Grandparents Day 2014: Reflections on the Known and Unknown. More More More.

One of my son Christopher’s favorite books as a toddler was “More More More! Said the Baby,” by Vera Williams. It’s lovely, a Caldecott Honor Book, published in 1990, with wonderful illustrations also by Williams. One of the three little stories features a blond, white grandma swooping up her Little Pumpkin, a black child.

Here’s an illustration from the book:

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You can hear Vera Williams talk about and read the book here. She wrote it for her grandson Hudson, and expanded it to include other babies.

Here’s Chris with his grandma, my mother, who–always with makeup and blond hair just so–never failed to get down on the floor and play with him.

Mom with her youngest grandchild, about 22 years ago.

Mom with her youngest grandchild, about 22 years ago.

My mom, who died 12 years ago, was an incredible grandmother. She loved her (adopted, African-American, African) adopted grandchildren unconditionally; her views on civil rights and racism moved from philosophical to personal, in a thoughtful, decisive way. She would have adored her great-granddaughter Z, born in 2006. I adore Z, as anyone who knows me even briefly is all too aware.

Like my mother, I am not biologically related to my grandchild. Z is the biological child of my adopted daughter, Aselefech. Z is genetically related to her aunt (her mother’s twin sister; both girls were adopted from Ethiopia in 1994), but not to her two uncles (my adopted sons). We all have dealt (from varying perspectives) with white privilege, with racism, with humiliation, with stereotyping, with grief. We crazy love each other.

Z has a non-adopted 7 year old’s understanding of adoption. She knows she looks more like her mom, aunt, and uncles than she looks like me, since I’m white and they are not. She knows what it’s like when people do double-takes when she says I’m her grandma. She knew since she was little about her Ethiopian family, in Ethiopia. She had seen photos, and heard stories. She has visited with her Ethiopian uncle who now lives in Seattle, via winning a visa lottery ticket several years ago.

Grandparents can be elusive creatures. They are often old when they become grandparents (I am a notable exception), though not as old as we think they are when we are children. Families used to live over the meadow or above the duplex from the grandparents; increasingly, that has changed. Adoption, especially international, creates a whole other level to knowing grandparents. As an adoptive parent, when my children were little, I thought about their birth mothers, then fathers, maybe. I gave little thought to other members of the family tree: the grandparents, the siblings, the aunts, uncles, cousins.

Over the years, as my children grew and my heart opened, I gave much more thought to their first families. Some are known, some are unknown. Some are gone. Some could still be found.

During our recent trip to Ethiopia, Z met Desta, her grandmother, Aselefech’s mother. Aselefech had last visited with her Ethiopian family in 2011; this was the first visit for Z.

Z did well, though she was understandably tentative. Like Aselefech, she looks like her Ethiopian relatives, yet she can speak to them only through a translator, one of the most poignant, painful parts of international adoption when the original language does not endure. Conversations with unfamiliar relatives can be awkward when we speak the same language and share the same culture, religion, education, and economics. It didn’t matter here. Desta loved Z before she met her on this visit, as she loves all her grandchildren (her 6th is expected anytime now). She cannot scoop up Z as my mom scooped up Chris, because Desta did not even meet Z until Z was almost 8. She missed those early years, as she will miss most of Z’s daily life; we don’t know when she and Z will see each other again. We will do our best to keep in touch, to send photos, to connect. So much heartache in adoption, along with so much love.

I am filled with gratitude and wonder that Z met, hugged, talked with, smiled at, and said goodbye to her Ethiopian grandmother, along with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Chris lost his grandma when he was 12, and I know he misses her deeply. All my children do. Their grandmother was a powerful force of unconditional love in their lives.

My maternal grandparents died before I was born. I have good memories of my dad’s parents (we watched the Lawrence Welk Show together, and they came over for Sunday dinner each week), but I can’t say I knew them all that well. I wish I did. It’s astonishing how little we know about people just a generation or two away from us.

Adopted children (who grow up!) deserve to know their families. (Safety obviously has to be a factor, but fear of the unknown should not be.)  We adoptive parents need to embrace, at least emotionally, our children’s first families, including the grandparents who may well have wanted to know and love them. What a gift and blessing to know our grandparents, and to know their stories: what their childhoods were like, how they fell in love, what their happiest days were, what memories make them smile. I cannot imagine not having Z as my granddaughter; I love sharing stories with her and making memories. Being a grandparent has made me understand and appreciate so much in this wild life.

For all the losses and the missed time, what richness we have. Yes, it’s imperfect. It’s tempting to see only absence, rather than presence, and too many people have been marginalized or made far more vulnerable than is fair.

Still. Seek out more, more, more. Swoop up loved ones, known and unknown. Ask questions, listen to stories, and insist on understanding what the possibilities are. Tomorrow is not promised to us. People die. While you can, seek out more, more, more.

Happy Grandparents Day. Thinking of beloveds, in heaven and all over earth.

Z and me

“Poverty alone should never be a reason for adoption”

Please note: I originally posted this three years ago. Now, though, in July 2017, I have been hearing more reports about prospective adoptive parents deciding not to move ahead with adoptions, even when they are far along in the process. These are hard decisions, and many parents are reluctant to discuss them publicly, for fear of being criticized. I hope, though, that all of us in the adoption community will listen to these stories, and support those who are genuinely working to do the best for children.

