Review – I Am Sam

I learned about this movie from my all things adoption group and I wrote an initial blog on July 19th titled I Am Sam. I promised to come back with a review and last night I actually watched the movie on dvd from Netflix. Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning are both remarkable in their performances for this movie.

It is easy to understand the attraction of this movie to the all things adoption and foster care group because the core story is the lived experience of many members of that group. Not so much having a mentally challenged (ie as the movie says explicitly more than once – retarded) parent but as in the Division of Family and Child Welfare taking a child or children from the parents. In fact, when my sons were young, I did worry that our parenting might be adversely challenged by so do-gooder. Thankfully, my sons are now almost grown (one is already 20 and the other one is 17) and beyond such concerns in our own family. It is also true to the lived experience of so many that foster parents often do eventually want to adopt a child placed in their care. However, the movie is enlightened to the trends now occurring in adoptionland that family reunification and in the case of this movie, an eventual recognition on the part of the parent that he is lacking something (a mother – the child’s mother abandoned the child to the father shortly after birth) brings into the resolution a kind of co-parenting solution that is satisfying to watch (I don’t think that saying this is a spoiler for this movie as the ending leaves as many questions as it answers).

The movie was very progressive for its time in the portrayal of people with a variety of cognitive disabilities. In fact, I recognized that I do know one woman who has effectively lost her children due to just such a challenge. The take-away message for me was how incredibly hard it is parent a child regardless of the circumstances. This is clearly portrayed in the contrasting and yet similar parenting challenges of the main character and his lawyer. Every parent needs support of some kind at some time or other.

In an LA Times review, the writer shares this story – “I’m smart enough to know when I need help, I ask for it,” a 46-year-old mother with a learning disability told me recently. She receives support from a parents-with-special-needs program. If she needs help with parenting skills of any kind, a parent counselor is just a call away. If she feels frustrated, she attends the program’s parents support group.

Also from that LA Times review, In one critical scene of the movie, Sam is questioned by state agency officials about why he thinks he has the ability to be a father. He responds, “It’s about constancy and it’s about patience. And it’s about listening and it’s about pretending to listen when you can’t listen any more, and it’s about love.” In the case of parents with special needs, we must provide the kind of support services that will offer practical help and an ear to listen. Parents with special needs benefit from help with tutoring, after-school activities, transportation, budgeting money and, like every parent in the universe, a little baby-sitting now and then.

The movie helps everyone who watches it to understand “that persons with disabilities have needs and desires just like everyone else,” as the parent with a disability mentioned above explained. “They need to take care of someone and love someone else.”

Open Adoption

Some time ago I read this book by Vanessa McGrady about her experience with an open adoption. Today, the topic of Open Adoptions came back up in my all things adoption group and I thought I would re-visit the topic.

Today’s questions are – What does your open adoption look like? and How is the child connected to their first family?

I will share selective comments because there were 70 and I’m not doing ALL of those. LOL

This one is an adoptive parent of two little girls (biological sisters). We are very fortunate to be able to have a very open adoption with mutual respect. I feel it is similar to co-parenting with the exception they do not stay at her house. (Her personal choice that I support due to varying circumstances in her life.) We speak almost daily. We spend every birthday/holiday together. Mom comes to school programs, recitals and sports games. My husband and I make the normal day to day decisions, but discuss with her major decisions. We value her input on beliefs, values and overall wellbeing of the girls.

Another situation – I talk regularly with mom, though not daily now, as we once did, because she is now working and life happens. Kiddo is able to email mom and text sister as often as she wants (she has her own devices and I do monitor her messages to all but sister and mom). They don’t talk as often as *i’d* like them to, all chat, but I can’t force any of the three to have a relationship. All I can do is say “hey have you emailed mom recently?” We exchange gifts at holidays and when we can afford it, we fly mom and sister out to visit and they stay with us. Unfortunately, dad doesn’t want contact and has kept his kiddo a secret. I’ve made efforts to reach out over the years and his position hasn’t changed. I have made it clear that he needs to get his things in order because kiddo will come knocking when she’s older (she’s 10 now).

And another – We all live in the same city, so we are able to see each other often – mom, dad, both grandmas, aunts, uncles and cousins. We do the usual family stuff like celebrate birthdays and holidays, but we also just do regular life together too – parks, stores, video calls, restaurants. Facebook access to all family members which has been a great tool for keeping our daughter connected to her family (she’s only 2, so we feel like we are responsible for keeping communication open until she’s old enough to do this herself). Her mom and I both enjoy crafting, so we’ve done several projects together. We also did family photos at Christmas! Many of these choices have been continued and enhanced because of this group (thanks!) and the podcast Adoptees On.

