Ten years ago, there was an article in The Guardian which the title “Facebook has changed adoption for ever.” The sub-title was “Social network sites like Facebook are changing what happens after adoption. At the click of a button, birth parents can contact their children – and vice versa – with far-reaching consequences.” I would add inexpensive DNA testing via Ancestry and 23 and Me have done as much.
The lead-in on that article noted – “Adoption is undergoing a revolution. Until recently, it has been a closely managed process, with social workers going to enormous lengths to protect children placed with adoptive families from inappropriate contact with birth relatives.” That was always the argument but never the truth. The truth was that social workers and adoption agencies were protecting the adoptive parents from the intrusion of the natural bond between the original parent and their child. There certainly have been “. . . cases of adopted young people being contacted by birth parents through Facebook. There are even more instances in which the approach is initiated by adopted young people themselves, who are curious about their birth families.” You can read that rest of that decade old perspective at the link above.
Now today, another one. This one published in Wired titled Adoption Moved to Facebook and a War Began and raising the hackles of some in my most important (though I do belong to several) adoption related support group at Facebook. The sub-title notes – As the adoption industry migrates to social media, regretful adoptees and birth mothers are confronting prospective parents with their personal pain—and anger. I do see these in my support group. In fact, adoptees are the “privileged” voices there.
This is true to the best of my own knowledge on the subject – “The adoption industry has never been very well regulated, and there is a history of certain firms engaging in unethical practices. But when agencies were the primary facilitators of adoption, they could at least perform basic vetting of birth mothers and adoptive parents and manage complex legal processes. The open marketplace of the web removed that layer of oversight.” Wired refers to people in adoption support groups as anti-adoption but then goes on to note that these are older women who, as “unwed mothers” in the 1950s and ’60s, were forced to give babies up for adoption; women whose churches still pressure them to give up children born outside of marriage; adoptees who want to overturn laws in 40 states that deny them unrestricted access to their original birth certificates. These are legitimate experiences and desires that do not in themselves constitute being anti-adoption.
However, as understanding of the deep sub- and un- conscious trauma that adoptees experience and the lifelong regret that mothers who surrendered their children to adoption as a permanent solution to a temporary situation are increasing shared openly or privately in groups that maintain anonymity, as my dominant choice does, there is a desire to limit the number of adoptions that do take place. There are recommendations for kinship guardianship whenever possible, for true efforts on the part of foster parents to assist the original parents in successfully navigating the child welfare requirements for reunification with their own children and that at the least, when adoption seems somehow the only alternative left – allowing the child to retain their original identity by NOT changing their name nor creating a new “false” birth certificate the creates the impression that the adoptive parents gave birth to that child.
These are reasonable attempts at reform.
In the movement Wired identifies are a wide range of perspectives. Some recognize the value of adoption in certain circumstances and have specific goals, like improving federal oversight, eliminating practices that are coercive to birth mothers, or giving them more time to reverse a decision to give up a child. Others see adoption as wrong most of the time – in my group it is NOT as Wired indicates “in all cases” – but there is a recognition that the natural bond between a biological mother and her child is a reality. Some are finding community and expressing feelings of anger and pain for the first time; birth mothers describe pressure, regret, and lifelong mourning for the children they gave up, while adoptees talk about their sense of estrangement and about not knowing their medical history. Certainly, poverty plays a role in children being removed from their parents and placed for adoption.
Wired does proach the topic of the Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). The article notes that TPR has been called the “civil death penalty,” because of its severity and finality. It is overwhelmingly levied against poor families. Some children are taken away from parents who abuse them horribly—and others who should be removed are not and die at the hands of abusers. Nationally, the majority of children are removed from their homes by child protective services not for abuse but neglect, which can be a more subjective state. Neglect can mean a child was left in a hot car for hours or that a child’s parent is an addict. Or it can mean that a child was alone at home while their mother worked an overnight shift or went to the store, or that there’s not enough food in the fridge. In other words, poverty can create conditions that lead to neglect, and the exigencies of poverty can also be interpreted as neglect.
My own adoption support group advocates, and some experts in child-welfare reform do as well, for helping families get what they need—rehab, food stamps, child care subsidies. We agree that should be prioritized over permanently removing children from their parents. In a 2019 paper, “A Cure Worse Than the Disease? The Impact of Removal on Children and Their Families,” Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and his coauthors note that removing children from their homes is traumatic for both parents and children, and that standards for removal vary from state to state. In some states there must be evidence that a child is in immediate danger; in others, suspicion of neglect is sufficient cause. Some states allow a parent to appeal the removal within 24 hours; in others a parent may have to wait 10 days. As a result, the authors note, states and even individual counties have widely varying rates of removing children.
“If we eliminated poverty in this country, that would be the best abuse- and neglect-prevention program,” according to Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School.
It is true that the internet, along with widely available genetic testing, has dismantled the possibility of a truly closed adoption. However, the truth about open adoptions is the adoptive family an easily end the relationship. Open adoptions exist at the discretion of the adopting family. They are not legally enforceable in all states, and where they are enforceable the cost of a lawyer can be prohibitive for a birth mother.
My adoption support group often recommends the Saving Our Sisters (SOS) organization to expectant mothers considering a surrender of their baby. This group seeks to persuade birth mothers that financial strain shouldn’t prevent them from keeping their children. When a woman who is having second thoughts reaches out to SOS online, the group tries to find a “sister on the ground” nearby to bring her diapers, a month’s rent, or a baby swing. In 6 years time, they helped 90 mothers and their children remain together, rather than be lost to adoption.