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.

Assimilation Is The Intention

For many indigenous women, political action regarding children was not about campaigns for
subsidized day cares or cultural arguments about gender, work, and parenting. Child welfare was a literal fight to keep Native children in their homes and in their nations.

During the 1970s, Native American women activists understood the crisis of child adoption
(which had grown rampant in the postwar era) as more than a personal issue affecting individual
families. The removal of Native children from their homes and communities compromised not only parental rights but also tribal sovereignty. Technically, indigenous nations had a legal advantage in the battle for control over Indian child welfare because the right to oversee issues related to children living on reservations existed as an implicit aspect of sovereignty. In practice, however, state courts and welfare agencies largely misunderstood or ignored tribal authority and the interests of indigenous communities and removed Native children from their homes at arresting rates—an average of one quarter of Native American children lived away from their parents during the early 1970s

In response, Native women activists created a child welfare political agenda that not only kept
children in their communities but also addressed the problems that sometimes led to foster and adoptive placements. Although they acknowledged that there were legitimate issues, such as alcoholism, that required some parents to surrender their children, activists did not interpret the current crisis as the result of inadequate parenting. Nor did they place blame exclusively on culturally insensitive child welfare systems. Rather, activists condemned poverty and the vestiges of colonialism for the problems that precipitated child removals. One activist asserted that ‘‘the process of colonization has brought more destruction to these family ties than any internal changes … could have ever created.’’ According to this woman and others, while colonization created the problems indigenous families faced—solutions to them rested with Native nations. Both the programs’ indigenous women activists established and their petitions to the federal government to uphold the right of the tribes to control child welfare focused on increasing tribal agency in addressing the fundamental difficulties that Native families confronted. These activists gained strength from their citizenship in Native nations and framed their work against child removals in the context of tribal sovereignty.

The history of non-Native people intervening in the lives of indigenous families is a long one; arguably as old as the history of colonization itself. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 is Federal law that governs the removal and out-of-home placement of American Indian children. … ICWA established standards for the placement of Indian children in foster and adoptive homes and enabled Tribes and families to be involved in child welfare cases.

“They closed the boarding schools and opened up CPS (Child Protective Services), but it’s the same thing – they’re still coming in and taking our children,” Cetan Sa Winyan said. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians of California and the Quinault Indian Nation of Washington are petitioning the Supreme Court to request that the Indian Child Welfare Act remain intact.

The state of Texas is challenging the constitutionality of ICWA, claiming it’s a race-based system that makes it more difficult for Native kids to be adopted or fostered into non-Native homes. Another argument is that the law commandeers states too much, giving federal law imbalanced influence in state affairs.

A Supreme Court response to the tribes’ petition and the petition filed by the plaintiffs is due on October 8th.

Tribes and advocates argue that ICWA is culturally- and politically-based, not race-based, because tribal nations have political status as sovereign governments under federal law. Cherokee Nation Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said the tribe will put all the resources it has into making sure ICWA is protected. “ICWA attempts to keep children connected to their tribe … and an attack on that is absolutely an attack on tribal sovereignty,” Nimmo said.

In the case of Brackeen v. Haaland, the Brackeens — the white, adoptive parents of a Diné child in Texas — seek to overturn ICWA by claiming reverse racism. Joined by co-defendants including the states of Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana, they’re being represented pro bono by Gibson Dunn, a high-powered law firm which also counts oil companies Energy Transfer and Enbridge, responsible for the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines, among its clients.

You can sign a petition here – https://action.lakotalaw.org/action/protect-icwa.

Adoptees Deserve Better

Steve Inskeep, is a co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “Up First.” He is an adoptee and an adoptive father. He penned an op-ed in the New York Times recently titled For 50 Years, I Was Denied the Story of My Birth. I share excerpts below.

In 1968, a woman appeared for an interview at the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency in Indianapolis. She was in her 20s and alone. A caseworker noted her name, which I am withholding for reasons that will become apparent, and her appearance: She was “a very attractive, sweet looking girl,” who seemed “to come from a good background” and was “intelligent.” She had “blue eyes and rather blonde hair,” though the woman said her hair was getting darker over time, like that of her parents.

Her reason for coming was obvious. She was around 40 weeks pregnant. She told a story that the caseworker wrote down and filed in a cabinet, where it would rest for decades unseen. The expectant mother said she had grown up in Eastern Kentucky’s mountains, then migrated north as a teenager to find work after her father died. She was an office worker in Ohio when she became pregnant by a man who wasn’t going to marry her. The most remarkable part of her story was this: When she knew she was about to give birth, she drove westward out of Ohio, stopping at Indianapolis only because it was the first big city she encountered. She checked into a motel and found an obstetrician, who took one look and sent her to the Children’s Bureau. She arranged to place the baby for adoption and gave birth the next day.

