Refuted by the Facts: Catholic Claims About Restoring Birth Certificate Access to Adult Adoptees

On Tuesday, March 18, 2014, the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Youth and Aging will hear testimony regarding HB162,  a bill which would restore the rights of Pennsylvania-born adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates. The House of Representatives passed HB162 with a unanimous vote. There was no opposing testimony offered during the hearing.

In contrast, it has been confirmed that representatives from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities Adoption Services and Specialized Foster Care for the Diocese of Harrisburg will be testifying in opposition to the bill at the Senate committee hearing. This is a course of action that I find perplexing because the reasons Catholic organizations such as state Catholic Conferences and Catholic Charities brances often give for opposing access legislation like HB162 are easily proven to be completely unfounded and nothing more than mere conjecture. Let’s take a look at the two most prominent claims made by Catholic organizations opposing access legislation and apply the currently available data.

1. Natural parents were legally promised total anonymity, and have a legally guaranteed right to privacy, from their own children because they relinquished them for adoption.

Catholic organizations in many states oppose restoring equal access to adult adoptees based on the notion that some natural parents might not wish to have contact with their relinquished adult sons or daughters–and that this personal desire is a legal right granted through adoption. Contrary to what many in society have been led to believe, there is not one document involved in any adoption that legally guarantees natural parents total anonymity from their own sons and daughters. In most states, an adoptee’s file and original birth certificate can be opened at a judge’s discretion. As such, it is a legal impossibility that a natural parent could assume total anonymity from the adoptee.

Elizabeth Samuels, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, conducted research on the issue of birth parent privacy. Her paper titled Surrender and Subordination: Birth Mothers and Adoption Law Reform offers her review of legal surrender documents signed by natural mothers. According to the abstract for the paper, “Finally, the article analyzes the provisions of the surrender documents. The analysis of the provisions definitively supports birth mother advocates’ reports that women were neither offered a choice of nor guaranteed lifelong anonymity.”

Additionally, birth certificates are not amended until an adoption is finalized. Children who are in foster care because the parental rights of their parents have been terminated, and who have not been legally adopted, use and have access to their factual birth certificates. If the amending of birth certificates was contingent on the privacy of natural parents, the process of legal fiction would occur upon termination of parental rights. Instead, an adoptee’s birth certificate is only amended upon the finalization of adoption. One can conclude, therefore, that the amending of birth certificates is for the adoptive parents’ benefit and has nothing to do with natural parent privacy.

Based on these facts and Samuels’ work, it seems that some Catholic organizations, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, are mistaken. No natural parent has a legal guarantee, through adoption, of confidentiality, privacy or anonymity from his or her offspring. As such, claims to the contrary, as often presented by Catholic organizations, are not supported by facts, data or evidence and do not hold up as valid reasons to continue treating adult adoptees as a class of citizen differently than non-adopted adults. Of course, if any Catholic organization would like to share an actual example of a legally binding, adoption-related document specifically stating that the natural parents involved were legally afforded a right to total anonymity and confidentiality from their own offspring, I would be more than happy to revisit my conclusion.

For now, I would encourage Catholic organizations who oppose access legislation to consider that what an adult adoptee may choose to do, or not do, with the information contained on his or her original birth certificate is a personal matter and not one that requires the involvement of state governments or religious organizations. Adult citizens manage their personal engagements with other adults on their own every day. And there are many options available to any adult citizen who does not wish to engage with another adult citizen. As such, when it comes to adult adoptees accessing their own original birth certificates, the personal preferences of some (natural parents who do not desire contact with their sons or daughters) should not be given priority over the legal rights of all adults who were adopted as children.

2. If expectant parents knew that the unborn child they were considering for adoption could access his or her own original birth certificate upon reaching adulthood, more of them would opt for abortions instead.

I have to be totally honest and express that I do not even understand this assumption made by many Catholic organizations. My lack of comprehension is due to the fact that the available compiled data indicates that the exact opposite of this assumption is true.

