Tag Archives: Donaldson Adoption Institute

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