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.

Hangouts, Insights, and Possibilities

Many thanks to the insightful, thoughtful Angela Tucker and Aselefech Evans for their time and conversation at last night’s Google + Hangout.

What we talked about: growing up in diverse/non-diverse places as transracial adoptees; thinking about first families; deciding when/how/why to search; how searching affects parents, siblings, others; how we fit in (or don’t) with the culture to which we were born.

Wonderful discussion of the weight and power of the words “mom” and “birth mom” and “first mom.”

Affirmation of the incredible value of conversations among adopted adults and adoptive parents. We need to keep doing this. Birth parents/first parents were there with us in words/mind/heart/spirit. They have a place at the table, no doubt–just need to keep working on getting them there.

Great stuff.

What needs work: My use and understanding of the Hangout process. We were not able to record this, and had some glitches in the live streaming. I spent a few hours last night after the Hangout reviewing what went well and how next time is going to be a seamless web of audio and video heaven.

Next steps: More Hangouts.  While it will never be possible to schedule them at a globally mutually convenient time, the next ones will be live-streamed and recorded.

Topics: So many possibilities, and I welcome more. Whose search is it anyway? Can international adoptees really reclaim their culture? What is “fair” in adoption? What does it mean to be comfortable in one’s skin? Is fraud really new in adoption, or are we just more aware of it now–and how do we reduce/eliminate it? How to deal with differing perspectives on search in the same family, or differing amounts of available information about birth families. What issues arise for adoptees working at adoption agencies? How can we work together to ensure that all adoptees have their original birth certificates?

So let’s keep talking.

Update, Previews, and Teasers

It’s good to be back.  In the last few weeks, I’ve gone from Seattle to Vancouver and back, and then from Washington State to Maryland to New York City to Maryland to Washington State.

Update:

During these 3 weeks: One of my daughters ran her first 5k, and finished in the top 20. My other daughter made the honor roll for her college semester, and was asked to be a teaching assistant this fall in the psychology department. One of my sons received the certification for sanitation at the Culinary School he’s attending. My other son closed on several real estate/rental contracts.

I attended my granddaughter’s dance recital in Maryland.  She has since had two tee ball games, Field Day in kindergarten, and her piano recital.

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In New York City, I saw the play “The Call,” about a white married couple considering adopting a child from Africa. I also attended the annual conference of the Joint Council on International Children Services. I presented a session on “Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents: Ethics, Economics, and Responsibilities,” as well as a lightning talk (20 PowerPoint slides in 5 minutes) on The Art of Adoption, featuring poems, paintings, and plays by adoptees.

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And each Friday, whatever time zone I was in, I skyped with my dad in Massachusetts. He’s in amazing physical health for an 83 year old.  He lives in the Harbor unit of an assisted living facility, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He’s delightful to talk with, often asks if any of my kids are getting married. No word on that yet, Dad.

I’ve had lots to reflect on in terms of family, adoption, being in the moment, the futility of art-directing others people’s lives, and more.

Previews and Teasers

Tomorrow night (Tuesday June 4), 7 pm pdt/10pm edt: Angela Tucker (of Closure) and Aselefech Evans via Google + Hangout. The conversation will be about transracial adoption (US and Ethiopia), hair, race, diversity, search: how perception and understanding of adoption changes over time for adoptees, how our definition of “family” can be so complex.

In the next week or so, I will be posting my JCICS workshop information about Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents.  (Teaser: The basics are citizenship, DNA testing, and role models/mentors who are adult adoptees.  The more controversial: Insisting on equitable pre-adopt and post-adopt services for birth families.)

I’m thrilled to be soon getting an advance review copy of The Declassified Adoptee‘s soon-to-be-published book. It’s going to be wonderful, powerful, provocative, insightful. A tremendous benefit to the adoption community.

Washington State has also provided two items of fodder recently for writing and commenting. For one, a less than adequate “compromise” bill on access to OBC’s. The second item is still not having a trial for Hana Alemu, more than two years after she was found dead in her adoptive parents’ back yard. A hearing is scheduled this week.

