Tag Archives: Adam Pertman

The Baby Veronica Saga: Denial of a Father’s Rights and Now a $1 Million Lesson

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1iTVzAb

The last time most of us heard about the heart-breaking Baby Veronica case was several weeks ago, when the child’s Native American father gave up his years-long legal battle to retain custody of her, and her adoptive parents promised to maintain ties to her biological family.

Major Indian and child welfare organizations — including the Donaldson Adoption Institute – overwhelmingly decried the outcome as an unjust denial of a father’s right to raise his own child. Many television pundits and some adoption advocates, meanwhile, declared that a sad saga had ended happily because Veronica would now grow up in a loving family.

Alas, it’s hard to fathom how anyone can describe what has occurred — and is still occurring — in this case as “happy.” Furthermore, the saga has not ended at all, and proceeding as though it has would deprive us of the opportunity to learn its many important lessons: about the critical right of fathers (and mothers) to parent the children they create, about the corrosive effects of money on the adoption system, and about thesordid chapter in U.S. history when Native American children were systematically removed from their communities and placed for adoption.

First a quick recap: Veronica’s mother, Christy Maldonado, placed her newborn for adoption with a South Carolina couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, in September 2009. Dusten Brown, the child’s father, was preparing to deploy to Iraq with the Army at the time; he subsequently said he was deceived into signing relinquishment papers and sued to gain custody of Veronica, which he succeeded in doing in December 2011. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July 2013 in favor of the Capobiancos, and Veronica moved back in with them two months ago.

That brings us to last week, when the Capobiancos’ pro bono attorneys asked a court to order Brown and the Cherokee Nation to pay them $1 million in fees. It’s hard to describe this late-stage maneuver — against a nearly destitute father and the tribe that supported his effort to raise his own daughter — as anything except punitive. And it’s even harder to reconcile the request with the cooperative transition to an open adoption that the Capobiancos had promised.

This latest chapter in a young child’s heart-rending saga does offer an opportunity, however, to step back from the details of the custody battle and consider its many important lessons. They notably include the role that money has played throughout this case, which has been replete with ethically dubious actions by the parties who, in the end, prevailed over Brown and his supporters. Here are several examples:

• The South Carolina director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which handled Veronica’s adoption, arranged for her own husband – who is an adoption attorney — to represent the Capobiancos. While not explicitly prohibited in South Carolina, such arrangements are viewed as a serious ethical problem in other jurisdictions. The concern is that, in such a situation, it could appear that an attorney had loyalties other than to his/her ostensible clients; in addition, even if the clients had issues with this conflict of interest, they might not risk complaining out of fear that the agency would put their adoption at risk.

• The Capobiancos arranged and paid for Maldonado’s attorney. As a result, there was the prospect — or at least the appearance — of divided loyalties, since the Capobiancos were paying the bills. Though permitted by South Carolina’s lax adoption laws, this is also a practice that has been widely derided as unethical. The American Bar Association in 1987 concluded that the conflicts of interest inherent in such “dual representation” cannot be reconciled because the interests of birth and adoptive parents are so distinct.

• According to several media outlets, the Capobiancos were quite generous to Maldonado during and after her pregnancy. While states generally permit some payment of living expenses for women contemplating adoption for their babies, most set limits as a way of curtailing potential economic inducements for mothers to feel pressured or, worse, to effectively sell their children. While no details have been disclosed about payments to Maldonado, for context, it is known that two judges who reportedly have approved unorthodox payments — such as television sets and breast augmentation surgery — were recently called to testify before a grand jury in Oklahoma (where Veronica was born).

• During her pregnancy, Maldonado cut off all contact with Brown, which prevented him from asserting his right to parent his child. Under South Carolina law, an unmarried father can only contest an adoption he has lived with the mother or has paid significant prenatal expenses. On the advice of her counsel (reminder: paid for by the Capobiancos), Maldonado closed both of these doors by ending contact, even directing hospital staff to pretend she had never been admitted if Brown called. Notably, through the entire case, he was never found unfit. Rather, the final South Carolina court decision — after a remand from the U.S. Supreme Court — said he not only had no right to object to the adoption, but also did not even have a right to a hearing to determine the best interests of his daughter.

