Adopting Awareness, Protecting Families
By Jessica DelBalzo
I am a mother, a lover, and a friend. I am also an anti-adoption activist, and while this last aspect of my life has earned me more than my share of negative sentiments, I am still intensely proud to wear this label.
The anti-adoption movement found me years before I became a mother, though my drive has been intensified by motherhood. I began studying adoption when I was still in high school, reading every book I could find and talking with natural mothers and adopted adults in an attempt to learn as much as I could. In the beginning, it was pure gut instinct that made me question adoption, but when research supported my original feelings, I felt compelled to do something more than talk.
In 1998, I and a small group of likeminded individuals founded an organization called Adoption: Legalized Lies. Since then, our membership has grown exponentially. We have helped mothers and fathers who were considering adoption to make informed decisions, and we have supported others through contested adoption proceedings. Our main goal, though, has always been education. North American society is particularly rife with misconceptions about adoption; misconceptions which make the anti-adoption movement seem both radical and unnecessary.
According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the majority of Americans feel positively about adoption. I can only assume that these positive feelings exist because of the many common misconceptions about adoption and the people involved in it. One common assumption is that mothers who surrender their infants are making a free and informed choice to do so. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth. It is a vicious cycle; a woman living in a society that holds adoption in high regard is hard pressed to find information about the negative consequences surrender will have on herself and her child.
This brings us to another misconception; that children who are adopted during infancy will not be affected by the loss of their mothers. Nancy Newton Verrier refutes this claim in her book, The Primal Wound. Adoptee and psychotherapist Joseph Soll does the same in his book, Adoption Healing, which offers advice for adopted people grappling with the common issues of grief, trust, and abandonment. As mothers, we should be especially capable of understanding how adoption separation is traumatic for a newborn. We know that infants are able to recognize their mothers at birth by sight, smell, and sound. Even when the baby’s new caregivers have been present during the mother’s pregnancy, they are not automatically familiar or comforting to her baby.
Another common misconception about adoption is that it is a necessary, if not wholly beneficial, institution. This simply is not true. Family preservation can go a long way in supporting mothers and fathers who wish to raise their children despite being in circumstances which would normally cause them to consider adoption. Kinship care is yet another alternative, allowing extended family members to care for children whose parents are unable or unwilling to raise them. Even in the most extreme situations, legal guardianship exists as a way to provide safe and loving care for children without changing their names or pretending that they are “as if born to” their caregivers. There is not a single situation in the world that must be remedied exclusively by adoption, nor is adoption a preferable option in any circumstance.
Of course, there are perhaps as many misconceptions about the anti-adoption movement as there are about adoption itself. One that I frequently encounter is that anti-adoption activists prefer abortion to adoption. While this is true of some, it is not true of everyone. The movement includes activists on both sides of the abortion debate. Similarly, we are not interested in forcing mothers to raise their children. We believe that given the opportunity, most women who go through nine months of pregnancy would ultimately choose to raise their babies, but we would never require a mother to parent if she was vehemently against doing so.
People unfamiliar with the anti-adoption movement also commonly assume that anti-adoption advocates would leave children in abusive or neglectful homes in order to prevent them from being adopted by others. This is tantamount to saying that anti-adoption activists do not care about the well-being of all children, and it is simply not true. Most people involved in the movement are involved precisely because they do care about children. As I mentioned previously, there are options other than adoption which facilitate getting a child out of abuse and into a safe and loving environment.
The Business of Adoption
In 2000, a study conducted by Market Data Enterprises revealed that the adoption industry had earned $1.4 billion in the previous year. The larger adoption agencies were reportedly bringing in upwards of $10 million, while the smaller agencies could boast an income of $400,000 or more. The industry as a whole was projected to grow at a rate of 11.5% into 2004, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that it has slowed since then. Adoption is a big business in America.