Let’s consider research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2008. A study of 38 American women who obtained abortions was conducted in 2004. The women represented a sample from a larger study on the reasons for deciding in favor of abortion. According to a press release on the study issued by the organization, “Without being asked directly, several of the women indicated that adoption is not a realistic option for them. They reported that the thought of one’s child being out in the world without knowing if it was being taken care of or by whom would induce more guilt than having an abortion.” Based on this evidence, one can easily determine that the very nature of adoption–which involves no guarantees of knowing that one’s child is being cared for properly–is a valid reason for some women to opt for abortion over adoption. Taking this into consideration, it seems to me that restoring the right for adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates would, in fact, provide some assurance to expectant parents and perhaps influence a decision to not abort.

Adult adoptee and Roman Catholic priest the Rev. Thomas Brosnan agrees. During the American Adoption Congress conference in 1996, he offered a compassionate and insightful talk titled Adoption & Faith: Coming of Age Toward a Spirituality of Adoption. During his talk, he stated that “The act of relinquishment is so wrenching an event that young women have told me that they chose to abort their babies rather than relinquish them to adoption. Some of us may judge this to be the height of selfishness, but I wonder if there is not some instinctual response involved in making that drastic decision. No matter what the reasons for relinquishment might be, however, the emotional response to the act of relinquishment is analogous to abortion, an unbloody abortion if you will, but as Dr. John Sonne had pointed out in his workshop yesterday, ‘a psychological abortion’ nonetheless.” In considering Brosnan’s words, I find myself even more perplexed by the claim made by some Catholic organizations who feel that if adult adoptees, including the Rev. Brosnan, were to access their own birth certificates, the abortion rate would increase.

It is also important to consider Alaska and Kansas, states that have never sealed the original birth certificates of adoptees. Both states have also been noted as having very low abortion rates according to data compiled in 2010 by the American Adoption Congress. The same data also revealed that in the states with more recent restored access, abortion rates lowered significantly following the passing of access legislation. As such, data clearly shows that access legislation will not result in a major increase in abortion rates. So I honestly have no idea what sort of rationale some Catholic organizations are using to make this particular claim. I can only conclude that there is some hidden agenda or reason behind these claims and that the organizations hope legislators will simply take the claims at face value and not require any supporting data. I personally feel that our legislators are much more astute than these Catholic organizations suggest and that they are able to discern fact-based evidence from religious-based conjecture.

Again, if any Catholic organization can provide data or evidence supporting the claim that restoring to adult adoptees access to their own birth certificates would result in a major increase in abortion rates, I would be more than happy to revisit my conclusion.

Thoughts for legislators
There are currently many access bills in various states under consideration that are opposed by Catholic organizations using the two claims referenced here as reasons to deny adult adoptees–many of whom were adopted through Catholic adoption agencies–access to their original birth certificates and the right to equal treatment under law. Because of this, I now ask legislators to please consider the substantiated facts and available evidence. Please do not allow yourselves, as elected representatives in state governments, to be influenced by claims with no supporting data that are offered by religious organizations.

Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160We acknowledge and affirm that providing adopted adults access to their original certificate is not only good practice, but also, more importantly, the right and just thing to do. 

~ From testimony offered by the Catholic Conference of Ohio on March 13, 2013

Documents referenced in this piece:
Surrender and Subordination: Birth Mothers and Adoption Law Reform
Concern for Current and Future Children: A Key Reason Women Have Abortions
Adoption & Faith: Coming of Age Toward a Spirituality of Adoption
AAC Access Legislation and Abortion Stats

Common Red Herrings in Adoption Discourse: That Happens in Biological Families Too

I find it rather interesting that when adult adoptees express and share thoughts on our younger counterparts being abused or killed while in the care of their adoptive parents, we are so often informed “well, that kind of stuff happens in biological families too.”

Do people actually think we don’t know this?

This week, the Associated Press covered a horrific story out of Maryland. An adoptive father, Brian O’Callaghan, has been accused of killing his three-year-old adopted son. The young boy had barely been in the United States for five months, having been adopted from Korea by O’Callaghan and his wife in October 2013.

Many of us in the adult adoptee community were deeply saddened to hear about this case. And I have absolutely no doubt that anyone reading about this case, adopted or not, would feel the same. For some adult adoptees, however, instances of abuse or death involving our younger adopted counterparts hit very close to our hearts—in a way that we feel necessitates a deeper discussion on the role that current adoption practices might play in such cases.