A slightly different kind of situation – an adoptive parent of 2 little girls (who are not biologically/genetically not related). One family does not have much contact (their choice). Our other daughter (just turned 7) can call/text/video chat/reach out whenever she wants (she has one of our old phones that is hooked up to wifi) and her parents can contact her that way whenever they want as well. They also have frequent visits and pre-covid would come to dance recitals and school programs and everything… they typically have their own birthday parties for her (their request).

In my all things adoption – one of the suggestions for reform is to turn to guardianship – not adoption. Here’s one that is guardianship. We see both paternal and maternal family members each week, we have photos around our home of their family, they can call/video call their family members anytime they like off my phone or their iPads, I speak with their family members nearly daily with updates/photos about how the girls are going and reach out for advice quite frequently, we go away on holidays together.

Open adoptions are mostly a recent development and so in many of these, the children are still quite young. Here’s another one like that (families are making it up as they go along – I believe closed adoptions are becoming a archaic thing of the past) – Grandma, aunts, cousins, and some adults siblings all call, text, and have access regularly. (More than weekly for texts and calls. Visits were monthly or more before covid. Not as much since then but we are planning for more now as situations are improving.) They attend birthday parties and holiday gatherings. We share photos and have them on my social media account. Our little is only 2. They are welcome at our home anytime and we have been to theirs several times. One of the sisters has been on vacation with us. She will be meeting us at the beach in July for vacation again. Parents are not in a position to parent or be safe at this time. I hope that changes and they can have some kind of relationship. For now they do get updates from family members and have photos of him. He knows all family members just as “Grandma” and “Auntie.” We make no distinction between the biological or the adopted. The siblings are his sisters – whether they are biological or adopted. They all love him and that is what’s most important to us.

Another example –

Fictive kinship (*) adoption but didn’t not know parents prior to fostering—I knew his sisters. Several months after Termination of Parental Rights and no contact – mom reached out. I told her I didn’t care about her personal life and business. I told her that we—specifically her son—needed her in his life. That was the game changer going forward. We have what I’d call a true open adoption to where there’s unlimited access to him, if she wants it. I don’t wait for her to ask either because I know sometimes asking isn’t easy. I’m off summers and include her in our daily/weekly activities—pool, park, splash pad, etc. We talk every week or 2. Our son talks to her too. We just made the switch from calling her momma (insert name) to just momma. We see her every holiday and birthdays too or just on a whim, if we’re both not busy. I don’t like how adopters claim open adoption and all that involves is a Christmas picture. That’s not the intention.

(*) “Fictive Kin” means an individual who is not related by birth, adoption, or marriage to a child, but who has an emotionally significant relationship with the child; “Kinship Care” is the raising of children by grandparents, or other extended family members within the fourth degree of kinship. From Alec.org – Model Legislation suggestion.

A Disconnect

I’ve been reading about infant development lately in a book titled Healing the Split – Integrating Spirit Into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill by John E Nelson MD. I often reflect on my own mothering of my daughter at the age of 19. Though the love was never lacking, I was not as good of a mother for her as I might have been, had I know how to be a good mother.

I believe some of that comes of the slight disconnect in my own parents as regards their parenting of us. It is not their fault, they were both adopted. Oh, they were good parents, not abusive, and we knew they loved us but there was something missing in them and it affected their parenting of us.

What was missing in my parents were their natural mothers, who carried them in their wombs and gave birth to them, may have breastfed them. I know that was true with my dad. I don’t have a record of that for my mom. She was taken to an orphanage for temporary care by her own financially desperate mother and put on a formula. My dad was allowed to stay with his mother and continue to nurse for some months as he accompanied her when she was employed by the Salvation Army, through who’s home for unwed mothers she had given birth to him.

I was reflecting on this as I sat out on the deck overlooking the field at my writer’s retreat. I was bundled up in a cozy jacket as the temperature is not more than the mid-30s and drinking warm tea.

I was thinking about how my mom took my bottle from me at 13 months to give to my newborn younger sister. My mom intended no harm, she didn’t know better. We can’t do better than we know how.

So, as I was drinking the warm tea, I imagined mothering myself. I imagined being warm and cozy in the soft embrace of my mother, drinking in the warm, nourishing liquid.

In that moment, I forgave my mom and had to extend that forgiveness to myself. I can acknowledge that I might have done better if I had know how to do better and in realizing that, I can acknowledge that my own mother would have done better had she known how to do better.

My late life sons (born when I was 47 and 50 years old) have benefitted from having a better mother in me. Certainly, I did have previous experience when the first boy was born and I had a huge amount of support from my in-laws who came every day for the first 4 months and only stopped when my husband begged me to ask them to back off.