 

Amy Davis is mom to 3 little boys. She and her husband planned to adopt one or maybe two little girls from Uganda. After much paperwork, time, money, prayer, travel, energy, and high hopes, they learned that Eliana, the little girl they thought would join them in their Tennessee home, has a living mother. A mother who wanted to keep the child, but was desperately poor.

So Amy and her husband decided not to take Eliana to a place of love and economic prosperity. They chose to leave her in a place of love and abject poverty, having helped put a plan in place to move the child out of the orphanage and back to her mother, a plan that partners with a family reunification organization in Uganda.

In her moving and heartfelt blog post, Amy wrote:

The (Ugandan) family felt hopeless, but when asked privately, they said they WANT their daughter and granddaughter, if only they could support her financially. At first thought, I said to myself, “well, they can’t financially care for her, so she can’t stay there.” But the more John and I thought about it, the worse and worse we felt.

Poverty alone is never a reason to adopt. It’s not right, it’s not ethical, and it’s certainly not biblical. We said from the beginning, we wanted to commit ourselves to an ethical adoption, one in which the mother and father are deceased or if alive, want nothing to do with their child. A Ugandan child that has a mother that wants her should be with her mother. Period. And if we truly are caring for orphans and widows as we were originally called to do, then it certainly isn’t taking someone’s baby due to poverty. 

A harsh truth is that many children are placed for adoption internationally because their parents–who love them–are desperately poor. If they had the money, they would keep the child. The amount of money they would need per month is about what we pay for one tank of gas.

Adoption should be an option for children who genuinely do not have families. Adoption agencies and governments must do stellar work to ensure that the story accompanying a child is truthful. Prospective adoptive parents must demand that truth. How else can we look our children in the eyes, and claim them as our own?

I know many families who are committed to open international adoptions (which have their own complexity, joy, opportunities, and integrity), connecting with the original family, assisting family members, ensuring that the children understand their truths and are surrounded by love.

That said, while I believe in adoption, I speak out as much as possible about family preservation. It’s less heartwarming than adoption. My daughter Aselefech’s fundraising campaign for an Ethiopian NGO  has not been of interest to many people, it turns out, compared to fundraisers by prospective adoptive parents. Yet the $5000 she hopes to raise will keep 10 families together (food, education, clothes), and the children out of orphanages, for a year. (Note: She successfully raised $6500, though it wasn’t easy. One donor’s single large donation at the end helped a great deal. When we traveled to Ethiopia, we toured the NGO Bring Love In, and it was wonderful. I urge anyone who is concerned about declining adoptions to consider supporting the many groups which are doing reputable, good, hard work in family preservation and orphan prevention. You can read more here and here.)

As the poet ee cummings wrote, “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”?

Yes.

To some people, this is old news (“The Primal Wound” came out in 1993.) To some, it’s a startlingly new concept. I’d argue, though, that “adoption as trauma” exists on a spectrum, as does trauma itself: some people recover well and easily, some people are forever wounded, and most are somewhere between.

A mainstream view is that adoption is a happy event: a child needing a family gets one. How, then, is adoption a trauma? That sounds so negative and scary, especially to an adoptive parent, and to an adoptee.

As an adoptive parent, I believe that adoption is all about gains and losses, joy and grief, a balance that shifts often throughout life. I also believe if we took a deep breath and viewed adoption as trauma—trauma that can be overcome, trauma that some people may experience to a small or large degree—we would be better able to help adopted children heal and grow healthy, sooner than later. I think we adoptive parents need to acknowledge trauma as part of adoption, not only for our children, but also for their first mothers (and fathers and grandparents as siblings).

I’m hardly the first to be aware of this, or to write about it. In candor, though, I’m just beginning to fully understand and accept it. Adoptive parents who have worked hard to bring a child into their lives through adoption don’t want to think that this action is in fact rooted in trauma.

I wrote in February about a yoga retreat I attended, all about healing from trauma, through yoga, writing, and nutrition. I shared a list of items that cause trauma, and I suggested that they all describe reasons children are placed for adoption.

Much research acknowledges that separation from one’s mother is trauma. Think Harlow and the baby monkeys; think Primal Wound. In the case where the separation is the result of neglect, abuse, or death, the trauma is intensified. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report called “Helping Foster and Adoptive families Cope with Trauma.” Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, a birth mother and powerful writer of the blog “Musings of the Lame,” wrote about the AAP report in her post “Assume There Is Adoption Trauma in Adoptees.”

We are hardwired to need and depend on our mothers for survival. If there is an end to that basic relationship, children suffer—even if they are infants, even if there is a new (loving, overjoyed) mother or mother-figure.

So it’s not only neglect or abuse that contribute to trauma, though please don’t minimize those challenges.

Adoption itself is trauma.

If we acknowledge that separation from one’s mother is a trauma, then we also must recognize that separation from one’s child is a trauma. When my granddaughter turned 6, I couldn’t help but think that was the age when her mother (along with her twin sister) arrived here in the US for adoption. I thought about their Ethiopian mother, and the loss of her 6-year-old twins.

Part of that thinking acknowledged the total lack of any counseling, follow-up, or therapy that is provided to many first mothers (and fathers, etc.), in the US but perhaps even more so around the globe. Providing equitable services to adoptive and to first parents must become a priority in adoption policy.

