool by which to counter the ill-effects of adoption secrets.

Adoption is a lifelong journey, so it stands to reason that adoption education and counseling should be revisited as needed across the lifespan of every adoptee, birthparent and adoptive parent. (If you get a 50k mile tuneup for your car, why not for your forever family?) Adoption counseling and education can even be done online in the privacy of your own home, so there’s no excuse for not staying up on all the latest information and research, folks.

Adoption secrets have a toxic half-life. Transparency and truth are the antidote.

We understand the concerns of adoptive parents (and birthparents) who worry that disclosure of adoption secrets to their child/ren may be harmful, but in our experience, there are no truths with the potential to do the damage that adoption secrets can. And the betrayal an adoptee feels at learning how long everyone lied to them is generally far more devastating than the original secret itself (whether that entails sexual assault, infidelity, drug exposure, mental illness, incest, child abuse, incarceration or whatever.) Get professional guidance from qualified adoption therapists, provide minor adoptees with age-appropriate information, and you will free yourself and your child/ren from the weight of toxic secrecy.

Lest you think we’re oblivious: we’re not. We know adoption is complicated and openness sometimes feels scary, and parents desperately want to shield loved ones from sadness or danger or disappointment. (That’s not wrong.) Still, adoption secrets are not healthy, and all they do in reality is spread shame and stoke curiosity, which can become obsessive and yield even more damaging side-effects, like identity issues and GSA and worse. (Don’t believe us? Just think of how the adoption secrets fueling the horrific news story mentioned in the first three paragraphs above piqued your own interest, and you just proved our point.)

Adoption secrets are not in any adopted person’s best interests, and it’s time that the adoption community makes this truth known– without equivocation.

State Adoptions

The controversy over state adoptions has recently been highlighted by the news that the Hart family of Washington likely received over $240k in state subsidies for their adoptions of the six Texas children involved in the tragic accident that took the lives of at least three of them (plus the two adoptive mothers.)

It’s no secret that adopting from the State (ie., taking permanent placement of children who have been involuntarily removed from their biological parents and kept in state foster care) is far less costly than private agency adoptions. In a state adoption, the taxpayers subsidize the adoption costs, so that the adopting parents usually pay little more than a portion of the normal fees for homestudy services and legal costs– if that.

Ever Heard of Getting Paid to Adopt?

What is less well-known, though, is that in state adoptions, the adoptive parents generally receive some amount of federal subsidy money per child administered by the state in which the child was in foster care, as something of a “rebate” to help the adoptive family with costs of adopting that child. These subsidies vary (often in accordance with the child’s needs) but can range from a nonrecurrent (one-time) subsidy of $1200 to a recurrent (monthly) adoption assistance payment of $400 or more per child; adoptees who were foster kids are also often eligible for continued Medicaid coverage and state college tuition.

State adoption programs also receive federal funding incentives based on the numbers of foster care children being moved into permanent placements (ie., adoption) so it stands to reason that states like Texas (where there are horrifying numbers of children warehoused in state foster care) are highly motivated to consider adoptive homes outside the state, even those that (like the Harts) may be less traditional family structures.

The child abuse allegations involving the Hart family have been well-documented in the media lately, and it is likely that the State of Texas will be called to account for its decisions to place all six children in the home of two women who ultimately appear to have been culpable for those children’s tragic deaths last month in California.

The question remains, however. Are state adoptions in most children’s best interests?

The Public Adoption System

With more than 400,000 American children in state foster care (and 1 in 4 awaiting adoption,) the public child welfare system is bursting at the seams.

AFCARS estimates that a child enters the child welfare system every 120 seconds; there are more boys than girls, and the median age is 7.8 years. A disproportionate number are of African-American descent, and the majority of children in state foster care are removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Family reunification is most often the system’s stated goal, yet there are far more children in need of adoption than there are available adopters, meaning the majority of foster kids wait years to be adopted, and a startling number “age out” of the system each year without ever having been adopted. In 2015, 50k American children were adopted out through the public adoption system, making state adoptions the largest source of adoptable children in the United States; the sad reality, however, is that there are far more American families waiting to adopt newborns in the private adoption system.

