Tag Archives: Adoption Institute

Legalized Infant Abandonment Roils Europe; Where’s the Debate in the U.S.?

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/13WOsN7.

A colleague emailed me a few days ago to suggest that I listen to an NPR story headlined “Spread of Baby Boxes Alarms Europeans,” about the growing number of facilities – now in at least 11 of the continent’s 27 countries – where newborns can be legally abandoned. “I’m very glad we don’t have anything like this in the U.S.,” my friend wrote.

Alas, she was wrong. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have implemented so-called Safe Haven laws during the last decade, with exactly the same intent as the Baby Boxes: to save newborns from being left in horrible places (dumpsters and the like) by providing safe alternatives. In Europe, they are hatches at designated buildings into which babies can be placed and then retrieved by trained workers on the other side; in America, they are usually hospitals, firehouses or police stations, where personnel inside can accept the child.

The big difference between their approach and ours, apart from the logistics, is that there’s a substantial debate in Europe over the effectiveness and wisdom of legalizing infant abandonment – with human rights advocates and the United Nations calling for an outright ban on Baby Boxes – while there’s barely a peep in this country because, thus far, lawmakers have accepted this bottom-line argument: “If it saves just one bay’s life, isn’t it worth doing?”

It’s a powerful, emotional, compelling argument. Alas, it is also deeply flawed.

The best social policies result from solid research, thoughtful planning and careful implementation. Unfortunately, these basic standards haven’t been applied to the laws that address the disconcerting, very real problem of infants being abandoned in dumpsters, bathrooms, and other dangerous places.

Instead, with too little information about the causes of the phenomenon or the potential effectiveness of the response, lawmakers nationwide have created these so-called “safe havens” – again, usually hospitals, police stations and firehouses – where new mothers can legally desert their babies, anonymously and without the risk of prosecution.

These well-intentioned laws spread so rapidly during the past decade because they promised an intuitively appealing, easy fix. But complex social problems are rarely resolved through simple, feel-good solutions. So it’s no surprise that the Donaldson Adoption Institute’s examination of the issue, entitled “Unintended Consequences,” not only concluded that there was no evidence the safe haven statutes work, but also found that they had serious drawbacks. The Institute is in the process of conducting research to update this report, which was published several years ago, but indications are that its findings remain true.

In a nutshell, the core flaw in these laws is that a mother who is so distraught or so in denial that she would stuff her newborn into a trash can is not likely, instead, to ask her boyfriend for a ride to the police station. The Institute found that disconnect to be the major reason unsafe abandonments were continuing unabated, even in states that advertised their “safe havens” on highway billboards and in public-service TV commercials.

Women in distress need counseling and support, not to mention pre- and postnatal medical assistance. But these laws don’t even pretend to offer resources to help mothers deliver healthy babies or to resolve the traumas that lead them to jeopardize their newborns’ lives.

This don’t ask, don’t tell approach does open a Pandora’s box, however.

It undermines the established legal rights of biological fathers to parent their own children, for instance, while precluding grandparents and other relatives from helping to care for the mother or her child. Alternatively, it creates the opportunity for irate boyfriends or disapproving family members to coerce an emotionally fragile teenager into deserting her baby, or even to take the child themselves and anonymously abandon it.

Perhaps worst of all, these laws proclaim, loud and clear, that deserting a child is socially sanctioned behavior. That’s an unnerving message for our culture to be sending. And we know anecdotally that it is being heard: Some women who never would have thought to deprive their offspring of genealogical, personal, or even critically important medical information are doing so now, because they’ve been given an option that’s less of a hassle than receiving parenting counseling or filling out an adoption agency’s paperwork.

So there are indeed infants being left at safe havens, but there’s no evidence that many – or perhaps any – of them would have been left in horrible places if these laws didn’t exist. Rather, they very likely are children who otherwise would have been adopted through traditional means or been raised by birth relatives, but who now must grow up without any prospect of knowing the most basic facts about themselves.

The Adoption Institute report raised other red flags, too, from specific concerns such as whether these laws actually encourage women to conceal their pregnancies and give birth unsafely, to the sweeping indictment that anonymous abandonment flies in the face of recognized best practices developed for decades by child-welfare and adoption professionals.

The proponents of safe havens and Baby Boxes most effectively answer criticism by saying their approach is worthwhile even if it saves just one baby’s life.

I have an alternative suggestion: Let’s aim higher. Let’s conduct the solid research, and then do the thoughtful planning and careful implementation. That way, we can develop policies that help women who face crisis pregnancies, prevent infant abandonment – and maybe, just maybe, save all the babies’ lives.

Untangling the Web: A Groundbreaking Project – and a Request for Help

Social media and other elements of new technology are instigating life-altering changes in every aspect of adoption. These historic shifts range from creating challenges and opportunities for child-placement, counseling, outreach and other professional practices; to facilitating search and reunion to an extent never before imagined; to complicating the ability of courts, agencies and parents to determine the nature of contact between minor children and members of their families of origin.

