Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Attempting to Legislate Perpetual Childhood for Adopted People

I recently read a study from 1984 that focused on opening birth records in New York.  I like to read articles from the past because it shows me the reasoning behind why things are the way that they are and the reform efforts through history.  This study is no exception.  Interviewed were 42 adoptive parents on their perceptions of opening up birth record access to adult adoptees.

Why were Adoptive Parents being asked?

Per the literature review and historical overview in the article:
"Confidentiality has been the traditional hallmark of adoptions carried out by social agencies.  Social Workers and adoptive parents were influential in promoting legislation in the 1930s and 1940s to insure this policy through legal means.  In 1939 "about one third of the states provided for safeguarding the records of adoption from public inspection, and nearly one third made no mention of keeping the records at all' (study's author is quoting Brooks & Brooks, 1939, p. 132).  By 1950 most states had passed adoption legislation sealing adoption records.  The chief reasons given for sealing adoption records focused on issues surrounding the stigma of illegitimacy, the need for anonymity of persons involved in adoption, and the need for completely severing adoptees' ties to the birth parents (study's author is referencing Watson, 1979)."
The literature and historical review also noted that the ideal at the time was that the biological family was the superior family form and confidentiality and severance of ties to the Original Family was paramount in allowing the Adoptive Family to appear as a biological family (p.1).

So, how did adoptive parents respond now, after the records had been sealed for 40-50 years?  Almost 98% were against measures that allowed adult adoptees no access; about 58% disagreed with no access so long as there was medical need.  About 52% agreed with adult adoptee access so long as the First Parents and adoptive parents gave consent (p. 5).

The study attempted to find a correlation as to why adoptive parents in 1979 would feel one way or another about records access.  They determined that fear of being rejected by the adoptee had the strongest correlation with an adoptive parent's disagreement with adult adoptee access to their birth record.  The author of this study noted a prior study where it was found that most adoptees who initiated "genetic searches" felt positively about their relationships with their adoptive family, for the purpose of refuting the stereotype that adult adoptees with interest in their origins were doing so as an affront to their adoptive family.

This study records a piece of important history in the Adoptee Rights Movement.  It reminds us of a dominant argument against access that we no longer hear about--how adoptive parents might not want adoptees to access their original birth certificate.  This argument has fallen to the wayside as social norms and adoption culture has changed.  It's true that birth records were sealed to begin with, both to hide the illegitimacy of the adopted person but also to guarantee the original family could not locate the adoptee and interfere with the adoptive family  The idea that original mothers were promised anonymity is a relatively new objection to this movement.

When both objections, objections based on adoptive parent preferences and objections based on original parent preferences, speak to the underlying theme that has always been present: controlling social norms for adoptees.  Our culture has not quite let adoptees free from the "child role."  Therefore, in 1984 and prior, and even now, it is acceptable to make decisions for adult adoptees as though they were children in adoption law.  Often times without even giving adoptees a place at the table in doing so.

Geissinger, S. (1984). Adoptive Parents' Attitudes Toward Open Birth Records. Family Relations, 33(4), 579.


Lori said...

I find the whole thing something between OMG - you are kidding me and exactly how pathetic is that! After all, parents, no matter what kind, have to expect their children to grow up, do their own thing and have a life. Sigh....sometimes....

Reena said...

I was wondering-- can an AP request that a child's OBC remain intact?

I guess I don't understand the need for the BC--OBC to be altered at all, espeically now a days.

I know plenty of women who have given birth to their babies who were either young unwed mothers (kept their babies and all is going wonderfully); older women who were in a live-together relationship and had a baby; lesbians etc.

I always thought the main purpose of changing the BC, back in the day, was to protec the child from social stigmas as well as the first mom.

Those stigmas aren't nearly as strong today--if at all present.

O Solo Mama said...

Of course, adults should see and possess their own birth documentation. Full stop. I'm always curious about this whole thing with the first parents AND the a-parents. I've seen it argued that no "child" (usually we're talking someone 18 or over) should go into reunion either without the consent of both sets of parents . . . heard a blogger argue this point quite heatedly last year. This is another way of controlling and infantilizing the adoptee and putting the agenda of parents first.

Anonymous said...

I was just reading an article yesterday about how parents no longer allow their children to grow up - regardless of how they came into the family. Somehow we as a society have lost the desire of the joy and rewards of adulthood and become a society of perpetual adolescents. The 1970s was in the middle of that shift. I wonder how much of that had to do with the study results.

Here is another viewpoint, too. It is not right, it is not an "excuse" but something to think about. A lot (not all, but many) of adoptive families are built because of infertility on the part of the adoptive parents. Many of those parents go through years of fertility treatments/grief and mourning. Then they feel that they should adopt. Adoption is NOT easy, regardless of what people say. It takes a long time, it requires people poking into the most intimate parts of your life to deem if you are "worthy" or not to rear a child. Just the paperwork and lawyer fees alone are very expensive. Finally a child joins the family. That protective instinct kicks in and the adoptive parents basically smother that child because this child was the result of so much effort. They don't want anything bad to happen to the child, so they over protect and shelter and become "helicopter" parents. There is a thought-process out there that if something happens to a pregnancy, that is ok, you can always have another one. Well, there is not a chance of that for these adoptive parents. So they want to keep their child young for as long as possible, holding on to each moment and losing sight of the fact that parenthood is about raising a strong, capable, mature adult. It is honestly done with love, but that love has morphed into something unhealthy.

As one adoptive parent - I mourn the fact there is little to no chance that my girls will ever be able to have a relationship with their First Family. No one should be without that information.

