Tag Archives: adoptees

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

 

An Unnerving Reality: We’re Deporting Adoptees

May 29, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/K9NYiR.

Imagine that your daughter, whom you raised from infancy, was convicted of forgery. You certainly wouldn’t be surprised if she were prosecuted for that felony and, while it would be heartbreaking, you’d expect her to be punished, probably even imprisoned. Now let’s add one more element to this real-life scenario: How would you feel if the penalty imposed on your 30-year-old child – who suffers from multiple sclerosis – was deportation to another country where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the native language?

I am not making this up. It is happening today. It is obviously devastating to the woman facing a jarringly disproportionate punishment for the crime she committed, but it is also much more than that. It is a vivid example of the unfairness and inequality that sometimes exist in the world of adoption.

What may be most unnerving is the fact that this is not an aberration; while it is hardly commonplace, it has happened again and again. And there has been virtually no media attention, or public outrage, or embarrassment on the part of immigration officials, or concerted effort to reform law and policy so that people who were adopted into their families are placed on a level playing field with their biological counterparts.

Here’s the core of the case: Kairi Abha Shepherd was adopted from India into the United States in 1982, when she was three months old. Her mother, a single woman in Utah, died of cancer eight years later, so Shepherd went on to live with guardians for the remainder of her childhood. More details are in this news story from last week: http://bit.ly/KzkIP5.

In short, Shepherd’s adoption took place before 2000, when a new federal statute conferred automatic U.S. citizenship on most children adopted internationally into this country; the law included a retroactive provision, but she was adopted a few months before it kicked in. So the adults in her life were supposed to fill out paperwork for her to become a citizen – but, like many others, they either didn’t know or, for whatever reasons, never got around to doing it.

As a consequence, when Shepherd was convicted in 2004 of forgery to feed a drug habit, U.S. authorities did what they do to many felons who don’t have documents showing they are Americans: They started deportation proceedings, which are now coming to a head. It doesn’t seem to matter that Shepherd has lived as an American for all but a few months of her life, and it is an extraordinary price to pay for a bureaucratic oversight made by the adults who raised her.

Again, this is not an aberration. Last year, a 31-year-old mother of three, who was adopted from Korea when she was eight months old, was held at a federal detention center in Arizona and faced deportation after a second theft conviction. It’s unclear what happened to the woman, who was not named (http://bit.ly/KiQ65Q) but the bottom line was the same: Her adoption took place before the period covered by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, and neither she nor her parents ever applied for citizenship for her. So, even though she had lived in the U.S. nearly all her life, had given birth to three children on our nation’s soil, had never as much as visited Korea and didn’t speak the language, federal authorities wanted to send her “back.”

There are more examples, too, dating back at least 15 years; indeed, in my book Adoption Nation, I write about a young man who was adopted into the U.S. as a child, convicted of car theft and credit card fraud, and deported at age 25 to Thailand, where (same story) he knew no one and didn’t speak the native tongue. Can you imagine anything comparable happening to someone born into his or her family, whatever the offense? Of course not.

People who break the law should unequivocally pay an appropriate price for their offenses. But I think it can fairly be argued that the reason some are being ejected from the only country they’ve ever known is not because of the crime they’ve committed – but because they were adopted.

This feels grievously wrong. We should be shocked, we should be outraged, and we should do whatever is necessary to halt the cases already in progress and to prevent this from ever happening again.

Are Children’s Issues Only Important in Attack Videos?

January 10, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go tohttp://huff.to/xz5Dxk

Politicians love children. We believe that to be true because they say it all the time (you know, things like “children are our future”). They also showcase their own kids during commercials, campaign with them if they’re old enough, and even kiss babies when they get the chance.

So why, when they make their policy decisions and set their public priorities, do so few of our elected officials offer specific plans — as they routinely do for budget cuts, military spending and an array of other matters — for how they would provide children with better medical care, enhanced educational opportunities or increased prospects for success, for instance by reforming the foster care system so that more boys and girls can stop shuttling from home to home and can, instead, move into permanent, loving families? Children are routinely cited as the beneficiaries of the ideas politicians suggest, whether tax cuts or hikes, increased spending or less of it. But it’s hard to recall a single instance of a candidate advocating a specific programmatic initiative with children at its core.

All this comes to mind because child welfare, specifically relating to international adoption, actually has recently made it onto the political radar screen — although not exactly in the way one would have hoped. Rather than appearing because a candidate finally decided that children’s well-being should be on the list of America’s explicit priorities, the issue arose instead because someone decided it was good fodder for an attack ad.

The YouTube video, released by self-proclaimed supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, labels presidential rival John Huntsman as a “Manchurian Candidate.” It contains one shot of the former Utah governor holding his daughter born in India and another of him with his daughter born in China; disparaging captions accompany each photo, with the cumulative objective of questioning Huntsman’s values.