Adoptive families are different from biological families. There are aspects of an adoptee’s experience that simply do not exist within the construct of a child being raised by his or her biological family. Like all adoptees, the young boy in this case had already experienced the loss of his natural parents and family. As an international transracial adoptee, he then left his country of origin with people who were unfamiliar to him and moved to a new country where an unfamiliar language was spoken and he was given a new first name. This was how the boy’s experience with O’Callaghan and his wife began. For this adoptee to wind up dead five months later involves unique, adoption-related “stuff” that doesn’t happen in biological families.

According to the police report*, O’Callaghan indicated that a bond had not formed between the young boy and him. O’Callaghan’s wife had returned to work and he was using Family Medical Leave to care for the young boy at home, during which time the boy sustained fatal injuries. Doctors conducted tests and concluded that the injuries were consistent with acute head trauma and O’Callaghan could not provide an explanation as to what would have caused such serious distress to his adopted son.

The fact that the young boy was adopted brings up a myriad of considerations that would not arise in a murder case involving a child being raised by his or her biological parents. Adoption, for example, is often specifically touted by adoption agencies and society as providing a child with a “better life” than that child would have had with his or her biological family. Additionally, the industry encourages adoptive parents to think of themselves as “saving” an orphaned child. The adoption industry also claims that its extensive home study processes ensure that adoptees are being placed into safe and secure environments. Clearly, these processes are far from reliable.

According to the Washington Post, the O’Callaghan’s adoption was managed by Catholic Charities. For those of us in the adult adoptee community, this begs the question of whether the agency offered adequate pre- and post-adoption support. If O’Callaghan didn’t feel bonded to his adopted son after five months, what resources were available to him through Catholic Charities? Clearly, the extensive home study process didn’t produce anything indicating that the young boy would be in a dangerous home. But was any follow up completed by the agency during the first five months?

This young boy was not provided with that “better life” through adoption. He lost his life to adoption. He most likely had parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Korea who might never know of his death while continuing to think that he is safe and secure in the United States. He had already experienced much trauma and loss prior to arriving in the United States barely five months ago. And clearly, the adoptive parents were not adequately prepared for what this might do to a child and how to manage it. This speaks to failures in the adoption industry and in a society that responds to adult adoptees pointing out such inadequacies by saying “well, this kind of stuff happens in biological families too.” Watercolor Tree Email Small TransparentRed Herring: Something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand.

~ dictionary.com

*Source: Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK): www.adoptionjustice.com

New York Times Hosts Debate on Race in Adoption; Leaves Out Adoptees

This week, the New York Times offered varying views of transracial adoption as part of the online Room for Debate feature that is considered part of its opinion section.  The topic of the debate was “In Adoption, Does Race Matter?” and several people contributed written responses. The group included laywers, a social worker and the president of a Christian organization. None of the participants are adoptees.

Much like NPR did recently with its story on transracial adoption, the New York Times opted not to include opinions offered by the best qualified people to answer such a question: adult transracial adoptees. Instead, the news organization featured only the opinions of those observing adoption without having actually experienced it as an adopted person. This is an important distinction. Only those of us who were adopted actually know how adoption affects us or if a certain aspect of adoption “matters” or not. And yet, when it comes to stories on the adoption experience, the media consistently turns to non-adopted sources who can, at best, only offer observation based on peripheral experience or, at worst, their own non-experiential personal opinion.

There are plenty of adult adoptees–transracial and non-transracial–who are lawyers, social workers, religious leaders, and more who would have made this debate more compelling. In fact, any transracial adopted adult, regardless of career path, would have added major insight to this feature because of the simple fact that they can actually answer the question. And yet, once again, adult adoptees were passed over in favor of gathering opinions on the adoption experience from people who haven’t actually lived it.

As an adult adoptee and a journalist, I am very disappointed in the New York Times for this willful oversight. Adult adoptees are quite easy to find, readily available and more than willing to discuss the topics raised in this debate and any other that involves digging deeper into the actual adoption experience. To pass adult adoptees over when covering adoption-related stories is lazy and indicative of the societal notion that adoptees remain children, unable to speak for themselves, long after their childhoods have ended.

It’s pretty simple, really.

If a media organization is investigating if race matters in adoption, it should interview adult transracial adoptees.

If a media organization is investigating if transracial adoption harms children or communities, it should interview adult transracial adoptees.

If a media organization is investigating if it is ideal for children to be raised by parents who look like them, it should interview adult transracial adoptees.

If a media organization is investigating any topic involving the adoption experience, it should interview adult adoptees.