Like other big businesses, the adoption industry is not immune to corruption. In fact, the lack of uniform laws governing adoption practices combined with the popular view of adoption as a benevolent institution enable coercion to run rampant. The federally-funded Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program teaches crisis pregnancy centers, obstetricians, and others who may come into contact with pregnant women how to sell them on the idea of adoption. Adoption agencies have been doing this same thing for decades, as is evidenced by the numerous books and websites written by and about mothers whose children were taken by the adoption industry in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Modern adoption workers have implemented new methods of coercion, including the promise of openness, but the end result is the same.
The maternity homes of the new millennium are not unlike the homes where expectant mothers were interred half a century ago. A quick glance at the facilities’ web sites indicates that they are stuck in the 1950s mentality that a pregnant teen is a “problem child.” Though some acknowledge that young women have the option of parenting, they go on to portray child-rearing in negative terms while extolling adoption as a redeeming act. Some homes, like the one operated by the Gladney Center for Adoption, ask that mothers who decide not to surrender their infants compensate them financially for their services.
While maternity homes are the epitome of isolation for expectant mothers, it is not uncommon for adoption agencies to encourage women to move away from home in order to deliver and surrender their babies. Once they have left their familiar surroundings and support systems, these women are encouraged to rely on the adoption workers for basic necessities. Situations like this are not at all conducive to helping a woman make an informed and empowered decision on behalf of herself and her baby. Because laws vary by state, women are often transported into adoption-friendly areas to birth and surrender. They will likely be encouraged to sign adoption papers earlier and have a shorter time to revoke their consent than they would have at home. Additionally, removing an expectant mother from her home state can make it difficult for the baby’s father to secure his own parental rights.
Other, less tangible aspects of coercion also exist in adoption. Mothers who are young, unmarried, or poor are often marginalized by our society. They are presented with the idea of adoption as a loving or selfless act, which sends them the subtle message that keeping the baby is unloving or selfish. In all my years of research and activism, I have yet to meet a surrendering mother who was fully informed of the emotional and psychological risks for herself and her child. A decision made under false pretenses and without proper information can hardly be classified as a choice!
Of course, infant adoption is not the only form of adoption driven by dollars in America. Ever since the Adoption and Safe Families Act went into effect in 2000, states have been clamoring to earn federal bonuses by getting foster children into adoptive homes. While stability is a beneficial goal for children who cannot remain with their families, many parents’ rights organizations have speculated that the $4000-$6000 per child adoption bonuses are causing case workers to remove children from perfectly loving homes. False allegations of abuse and non-traditional parenting (including home-schooling and extended breast-feeding) have been cited as causing unjust family separation. Poor parents are especially at risk, as they are unable to afford adequate legal representation and expert testimony to defend themselves in court.
Child Protective Services has allowed family preservation to take a back seat to adoption, even though recent research has shown the many ways in which family support is beneficial. Because parents’ rights can be terminated once a child has spent 15 of the previous 22 months in foster care, CPS is no longer required to prove that the parents are unfit. Many parents say that they have completed everything they were ordered to do to regain custody of their children only to discover that their time was up. The slow-moving American judicial system is all that is needed to permanently separate loving families.
Why Not Adoption Reform
I am often asked why I would rather abolish adoption than reform it. The short answer is that I feel it is beyond reform. The long answer is that even if coercion could be eliminated and money was taken out of the equation, adoption would still be an unnatural and detrimental practice.
First, consider infant adoption. We know that infants are highly sensitive beings; they recognize their mothers by sight, smell, and sound. The mother is a source of comfort and security for her newborn baby. Even her rhythms are familiar. In addition to being denied all the benefits of a natural relationship with their mothers, adoptees typically lose out on the benefits of breast milk as well. While some adoptive caregivers induce lactation, the adopted people with whom I have worked are very skeptical about adoptive breastfeeding. Many have suggested that being forced to suckle an unfamiliar breast while coping with all the other stresses of adoption could be a traumatic experience in and of itself. From birth to bonding to breastfeeding, the removal of a newborn from his or her natural mother is directly opposed to every biological instinct we humans have.
