The following article appeared in Human Life Review, Fall 2013. Some minor changes were made for this posting. Copyright © 2013 and 2014 by Mary Meehan
Adoption: Where Is Solomon When We Need Him?
Adoption is an ancient and honorable institution. It has provided safe harbor for countless children through the ages. Its oldest form is informal adoption, when family or friends take care of children whose parents have died or have special problems. Today's formal adoptions include independent or private ones arranged through attorneys and agency adoptions done by professional adoption agencies. There has been radical change in U.S. adoption practice over the past thirty years. The twentieth-century version was a neat package that was meant to be one-size-fits-all, but often failed to fit. Adoption today is a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and patterns. It is much richer and more interesting, though sometimes confusing.
A Bit of Background
In early United States history, informal or "kinship" adoption often prevailed. Legal guardianship, orphanages, and apprenticeships were also used for children whose parents had died or were unable to care for them. In the twentieth century, a system of formal--but closed or secret--adoption prevailed for many years. As one longtime adoption worker wrote, the secrecy was meant "to protect adoptees and birthparents from the censure of their communities"(1) at a time when pregnancy outside of marriage was considered a life-shattering disgrace. Deception often protected the secrecy. A family told friends and neighbors that their teenage daughter had gone to help a sick relative in another state, when in fact she was in a maternity home where adoption was the expected outcome. Sometimes adoptive parents lied to their own children, posing as birth parents instead of telling the truth in a sensitive way.
In recent decades, though, there has been a strong move toward open adoption, in which the birthmother meets the adoptive parents, who keep her updated about her child's progress through letters and photos over the years. (Sometimes, the birthfather is also involved, though not nearly as often as should be the case.) The two sides may come to see each other as family, with visits and joint celebration of the child's birthday and various holidays. An eleven-year-old girl in an open adoption said that "I belong to both families, and I love them both. They like each other, too." An adoptive mother said she viewed her son's birth parents as "two special friends" and added, "It is so neat to have someone to tell about all the wonderful things your child does and to know that they think he is truly amazing, too!"(2)
Open adoption, though, does not always work this well. Sometimes contact slows down or peters out after the early years, because one side has moved or failed to live up to the original agreement. The agreements are not legally enforceable in all states.(3) (I believe they should be.) But the adopted child, in teen years or later, may pick up the contact with birthparents.
In semi-open adoption, the birthmother may or may not meet the adoptive parents, but she has information about them. Indeed, as in open adoption, she is likely to have chosen them on the basis of a profile that may have included an online video. Semi-open adoptions tend to be arms-length; usually the adoption agency or law office passes information from one party to another. Sometimes, though, as the two sides become more comfortable with one another, semi-open leads to open adoption and the ease of an extended family.
Both open and semi-open adoption seem far more favorable to unmarried birthmothers than the old system was. Now they can choose the adoptive parents and either follow their children's adventures from a distance or be involved in their lives. Yet only about one percent of birthmothers choose adoption today.(4) The others either parent their children or have abortions. Thus there are relatively few babies available for adoption in the United States today. There are many older children available from foster care, though, and major governmental and private efforts to have them adopted.
The federal government has been deeply involved in adoption policy since 1980. It provides a substantial one-time tax credit for the costs of adopting a child.(5) It offers financial incentives for state governments to move children more quickly from foster care to adoption. There are also federal and state subsidies for adopted special-needs children. This includes most children adopted from foster care: older children, minority children, sibling groups, and children with disabilities.(6) The subsidies (monthly payments until the child is 18 or sometimes older) enable many lower-income people to adopt. Often they were foster parents of the children they are now adopting. Of children adopted from foster care in the 2011 fiscal year, an estimated 54 percent were adopted by their foster parents, 31 percent by relatives, and 15 percent by non-relatives.(7) Private groups such as the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) also promote adoptions from foster care. Partly as a result of all these efforts, there is more adoption now by older people, single people, and gay and lesbian couples.
