Our Work Here Is Not Done

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     There is a popular saying, “My work here is done.” In the case of adoption support groups, perhaps we should adept a slightly different motto—“Our work here is not done.” Currently, many groups have gone out of existence—and the remaining ones are experiencing some struggles with continued membership, attendance, financial issues, and are questioning whether there is still a need for them. New groups do not seem to be forming. We question whether the Internet and legal changes in some states has rendered support groups superfluous or no longer appropriate. There are also questions about the need, or lack thereof, for printed newsletters, for regional or national conferences, or for trained searchers. After all, isn’t search just a matter of a few clicks on one’s computer, and especially so if one lives in a state (or was born in such a state) where adult adoptees canreceive copies of their original birth certificates? Who needs searchers, who needs support groups, who needs conferences, who needs any more legislation to make search easier? Didn’t these so-called birth parents want to leave their children behind and never be reminded, let alone found? Or if they’ve changed their minds and want to find their offspring, why should they have any such rights? And isn’t it dangerous to allow these people access to the children they abandoned or had taken away from them by a legal system that helped give them to more deserving people?
     So many people believe these statements, and many others, that it should be obvious our work as support groups is not done. Misconceptions (no pun intended), misinformation, mistaken beliefs, negative attitudes and stereotypes abound concerning every aspect of pregnancy, relinquishment, adoption, the foster system, birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents, and families. Mistaken beliefs about support groups, searchers, and laws are also more common than not. Beliefs about race, ethnicity, disabilities, socioeconomic situations, divorce, step-parenting, and donor conception also cloud public perceptions about adoption issues. Different life experience’s lead people to form different opinions concerning adoption, just as life experiences influence attitudes about other issues. A person who feels his/her country, race, sex, religion, state, profession, political party, language, eye color, or other physical or cultural attributes are superior to others’ is apt to be fearful of those who are different. Persons who confuse keeping secrets with respecting privacy are apt to want to conceal differences whenever possible. Some do not want anyone to knew about divorces, relinquished offspring, adoptive children or parents, disabilities that are not obvious, or even the length of time between marriage and the birth of a child. These kinds of fear and shame lead to hyper-vigilance, more fear, negative self-concepts, especially for children involved, who carry those ideas and concepts with them into adulthood, perpetuating the negative mistaken beliefs. Support groups and their publications, and accurate publicity about them, can help dispel these mistaken beliefs and stereotypes. Their role needs to be educational, for members and for the general public. Support groups are not about hand-holding, overthrowing the local, state, or federal government, nor about setting one group against another. They can be about supporting some legislative changes, about changing attitudes, and about supporting members in their efforts. These things are true of virtually all support groups, not just those which are concerned with adoption.
     Some of the current issues support groups can address are articles and books which defend abusive adoptive parents with statements such as, “They were kind enough to take in these out-of-control children who were abandoned by their no-good birth parents, so they are justified in using extreme methods to control these children, who will love them for it, eventually.” There is also a societal attitude that it’s okay for adoptive parents to play favorites among their adoptive or birth children, because the adoptees (or some of them) are “damaged goods” who ought to be grateful just to be with these people, or conversely, “they make no distinction at all, and have totally forgotten which children are adopted and which are not, which are white and which are not, which are disabled and which are not.” This is an insult to all concerned, as if one’s birth and appearance or abilities are so inconsequential the parents are not even aware! It’s also not true. Treating one’s children (in childhood or in adulthood) fairly does not mean ignoring their individual selves. The truth is, parents, siblings, and other family members actually do have favorites, and no one wants to admit it. An aunt or uncle might be able to get away with it, but not grandparents, parents, or step-parents. At a recent family reunion this writer attended, favoritism could be admitted and discussed more openly, because all the parents are deceased and the “children” are in their 60s, 70s and 80s!