Some people, adoptees or otherwise, heal just fine from the trauma of separation. Some struggle with trust issues throughout their lives, and have a hard time beginning or ending relationships. Some are challenged with depression, anxiety, and more, throughout their lives. I want to stress that point: there is a spectrum of resilience among adopted people, and no doubt among first parents. The spectrum does not negate the need for equitable, timely services.

If adoptive parents could accept trauma as part of their newly adopted child’s reality, might they approach attachment and bonding differently? Might they see some of the post-honeymoon (the time after the adoptive placement) behaviors as grief, due to trauma? Even infants grieve.

What if pediatricians gave new adoptive parents brochures about trauma, as well as developmental checklists?

What if agencies had prospective families listen to experienced parents whose children have struggled, instead of the parents with the cute toddlers? What if agencies had adopted adults speak of their experiences around trust, stealing, lying, and depression, as well as identity and race? What if agencies acknowledged the need to provide equitable services to international first parents, to help them deal with their losses and grief?

What if we normalized trauma, as an inherent part of adoption? What if we accepted that possibility calmly, and gathered resources for our children?

I would have done a few things differently when raising my children, had I been more willing to consider trauma when they were little. Maybe I could have made their paths smoother.

Deanna Doss Schrodes is an adoptee, Christian pastor, and the writer behind “Adoptee Restoration.” Corie Skolnick is a therapist and author. Both Deanna and Corie are contributors to the excellent anthology, Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age, edited by (adoptee, expat, writer) Laura Dennis. Deanna and Corie had a conversation via Deanna’s blog, about the subject of adoption and trauma, and it’s well worth reading and contemplating (“Ask a Therapist: How Is Trauma Part of Adoption?“).

It’s coincidental that Claudia, Deanna, Corie, and I should be writing about adoption and trauma. As I noted at the start of this post, we are hardly the first to consider it.

Still, here we have agreement among a birth/first mother, an adopted adult, a therapist, and an adoptive parent on a significant adoption issue: adoption is a trauma. Imagine what would happen if more of us talked together about challenging adoption issues.

Tremendous fights and fractures are occurring in the world of adoption right now, in terms of policy and of whose voices are being heard. Adoptive parents and prospective parents continue to dominate. It’s rare we (adopted adults. first parents, adoptive parents) all sing from the same song sheet, and there are lots of people with lots of microphones singing many different tunes. Still.

Acknowledging that adoption is trauma, understanding that trauma manifests differently in different people and over time, and allocating resources for treatment and support: that would be a positive step toward healing.

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It’s Time to Oppose CHIFF

CHIFF–the Children in Families First legislation–at first glance seems a no-brainer. Shouldn’t all children, especially orphans, have permanent, safe, caring families? Absolutely. I am an adoptive parent (US and Ethiopian adoptions, infant and older child adoptions, transracial adoptions) of 4 now young adults. I believe in adoptions that are done with integrity and transparency, that meet the genuine needs of the child (not the wants of the adoptive parents), and that treat everyone involved equitably and respectfully. I also believe family preservation should always be a primary goal.

And I oppose CHIFF.

I hope you will join me in raising your voice in opposition to this legislation.

Several current, glaring problems in the international adoption community must be solved before CHIFF is even considered. One example is the failure of the US government to provide citizenship for all international adoptees. Adoptees have been deported to Brazil, Korea, India, Germany, and elsewhere. Adoptive parents: make sure your children have the Certificate of Citizenship and full US citizenship documentation. Read more here.

I hate to think that CHIFF supporters would include the deportation legislation–which has been shamefully languishing for years–in the CHIFF bill, as a means of forcing adoptee support for the bill. I hope they have the backbone to move the citizenship legislation through Congress quickly and unencumbered, as it is a humane, overdue legislative need. I would hope that all these supporters of international adoption would be deeply motivated to demand that the US citizenship legislation, in the name of fairness and integrity, be enacted without linking it to an enormous piece of expensive, controversial legislation.

This and other issues must be addressed fully before undertaking new legislation using millions of dollars and creating a new bureaucracy.

Please join me in writing to Secretary of State Kerry, as well as to the main sponsors of the legislation: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) at the US Senate, Washington, DC 20510, and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), at the US House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515.

Here is a modified text of a letter I sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, US State Department, 2201 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20520.

January 6, 2014

Dear Secretary Kerry:

I write with a respectful request for Congressional hearings and a thorough review of the proposed Children in Families First (CHIFF) legislation.

As an adoptive parent of 4 wonderful children, now all young adults, I fully support the goal of all children growing up in loving, safe families. I support adoptions that have integrity and transparency, that genuinely meet the needs of the child, and that are respectful to all members of the first and adoptive family (and to the child, of course).

However, I (and many others) believe that CHIFF is arguably well-intentioned, but in reality falls shockingly short of identifying and meeting current gaping needs for children and families involved in international adoption. Many of the arguments for the legislation are based on an inadequate understanding of current adoption realities.

Thoughtful, thorough oversight hearings should take place as soon as possible, and certainly before any consideration of CHIFF or other adoption-related legislation.

I further recommend that the following issues related to international adoption policy first be resolved. Then, pending the results of Congressional hearings, CHIFF might possibly be reviewed.

