Identity in Adoption, a Right Not a Privilege

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune captures the moving story of a reunion between an 83-year-old adopted woman and her biological mother just weeks before her 100th birthday. Poignant adoption search and reunion stories are common in today’s news feeds, yet there is something about a connection made in this way, especially in the twilight of one’s life, that must capture our attention in a different way.

We can never know the reasons that compel an adopted person or their biological family to search for one another or the reasons individuals may choose not to. However, the policies that guide the basic aspects of adoption make it difficult for those that wish to search, as vital information is typically withheld from adopted persons, their biological parents and adoptive parents. Antiquated views also continue to plague adoption and can be just as obstructive as the laws that seal records.

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Although much of the secrecy and stigma that has impacted adoption is diminishing, there are still perceptions that reflect earlier stereotypes, combined with general misunderstandings and sometimes even willful ignorance about the realities of adoption. According to public opinion research recently conducted by The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI), Americans admit to knowing very little about adoption. Even those who believe they understand adoption only scored a C- on a basic quiz.

The ignorance and misperceptions surrounding adoption makes it difficult to influence necessary changes in policy and practice that support those those closest to this experience. The openness that is part of nearly 95% of adoptions today occurs in stark contrast to a policy system that continues to seal vital information from members of the adoption community. Being deprived of this information has a significant impact on their identity development. Although we cannot always quantify this, we know that many adopted persons, and their biological parents, often struggle to believe they are truly entitled to know all parts of themselves and to attempt relationships with one another. This struggle can reflect the misperceptions that abound in adoption, impacting people so that something as basic as knowing who members of your family are starts to feel like a privilege instead of a right.

We must concern ourselves with the message these outmoded policies send, how they shape identities, and how human lives are diminished when we convey that adopted people and their biological families are not entitled to know one another. That too is fundamentally an issue of human rights as much as being able to access the paper that authenticates the connection is. When we can meaningfully shift perceptions about the truth of the adoption experience, policy advocacy may prove that much more successful.

In this recent search and reunion story, it appears as though the adopted person had paperwork with her original name on it; at the age of 83, a simple Google search led family to her biological mother. Other people today hold up signs on Facebook, and 500 shares later, are connected to a birth sibling. Some individuals have no identifying information and spend decades searching with mixed results. What is true for all of these situations is that no person should have to wait a lifetime, possibly never knowing, or create a Facebook post, in order to know their truth.

Adoption is a unique journey and our needs in this experience will differ. But our rights should never differ from those who are not adopted. Our humanity is the same and both the laws and perceptions that surround us must start reflecting that.

Losing My Birth Father

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Carmen Hinckley

This guest blog post was written by international adopted person Carmen Hinckley. Carmen lives in Portland, Oregon and graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. If you’re interested in guest blogging for The Donaldson Adoption Institute, please email Chief Executive April Dinwoodie at adinwoodie@adoptioninstitute.org.

Adoptees can experience loss in many forms throughout their lives. One type of loss that is rarely discussed is losing a birth parent to death after the adoptee and birth parent have been reunited. I experienced this type of loss in 2015 when my birth father died. Here is my story.

I was adopted from Brazil as an infant, and shortly after my birth, taken to an orphanage where I lived for 11 weeks before all of the legal paperwork was finished. Then my mother, who adopted me as a single parent, and I were able to come home to the United States. I was told that I was adopted before I could even speak or understand words, so I have always known. Throughout the years, we would periodically search for my birth family. We were told by the orphanage that my birth father was powerful, wealthy and married. Seeking him out would be inappropriate, hurtful and disruptive to an entire family.