     What was harder to discuss was that cousins had previous marriages and divorces, relinquished children, step-children, adopted children (especially when a step-parent adopted a spouse’s child when the child was small), offspring with addictions or disabilities, or even having left particular religious denominations. These facts were seen as shameful, not neutral facts to be acknowledged. One cousin went up to the huge family tree chart and whited out the fact that her brother adopted his step-daughter when she was a toddler! The brother and sister-in-law did not seem near as bothered. She also made it clear she didn’t want her own first two marriages included “because there weren’t any children.” She is currently having to face the fact that these “secrets” are not secret, because the newspaper write-ups of everyone’s miscarriages were there!
     Grandparents do not often attend adoption support groups, unless they are also adoptees, birth parents, or adoptive parents, but they should be encouraged to do so, because they have important roles and unique issues. If they are grandparents of someone who was relinquished, they may have spent years trying to hide that, and hiding their own grief from birth parents and others, and they may have difficulties when that grandchild is reunited and the grief and loss have to be dealt with again. If they opposed the relinquishment, they will have different issues to deal with. Grandparents of adoptees, on the other hand, may have issues of accepting those children on the same level as biological grandchildren, and similar issues exist for accepting step-grandchildren, which could be sons’ or daughters’ step-children, or could be a spouse’s grandchildren. These are not legally adoption issues, but emotionally are very much the same. There are some differences in whether the grandchildren are babies or children, or are already adults. How many sets of grandparents (or individual grandparents) can one have? Do they call all of them Grandma and Grandpa or something else? If there is an open adoption situation, are all the grandparents acknowledged and do they know each other? Members of adoption support groups find these are relevant topics to discuss in meetings.
     It almost goes without saying that the general public tends to confuse terms such as adoptive, adoption, foster (parent, child, home), and step (parent, child), and may use one term when another is correct. More than a few times, I have been chastised for referring to my step-son or step-daughter as such, not as my son or daughter. I have explained that that is what they are, that it is a correct term, not a derogatory one. Their children are my grandchildren, because that is not necessarily a legal term, and those children can have however many grandparents they wish to claim, just as cousins can claim cousins no matter the biological relationship.
     There are also many mistaken beliefs about search and reunion and what is legal, which is different in different states. In some states, records are accessible to adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. In others, only adult adoptees can gain access without a legally sanctioned intermediary, while in others, no one can access records (except state and adoption agency employees!) without a legal process involving an intermediary, and in some states, there is net even that option. Some states have so-called registries, where if both an adult adoptee and birth parent register, a match can be made, although many of those registries have no funding and hence no staff to make such matches. Many states have some combination of the above options, and may have restrictions based on the age of the adoptee or the date of the adoption. Support groups can provide information on these various aspects of search and can recommend search avenues, even if the group itself does not conduct searches. In earlier days, before there were networks of legally-sanctioned intermediaries, or access to records of any kind, support groups were more apt to actively help in searches.
     There are also many mistaken beliefs about various kinds of adoption. There are both agency adoptions and private adoptions, adoptions through the state system, through church or other organizations, through doctors and attorneys or within families or friends. There are, of course, both domestic and foreign adoptions, with various regulations, various degrees of openness and honesty, and many scenarios on follow-up, support, or access to information in the future. People also may be confused about open and closed adoptions (and degrees of each), about original versus amended birth certificates, and about the rights of adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. Because some laws are different in different states, and there are no federal adoption laws in this country, support groups and networks are able to clarify laws and terms and have a certain obligation to stay current on these issues. Getting articles in newspapers or magazines is a good way to educate the public, although many publications seem to think few would be interested in such articles. If the topic is sensational, such as an adopted person killing someone, especially adoptive family, the media are only too eager to play up the adoption angle, perpetuating the stereotype that adoptees are damaged, not redeemable, not to be trusted, and at the very least, net grateful enough to their adoptive parents and to society in general!
     Any time a support group gets a chance, they need to also clarify their role as such, because people tend to think they are therapy groups, professionally led, or groups advocating for legislative change, advocating for adoption at all times, advocating for ending all adoptions, working to restrict or outlaw abortion, or pursuing other outside causes. Many support groups, especially those started in earlier years, were set up as 501(c)3 organizations, with the legal regulations and restrictions governing such groups, and have officers and by-laws. Others have been formed more informally and may or may not have any funds or written rules. There is a place for both types of group, but a group should be clear what they are and what their purpose is.