Back in high school, I read the New York Times that was delivered to my house each morning. My dream then was to one day be the newspaper’s Op-Ed Editor. I even went to college and majored in journalism. I might not have made it to the hallowed halls of the New York Times, but I’m pretty sure that I could produce a better story on the transracial adoption experience than it managed to do this week.

I will say it again. Adult adoptees are the best sources of information when it comes to the adoption experience. We do not need anyone to speak for us. We are perfectly able to speak for ourselves. What’s the media’s excuse for leaving us out of their investigations on adoption?
Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160An expert knows all the answers–if you ask the right questions.

~ Levi Strauss 

NPR Takes Advice and Features Transracial Adult Adoptee

I recently wrote about how NPR interviewed Angela Tucker, a black adult adoptee, and Rachel Garlinghouse, a white adoptive parent, for a story on transracial adoption. When the story was released, however, only Garlinghouse was featured. Many of us in the adoption reform community found this to be an error in judgment on NPR’s part and voiced our thoughts on the matter. This past weekend, perhaps in response to our strong reaction, NPR opted to feature an interview with a transracial adoptee.

As an adult adoptee who is also a communications professional, I think it was a good decision for NPR to address the concerns raised and show that it is willing to dig deeper into the adoptee experience. I had the privilege of meeting NPR’s interview subject, Chad Goller-Sojourner, at an adoption conference in the fall of 2013. During the conference, he performed part of his solo stage show titled Riding in Cars With Black People. He is a gifted performer and storyteller with an instinctual knack for using wit and observation to express himself. He and I ended up chatting over drinks following the performance and I found him to be just as interesting and intelligent offstage.  It is my feeling that these qualities came through in the NPR interview.

In his NPR interview, Goller-Sojourner, who is black, offered his insightful take on the complex experience of having been adopted and raised by white parents. For Goller-Sojourner, issues regarding identity included those experienced by many adoptees intertwined with issues of race. With the same wit and intelligence I observed in 2013, he provided a glimpse into his world, and perhaps the worlds of other transracial adoptees. I found his thoughts to be thought-provoking and honest.

As is usually the case when adult adoptees share some thoughts on their personal adoption experience, commenters on NPR’s website felt the need to accuse him of being “ungrateful.” Here are some of the comments I read:

And that’s the thanks the adoptive parents get for their love and sacrifice. Sonny boy was unhappy. The family should have adopted a cat or dog. The pet will love you forever!

Is it just me, or does he sound like he isn’t proud of coming from his family?

Sounds whiny, ungrateful and privileged.

Is it just me or does this kid seem ungrateful?

I’m not shocked by these insensitive comments. I have had statements such as these directed at me as well and I find it perplexing. These commenters seem to not realize that, like me, Goller-Sojourner is an adult, in his 40s, who is expressing his thoughts on his personal life experience. He has been an adult adoptee for more years than he was an adopted child under the care of his adoptive parents. This affords him the life experience that informs how he has framed his adoption experience into his personal narrative. It would be much more refreshing and forward-thinking if folks actually listened to what he has to say as an adult adoptee and refrained from lecturing him about how grateful he should be as if he were still a child. He is not a child. And he does not have to be grateful for anything in his life any more than non-adopted adults do.

It is my feeling that this societal tendency to consider adult adoptees as though we are perpetual children is precisely why media outlets such as NPR should consider a shift in focus when it comes to covering adoption. View adult adoptees as the key source of information on the adoption experience and adoption practices. We are the only people who are able to address what it is like to live as an adopted person. And going by the comments on NPR’s website, society has a lot to learn about what that truly means.Watercolor Tree Email Small TransparentMy parents looked just like the same people who were calling me a nigger or porch monkey. … My mother and my parents were in my corner, but it was still difficult to process.

~ Chad Goller-Sojourner

NPR: Expect the Expected When it Comes to Transracial Adoption Stories

As a journalist who has a passion for news and human interest stories, I have long been a listener of NPR’s programming efforts. I have a two-hour daily commute and NPR often makes it feel as though I have a friendly companion riding shotgun. As with all relationships, however, there are sometimes bumps in the road.