  1. Examination of currently existing needs in the international adoption community, such as adequate post-adoption resources for families and children.
  2. Ensuring that all individuals brought to the United States for the purposes of adoption have US citizenship.
  3. Establishment of equity in the services provided to the first families (sometimes referred to as birth families) of children placed for international adoption.
  4. Examination of the current use of the adoption tax credit, on which the United States government has spent almost $7 billion, primarily reimbursing adoptive parents for the costs of international adoption (hotels, meals, travel, etc.).
  5. Identification of already existing NGOs and non-profit organizations currently involved in family preservation, so as not to create even more bureaucracy and waste additional money, time, and resources.

The proposed CHIFF legislation is not timely or appropriate, as it ignores current existing needs in the international adoption community. CHIFF supporters are primarily adoption agencies and attorneys–who have a clear financial stake in the success of this bill, though I don’t argue that many are deeply concerned about children–as well as academics and adoptive parents.

The CHIFF legislation does not have the support or endorsement of any significant groups of international adult adoptees. Thousands of international adoptees (Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Russian, Colombian, Ethiopian, Chinese, etc.) are now adults. They are actively engaged in adoption policy, asking for a place at the table in adoption policy discussions. CHIFF does not include them or their views. That alone is an outrage, and reason to put the brakes on this bill.

Here is a list of some adult adoptee organizations that could have been included, but are noticeably missing from CHIFF supporters:

Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora, Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative, TRACK- Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, Adopted Vietnamese International, Hong Kong Adoptees Network, Gazillion Voices, AdopSource, and more. Additionally, there are dozens of international adoptee professionals who would be insightful in these discussions, but none appear on the list of CHIFF supporters and certainly not on the CHIFF Executive Committee.

CHIFF does not have the support of adult adoptees, the people most affected by international adoption legislation and policy. Nor are the voices of first/birth parents present in any meaningful way.

Another glaring example is the failure of CHIFF to address currently existing enormous problems in the international adoption policy arena. Each of these should be addressed before CHIFF is considered.

(1) It is shameful that the US government still does not provide automatic citizenship to those brought to the US as babies and children for purposes of international adoption. Congress has had this matter before it for years, and it is still not resolved. Meanwhile, international adoptees brought to the US as minors (prior to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000) by US citizens for purposes of adoption face the possibility of deportation.

(2) It is shameful that some adoptive parents “re-home” their adopted children through methods that are illegal and/or unethical at best. CHIFF proponents would do well to demand better pre-adoption screening and vast improvement of post-adoption services to ensure that all internationally adopted children are safe and cared for appropriately, subsequent to being adopted.

(3) It is shameful that first parents in the countries from which adoption agencies place children receive services that are marginal at best, that often prey upon economic inequities, that are increasingly shown to be deceitful, and that have no post-adoption resources whatsoever.

Further, please consider the use of funds by the US government for the adoption tax credit (ATC). Originally designed to encourage the adoption of children from the US foster care system, the adoption tax credit is now used primarily for international adoption, to reimburse parents for hotel, airfare, meals, legal costs, and so on. Many CHIFF supporters lobbied assiduously for the adoption tax credit.

According to a GAO report, “Since the original provision was enacted in 1996, taxpayers have claimed about $4.3 billion in adoption tax credits.” That report (GAO-12-98) was issued in October 2011. Estimates for tax year 2011, according to Joint Tax Committee reports, are $1.2 billion.

The US government has dispersed somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 billion (yes, billion) as reimbursement primarily to adoptive parents for international adoption expenses.

 US foster care adoptions cost very little. In stark contrast, international and private adoptions are far more expensive (ranging between $10,000 and $60,000).

A Child Trends Research Brief (Publication #2007-24) looked at 1999-2005 data from the US Treasury to see who used the ATC. The results are significant:

  • The vast majority of tax credit recipients were for international or private adoptions, not foster care adoptions.
  • Nearly all international adoptions were supported by the tax credit.  Only 25% of US foster care adoptions were supported by the tax credit.
  • Children adopted from foster care in 2004 represented only 17 percent of the money spent on the tax credit.
  • Nearly 90% of ATC tax filers with incomes above $100,000 adopted internationally or privately.

While the tax credit eases the ostensible burden of the costs of international adoption for adoptive families, it does nothing to provide resources, counseling, or any other equitable services for first/birth families around the globe. These are among the most marginalized, powerless people anywhere: the original parents (grandparents, siblings, aunts, cousins) of internationally adopted children. They receive no follow-up counseling or support after placing their children. Increasing numbers of adult international adoptees are searching and reuniting with their original families, and finding that the families were devastated by the loss of their children through fraudulent or corrupt practices.

Is the adoption tax credit, then, really helping vulnerable orphans, whether in the US or around the world? No, because many of the children placed for international adoption are not true orphans, in any traditional sense. They may have living family members, though they may be poor, ill, or otherwise unable to help. The children may have unrelated community members willing to raise them. The word “orphan” is used far too loosely and inaccurately in adoption policy discussions. It is emotionally powerful, nonetheless. And it has been used extensively in support of CHIFF.

CHIFF would have the US government using even more funds to place children for international adoption, without adequately meeting (or even calling attention to) current needs.

One alternative is that the funds currently used for the adoption tax credit could be used to improve pre-adoption and post-adoption services, including for first/birth parents. I have not yet heard any CHIFF supporters endorse such a use of the adoption tax credit.

