Being a Birth Parent
(Or an Adoptee) Is Not a Crime

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     On the surface, nearly everyone would agree that it is not an actual crime to be a birth parent, to have given birth to or fathered a child who was subsequently relinquished for adoption. Virtually everyone would also agree that it is not a crime to have been adopted, either at birth or later. Certainly very few would think it a crime to be an adoptive parent. More people would, in fact, view that as heroic, even as patriotic and Godly.
     However, the real attitudes of many toward birth parents, and, to a lesser extent, toward adoptees, kids in foster care, and toward foster and adoptive parents, are less supportive. In recent times, many young women and men have had children outside of marriage and kept them. Well-known people, particularly actors, are famous for doing so. In fact, a decision to relinquish, for whatever reason, is seen in a more negative light now than keeping the child. Losing parental rights later really is viewed by many as a crime in and of itself. Granted, such loss of parental rights may be related to a parent’s criminal behavior, but not always, and at any rate, the loss of parental rights is not a crime. For the child, it is a terrible loss, no matter the quality of parenting s/he received and no matter the quality of parenting and family life the child has in foster care or in adoption.
     Foster parents may be perceived as noble, self-sacrificing, saviors of children, or may be seen as opportunists seeking to cash in by receiving some reimbursement from the state for providing a foster home. In a few cases, this might be true, and some foster parents have been abusive, but the vast majority are loving people who provide far more, at their own expense, than any funding they receive.
     Adoptive parents also may be seen as heroes, and, indeed, many take on traumatized children and dedicate their lives to helping them. There are those, of course, who do abuse children, who do not treat their adopted sons and daughters as well as those to whom they gave birth, and there are those who “collect” a number of children, perhaps from around the globe, as if they are souvenirs. These are the exceptions, even though they are sometimes highly publicized.
     Consciously, most people would proclaim adoptees and foster children to be “innocent victims” of their birth parents’ inability to raise them. Perhaps it is this perception of children as “victims” that also promotes the idea of birth parents as criminals, since the word “victim” implies there must be a “perpetrator.” In times past, adopted children were often told that their birth parents died in a car wreck, or that the mother died in childbirth, though these tales were rarely true. Today, even the stories are not so benign; they are more apt to be told, “Your mother (or even ’the woman who had you’) was only 15, she was a drug addict, she didn’t want you and neither did whoever fathered you,” whether any of that is true or not. It is not a crime to be 15 and pregnant, it is not a crime to relinquish a child for adoption, and it is not a crime to be an addict, though the sad truth of addiction is that it often leads to criminal behavior. Although nearly all young women really do want their babies, some are wise enough to realize that, without strong family support, both emotional and financial, they cannot be adequate parents, and so they do relinquish, most of them in open or at least semi-open adoptions. Many of them later become excellent parents of other children, although most still wish it had been possible to have raised the child they relinquished.
     Although in recent times most birth parents have kept their children, or at least have had some access through visits, letters, photos, etc., some are still expected to hide the fact that they gave birth at all, let alone that they relinquished custody, but not all access, to their children. Some are still encouraged by family or church or the adoption agency to relinquish through a closed adoption, and told to move on with their lives, a sure way to keep from being able to move on. Birth parents do not forget, and refusing to acknowledge their grief (not “guilt”) only prolongs and distorts it. In some cases, the adoptive parents ignore an open adoption agreement, or even move from a state that legally enforces such agreements, to a state that has no such provisions. Prosecution of adoptive parents for breaking open adoption agreements is, unfortunately, rare.
     As for the adopted or foster children, particularly those in foster care or adoption later than very early infancy, they grieve for their birth parents, even when they have been removed from an abusive or otherwise dangerous situation. They may grieve the lack of healthy parenting they never knew. Most foster and adoptive parents understand this, though some still expect the child to forget or reject all memory of birth parents and to proclaim absolute love and respect only for adoptive parents. This writer actually was told by a social worker, connected with a religious adoption group, “Some of these kids are just not at all grateful to their adoptive parents.” When reminded that non-adopted kids, especially teenagers, are not expected to be “grateful,” she looked dismayed and turned away!
     No one thinks adopted children are criminals, but many do harbor the notion that they are “damaged goods,” “not to be trusted,” or “you can never be sure what you’re getting; adopting is getting a pig in a poke.” This writer has actually heard every one of those statements from adoptive and potential adoptive parents. It is as if adoptees are more or less on parole or probation with the adoptive family until they are grown. Some are subsequently “unadopted,” placed back in foster care, or even passed along to someone else, as discussed in previous articles in this newsletter. In the advertisements in the Albuquerque Journal each week, when children available for adoption are pictured and discussed in detail, the plea for adoptive parents nearly always says the children “will benefit from a structured home with strong boundaries,” as if they cannot be trusted to have much freedom.