NPR recently contacted and interviewed Angela Tucker, my fellow adoptee and friend. Tucker is a transracial adoptee, subject of the film Closure, writer and former adoption professional. Apparently, NPR was working on a follow-up to an incident involving Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC. During a discussion hosted by Harris-Perry, several guests made what many felt were inappropriate remarks about politician Mitt Romney’s transracial adopted grandchild. The comments were made in reference to a photo of the white Romney holding his black adopted child as both were surrounded by his several other white, biological grandchildren.

In keeping with the follow-up nature of its story idea, NPR reached out to Tucker, a black woman who was raised by white adoptive parents. Clearly, she is in the position of providing some context around what Romney’s transracial adopted grandchild might face while growing up with white adoptive parents. NPR also interviewed Rachel Garlinghouse, a white adoptive mother raising three black children. When the story was released as part of The Sunday Conversation special series on January 12, 2014, Garlinghouse was the only one featured.

I have to say that I’m extremely disappointed in NPR’s decision to exclude Tucker from a story on transracial adoption. The organization had a wonderful opportunity to provide a side to the Romney incident that involved the point of view of a transracial adoptee—an adult counterpart to Romney’s adopted grandchild. Instead, NPR went with the white adoptive parent perspective which, in my opinion, is one that has been showcased ad nauseam by the media.

In interviewing both Tucker and Garlinghouse, NPR had the opportunity to offer a more well-rounded story on the topic of transracial adoption in light of the uproar surrounding the photo of Romney and his grandchildren. If the organization had included a natural parent, the piece could have had even more depth. Instead of taking the unexpected route, however, NPR opted for the expected.

As an adult adoptee and communications professional, I would like to challenge media outlets such as NPR to take the road less traveled in adoption. Make adult adoptees the go-to interview subjects when it comes to adoption stories. We are the only ones who can speak to living life as an adopted person. Consider traveling the road with us and getting the real scoop on the adoption experience.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us.

~ Bob Woodward

Life, Adopted at the Movies: Philomena

The first time I visited Baltimore’s historic Charles Theater was in the fall of 1989. At 18-years-old, I had just arrived in town to begin my freshman year at Loyola College. A new friend joined me for a showing of Stephen Soderbergh’s film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Sitting in the dark theater, I had no idea at the time that this formative part of my life would set into motion my own journey of self-discovery as an adoptee.

I recently found myself back at the Charles Theater. This time, it was for a showing of Philomena, a British drama film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith. Both the book and the film depict the story of Lee and the son she lost to adoption.

Sex, Lies and Adoption

Lee’s story is one with which many of us involved in adoption reform are familiar. As an 18-year-old in 1950s Ireland, Lee became pregnant. Disowned by her strict Catholic family, she joined the thousands of single, pregnant Irish women sent to Catholic Church operated convents during the 1950s and 1960s. Lee ended up at the Sean Ross Abbey which was operated by the Sacred Heart Sisters in Roscrea in County Tipperary. According to Mike Milotte’s book Banished Babies The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business, 438 babies born at Sean Ross were secretly sent to America for adoption. Lee’s son was one of those babies.

The flim presents Lee’s story as it unfolds after she becomes acquainted with the journalist Sixsmith and the two embark on a search for her lost son soon after his 50th birthday. Judi Dench is superb as the elder Lee and Steve Coogan gives life and humor to the cynical Sixsmith character. The relationship between the two is a highlight of the film and brings a sense of lightness to what is truly a poignant and heart-wrenching tale. In fact, relationships are the key theme of the film. While the atrocities endured by Lee and other young women are depicted and acknowledged, the heart of the story is in Lee’s own heart as a mother who feels a deep connection to the son who lived at the convent with her until he was 3-years-old. As an adoptee and a viewer, I liked this aspect of the film very much.  I liked that the focus was on Lee’s deep love for her son and how she never once stopped thinking of him or searching for him. This film offers a reminder that the connection between parent and child can rise above even the most horrific of circumstances.

Certain aspects of the film also mirrored some of my own experiences with Catholic institutions as a domestic American adoptee who was adopted through Catholic Charities as an infant in 1971. In the film, we learn that Lee visited the Sean Ross Abbey on several occasions with the hope of finding out what had become of her son. We also learn that as an adult, her son had also visited the convent with the hope of learning more about his mother. The convent nuns never tell one about the other, despite having the information readily available and having engaged in discussions with both.