• Moving out Veronica out of Oklahoma after her birth presented another obstacle because of her Native American heritage, which Maldonado disclosed at the outset to Nightlight and the Capobiancos. The adoptive parents were legally required to secure Oklahoma’s permission to move the child to another state, under a federal law known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). They were also required to alert her tribe prior to relocation under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. The problem for the Capobiancos, Nightlight, Maldonado and their lawyers was that if they followed legal requirements and alerted the Cherokee Nation, the tribe was almost certain to block the child’s removal from Oklahoma and prevent the adoption request from even being filed.

The child’s Indian heritage was not revealed, however, until it was too late to matter. In the initial inquiry to the tribe prior to the child’s birth, Maldonado’s lawyer misspelled Brown’s name and gave an incorrect birthdate, preventing the tribal connection from being made. This misrepresentation was compounded after Veronica’s birth, when Maldonado incorrectly listed her as Hispanic on the forms necessary for ICPC approval. Maldonado later testified that she accurately disclosed her daughter’s heritage with everyone involved at the outset, including the lawyer hired for her by the Capobiancos and Nightlight’s Director (who, recall, was married to their attorney). Maldonado’s testimony raises serious concerns about what everyone involved in supporting the adoption knew and when they knew it. In any event, the result was that the Cherokee Tribe was left unaware, and thus unable to stop the adoption from going forward.

And what of the $1 million request for attorneys’ fees? To be sure, the fact that the Capobiancos’ lawyers initially agree to work pro bono should not prevent them from now seeking payment for their services. Nevertheless, the request has to be viewed in the context of the sordid events that preceded it. Nightlight, the Capobiancos, Maldonado and their lawyers appear to have orchestrated a series of events that resulted in separating an infant child from a fit father who wanted nothing more than to raise his own daughter, and who did so for almost two years until an extraordinary series of legal decisions took his child away. Seen from this perspective, the request could easily be interpreted as a resounding message to any young parent who thinks to stand up to powerful industry that is too often fueled by a profit motive.

If adoption is to be a humane, thoughtful and ethical process, everyone’s rights must be protected from deceptive or predatory practices, and that means mothers and fathers — pointedly including Brown — should never be deprived of their children simply because they were legally out-maneuvered. It also means that a law designed to protect Native American culture should not be skirted or subverted to expedite any single adoption. And it means that statutory and regulatory action simply has to be taken to minimize the corrupting influence of money in a system that is meant to serve the interests of vulnerable children and adults.

Adam Pertman, President of Donaldson Adoption Institute

Bruce Boyer, Director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University in Chicago

 

 

A Lot to Learn: As the School Year Begins, Adoption Needs to be in the Curriculum

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/161GBCi

Even as adoption becomes increasingly normalized in the U.S., adoptive families continue to confront roadblocks for their children in a place they expected only smooth roads: the classroom.

Interactions with administrators, teachers, peers and other parents can be complex and can impact adopted kids negatively on many levels. These issues range from the language used by both children and adults; to when and what to tell school personnel about the children and their pasts; and, as the children grow older, how to deal with questions related to ethnicity, birth/ first parents, nationality, genealogical background and traditional lesson plans such as drawing “family trees.”

Teachers have a major influence on children’s understanding of the world around them — and of themselves. That’s a major reason why the routine professional training of educators in recent years has come to include issues relating to race and ethnicity, disability, gender, blended families and a range of other subjects aimed at understanding diversity and promoting fair and equal treatment for all the children they teach. The intent of the preparation is not just to increase teachers’ sensitivity, but also to equip them with knowledge that will shape their own behavior and attitudes, as well as the behavior and attitudes of their students.

What goes on at school has pivotal importance for children for a variety of reasons. School takes up a huge portion of their lives, and their experiences there help to shape their self-images, their peer relationships and others’ views of their competence. It is also where they learn many of their values, accumulate most of their knowledge, and develop the skills to equip them to succeed as adults.