This, friends, constitutes a child welfare crisis of epic proportions. It’s not limited to Texas, of course, but everything being bigger and better in the Lone Star State, it is clear there is a huge problem in need of fixing here.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute shared a scathing report in 2017 examining what was referred to as “the broken foster care system in Texas.” state-adoptionsAccording to that report, the State contracts out 95% of its placements to private foster care agencies nowadays; sadly, however, foster care fatalities seem to have only risen as a result. As of April 2018, briefs have been filed in the appeal of the District Court’s Order to the Fifth Circuit by the defendants in M.D. v. Abbott, a federal class action suit being brought on behalf of Texas foster children.

In the 80s, the State of Texas lost a class action lawsuit for wrongful adoption that was detailed by reporter Jan Jarboe in Texas Monthly. The challenges that multiple Texas families suffered in attempting to parent adopted children with undisclosed trauma has resulted in changes in the way that Texas adoption professionals prepare adopting families, yet clearly, problems still remain where the state adoptions system is concerned. (More recent lawsuits such as this one and this one are proof of this.)

It’s Going to Take Everyone to Fix This One

Lest it seem that our intent is to pile on the state adoptions system, let us make it clear: the State adoptions have saved countless children who might otherwise have withered away in abusive homes and/or languished in state foster homes forever. A number of Abrazo’s families have successfully adopted their Abrazokids’ birthsiblings through state adoptions, and we are grateful for the State’s regard for the importance of honoring birthsibling connections even after adoption.

Despite the well-reported statistics of budget problems and staff turnover, we acknowledge that those who labor in child welfare on the state payroll are true heroes in the trenches, and no one private organization or entity could possibly accommodate the numbers of needy children the State serves each year.

That said, however, we believe it is the duty of every citizen (in Texas and beyond) to advocate for state adoptions and to help address the needs of the tens of thousands of voiceless children in state foster care. This is why Abrazo routinely advocates for state adoption programs such as the Heart Galleries, and why we have the utmost respect for CASA For Children. And most importantly, if you are interested in adopting a child or children through the state, you can find the information to get started right here: adopt through the State.

State adoptions change lives, and there’s no time like the present to start making that happen for a child or sibling group in desperate need.

When Birthparents Adopt

The first time she called us to ask what happens when birthparents adopt, we could hear on the phone how nervous she was. She wasn’t even sure that birthparents were permitted to adopt? We assured her that there is absolutely no law that prevents this from occurring.

As a teenager, she had placed a baby for adoption at Gladney as a teenager, and it was a traumatic experience, she told us. It was a closed adoption, and afterwards, she was supposed to go on as though it had never happened. She went to college, fell in love, got married, and then was stunned to learn she and her husband had infertility problems.

There aren’t any “official” statistics on the numbers of birthparents who later adopt children, but at one New York City adoption conference, it was said that secondary infertility problems may impact as many as 40% of women who placed earlier-born children for adoption, so it stands to reason that they, too, might opt to adopt at some point in their lives.

Adopting After Placing

At Abrazo, we welcome the opportunity to “return the favor” by entrusting children to moms who lovingly and voluntarily placed their own years ago. We have been privileged to place with both birthmothers and birthfathers whose biological children were previously placed for adoption. when-birthparents-adoptIt seems ironic that they sometimes approach adoption agencies worried whether they’d be found “fit” to parent someone else’s child; what more could one do to prove their selfless commitment to children’s best interests than to have been through an adoption themselves, once upon a time?!

However, it’s troubling how many adopting parents who were themselves birthparents tend to be extremely close-minded about open adoption. It’s almost as if their attitude is “well, I didn’t get to keep in touch with my child, so why should someone else have it better than I did?” (Fortunately, the teen birthmom cited above was not one of these women. She could not fathom putting another mother through the agony of not knowing that she herself had endured.)

We once reviewed an application in which a couple who placed years ago in a private adoption had since been through infertility and now wanted to adopt. The were a charming couple, who openly acknowledged how very painful it was to relinquish their firstborn. However, as they noted in their paperwork, they hoped to match with a birthmom who will settle for only letters and photos sent through the agency after placement. Why? Because having waited so long to parent a child together, they don’t want to have to ‘share’ that child with anyone else. (Even if she is someone who is permanently sharing her child with them.)

We know there are plenty of adoptive parents who secretly feel this way. We’re not sure how to tell them, though, that unless they plan to live in a cave in some remote region, from the day they adopt, they’ll have to share that child with plenty of people (grandparents, teachers, Scout leaders, clergy, neighbors, classmates, friends, to start the list) and in the big picture, that child’s birthparents would be the least likely of any of those folks to “interfere.”