So.  There’s lots going on. Lots to write about, think about, reflect on. It’s good for us to be here.

OBC Outrage: Adoptive Parents?

Adopted children grow up. As adults, as US citizens, they should have the (basic, human, civil) right to access their Original Birth Certificate.

Access is a matter of state law. In only 6 states do adoptees have full access to their own OBC.

Birth parents were never guaranteed privacy through legislation on the federal, state ,or local level. Never. Yet they hold the legal rights (via vetoes written into state laws) to prevent the child they placed for adoption–the child to whom they gave up all legal rights–from accessing knowledge of who he or she is.

I believe in the rights of birth parents. I recognize how often they have been marginalized. The playing field, though, needs to be level here. It’s simply not fair to deny adoptees the fundamental right to know who they are.  No other group in the United States is cut off like this.

I’m disappointed in what seems to be happening here in Washington state, as adoptees’ rights are again being crushed. I’ll be writing to the Seattle Times and elsewhere, and I hope other adoptive parents join me.

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. Many adopted adults choose not to seek their OBC.

The right to one’s original birth certificate should be a real option, not an impossible, illicit act.

It puzzles me that adoptees and birth parents favoring open records have not been more successful. Very frustrating, but I think it shows the imbalance of power in adoption policy. We adoptive parents have been historically mighty in the World of Adoption Policy; it’s time we wielded our clout in this arena for our children to have access to their original birth certificates.

Adopted children grow up. It’s time we treated them as adults.

For some good advocacy, look at the following:

Adoptee Rights Coalition: Information about the status of legislation across the country.

Family Ties:  Thoughtful blog written by a grandmother like me, though she’s an adoptee.  And has 5 more grandkids than I do.

Bastard Nation: Great name, right? Provocative, helpful information. Here’s the Washington state info.

Washington Coalition for Adoptee Rights and Equality: Information specific to Washington state adoptees.

Advocacy in Olympia, Part 1: The Value of the OBC

Adoptees, birth mothers, adoptive parents--rallying together for OBC access 3/21/13. I'm on the far left.

Adoptees, birth mothers, adoptive parents–rallying together for OBC access 3/21/13. I’m on the far left.

Washington State is known to be progressive: gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, more recycling buckets than you can shake a stick at (Yard Waste). So it’s surprising, in some ways, that the debate over allowing adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates (OBC) still swirls.

Around the world, most industrialized nations allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their OBC as a matter of civil rights. (My daughters from Ethiopia arrived here with their OBC.) That’s not the case here in the US. Two states, Alaska and Kansas, have never sealed adoption records, meaning that adopted people have always had the right to obtain their OBC.  New Hampshire, Maine, Alabama, and Oregon currently allow adult adoptees to get their OBC, without restrictions. Most other states allow some sort of access, often fairly complicated, subject to some sort of veto (by the first/birth/biological mother)–and that is unfair.

No legislation exists (or has ever existed) by the federal government or any state government that guarantees privacy to birth parents following an adoptive placement. None.

Adult adoptees are the only group of Americans that are denied the right to know who they are, a basic human and civil right.

Whether they choose to exercise that right is highly individual, but there is no doubt in my mind that they should have the option. Adoption is undeniably complex.  Adoptees and birth families should have support and resources available to them, if and when they decide to search. A fundamental right, though, is access to one’s identity.

Last Thursday, I drove from Seattle to Olympia, Washington’s state capitol, about an hour and a half away.  The Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee was holding a hearing on 2 adoption-related bills, and, as an adoptive parent, I testified about both. The OBC legislation generated a lot of interest and testimony, from a few adoptive parents (older than me, even), several adoptees who ranged in age from mid-20’s to 70, and several birth mothers. We (adoptive parents, adoptees, birth mothers) were on the same page, urging legislators to allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates. It’s overdue.