It’s a revolting piece of work on many levels. Using children as a weapon against their parents for political gain crosses the most basic ethical line. And, as the leader of an adoption research and policy organization, I find it truly unsettling that anyone can suggest that providing a family for a child from another nation is somehow an indicator of the parents’ loyalty to their own.

Huntsman denounced the ad, of course, explaining that his Chinese daughter had been abandoned and his Indian daughter had been “left for dead” (unfortunately implying that adoption is a means of rescuing children rather than a way of forming families — but that’s a commentary for another day), and saying that his two adopted girls are “a daily reminder that there are a lot of kids in this world who don’t have the breaks that you do.”

What Huntsman did not do — and neither did any of the other candidates, nor any of the journalists covering them — is use this vicious video as the jumping off point for a discussion of the children in our own country and in others who “don’t have the breaks that you do.” Most to the point, no one used the occasion to suggest ways to actually do something about it.

Is the message clear yet? Just in case I’ve been too subtle, here’s the point: Children’s concerns, embedded in concrete proposals and programs, should be on the priority list of every candidate in every party of every ideology running for every office, right there alongside national security, improving the economy and other genuinely vital issues. Nearly every politician says it’s already true, so how about if journalists and advocacy groups and Facebook-ers and Twitter-ers and voters in the audience posing questions at debates start demanding chapter and verse?

It’s wonderful that Michele Bachmann provided foster care for 23 teenage girls, but it would have been more wonderful to turn her experience from a talking point on the campaign trail into a conversation about how to solve the problem of older youth aging out of the U.S. child welfare system without families (see the Adoption Institute’s report on the subject).

It’s important for the candidates to discuss LGBT issues, but why is that almost always done with the focus solely on the adults — i.e., should they be allowed to marry and so forth? How about if we flip the focus and ask about all the children in our country languishing in foster care, pointing out the research showing that lesbians and gay men provide good homes for a growing number of these boys and girls (see the Adoption Institute’s report on the subject)?

And when candidates run or are considered for any office, how about if the media shine a spotlight on their records on adoption, foster care and children’s issues in general, in addition to all the others that journalists already scrutinize? If Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is considered a serious vice presidential candidate, for instance, he should have to explain why he vetoed legislation last year that would have given adopted adults in his state the same rights to their original birth certificates — and thereby the same access to their medical and historical information — as everyone else has as a matter of course.

Children don’t lobby, they don’t vote and they don’t contribute big bucks to political campaigns, so it’s not a big surprise that questions of the kind I’m suggesting haven’t made it to center stage yet. But they should and, to quote nearly every politician who ever was, here’s why: Children, really and truly, are our future.

Lessons from Harvard, B.J. Lifton . . . and Oprah

February 1, 2011

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

I attended two events over the past weekend that, in very different ways, made me think of Oprah Winfrey (who is on the minds of many of us inside and outside the adoption world of late).

On Friday and Saturday, I participated in a national conference at Harvard University that focused on ideas to help the high number of African American children in our country’s foster care system. The conference didn’t address adoption much, but some speakers talked about the importance of children and youth maintaining biological ties, others touched on identity issues, and yet others broached the impact on parents and siblings of separating children from their families of origin. Those are all big, universal themes that affect tens of millions of Americans to varying degrees at various times of their lives. And, of course, they’re all significant concerns within the adoption community.

For a couple of hours in the middle of Saturday, I excused myself from the brain-straining conversation at Harvard to attend to a matter of the heart: I crossed the street in Cambridge to join a packed room of people paying tribute to B.J. Lifton, a spectacular human being and cherished friend whose recent death I still cannot quite believe or accept. It was a powerful, moving memorial service during which speaker after speaker directly addressed one adoption issue after the other, in particular B.J.’s passion for greater openness, honesty and restoring the right of adoptees to access their original birth certificates.

Oprah’s name didn’t come up at either event, but it was impossible for me, and I’m sure for many others, not to feel her presence. That’s because the media superstar’s revelations last week – that her mother had placed a child for adoption nearly 50 years ago, that she had now reunited with her half-sister, that she had herself given birth to a baby when she was 14 – along with the commanding images and emotional words of all three women, brought myriad adoption issues into the homes of a huge number of Americans to an extent they probably have rarely, if ever, experienced before.

At their core, of course, they were the same issues that resonated at both events I attended over the weekend. What one of the most famous and respected women in the world did was provide televised testimony for some essential truths: that people who create lives never forget them, and deeply grieve their loss; that everyone wants to know from where and from whom they came, regardless of their circumstances; that sibling relationships are innately powerful magnets, rivaling those that draw together parent and child; and perhaps most pointedly and poignantly (and certainly most clichéd), that truth and honesty beat all the alternatives, in adoption as in other aspects of life. Without question, they lead us onto the road to healing, however difficult and complicated the journey might be. Continue reading