And frankly, we have yet to see any expectant mother come into our office saying “Hey, I know just what I want! Help me find my child adoptive parents who are fearful, distrusting, and insular, and will cut me out of their lives as soon as they get what they want from me!”

Adopting Better For Having Been Through It Before

We’ll be the first to admit that Abrazo’s staff thinks the world of birthparents, so yes, we may be biased. But why shouldn’t birthparents who adopt be more understanding of the need for openness than your average, garden-variety adoptive couple? What’s wrong with this picture?

Lin, the Gladney birthmom who has now adopted through Abrazo twice, may have some insight to offer.

“I think a fear I had was that somehow, my role as a mother would be defined, in some way, by how I became a mother and that if I didn’t get to experience a pregnancy and childbirth and if I didn’t get an opportunity to look at my child and figure out if he/she got my toes or my husband’s toes…my nose or my husband’s nose…my hands or my husband’s hands…that the “ride” for lack of a better word wouldn’t be as rich and fulfilling as it would have been if we weren’t infertile. When the day came where I first laid eyes on our daughter – I have never felt more wrong about anything in my life. I didn’t need those things – I had it all right there. What made me a mother had nothing to do with stuff that most people go through, what made me a mother was that little girl who just wiggled herself right into my heart and who means more to me than the air I breathe.”

Birthparents who adopt have every right to wrestle with the same questions and fears as any other adopting parent. Being a birthparent is a very different journey than being a parent who adopts, and it stands to reason that both journeys will have different challenges. Birthparents who adopt may understandably find that parts of the adoption experience trigger unresolved grief issues; this is to be expected. (And if so, it’s important to be open with your adoption professional(s) and get the help that’s needed to work through those, so that the emotional residue does not unfairly impact the birthparent(s) nor the adoptee.)

If you have voluntarily placed a child or children for adoption in the past and have secondary infertility and an interest in becoming a parent through a private adoption agency, Abrazo would welcome the opportunity to explore working with you. Just call our family services coordinator, Martha Bronstein, at 210-342-5683 and ask her to tell you more about “when birthparents adopt” and how Abrazo can help make that happen for you?

Get back up on that horse!

If you were considering adoption and then lost your courage, for whatever reason, it’s a new year, so get back up on that horse, y’all!

It’s easy to get discouraged. (Or distracted. Or frustrated.)

After all, planning for adoption (whether you’re placing or adopting, and even if you’re in the midst of a search after adoption) can be exhausting.

There’s paperwork. And emotions. And way too much waiting and thinking, sometimes.

Mind you, we’re not saying “don’t think about what you’re doing,” of course.

But don’t dwell forever on what didn’t work out. Grieve whatever was lost (or potentially lost.) Feel what you feel, and be gentle with yourself.

Then pick yourself back up and carry on, because there is always (always!) reason for hope.

What the hard times teach us

Chantal was looking for a family for her coming baby, but a specialist’s concerns about her baby’s size (coupled with her preferences for a certain sort of adoptive family) and the birthfather’s reported opposition to the adoption plan left her rejected by numerous prospective adoptive families.

“I was so tired of looking at profiles and getting my hopes up. I’d talk with people who said they were interested in my baby, but then they’d tell the agency no. I thought it was a sign that I wasn’t meant to do adoption. But then, they (the agency) called about one more family, and it turned out exactly the home my baby needed most. And I wouldn’t never have found them if the others hadn’t fallen through.”

Life throws monkey wrenches in everybody’s path, now and then. (Obviously, because if unplanned pregnancy, poverty, teen pregnancy, and infertility didn’t exist, then neither would adoption, probably?)

get-back-on-that-horseIt’s normal to get frustrated and to want to throw in the towel. It’s okay to be envious of those who seem to have had it easier (remember, though: things aren’t always as they seem.) It’s all right to wonder if God really does have everything under control? You can even be angry at safe targets, like your babydaddy, or your infertility specialist, or your adoption agency, or your gene pool.

If it seems like the anger is getting in the way of your real-life relationships, though, or if the depression is making it impossible to keep up with your daily obligations, then take some time out to talk to a counselor or a pastor or priest or rabbi, or your family physician or some other trusted professional. This is a lot to carry on your own skinny ‘lil shoulders, so don’t feel like you have to go it alone.