Personal Parallels

My natural father first visited Catholic Charities of Fairfield County in 1989, around the time that his 18-year-old daughter was sitting in a Baltimore city movie theater watching actor James Spader point a video camera at actress Andie MacDowell. His intent was to inquire about me and make all of his information available. The Catholic Charities social worker would not tell him anything about me—not even my birth date. But she did tell him that, for a fee, he would be allowed to fill out paperwork containing all of his information. He was then informed that if I ever contacted the agency, his details would be provided to me. My father wrote out the check, completed the forms and began searching for his only child.

In 1998, at the age of 27, I did contact Catholic Charities of Fairfield County to inquire about my natural parents and learn what I could about my background. The same social worker who worked with my father years earlier spoke with me. She never mentioned that my father had released his information to me. But she did say that if I were to pay a $250 fee, Catholic Charities would conduct a search for me. I opted to keep my checkbook closed.

Fortunately, my father and I found each other through ISRR. After we reunited, my father told me about how he had released his information and asked if the agency had provided it to me. No, they did not, I confirmed. Then, seeing as Catholic Charities had no idea that my father and I had found each other, I decided to make an inquiry. I sent a letter requesting that any information left for me by either of my parents be provided as soon as possible.

A week later, I received a phone call from the same social worker who had worked with both my father and me. She informed me that Catholic Charities had good news and bad news. The good news, she said, was that my father had released all of his information to me years earlier. The bad news, she then explained, was that the agency could not release it without my mother’s permission—because she was considered the agency’s client (please note that as the actual former “child in need,” the agency does not consider me, one of its adoptees, to be a client). My father was not informed of these details when he paid his fee in 1989. To this day, I have never been provided with the information that Catholic Charities promised my father it would release.

That Which Transcends

While watching the film and considering my own personal experience, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lack of compassion offered to the natural parents, sons and daughters of adoption by some global Catholic institutions. Some of these actions occurred not only in the 1950s, but in the 1990s and 2000s. So this is not a matter of “oh well, that was a long time ago.”  In one sense, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County in Connecticut did to my father and the adult me what the Sean Ross Abbey nuns in Ireland did to Philomena and her adult son—withheld vital information, lied by omission and intentionally kept us from one another.

In the film, Lee does find out what happened to her son. She also agrees to let Sixsmith share her story, which he did in film and reality. Hers is one of abusive treatment and profound loss. It is also one of the deep, pure love of a mother for her son. This film does not shy away from the ethical issues in adoption yet manages to allow a mother’s love for her son to transcend all else, even the Catholic Church and the adoption industry. As such, this film is a gem and a must-view for anyone interested in taking a closer look at the topics of ethics in adoption, parental love and basic human compassion.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Diversity and the Adoptee Community

I recently had the privilege of traveling from Pennsylvania to Minneapolis to attend the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival and the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative Conference. The theme of the conference was “Reframing the Adoption Discourse” and from my vantage point, it succeeded in honoring this concept.

Both of these events also succeeded in providing me with an opportunity to engage with an amazing group of adoptees. We were a diverse and vibrant bunch. Our countries of origin differed. Our countries of adoption differed. Our ages at the time of adoption differed. Our overall adoption experiences differed. Our thoughts on search and reunion differed. Yet there was so much–so much–that bonded us to one another. We were all separated from our families of origin. We were all raised by people who were not related to us by biology. We were all put in a position to process this specific life experience known as being an adopted person.

What I appreciated most about the format of the film festival and conference was how the diversity within in the adoptee community was acknowledged while also placing focus on the common issues that we all face.

Friday Night Adoptee Film Fest

Films such as Memory of Forgotten War and Where Are You Going Thomas? helped me—a Caucasian adopted as an infant in 1971 through a private, domestic United States adoption—gain a better understanding of how the Korean War resulted in separation of families and created a now-historical context for the mass intercountry adoptions of Korean children that followed. These films also provided a base from which I could engage with my Korean-born counterparts in a more informed way.

Other films focused on search, reunion and the intense emotions that arise. In the documentary Searching for Go-Hyang, viewers watched as Korean-born twins adopted to the United States made the journey back to their country of origin and to their natural parents. Another film, CLOSURE, chronicled the search and reunion journey of an African-American adopted into a Caucasian family through domestic infant adoption in the United States. Tears flowed from my eyes during both films as I focused not on the differences, but on the heart-wrenching similarities between the stories shared and my own reunion narrative. No matter the country of origin or native language, the natural parents featured expressed the same deep-rooted pain and grief of having lost their children. And the adoptees expressed the same complex emotions that come up during reunion.

