Presented April 24, 1991
Open Adoption as Standard Practice Conference
Traverse City, MI
From the moment I received Jim’s invitation to speak to you, I’ve pondered over various issues that I felt were important to share. I know that within a day or two of this conference, no one will remember much of what has been said, but since I never know when I might be making my last speech for adoption reform, it is always my hope and prayer that each person present will recall at least one point that will provide them with a new and fresh perspective.
Today I want to draw analogies from two historical events, which began during the 50’s and early 60’s - the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War. Though both these events are forever written in our minds, as well as our history books, the adoption reform movement has been slower to take hold or to gain the momentum needed for real reform. But the adoption reform movement also began in the 50’s. As many of you know, it was Jean Paton - a 42 year old adoptee - former social worker, who finally broke the silence and wrote a book by the same title. Just like John the Baptist, she was a lone voice crying in the wilderness for many, many years. Now in her 80’s, she continues the struggle she began back in 1953. It was not until the early 70’s that the mantle she carried so high was finally picked up by new runners who, out of their own pain, began to forge a new kind of adoption.
I am going to take the liberty today to speak on behalf of white middle class birthmothers. Why? Because I was one and because I believe most of the millions of babies placed for adoption during the last four decades were from white, middle-class families. It is we who can probably best relate to sitting in the back of the bus. You see, we were sent to the backroads of America and placed in homes for the degraded - where our names were changed, the rules were strict, and we were taught what our place was - a lowly and lonely place - one of punishment and pain for the unpardonable act we had committed. The crime? Being an unwed mother! The penalty? Losing our child to adoption forever. Like the blacks in the 50’s, we were relegated to the back of the bus. We did as we were told; we obeyed the rules and believed we had no choice; that's 'just the way it was.' We did what we had to do - we "surrendered." We paid the ultimate price. We gave up our babies.
With the cleansing process complete, we were told to go on with our lives; within a few short years 25% of us had married the birthfather and had other children - full siblings to the child we surrendered; another 25% of us never had any other children, either by choice or because we were unable to conceive - we gave our only child to an infertile couple and we remained forever childless - we may have been the ones to make the greatest sacrifice; many of us were encouraged to go on to college to get our Masters’ and PhD’s - and as Elizabeth, a birthmother form Philadelphia so aptly stated, "It didn’t take me long to realize that I had traded my child for a piece of paper, and that I had been duped into believing that my degree was more important."
You look at those of us who are angry and you have difficulty understanding why. You remind us that it was our decision, but you forget that there were no other choices. You told us we would be doing a wonderful, sacrificial deed, but neglected to tell us that we’d hurt for the rest of our lives. Maybe you just didn’t know any better. Maybe you, too, were simply pawns in this scenario called adoption. We were told it was in our and our child best interest- and then some of us found that our children did not fare nearly as well as we had been promised. Even those who did fare well still have a deep desire and longing to know us - their birthparents, but now these adult children of adoption are told that it’s NOT in their best interest to know us. And you made sure that they never would! You, the child welfare system sealed the records and even today most of you will do nothing toward helping to unseal them. And so we adoptees, birthparents and some concerned adoptive parents have joined forces as we seek to reclaim our lost rights.
While we cannot possibly change the events of the past, we can at least try to right the wrongs that were done. We can remold the future so that no adoptee will ever had to wonder from whence they came - no birthparent will have to wonder if they child is alive or well - and no adoptive parent will need to fear the special person who gave them the opportunity to raise a child.
That is what this conference is about. An open, honest approach to adoption. Is this open adoption we keep talking about a new concept? No, not really. In the early part of this century, we knew it by a different name - it was called guardianship. Guardians were those special people who took over as caretakers for families who were struggling financially and/or emotionally from the war-torn depression years. Not too much different from today. The have and the have nots. The major difference was that guardianship never denoted ownership. There was no such thing as an amended birth certificate, a final decree, or the need for a "facilitator." It was just simply people helping people. Idealistic you say? Maybe, but since it was indeed possible then, why not now?
Since we’ve come this far, why don’t we agree to go one step further; why don’t we agree to redirect the millions of $ now being spent on the foster care system and expend it for the preservation of the natural family. Imagine how many families could remain together if those funds were used to teach parenting skills, provide programs to help increase a family’s standard of living, etc. The trauma of separation form one’s family of origin is, I believe one the most agonizing traumas we suffer as human beings. It affects us for our entire lives. The statistics have proved over and over that our jails, our mental health facilities, and our treatment centers are filled with those who become separated from their family of origin at an early age.