After all, asking for help when needed doesn’t make you weak. It means you’re smart and resourceful, and those are positive attributes for anyone in the adoption process or in a parenting role.

One couple who adopted through Abrazo can definitely relate. James & Gena had been through three failed matches, and had lost money on maternity support on two of those cases. James wanted to throw in the towel after the first disappointment. Gena was ready to call it quits after the second one. They were at their wits after the third match went nowhere, even though nothing had been spent on that case.

Just when they thought there was no more point to continuing on, they got chosen to parent a precious baby already born. Now, whenever they look at their beautiful child, it is clear to them that the universe was actually conspiring to keep them available and ready, even when it seemed like fate was working against them.

When it all falls apart, begin again.

It’s hard to see the forest for the trees, sometimes. We get that. (A lot.)

But as per the advice we offered another discouraged would-be adoptive parent who called today, after signing up with two adoption agencies that have closed down on them: “if the map you’re following isn’t taking you where you want to go, maybe it’s time to look for a new map with a new route.”

(And this doesn’t just apply to adopting or placing, either.)

Mark, who was adopted as a baby, always wondered about his birthfamily. He didn’t feel right about pursuing them until after his adoptive parents had passed, but once he began, he was confounded by closed doors. It seemed that nobody supported his interest in finding his first family– not the court system, nor his adopted siblings, and not even his wife. He ended up finding his birthmother through genetic testing, and even though she has chosen not to reveal his existence to her other children, he is glad he pursued his own truth, for his own peace of mind.

Nothing meaningful in life ever comes easy. It’s the twists and turns in the road and the stress and adrenaline that come with both that makes the joy and relief that much more evident.

Adoption is not necessarily the “right” pursuit for every infertile couple. It isn’t the “best” choice for every expectant parent in crisis. And it isn’t always a “dream come true” for every adopted person.

When it’s done the right way, for the right reasons, though, adoption can be absolutely life-changing in a positive way for birthparents, for adoptees and for adoptive parents.

So if you have a deep inner conviction that adoption is the direction by which you are meant to transform your life, don’t let the inevitable disappointments that arise in the course of the process wear you down to the point that you cannot recover. Go ahead and feel whatever you’re feeling, reassess what isn’t working, and then plot a new course.

Rise again. Brush the dust off your saddle. Adjust your hat so you can clearly see the road before you, and get back up on that horse! You’ve got this.

The Civil Rights of Adoptees

The civil rights of adoptees have long been trampled in the United States, and it’s no wonder that adults adopted as children are getting really angry about this injustice.

After all: adoptees typically have no say in the life-altering choices made on their behalf when an adoption plan is made by their parents. (That, in itself, would feel pretty disempowering.)

It’s been 101 years since the first law was enacted to hide adoptees’ original birth certificates in America. That happened in 1917 in Minnesota, and the original intent of that legislation was to shield adoptees from the social stigma of being born out of wedlock and/or adopted, since American society back then was cruelly judgemental towards those who were considered “illegitimate.”

Why can’t all adult adoptees access their OBCs?

Somehow, though, over the years, closed adoption records laws themselves became bastardized. The intent of protecting the adoptee’s privacy became twisted to shield adoptive parents from the “inconvenience” of having to be truthful with their adopted children. Adoptees were told that they were not entitled to ever know the identity of the blood relatives who made their lives possible in the first place, and that it was ungrateful of them to even ask.

But why? Why is it wrong for adopted adults to want to verify their own biological origins? Why do we (as parents or adoption professionals or lawmakers) continue to treat adult adoptees like children who cannot make their own best decisions regarding the search for their own answers in life?

Adoptees have compelling reasons to need to know, of course. They need to be able to verify their own ethnicity and their family medical history and their genetic risk factors. They want to know that they were not stolen, kidnapped or trafficked (a very real concern in closed adoptions, even today.) They want to know that they are not dating or marrying blood relatives (also a real concern, considering how many adoptees and birthfamilies are found to be living in close proximity at time of reunions.) They struggle with identity issues that may only be resolved by accessing the truth of their origins.

And yet, all across America, lawmakers and special interest groups still conspire to deny adult adoptees access to their own birth records. (Even amidst what is commonly and ironically known as “The Information Age.” Go figure.)