     People also tend to think that search is just a matter of a quick computer search these days (although some still believe it is illegal to search) and that there is no need for face-to-face sharing or advice, while, in fact, a support group and live friends are a great help when one is searching, no matter the results of the search. Legal access to an original birth certificate does not mean immediate location of birth parents, either. People move, change names, give false information on birth records, often under duress, or omit birth father’s information, on legal advice. Legal access to any information by birth parents continues to be restricted in nearly all states. Even those states with current adult adoptee access to CBC (not complete records) may not welcome persons gaining access, let alone publicizing the law and details, and some still do not offer a legal or easy way to initiate a search. Support group members often know, from their own experiences, which states are hardest and easiest in which to search, and may have connections in various states which new attendees can contact.
     The general public tends to believe that a person can have only one “mom” and perhaps only one “dad” and has difficulty with the concept of what to call birth parents, feeling that adoptive parents have “earned” those titles, while birth parents have not, and yet referring to birth parents as “natural” parents, or believing that one set or the other are the “real” parents, to the exclusion of all others. Even adoption groups cannot agree on terms, using “birth parent,” “first parent,” or other terms, not being comfortable with multiple terms and not having come up with any new or neutral terms. Others use terms that are offensive to nearly all parents, such as “gestational carrier,” or “the woman who grew you,” or “the sperm provider,” or the inaccurate end judgmental phrase, “She grew you in her tummy, while I grew you in my heart.” How is a child supposed to understand from that the actual biological and social facts? Yet books are still being published with this sort of “information” and some of them are sent to support groups to be reviewed in their newsletters, placed in their libraries, and, the authors hope, recommended to families. Support groups may ignore these books or review them in honest ways, just as they may comment on articles, films and commentaries on the Internet.
     If people hold stereotypes about adoption, about race, about disabilities, and about children and families, it may be out of lack of knowledge, but it is also about fear. People fear disabilities or “differences” in others, and confuse genetic conditions, congenital (in-born but not genetic) conditions, environmental reasons for conditions, and randomness in life, looking for reasons or explanations. The uncertainty of not having a reason or something or someone to blame leads some to invent explanations. Because some persons are relinquished due to circumstances in which birth parents were unable physically, emotionally, or financially unable to raise a child, people sometimes equate being adopted with the birth parents and/or the adoptee being inadequate. Add to this the fact that if a child is available for adoption and is not a newborn, there probably has been some sort of trauma, for both child and birth family, or else the child would not be available. This basic fact tends to reinforce the above attitudes about birth families and adoptees being less than adequate persons. Support groups can and should combat these attitudes in every way possible.
     There are questions that groups might discuss and write about, for which there may not be easy answers. Among these questions are:
     • What role can support groups, including the American Adoption Congress as well as local groups, play with their own newsletters, both online and in print? Who should have access to newsletters, online and in print? To excerpts from them? How can we get more accurate articles concerning adoption issues in local, regional, and national publications, including papers, magazines, books, and also films, television, and online news?
     • Are pictures and articles concerning children available for adoption helpful or harmful? Are online pictures and articles better than the orphan trains of years gone by? What about “adoption picnics,” where children and prospective adoptive parents gather to meet each other? Healthy or too similar to “pet adoption days” at the local animal shelter or pet store?
     • When children are adopted internationally, whether perfectly legally or by less-than-honest means, and then the adoption “doesn’t work out,” what are the legal and humane, loving ways of handling the situation, rather than shipping the child back, or “dumping” him/her with other people, either for money or because the second family just take them in out of compassion? What role do agencies and support groups have? How can a support group decide whether to keep going or go out of existence? What resources are available? How can groups and organizations support each other?
     If our work here is not done, how can we all go about doing it more effectively?

Excerpted from the July 2014 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2014 Operation Identity