Tag Archives: Evan B. 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

 

 

Eye-opening Insights Into International Adoption, Orphans, Special Needs and “Re-homing”

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/1aFxZ4t

A chilling story has been getting considerable attention in the news during recent weeks: Adoptive parents around the U.S., feeling unable to cope with the severity of their children’s problems, are using the Internet to informally move them into new families — without any professional guidance, support, monitoring, supervision or regulation. The process is called “re-homing,” and it clearly needs to be addressed (i.e., stopped) with targeted laws, policies and practices.

At the same time, this phenomenon needs to be viewed as more than a window into the struggles of a relatively small number of people. Rather, it should be understood as a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents are not prepared for the needs of the children they adopt, and don’t receive the necessary training, support or services to meet those needs (see “Keeping the Promise“). It also should be seen as the tip of an iceberg of unmonitored, unregulated adoption-related activities taking place on the Internet (see “Untangling the Web“).

Finally and pointedly — in the context of a new study by the Donaldson Adoption Institute titled “A Changing World” — the “re-homing” story should be understood as an insight into the emerging realities of intercountry adoption, because nearly all of the children in the news being “re-homed” were adopted from abroad.

The Adoption Institute study shows that a growing number of the girls and boys being adopted from other nations today are not the infants of adoption’s recent past but, instead, are older and sometimes have serious special needs. As a result of this new reality, the study recommends (among many other things) that best practices be created, reshaped and implemented to enable all their families to succeed and, for those with severe problems, to prevent the kind of distress that leads desperate parents to seek radical solutions like “re-homing.”

“A Changing World” represents the most extensive independent research into intercountry adoption to date, including into the regulatory framework/treaty called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCIA). The research was conducted over the past two years by scholars at Tufts University and the Institute; among its components are surveys of about 1,500 adoptive parents, adoption professionals in the U.S. and other “receiving” countries and countries of origin, as well as interviews with senior policymakers in 19 nations.

Key findings in the study, based on the responses from parents and professionals, as well as an extensive literature review and additional research, include:

• More children are remaining in orphanages for longer periods of time, thereby incurring the increased developmental and psychic harm that comes from being institutionalized, while also diminishing their prospects for ever moving into a permanent family.

• Though many prospective parents chose intercountry adoption to avoid contact with children’s families of origin, a fast-growing number change their minds and seek connections — which is leading to a growing increase in international open adoptions.

• Many countries of origin, including the largest ones such as China, are increasingly allowing the intercountry adoption primarily or exclusively of children who have special needs, are older, and/or are in sibling groups (to be adopted together).

• While the overwhelming focus for children in U.S. foster care is finding permanency domestically, American officials are also endorsing adoptions for some of them into families abroad. Ninety-nine children were adopted out of the U.S. last year..

• There is greater transparency and consistency in the international adoption process, as well as an increased focus on the best interests of and protections for children who need families, though there is great variability from country to country.

• The ongoing changes in the world of intercountry adoption have contributed to a steep drop in numbers (from a peak of almost 23,000 adoptions into the U.S. from abroad in 2004 to fewer than 9,000 last year and to rising costs that can exceed $50,000.

Based on its analysis of the research findings, the Institute’s recommendations include:

1. To the greatest extent possible, countries of origin should provide more-complete and accurate diagnoses/records on medical and mental health issues; these are often lacking, so it is more difficult for adopting families to prepare for and meet their children’s needs.

2. Receiving countries should offer more training and resources to help countries of origin improve their child welfare and adoption systems, thereby helping more children while showing that their primary interest is not just increasing intercountry adoptions.

3. Receiving countries should provide preparation, services and supports for adoptive families; the research found they too often do not know where to turn, and the help they need sometimes is not available. Preparation on special needs and openness is critical.

4. To the extent possible given economic and social realities, countries of origin should develop and provide better adoption education and supports for domestic families. The goal should be that more children can be placed in families in their own communities.

5. Adoption practitioners should provide more and better information for prospective and adoptive parents about the prospects/realities of making and maintaining contact with families of origin, and about positive ways to navigate possible relationships.

Intercountry adoption has changed comprehensively in the last few decades — and is still in the midst of its transformation from a robust but largely unmonitored process through which tens of thousands of infants and toddlers moved into new homes annually, into a smaller but better-regulated system serving primarily children who are older and/or have special needs. At the same time, uncountable hundreds of thousands (and probably far more) of boys and girls of all ages remain institutionalized in countries around the globe, many if not most with minimal prospects of ever living in a family or reaching their potential.

The accumulation of greater knowledge about adoption is critical to shaping, improving and implementing the laws, policies and practices that are ostensibly designed, first and foremost, to serve these children’s interests and to enhance their prospects for better lives.

Adam Pertman, President

Ellen Pinderhughes, Senior Fellow

Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

A Lot to Learn: As the School Year Begins, Adoption Needs to be in the Curriculum

To read this column on The Huffington Post, go to: http://huff.to/161GBCi

Even as adoption becomes increasingly normalized in the U.S., adoptive families continue to confront roadblocks for their children in a place they expected only smooth roads: the classroom.