Where Adult Adoptees in American Can & Can’t Get their Records

Don’t believe us? Take a look at this map which documents state laws governing adult adoptee access to their OBCS (original birth certificates):

the-civil-rights-of-adoptees

This is all kinds of outrageous, people. Every citizen, whether birthparents or adoptees or adoptive parents or adoption professionals or otherwise, should be marching in the streets against this injustice. And yet, we’re not. (No wonder America’s adoptees are frustrated, amirite?)

Who Keeps Secrets and Why?

Lawmakers like Texas Senator Donna Campbell (herself a physician and a mother-by-adoption) cling to antiquated arguments that open access to birth records by adoptees would somehow increase abortion numbers (hint: that’s false!) or that birthparents were promised anonymity in the course of their adoptive placements (hint: that’s untrue, also) or that adoptive parents’ relationships with the children will be somehow compromised by the truth coming out (again: a misconception, except perhaps for those with something to hide?)

As the San Antonio Express-News reported in December 2016: “(Campbell) was working in the emergency room in the hospital in Columbus (Texas) one day in 2006 after another doctor was unable to make it. (She) went to the hospital nursery to give a message to another doctor, and she heard people discussing a baby. “There was conversation about, ‘This baby is so cute’ — everybody wanted to take the baby home,” Campbell recalled. “They said, ‘Do you want to take the baby home?’… It happened just like that.”

Most hospitals have strict ethical standards that prevent these kinds of “in-house adoption arrangements” that favor hospital personnel (with or without a homestudy,) and Texas state laws prohibit the third party facilitation of adoptions without an agency license. Nonetheless, Campbell was reportedly happy to scoop up this woman’s baby, apparently with no intention of permitting any ongoing contact between her adopted daughter Anna Beth and the biological family. In fact, Campbell is apparently so threatened by the idea that she has spearheaded efforts to keep all Texas adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates, claiming that her motivation is somehow about “protecting birthmothers” although it clearly seems to have far more to do with eliminating adoption transparency.

We don’t know why, of course? We’ve offered (unsuccessfully) to talk with Senator Campbell in person, to no avail– for reasons unknown. Yet we know this kind of shame-mongering and secret keeping where adoptees are concerned is neither healthy nor wise, and we’d love to help her see this, if only she’d let us help.

In Conclusion…

Nobody is suggesting that minor adoptees must be given access to their original birth certificates (although these documents truly are theirs in the first place, correct?) Abrazo’s adoptive parents are required to raise their children to know the truth of their origins from Day One, so for Abrazo’s adoptees to be unaware of their birthparents’ names would be highly unusual, anyway.

Our agency’s more progressive families have questioned why it is even necessary for the birth certificate to be falsified or altered by the State in the process of the adoption, yet the Texas Legislature has not provided any legal alternative by which adoptees can be provided birth certificates that list both the identities of their biological and adoptive parents, although we hope this may change someday soon?

It’s not enough just to say “we’re for adoptee rights” and then do little or nothing to actually help bring about needed changes in the society around us. To witness a civil rights violation and then let it go unchecked is to endorse it, and that makes you part of the problem. To be part of the solution means to elect lawmakers who are committed to adoptee rights, to support causes and organizations that are invested in this cause, and to take a public stand– as this truly is a “best interest of the adoptee” issue.

It doesn’t matter whether you are adopted or have adopted or have placed a child for adoption; this is not an “adoption issue” but rather, a “civil rights issue” which should make the civil rights of adoptees a cause worth fighting for, for all conscientious Americans.

Adoption Careers

When it comes to occupations, adoption careers are a job like no other.

For one thing, there’s no one degree program that prepares one for all the varied responsibilities of the job; if there were, it would require advanced course work in child development, sexuality, psychology, law, social worker, theology, counseling, nonprofit management, obstetrics, business and technology. Most states require a minimum of a college degree in a human services field, but it only takes a few days in this field to realize that there’s way more involved in doing good adoption work than just knowing the basic tenets of social work.

The Job Requirements

To work in adoption, you need to be wise, caring, empathetic and street-smart, with strong communication skills and a good sense of humor. You need to know how to change poopy diapers in public places without gagging, even when the baby isn’t yours, and how to read people who are in the midst of personal crises and may not be able to communicate their needs effectively.

You have to be able to testify in court and travel at a moment’s notice and read medical records and deliver maternity support to bad neighborhoods and do crisis counseling and assess paternity issues (and more.) You’re privvy to the intimate details of other people’s sex lives and you’re bound to HIPPA regulations and you’re charged with the responsibility of evaluating other people’s fitness for parenthood, whether or not you yourself have ever been a parent.