The African American community traditionally has relied on informal and kinship adoptions. Many of its members are too poor to pay the fees for legal adoption, which can range up to $25,000 and higher. Then, too, paying money for the placement of human beings reminds some too much of slavery. Yet there are strong efforts to promote adoption in the black community, with a major focus on adoption from foster care. That is where the greatest need is now, and the fees are much lower than in private adoptions--and sometimes waived altogether. Rev. George Clements, a Catholic priest and African American who adopted four sons, started a "One Church, One Child" program decades ago to encourage adoption through the black churches. This is a national program with fifteen state affiliates. There are also specialized adoption agencies around the U.S., such as Another Choice for Black Children in Charlotte, N.C., the Institute for Black Parenting in Inglewood, Calif., and Homes for Black Children in Detroit.(8)
The scarcity of adoptable infants leads many infertile American couples to go abroad in search of babies to adopt. Some poor nations, though, are reluctant to allow Americans and other Westerners to adopt their children. As one adoption expert remarked, "nations don't like to give up their children any more than parents do."(9) Some are concerned about corruption that at times leads to baby-selling. Many believe it is best for children to grow up in the country and culture where they were born. Some Americans, eager to rescue orphans from desperate situations, don't realize that many children in the orphanages of poor countries actually have at least one living parent and sometimes two. Parents place them in orphanages as a temporary measure because of dire poverty, and some parents are able to visit them regularly. (The same was true of many children in U.S. orphanages in the late 1800s.)(10) Finally, some adoptive parents in America find they cannot handle children who have spent years in orphanages overseas and have developed severe problems as a result.
On the other hand, Americans at times save the lives of children who otherwise would live poorly--and die early--on the streets of other nations. There are many success stories, and many adoptive parents in America who make sure their children learn about the culture of their native lands. Moreover, there are serious efforts to improve the regulation of international adoptions so that children cannot be bought and sold.(11)
There is great controversy over many issues in adoption today. Sometimes it follows the old fault lines of left against right and secular against religious people. At times adoption has looked like a great battlefield. More recently, groups that disagree on some issues have been able to work together on the federal adoption tax credit and the adoption of children from foster care. They would do well, though, to remember fierce fights of the past and King Solomon's exasperation when he threatened to cut a baby in half and give one-half to each of the two women who were fighting over it.(12) They should also try to develop the wisdom of Solomon, for adoption problems are not always easy to solve.
People in the pro-life movement see adoption as a great alternative to abortion. Indeed, it can be and often has been. But those who advocate adoption should be aware of the controversies that surround it. At the same time, they should celebrate the great good adoption can do and should encourage those who want to make it work for all concerned. Some suggestions along these lines appear at the end of this article.
Reasons for Change
Many people wonder why so few birthmothers today are willing to consider adoption. Part of the answer may be that they have heard or read stories of older women who released children for adoption in the era of secrecy and shame for unmarried birthmothers. Parents and others often pressured them to choose adoption. Many, in fact, had no choice in the matter; their parents made the decision for them. Many girls suffered from gossip in their high schools when other students realized they were pregnant, and many high schools and colleges expelled pregnant students. That practice continued until 1972, when a federal law barred it at federally-funded institutions.(13) Many girls also had bad experiences in maternity homes, and some had to go through labor and birth alone. Perhaps worst of all, they were supposed to have no contact with their children after adoption. Many worried for decades about their children: Were they in good health, or even still alive? Were they treated well by their adoptive parents? Were they happy?