The baby was me. Life is a journey, and I was born on a road trip. I spent 10 days in foster care before being adopted by my parents, Roland and Judith Inskeep, who deserve credit if I do any small good in the world.

In recent decades, open adoption has been replacing closed and sealed adoptions. The rules governing past adoptions change slowly. Mr Inskeep was not allowed to see his birth records. Everything he has shared about his biological parents was unknown to him growing up. He says, “They were such a blank, I could not even imagine what they might be like.”

His adopted daughter is from China, and like many international adoptees, she also had no story of her biological family. A social worker suggested to him that his adopted daughter might want to know his own adoption story someday. So I requested my records from the State of Indiana and was denied. Next I called the Children’s Bureau, where a kind woman on the phone had my records in her hands, but was not allowed to share them.

In 2018, the law in Indiana changed. Many adoptees or biological families may now obtain records unless another party to the adoption previously objected. In 2019 the state and the Children’s Bureau sent me documents that gave my biological mother’s name, left my biological father’s name blank and labeled me “illegitimate.” On a hospital form someone had taken my right footprint, with my biological mother’s right thumbprint below it on the page.

I saw something similar on my mom’s adoption file records. Tennessee had changed the law in the late 1990s for the victims of the Georgia Tann scandal only, sometime after they denied my mom but no one ever told her. My cousin told me she got her dad’s file (he was also adopted from The Tennessee Children’s Home) after my dad died in 2016 and that is why I now have the file my mom was denied on flimsy reasoning (her dad, who was 20 years old than her mom could not be proven to have died, though her mom had died and the state of Tennessee didn’t really try very hard).

Mr Inskeep writes – It’s been nearly two years since I first read those documents, and I’m still not over it. Knowing that story has altered how I think about myself, and the seemingly simple question of where I’m from. It’s brought on a feeling of revelation, and also of anger. I’m not upset with my biological mother; it was moving to learn how she managed her predicament alone. Her decisions left me with the family that I needed — that I love. Nor am I unhappy with the Children’s Bureau, which did its duty by preserving my records. I am angry that for 50 years, my state denied me the story of how I came to live on this earth. Strangers hid part of me from myself.

2% of US residents — roughly six million people — are adoptees. A majority were adopted domestically, with records frequently sealed, especially for older adoptees. Only nine states allow adoptees unrestricted access to birth records. Indiana is among those that have begun to allow it under certain conditions, while 19 states and the District of Columbia still permit nothing without a court order (I came up against this in Virginia). Also California, when my dad was born, I could get nothing out of them. Florida also remains closed.

This spring, more than a dozen states are considering legislation for greater openness. Bills in Florida, Texas and Maryland would ensure every adoptee’s access to pre-adoption birth records. Proposals in other states, like Arizona, would affirm the rights of some adoptees but not others. The legislation is driven by activists who have lobbied state by state for decades. Many insist on equality: All adoptees have a right to the same records as everyone else.

Equality would end an information blackout that robs people of identity and more. Mr Inskeep notes what my mom (an adoptee) often said to me – “I was never able to tell a doctor my family medical history when asked.” For that matter, until I learned who my original grandparents were from 2017 into 2018, I didn’t know mine either because BOTH of my parents were adoptees.

Closed adoption began as “confidential” adoption in the early 20th century, enabling parents and children to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. Records were sealed to all but people directly involved. In a further step, by midcentury, even parties to the adoption were cut out. Agencies offered adoptive parents a chance to raise children without fear of intrusion by biological parents, and biological parents a chance to start over.

Access to information about one’s genetic background, heritage, and ancestry is a birthright denied only to adoptees. An adoptee is expected to honor a contract made over his or her body and without his or her consent.

