AAC Conference Part 1: Open and Closed

I first became aware of the American Adoption Congress through the Adoption Triad support group that I attend.  Here is the AAC’s mission statement:

“The American Adoption Congress is comprised of individuals, families and organizations committed to adoption reform. We represent those whose lives are touched by adoption or other loss of family continuity.

“We promote honesty, openness and respect for family connections in adoption, foster care and assisted reproduction. We provide education for our members and professional communities about the lifelong process of adoption. We advocate legislation that will grant every individual access to information about his or her family and heritage.”

At the conference I attended last week, the participants were mostly adult adoptees and birth parents, though some adoptive parents and professionals were also in attendance.  A big focus of the AAC is helping to make access to original birth certificates (OBCs) for all people a reality.  I am not an expert on this subject as this has not been my personal battle to fight.  My children, by virtue of open adoption, have their original birth certificates.  But, as I have learned, the inability to know where one comes from can leave a large, gaping hole.

There were more workshops than any one person could possibly attend.  There were workshops on openness in public and private adoptions, caring for special needs children, ethics, LGBT adoptees, male adoptees, search and reunion, transracial adoption, writing about adoption, OBC access legislation, and so much more.  There were also keynote speakers, support groups, movies, art, performances and books.

Many of the conference speakers and workshops were focused, in one way or another, on the losses associated with adoption.  This is particularly true in the closed adoption context, but it is not limited to closed adoption.

Let me start with a few statistics to set the stage.  These statistics were given by Adam Pertman, the Executive Director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute.  (www.adoptioninstitute.org is a great source for adoption research, policy, and practice.)  There are 1.5 million adopted children in the US – over 2% of all children.  At the present time, it is estimated that there are approximately 135,000 adoptions completed each year in the US.  40% of these adoptions are stepparent adoptions.  Of the non-stepparent adoptions, 68% are from the child welfare system — children who have been abused, neglected, and/or institutionalized.  40% of adoptions are transracial.  15% of adoptions are from other countries.  Only 15,000 adoptions are domestic infant adoptions… I mention these statistics in part because my focus is usually on this latter, relatively small category.  It’s helpful to know your place in the grand scheme when it comes to making policy or addressing issues that affect adoption practices more generally.

And this was news to me: There are more children born each year through assisted reproductive technologies that include third party donors (sperm, egg, or embryo) than the number children adopted.  These children also suffer the loss of a connection to one or more of their genetic parents.

Pertman talked about the disappearance of closed adoption due to the Internet.  Anybody and everybody can be found.  In adoption, the special people who help birth families and adoptees connect are called Search Angels.  There were several present at the conference helping others make connections even as the conference proceeded.  I went to an Internet searching workshop and received a “Beginner’s Search Checklist” and a 5-page list of websites to find all kinds of information about relatives even if you have very little to begin with.  The presenter also included tips for getting around various roadblocks at different sites.

I thought about Internet searching in relationship to my own family.  We are lucky to have contact with four of our five children’s birthmothers – as well as other relatives.  But with these kinds of tools, I could stalk – excuse me: “find” – other relatives as well as Becton’s “missing” birthmother.  I went away from the workshop wondering where we are headed with all this information at our fingertips.  I also went away thinking: Once I get an address, I’m sending a handwritten, personal and old-fashioned, snail mail certified letter to Becton’s first mother. I’m not sure I want to know too much too soon.  There is something so intimate about these relationships that slowing down and taking one step at a time seems like the most responsible and ethical response to me…. As one of the presenter’s said in a workshop: “The decision to place a child for adoption is THE BIGGEST decision a person will make in her (or his) lifetime.”  Don’t I owe my child’s first mother the opportunity to control, at her own pace, the information she wants to share when she finds the courage to reach across the divide?

It’s tricky being the adoptive mother of a non-adult adoptee.  Do I have the right to substitute my judgment about what is in his/Becton’s best interest in relationship to opening his adoption?  How far do I push?

As I’ve shared before, I wrestled with these questions for a number of years in relationship to Journey’s adoption.  Her adoption began as an open one.  Then her birth mother “disappeared.”  Journey wanted to find her.  I hired private investigators and several times came very close to either contacting her or one of her relatives.  I backed off when the cost of the last step was high or I had second thoughts about revealing the adoption to a relative who might not know it had taken place.  The original arrangement and exchange of information had been made between adults: birth mother and adoptive parents.  But that was when the child was an infant.  When did the decision-making power and the information transfer to the child?

We were lucky to make contact with a relative – the only relative – who, in addition to Journey’s birth mother, knows that Journey exists.  From there, we were able to reconnect with Journey’s birth mother directly.  It has made a huge difference in Journey’s life, I think.  In the past few months, Journey has become more responsible and compassionate toward others.  I believe those qualities are a direct result of her feeling more whole, more complete.  Personally, as Journey’s day-to-day mother, I have benefitted.  She loves being with me now.  My sense is that she needed to know and experience her birth mother to give herself permission to let go and fully love me too.

If I’m right about Journey, then I have to wonder what benefits would come from Becton knowing and experiencing his birth mother.  I will send a letter to her.  Then I’ll hope and pray her life circumstances permit her to respond.  If not, I will be patient, but I suspect I will try again.

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