Writer Ann Fessler interviewed many birthmothers from the era of secrecy and no-contact. "I never felt like I gave my baby away," said one. "I always felt like my daughter was taken from me." Another remarked that "I just couldn't have long-term friends or friends who were close because I was afraid that they'd be taken away... I've lived most of my adult life disassociated from my feelings, just numb, in order to exist." Another woman, reunited with her birth daughter about 25 years after adoption, spoke of the lost years this way: "I was scared for my baby all those years. I never slept through the night. I never made it through a night without wondering how she was."(14)
Many women Fessler interviewed told stories of parental anger or coldness during a time when parental love and kindness were desperately needed. Some girls, far enough along in pregnancy to be "showing," had to disappear when visitors stopped by their home. Some staff at maternity homes were intensely focused on having girls agree to adoption. One woman recalled: "We were not told we had the right to keep our own baby.... We were never told anything except adoption--it was the only option offered to us. We weren't told that we could get child support from the fathers. We weren't told that we could apply for welfare..." She added: "All of our rights were abused. Ignored and abused."(15)
What about effects of the old system on the children of adoption? While some were untroubled by their status, others never felt they really belonged to their adoptive family. They wondered and worried about their birth parents. One said, "As a child I used to wonder 'Why did she give me up? Isn't there a law against this?' I felt rejected by my birth parents but was afraid to share these feelings with my [adoptive] parents." Another remarked, "During my childhood, I recall many fears, dreams, etc., about being kidnapped or lost. I always felt this was a reflection of my feelings about being adopted." A third, during childhood, knew its birthmother would not send a birthday card, yet still "watched the mailbox for days before my birthday... My head understood but my heart didn't."(16)
Prompted by such feelings, many birthmothers and adult adoptees started searching for each other in the 1970s and 1980s. For decades before that, most states had issued amended birth certificates after adoptions, making it seem that the adoptive parents were actually the birth parents. Nearly all states kept secret the original birth certificates that gave the birthmother's name (and sometimes the birthfather's as well). Frustrated by the sealed records, many adoptees fought to change state laws so they could find their parents. Most states, though, still keep the original certificates sealed unless the person whose information is requested consents to its release. This is a source of great frustration to many, especially the radical group called Bastard Nation. But most states do give adult adoptees access to "nonidentifying information" about their birthparents. This may include physical descriptions and information on race, ethnic background, religion, medical history, and even why they placed their children for adoption.(17)
Meanwhile, though, the Internet, private investigators, and volunteers called "search angels" help many adoptees find their birth parents. There is also what Adam Pertman, a former Boston Globe reporter who now heads an adoption group, calls an "underground network that has existed nationwide for a few decades." He says it consists of "true believers" and that their methods include "copying sealed documents obtained from sympathetic or bribed government workers, hacking into computer records, and making phone calls for judges who don't exist."(18) The use of such dishonest methods is ironic, given the many complaints about the deceit that propped up adoption secrecy in the past. Yet much adoption searching is aboveboard. It often leads to joyful reunions and real healing for people who were traumatized by the way their adoptions were handled. It also leads to some ambivalent reunions and the occasional disaster (for example, finding that a birth parent is deeply upset to be contacted, indifferent or cold--or in prison).
In the best outcomes, birthmothers tell their children that they have thought about them every day since adoption and always have hoped for a reunion. Or children say they have had happy lives and tell their birthmothers, "You did the right thing." There are also stories of children who find they look exactly like one of their birthparents and also share many traits and preferences. Many adoptees find they have brothers or sisters they had never known about. This can be a very happy find, especially for someone who has grown up as an only child.
The Politics and Economics of Adoption
The National Council for Adoption (NCFA) represents many adoption agencies around the country, as well as some adoption attorneys. Established in 1980, the organization is headquartered near Washington, D.C. Many NCFA member agencies are faith-based ones affiliated with Bethany Christian Services or LDS Family Services (Latter Day Saints, or Mormon, agencies). NCFA has substantial influence on public policy. In the past, it adamantly opposed efforts to open sealed adoption records, believing this to be unfair to people who had the expectation or promise of confidentiality. Although it stresses this issue less now than before, NCFA has not changed its position. As an alternative, it supports mutual-consent registries so that a complete record is opened only if both the adoptee and the birthparent(s) agree.
NCFA was skeptical about open adoption in the early years. President and CEO Charles "Chuck" Johnson said the group embraced open adoption once "the research showed that it was working for birth parents and that the families were benefitting from it." He noted that current NCFA projects include an "I Choose Adoption" media campaign and "being a voice for orphans around the world" to have families. NCFA also does training programs for adoption workers and pregnancy counselors. Many of the latter, Johnson said, admitted at the start of one training program that "they just didn't know how to discuss adoption." But "they expressed much more confidence, when they left, in their ability to discuss it with clients."