Ethical adoption work is always nonprofit, so working in adoption means you won’t get paid anything near what you probably deserve. (In reality, though, money is rarely the driving motivation for anyone who seeks a career in adoption for the right reasons.) Good adoption agencies are mindful of trying to shield their employees from endless after-hours client demands and unnecessary weekend work, but the truth is that adoption agency staff are on-call 24/7, working-in-adoptionsince babies can come at any time and the best interests of children necessarily come first… always.

If there’s one thing people always say to you when they find out you’re working in adoption, it’s “ohhhh, what a WONDERFUL job, making people happy.” (It kinda says a lot about the public’s limited perception of adoption, doesn’t it?)

It’s true that the working in adoption does bring great joy to infertile couples seeking to become parents– when the outcome is what they’d hoped it would be. However, those infertile couples come to us with enormous losses of their own, which invariably weigh heavy on our staff, as well.

And in the process of placing children with them, the work we do causes birthparents to incur enormous losses that can bring with it lifelong grief, which is also ours to bear.

Burnout is an occupational hazard, and job turnover can be frequent, because it takes a deep personal commitment to work in adoption for years on end and a strong emotional constitution to weather all the ups and downs. When you have a career in adoption, your work is never “finished.” You can never possibly “do enough” for the clients that you serve, because adoption issues continue to arise all across the lifespan of every adoptee and both their families, and the agency’s concerns for “their kids” is unending. (See why we say that nobody good stays in adoption just for the money?)

The Compensation Package

There are perks, of course. You meet fascinating people. You get to work in an office filled with baby pictures, which bring a smile to your face everyday. At Abrazo, our kitchen is frequently filled with treats sent by grateful clients or with wine and snacks leftover from orientation weekends. (Abrazo’s director does have an obnoxious habit of regularly raiding all the cherry-flavored jawbreakers from the candy bucket, however.) You get to know the judges at the courthouse and the doctors at the hospital and the deputies at the county jail, and you know your way around all those buildings, just like you own the place.

You get to play with other people’s kids, and if you work for Abrazo, you go to Camp for free each summer. (Sure, you’re still on the clock, but hey, it IS still a pricey dude ranch weekend!) You get to go to trainings and conferences in and out-of-state at the agency’s expense. And any frequent flyer benefits you accrue in the course of your work travel are yours to keep. You get a starring role in every client’s life story, and you have an endless supply of agency t-shirts to show for it.

You become like family with your coworkers– for better or worse– since they are the only other people you can share news about your clients with, due to confidentiality standards. Working in adoption means your family and friends get used to having to reschedule plans with you at a moment’s notice because of your job. And while you cannot “take your work” (nor the babies) home with you, you never get away from it, really, either, because your clients’ concerns on always on your mind (and your clients also have an amazingly resourceful way of finding you on social media or emailing you after hours, even when your agency policies prohibit you from sharing your phone number with clients for this very reason.)

Working in adoption is the wrong job for anyone who’s looking to get rich or famous. It’s an often stressful, rarely predictable and sometimes litigious occupation, with ever-changing state regulations and perplexing political implications, and it often requires you to bear witness to some of life’s most wrenching decisions.

Yet working in adoption is also one of the most meaningful, life-changing vocations one can ever undertake, and even on our worst days, those of us who have longtime adoption careers cannot imagine ever doing anything else for a living, because our work truly matters and we’re blessed to know it.

Adoption Photolistings

The current furor over adoption photolistings has got us thinking about the ethics of adoption marketing, lately.

Here’s what’s going on: the U.S. State Department is considering a ban on the practice of using photolistings (pictures and general bios of adoptable kids) to recruit adoptive families for kids in need of adoptive homes.

Ever since the “Wednesday’s Child” campaigns first began, adoption photolistings (whether for children or rescued animals) have become a highly effective means of finding homes– because they work. Pictures tend to humanize the homeless, thus inspiring compassionate viewers to seek out more information and to then undergo the process of becoming approved to adopt.

And yet… (but still…)

What’s wrong with adoption photolistings?

We have to be honest: we see some potential problems with this approach. For one thing, it can conceivably be argued that violating the privacy of vulnerable children in order to “market adoption” is exploitation, however well-intended, and that the ends (placement) do not justify the means (photolistings involving children under the age of 13.) adoption-photolistingsAfter all: once a parent-less child’s picture is posted online, it’s there forever, and how can any adoptee’s confidentiality ever be ensured, once their most personal need has already been viewed by millions?