I never expected to meet him, but that’s exactly what happened. In 2009, after years of searching, my mother and I visited Brazil and met my birth family. It was the best, most emotional and triumphant day of my life. We were unexpectedly presented with the opportunity to meet my birth father. With our incredible and unstoppable family friends in tow, we headed to a nearby supermarket for this life-changing meeting. We walked into the store and the few minutes we waited seemed like an eternity. When my family friend finally told me he had arrived and I turned around to meet him, it was the most overwhelming, satisfying, yet incredibly strange feeling of coming face-to-face with someone who looked just like me. Our facial features strongly resembled each other and I began to feel like I had answers to questions about my identity that I’d never had before. I remember him as a quiet, soft-spoken, gentle man who was given the most life-altering, shocking news when he was told that I was the daughter he never knew existed. I will feel a lifetime of gratitude towards him for the way in which he carried himself when faced with this news.

After this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I never had the opportunity to communicate with my birth father again. The years passed and I focused on developing a relationship with my birth mother, my half brother from my birth mother’s side, and continuing a relationship with the family friends who accompanied us in Brazil. I knew that my birth father was elderly and that he wouldn’t live forever. I was satisfied knowing that I’d met him and that he knew I existed, especially because I’d never expected to have that opportunity. I thought that would be enough.

Then one night last year, I was sitting at a coffee shop writing my adoption story and I found myself reflecting on an anecdote about my birth father. It had been years since I had searched the Internet for information about him. Little did I know that my adoption story and my world were about to take a massive turn.

I typed his name and the name of the city where I was born into Google. Immediately, multiple news articles popped up. I was excited to suddenly have all of this information at my fingertips, but I needed to translate it first. I clicked “Translate this page” and it began.

One article after another appeared saying that he had died nearly a month earlier at age 90. The entire city had mourned his death. He had been in the hospital for more than two months before dying. My immediate reaction was to find a way to confirm that this was, in fact, my birth father. I did not want to mistake this information if it belonged to someone else. After carefully reading through the information, my heart sunk as I determined that this was, in fact, my birth father. My heart beat quickly and I shut off my computer, gathered my belongings, and left the coffee shop as fast as I could. I never thought I would meet him again after our brief encounter six years ago, but knowing that I had no chance to meet him again in this lifetime felt like the end of an era. Although he was thousands of miles away on another continent, in another world, I was as vulnerable as ever and a tragedy like this could easily find and affect me.

My birth father was married with several children and I was the result of his affair with another woman. His children and wife, to the best of my knowledge, do not know that I exist. And if they do, I have no idea if they would ever have an interest in meeting or getting to know me. This means that much of my Internet searching for them is quite lonely, discovering interesting facts but only knowing them from afar and not being able to ask any questions. Since learning of my birth father’s passing, I have taken advantage of the information I’ve been able to find and have conducted multiple searches for his family members, learning about their careers and their history within the city where I was born. This is an adoptee’s dream come true if they are interested in learning about their birth family. I happen to be biologically related to a well-known family whose information is available on the Internet for me to find, but many adoptees are not nearly as fortunate.

Many adoptees who were adopted domestically do not have the language barrier that I am faced with and can develop deep relationships with their relatives, which I cannot. I have a close relationship with my half brother from my birth mother’s side, but much of this is built on our shared interest in each other and our translated emails. We do not have the luxury of simply communicating in the same language at any time we desire.

I am determined to use my birth father’s death as a positive growing experience and to do this, I am starting a birth parent loss support group to bring together adoptees with this shared experience. My hope is that, in our grief, we can turn to each other for understanding and empathy on a subject not often discussed. I also want to honor my birth father’s memory in this way.

 

Seeking Development Intern

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Development Intern Job Description

About The Donaldson Adoption Institute

Since 1996, The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) has worked to improve the lives of children and families across our country and around the world through research, education and advocacy that has led to better laws, policies and practices. We engage all members of the adoption and foster care adoption communities, including the professionals that serve them. In our 20th year, DAI is committed to reframing the conversations and changing perceptions, inspiring solidarity and advocating for change to ensure the strength of all families.

