Do Children Have a Right to Privacy?

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Adoption used to be cloaked in secrecy, within the closed-adoption system. The prevailing attitude was that it was all rather shameful, and not only when it involved an unmarried mother relinquishing her child. Even within families, when a parent died or left, and even when the adoption was by a new step-parent, there was apt to be a policy of secrecy, particularly in trying to keep the adoption a secret from the adoptee. Legal papers were hidden or burned; extended family was sworn to secrecy. Even when the child was older than a toddler when adopted, people would maintain the illusion that somehow the child would forget any other parents or family, and only remember the new adoptive family. There was sometimes a rather perverse pleasure in divulging such information in the form of gossip, too. In the case of a private, non-agency adoption, even where perfectly legal, there was a sense of something not quite right, some shameful secrecy, and outsiders’ curiosity, such as, “I wonder who that child’s real parents are? I recall the So-and-so’s daughter being gone around the time that child was adopted, and I just wonder if he’s really that girl’s baby,” was not an uncommon remark in many towns.
     Within my own extended family, there was a boy of about thirteen, with bright red hair, adopted by a great aunt and uncle, who had other biological children. This boy did not look a thing like any of my family, and was not an infant when they got him. I have no idea why they adopted him. I only saw him one summer, when I was quite small. My older brother said he remembered being told, “Don’t mention that he’s adopted. They don’t want him to know.” Of course, he almost certainly did know. Later, his name and existence disappeared from all family-tree papers, and no further mention of him was made, although that information had been there previously. No one alive now seems to know what happened to him. The speculation is that after he was grown, he either did something that caused them to disown him, or he found his birth family and went back to them.
     Some of us still remember him, and occasionally wonder what all the secrecy was about. The great aunt who had put the information on paper in the first place also had two adopted sons, adopted at ages eight and nine or thereabouts, who were also biological brothers. The brothers said to my parents, when they were grown young men, that she had urged them to forget their birth parents, who apparently really were killed in a car wreck. Of course, they did not forget. I remember thinking, even at six or seven, “Why would she want them to forget? How sad!”
     Now that we have open and semi-open or semi-closed adoptions, some information is available, although adoptive parents often still seek to keep their children from knowing all or even any details, particularly names and real identities of birth parents, and even in open adoptions may try to control any possible relationships or even access to contact with birth parents, no matter what the legal agreement might be. This is certainly not true in all cases, and in some cases, it may be necessary for the child’s safety, but in most cases, it is more about adoptive parents’ insecurity and their wish to be the only parents.
     Does a child, or even an adult adoptee, have a right to whatever contact they wish with birth parents, or are their rights and desires forever subject to adoptive parents’ wishes? Do birth parents, having signed away their rights, or having had parental rights terminated against their desires, have any rights at all, including the right to love and care about their offspring? It is amazing that this is still a controversial issue, but it is.
     A few years ago, a commercial photographer in Santa Fe began making portraits of children in foster care, seeking to give them each a beautiful portrait of themselves. Some of them had not had studio photos of themselves before. It was a loving act to do this and give them the pictures. Over the years, this has morphed into many more such “Heart Galleries,” with increasing publicity.
     During this time, foster children available for adoption have been featured, with photographs, in the Albuquerque Journal every week, along with descriptions of them and their needs, usually including a continuing need for therapy and/or medication, and someone’s idea of what kind of family they need. It is touted as helping them find “forever families.” Aside from the extremely invasive act of publishing their pictures and descriptions in the paper, where their classmates and neighbors, and even birth family, can see, this must be further trauma for the children. A former teacher and current therapist reported that, several times, one of her students was so advertised (yes, it is advertising) and the other students saw it and said things like, “I saw your picture in the paper. What’s wrong with your real parents? Why are you in foster care? Didn’t your parents want you?”
     Try to imagine the pain those children felt, and the callous attitudes being formed in the other children’s minds. Not all will have “forever families,” either. They may “age out of the system,” meaning they reach eighteen without families and are often homeless without access to further services, or they may, like my long-lost adopted cousin, not remain in that adoptive family.
     Now the portrait idea has become digital photos, some of them resembling the criminal mug shots which everyone is to study in case they see them and can help incarcerate them, or, if they already are, just so they can look at the pictures and feel superior. The most shocking statement about this new approach, however, came from Governor Susana Martinez. “We can just post these everywhere, so everyone can see these children. It’s much faster and cheaper, and then they will have their ’forever families’ sooner.” She did emphasize “faster and cheaper.”
