Wednesday, September 17, 2014

PA, Adoptee Rights, and an Amended Bill--What now?

Photo (c) Julie Stromberg
On Tuesday, September 16, 2014, the Pennsylvania Senate Aging and Youth Committee held a voting hearing for HB 162.  As drafted, HB 162 would restore the right of PA-born adult adoptees, nineteen years or older, to access a copy of their original birth certificate (OBC) with the same regard under the law enjoyed by every other PA-born citizen.

When a child is adopted in the U.S., a amended birth record replaces their OBC that lists their adoptive parents as their biological parents.  In 48 states, the OBC is sealed.  Every single state has a law on the books providing for the release of the OBC to the adoptee at the discretion of a judge in addition to other avenues of access. However, only six states honor the right of adult adoptees to access their OBC with the same regard as all other people.

The history of how HB 162 came to be is peculiar. Until 1985, Pennsylvania was one of three states that allowed adoptees equal access to their OBCs.  Following the passing of Roe v. Wade, concerns arose in religious pro-life communities that adoptees accessing their OBCs would increase abortion rates. They first questioned the interpretation of the law. In 1978, the PA Attorney General issued an official statement identifying OBCs as separate from sealed adoption records and confirmed that Vital Statistics should continue to release OBCs to adult adoptees.

In response, Representative Stephen Freind drafted a bill that allowed access to OBCs only through a confusing network of courts or through a passive mutual consent registry.  And yes, it's that Stephen Freind, the creator of Pennsylvania's Abortion Control Act--the first state-based challenge to Roe vs. Wade--and proclaimer that women cannot conceive from rape.  His efforts passed as the Adoption Act of 1984.

Two amendments were on the table this past Tuesday. One would add contact preference language into HB 162 as seen in Maine's law.  The other, per the hearing agenda, would allow original mothers a three-year window to veto their adult son or daughter's OBC access.  Sadly, with a vote of 9-2, the committee passed HB 162 with the second amendment, favoring the disclosure veto.

The amendment is disturbing for a number of reasons, the first being that it's discriminatory and will leave many adoptees behind.  Second, the disclosure veto is eerily similar to one proposed and rejected in 1984 (the "Vroon" amendment).  The fact that we're just now passing a disclosure veto evidences a least a 30 year gap between where the legislature should be on this issue and where they actually are.  As Representative Lashinger said in 1984 regarding what would soon become the infamous Adoption Act of 1984,
"Times have changed considerably.....It is a shame the legislation does not take into account the change in attitudes, but the Vroon amendment at least helps keep it somewhere between the 20th century and the Dark Ages."
Lashinger said this 11 months before my birth; I am almost thirty. We are still in the Dark Ages, friends.

Most alarmingly, although the hearing agenda clearly stated that the disclosure veto option would last for three years (January 1, 2018), in the actual bill text this is true only for adoptions initiated prior to the bill's effective date.  For adoptions initiated after the bill's effective date, the veto option is intended to be in effect permanently.  Although OBCs are not sealed until an adoption is decreed, this amendment gives surrendering parents the right to veto access to the OBC immediately after termination of parental rights. This includes cases of involuntary termination.  It is unclear how foster youth, foster care workers, and fostered adults aging out of care will manage when in need of a birth record for identification and their access has been vetoed. For fostered/non-adopted persons, their OBC is their certified birth record.

The amendment places education about the disclosure veto in the hands of adoption agencies. Lastly, the amendment compels original parents to release their personal health information.

Some have supported this amendment, and others like it nationwide, suggesting that we must give up something in order to get something.  The problem with supporting this amendment is that what is being given up is not mine to give. The OBCs of the would-be vetoed adult adoptees are not mine to give up. The OBCs of today's fostered and adopted youth are not mine to give up. The personal health information of original parents is not mine to give up.

OBC access was expanded in my birth state of Tennessee while I was still a child. Activists sought to correct the injustices of Tennessee's Georgia Tann who invented the practice of amending and sealing adoptee birth records to conceal her trafficking for adoption. A court battle ensued and people such as Pat Robertson (yes, that Pat Robertson) pushed back against adoptee access to OBCs.  Finally, a tiered access system was implemented that divided adoptees into two groups. The "direct victims" (see Bisantz-Raymond) of Tann (those born in Tann's era of practice) receive unhindered access.  "Indirect victims" of Tann (those born after the 1950's) receive access after agreeing to a contact veto. Adoptees conceived from rape are subjected to a disclosure veto.

I was fourteen years told when these changes to Tennessee law were made. I wasn't old enough to tell the state that I did not want to be perpetually defined by my adoption. That I had every right to see the factual record of my birth because I am a human being. When ruled in Doe v. Sundquist that OBC access "does not violate federal constitutional right to familial privacy, if such right exists," I was unable to ask--why does my conception circumstance make the constitution inapplicable to me?