Not sure any of this is making any sense.....

Amanda Woolston said...

Reena, it depends on the state. To my knowledge, amending and sealing cannot be prevented, by any one. It is an automatic act of the state. Although, in some states, Adoptive Parents may have the option of obtaining the Original Birth Certificate before it is sealed as well as have the option of keeping the Original Name of the child.

The purpose was to protect the child from the stigmas, as well as to protect the family from the "medeling" Original Mother (women who got pregnant out of wedlock were very stigmatized as being flawed and deviant). If she could not know the child's new identity, she could not find him or her and interfere. Unfortunately, it was a lot of Adoptive Parent and Adoption Worker lobbying that got these records sealed because being reminded that a child had a different origin and identity outside of the family was not something that was acceptable.

The actual legal process of amending and sealing does not allow for the promise of anonymity to be given. It also was not unusual for a mother's name to be published in the paper in a putative father ad. Something to the nature of "If you've had intercourse with [mother's name here] in the past 9 months, you might want to come forward because she's putting your kid up for adoption." I know a First Mother who worked for a lawyer who actually had to type these ads and submit them to the paper.

But the reasons records stay sealed today is because we don't have as much support as we need. We have Adoptive Parent allies but allies are more likely to be Adult Adoptees and First Mothers as the overwhelming majority of advocates. People are afraid that without amending and sealing (because they don't understand how the process works) will mean fewer women will surrender babies and fewer parents will want to adopt if they can't have their name on a birth certificate and seal the old one :-(

A friend of mine just wrote a blog piece about how because of pre-birth matching, they've found that Adoptive Parents names are actually now ending up on the Original Birth Certificates, not just the amended. I will see if I can find it.

Mayhem Mama,

It makes sense, and I understand. I have read a lot of the things you have described in research and have heard them from my own mother. Which is why I am an advocate of infertility counselling. I know that a lot of emotional issues can come with being infertile and it seems like in many cases, it is placed upon an adopted child to make all of those things go away and be OK again. I think I included some of these readings in my entry "Prescribing Adoption for Infertility." It can be stressful for those of us who were adopted because of infertility to process those emotions our parents (some, not all) have. With our adoptions often came expectations of how our presence in the family would resolve the issues caused by infertility. While adoptees have endured their own great losses, many of us are so aware of the losses of our parents that we put our consideration for their feelings before our own. It is important for everyone to have healing and unfortunately, I think adoption covered up my mom's pain, rather than having it addressed which is sad because she deserves better than that.

O Solo Mama said...

Mayhem Mama, you describe very well what the feelings tend to be like for many at the beginning. And I agree with you about the process: it's no walk in the park and the prying is hard to take. The issue for me is hanging onto those feelings as your child grows and you *know* in a grounded way you are this child's parent--mother, father. Nobody can take that from you. At that stage it's time to put your child first and realize how much he or she could benefit from knowledge of origins. It just shouldn't be about you at that stage.

Amanda Woolston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda Woolston said...

When we raise awareness of issues and seek help and support for every one involved, we can make it about the child in every stage :-)

O Solo Mama said...

". . .we can make it about the child in every stage"

Definitely, it should be. I didn't phrase that very well! Early on it's easy to become a little consumed with your feelings about whether you're a parent or not. It's a stage to get over.

Reena said...

Reading this post and some other recent blog posts on this topic brought back when we applied for a Birth Certificate for our daughters adopted from China. I remember the woman saying to me, "You know, we can only issue you a certificate of foreign birth." I thought the woman was daft! Seriously, what other kind of BC would be issued?

Now I know.

I didn't (still don't really) understand why there is the need for the BC for citizenship issues. It seems the adoption certificate and Certificate of Citizenship should cover it-- but we were told to get everything and that is what we did.

I believe that Adoptees should have the right to their OBC-- personally, I don't think it should be changed. AP should get an Adoption Certificate along with the 'real' BC. Adoptees are the only part of the adotion triad/mosaic that don't really participate in the decision (in most cases) and therefore it simply isn't fair or moral that they not have access to the same information that people who are not adopted have access.

I also think there should be laws in place for open adoption agreements that places more legal requirments for both AP and first parents to maintain contact for the interests of the child. I have read about the loss of communciation being due to both sides and the one who is harmed is the Adoptee-- the very person who likely was too young to participate in the decisions made.

Anonymous said...

O Solo Mama and Amanda -

I am in total agreement that it is not right that adoptive parents put the responsibility of "healing" the parents from their infertility. I am eternally grateful that our home study agency did an awesome job of talking about that before they would even agree to discuss adoption with us. If I remember correctly, they made infertile couples leave and think about the discussion. Then the couple had to call back and make another appointment before talk of doing an actual home study could take place. I am so sorry they went out of business (the owners retired).

I was just giving one possible motivation for the hovering adoptive parent - the one who wants to "protect" the adoptee from the "pain of their origins". Though I have to say, I have seen a lot of non-adoptive parents who are way worse! While the whole topic of not allowing children to grow up is particularly hard on adult adoptees in respect of the information they are denied, I honestly don't think there is going to be much headway made into that issue until the over-arching societal issue of of letting children become adults is addressed.

Please do not take my next statement as belittling the adult adoptee issues. But I think there are so many social issues that need to be addressed as a whole - entitlement, not letting kids grow up, objectifying people, the list goes on and on. The way all of these issues show up in the adoption world, the hurts and pain and dysfunction, is a micro-view of the issues facing the entire western world.