Further, and this is a potentially valuable part of CHIFF, I urge you to ensure that international family preservation efforts genuinely focus on keeping families together. Efforts to encourage local adoption in-country deserve far greater attention and funding than what currently exists. I respectfully suggest an evaluation of already existing family preservation and reunification programs, and then funding them in a meaningful, sustainable way. There are multiple examples, around the globe. One solid, effective model is ReuniteUganda, which has had much success in keeping families together and in reuniting children wrongly separated from their parents. In Ethiopia, where my now 25 year old twin daughters are from (they were 6 when they were adopted), three organizations come to mind that are deeply involved in effective family preservation: Selamta, Bring Love In, and AHope for Children.

CHIFF has bipartisan cosponsors, suggesting at first glance that Congress is aware of the huge challenges surrounding international adoption. Unfortunately, many eyes need to be opened far more widely to the current needs of the international adoption community. It is easy to give blind support to the notion of “helping vulnerable orphans.” The issue, however, is far greater than that.

Thank you for your concern and attention to the realities of the world’s most vulnerable children, as well as their families.

Sincerely,

Maureen McCauley Evans

Maureen McCauley Evans is the adoptive parent of 4 children, now young adults all in their 20’s, adopted from the US and from Ethiopia. While she has not worked professionally in adoption for many years, she was the first executive director of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and worked for two adoption agencies, The Barker Foundation and Children’s Home Society and Family Services-East. She writes about adoption, art, and family issues on her blog, lightofdaystories.wordpress.com, which has received over 110,000 views since she began writing 9 months ago. She is passionate about the needs of vulnerable children and families, and insists that the voices of adult adoptees and of first parents be heard in adoption policy.

 

 

Searching in Adoption: Where to Begin?

Adoption happens because a child’s first family is unable to care safely or appropriately for him or her. That first family is always present nonetheless, whether in genetics, hair texture, race, physical memory, or a silent occasional moment of wondering on birthdays.

Some adoptees grieve the loss of their first families deeply, and search meticulously and intensely. Some suppress their curiosity, in deference to adoptive parents, or to fear of what they might learn. Some accept the information they have and don’t spend much time or energy on it. Some mourn in silence, feeling guilty and confused. Some do an idle search on Facebook and happily find siblings in a single click of the laptop. Some are contacted by their original parents, or by the child they placed, out of the blue.

Birth/first parents often share many of these emotions: grief, fear, curiosity, guilt, confusion, contentment, happiness, and more.

The adoptees and first parents in these scenarios could be about any age, and anywhere in the world.

The decision to search can be gradual or sudden, well-planned or haphazard. The results can be all over the map, just like the emotions that prompted the search. Having someone along for support can be critical: a (nonjudgmental, compassionate) friend, spouse, partner, sibling, therapist, mentor.

Where to begin a search? Here is an offering:

Basic Adoption Search Resources

It’s a document I created containing both US and international search resources. It’s not all-inclusive, definitive, or guaranteed. I’ve had many people ask me privately about search resources, and so put this list together.  If it is useful to you, wonderful.

As I say at the end of the document:

May you find what you are looking for, and may it bring you peace.

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The Stories of Ethiopian First Mothers, and of Their Children

Here is something I am working on, that I thought I’d send out to the universe today:

Among the most marginalized people in the world are the first mothers of adopted Ethiopian children. Many of these women would not place their children for adoption were it not for abject poverty.

Since 1999, about 13,000 children have been placed in the US from Ethiopia. Many of their mothers never hear from, or even about, their children ever again. These women don’t have access to the Internet or support groups or media. They often live in isolation, with their memories and sorrow.

I have yet to hear about US adoption agencies offering significant post-placement services to Ethiopian first mothers, in their language, with cultural competence. Fewer children are being placed from Ethiopia. Adoption agencies aren’t working there as much anymore. So what happens to the first families? What sort of grief and loss counseling do adoption agencies provide to the first families? Who do the first mothers turn to when they desperately miss their children, or want to know if they are alive?

We are missing so much in adoption. So much.

Families are supposed to send updates to Ethiopia. Some do, some don’t. There’s a lot of anger and mistrust, among families, agencies, government workers. My sense is, in any case, that most reports don’t get to the people who most deserve them: the first families. The mothers.

US adoption agencies do gather information about why children are placed for adoption. Increasingly, though, adoptees and adoptive families learn the information is inaccurate, or, worse, horrifically fraudulent. What are the true stories, and will anyone really know what they are?

What about the stories of the first mothers? Who listens to them, and records the family stories, and saves them for their children? Who values those stories?

I’ve begun working on a couple of exciting possibilities to change things.

One project is to create a network–an infrastructure–that delivers, to Ethiopian first parents, reports from US adoptive parents about their Ethiopian children. The reports would be in the Ethiopian parents’ language, and would be read to them if they are illiterate. Yes, photos too.

Another project is to work with Ethiopian first mothers, and preserve their personal histories. What a huge honor that would be. I belong to the Association of Personal Historians, and last month presented a workshop “Rebuilding Personal Histories” at the annual conference about personal histories for adoptees and others separated from their original family history. I’ve since talked with a few folks about doing this work with Ethiopian first mothers. Would that not be amazing?

So, I ask you to accompany me on this journey, in any way you can. Feel free to post here, or to email me at Maureen@LightOfDayStories.com.

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The photo is my Ethiopian daughter reuniting with her Ethiopian mother. Aselefech wrote about this journey here: “Far Away, Always in My Heart.”

No mother should suffer not knowing what happened to her child. We can change this.