A research-based report titled “Adoption in the Schools: A Lot to Learn” — jointly researched and written by the Donaldson Adoption Institute and the Center for Adoption Support and Education — outlines the reasons educators need to learn more about adoption issues (including aspects of foster care), explains the negative consequences of a lack of knowledge, and proposes steps that teachers, schools, curriculum developers and institutions of higher education can take to change the status quo and, as a result, make vital progress toward placing all children and families on a level playing field in the classroom and beyond.

Learning is the “work” of childhood. For very young children, it comes primarily through play and, as they enter school, classroom learning takes up the better part of their days. It is the primary arena in which children’s performance is judged in relation to peers, and they experience pressure to perform.

Likewise, there is pressure on parents to facilitate children’s adjustment at school. When girls and boys have difficulty fitting in at school or measuring up to expectations, it affects many areas. Even when children perform well, their school experiences play a big role in shaping key aspects of adjustment, including self-concept, peer group experience, ability to have educational needs met in order to learn successfully, and the parent-child relationship (including parents’ views of their children, the stress they experience in parenting, and their feelings of competence as parents).

In addition to these general influences experienced by all students, adopted children’s interactions at school — with both teachers and classmates — provide important messages regarding adoption that help to shape their identity as adopted persons.

While “Adoption in the Schools” focuses primarily on adoption, the same (or sometimes comparable) issues apply to children in foster care who are not living with their families of origin. Most children who are adopted or in foster care confront situations at school that highlight their perceived “different” status from classmates who are being raised by their biological parents.

Teachers need to be prepared with both sensitivity and knowledge about adoption in order to assist all children and their families in successfully dealing with issues on an ongoing basis. These questions and challenges may arise in class discussions, during interactions among students, and in completing assignments. Their explicit and implicit messages about adoption and/or foster care, or their lack thereof, have an impact on adopted and foster children – and help to shape other children’s attitudes and beliefs.

Educators clearly want to do well for all the children whose lives they shape — it is the principal reason they choose teaching as their professional careers. But they receive no systematic training in two important aspects of many students’ lives: adoption and foster care. As a result, they may inadvertently use language, teach lesson plans, and/or display attitudes that can hurt children’s feelings, perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, and transmit the message that some families (i.e. those formed through biology) are more normal and acceptable than others.

The best way to provide all children with the education and support they deserve is to make systemic changes that will have broad, permanent effects. Research and experience indicate these changes would benefit adopted and foster children:

• Education about adoption and foster care should be included in courses (such as on diversity) that are required for students in teacher education programs — as well as in professional development trainings for current teachers, psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers and other relevant school personnel.

• Studies should be conducted focusing on the outcomes of adoption-related educational programs for teachers (as well as other relevant school personnel), and the findings should be utilized to improve trainings, lesson plans, etc.

• Trainings should be developed for adoptive and foster parents on ways to advocate for their children in the schools; expert educational advocates should also be available to parents – as should access to support networks and resources such as occupational therapists, psychologists and other local, out-of-school professionals knowledgeable about adoption issues.

• Child welfare and educational organizations should collaborate to remove systemic barriers that impede the education of foster children, for example, to create policies that promote educational continuity for foster children so they do not have to change schools in the middle of a school year.

Educating educators about the realities of adoption is important as a diversity issue, because children should not be less understood or more stigmatized simply because of the type of family they happen to be in. It is a fairness issue, because adopted and foster children are sometimes derided in ways we would never accept if the taunting or stereotyping referred to other aspects of their being — such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion or disability. And it is an inclusion issue, because the knowledge gained in learning about adoptive and foster families also applies to families headed by single parents, divorced parents, step parents, gay or lesbian parents, parents of different races or ethnicities, and on and on.

In other words, doing the right thing for one group of children means doing the right thing for the majority of children.