I was extremely fortunate to spend time with Deann Borshay Liem who directed and produced Memory of Forgotten War and Angela Tucker, subject of CLOSURE. Our experiences were different but we definitely spoke a common language familiar to all adopted persons. I’m extremely encouraged by the number of adult adoptees who are sharing their stories, and those of adopted persons, through creative outlets and media. These film makers illustrate how adoption should be treated as the complex, dynamic life experience it is instead of as a sensational plot device.

Reframing the Adoption Discourse on Saturday

Much like the film festival, the conference itself took a diverse and highly informed approach to adoptee-centered topics such as research, performance, activism, and mental health. Listening to the adoptee panelists—all professionals in their areas of focus–dialogue and discuss these important topics, it became quite clear that actual adopted persons should be at the head of the adoption policy table. Turns out we actually know what we are talking about when it comes to the adoption experience, from both personal and professional points of view.

Want to know how the mental health community can best provide post-adoption services to adopted persons? Ask an adult adoptee who is a mental health professional.

Want to know what policy measures would best respect and honor the rights and needs of adopted children? Ask an adult adoptee who is trained in policy analysis.

Want to conduct a study on the role of closed adoption in identity issues? Consult an adult adoptee who is a professional researcher.

All of these professions were represented by the adopted panelists at the conference. As an adult adoptee who is a professional journalist, I left the conference experience with new ways to frame and communicate some of the issues facing adoptees today. In the past, I was reluctant to address the issues facing my intercountry counterparts, for example, simply due to the fact that I was overly sensitive about speaking to something that was not my experience to share. So I focused on what impacts domestic United States adoptees like myself, original birth certificate access.

Thanks to the policy panel, however, I now feel confident and empowered to exapnd my own ability to engage in discussion on, for example, the more inclusive and holistic issue of documentation for all adoptees. In this conference environment, I was able to take a step back, listen and learn from my fellow adoptees. I heard how some of my intercountry counterparts don’t have original birth certificates or any birth certificates at all. I heard how failure to file documents in the United States can mean that an intercountry adoptee might not be recognized as a citizen. This global issue of documentation in adoption is one of many that can be inclusive of our diverse adoptee population.

It is my hope that within our diverse community of adoptees, we will continue to respect our differences, honor our diversity and work together to develop a holistic sense of advocacy that is inclusive to all. I, for one, need to stop being so adopted and start being more confident in my ability to address our differing experiences so that I can better facilitate discussion and communicate the broader, shared issues in an effective way.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

~Margaret Mead

For Veronica Brown

For Veronica
It is okay to feel confused.
It is okay to feel angry.
It is okay to feel resentful.
It is okay to feel betrayed.
It is okay to feel abandoned.
It is okay to feel disconnected.
It is okay to feel lost.
It is okay to feel like a pawn.
It is okay to feel that something was taken from you.
It is okay to feel you had no control.
It is okay to feel that your voice was silenced.
It is okay to feel that the system completely failed you.
All of these feelings are completely normal under the circumstances.
You are adopted. But you are not alone. You are not the only one.
Your fellow adoptees will be here when you need us.
We will listen.
We will understand.
We will support you.
We will lift you up.
We are your community.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other.

~Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

Legislative Committee Holds Hearing for Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights Bill

On Wednesday, July 17, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Children & Youth Committee held a hearing in consideration of HB162, a bill that would restore the rights of all Pennsylvania-born adult adoptees to obtain their original, factual birth certificates. This bill was introduced by Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre County, 171st Legislative District) and is co-sponsored by several of his colleagues.

“I think we all, inherently, would like to know where we came from and where we were born,” stated Benninghoff during his opening remarks. “Not having an original birth certificate, for a lot of people, becomes a blockade to that simple information. This is not about invading other people’s privacy. This is about allowing all Pennsylvanians to have the same right — in the issue of fairness — to the same certificate that the majority of our citizens have. I personally don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Later in his remarks, Benninghoff put a face to the issue by expressing to his colleagues that he is a Pennsylvania-born adult adoptee. Passing this bill, he explained, would allow for him to receive equal treatment under law to non-adopted persons.