Rebuilding Personal Histories: The Art of the Journey

Personal histories are hugely popular. To quote from the Association of Personal Historians: “It could be a memoir, a family biography, an oral history, a legacy letter, or another tribute – and it could take the form of a printed work, a video, an audio recording, or other formats. Whatever form of remembrance you choose, a personal history can have a profound impact on your life and the lives of your loved ones.”

It’s all about telling your stories, weaving together your memories. It’s booming with the baby boomers.

And stories are really important, whether or not we are baby boomers. The stories need to be known, shared, and preserved. Stories matter.

As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Unless, perhaps, it’s not ever having the opportunity, the choice, or the right to know, and then tell, your own story.

Some 5 million Americans are adopted. So that means there are about 10 million birth/first parents out there as well, plus grandparents, siblings who weren’t placed for adoption, and so on. They may not have the basic ingredients for a personal history that the rest of us take for granted. Some of this involves genealogy, as well as genetic genealogy. There are lots of possibilities to locate information, to preserve histories, and to share stories.

I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop at the annual conference of the Association of Personal Historians. (It was a great conference, and an incredibly nice group of people, by the way.) I’ve interspersed a few of my slides here to give a flavor of the workshop.

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Adoption and estrangement are not the same thing, of course, but there is overlap: separation from family, disruption of the original family, a disconnect, a loss. This is true for adoptees and for first/birth parents, mothers of loss, siblings who weren’t adopted, and anyone else whose family connections were severed, for whatever combination of reasons.

There is a spectrum of responses to these separations and disconnections. Some people are idly curious about the missing parts of their pasts. Some are consumed to the core. Some had very happy childhoods, Some were severely traumatized. For those seeking to learn and tell their stories, that spectrum can affect the way they approach their search for information and the way they process it.

In my workshop, I talked about a variety of ways that information can be found these days, even with the absurd restrictions on access to original birth certificates. I talked about the Internet, of course, and the remarkable story of Saroo Brierley and his journey from India to Australia and back, via Google Earth. Saroo’s story is not typical, but it does give hope. There are many ways to gather information, and many ways to tell our stories.

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I shared information about DNA testing, how that’s enriching our understanding of (and access to) all sorts of information: medical conditions, race/ethnicity, and connections to cousins, maybe even closer relatives. I mentioned search angels, sibling registries, online adoptee/first parent groups, vk.com (the Eastern European Facebook), and more.

We talked in my workshop about ways to normalize the past, to deal with complicated realities, and celebrate complex histories.

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As an artist, I also mentioned some less traditional ways of telling one’s stories: through SoulCollage, through The Sketchbook Project, through the book Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, and other means of re-creating one’s past and re-mapping one’s journeys.

Adopted persons and birth/first parents should be able to know their own histories and tell their own stories, without shame, fear, or agitation. The stories can be very complicated. Some are sad and painful. They are our stories nonetheless, and it is possible to acknowledge their pain and not be drowned by it. We can learn from them, and share that wisdom with others. We should absolutely tell the happy, funny, and joyful stories as well, and share them with our loved ones.

Among the participants in my workshop were two US adoptees (one a genome expert), an adoptive mother of a girl from China, and a woman whose 80-year-old mother was adopted and wanted to get information about her origins before she died. Each of these folks had a different perspective on the search and the stories, the pressure of time, the ways to share and tell information. Each has possibilities.

Starting in January, I will take a year-long, online, mixed media course called Life Book 2014. I can’t wait: the focus of the course will be self-development and healing, and each month a new artist will share techniques and ideas. I wrote about it in this post: Adoption Stories in the Light of Day, Through Art and Hopes of Healing. I’m hoping to build on my work with personal histories and with art, to bring more stories into the light of day, where they deserve to be.

I plan to do an online presentation of my workshop, “Adopted and Estranged Families: Rebuilding A Personal History.” I am in the process of developing resources around personal histories for adoptees and first/birth parents. I’ll post details soon on my Upcoming and Ongoing page.

Not Chuffed About CHIFF: Pushing Back On International Adoption Policy

“Chuffed” is British slang for being pleased, mixed with a bit of proud.

CHIFF is the Children in Families First Act. I’ve written here about Why CHIFF Will (and Should) Fail, and here about What CHIFF Lacks, And Why It Must Be Abandoned.

I am not chuffed about CHIFF. Those two posts above explain why.

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten some pushback from folks at adoption agencies about my views.

Why am I opposed to helping children who need families?

I’m not, it turns out. I believe adoption is a potential, positive option for children in genuine need of families. I agree that children are better off growing up in safe, loving families rather than in institutions. As is often the case, however, this is far more complicated than a warm and fuzzy scenario of homes for orphans. CHIFF is about a new bureaucracy, plus misplaced funding that ignores existing needs, and a blatant failure to include those most affected.

Many years ago, when I was working for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (I was there from 1995-2000), we worked on several pieces of significant adoption-related legislation. One was the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Two others were part of the immigration bill in 1996, one requiring immunizations prior to immigration to the US, and the other mandating deportation of non-US citizens who were convicted of a felony. The immunizations issue was settled fairly easily, with prospective adoptive parents having to sign a form saying they would get their children immunized here (or get an exemption for religious reasons, for example).