In short, for good and for ill, the Internet is rewriting the rules of adoption.

I’m writing today – along with my colleague at the Donaldson Adoption Institute, Dr. Jeanne Howard — to tell you a bit about (and ask your help on) an important new research project that Jeanne is leading for us. It is titled “Untangling the Web: The Internet’s Historic Impact on Adoption” and it aims to achieve several objectives over the three years we plan to devote to it (funding permitting):

  • Gain a better understanding of what’s happening and its implications.
  • Offer knowledge-based findings and recommendations on effective/best practices for all the affected professionals, families and individuals.
  • Provide information and resources to enable all parties to deal more thoughtfully and effectively with the changes that are forever reshaping adoption.

Here’s how you can help: If you have examples, ideas or any other feedback from your professional or personal experience that could inform our work – issues in law, policy, practice or everyday life that we should be looking at, large and small – we would greatly appreciate hearing from you.

This means illustrations of how the Internet has improved or harmed aspects of adoption; stories of how social media have led to wonderful reunions or problematic ones; instances of positive, affirming communications or terrible ones (such as an abusive adult ignoring a court order and contacting a child) and whatever other issues you have seen, have concerns about, or think we need to research/address.

To share your input: Please send an email to this address: InternetProjectAI@gmail.com.

Let us know in your message whether we can contact you to get further details or clarification on the information you provide. Also, feel free to forward this blog – which also is being circulated as an emailed letter – to anyone on your own lists whom you think might be able to contribute. We will carefully review all messages and may use some as examples in our publications.

Your thoughts and examples will be invaluable to making this groundbreaking project a success, so thank you enormously in advance for taking the time to help. 

Jeanne Howard, Research Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

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.

New Realities in the Extended Family: Who is the Woman Celebrating Thanksgiving with Your Next-Door Neighbors?

March 27, 2012

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to:  http://huff.to/GV7pqq

Adoption has been around, in one form or another, for a very long time; to get a sense of how long, please see the Bible. As a result of its stigmatized, secretive history during much of the 20th Century, however (so stigmatized and secretive, in fact, that parents often didn’t tell their own children that they were adopted), there is a lack of understanding to this day about the parties to adoption and the nature of their relationships. And the repercussions of this lingering lack of knowledge are considerable – from inaccurate, corrosive stereotypes about the women who place their children for adoption; to uninformed, undermining attitudes about adoptive families; to obsolete laws and policies that treat adopted individuals as second-class citizens; to genuine surprise among most people when they learn about adoption’s current realities.

I hear that surprise regularly in the voices of the teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, journalists and others with whom I routinely interact as head of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national research and policy organization. “Are you sure birthmothers don’t want to just forget about the baby they put up for adoption and move on?” Yes, very sure. “I’m sorry that you, as an adoptive parent, couldn’t have any real children.” You should see my kids sometime; they look real. And: “It can’t be true that most states’ laws impede adult adoptees from getting their own medical information, can it?” Shocking maybe, but true as true can be.

All of which brings me to a just-published report from the Adoption Institute, the core of which is a new survey of adoption agencies nationwide and which is entitled “Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections.” It shows just how far we have progressed – and how profoundly families have changed – since the stigmatized, shame-filled, clandestine days when it was considered good practice to keep nearly all adoptions of infants in this country “closed,” meaning the children’s new families and their families of origin knew virtually nothing about each other and never had communication of any kind.

Leaping forward to today’s very-different world, here are some highlights of the Institute’s report:

  • Only 5% of agency infant adoptions start out as “closed” and most (55%) are “open,” which means the birth and adoptive families know each other and usually plan ongoing contact. (The remaining 40% are in the middle, with information exchanged through intermediaries.)
  • Equally telling is the finding that 95% of agencies now offer open adoptions; remember, not very long ago in our history, that number was zero.
  • In the vast majority of cases, the expectant mother considering adoption for her baby meets the prospective adoptive parents and chooses her child’s new family.
  • Adoptive parents, like most participants in open adoptions, report positive experiences;  more openness is also associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process.
  • Women who have placed their infants for adoption – and then have continuing contact with their children – report less grief, regret and worry, as well as more peace of mind.
  • The primary beneficiaries of openness are the adopted persons, as children and later in life, because of access to birth relatives, as well as to their own family and medical histories.

So, what does it all mean?

At the ground level, for the adults and children directly involved, it means we’re moving into an era in which the definition of “extended family” is being expanded to something along the lines of an in-law model – except it’s the children, rather than the spouses, who bring their relatives into the new family. It also means the practitioners who place babies for adoption need to better understand the sometimes-challenging road ahead so they can impart their knowledge to the involved parties, who themselves need to learn how best to navigate their complex new relationships. (The Adoption Institute is creating a curriculum for professionals and parents to help them do just that.)