Interactions with administrators, teachers, peers and other parents can be complex and can impact adopted kids negatively on many levels. These issues range from the language used by both children and adults; to when and what to tell school personnel about the children and their pasts; and, as the children grow older, how to deal with questions related to ethnicity, birth/ first parents, nationality, genealogical background and traditional lesson plans such as drawing “family trees.”

Teachers have a major influence on children’s understanding of the world around them — and of themselves. That’s a major reason why the routine professional training of educators in recent years has come to include issues relating to race and ethnicity, disability, gender, blended families and a range of other subjects aimed at understanding diversity and promoting fair and equal treatment for all the children they teach. The intent of the preparation is not just to increase teachers’ sensitivity, but also to equip them with knowledge that will shape their own behavior and attitudes, as well as the behavior and attitudes of their students.

What goes on at school has pivotal importance for children for a variety of reasons. School takes up a huge portion of their lives, and their experiences there help to shape their self-images, their peer relationships and others’ views of their competence. It is also where they learn many of their values, accumulate most of their knowledge, and develop the skills to equip them to succeed as adults.

A research-based report titled “Adoption in the Schools: A Lot to Learn” — jointly researched and written by the Donaldson Adoption Institute and the Center for Adoption Support and Education — outlines the reasons educators need to learn more about adoption issues (including aspects of foster care), explains the negative consequences of a lack of knowledge, and proposes steps that teachers, schools, curriculum developers and institutions of higher education can take to change the status quo and, as a result, make vital progress toward placing all children and families on a level playing field in the classroom and beyond.

Learning is the “work” of childhood. For very young children, it comes primarily through play and, as they enter school, classroom learning takes up the better part of their days. It is the primary arena in which children’s performance is judged in relation to peers, and they experience pressure to perform.

Likewise, there is pressure on parents to facilitate children’s adjustment at school. When girls and boys have difficulty fitting in at school or measuring up to expectations, it affects many areas. Even when children perform well, their school experiences play a big role in shaping key aspects of adjustment, including self-concept, peer group experience, ability to have educational needs met in order to learn successfully, and the parent-child relationship (including parents’ views of their children, the stress they experience in parenting, and their feelings of competence as parents).

In addition to these general influences experienced by all students, adopted children’s interactions at school — with both teachers and classmates — provide important messages regarding adoption that help to shape their identity as adopted persons.

While “Adoption in the Schools” focuses primarily on adoption, the same (or sometimes comparable) issues apply to children in foster care who are not living with their families of origin. Most children who are adopted or in foster care confront situations at school that highlight their perceived “different” status from classmates who are being raised by their biological parents.

Teachers need to be prepared with both sensitivity and knowledge about adoption in order to assist all children and their families in successfully dealing with issues on an ongoing basis. These questions and challenges may arise in class discussions, during interactions among students, and in completing assignments. Their explicit and implicit messages about adoption and/or foster care, or their lack thereof, have an impact on adopted and foster children – and help to shape other children’s attitudes and beliefs.

Educators clearly want to do well for all the children whose lives they shape — it is the principal reason they choose teaching as their professional careers. But they receive no systematic training in two important aspects of many students’ lives: adoption and foster care. As a result, they may inadvertently use language, teach lesson plans, and/or display attitudes that can hurt children’s feelings, perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, and transmit the message that some families (i.e. those formed through biology) are more normal and acceptable than others.

The best way to provide all children with the education and support they deserve is to make systemic changes that will have broad, permanent effects. Research and experience indicate these changes would benefit adopted and foster children:

• Education about adoption and foster care should be included in courses (such as on diversity) that are required for students in teacher education programs — as well as in professional development trainings for current teachers, psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers and other relevant school personnel.

• Studies should be conducted focusing on the outcomes of adoption-related educational programs for teachers (as well as other relevant school personnel), and the findings should be utilized to improve trainings, lesson plans, etc.

• Trainings should be developed for adoptive and foster parents on ways to advocate for their children in the schools; expert educational advocates should also be available to parents – as should access to support networks and resources such as occupational therapists, psychologists and other local, out-of-school professionals knowledgeable about adoption issues.

• Child welfare and educational organizations should collaborate to remove systemic barriers that impede the education of foster children, for example, to create policies that promote educational continuity for foster children so they do not have to change schools in the middle of a school year.

Educating educators about the realities of adoption is important as a diversity issue, because children should not be less understood or more stigmatized simply because of the type of family they happen to be in. It is a fairness issue, because adopted and foster children are sometimes derided in ways we would never accept if the taunting or stereotyping referred to other aspects of their being — such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion or disability. And it is an inclusion issue, because the knowledge gained in learning about adoptive and foster families also applies to families headed by single parents, divorced parents, step parents, gay or lesbian parents, parents of different races or ethnicities, and on and on.

In other words, doing the right thing for one group of children means doing the right thing for the majority of children.

Susan Smith, Program & Project Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Donaldson Adoption Institute

 

 

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.”