Susan Smith, Program & Project Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

 

A Family for Life: The Vital Need to Achieve Permanency for Children in Care

Permanency equals a sense of belonging. When it comes to permanency for youth in care, there’s one simple fact: it’s a basic human need that everyone should be entitled to. We should all know where we go at Christmas.

Lisa Davis

This quote from a young woman providing testimony to a Canadian parliamentary committee  underscores the overwhelming, essential nature of belonging in a family – something most of us take for granted and can scarcely imagine being without. The Donaldson Adoption Institute issued a report today, entitled “A Family for Life” – based on extensive research throughout the U.S., England and Canada – on 22 practices that facilitate the adoption of children from foster care. The report provides a preview of and introduction to a book-length Compendium on these innovative strategies that the Institute plans to publish in late 2013.

The nearly two dozen practices examined in “A Family for Life” are important throughout a child’s journey through placement. Some minimize the trauma experienced by girls and boys in the child welfare system; others assist children in coping with life experiences and transitions, thus facilitating their adjustment and placement stability; and still others help to find families and to enhance their ability to successfully parent their children. These practices are grouped into five categories: organizational practices, court practices, recruitment and retention of permanent families, pre-adoptive casework processes, and supporting and preserving adoptive families. The Compendium provides the following for each practice: description, key program elements, lessons learned, outcomes and selected resources.

Here are a few examples of innovative strategies identified in relation to specific practices:

  • The Department for Education in England publishes “Adoption Scorecards” for local authorities, which are publicly available. These scorecards show how quickly children in need of adoption are placed, and they graph local authorities’ performance on several key indicators in relation to the country as a whole, thus giving those local authorities the opportunity to monitor their own performance and compare it to others.
  • The strategic use of specialized adoption staff has been linked with improved adoption outcomes; for example, following the addition of a block of 25 new adoption workers in New Brunswick, Canada, the number of adoptions from care increased by 300%.
  • A project in Colorado, Denver’s Village, uses six Community-Based Diligent Recruitment Teams to target specific geographic areas. When the project began, children waited an average of 34.6 months after termination of parental rights to achieve permanency; after the project’s first four years, the average dropped to approximately 13 months.
  • England requires adoption agencies to assess and plan for any contact that children adopted from care will have with their birth families and to offer all parties support in maintaining contact. Research there indicates a large majority of adoptive parents in direct contact arrangements remained satisfied that contact was in their children’s best interests.

Based on the range of practice knowledge and research synthesized in the Adoption Institute’s Compendium, a number of recommendations appear self-evident:

  • In statute and policy, provide clear requirements for achieving permanency for every foster child who cannot return home and operationalize this expectation through organizational leadership and culture.
  • Facilitate tracking outcomes at every level of the system in order to understand the barriers to permanency and to enforce accountability for achieving it.
  • Use aggressive family-finding and engagement to maximize the use of relatives as permanency resources for children in care, as this contributes to their well-being.
  • Reduce barriers and disincentives to adoption or guardianship with adequate, reliable subsidies to those who make the commitment to becoming parents to children in care.
  • Incorporate sound casework practices that minimize damage to children and youth in the child welfare system by initially placing them with families who are likely resources for alternate permanency; supporting them to understand and cope with traumatic experiences; and minimizing the extent of their losses by stabilizing placements, requiring Lifebook work, and facilitating the level of openness in their best interests.
  • Monitor court timeframes in order to avoid unwarranted delays in achieving permanency – delays which themselves lessen a child’s chances for adoption.
  •  Employ a range of recruitment and retention strategies to find permanent families for children and youth in care, including promoting consumer-friendly practices to retain families who apply to adopt.
  • Provide a continuum of adoption support and preservation services to stabilize at-risk placements and enable families to successfully parent children to adulthood.

Adoption provides a lifetime of benefits for children who cannot return to their families of origin, including the emotional security of caring adults and a committed family to ensure that their needs are met. Gaining a family for life not only transforms the futures of children in foster care, but also brings benefits to child welfare systems, governments and communities. For example, one economist found that every dollar invested in the adoption of a child from care returns about three dollars in public and private benefits (Hansen, 2006). Adoption also delivers societal benefits after these children become adults, such as reduced likelihood of their receiving public assistance, having criminal or substance abuse involvement, or experiencing a range of other difficulties affecting individuals, their families and the communities in which they live.