Internship Description

DAI is seeking a Development Intern to cultivate fundraising efforts, manage the Institute’s donor database, and provide general development and administrative support as needed. This position is an ideal opportunity for an undergraduate student who is interested in nonprofit management, adoption and foster care reform, and supporting strong families.

Responsibilities

  • Organize and maintain donor files in office cabinets
  • Enter key insights and data from development meetings in DAI’s “DAI Influencers” database
  • Prepare detailed reports and action plans on previous and current donors from files
  • Conduct research on potential donors (High Net Worth Individuals, foundations and corporations) and connectors (individuals with access to influential HNIs, foundations and corporations)
  • Research and gather necessary materials for potential grant applications
  • Attend daily staff check-ins and weekly development meetings
  • Assist with mailings, filing and special projects

Qualifications

  • Current student at a college or university in the New York City area
  • Demonstrated passion towards DAI’s mission of building strong families and strong communities
  • Keen interest in nonprofit fundraising
  • Commit to working 12-15 hours per week
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills
  • Be self-motivated, detail-oriented, responsible, flexible, hard-working and ethical
  • Ability to multi-task in a fast-paced environment
  • Proficient in Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint)

Application Instructions

To apply to this internship, please submit a cover letter, resume and one-page writing sample via email with “Development Intern” in the subject line to Heather Schultz at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org. This is an unpaid position with a two-month commitment for July and August 2016. College credit may be available depending on the requirements of your college or university.

 

It’s Time to Support ALL Families in Adoption

Adoption by same-sex couples became legal nationwide when a U.S. judge removed Mississippi’s ban on adoption by same-sex couples in March 2016. Despite this landmark legislation, same-sex couples still face barriers in the foster care and adoption process.

Most recently, Alphonso Reyes, 34, and his husband, Melvin, 41, shared their frustration with NBC OUT on the discrimination they experienced on their long journey to adopt. In 2012 – a year after their Central Park wedding in New York – the first adoption agency that they approached refused to serve them due to their sexual orientation.

“They stated that they did not feel comfortable placing a child in our home – back then a one bedroom – because we were a same sex couple and they didn’t want the child to wake up in the middle of the night and walk into our bedroom out of concern of what the child might see,” Reyes told NBC OUT.

“I will never forget when they told us that. It’s what prompted Melvin and me to find a two bedroom apartment and go to another agency that was more respectful and welcoming of same sex couples,” he added to NBC OUT.

Since February 2016, Alphonso and Melvin have fostered their son and currently are in the pre-adoptive status “where the birth parents’ rights have been revoked and the child is eligible for adoption.” Clearly, more work is necessary to ensure that all couples are supported in the adoption process.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s new report by Dr. David Brodzinsky and Dr. Abbie Goldberg entitled “Practice Guidelines Supporting Open Adoption in Families Headed by Lesbian and Gay Male Parents: Lessons Learned from the Modern Adoptive Families Study” discusses the need for lesbian- and gay male-parent families to work with “gay affirmative’’ adoption professionals who are sensitive and skillful in helping their clients confront homophobic stereotypes and behavior, and support them in building strong family and community relationships.” Competent pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption support fosters successful adoptive family stability and healthy parent-child relationships.

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An individual’s sexual orientation should not hinder his or her eligibility to adopt or foster a child. Every child deserves a loving family, healthy home, and most importantly, legal ties to both parents. When a legal tie only applies to one parent, children and families experience various consequences including financial insecurity, health and safety issues, and psychological harms.

As we celebrate LGBT Pride Month and approach the one-year anniversary of the landmark June 26th Supreme Court decision enacting universal same-sex marriage across the United States, we remain committed to the healthy formation of strong families and strong communities for heterosexual and LGBT couples. Join us as we continue to ignite the conversation on the expansion of the Modern Adoptive Family, challenge perceptions on same-sex parental misconceptions, and offer best practices for working with adoptive families headed by sexual minorities.