NCFA has not taken a position on adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Johnson said the group works with some agencies that do such adoptions and with others that do not "and could not."(19) The Donaldson Adoption Institute, on the other hand, supports adoptions by such couples. In 2013 the Institute's then-director stressed that: "We want children to get homes." He said that "from the research we know that gay and lesbian adoptive parents are more amenable to adopting some of the...tougher-to-place kids." But he also remarked: "I think that every agency, especially those of faith or who have, you know, strong moral conviction, should do what they want. And they should be permitted to." He said that if one agency does not work with gay and lesbian couples, it is not as though such couples cannot adopt. "They'll go to the agency down the street," he noted.(20)
While it does not have a Washington office, the Donaldson Adoption Institute has major influence on policy through its research studies. The Child Welfare League of America, a multi-issue group with a large staff, is also a major player on adoption policy at the federal level. Adoption advocates have many friends on Capitol Hill in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, a large and bipartisan group whose leaders include many adoptive parents. A related institute arranges briefings for members of Congress and their aides.
The high cost of adoption is a major concern for many. James L. Gritter, an adoption-agency professional and a pioneer of open adoption, warned sixteen years ago: "As we gain on the problem of secrecy, we are rapidly losing ground to commercialism.... The commercial approach views fees as a matter of whatever the market will bear. Given the unbalanced nature of supply and demand in the realm of infant adoption, the commercial approach to adoption has tremendous potential for financial abuse."(21) Since Gritter's warning, the rise of the Internet has added to the worries. Referring to the kind of website that makes dubious promises, adoption expert Adam Pertman remarked that "you don't even know whether it's an adoption agency," adding that possibly it's just that "somebody knew how to put up a website." Pertman coauthored a brief "Proceed with Caution" paper on how to check websites that offer adoption.(22)
Take-Home Lessons for Pro-Lifers
Many pro-life activists have adopted children, are themselves adoptees, or have placed birth children for adoption. But those who were involved decades ago, or never directly involved, need catch-up work to understand what adoption offers today. It is especially important that anyone who does counseling in a pregnancy care center be up-to-date on adoption. Talking with skilled adoption workers can be a useful supplement to book and Internet research. So, of course, can conversations with adoptive families and birthparents who have experienced adoption. Adoption should be presented to a young, unmarried woman as one possible option, but not as one that is necessarily better than marriage or single-parenting.
Many women who have decided on adoption before giving birth are surprised by the overwhelming love they feel when they first see and hold their newborn babies. Perhaps no woman should make a final decision about adoption until she has cared for her newborn for a week or two. Heather Lowe, who regrets having released a son for adoption, suggests this in a publication for other birthmothers. "Give parenting a one or two week try," she advises, "so that you know for sure what it feels like and whether it is something you can manage or not. Or consider a foster-adopt period in which you'll have time to feel the separation but will maintain your legal rights to parent."
Lowe also says: "Adoption is a permanent solution to an often temporary problem.... Some problems are insurmountable and may mean adoption is the answer, while others can be fixed if you know where to turn."(23) A good pregnancy counselor can provide all kinds of information on where to turn for help in parenting, as well as solid information on adoption options. She explains the positive points of open adoption. But she avoids manipulating a woman toward adoption with the idea that an adoptive couple can provide a wealthier lifestyle for the child, or that adoption is "nobler" and less selfish than parenting one's own child. This manipulation happened often in the past and still occurs at times today. It is unfair to put such pressure on someone who is struggling with what may be the most important decision of her life. A counselor should remember that this child may turn out to be the only child the woman will ever have.
It is also unfair for friends or acquaintances to make smug comments such as, "I could never give my baby away." As Lowe notes, "even birthmoms in the healthiest of open adoptions, who feel they made a great choice for their child, are sometimes unable to talk about it without experiencing judgment."(24) Adoptive parents and adoptees also face rude questions from others: "How come he doesn't look like you?" or "Do you know who your real parents are?" Old-fashioned courtesy can prevent unnecessary pain for all concerned.
