Tag Archives: original birth certificates

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

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Are Children’s Issues Only Important in Attack Videos?

January 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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