The Impact of the Opioid Crisis on Adoption

The Valles with their adopted children

“I always like to tell everybody we raised yours, mine, ours, my brother’s, now others.” ~ Suzanne Valle

The opioid crisis has strained child welfare systems in recent years, as kids who often face neglect and abuse are taken from their families and put into foster care. Jesus and Suzanne Valle thought they would become empty nesters indulging in their love of travel but they became adoptive parents instead. From 2007 to 2018, they took in six children, all from Ohio families struggling with addiction, including their own. Four are the kids of Suzanne’s brother, and two kids came through the foster care system. They had already raised nine of their own biological children.

The above is courtesy of StoryCorps and NPR. I also found this first person account – What Happened After I Tried to Adopt an Opioid-Dependent Baby from Washingtonian written by Susan Baer for Carrie Brady, a longtime employee at Google.

Carrie with her adopted son

She was 40 and single when she decided to adopt a baby. Because of America’s opioid crisis, her chances of finding a match were better if she agreed to accept the child of someone addicted to drugs. She had received a call from the adoption agent for the baby she expected to adopt. The mother had hemorrhaged and given birth in an emergency C-section, actually five days earlier. The baby had aspirated blood and been without oxygen, then helicoptered to a hospital in the mother’s home state, down south, and might not survive.

Her whole rationale for adoption was to be the best mom for whatever baby she was matched with. But now she found herself confiding to her sister, “I worry that if this baby survives with major brain damage, it was going to be too much for me.” She prayed about it and hoped the baby would somehow lead her to the answer. She asked her adoption agent, “Do you ever have families looking for special-needs babies?” She said, “Yeah, I do.”

She knew adopting a baby on her own would throw her tidy life into disarray. Her mother asked repeatedly, “Why do you want to uproot your life like this?” She simply felt she could give a different sort of life to a child born into tough circumstances. Reminds me of my own father, when my husband and I decided to have children (thanks to assisted reproduction) at an advanced age, “I question your sanity.” That has come back to me a few times.

The baby was taken off life support and was going to die. She wanted the baby girl to be baptized and so a chaplain was called. The nurses brought her a dress and booties. Carrie was able to hold the baby girl the only time she would ever be held. Carrie says, “I told her why she was here and how sad I felt. I promised to remember her.” For the first time, there were no sounds. The room was still.

The first thing she learned was that if she wanted to be an adoptive mother anytime soon, meaning within two years or so, she’d have to consider a baby who might have some drug dependency. Over the last several years, because of the opioid epidemic, a growing number of infants placed with adoption agents in the US (as many as 60 or 70 percent at some agencies) have had exposure to drugs or alcohol in utero, mostly opioids or treatment drugs such as methadone. Methadone is a very powerful drug given to help keep addicts off of heroin and other related opioids. The opioid crisis has had such a profound impact on the adoption landscape that placement agencies provide classes on prenatal drug exposure so that prospective parents can decide whether it’s something they can handle.

Adoption is a control freak’s worst nightmare and with an addicted birth mother, it can be nerve wracking. It is excruciating to have such a tenuous grasp on something as important as adopting a newborn and hard not to read too much into every unanswered text or canceled date. Her adoption consultant told her, “It’s not a bad thing to be all in.”

Two months after the baby girl died, her adoption agent called with the news: Another birth mother, also from the South, had chosen her profile and was having a baby boy at the end of the year. She was also in a methadone treatment program for a drug addiction (same as the first birth mother). The adoption agent cautioned her, the birth mother had been expected to place her last child for adoption but had backed out after the birth and chose to keep the baby.

This birth mother had been on methadone for three years, it was likely her baby would be dependent. The detox period could last weeks to months. Carrie was there for the baby’s delivery. He weighed 6.9 pounds and was 20 inches long. She was allowed to cut the cord and was the first to hold him. That night had been stormy with the birth mother. However, the next day when she arrived at the hospital, the birth mother was holding her infant son. They looked so peaceful. Carrie told her, I just want the best for him and would love her, even if she wanted to change her mind. She didn’t.

In NICU, the baby’s blood had a higher concentration of red blood cells than was normal, a condition that can result from maternal smoking. He was getting fluids through an IV but might need a blood transfusion. Thankfully, the fluids resolved the issue and the baby avoided a transfusion. But his withdrawal symptoms were escalating. His crying wasn’t like any baby’s cry she’d ever heard. Imagine the screams of someone being tortured. That’s what it sounded like—pure anguish—and nothing would stop it. With his symptoms worsening, doctors decided morphine would allow him a little relief.

When they weaned him from the morphine, the withdrawal came back with a vengeance. She finally got him into his crib with the sand weights, pulled down one side of the crib to lay her head down next to his. She started singing to him the country song she’d listened to on her morning walks to the hospital: “Everything’s gonna be alright. Nobody’s gotta worry ’bout nothing. Don’t go hitting that panic button. It ain’t near as bad as you think. Everything’s gonna be alright. Alright. Alright.”