The deportation issue, though, was far more complex. Adult international adoptees who had not acquired US citizenship and committed a felony were deported, regardless of having been brought here by US citizens for adoption, having been raised here their whole lives, and having no connection (language, family, school, religion, etc.) with their country of origin. This absurdity was part of the impetus behind the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which gave (relatively) automatic citizenship to internationally adopted children. More information is available here, in my posts All They Will Call You Will Be Deportees and Citizenship Isn’t Automatic for Internationally Adopted Children to the US?.

All those legislative issues were complicated, and we are still feeling the implications certainly of the Hague Convention and of the deportation/citizenship law. When I think back of my involvement with both, I am aware of two glaring omissions from the discussions and implementation of both: very few adult adoptees or first parents were involved.

By far, it was international lawyers, adoption agencies’ staff, and adoptive parents who were the forces behind the legislative process: the same (mostly white, well-educated, politically savvy, well-off) demographic of those who are supporting CHIFF.

Had adoptees and first parents genuinely and fully been invited to share their experiences  around adoption, perhaps the Hague Convention would have been more smoothly implemented here in the US. Perhaps the Council On Accreditation would have more effective criteria for the accreditation of adoption agencies under the Hague. Perhaps consultation and input from adopted adults would have been more convincing about the need for appropriate and fair citizenship legislation.

I include myself in falling short on insisting that adoptees and first parents have a place at the table during those legislative processes. That’s why I am speaking out as loudly as possible now.

As I look at the supporters of CHIFF, I see a list comprised almost entirely of adoption agencies. Adoption agencies are not focused on family preservation–let’s be clear about that. Theirs is a different mission and focus. Family preservation is expensive, complicated, and labor-intensive. Adoption work can similarly described, though it requires different staffing, skills, evaluation, and funding than family preservation. It’s also easy to see how conflicts of interest could occur, if an agency pursues both.

Look at this, from the CHIFF Facebook page:

The CHIFF Working Group Executive Committee

American Academy of Adoption Attorneys
Both Ends Burning
Center for Adoption Policy
Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School
Christian Alliance for Orphans
Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute
EACH
Joint Council on International Children’s Services
Kidsave International
National Council For Adoption
Saddleback Church

CHIFF also has the support of dozens of individual adoption agencies. Why is that, if CHIFF emphasizes family preservation?

About the pushback I’ve received: I heard from one of the above agencies, saying I’d rattled a few cages. Good.

Because here’s the deal: Adoptee groups are more common, more vocal, and more effective than when I was at JCICS and other organizations. I’m not excusing my failure to include them at the time. I am saying, though, that there are plenty of organized groups now across the adoptee spectrum. There are amazing, thoughtful adoptees who are Ph.D’s and MSW’s and LCSW’s who could offer great insights into this legislation, but I don’t see their names or their affiliations on the list of CHIFF supporters. That speaks volumes to me, that the CHIFF Working Group Executive Committee and its list of supporters are predominantly adoption agencies and adoptive parents.

Interestingly, the “Likes” on the Facebook page of the Children in Families First group is 2439. The “Likes” on the “Stop CHIFF” Facebook page is 2507. A few years ago, before the empowerment that is social media, the balance would not have been so close. It’s all changing now.

Here’s another important reality that currently is often ignored. There are plenty of adult adoptees who love their adoptive parents, who are grateful to have been adopted, who recognize that their lives would have been totally different (certainly economically and perhaps otherwise) had they not been adopted. These are among the most powerful adopted adults who are speaking out, demanding change in the international adoption process, These adult adoptees love their adoptive families and they had happy childhoods. They are also speaking out about adoption, seeking change in the international adoption process, demanding transparency and integrity, and insisting on a role for themselves and for first/birth parents in the future of international adoption.

As to the notion that some of the adoptee groups don’t play well with others, and so are not invited to this sandbox: Enough. There are many, many adult adoptee groups and adoptee professionals working in adoption. If the adoption agency groups have insights and inroads to the politicians–and it surely looks as though they do–why don’t they share their skills and experience with adoptee groups?

Is anyone else struck by the fact that some adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations don’t want to hear from, talk with, or work with some adopted adults who are now speaking out? These adoptees were brought to the US by these agencies and organizations.  Have the agencies no ethical responsibility to find common ground? Even (or especially) with adopted adults who’ve struggled mightily with loss and grief, who had horrific childhoods, or who view their adoption as a painful life event?

Is anyone else struck by the fact that the international adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations are not reaching out to first parents to provide post-adoption services to them, the way the services are provided (or at least offered) to US adoptive parents? Where is the integrity in that? For that matter, I’d love to see an evaluation of the pre-placement services provided to international first parents. Do the services match what is available to US birth/first parents? If not, why not?

Is anyone else struck by the fact that CHIFF is “about reallocating a small portion of the $2 billion the US Government already spends on assistance programs for children internationally” but doesn’t say how much that “small portion” is? The US government currently provides billions in the adoption tax credit, a fragment for the adoption of foster care children but primarily allocated to international and private adoptions. Your tax dollars are already hard at work reimbursing relatively well-off adoptive parents for travel and hotels overseas. We are talking huge amounts of money here, that could be spent far more responsibly.

Is anyone else struck by the fact that adoptive parents of internationally adopted children are often able, after placement, to quickly find out the true backgrounds of their children, backgrounds that are all too often not what the agency told them? Should we ignore the fact that increasing numbers adult adoptees travel back to their country of origin and find their truth is very different from what the agency told them, their first parents, and their adoptive parents?