“A Family for Life,” in a sense, provides a toolkit for doing a far better job for the tens of thousands of children in public care who need permanent, loving, successful families. Child welfare and adoption professionals, policy-makers and governments at every level owe it to these girls and boys to use it.

Susan Smith, Program & Project Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

Equal Rights for All: It’s Finally Time for Adopted People, Too

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/ZwCCWR

As our country has focused enormous attention in recent days on the rights of one minority, gay men and lesbians, we continue (alas) to give short-shrift to the decades-long effort to achieve equality for millions of people in another segment of our population: Americans who were adopted into their families.

Change is in the air, however, and a grassroots adoption-reform movement — akin to the one that led to the marriage-equality cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court — is growing. The result is that an unusually large number of states — including Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington — this year have considered, or are considering, bills that would address adult adoptees’ second-class legal status by restoring their right to obtain their original birth certificates. I stress the word restoring because these records were accessible nationwide until the mid-20th Century, when one state after the other (except Kansas and Alaska), began sealing them.

The research is crystal clear as to why that was done — to protect adopted children, most of whom were born to unmarried mothers, from the shame and stigma of “illegitimacy;” and to prevent these women, who were even more shamed and stigmatized, from obtaining information that they might use to interfere with the adoptive family.

Many Americans today, notably including state legislators, mistakenly believe original birth certificates (OBC’s) were sealed for a very different reason — to keep the promise of anonymity given to unwed mothers when they parted with their babies. A big problem with that belief, in addition to its being historically inaccurate, is that it deprives the affected women of the one thing shown by research to help them deal most effectively with their grief and loss – that is, knowing that the children they created are alive and well.

Other work by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I have the privilege to lead, buttresses the point from virtually every perspective. For instance, research on Positive Identity Formation concludes that access to core information, such as OBC’s contain, provides important benefits for adopted children’s development. Research on Openness in Adoption finds there are usually gains for everyone concerned, including adoptive parents, when they have more information and contact. And a groundbreaking new report, titled Untangling the Web, recommends that “closed records” laws should be repeated because “the Internet obviates their main contemporary rationale,” which is to keep the parties to adoption from finding each other.

So, in the face of so much evidence that unsealing OBC’s would do a lot of good for millions of people in our country — with little or no indication of resulting harm — why have so many lawmakers in so many states refused to change the status quo for so many decades? From where I sit, the primary answers are mythology, misconceptions and mistaken beliefs, all born during the generations in which adoption was such a deep, dark, dreadful secret that many parents didn’t even tell their own children that they were adopted, and the women who created those children were driven underground because out-of-wedlock pregnancy was considered so disgraceful.

It’s hard to learn much about secrets, so all sorts of erroneous notions have come to be widely accepted, even by some professionals in the adoption field. So here is the bottom-line reality that I hope everyone, particularly legislators, will take into account going forward: The critics of restoring adult adoptees’ right to their OBCs warn that doing so will set off an array of dire consequences — from ruined lives, to increased abortions, to fewer adoptions. Whether they are right is no longer the subject of conjecture or speculation. Very diverse states from coast to coast — from New Hampshire and Maine to Alabama and Illinois, from Rhode Island and Delaware to Tennessee and Oregon — have taken this step, while Kansas and Alaska never sealed their records. So now we can see with our own eyes what calamities transpire when OBC access laws are approved.

The answer, very simply, is “none.”

All this information, and far more, is contained in two comprehensive, research-based reports published by the Adoption Institute, “For the Records” and “For the Records II.” Additional information is contained in testimony that I have provided on behalf of the Institute in various states that have considered OBC legislation in recent years, for example in Maryland.

Viscerally appealing arguments can be made by anyone, on any subject. Compelling anecdotes and singular experiences can be produced by any side, in any argument. So, in order to form the best possible laws, policies and practices, it is vital that we examine real evidence, solid research, and broad-based knowledge.