The most startling statistic of all is that 7 out of 10 mass/serial murderers over the past 20 years were adopted. By removing children from their original families, we have added to these alarming statistics. Many adoptees and foster children are filled with rage. Louise Armstrong, author of Solomon Says, states "Today’s foster children are tomorrow adults. They are our future - enraged, alienated, desperate young wards of a system that offer to ‘help’ mothers by taking away their children…"
It makes me wonder what will become of little Wesley who got caught up in the system and lost his entire extended family a year and a half ago. Let me tell you briefly what happened. I received a call from man in his early 30’s asking if we had taken his nephew? We had no idea what he was talking about and so we asked him to explain. He said he hadn’t seen his nephew for a few weeks and suspected that his sister had given her 5 year old son for adoption through us. We immediately assured him that it was not us, since we reunite families - not separate them. We suggested a few agencies in the area for him to call.
Within a short period of time, he was able to establish that CHS, one of our local agencies, did take a surrender from his sister on October 17, 1989. On October 30th, (less than two weeks from the time the surrender was taken), Wesley’s Uncle Dave, his Aunt Gale, his Uncle Jimmy, his grandparents from Illinois, and three close friends of the family wrote to the agency requesting custody of little Wesley. The agency outright refused claiming they had already placed him for adoption, had a valid consent from the birthmother, and there was nothing that could be done.
We question the MORALITY of an agency accepting a child for adoption to be placed in a stranger-home when there were family members willing and able to raise this little boy. The family did not have the money to fight, and we tried every attorney in the county, but could not find one to take the case - or to even talk about it! The director of the agency has strong political connections in the community which was undoubtedly the reason.
My contention is this. We don’t take a child just from a mother; we take a child from an entire family system - the root system - and unless we make a sincere effort to find someone in that family to help out, we are guilty of kidnapping. Yes, there was a surrender, but this very distraught birthmother believed she was signing a paper for foster care - and she was not the only person to be considered. This little boy had an entire extended family who cared about him! Why weren’t they contacted? Is it because the agency wouldn’t have gotten their fee if they put their efforts toward keeping him within the family unit? Let’s call a spade a spade - the price on Wesley’s head was approximately $5,000! Similar cases occur throughout our country on a daily basis.
My heart continues to ache for little Wesley. I think about him often and wonder how the social worker who took the fraudulent surrender can sleep at night. How long does a small boy wait for a familiar looking face to come and get him? How much anger builds up within a child who has suddenly lost contact with every single person he has ever knows? Think of it! Every single human being you have ever known is suddenly gone out of your life! What an atrocity! Is this really ‘in the best interest’ of the child? And when he’s 18 and wants to know who is family is - what will be tell him then? Sorry, Wesley, but your records are sealed and they are sealed forever! You have no right to know! It’s then that he realizes that he has no control, not now or ever, over this most important aspect of his life - his genetic connection - his entire history has been stolen and sealed.
Is it this built-up anger that one day explodes and causes the deaths of innocent people. What are the chances that this little guy might become a Son of Sam - A Hillside or Boston Strangle, a Joseph Kalliger, Arthur Good, Ken Bianchi, Albert DeSalvo, David Berkowitz, all adopted and filled with rage. Is there any connection? Is it nature or nurture that causes these heinous acts? Listen my friend - I don’t believe it’s genes or environment that sets the stage for criminal acts, but I do believe that the repressed anger that results from the trauma of separation is the most toxic emotion known to man. And I believe the sooner we recognize this fact and decide that we’re not going to be a part to it anymore, the better off our society will be.
Traditional, closed, sealed, adoption has got to stop. Too many lives have been devastated in its wake. No longer should we be taking babies from others or children from parents simply because they are too young or too poor. Somehow we need to find new programs that will prevent this terrible loss from ever occurring in the first place. As Hal Aigner author of Adoption In American says - "Healing is wonderful, but the better path is not to contract the disease."
Now that Open Adoption is becoming recognized and accepted, we need to proceed with caution - we need to be careful that it doesn’t become just another avenue for us to support our chosen profession. How much better to put our energies into family preservation. Prior to records being sealed, the main focus and original purpose of child welfare was to preserve families. But once the sealed record was in place, the number of private placement agencies and fees increased tremendously. What exactly was adoption originally intended for - what was its purpose? The purpose and intent of adoption was to provide a means to care for children who were truly orphans - orphans were children who had NO families. It is time that we as professional leaders made a commitment to keeping families intact - open adoption is a beginning, but it’s just that - a beginning.
In closing a little parable to strike home the point. As Jesus was making his way through the hills of Galilee, there were a group of men who decided they would try to trick him. One had captured a small bird which fit right in the palm of his hand. The plan was to ask Jesus if the bird was dead or alive. If He said the bird was alive, then the man would crush it and kill it, but if He said it was dead, the man would open his hand and let the little bird fly away. They asked "Master, is the bird I hold in my hand dead or alive?" Without a moments hesitation, Jesus replied "My friend, that decision is in your hands!"
Friends, the face of adoption is constantly changing. Most of the changes appear to be good. Since the social work profession has always controlled and structured the child welfare institution - and because they are so many of you here today - I submit to you that open adoption, guardianship and family preservation are in your hands. It is my sincere hope that you will let them live.copyright 1991 Sandy Musser