Mother’s Day evokes handmade cards from grade school kids to their moms, flowery cards to new moms, and loving cards for years of devotion to mothers from their adult children. For mothers who grapple with substance use the desire to do right by their children is complicated by the weight of addiction, which can tear families apart.
Making a documentary about a treatment program that helps mothers with substance use disorders keep their children is important to filmmaker, Sheila Ganz. In 1969, Ganz was an unwed mother. She became pregnant as the result of being raped. Her parents wanted her to go into a home for unwed mothers in Boston. Ganz didn’t want to go there. So she got a job, saved her money, bought a car and headed out for Los Angeles. She totaled her car just east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was pinned under the car with a fractured pelvis at five months pregnant. After being in the hospital, she went into a Booth Memorial Home for Unwed Mothers. Ganz was not given a choice and unwillingly relinquished her newborn daughter for adoption. “Losing my daughter felt like an amputation. I lived for the day when I would find her and tell her I love her.”
Ganz’ first documentary UNLOCKING THE HEART OF ADOPTION explores the lifelong process of adoption for adoptees, first/birthparents and adoptive parents in same race and transracial adoptions with illuminating historical background. www.unlockingtheheart.com.. Ganz found her daughter when she was nineteen. They have met, but don’t have a relationship right now. “There is always hope for the future.”
Ganz always wondered, “Why can’t there be homes to help mothers keep their children?” She searched for a program and was referred to the Center Point, Inc. Women and Children’s Residential Treatment Program in San Rafael, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from where she lives in San Francisco. She met with Dr. Sushma Taylor, President and CEO, and the two Vice Presidents, and told them her idea. They gave her permission to make the documentary.
The six month residential treatment program has 44 beds for the moms and kids up to the age of five. Ganz met with the women. They sat in a circle and shared experiences. She passed around a paper and asked for volunteers.
The documentary ON LIFE’S TERMS: MOTHERS IN RECOVERY follows five women with substance use disorders struggling to transform their lives and regain custody of their children in a gender responsive residential treatment program in San Rafael, California. Their intimate story reveals experiences with domestic violence, prostitution, incarceration and complex inter-generational relations. The film interweaves the women’s three year journey to recovery, self-sufficiency and pride with drug laws that impact mother and child.
Rachel, 22, escaped her abusive boyfriend with her two baby girls. Her father’s methamphetamine use got her started at age 13. Julia, 27, wants to be in recovery to make sure her son doesn’t end up in rehab. Lisa S, 41, from an alcoholic family served time for selling drugs. She petitioned the judge to give birth outside prison walls.
Leslie, 31, charged with online prostitution and drug use strives to regain custody of her daughter. “I think I let so many men put their hands on me, because something in the end was going to be exchanged. I always knew that I was going to get something at the end of this beating regardless if it was great make-up sex, or being paid. A lot of times I was so wrapped up in getting high that it just didn’t phase me, or when I would come down, it was like, oh I deserved it. I shouldn’t have popped off at the mouth. But I realize now that I’m here, I don’t have to do that any more.”
Lisa R, 38, relapsed and is determined to make it for her two daughters. “Being a parent is, I feel, one of the hardest jobs in the world and being a parent in recovery is ten thousand times harder. Because you’re going to be dealing with all the regular dynamics and then you’re also probably going to be dealing with a lot of wreckage issues.”
Casey, Lisa’s eight-year-old daughter lives with her grandmother. “I’m always sad when I have to leave my mother, because I love her so much. She’s as rare as a rose and delicate as my heart.”
Evidence-based treatment programs address underlying co-occurring disorders that can propel vulnerable women and girls to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which can lead to addiction. The healing process begins in a safe environment away from distractions and stereotypical roles. Here the women learn recovery and parenting skills, and start on the road to self-sufficiency. The film traces the women’s challenges and choices leading to the strides they have made with the support and knowledge gained.
Many more families could benefit, yet today in America there are less 150 gender responsive residential treatment programs for substance using pregnant and postpartum mothers with young children.
The Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act currently before Congress includes funding to improve treatment programs for pregnant and postpartum women with substance use disorders. The House will vote in mid-May. http://www.addictionpolicy.org
It’s time to trade stigma and punitive drug laws with compassion and treatment programs for all women seeking help and resources to overcome substance use disorders and care for the children they love. Help the mother. Help the child.
13th Annual Taste of Spring Photo Recap
Last night, The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) proudly celebrated its 13th annual Taste of Spring Food and Wine Benefit at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.
More than 200 influential guests attended DAI’s signature fundraising event including Broadway star Christine Ebersole and her husband Bill Moloney, Tom Canty, vice president and general manager of Empire BlueCross Blue Shield, editor-in-chief of ProPublica Stephen Engelberg, “Fox News” political analyst Ed Rollins, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Amy Seek, author of God and Jetfire. The honorees included Michaela Pereira, adopted person and former anchor of CNN “New Day” and upcoming anchor at CNN’s sister channel HLN later this year, and the family of Michele and Wayne S. DeVeydt.