Pre-verbal infants as well as toddlers and older children are all at risk of lasting psychological problems as a result of being adopted. Attachment disorders, difficulty establishing identity, inability to trust others, and feelings of abandonment are all common among adopted people, though these issues can manifest in varying degrees and at varying times throughout the adopted person’s life. Adopted children are over-represented in psychological treatment facilities. They are also more likely than their non-adopted peers to commit juvenile felonies, a fact which seems to signal underlying problems. Rather than helping children to escape troubled lives, adoption is the cause of additional trouble.
Mothers who have lost children to adoption are also likely to suffer lifelong consequences as a result. Numerous studies have revealed that the majority of surrendering mothers experience depression, grief, and regret, as well as more severe psychological maladies including post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders. Mothers who experience modern open adoptions must contend with feeling subservient to their children’s adoptive caregivers; they report feeling at great risk of being exiled if they show raw emotions or develop “too strong” a bond with their children. The endless worrying and wondering that accompanies closed adoption is no better, but open adoption creates problems of its own.
There are as many ways to prevent adoption as there are reasons to prevent it. Preventing unplanned pregnancy via sexual education and access to contraception is an important first step. It is also absolutely critical that we educate expectant mothers about the consequences of adoption and the importance of the mother-child bond. Emotional and financial support may be necessary, but the end result – a secure, contented newborn – is worth the trouble. The adoption industry treats mothers as though they are expendable, but everything we know about healthy child development says otherwise.
Social acceptance for extended family involvement and communal child-rearing can also help to alleviate the pressure to adopt a child away from his or her family. All parents can benefit from an extensive support network, but young mothers and low-income families stand to gain the most from increased assistance from their family members and community. The nuclear family model is relatively new and inherently less supportive than the tribal child-rearing that occurs in other cultures and the close-knit families of generations past.
Implementing guardianship rather than adoption for abused and orphaned children is another important step that can be taken toward the abolition of adoption. Guardianship is designed to place children in safe, loving homes while alleviating many of the problems inherent in adoption. Guardians do not receive parental rights, nor do they receive an amended “birth” certificate erasing the child’s past and replacing his or her family. They are able to make necessary decisions for the children in their care, but the expectation that the children are “as if born to” them is absent. This helps to alleviate the identity issues that so many adoptees face. It also insures that the guardians are acting out of concern for children and not out of the desire to imitate parenthood.
Of course, these are large scale changes that must be made by society as a whole. There are, however, many things that individuals can do to support family preservation and adoption elimination. Providing foster care for children in need can be a constructive way to help both children and parents. As a foster carer, you have the unique ability to protect children who need protecting while at the same time empowering their parents to get the help they need in order to reunite their family. You can also choose to open your home to a young mother and her child, allowing them to remain together while modeling healthy parenting. As a doula, midwife, or child-birth educator, you can help vulnerable mothers to feel more secure in their abilities while at the same time encouraging them to defend themselves against the adoption industry. Challenging public perceptions of adoption through activism, letter-writing, and public awareness campaigns are other ways in which individuals can make a difference in the lives of children and families.
According to Evelyn Robinson, an Australian mother and post-adoption counselor, her country has come close to eliminating the domestic adoption of infants, orphans, and abused children. Offering better services for marginalized families, acknowledging the damage caused by adoption, and providing more reasonable options for children in need has made a tremendous difference in the way mothers and children are treated in Australia. It is absolutely possible for us to achieve the same in North America. Not only should the elimination of adoption be a dream shared by all who care about children and families, it should be a goal for our lawmakers, social workers, and other professionals as well. My anti-adoption stance may make me a radical mama right now, but I firmly believe that someday, opposition to adoption will be as American as apple pie.
Authors Bio: Jessica DelBalzo is a radical author, activist, and mother from Flemington, NJ. She is the founder of Adoption: Legalized Lies, a grassroots organization protecting families from the adoption industry. Her writing has appeared in various publications online and off, and her book, Unlearning Adoption: A Guide to Family Preservation and Protection, was released in July.