Those are the elements that have been placed front-and-center, appropriately, in the gay/lesbian marriage debate. It’s long past time for the same to happen during the deliberations in states across our country regarding the right of adopted people to have what everyone else around them assumes as a birthright: access to the simple, essential, unadulterated information about the beginning of their lives.

 

 

My Family Is Not a ‘Second-Best Option’

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/13Y55fP.

I hadn’t known it until just this week, but Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, President Ronald Reagan, singer Marie Osmond, actor Hugh Jackman, journalist Judy Woodruff, basketball great Magic Johnson and I all have something in common: Our families are inferior.

At least that is what John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, suggested during an interview with the Associated Press about two cases currently before the Supreme Court regarding marriage rights for non-heterosexuals. Asserting that lesbians and gay men should not be permitted to wed because the primary reason for marriage is procreation, Eastman added, “Certainly adoption in families headed, like Chief Roberts’ family is, by a heterosexual couple, is by far the second-best option.”

The sound you’re hearing is the blood of millions of people throughout the United States and beyond — gay and straight, single and married, parents and children — boiling.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute, an independent and nonpartisan think tank that I am proud to lead, conducts research and policy analysis on a broad range of issues relating to adoption, foster care, parental education, professional training and, at the bottom line, best practices for children in need of safe, permanent, loving families. As a result of our work, and that of every other major, mainstream organization that has examined the relevant issues, I know that qualified gay and lesbian parents not only can provide such families, but are successfully doing so in growing numbers every single day.

During a lower-court trial leading up to one of the cases now before the Supreme Court, a then-star witness against gay marriage — David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values — acknowledged that studies “show that adoptive parents, because of the rigorous screening process that they undertake… actually on some outcomes outstrip the biological parents in terms of providing protective care for their children.” Message to Eastman and others who share your views: You’re entitled to your own opinions about gay marriage and parenting, but the research is the research, and you are not entitled to your own facts.

The National Organization for Marriage and other like-minded groups have not only tried to produce their own truths about adoption and gay-led families, but also about marriage itself. They flatly state, in the amicus briefs they have submitted to the Supreme Court, that marriage exists in order to promote “procreation and childbearing,” and they argue that since gays and lesbians cannot themselves create children, it is acceptable to prevent them from marrying.

The Adoption Institute’s own amicus to the Court offers a decidedly different perspective, based not only on the research on gay and lesbian families, but also on the empirical reality that millions upon millions of children in our country and all others are being successfully parented by single, widowed and divorced men and women, cohabitating couples and other unmarried adults; if the law is to be consistent, should they be prohibited from raising their sons and daughters? Furthermore, untold numbers of heterosexuals throughout time have gotten married, and are doing so today, without any intention of having children or, sometimes, without the ability to do so. Should they, like lesbians and gay men, be prohibited from walking down the aisle?

“Both history and scholarly research demonstrate that loving, nurturing families for children come in many different sorts and sizes,” the Adoption Institute’s amicus brief states, in part. “A biological connection between a parent and a child is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure ‘responsible childrearing.’”

One more conclusion from numerous studies: Notwithstanding the reality that girls and boys can do very well in all sorts of families, they do indeed benefit from marriage for an array of legal and social reasons. So, if the best interests of children are truly paramount, and if research and experience show that lesbians and gay men can make good parents — via adoption or the old fashioned way — what is this same-sex marriage debate really about?

Finally, I’d like to take off my research/policy/professional hat for a moment to directly address Eastman’s “second best” comment. Is adoption sometimes a second choice? Of course, but that doesn’t mean for a second that it is second best, and perpetuating that contention does nothing more or less than stigmatize, undermine and insult the tens of millions of Americans (that’s right, tens of millions) who have adoption in their immediate families.

Speaking for my wife and me, as the parents of two first-rate children who came into our family through a process we chose as our best option, I know that Eastman is as wrong as wrong can be. If we lived back in the time when views such as his were more prevalent, I’d challenge him to a duel.