Tag Archives: Adoption Nation

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.


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.

Before it’s Too Late: Understanding the Impact of Institutionalization on Children

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to:  http://huff.to/W2rO5X

Through all the dark shadows that Russia has cast with its ban on adoptions by Americans – on the affected girls and boys, on the U.S. citizens seeking to become their parents, and on the process of international adoption itself – a thin glimmer of light is struggling to emerge: That is, for the first time in recent memory, the consequences of institutionalization on children are receiving serious (albeit still superficial and sporadic) public attention.

For the record, the consequences can include emotional and social disorders; loss of IQ points and intellectual capacity; stunted growth and other physical ailments; and a host of additional psychological, physiological and behavioral challenges. Some of these impairments cause developmental delays that can be remediated and others can severely undermine the child for his or her lifetime. The bottom line is that even “good” institutions are lousy places for human beings to grow up, and research shows that the longer children remain in them, the dimmer their prospects for a reasonable future become.

Even knowing all this, I am not about to suggest that international adoption is the optimal answer for the vast majority of infants, children and youth around the world – including in our own country – who don’t live in secure, nurturing families. Nor do I intend to single out Russia as an exemplar of the problem, though the way in which it cut off one potential escape route for a small minority of its institutionalized children was particularly disconcerting.

Finally and very importantly, I do not mean to alarm potential adoptive parents or to stigmatize the children who need our help by laying out these realities so starkly. The uplifting fact is that children are resilient, and many of all ages do well from the get-go once they are being raised by parents who provide the individualized love and attention they need; for the rest, providing permanency and nurture as early as possible can make a titanic difference – which is to say that even those who face the challenges listed above begin to heal, make progress and even thrive once they are in caring families.

All of which leads to a few bottom-line suggestions for politicians, policymakers, child welfare officials and the general public in the United States, Russia and every other country:

  • Beginning tomorrow morning, provide the funding and resources necessary to ensure that children can grow up safely and successfully in their families, cultures and nations of origin – and so that the women and men who created them are treated without stigma and with respect.
  • Beginning tomorrow morning, provide the funding and resources necessary to prevent institutionalization, to replace institutions with more-beneficial interventions, to make out-of-home care as short and effective as possible, and to restore families whenever feasible.
  • Beginning tomorrow morning, reshape domestic norms so that adoption and other types of permanency are understood as positive ways of forming families for children who need them – and so that the parents who choose these paths are treated without stigma and with respect.

Those aren’t quick or easy solutions; in fact, it would be fair to describe them as idealistic, long-term dreams rather than as realistic, near-term goals, and that’s the point. Taking the steps necessary to help the millions of children who deserve to live in safe, stable and successful circumstances will take a long time, a lot of money and a level of commitment that few governments, anywhere, have ever provided.

So, while I mightily hope that President Vladimir Putin means it when he says Russia will now strive to take better care of its children, including getting more of them adopted domestically if they cannot return to their families of origin, I need to ask: Can you do that by tomorrow morning and, if not, what will happen to those who remain in government custody during the years, and probably decades, it will take to improve your child welfare system?

Again, that is not a question just for or about Russia. There are many children, everywhere, whose parents and other relatives should get the financial and social support to keep their families intact. There are many children, everywhere, who need interim living arrangements while they receive help for their medical and mental health issues. And there are many children, everywhere, who would benefit from moving into families willing to provide them with love and sustenance for the rest of their lives.

It’s hard to imagine there are many children, anywhere, who are better off remaining institutionalized.

The public discourse about these children to date has focused primarily on other concerns, ranging from national pride to money and regulation; from protecting the rights of parents to preventing the exploitation of children; from retaining original cultures to creating new opportunities. And, of course, they have included provocative debates about whether international adoption should play a role and about why Americans adopt from abroad when there are children in the U.S. who need families. (There are good answers to these questions, by the way, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

For now, I think it’s fair to say that these concerns and many others are real, vital and should be seriously discussed. They illustrate the complexity of the problems faced by the international community, by individual nations and by the interested parties in solving the so-called “orphan crisis,” which is a misnomer because a large percentage of the affected children still have at least one living parent – which, of course, makes the whole matter even more complicated.

Perhaps it is because the puzzle has so many pieces that so few countries, including our own, have been able to see the big picture, the one that shows millions of children languishing in temporary care while the adults who control their lives engage in genuinely important deliberations. So I suggest that whenever we look at these important issues, on the ground or at a policy level, we use the glimmer of light that Russia provided a few weeks ago to see them within a different framework, defined by a cliché that every country at some point claims to embrace: the best interests of the child.

It simply cannot be in the best interests of any girl or boy to remain in a setting where she or he loses ground every day. So, while we adults attempt to find the best possible medium- and long-range solutions for these children, let’s also carefully, thoughtfully, ethically implement every short-term measure possible – including family preservation and adoption – to prevent them from deteriorating to the point where even the best solutions will no longer make any difference.

A New Chapter in Adoption History: For Millions of People, the Internet is Changing . . . Everything

Read on the Huffington Post

It’s hard to describe the extent to which the Internet is changing the everyday realities of adoption – and the lives of the millions of people it encompasses – without using words that sound hyperbolic. But a yearlong examination of the effects of this very new technology on a very old social institution shows that they are systemic, profound, complex and permanent.

Social media, search engines, blogs, chat rooms, photo-listings and an array of other modern communications tools, all facilitated by the Internet, are transforming adoption practices, challenging laws and policies, providing unprecedented opportunities and resources, and raising critical ethical, legal and procedural issues about which professionals, legislators and the personally affected parties have little reliable information, research or experience to guide them. Continue reading