(And what happens when some well-intentioned but underprepared family falls in love with a picture of a homeless orphan overseas and undertakes a pursuit to adopt him or her at any costs, not understanding the extent of his or her special needs, and lacking sufficient adoption education to know that love alone is not always enough to result in a successful longterm placement experience?)

The State Department’s concern is that photolistings are “soft referrals” that can be viewed by people who are not yet homestudy-approved, meaning that the pictured children are potentially be considered for placement by individuals or couples who may be unqualified to adopt (or worse.) This is a violation of State Department standards (and would also constitute a violation of state standards in Texas, wherein agencies are prohibited from engaging in “matching activities” with anyone who is not already homestudy-approved.

This doesn’t just happen in international adoptions, however. The famed Heart Galleries (a nationwide program by which each state seeks interested families for children in state foster care who have already been freed for adoption) consists of thousands of photolistings of American foster kids awaiting loving homes.

What’s Abrazo’s perspective on this issue?

We understand the arguments on both sides, and yet, Abrazo still struggles with the ethics of using photos of adoptees to promote adoption. (And maybe herein lies the bigger issue?)

Our agency has always chosen not to use children’s pictures in order to locate families for our available children. This is why, whenever Abrazo posts appeals for homestudy-ready families for children placed in our agency’s care, you will never see a photo posted publicly of the actual child/ren Abrazo has available to be adopted.

It’s also why– unlike some agencies or facilitators who post public “gotcha day pics” to announce their placements– Abrazo typically uses only generic images on social media whenever placements have occurred. (Our actual placement day photos are only posted with permission on our agency’s restricted access site.) adoption-photolistingsWe do share actual finalization day photos with clients’ permission, on occasion, but only because these (like wedding photos) are a celebration of the family unit (and not merely the display of a minor adoptee available to be adopted.)

We cannot deny that “a picture’s worth a thousand words” when it comes to explaining the beauty of open adoption, and we treasure the open adoption photographs that members of our community have permitted us to share publicly as a learning tool. (Plus: photolistings of prospective adoptive parents have become very popular in reaching prospective birthparents, there’s no doubt about that.)

Still: educating the world about open adoption is a different goal than selling an agency’s services, and if an available child’s image is used to profit another person or business, then the ethical implications demand closer review, as suggested by the pending State Department standards change.

Perhaps the most effective guide to “best practice” standards could be gleaned from the feedback of actual adoptees in America. It seems evident that we would all do better to listen to today’s adoptees and learn from their experience. (After all– how can any rational adult explain that our culture considers it perfectly acceptable to publish photos of minor children online for the purposes of finding them homes, yet refuses to provide adult adoptees with access to their own original birth certificates for the purposes of helping them access their family medical history years later?)

What can I do?

It’s true that countless children have gotten placed in adoptive homes as a result of effective adoption marketing and photolistings that drew the interest of prospective adopters. adoption-photolistingsIf you agree that the value of adoption photolistings outweigh the potential ethical issues, then plenty of adoption organizations (like Creating a Family) urge you to contact the U.S. State Department to urge them to reconsider the ban.

If, however, you have concerns about the greater ethical implications of photolistings as an adoption marketing technique (some might even call it “adoption porn”?), then we urge you to let the State Department know these concerns, as well, and to go one step further by making a donation to the National Center for Adoption & Permanency, an advocacy organization which is leading the way where American adoption ethics are concerned.

Because (whether the issue is adoption photolistings or prebirth matching or uniform adoption laws or adoptee rights,) how these issues get resolved will invariably matter to the adoptees who are impacted by whatever policy decisions do eventually get made— so take a stand, and let your voice be heard.

Dear Adoption Judge…

Dear Adoption Judge: all of us at Abrazo are thankful for your thoughtful consideration on behalf of all the clients we serve, and we want you to know this.

We see you at least twice during each adoption we do. We typically see you once for the TPR (termination of parenting rights) hearing, and then we see you again, 6-18 months later, when our adopting parents come before you for the final adoption hearing (known in adoption parlance as “finalization day.)

Here in Bexar County, where Abrazo is located, our district court judges are elected, and at present, there are six male judges and nine female judges. All are good, fair jurists who consider the preponderance of evidence in making the best possible decision on behalf of the children in our care, and it is their approval that makes possible thousands of voluntary (and involuntary) adoptions for children in Bexar County each year.

