Why Are American Adopted Adults Denied the Right To Know Who They Are?

There is simply no good reason. As an adoptive parent of two sons born in the United States and twin daughters born in Ethiopia, I believe that adopted people have the basic human and civil right to know their original family, to know their original names, to know their medical history, and to choose whether they want to pursue a reunion, once they have this information.

Still, today, in 2017, no other group except American adult adoptees is denied the right to their original birth certificates, to know who their biological parents are, who their biological grandparents are, who their biological siblings are, what their ethnicity is, and what their genetic history is.

It astounds me how many non-adopted adults and how many adoptive parents are willing to continue to deny adopted persons access to information about who they are.

How about if we listen to adult adoptees, as well as the many organizations which represent them, as the best advocates for the right to their own birth certificates?

Right now, in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo is being urged by 45+ national and international adoptee organizations, as well as hundreds of individuals, to veto a bill that is costly (Adoptee Rights Laws estimates a cost of $6 million),  convoluted, and thoughtfully opposed by organizations such as the New York-based Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). Read the article “Give adopted people unencumbered access to their origins” by DAI chief executive, and adopted person, April DInwoodie. Read the list of adoptee organization and individuals who oppose the bill and urge Gov. Cuomo to veto it here. Information from New York Adoptee Equality is available here.

New York, and many other states, can enact far better, less costly legislation that is fair and transparent.

One commonly touted reason for opposing access to original birth certificates is that birth parents were promised confidentiality about the adoption. However, if they were promised this by a lawyer or doctor or adoption agency worker, it was an unenforceable assurance. There has never been any law that guarantees that birth parents would never be contacted by their children. It simply does not exist. In fact, adoption records were largely public until about 60 years ago. Records were sealed largely because of the stigma of illegitimacy then, but not to prevent people from contacting each other. Records have been unsealed in many states since, and judges can unseal records in emergencies. We have moved in the adoption community away from shame, secrecy, and lies, toward transparency, openness, and fairness. The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s report An Examination of the History and Impact Of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates provides detailed information.

Another common rationale is that allowing access to adopted persons will increase the number of abortions. There is little evidence for this claim. Further, abortion is an alternative to pregnancy, not to adoption. Adoption is an alternative to parenting. “The abortion rates in both Alaska and Kansas, states which grant adult adoptees unconditional access to their original birth certificates, were lower than the national average as a whole – 14.6 and 18.9 abortions, respectively for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44, compared to the national rate of 22.9 (Source: Alan Guttmacher Institute http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/journals/3026398.html). More information on this is available here and here.

A few U.S. states currently allow full access, though many states require adopted adults–not children anymore–to undergo mandatory counseling, to work with state-employed intermediaries, and to pay high fees. These requirements essentially infantilize adopted persons, treating them as children, buying into the narrative that adoptees should simply not be curious about who they are. Understanding who we are is a basic human pursuit and instinct.

I would be remiss if I did not note that DNA testing has affected search and reunion in adoption on a local, national, and global scale. Mothers are locating the children they placed for adoption; siblings and cousins are finding each other. Facebook groups provide astonishing amounts of support and guidance for adoptees to locate their birth family members. Among the many resources are DNA Detectives, DNA Adoption Community, and the Global Adoption Genealogy Project. Amazon Prime has sales on DNA kits today. All that said, adult adoptees should still have the legal right in the U.S. to access their own records, just as every non-adopted person does.

Adoptees raised in loving homes by loving adoptive parents have the right and perhaps the need to know as much as adoptees who had miserable adoptive families. The issue of gratitude is a volatile one in the adoption community, but being happy or grateful that one was adopted does not seem to me to be a reason not to want (or deserve) to know one’s original family.

Foster children who are adopted have their personal histories, their medical histories, and their names. Many international adoptees have their original birth certificates.

But American adults adopted as babies are denied the basic human and civil right to know who they are, a right which should be held higher than an ostensible promise of privacy. Only nine states in the U.S. currently allow total access to original birth certificates. Other countries around the globe allow far better access for adopted persons to their records. American adult adoptees should be allowed to know who they are.

 

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.

Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents: It’s Time (Part One)

On May 21, I presented my workshop titled “Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents: Ethics, Economics, and Responsibilities” at the annual conference of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services in New York City.

(A few disclaimers and a bit of context: I was the first executive director of JCICS, from 1994 to 2000.  I have no connection with them anymore, except insofar as some of the folks from those days are good people and remain good friends.  JCICS has changed a lot since I was there, from an umbrella group of international adoption agencies to a more broadly-focused nonprofit for global child welfare issues. I am guessing most of the conference attendees were adoption agency-affiliated, mostly administrative and executive staff. My workshop was a PowerPoint presentation; if anyone wants the slides, I can share them. My plan here in my blog is to share the main points, providing narrative similar to what I provided at the conference.)

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There is a perfect storm in adoption right now:

* The number of children being internationally adopted has dropped dramatically, but the number of children needing families remains high.

* Adoption agencies are closing, including those certified by the Council on Accreditation.

* There is an increased volume of adult adoptee voices being heard,  and their experiences and insights are becoming better known and respected.

* There is an explosion of Internet postings about fraud in international adoptions.

* There is some assent within the Christian evangelical community–recent big players in the international adoption arena–regarding fraud.

* Increasing numbers of adoptive parents are searching for their internationally adopted children’s first/birth families privately, after adoption, without agency assistance or knowledge, and while their children are little.

* Awareness and connections with birth/first families are increasing.

Given all this, given this perfect storm, where do we begin?

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These are, to me, the minimal Standards:

1. CitizenshipAll adoptive parents–whether they adopted in 1956 or in June 2013–must ensure that their internationally adopted children are citizens of the United States. It is an ethical outrage that this is even necessary to discuss (again and again, still). Read here for more information.

2. Access to Original Birth Certificate. All adoptive parents should make every effort for their children to have access to their original birth certificate. Whether a child is adopted within the US or internationally, they should have access to their original birth certificates. I realize that this is difficult (if not impossible) for genuinely abandoned children. Some children don’t arrive in the US with birth certificates because their birth was not recorded in any official way. Many children however do have birth certificates.  Still. All of them deserve access to this basic, too-often-taken-for-granted legal information: the birth certificate that non-adopted people have, that provides them with basic, vital information about who they are.  It’s a human right.

3. DNA Testing.  All adoptive parents should be aware of options regarding DNA testing, and offer these options to their children. DNA testing is relatively cheap these days, and provides an astonishing amount of information. Most non-adopted people have a decent medical history, a good sense for what runs in the family. Adoptees often do not. DNA testing would fill in some of those missing blanks at the doctor’s office. DNA testing can also connect adopted people to their birth family, or to more distant relatives.  DNA testing also can let people know if they are Sudanese, Irish, German, Colombian, or a combination thereof.

4. Role Models/Mentors.  All adoptive parents should make every effort for their adopted children to have role models around them who look like them, as well as mentors and friends who are adoptees. Real people, real friends, folks who are over to the house for coffee, parties, barbecues. Ideally, these people are in the adoptive parents’ lives and community prior to adoption. Access to role models and to adoptees as mentors can be especially important when kids become teenagers; it’d be great to have them while they’re still in elementary school.

The last two items from my PowerPoint slide above, Guidelines for Connections with First Families and Consideration of New Paradigms in International Adoption, will be the subject of an upcoming post. I will also add additional Standards of Practice.