exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Frozen Children, Icy Silence--Time To Adopt Openness


Frozen Children, Icy Silence--Time To Adopt Openness

October 5, 2008

Marc Fisher

When two children -- two adopted children -- end up dead in a block of ice hidden in their mother's freezer, the entire child welfare apparatus flies into a panic.

Almost immediately after the news broke about the gruesome case of Renee Bowman and her children, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty called a news conference to say that the city had done no wrong (the family lived in Maryland, but the children had been adopted in the District). The Baltimore-based agency that cleared Bowman to adopt dropped into a defensive crouch from which it has yet to emerge. And social workers braced for another round of outraged cries for heads to roll.

It sure looks like someone messed up. You might think that the people charged with investigating Bowman before she adopted one child in 2001 and two others in 2004 should have known and raised alarms about facts such as these: Bowman was convicted of threatening bodily harm to a 72-year-old motorist just two years before the first adoption; she may have had an abusive mate; she filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001; she described her childhood to friends as akin to that of "an abused dog"; and her own mother had been a homeless wanderer of the city's streets.

Now we learn that Maryland's social services agency got a complaint accusing Bowman of child neglect last January, sent a caseworker to the house and concluded that everything was fine -- "clean and appropriately furnished," though with a funky smell that was attributed to mildew.

Still, it is possible, as Fenty and some adoption advocates argue, that everyone did their jobs, that Bowman passed every screening, and that whatever went horribly wrong in her life happened only after she had adopted the children.

The problem is, we can't know. And the fact is, it is our business.

In the reflexively privacy-obsessed world of adoptions, it is somehow an imposition if the public wants to know where the state's wards end up, who is collecting the stipends taxpayers shell out to encourage adoption and how all that money is being spent. We know best, social workers say.

But anytime public money is involved, it's the public's job to demand oversight and accountability, and the only road to that goal is transparency.

I met Adam Pertman many years ago when he was a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. After experiencing the joys and frustrations of adoption, he left the news business to advocate for those who give that loving gift of parenthood. Now, as director of the Adoption Institute, he understands both instincts: the newsman's passionate belief that sunshine is the best medicine, and the adoption world's embrace of secrecy to protect children and grant adoptive parents the same rights birth parents enjoy.

When he trains social workers, Pertman tells them: "Your secrets don't do you any good. The only time you get in the news is when someone dies, and it's because you won't give out any information."

The roots of that secrecy lie in the not-so-distant past, when adoption carried a powerful stigma. "This is a whole institution built on stigma and secrecy and shame," Pertman says, "on people being told to lie for the rest of their lives. You didn't tell your children they were adopted. Amazingly, we got to the other side, and adoption is no longer anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about. But the remnants of that era of secrecy are profound."

Executives at the Board of Child Care, the Methodist church-affiliated agency that investigated Bowman's suitability for adoption, would not talk to me. The top boss didn't even return my call. The reflex is to circle the wagons and board up the windows.

Luckily, some see that public trust is essential. Janice Goldwater, who runs Adoptions Together, a private agency in Silver Spring not connected to the Bowman case, opened her files so I could see how exhaustively her social workers investigate families being considered as adoptive parents.

Adoptive parents tell me they feel as if they've had a colonic irrigation of their finances, family history and even their sex lives. Social workers interview friends, relatives and co-workers; examine tax, criminal and credit records; and ask about religion, guns, drugs and corporal punishment. Families are rejected if they are likely to spank the child, keep unlocked guns in the house or put the child to sleep on a bunk bed or sofa bed.

And somehow a Renee Bowman gets through. How? The pathetic truth is that people inside the system already know that answer, but the rest of us might never know.

The legacy of secrecy lives on. Goldwater, who has an adopted child as well as three birth children, was appalled to see that her adopted child's birth certificate was rewritten to show Goldwater and her husband as the birth parents, a deception that fools no one.

Goldwater and Pertman are both wary of making adoption records public, even in a case that ends in an awful crime. Once an adoption has been completed, they argue, the parents should have the same rights as a birth parent.

But the public has an obligation to children who were placed by the government. Bowman, for example, received $2,400 a month in federal money to defray the cost of raising her three children. In the current system, there is no way to see if that money is being spent as intended.

"There are sound, competent professionals doing this work," Goldwater says. "We have to show people that, not hide anytime something bad happens."

UPDATE (11 A.M.): Matthew Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia law school, this morning passes along an email by Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, arguing for opening up adoption hearings, as 15 states have already done:

Even journalists who disagree with my organization on everything else usually find common ground with us on one point: The enormous harm done to children by the secrecy that permeates child welfare - the closed court hearings and sealed records.

So I'm surprised the Post hasn't done what many other newspapers have in the wake of child abuse tragedies - demanded, over and over, that, at a minimum, the court hearings be opened.

One of the reasons the child welfare system in Allegheny County, Pa. is, relatively speaking, a national model, is that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette crusaded to get the courts opened, and then followed up with outstanding reporting on what was going on there.

Since 1980 about 15 states have truly opened these hearings. And even though many of these began as pilot projects with sunset dates, not one of these states has closed them again. And in state after state onetime opponents of openness became converts. It's been harder to get records open, but there has been some progress there as well.

How might that have helped in the most recent tragedy? Here's an excerpt from an e-mail that Prof. [Matthew] Fraidin of UDC Law School sent yesterday to Petula Dvorak [The Post's reporter who's been covering the Bowman case]:

"Petula, don't you want to open up the court's file of the adoption cases to see what is in there? Don't you want to listen to the tape of the adoption proceedings, or read a transcript? The neglect case files of the children would tell you when Ms. Bowman entered the children's lives, what their condition was when they went to live with her, whether the social worker and GAL and judge really gave Ms. Bowman any scrutiny: did the s/w or GAL visit the children regularly before the adoptions were granted? CFSA (and the Board of Child Care, the private agency that licensed Ms. Bowman) have files, too, showing what Ms. Bowman told them, whether they checked it out, how well they knew her, whether they watched her with the children, whether they wondered why her employment ended in 2000, whether they explored her bankruptcy filings in 2000 and 2001. Etc., etc. and so on and so forth.

There is a WORLD of information in the court files and in CFSA's files, and a puzzle in there that, if put together thoughtfully, could save children's lives. What happened? How? Why? Were there shortcuts? What assumptions were made? What pressures were the social worker and GAL (who probably was carrying 75 to 100 cases at the time) under? ..."

In New York State, Family Courts were opened by order of Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. No one has made the case better. Said Judge Kaye: "Sunshine is good for children."

Isn't it time to demand that the courts in D.C. let the sunshine in?

2008 Oct 5