I am a survivor of more than two years of intimate partner violence. I cannot begin to describe what it is like to be exclusively defined by your biological father's violent assault on your mother when seeking information from the child welfare department that took care of you as a foster youth. What it's like to be seen and treated, not as a human being, but as a product of your biological father's actions.

I am a person. I am a human being. I repeated these words more than once when navigating the veto systems for my birth state. I believed at the time that maybe the vetoes helped my original mother in some way. I discovered her, bewildered and stressed by the process, having no idea I hadn't known her name all my life or that my OBC had been sealed.

In consistency with my long-held stance that no adoptee be left behind, I withdraw support from HB 162 in its amended form and furthermore oppose the amendment's changes.  I will continue to push for it to be re-shaped with acceptable language. I will continue to support the bill sponsor.

In five years of working with this legislation, it is moments like these when I stop to process the journey. The most frustrating aspects haven't been the long processes or the two-hour drives to the capitol.  What wears on the soul is that the corresponding adoption discourse in opposition of OBC access is archaic in nature and repetitious of themes imposed on our adopted ancestors, on now to us, and I fear on to the rising generations of fostered and adopted youth.

The opposing discourse continues to include messages of adoptees as perpetual children seeking to disrupt lives. Men of stature speaking for women--speaking in the place of women. Shame-based messages spread about original mothers. Amended birth certificates framed as validating to adoptive parents who are presumed jealous and insecure. It is hurtful that those claiming to advocate for a community I am passionate about cannot do so from the strengths-based way in which I see my peers.

Not unlike the bill discussions in 1984, it was said in the voting hearing that adoptees must remember who their "real parents" are; their adoptive parents. To this I say is the root of the problem and misunderstanding. I did not come before you to sort out my family. I came before you for legal recognition as an autonomous individual whose birth existed--whose birth mattered.

Every birth matters.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adoption and Fundraising: When Money to Breaks Down Systemic Barriers for Families

Aselefech runs for family preservation.
There are a number of factors behind why I was placed for adoption.  Economics by far is one of the most pervasive.  My narrative is one among countless that attest to the way in which economics constricts the choices families and parents have--to keep their children, to not experience the removal of their children, to not become pregnant if they do not wish to be.

I have been outspoken for the past five years against adoption fundraisers.  I have been asked countless times over the years to donate my written word or official endorsement to adoption fundraisers, and each time I have declined.  According to my mother's narrative, at the time she stepped off of the plane in her sister's home state where she would birth me, she owned just one change of clothes. It seems irreverent for the wealthy to exchange money for inspirational adoption t-shirts among themselves, too expensive for my own mother to have worn herself, to raise money to adopt her baby.

Hierarchies of power and privilege push impoverished children into orphanages and care and trap them there with their families on the outside looking in, the empty arms of biological families aching.  One adoption fee could vaccinate tens of thousands of children or fund an entire medical center for a village.  The average cost to adopt a newborn from a struggling parent could pay the TANF allowance of a family of four for three years.

Yet we see fit to designate tens of thousands of dollars as a barrier to a home for a child-- barriers to both homes of origin and adoptive ones.  Money becomes a barrier to children returning to their poor families.  Money becomes a barrier to children receiving adoptive families when they need them.  To raise money to maintain this as the status quo is unfathomable to me.

There are fundraisers that should be grabbing our attention and support.  Aselefech Evans will run a half-marathon in Ethiopia to promote family preservation. In her compelling piece entitled "'Orphans' and Economics," Aselefech explains,
I’m holding a fundraiser, but it’s not for adoption. It’s for family preservation in my home country of Ethiopia. I was placed for adoption not because I was an orphan, or because my parents had died, but because they were poor. 
I have told myself I was done fighting with time, I cannot reclaim the past, and I am ready to move forward. Moving forward has meant not obsessing over every specific detail of what happened and what was lost. It’s a struggle.
Aselefech discovered just how difficult it is to garner support for family preservation fundraisers.
I thought $5000 would be an easy amount to raise, and I was wrong. It’s been a struggle, and a reminder that family preservation is far less popular than adoption, at least in terms of fundraising.
While disagreeing with the adoption fundraiser trend, I haven't paid as much attention to offering alternative options.  It is one thing to say what shouldn't be done.  It is quite another to suggest what should be done.  When adoptees head good fundraising opportunities, I should be doing my part to lend support here at The Declassified Adoptee.  Letting the hustle and bustle of life and starting a new job get in the way is no excuse.