The Legal Rights Of Siblings

This from someone with experience – If you are adopting a child or children in who have siblings being adopted into other homes, make sure you have a quality attorney, NOT one of the ones that are contracted with through the state. Know the laws in your state in regards to sibling rights post adoption. Your attorney needs to go over this in great detail. Sibling separation agreements, continued contact agreements, etc are just RECOMMENDATIONS and not legally binding, unless they are worded in a certain way. This means that even though they are telling you these things will have to be agreed to and take place in order to adopt, any adoptive parent can choose to cut contact without punishment – at any time – and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Don’t be like me. Don’t think that just because the agreements are there and someone is verbally telling you this has to be done is going to mean that it will prove legally binding. It may not. Don’t be ignorant like me. KNOW THE LAWS. Have an attorney who is well versed in these matters. And make sure that continued sibling contact is legally required and can be enforced. I learned a valuable lesson about this, but it may be too late and sadly at the expense of 3 children who shouldn’t have to be denied contact. 3 children who will carry scars and wounds because of my ignorance in this area. I don’t know – what the fuck was I thinking ? But undeniably, I fucked up. I preach and preach about us being educated and I failed to educate myself in regard what may possibly be the most important aspect of adoption. Don’t be like me. Don’t fuck this up. Make sure your kids and their siblings if they have been separated by adoption have legal rights to remain in contact with each other. Please. Don’t put your kids and their siblings in the situation my stupidity put mine in.

The truth is the best intentions in adoption often fall through. Adoptive parents can just say “it is not in best interests of our child” and get judge and court order to close contact. A common tactic is to move so far away, it’s no longer feasible to have physical contact. Even in the case of agreed to open adoptions, the intentions are often not followed through. Then, there is the less visible problem – if an adoptive parent does not want contact, the child is placed into an impossible situation. The child has to choose between loyalty to their adoptive parents or to their separated siblings – it’s a no win situation. When I became a non-custodial mother and my daughter was older, I provided her with a calling card so that she could call me at no charge, when doing so was not going to complicate her life with a step-mother and half and step siblings. She was in control.

These kids are human beings and should have the right to maintain contact with their siblings, at the very least, after adoption. It is increasingly known that genetic connections are better for the child than the loss of them.

Another woman shares her experiences –

I have played this game for 25 years with my daughter’s adoptive parents. I would suggest not pushing back at them at full force. The more you push the more they will close down. Tt’s not about twiddling your thumbs ….. it’s about playing the long game. Sigh. And I understand this as regards my daughter. It was very hard to be an absentee mother but now that she is in her mid-forties and her step-mother died quite a few years ago now, I am grateful I have managed to retain a good relationship, a loving relationship, with her. She often mourns her mom who died. I would never ever criticize the woman who raised her. That is totally misguided for anyone caught on the outside.

Reform work currently taking place in the state of Ohio seeks to establish the lawful connection for siblings in foster care. There is more work that needs to be done, so that the right to maintaining a connection isn’t terminated, if an adoption occurs.

Here is the view from a person who became separated – I read my sibling agreement contract. I was supposed to see three of my older siblings (the ones I lived in the house with before foster care) 3 times a year. I have no clue how it fell apart, but I never saw my siblings again – until I found my biological family at 17. We were all able to get together once last year after 15 years apart. Then again, I read the open adoption contract too and that also fell apart. I was supposed to know my family but it seems like nobody cared enough.

An Opportunity To Affect Legislation

If you care about adoption law and foster care issues, you might be willing to add your voice to this pending legislation.  Ohio Representative Gayle Manning created House Bill 506 which is designed to prioritize the desire of foster parents hoping to adopt over that of relatives. If passed, it would create a new Ohio law that prohibits moving a child from a foster home to a relative that they do not know, or have never met, if they have resided in the foster home for more than 6 months. Clearly, this would be a huge roadblock to relatives seeking custody, and a court order would need to be obtained proving that the move is in the best interest of the child (which takes time and money and is reduced to a judgement call by the courts). If a law like this passes in Ohio, it is safe to assume that it would only be a matter of time before other states follow suit.

A few local advocacy organizations have been effective in educating Rep. Manning on the horrific implications of this bill, she feels compelled to carry it forward due to the backlash she would receive from foster parents if she withdrew the legislation.  Ohio families need your help! Please take a moment now to e-mail Ohio state Representative Gayle Manning at Rep55@ohiohouse.gov and “cc” her aide at Bryanna.Austin@ohiohouse.gov.

Here is a sample e-mail that you are welcome to copy:
Dear Representative Manning,
Thank you for seeking to promote what is in the best interest of our most vulnerable children. I applaud your desire to advocate for children, and that is why I must warn you that House Bill 506 (Prohibit placement of child with relative child does not know) will do more harm than good.
HB 506 is NOT in the best interest of children, and it will not protect them or ensure that they are placed in the care that best suits their needs. Rather, HB 506 will impose an unrealistic timeframe on relatives, and place the desires of foster parents hoping to adopt over the well documented lifelong benefit of keeping children within their natural families.
If passed, HB 506 would effectively prohibit relative placements, which is directly contrary to medical research, social justice, and federal guidelines.
Please withdraw HB 506 immediately. Thank you.