Amy Hutton, a pro-lifer who placed her daughter Deanna in an open adoption that has proven quite successful, has good advice for other birthparents. One of her points is not to "worry abut pleasing other people." When she signed adoption papers, she "knew there were going to be people who would be very disappointed in my decision, who wouldn't understand or approve. But they weren't in my shoes, and they weren't the ones making the decision. I had to rely on my own intuition and my firm belief that Don and De [the adoptive parents] were meant to be Deanna's parents."(25)
Writing recently in Celebrate Life Magazine, Nikki Studebaker Barcus made helpful suggestions about practical ways to support parents who hope to adopt. Encouragement is very important, she suggested, since the adoption process is complicated and sometimes stretches out for a long period. Support can include "acknowledging a prospective adoptive family's fears, celebrating with them at high points, praying for them at low points, showing a genuine interest, and listening when they need to talk." Financial aid can be extremely helpful, especially for international adoptions. So can donation of professional services such as counseling, tutoring, or speech therapy for adoptees who need special help. A shower for the baby (or older child) is always helpful, Barcus noted. So is a welcoming party at the airport when a couple returns from overseas with their new child.(26)
Policy work on adoption is crucial, and it often does require the wisdom of Solomon. In the end, though, hearty support from family and friends may be even more important in making adoption work.
1. James L. Gritter, The Spirit of Open Adoption (Washington: CWLA Press/Child Welfare League of America, 1997), 11.
2. Angela Etter and Becca Marsh, quoted in Kathleen Silber and Patricia Martinez Dorner, Children of Open Adoption (San Antonio: Corona Publishing, 1990), 191 & 177.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, Postadoption Contact Agreements Between Birth and Adoptive Families, current through May 2011, childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/cooperative.cfm.
4. Adam Pertman, Adoption Nation, 2nd ed. (Boston: Harvard Common Press, 2011), 6.
5. U.S. Internal Revenue Service, "Topic 607 - Adoption Credit and Adoption Assistance Programs," 17 Jan. 2013, irs.gov/taxtopics/tc607.html. The maximum tax credit for the 2012 tax year was $12,650 per child.
6. See North American Council on Adoptable Children website, nacac.org; go to "Adoption Subsidy" for fact sheets, state profiles, and other information.
7. U.S. Children's Bureau, "The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2011 Estimates as of July 2012," 5 & 6, acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/afcarsreport19.pdf.
8. Mary Kaye Ritz, "Priest to Talk about Adoption," Honolulu Advertiser, 14 Jan. 2006, honoluluadvertiser.com, accessed 12 April 2013; nationalococ.org; acfbc.org; blackparenting.org; and homes4blackchildren.org.
9. Pertman (n. 4), 68.
10. Margaret Haerens, ed., International Adoptions (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2011), 159-60; and LeRoy Ashby, Endangered Children (New York: Twayne Publishers/Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997) 64-67.
11. Helpful sources on international adoption include Elizabeth Bartholet, Family Bonds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993); Karin Evans, The Lost Daughters of China (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000); Pertman (n. 4); and Haerens (n. 10).
12. 1 Kings 3:16-28.
13. Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 72 & 333, n. 3.
14. Ibid., 12, 83, & 119.
15. Ibid., 161. See Rickie Solinger, Wake Up Little Susie (New York: Routledge, 1992), 103-47, for other grim reports about life in maternity homes from 1945-65.
16. Adoptees quoted in Arthur D. Sorosky and others, The Adoption Triangle (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978), 95.
17. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, Access to Adoption Records, current through June 2012, childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/infoaccessap.cfm; and bastards.org/position-papers/.
18. Pertman (n.4), 164.
19. Author's telephone interview with Charles Johnson, 26 June 2013.
20. Author's telephone interview with Adam Pertman, 17 June 2013.
21. Gritter (n. 1), 13.
22. Pertman interview (n. 20); and Jeanne Howard and Adam Pertman, "Proceed with Caution: Asking the Right Questions about Adoption on the Internet," adoptioninstitute.org/advocacy/Proceed_With_Caution.pdf.
23. Heather Lowe, "What You Should Know If You're Considering Adoption for Your Baby," n.d., cubirthparents.org/docs/heather-lowes-booklet.pdf, accessed 3 June 2013.
25. Amy Hutton, "My Perspective on Open Adoption and Recommendations for Birthparents," Adoption Advocate, no. 41, (Nov. 2011), 4, accessed at adoptioncouncil.org, 15 July 2013.
26. Nikki Studebaker Barcus, "Adoption Care for Christians," Celebrate Life Magazine 35, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 17-19, 18-19.