Is anyone else heartbroken about the fact that internationally adopted children are “re-homed” in an underground Internet system, that internationally adopted children are showing up in increasing numbers in the US foster care system, and that some internationally adopted children adopted as teens to the US are thrown out of their families when they reach 18?

I am well aware that adoptive parents and adoption-related organizations hold the most power in adoption policy–for now. I am aware that some (though not all) adoptee groups are adversarial, even hostile. But let’s not dismiss the realities experienced by so-called difficult adoptees. (Arguably, we do that all too often as shown by the dearth of appropriate post-adoption services for adopted children and teens. There could be a correlation.) Let’s not hope that they just go away, now that they’ve grown up. Collaboration, not further marginalization, is the only way to move toward well-grounded adoption policy and reform.

Let’s invite adult adoptees and first families to the table, and stop repeating the same mistakes. Let’s not pour more money and time into international adoption policy that does not adequately meet the needs of current adoptees, prospective adoptees, and constantly-marginalized first families.

 

Information and Access: An American Civil Right Denied

Like me, Susan Perry is a grandmother, with children and grandchildren whom she adores. She also has many family members to whom she is not biologically related.

Susan Perry is an adoptee. I am an adoptive parent.

Unlike Susan, I have access to my birth certificate and my medical history, without even needing to think twice about it. I would take it for granted, surely, except that I know people whose lives have been held hostage, who have faced grave illnesses that could have been treated differently, who have been told to just accept the way things are–they are denied access to their own birth certificates.

And we both agree that adopted people have a basic, civil, human right to know who they are. Access to original birth certificates remains an absurd issue in this country. We saw some progress in Washington state recently, though it’s not what it could or should have been. This week, legislation made its way through the Pennsylvania legislature. Information about Pennsylvania is available here. These are glimmers of progress, some good news in an arena that has been too often met with opposition from legislators, lawyers, adoption agencies, and adoption lobbyists.

Susan writes this from her heart: I wish every adoption attorney, agency official, legislator and religious group that opposes adoptee rights would read this post and then tell me to my face why they think it is their right to deny me my own original birth certificate and make it difficult for me to ascertain the basic truths about my own life. How can they not see how discriminatory it is to treat an entire minority group differently by law than we treat everyone else — especially now that we have hard data to show that adoptee access bills without restrictions work best for all concerned parties?

I wish the same thing, as a grandmother, a mom, a daughter.

Read the rest of Susan’s powerful post here.

This is not an adoptee-only fight, though they should be the leaders. I urge my fellow adoptive parents, my fellow grandparents, all grandparents of adopted children, all siblings of adoptees, all partners of adoptees to join me in urging access to original birth certificates without restriction. The world hasn’t ended in Kansas or Alaska, where adoption records have never been sealed. In Oregon, Alabama, New Hampshire, and Maine, adult adoptees can access their records. In these 6 states, adopted adults have the right to access or not access their own records.

May Susan Perry and others be allowed to access a basic human right–to know who they are. May we all recognize that we can do better than secrecy and shame. May grandmothers (and others) not suffer through physical and other illnesses because they are denied basic truths about their own lives.

Update: I will write more specifically about this, but for those looking for ways to help improve access to original birth certificates, here’s some quick information. Essentially, this is a state issue, so you can look into what your individual state’s policy is.  Check my post “OBC Outrage: Adoptive Parents?” as well. Good sources of information are the American Adoption Congress,  Adoptee Rights Coalition, and Bastard Nation.

Also, DNA technology is an option for some adoptees to fill in their medical history. Certainly it’s not a substitute for firsthand knowledge, and it’s absurd (again) that an adoptee should have to pay for this information. Nonetheless, services such as 23AndMe, Family Tree DNA, and others are available. More information is available here.

Australian Adoptee Finds Way Back to India Via Google Earth

Oh my. I wrote recently about the power of maps, and how they can help adoptees and others fill in missing pieces of their pasts. (See Mapping Adoption Journeys: The Cartography of Healing.) Now here is an adoptee’s journey, via Google Earth. This story could resonate especially with anyone adopted at an older age, including those who might have been abandoned or even trafficked, from places around the globe. Astonishing potential here to find one’s way home, however one defines that.

A little boy in 1986 fell asleep on a train in Berhanpur, India, woke up 1500 kilometers away in Calcutta, and ended up being adopted to Australia. His adoptive mom always kept a map of India on his wall while he was growing up.

Now a 32-year-old adult, Saroo Munshi Khan (adopted name Brierley) used his memories as a 5-year-old plus Google Earth imagery–and found his way back to his hometown of Khandwa, India. It took hours and hours of staring at the computer screen, going through the “photographs” stored in his brain, seeing if any clicked with what appeared on Google Earth.

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In 2012, he traveled back to India, and rather quickly reunited with his mother and siblings.

I have chills. It’s an astonishing connection of a child’s memories, technology, and hope.

Here is Saroo’s story, which includes a great video of Saroo explaining his journey: A long way home with help from Google Earth. 

Saroo has also written a book, A Long Way Home. You can connect with him here on Facebook.

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The world of adoption is changing in revolutionary ways. Adoptees and their first families  can reconnect by unexpected methods. The poet/songwriter/singer Kate Wolf wrote that “sometimes the strongest love hangs by such a slender thread.” Yet, look at how tenacious that slender thread can be.