Tag Archives: adoptee rights

Big Lessons That Transcend the Movie: There Are Philomenas All Around Us

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1i7uEzY

As I was leaving the theater over the weekend, after watching the mesmerizing movie “Philomena,” a couple of middle-aged women nearby were talking about how much they had learned from the film. “It’s awful what happened in Ireland back then,” one of them said. “I’d never known about it before.”

What they learned, in a nutshell, was that girls and young women like the real-life Philomena – who got pregnant out of wedlock in that country during the 1950s – were frequently forced to work under brutal conditions in convent laundries as “penance” for their “sins.” And then their sons and daughters were routinely, mercilessly spirited away from them to be adopted by wealthy Americans, most if not all of whom showed their gratitude to the church with generous “donations.”

“Philomena” is far more than a glimpse into the past, however, and I hope that people who see it (and I wish I had a magic wand to induce everyone to do so) will derive far broader and more essential lessons. Because the reality is that during the mid-20th Century and beyond, severe religious, social and familial stigmas against unwed motherhood were the norm far beyond Ireland. As a consequence, it’s almost certainly true that there are more Philomenas in the United States than in any other country – i.e., women who, given a choice, would have parented their children rather than suffering the anguish of losing them and wondering about them every day because they were placed into closed adoptions.

Perhaps most unsettling, both because some of the stigmas remain and because adoption policies and practices have not yet progressed sufficiently, more Philomenas are being created every day.

So from the perspective of a leader of a think tank dedicated to making adoption as thoughtful, ethical and compassionate as possible for all of its participants, here are a few of the big takeaways that I hope will be embedded into the consciousness of the viewers of this important movie.

First and foremost, shaming or coercing parents into parting with their children or, worse, removing their children without consent (even when that’s necessary), inflicts profound and lasting psychic wounds. On-screen in “Philomena,” it looked like a form of torture, and I’m sure many women would describe it that way. A related lesson: Women whose children go to adoptive homes rarely “forget and move on.” They may do the latter, especially if they had a real voice in the process, but just as was the case for Philomena, the lives they created remain in their minds and hearts and souls. And, if they don’t know where their sons or daughters are, they anguish over whether their children are healthy or sick, even dead or alive.

There unquestionably are circumstances in which children need new families, especially if remaining in their original ones puts them in harm’s way; furthermore, there certainly are women and men who willingly place their infants for adoption. Given what we know about the enduring repercussions of being separated from one’s child, however, policy and practice must do a better job of ensuring that families can stay intact when possible, and that parents receive the help they need when that goal cannot be met. Moreover, women and men who do consider adoption for their children should be enabled to understand all of their options beforehand, so that they make genuinely informed decisions, and should receive pre- and post-placement counseling and support as well.

There’s a vital lesson in this film about adopted people, too: Like their peers who are raised in their families of origin, adoptees typically want and/or need – and certainly deserve – to know from where and from whom they came. They are too often prevented from obtaining that knowledge, however, by laws that keep their records sealed; by practices that keep their adoptions closed; and by attitudes that mistakenly equate their desire or need to know with disloyalty to their adoptive parents.

The insights provided by this quietly powerful movie are not simply the conjectures of a filmmaker, written for dramatic effect. Rather, they are based on the real life of the title character – and they reflect the truths of generations of women and the children they lost. It’s also important to say that the lessons in “Philomena” are borne out by decades of experience and research, including “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process” and “For the Records II: An Examination of the History and Impact of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates.” Both are the work of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which is currently embarking on a new “Safeguarding II” study intended to define and shape best practices in options counseling for expectant parents.

Most people who see “Philomena” will undoubtedly come away thinking far more about Judi Dench’s riveting performance than about the need for continued improvement of adoption laws, policies and practices. But this movie, because it is so popular and so well-received, provides the best springboard in years for a broad conversation about the undermining consequences of stigma, shame, secrets and lies – and about how we can reshape social attitudes and institutions that were built on those foundations.

Adam Pertman, President of Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

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

 

 

Paul Ryan + Mother’s Day + Gay Marriage = Doing What’s Best for Children

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/12ZCBgv.

It’s not yet time to declare a momentous victory, but it’s certainly a sign of progress that even staunch social conservatives like U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan now support adoption by lesbians and gay men. “I think if a person wants to love and raise a child,” the Wisconsin Republican recently told constituents, “they ought to be able to do that. Period.”

Even though Ryan said he still does not believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry, his change of heart about adoption has significant resonance for a couple of reasons. First, it comes in the context of huge progress for LGBT people on other fronts (even as we await the outcome of two historic marriage equality cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court); and, second, because Ryan delivered his comments just ahead of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Like all other parents during those national celebrations, gay moms and dads in every state will receive cards and flowers and ties and hugs and other expressions of love from their sons and daughters — tens of thousands of whom were adopted from the U.S. child welfare system, many of them at older ages, in sibling groups or with physical, psychological or developmental special needs.

The point is that the professionals whose job is to ensure the safety and well-being of children in foster care have long known from experience what the research unequivocally affirms: that gay parents, like their straight peers who also are vetted and trained before being permitted to adopt, provide enormous benefits to girls and boys who need families. That is precisely why a wide array of mainstream organizations, from the Donaldson Adoption Institute to the American Academy of Pediatrics, to the National Association of Social Workers and numerous others, have uniformly come out in support of adoption by lesbians and gay men.

There are benefits that the children in these families do not receive, however, and they are the ones that derive from marriage. Separate from the question of whether single and unmarried parents can also raise children well — which both experience and research clearly demonstrate they can — it’s simply true that society values marriage and attaches a diverse range of advantages to children within it, such as insurance coverage, legal protections, social standing, inheritance and so forth. Indeed, I believe it can be fairly argued that children are the biggest beneficiaries of marriage.
So, keeping that reality firmly in mind for a moment, I’d like to suggest that in addition to the adult-focused issue that is central to the gay marriage debate — whether it’s fair to give different people different rights depending on their sexual orientation — we also should address another vital question, one on which most people of every political and religious stripe presumably would agree: Shouldn’t our nation’s laws, policies and practices serve “the best interests of the child?”

Viewed through that prism, the picture of what needs to happen next seems crystal clear to me: The 39 states that have not approved marriage equality should do so expeditiously, and the Supreme Court should decide the marriage equality cases before it in favor of allowing gay men and women to legally wed and to have those unions recognized by the federal government.

After all, if it is in the best interests of children to have the opportunity to live in families in which they can receive the most protections and the greatest advantages, “they ought to be able to do that. Period.”

 

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.