Not all adoptions are “open,” of course, and most contemporary adoptions are not of infants; the majority are of older children from foster care in the U.S. and some involve boys and girls from orphanages abroad. One size does not fit all; no single type of family formation – by adoption or biology or step-parenting or guardianship or fostering – is right for everybody; and, while adoption has improved markedly in many ways in the last several decades, we’ve still got lots of work to do.

Even so, the knowledge we now have tells us that modern infant adoption increasingly involves informed consent, mutual respect and the genuine best interests of children to a degree that simply hadn’t existed before. And it tells us – in the really big picture – that adoption as a social institution continues to do what it has done for a very long time: open our minds and alter our collective views about what constitutes a family, and that’s very good news for the growing gamut of family constellations in our country today.

The woman celebrating Thanksgiving with your next-door neighbors is the mother who brought her son to this earth – and then placed him with his new parents. Don’t be surprised, be delighted.

When Fox News, David Brock, Identity and Adoption Intersect: Where’s the Outrage?

February 24, 2012

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

Imagine for a moment that David Brock, founder of the watchdog organization Media Matters, was African American or Asian or Jewish or Catholic or gay or disabled (I don’t have a clue about his sexual orientation, ethnic background, religion or physical condition, by the way, but bear with me for a moment). So, if any of those things were part of Brock’s identity, what might happen if a guest on a major news network said the following:

  • That Brock is “dangerous” and then implied it’s because he was black/Jewish/etc.
  • “This is a (Catholic/gay/etc.) boy who needs to plumb the depths of his psyche.”
  • “Many (Asian/disabled/etc.) children are tremendously well-adjusted, but this man feels he’s unloved and unlovable.”

I’m pretty sure such comments would draw outrage from many viewers across the political spectrum. They would be the subject of considerable discussion all over the internet, on other news and talk shows, and in people’s conversations from coast to coast. The network would probably apologize, and maybe even announce that the purveyor of such uninformed, biased remarks – to describe them kindly –would no longer be welcome as a guest on its programs.

Well, just a few days ago, a guest on a major network uttered every one of the disparaging comments listed above, and then some. But the part of Brock’s real-life identity that was denigrated by psychiatrist Keith Ablow on Fox News (http://bit.ly/xkhkLi ) was the fact that he entered his family through adoption and, alas, there was barely a peep of reaction from anyone outside of the adoption community.

Is that because adoptive identity is not understood as significant by most Americans? Probably, although the research (http://bit.ly/yUJf4m) and most adopted persons agree it’s just as much a part of them as their race, religion, etc. Or maybe it’s because Ablow drew on discredited stereotypes of adopted people that are still part of our culture, even though they’re corrosive and offensive? That’s probably a piece of the explanation, too; we continue to pay a high price for adoption’s history of secrecy and shame, including far too little knowledge about the millions of people for whom it is an everyday reality.

The reasons Ablow felt comfortable linking Brock’s behavior to his adoption, and the reasons his comments barely registered before flying off the radar screen, are important – and it would be wonderful if they would be examined by researchers, fellow mental health professionals and television pundits alike. I’m not going to dwell on them here, however; instead, I want to make a few straight-forward points, irrespective of the “whys” of what happened.

First, though it certainly happens, I hope we can agree in principle that it should be unacceptable for anyone to use negative stereotypes, unconfirmed assumptions or stigmatizing caricatures to cut down a political adversary, or anyone else for that matter. That such language is tolerated by professional newscasters and producers on a major, widely watched network is unnerving.

Second, people who don’t know much about adoption, or about the individuals it impacts, should either educate themselves or find something else to talk about. At best, they are perpetuating undermining stigmas and stereotypes and, at worst, they are upsetting and infuriating adopted children (they watch television, too) and adopted adults, as well as all the other people who are personally affected.

Finally, as a former journalist, I am mystified and disappointed that any news outlet would give credibility to a psychiatrist who acknowledges that he did not examine the person he’s publicly diagnosing. Ablow is entitled to his opinion regarding adoption issues, however uniformed or misguided it may be, but it is another matter altogether for a journalist or newscaster or whatever these TV personalities are called, to implicitly present him as an expert on the subject he is discussing.

I’ll end with this admission: I could not have cited one substantive factoid about either Keith Ablow or David Brock before this episode was brought to my attention a few days ago in a bristling email from a middle-aged man, who was himself adopted. I knew very little about their politics, their work or their controversies. So my observations here have nothing to do with the ideology of the left and right, or political correctness, or whether Fox is fair and balanced, or anything of that sort. I simply learned of deeply offensive comments and was repelled by them – as I hope I would have been if they’d been about someone’s race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other part of their identity.

Pass the word far and wide, and let the national conversation begin.