The Hartford Courant
Adoption's grownup traumas
Author: SUSAN CAMPBELL
Courant Staff Writer
When Robin Bertoli Dambra was adopted in 1957, it seemed like a happy ending. Everyone was happy -- her birth mother, who had gotten pregnant without being married, her adoptive parents, who'd wanted a baby, and Robin, who had a home with people who loved her.
But in fact, Robin's adoption in her infancy was loaded with loss. Her birth parents signed away their child. Her adoptive family said goodbye to the idea of bearing children biologically. And Robin lost her birth family.
"One of the myths is that adoption is a happy solution for everyone," said Karen D. Oestreicher, an adult adoptee, psychotherapist and cofounder of the new Adoption Healing Therapy Group in Glastonbury. "The birth mother got rid of her `problem.' The adoptive parents got the baby they wanted and couldn't have, and the adoptee got a home.
"As a result, when the adoptee grows up and has issues ... nobody gives the adoption any mention. I'm almost 34, and it was many years before I was able to feel how much my own adoption affected my life."
Or, as put by Bertoli Dambra, a cofounder of Adoption Healing, a Fairfield support group: "It goes into such deep crevices, it's incredible."
"My adoption had a profound effect on every aspect of my life -- my relationships, how I felt about myself, my self-destructive behavior," Bertoli Dambra said.
In fact, although not all adult adoptees deal with the same issues, research shows that a fetus bonds with a birth mother, and no matter what age the baby is separated from the mother, the baby feels a traumatic loss, Oestreicher said. And as the baby matures, adopted children must deal with feeling abandoned and unworthy, and learning to trust.
"To some people, denial is a wonderful thing," Oestreicher said. "I think the wound is there."
The secrecy that traditionally surrounds adoption left many children to imagine their beginnings.
Lil Flint, who with Oestreicher founded the therapy group, said some adult adoptees still don't understand they were born in a hospital, in the usual way, to a real person or couple.
And that secrecy persists through childhood, when an adoptee may fantasize about his or her birth parents.
"Because there's no reality, as a child you are going to come up with what you need to come up with," said Oestreicher. "I learned not to ask some questions."
A family friend told Ray McCormick of East Hartford that he was adopted when McCormick, now 53, was 8. When he asked his adoptive parents, they told him his birth parents had died in a car wreck.
In fact, they hadn't died, which McCormick found out years later from a cousin.
"I believe now that they were trying to give some closure, that they were trying to shield me from what they thought might be the ugly truth," McCormick said. "But what they did was rob me of my roots, and that's a tough thing to overlook."
The feeling of rootedness is incredibly important to a child, said Oestreicher. With a feeling of belonging, a child develops an identity and self-esteem.
Bertoli Dambra (Bertoli is her last name by birth) has two birth certificates -- one that's sealed in California and contains the names of her birth parents, and a false one that says she was born to her adoptive parents.
"This started to be done because they once put `illegitimate' on a birth certificate, and this was a way to clean up the baby," she said.
Oestreicher's adoptive father died when she was 11, and at 16, she began searching for her birth parents using documents she'd received at his death. She found them three years later with the help of a social worker at Child and Family Services in Hartford.
"It wasn't like my [adoptive] parents didn't love me enough," Oestreicher said, "but I can remember in third grade, we were doing family trees. And every single one of them made no sense to me. What nationality am I? My adoptive parents said just to use their nationality, but even as a small child I knew that wasn't me."
Even in today's more open adoption environment, Flint said some adoptive parents persist in forever severing that tie with the birth family.
"Some are really afraid of being rejected as adoptive parents, but I also hear a lot of people saying they don't want open adoptions because they are threatened by that," Flint said. "They want things to be over and done with."
Bertoli Dambra said open adoptions often meet opposition because they tend to pit children's vs. adults' rights to privacy. She prefers an adoption that keeps children in touch with their birth families, what Chicago adoption advocate and author Ken Watson calls a "kinship network."
"We cannot cut people off from each other again," Bertoli Dambra said. "Especially children. We never had a say in these contracts that were made up," she said. "But yet they are imposed on us for the rest of our lives."
Flint, who also is executive director of a month-old agency, A Child Among Us, The Center for Adoption, has led therapy groups for adult adoptees in the past. A member of one of those groups called to ask that the group start up again. The group joins several support groups -- including one in Madison and one in Fairfield called Adoption Healing -- but a therapy group is different from a support group.
"A support group may be led by other people with similar experiences, but they may not be a therapist," Flint said. "Both of us will run this group so that maybe some actual healing will take place."
"People have support, and some therapy, and they can get some serious work done," Oestreicher said.
Bertoli Dambra's group, Adoption Healing, is unusual in that it's run by adoptees and birth parents who have released their children for adoption.
Oestreicher said the support of a group is particularly important when an adoptee is seeking a reunion with birth parents. Bertoli Dambra has been in reunion with her birth parents for 14 years.
"I believe every reunion is a good reunion, a good thing," she said. "I've always felt that as an adoptee, my truth set me free. The relationships are so difficult because there's so much garbage that's come in between because of the closed system of adoption. It has separated birth families from children forever, or, at least, that's what they've tried to do."
The adoption healing therapy group meets Tuesdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m., beginning Oct. 19, at 2410 New London Turnpike, Glastonbury. For more information, call Karen Oestreicher at 647-9599 or Lil Flint at 633-6090.
Karen D. Oestreicher, seated, and Lil Flint started a therapy group for adult adoptees.