The Termination Hearing

In Texas, the law does not require birthparents to appear in person for termination proceedings, so most often, the termination hearings for Abrazo’s cases are brief affairs (compared to the relinquishments that preceded them.) When we appear before the judge in termination suits, we are typically only called upon to answer for how we have addressed issues involving missing fathers or legal fathers who may be opposing an adoption plan. You rarely ask us questions about the birthmothers or their decisions, Dear Adoption Judge, but if you did, we would tell you what wrenchingly difficult choices these were for the first parents of each baby named in the legal papers we bring before you.

We would tell you about how much the birthmother loves the baby she is placing, how she propped the baby on her knees in her hospital bed for a heart-to-heart discussion of how much more she wanted for that child’s future; how she cuddled her baby close as much as she could in the time that she had; and how her tears fell on her legal documents as she signed them, so sure that she was making the best choice she could but so uncertain as to whether she could ever forgive herself for not being more ready to give that child everything in life.

We would share with you how carefully most birthmothers put their adoption plans together; how painstakingly they choose their babies’ new parents and get to know them before placement; and how deeply they treasure the opportunity to stay in contact with the adoptive family afterwards. since they know that Texas adoption law regrettably does not offer placing parents the protection of legally-enforceable post-adoption contact agreements.

We know that some of the birthparents we work with may have appeared on occasion before your fellow jurists in the Bexar County criminal court system or have had custody of their other children terminated in the Children’s Courts due to CPS involvement, but we want you to know that in no way reduces nor negates the magnitude of their voluntary choices on their baby’s behalf. It takes an enormous amount of courage and selflessness to sacrifice one’s own welfare on behalf of a child, and we hope, Your Honor, that you share our respect for them– whether or not you should ever cross paths.

The Adoption Hearing

The clients most judges do meet are our adopting parents, who must appear in court personally after the child being adopted has resided with them for 6-18 months. dear-adoption-judge This is an exciting day for our adoptive families, and most judges tell us they enjoy these hearings, too, since it’s one of the few proceedings that civil court judges hear in which nobody is fighting over anything. More and more adoptive families are hiring special “A-Day” photographers to document the proceedings, and the local judiciary is usually more than happy to pose for photos with our clients, especially when copies of those photos get sent to the judge afterwards. Many of our local judges have private bulletin boards in their chambers with photos of the adoptions they’ve finalized, which touches our hearts.

The finalization proceedings are usually far more brief than adoptive parents expect. The adoptive couple gets put under oath, the agency attorney asks a few basic questions of them, the judge reviews the legal documents, and then after a question or two of his/her own, signs the order, making the adoptive couple the “official” and permanent parents of the child being adopted.

It’s that “question or two” that we would humbly ask you to consider, dear adoption judge. All too often, it seems that the judges are not certain what to say or how to say it, so many judges crack an awkward joke about “you know you can’t give (the child) back when it’s time to pay their car insurance, right?” or they say “there are no give-backs if this kid gets in trouble later on, you know that, right?” We understand that the judge is trying to put everyone at ease, but we always cringe at these quips, because the joke implies that some adopting parents’ commitment is conditional, which one surely hopes is not true after all this couple has gone through in order to adopt in the first place, and because all parents (whether by birth or adoption) still have the legal option of forfeiting their responsibilities– judicial admonition or not.

So Dear Adoption Judge, if you’re ever struggling to know what to say to the adoptive parents before you on this day that they will never ever forget, how about saying something instead like “I know you went through a lot to get to this day, and I hope this is just the beginning of a wonderful future for both of you and your child,” or “I order you to raise this child to become a happy, healthy citizen who will forever respect all of his parents and the sacrifices they’ve all made on his behalf” or “may your family’s commitment to each other’s needs always be as filled with the same kind of hope, love and joy that I see before me today.”

And again, Your Honor, we want you to know how sincerely we appreciate all you do to help make adoptions happen. We hope you know that the part you play (in our terminations as well as our adoptions) helps to secure the future of children who have no say in the matter, yet whose destiny is undoubtedly and forever shaped by your signature.

The truth is that agencies like Abrazo couldn’t do the work we do on behalf of children without your approval, Dear Adoption Judge, so we are grateful for your wisdom and your authority in making all of our adoptions possible, and we hope you know this.