My husband was always a good and nurturing co-parent as he did not become a father until he was personally ready to commit to that responsibility. When the second boy was born, he doubled down on the attention he gave the older boy, that he suffer less from the loss of attention of his mother, due to a newborn in the house.

It was a situation that I had to rectify when the younger boy was about 2 or 3 and the older one about 6 as he was acting out a lot to get my attention. With sufficient attention from me, that behavior quickly ceased and the younger boy benefitted from having more dad time.

Hindsight doesn’t replace ignorance but ignorance is not willful neglect.

Doing The Previously Unthinkable

People change.  With all that is known about the effect of adoption on children, why is it that adoptive parents don’t work towards reuniting the family ?  This is exceedingly rare if it happens but things are changing and it is beginning to be considered by a relatively few.

Here’s one woman’s thinking –

I adopted through foster care three years ago. I believe my child’s parent has changed tremendously since the termination of parental rights. Am I allowed to let her have overnights with the parent? Or would that be considered endangerment because of the reasons written in the termination of parental rights ? Also, what if we choose to allow her to live with her parent ? Can I dissolve the adoption to give the child back to their parent ? I think that the child living with their parent might be a ways off, but the child is still young, and I can see them wanting, in the future, to live with their parent. I’m trying very hard not to be possessive of my child. And if their parent is safe, who am I to keep them from their parent and why would I do that anyways ? I don’t know, I just want to start giving the parent more control of their child, but I’m also afraid that the state would have something to say about that. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing over here (mostly because I don’t). Has anyone here given their adopted child back to the child’s birth parents ? What did that path look like for you ?

Immediately, an adult adoptee replies –  what you’re considering is beautiful and shows true love. I just want to commend you for that.

Generally speaking, I believe this is true – once the adoption is finalized, the child is considered “as if born to” you. If you want to place the child for adoption, you have every legal right to do that (that’s why “second chance adoptions” are legal). The birth parents (or hopeful adoptive parents in this situation) would have to go through the same process as any other hopeful adoptive parent. So if they can’t pass the background/home inspection, they probably won’t be approved to adopt their own child back.

Though not the happiest answer, states do allow adults to be adopted. So the birth parents could adopt the child back when he/she turns 18.  There is no vetting process then.

So immediately the question arises –  would it be possible to allow her to live with parent until she turns 18 ? And would I have to have my rights to her terminated after she’s 18 ?

Someone with apparent experience replies – you can give guardianship back to the parents but if the parents neglect the child in any way, it will come back on the adoptive parent for giving the parents guardianship back. Only a judge can give guardianship back without the adoptive parent risking liability, if something happens to the child in their parents’ care.

And one person did a return of guardianship without going to court but a judge still had to approve the paperwork created by lawyers – after child protective services was out of the picture.  However, the adoptive parent had to sign a paper saying they were aware that they were still liable for any potential neglect or harm the child might suffer when returned to their original parents.

Some believe that anyone can usually do guardianship, which would allow their parent to take care of all of their child’s needs, those that require a legal adult (school, medical, etc). Then, when the child is an adult, they could choose to have their parent adopt them, thus becoming their legal parent once more (that sounds weird but for legal purposes, as a parent is never not the parent).

One positive to all of it is that guardianship would still offer the adoptive parent a role in supporting and a continuing connection, if original parent and their child needed that.  For example, if the parent relapses for a period, the child could go back with the adoptive parent again, while their original parent is being treated, thus keeping everyone safe, healthy, and out of the child protective services system.

There seems to be some validity to the thought that once a child has been adopted through the state and the child welfare case is closed, then it’s as if the child was born to the adoptive parent. You are allowed to let your child have sleepovers at other people’s house’s, as long as you feel like those people are safe. The child can visit people without you being there. The child can even go on a vacation with someone else, if you have decided is safe for them to be there.

And perhaps before even embarking on such a course, an adoptive parent would do well to consider this perspective –

As an adoptee, I would be really messed up if my adoptive parents wanted to give me back. It’s one thing to allow overnights and even let her live with them, change her name back, etc, but if my adoptive parents pursued legally surrendering me without my consent, I would feel betrayed and like everything they ever told me was a lie. I would never be able to stop wondering – did they just get sick of me and didn’t want me anymore ? I would rather the adoptive parents live with any feelings of regret and remorse about the adoption – while allowing me to have a relationship with my family of origin – than hear they ever even thought about legally abandoning me.

What would really make me happy would be to see them all happy, healthy, and getting along – knowing that I could freely interact with any of them with everyone’s full love and support, no matter what *my* ultimate decision about where *I* belong is.

Bottom line though – if an adoptive parent is serious about seeking this possibility of reuniting a family previously torn apart, then speaking with a family lawyer in your own state would be the best advice before doing anything – legally.