     Several people who saw this on the news wanted to scream, “These are not puppies at the pound! These are our society’s children! How can you talk of faster and cheaper?” Do these children have no right to privacy, do they not have enough trauma already, being removed from their parents’ homes? Do they need to be advertised like produce at the market? Are they just commodities to be bought, sold, traded, purchased as a hobby? How would other parents like to have their children’s pictures published, as they bragged, in “thirty or more places,” for all to see?
     As a birth parent, how would I have felt if my son had been so featured, rather than quietly adopted by a loving family, with no agencies, no portfolios, waiting lists, or choices made by social workers who knew neither me nor the adoptive parents? How would I have felt if, years later, I had seen his picture in the paper, “again available for adoption,” or some such? If there was a need for secrecy concerning his birth (DNA in those days meant Do Not Announce: don’t put it in the paper or take his newborn picture and also put DNA up the corner on his original birth certificate), and such a need to keep all subsequent information from me until I searched for him through a court-appointed intermediary, then why are these current children having their photographs and personal information “posted everywhere,” to quote the governor? I could have done with a lot less secrecy then, and I believe these children, and their families, could use some privacy now.
     I do not know the best answer for children in foster care, other than more preventive care for their parents, but I do know, as a therapist and a parent, that when a child has been removed from its birth home (not as a newborn), there has been trauma, and that trauma is not automatically healed just because loving well-meaning persons, who may have been through a brief “training course” put on by CYFD, adopts that child. Even professional therapists receive little training in trauma, let alone adoption issues. “Faster and cheaper” is no way to approach these complex issues. What’s next? Two-for-one sales? These are children, not used cars, not designer clothing, not personal property. They are human beings with rights to privacy.
     One of my family treasures is a set of newspapers from New Orleans, LA (1835-1840). I now have them, the only copies in existence. Since my early childhood, I have seen those papers, with notices of slave sales, runaway slave notices with descriptions and rewards for capture. I have seen the drawings of slaves literally “up” on the auction block for sale. The very term “put up for adoption” is so painful I can hardly utter it, because of those early images. Descriptions of children, as if they were items for sale, are disgusting to me. Descriptions of runaway mares in the same columns as descriptions of runaway mothers, fathers and children, even in an 1838 newspaper, still seems too similar to descriptions of “available” children in foster care. Ask any parent, birth, adoptive, or other, if they’d like their children advertised in this manner. Ask any child old enough to understand the concept if they’d like to be advertised, with all their faults as well as assets, as if for sale.
     On Sunday, June 21, 2015, Father’s Day, the Albuquerque Journal featured a story about a fourteen-year-old New Mexico girl who has just this year been adopted for the first time, although she has been in foster care since the age of two. She has several siblings, some of whom she is still in contact with. She had her picture in the online gallery previously mentioned, and she and her foster mother had been to “Adoption events,” where children available for adoption gather, and prospective adoptive parents also show up, to see if there is anyone they are interested in adopting.
     This itself sounds eerily similar to the old Orphan Train events, where a train full of children (not all orphans) would stop in a town and prospective parents (or employers, in many cases) would show up to look over the possibilities and perhaps select one or more children. The others would get back on the train and travel on. In the case of this New Mexico child, she had attended these events several times. She says, “My foster mom took me. We kept going to those events and meeting people.” She also said, “I didn’t think anyone would want me. One of my thoughts was that no one really adopts teenagers. They only want babies.”
     How heart-breaking these “events” must have been for her, and probably for her foster mother, too. How is it that in all those years, CYFD could not have found a family for her? What happened to her in foster care? We don’t know why she was in foster care, or what happened with her siblings, or even what happened with her birth parents. All we know from the article is that a couple from Deming attended this particular event and saw her and felt drawn to her, and subsequently adopted her. Now in Deming, she has changed both her first name and her last, “looking for a fresh start.” According to the article, she is very happy to be adopted, and her new parents are thrilled to have her, although it was mentioned she is trying to learn to learn better ways of behaving, and is still in therapy.
     As thrilled as we are for her new good fortune, and for her adoptive parents’ decision to parent again after their one son was grown, we can’t help asking what took so long for her to be adopted, and if the posting of photos online is “so much faster and cheaper,” why twelve years? We also wonder how traumatizing it must be to go these “adoption events,” and be looked over, and even more so, to leave knowing no one wanted you. If this is not a marketplace, and a violation of those children’s rights to privacy, what is? Imagine yourself as a child, or your own child or grandchild, being put on display in this manner. The Orphan Trains didn’t really cease to exist—they’ve just gone online.

Excerpted from the July 2015 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2015 Operation Identity