My apologies to Aselefech and the families she supports; I dropped the ball not promoting her efforts here until now.  But there are still 20 days left.  Aselefech has reached her goal, but we do not have to stop there.  The next check from The Declassified Adoptee book sales will go toward Aselefech's fundraiser.  I encourage everyone who reads here to consider donating as well.  Money should never be a barrier to a child having a family--certainly when it is their own biological family who could care for them with support.

Aselefech and I are far from the only adoptees who have found the pervasive grip of poverty in our adoption narratives.  The film Closure captured Angela's return to her foster parents' home where she lived for the first year of her life.  Tears poured down the foster mother's cheeks as she explained how she had given Angela physical therapy everyday, loved her, and wanted to adopt her.  They were suitable to care for her until Angela had an adoptive home, but were not permitted to adopt her.  They could not afford to.

I've processed my own journey vicariously in so many ways through this film.  Angela and I were born the same year, in the same city, surrendered through the same office and agency, and both fostered in the first year of our lives.  I have never met my unknown foster mother.  I only know from a medical document here and there that I used her last name the first five months of my life.  I cried when most adults held me, but not for her.  Did she stroke my plump cheeks and feel the love of a mother in her heart?  Did she want to adopt me yet I set off on a path to yet another caregiver due to finances?  I may never know.

Money should break down systemic barriers for children and families, not build barriers.

Friday, May 23, 2014

As Rightful Narrators: Adoption, RAD, and Storytelling


Recently, the New York Times Motherlode blog posted an essay by author Tina Traster entitled, "You're not my Real Mother."  The essay processed her gut reaction to hearing the infamous "you're not my real mom" phrase from her daughter.  Traster retorted "well who is then?" and directed her daughter never to say the phrase again.  Traster described her own hurt feelings while disclosing her daughter's adoption narrative and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) diagnosis to readers across the globe.  Her daughter's narrative and diagnosis are also embedded in the premise of her book Rescuing Julia Twice.  The reaction to the article exposed sincere concern in the readership regarding the level of information-sharing on the child's behalf in the article.  One Motherlode reader conversely posed the question: shouldn't parenting essays show the challenges of parenting, including a parent's raw and honest revelations however imperfect they may be?

In this entry, I will not comment on the RAD diagnosis (or diagnoses as reflected in the DSM-5) or that how it is popularly portrayed and understood often varies dramatically from the diagnostic criteria.  Rather, I want to respond directly to the above question by explaining specifically why RAD narratives like Traster's are troubling to me.

What do I mean when I call stories like Traster's as one among countless "RAD narratives?"  It has to do with the fact that these stories reinforce the dominant adoption discourse where adoptees and first parents are the topics of discussions that distance the reader from understanding by pathologizing them and issuing second-hand disclosure of their lives.  Rather than being informed of what relational trauma and attachment disruption are like from the perspective of a person who experienced it, these particular narratives tell the child's story on their behalf and the child's role is that of a problem to be solved.  To be rescued.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"I do not Have to Help Them": Pushing Back Against the Apathy of Those With Power


"The Representative would like to meet with you," came a young woman's voice over the speaker of my cell phone. "It is urgent. You must come to Harrisburg as soon as possible." I agreed to attend, and quickly contacted two other adoption activists. It was the summer of 2010. I was relatively new to adoption activism and knew better than to go by myself. I knew why she had called.  This legislator had submitted a bill that competed with a pending original birth certificate access bill.  After his office ignored our attempts to engage with him personally, we launched a social media campaign in opposition of the bill.  We knew he had heard our voices, yet nothing prepared me for what I walked into that day.

Joined by two other activists, I nervously sat down at the large oval table. Several Representatives were there, including the bill sponsor. He was flanked by numerous staff.  No one looked happy.

"Can you tell me what this is about?" he said sternly. "My offices received so many calls from your organization's call-to-action that our phone lines went down."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Your Child Should not be Your First Black Friend": NPR, Transracial Adoption & the Powerful Voice of Chad Goller-Sojourner

It has been two weeks since NPR's The Sunday Show aired a segment on transracial adoption that caused outrage within the adoption community.  To give a brief re-cap, Angela Tucker, an African American transracial adult adoptee who is the subject of the documentary "Closure," an adoption blogger, and a former adoption professional was interviewed for the segment only to be told that her interview would not be used.  Instead, NPR chose an interview with a white adoptive parent of three young transracially adopted children.

As the initial point of contact between NPR and Angela, I reached out to the producer once I learned that Angela's interview would not be aired, and with Angela's permission, I urged them to reconsider.  After further correspondence with NPR, I learned that they chose the adoptive parent interview because they were interested in her faith background, her geographical location, and her speaking skills, confident that the history of their show portrayed transracial adoption from "many angles."  The appropriateness of a white parent speaking about the racism experienced by transracial adoptees was not factored into the decision process.