When a child is adopted in the state of Pennsylvania, the adoptee’s original, factual birth certificate is altered–or amended–to make it appear as though the adoptive parents actually gave birth to the adoptee. There is no indication on the amended birth certificate that an adoption place. The original, factual birth certificate is sealed away and not legally recognized. Currently, Pennsylvania-born adult adoptees aged 18-years and over are not allowed to access their original birth certificate. In contrast, all non-adopted adults born in Pennsylvania can obtain a copy of their factual birth certificates by request.

Prior to 1984, adult adoptees born in Pennsylvania were able to access their original birth certificates just as all non-adopted adults who were born in Pennsylvania. This equality under law changed upon the enactment of Act 195, The Adoption Act of 1984, which took away the right for adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates.

Verbal testimony in support of HB162, and the restoring of rights removed in 1984, was presented to the committee by Robert Allan Hafetz, an adult adoptee and therapist; Amanda Woolston, BSW, an adult adoptee and social worker; Carolyn Hoard, a mother who relinquished a child for adoption and member of the American Adoption Congress; Mary O’Leary Wiley, an adult adoptee and psychologist; and Ann Williams, a Pennsylvania-born adoptee and state representative in the Illinois General Assembly. Several pieces of written testimony were also submitted in support of the bill. No opposing testimony was offered.

In response to a question asked regarding what opposition there might to this sort of legislation, Hoard stated that some are under the impression that birth parents were promised confidentiality from their own children.

“This is not true,” she replied. “There is nothing in the relinquishment papers signed by mothers that promised us confidentiality from our own sons and daughters. A few years ago, the attorney for the American Adoption Congress contacted the National Council for Adoption and requested copies of any relinquishment papers singed by birth mothers that contained promises of confidentiality. None were produced.”

Other questions asked by committee members touched on the psychological impact of adoption on adoptees and a request for clarification that this legislation would apply to adoptees who have reached the age of majority.

“We are adding Section D to the current law, back from 1953, which at that time required that this be done at the age of 18-years or older,” clarified Benninghoff.

The committee will now vote on whether HB162 will move forward in the legislative process. This is expected to occur within the next few weeks. If the committee does decide the bill is viable, the House of Representatives will then have the opportunity to vote on it.

“Years ago there was a trend toward secrecy because as a society our perception was different of adoptees and unmarried birth parents,” said Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D-Philadelphia County, 192nd Legislative District). “We are in the year 2013 now. And this has changed. All has changed. The progression of closing records arose from the idea that families formed through adoption should be more secretive than those formed by a birth. I believe that the right to know of one’s history should not be revoked because of a person’s birth date or how a person was adopted.”

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Read my written testimony in support of HB162

View the hearing

Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.

~Edmund Burke

 

Father’s Day Musings

Last month on Mother’s Day, I shared my experience with the observations made by Amy Young in her blog post focused on “The Wide Spectrum of Mothering.” As today is Father’s Day, I can’t help but think about how there is also a wide spectrum of fathering. I find myself, as an adoptee, realizing how one of my fathers is simply not fully represented on days such as today. Many fathers lost their children because unmarried fathers had no legal right to raise their own children. Many fathers lost children they do not even know about. Many fathers lost their children because there are different laws in different states. Fathers are often treated as afterthoughts or seed-providers in adoption. And society is failing them by allowing this to continue.

And so, I offer some expressions and encouraging statements for the first dads of adoption.

  • For those who very much wanted to raise their adopted-out children yet did not have the legal right to do so, we acknowledge your loss and offer our support.
  • For those who asserted their legal right, did not consent to their children’s adoptions and lost them anyway, we vow as a society to recognize the basic human right for a father to raise his own child.
  • For those who lost their children to open adoption and were then cut out of their childrens’ lives completely–we recognize your pain and embrace you with compassion.
  • For those who are not listed on the original birth certificate of their children, we acknowledge your fatherhood.
  • For those who are in reunion with children once lost to adoption–we offer support as you journey down this path of discovery.
  • For those who lost all knowledge of, or contact with, their fathers due to  adoption and sealed birth records–we grieve this profound loss with you and vow to do better as a society to empower and respect the needs and legal rights of adopted persons.

If you would like to add some words of recognition and encouragement, I invite you to share in the comments.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation.

~Desmond Tutu