He finally improved enough to be discharged. The nurses assured her that best thing for him was to be home. “It’s the nurture part that gets these babies through,” they said. For two more months, the baby struggled through withdrawals. Crying sometimes for hours on end, clenching up his face and body, and appearing mad at the world for many of his waking hours. He rarely slept more than two hours at a time, and once he started crying, it was hard to get him to stop.

At three months old, he got better and would take a pacifier to soothe himself. He started sleeping three and four hours at a time and then through the night. She never heard that awful cry of pain again. Besides normal pediatrician visits, he was seen monthly by a developmental therapist, who dismissed them after about a year. He had hit all of his milestones and showed no signs of any delay.

Placating Adoptive Mother Emotions

It is just a difficult path to trod. Today’s story –

My son’s birthday is coming up soon. The last time I posted publicly about my kids was the anniversary of the final visit, and their adoptive mother got upset that I said anything. She enlisted my younger child for her defense. They asked me to not post anything ever again, because the adoptive mother doesn’t want to see it. Yet she continues to stalk me to see what I’m posting. I suspect that if I let a birthday slide by without saying anything, she’d use it as evidence that I’d completely forgotten about my kids. I’m not sure what the adoptive mother wants me to feel – am I supposed to regret having kids at all? Am I supposed to blame myself for surviving abuse? I know that, of course, I wish I’d taken the kids and gotten away from him before Child Protective Services got involved. Acknowledging that at this point is not going to make the adoptive mother any happier. I suspect that she wants from me is to admit that I’m just a horrible person and be grateful to her for saving my kids from me. I want to do what’s right for my kids long-term, and if the adoptive mother needs to control what I feel and say about the adoption, how much freedom is she giving them? Is there anything I could post that might get the adoptive mother to react like a reasonable human and not like some an obsessed control freak? PS it’s the older child’s 19th birthday. The younger one who is 16 has basically taken responsibility for handling the adoptive mother’s emotional state, because the adoptive mother throws temper tantrums to get her way and must be appeased.

The first responder said – I would acknowledge his birthday. He’s 18 – so old enough to tell you himself if he doesn’t want you to post anything. He’s also old enough to no longer be her property. Just as a side note have you tried reaching out to him to see if he would like contact directly with you now that he’s old enough?

I can relate to the difficulties. My daughter went to live with her dad when she was 3 years old. He remarried, so there was a step-mother, a step-sister and a half-sister in her family. I gave her a calling card, so that when it was safe (meaning it wouldn’t cause an upset) for her to call me, she could choose when. Sometimes, I had to wait a long time for those calls but at least she knew I wanted to hear from her. In an adoption situation, I don’t know if something like that would be possible but there is always reversing charges. What I cared about the most, was my daughter’s comfort and quality of life – not my own.

Social media didn’t exist when my daughter was young. I can easily understand the next responder’s comment – This is one reason why I keep my profile completely locked down with no public posts. Nobody gets to tell me how to feel about MY kids.

Someone else noted this obvious truth – you did give birth to your children and have every right to acknowledge their birthday. A birthday not only celebrates the day a child became an independent person but also the mother who gestated that child to birth. Many times, when I am celebrating one of my children’s birthdays on my Facebook page, friends will also acknowledge it is my celebration of an event as well.

Sadly, this perspective contains a frequent truth – some adoptive parents are control freaks. They would like to erase the fact that the adopted children are not biologically related to them, the children are possessed like property that the adoptive parents bought to furnish their life. The natural mother should post whatever she wants… one day her children may see it and realize they were loved all along! It will mean so much to them to know that. I know that understanding would have meant a lot to my own adoptee parents (both were).

And when all else fails – There are features that allow you to block specific people from posts. It’s strategic avoidance of the real problem, but sometimes that’s the best you can do. Anyway, as long is the posts aren’t abusive or causing damage to anyone, then she really should have zero say about what you post to your wall. Her discomfort is her own. You don’t need to carry that for her.

And the perspective from an adoptive parent – I’m so sorry that not only did she express unhappiness with you saying something, but that she enlisted the children into her unhappiness with you. That’s just, WRONG. It sounds like she is very insecure in her position as parent, and wanting you to remove yourself from yours to give her more room. You don’t have to do that. I believe that what is right for your children long term, is for them to KNOW that they were always on your mind and in your heart. I personally think that it is fine for you to make a post in regards to your children’s birthdays. Growing and birthing a human being is a MAJOR thing that happens to us as the person doing it, not just to the baby. I’m guessing that there are other people who follow you on Facebook who know about your children, maybe were even a part of their lives… Just because someone else is legally their parent now, does not change the fact that there were people in the children’s lives BEFORE. People who’s hearts and memories and emotions did not just disappear because of a court order. If possible, tighten up your security. If you’re friends with her on Facebook, exclude her from your posts if you feel the need. But please feel free to acknowledge your children, your love, and your loss however you feel you need to.