     It is a totally different issue that their schoolmates will see these pictures and descriptions, and often tease them about it at school the next day. Is there no respect for the children’s privacy? When a married couple take home their own newborn, they are not told that they must have a controlled environment and “strong boundaries.” The exception might be a nurse or relative who thinks schedules and restricted nursing or rocking are somehow beneficial to the baby’s “character.” In general, they are encouraged to love and enjoy, support and encourage their child.
     They are not led to believe that they can return the child (to whom?) if s/he doesn’t turn out to be exactly what the parents had in mind. They usually have the emotional support of other family, friends, and society in general. A single parent often receives less of this affirmation, and a parent who decides she/he/they cannot adequately parent their child is still, even today, more or less shunned for that. They are certainly not encouraged to talk about the child nor to view themselves as parents of any sort.
     Birth parents who relinquished a generation or more ago are still not encouraged by society, nor most of their families, to reconnect with their offspring, unless the now-adult son or daughter initiates the search and contact. Families often want to believe that, even in the rare event of re-connection, it will be a brief, one-time meeting or letter, to give the adoptee medical information or to “satisfy their curiosity.” They are still expected to be very quiet about it, to only have contact when the adoptee and his/her family ask for it, with the adoptive family (parents) having veto power at any time, no matter the age of the adoptee, and particularly so at public events or celebrations, such as weddings, graduations, and births of grandchildren. They are expected to remain in the background most of the time, if they are allowed to be present at all. They are not expected to see themselves as parents of the adoptee nor as grandparents to their offspring’s children. Although some of these attitudes extend to stepparents, it is more frequent and more pronounced toward birth parents.
     Adoptees are often told they don’t have to choose between their adoptive parents and their birth parents, but the underlying, unspoken message is often more like, “Your adoptive parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful, acknowledge the existence of Ms. Flawed, your birth mother, and possibly Mr. Irresponsible, your birth father, and you may think of them or even see them as long as you make it clear you are at all times loyal and devoted to us and hold us high above your birth parents.” This is not always the case, of course, but if everyone were honest, they would admit to the deep-seated thoughts and feelings.
     It may be that adoptive parents also feel they are forever on probation, having to prove their adequacy as parents, starting with agencies, social workers, doctors, family, the children themselves, and society. When birth parents re-enter the picture, they may feel that they have to prove themselves yet again, even though the birth parents do not say that, and, in fact, the birth parents usually believe they are the ones on trial, not the adoptive parents. No one really talks about any of these thoughts and feelings, so no one can resolve the perceptions.
     It is not a crime to be a birth parent, or an adoptee, a child in foster care, or an adoptive or foster parent. We will only heal, as individuals, as families, and as a society, if we quit acting as if these people are criminals with pasts to be concealed. The idea of the necessity of concealment is a big part of the problem. In the past, this included homes for unwed mothers, as well as completely closed adoptions, and sometimes false information on the original (sealed) birth certificate, more often urged by birth grandparents, social workers, and even doctors, than by the birth parents themselves. Adoption agencies sometimes compounded the problem by giving false information in case studies, and in documents given to adoptive parents. It even goes so far as listing an adopted child on the adoptive parents’ family tree information as their birth child, and not listing that child at all on birth parents’ family trees. Sometimes a person is listed on neither, as if s/he didn’t even exist. When this is brought up, many people will respond, “We put her on there as their birth daughter, because he adopted her when they got married and she shouldn’t have to think she is adopted and have that shame,” or “Surely she doesn’t want anyone to know she had a child out of wedlock and have to see that in print.” These people rarely question the relinquished/adopted person or the birth parent to see if they want this genetic information hidden.
     Perhaps it would help if adoptions did not go through the same court systems as criminal acts or civil lawsuits, but rather be made legal more like marriages, where there are legal records but not court appearances nor lawyers involved in proving the couple can or cannot get married. Marriage is not considered an adversarial situation. Adoption certainly should not be, but too often it either is (as when the state terminates parental rights, for instance) or is perceived to be, somehow pitting adoptive parents against birth parents. It is hard to imagine a different, collaborative system, because our society has developed an elaborate, court-based system around relinquishment, foster care, and adoption, so that it is viewed as an adversarial situation rather than a network of parents, children, families, and society. The result is that children are seen as possessions, as pawns, as prizes, and their fate is handled not unlike real-estate transactions, where the sellers and the buyers are sometimes told they cannot be at the closing at the same time, as if they have become adversaries. That is certainly not always the case in real estate, but it really ought not be the case where children and parents are concerned.

Excerpted from the August 2016 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2016 Operation Identity