New Ways of Uniting Families

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During National Foster Care Month, our awareness is heightened about the needs of children who live with foster families as well as those who are waiting in foster care to be adopted. This year’s theme, “Honoring, Uniting and Celebrating Families,” should inspire all of us to start thinking outside the box about how we can better serve children and families in order to keep them strong. One way to do that is to make sure families have as many supports as they need to stay connected. When we consider these supports, we may find there are untapped resources a lot closer than we think.

Openness in adoption is something we have come to associate predominantly with the private adoption of infants. According to research, we know openness is some part of close to 95% of adoptions today. The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s (DAI) recent public opinion survey also demonstrates that the majority of the public agrees that openness in adoption is beneficial for children. Openness is applicable to all different adoption situations and can benefit everyone, particularly when we consider openness as a way to build relationships between families, with the child as the focus.

Slowly but surely, researchers and practitioners are working to think innovatively about how openness can be a part of the foster care adoption experience. One thing that is important for everyone to remember is that just because a family member is not able to care for a child permanently, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about the child. At the same time, although some family members may not be safe or appropriate to be in contact with the child, there are frequently family members that can stay connected to the foster-adoptive family and the child.

The benefit of these alliances are likely no different than what has been studied about the benefits of openness in private adoption. The unique challenges here though may require both families and professionals to rethink their perceptions about individuals who come into contact with the child welfare system, and instead push themselves to explore what we mean by a family resource in new and different ways. An aunt or grandparent who may have limitations in providing permanent care to a child can still stay connected to the child in other meaningful ways. These individuals can also prove to be a fountain of knowledge about the child and their background that may serve to smooth transitions in foster care in many ways.

What is critical is for the system that transacts these adoptions to make sure they are shifting the focus to encourage this relationship building where safe and appropriate. This may seem like something that is already being done, through family team conferencing and other initiatives that try and make sure all parties are on the same page. Often though, this can prove difficult, in what may seem like competing interests of adults in a complicated and sometimes adversarial system. And certainly we can all agree that our child welfare professionals engage in difficult work, often with limited resources and case planning goals that are overwhelming. However, there is likely a lot to be said for reframing the conversations that need to occur between families (foster, adoptive and biological) in a way that everyone feels as though they are on the same team with one common goal — the well-being of the child.

Innovative thinkers at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) in New York have launched a program to train professionals about how the core concepts of openness in adoption are pertinent to child welfare adoptions. This comprehensive initiative will include trainings at many foster care agencies throughout New York as well as with members of the court. The main focus of the trainings involves encouraging professionals to think critically about how relationships between biological and foster/adoptive parents can serve the well-being of the child in many ways — one of which is in creating permanency that respects and honors the child’s connection to their history. Although there will be nuances based on each unique family strengths and challenges, there is still a place for openness and a need for relationship building in all types of adoptions.

DAI Chief Executive April Dinwoodie delivers the keynote presentation at “Exploring Open Adoption: A Forum about the Benefits and Realities,” hosted by the NYC Administration of Children Services and Fostering Change for Children on May 10, 2016.

DAI is excited to participate in this new initiative with ACS and Fostering Change for Children in New York and we applaud their efforts to challenge themselves and create programs that incorporate tried and true concepts in novel ways. All children who come to adoption, whether as an older child through foster care or a as a newborn, have a family they were born to. This family will always be a part of the child’s identity and so they play a valuable and needed role in any planning on behalf of the child.

The inspiring panel of “Exploring Open Adoption: A Forum about the Benefits and Realities” on May 10, 2016.

The inspiring panel behind “Exploring Open Adoption: A Forum about the Benefits and Realities” on May 10, 2016.

With so many children needing stability as they navigate the foster care system, there is a critical need to develop pioneering solutions that consider the lifelong journey of adoption for all people involved. This National Foster Care month, and throughout the year, we should all challenge ourselves to be sure that we are always honoring, celebrating and uniting families in our efforts on behalf of children. Strong children build strong communities and strong communities make a better world for all of us.