What About Adoptee Privacy?
Not long ago, a famous adoption dispute brought the issue of adoptee privacy to the forefront.
It concerned a baby girl named Veronica, whose birthmom had been placed for adoption without her father’s consent. Her birthfather, a registered member of an Indian tribe, sought to intervene and was granted custody when his daughter was 27 months old, but the adoptive parents took the case to the US Supreme Court almost two years later and ultimately won the battle. And a very well-publicized battle it was, given that the sexual affairs of Veronica’s first parents were reported in media coverage across the globe, and the adoptive family reportedly hired public relations professionals and solicited widespread public support.
What seemed completely forgotten in that debacle, though, was the importance of adoptee privacy. Veronica (whose last name we are not republishing out of regard for her) is growing up in the Information Age, meaning that no matter her age, the most intimate details of her life story and her four parents’ battle of wills over her have become public fodder forever, easily accessible across the Internet for all to see. Maybe she won’t mind– but we suspect she might. Veronica didn’t sign up for any of that publicity, yet she surely has already been negatively impacted by it all.
Another young woman, Anna Jacquelyn Schmidt (formerly known as Baby Jessica,) has also had to contend with a lifetime of privacy violations, ever since being prominently featured in international media during the fight between her would-be adopters, the DeBoers, and her parents, the Schmidts (both couples have since divorced.) As a result, Anna Schmidt’s youthful infractions of the law have become fodder for gossip pages, and public debates still rage as to whether or not the disruption of her adoption was, in fact, for the best? Yet all that really should matter is how she feels, and whether or not she chooses to share those feelings with the world at large is entirely up to her.
A similar dilemma arose this week, when Donald Trump chose to highlight the story of a police officer and his wife adopting a drug-exposed baby in his State of the Union address. Photos of Baby Hope and her adopters were prominently featured in newspapers and on TV, along with confidential details of the birthparents’ addictions, yet only the truly woke have stopped to question the ethical implications of forever exposing this adoptee’s personal lifestory to the world?
Whose Story Is It to Tell?
Curiously, when one searches the internet to examine the topic of “adoptee privacy,” there are very few results pertaining to the right of a person being adopted to determine if (or how much of) their story should be shared publicly, and if so, when and by whom? And yet, this should be a concern at the forefront of the minds of any child welfare professionals and/or parents (whether by birth or adoption.)
Abrazo walks a fine line in deciding how and when to share adoption photos online. We love baby pictures, of course, and we enjoy being able to “show” the world the beauty of truly open adoptions, so we’re grateful when our clients and alumni invite us to share their pictures. Still, we are careful to omit identifying information, as well as details that potentially iolates adoptee privacy. Birthfamilies and adoptive families need to also make their own best choices about which (and how many) adoption facts and photos to share online, and to confirm these with each other, whenever possible.
Likewise, Abrazo cautions adopting families to make educated decisions about how much of their child’s adoption story to share with others, even within their own circles. People are naturally curious about how and why adoptions occurred, and certainly, there can be an educational benefit in helping others understand adoption. But is it really appropriate for relatives and family friends to know such details as the birthmother’s sexual history or the number of potential fathers who may have been involved? Do they have a reason to need to know if the birthmother has placed for adoption before, or what the adoption has cost? Is it really necessary for others to know whether or not the adoptee was prenatally-exposed to alcohol or drugs?
Parents who adopt (like parents who place) need to decide with whom to share what on a “need-to-know” basis. The best way to make these choices, perhaps, is to ask yourself “will my child’s well-being depend upon this person knowing this information?” If the answer is “no” or “not really,” then keep it to yourself. Learn to tell others who ask inappropriate questions “I understand what you’re asking, but we’ve chosen to leave it up to (child’s name) to decide if and when to share that information because his/her privacy is important to us.” Then leave it at that– or change the subject.
Teaching Adoptees Their Right to Privacy
Also, be prepared for the challenge of teaching the adoptee to make wise choices about sharing their personal adoption story. We all want our kids to be proud of their adoption story, so it’s not uncommon (nor necessarily unhealthy) for adoptees to want to tell the mailman “that’s a letter from my birthmom!” or to share photos from their placement in Show & Tell at school. One Abrazo teen recently had to deal with the fallout when peers decided to help search for a missing birthmom online; what was found was unexpected, resulting some unexpectedly painful repercussions for the adoptee.
Many adoptees are often told they are “special” because they were “chosen,” yet this distinction can put an added layer of pressure on them, because it implies they are different and denies them the right to be just like everyone else, particularly at a time when developmentally, “fitting in” is of tantamount importance. The beauty of Camp Abrazo, for the kids whose families regularly attend, is that there, open adoption is everybody’s normal. Contrast this transparency with the unsettling experiences of adoptees whose adoptive parents never told them about their other birthsiblings prior to them getting contacted by relative strangers online, and it underscores the importance of adoptive parents raising children to know their own truths and learn how to manage them from the earliest possible age.
The best rule of thumb may be to empower your child to talk about adoption when and with those it feels right to them. Start early by teaching your child the power of positive adoption language, and help them understand that having an adoption story is like owning a castle; it’s up to them to decide who should be trusted to enter their castle and who should just get to see the castle from the outside. And when mistakes are made (and this will happen, because adoptees cannot ever always anticipate nor control others’ responses,) use it as a teaching tool, to help the adoptee learn to periodically reassess and redefine his or her privacy needs, at various stages during his or her development.
The truth of the matter is that your child’s adoption story is theirs to tell (or not tell.) As the parents of that child, you must also serve as the safekeepers of that tale until the adoptee is able to decide for himself or herself what they wish to share or have shared. This is a sacred duty, and adoptee privacy must always be the deciding factor by which any– and all– disclosures are made.