DAI Chief Executive April Dinwoodie expressed her admiration for all the generous support among the community, DAI’s dedicated mission to building strong families and strong communities and how Taste of Spring was much more than a fundraiser.
Guests made memories and extended their family and community over savory snacks and sips from celebrity chefs and purveyors including Zarela Martinez, Landmarc, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, Laughing Man Coffee and Tea, Lucy’s Whey and students in Graham Windham’s Culinary Arts Program.
Thanks to all our partners and participants who helped make our 13th annual Taste of Spring so successful.
Position: Youth Programs Supervisor at FosterAdopt Connect
Years of Service: 8 years
Educational Background: BA in Social Psychology from Park University
As a change agent and former foster youth adopted at 13 years old, Nathan began using his own personal experiences when he was 18 to help resource parents and child welfare professionals better engage and support young people who have suffered from trauma. Nathan currently works as the youth programs supervisor at FosterAdopt Connect where he diligently works with former and current foster youth on crafting their stories and advocating for positive systemic changes within the child welfare system. In his Adoption Experience video, Nathan shares his frustration related to redacted and missing information in his birth file and the importance of the union of birth and adoptive families.
Nathan: “I think there’s still this tug between if ‘I let my kid go back to birth family, reconnect with any birth family,’ ‘they’ll leave me’ or ‘it means that they don’t love me.’ And I don’t think that’s the case. Whatever you do, we as your family, adoptive or first family are going to be there for you.”
Click here to read profiles of the other panelists from the Let’s Adopt Reform tour.
Since last November, The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) has traveled around the U.S. to educate and raise awareness about vital issues that impact the adoption and foster care adoption experiences. Through these critical conversations at our Town Hall meetings in New York, Dallas, San Francisco and Chicago, we have heard from many voices and learned so much.
Our panel of experts and community members participated in each Town Hall to provide overview and commentary on many of the pressing issues that have impacted our community for years. They also sought to provide guidance and insight surrounding what has worked well, what needs to be changed and where we all go from here. In sharing both their personal and professional expertise, our panelists ignited a powerful conversation and created an environment in which many voices could participate to become a part of the solution.
We heard from:
Nathan Ross, a former foster youth adopted at 13 years old, began using his own personal experiences as young adult to help resource parents and child welfare professionals better engage and support young people who have suffered from trauma. Nathan shares here how he knew much about his biological family as he entered the foster care system at age ten, yet when he requested his records at age 21, much was redacted. Nathan insightfully shares that he “would like to see more of a connection between birth/first families and adoptive families. I think there is still this tug….but I think whatever you do, we as your family, adoptive or first family, are going to be there for you.”
Gabriel Blau, adoptive parent and nationally acclaimed advocate for LGBTQ families and their communities, considers himself “a dad fighting for all dads.” He has sought with other advocates to reframe the notion of family values through policy, community engagement and public education. Gabriel poignantly shares that “marriage equality has made it possible for many more couples to adopt as couples and as a family unit; we need to eliminate discrimination in the adoption system across the board; we need to put the best interest of children first not the religious beliefs of adults who are working the system.”
Steve Kalb is an adopted person and adoption professional with more than a decade of experience providing training for adoption professionals and adoptive parents on the value and importance of the adoptee voice. He is a strong advocate for a more balanced adoption discourse. Steve thoughtfully shares that he “would like to see the adoptee community become more politically active; I think as adoptees are coming of age right now and beginning to gain a little bit of political traction, we are starting to see the benefits of what concerted effort can do around a number of causes.”
Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao is an adopted person and internationally recognized clinician and thought leader on extensive areas of the adoption experience. She is the founder and CEO of the Center for Family Connections and has worked closely with individuals and families created by adoption, foster care and other complex blended family constructions. Dr. Pavao is a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and has consulted for many of the systems interconnected in the adoption and foster care adoption experiences. Joyce powerfully observes that “Adoption should be about finding families for children, not about finding children for families; I think slowly that’s happening because people are understanding that many children who are available for adoption would not be available if people took the time to really find their extended families and people who could care for them within their own community.”
Leslie Pate Mackinnon is a first/birth mother who has extensive clinical experience providing services to individuals, families and groups who are connected to the adoption experience in different ways. Leslie quips that her passion is to educate as many therapists and professionals about the adoption experience “before she drops” and she has been involved in adoption education and reform for many years. She is an international speaker on many of the complex issues that impact today’s modern family. Leslie shares of the pain involved in her own adoption experience and advocates for systemic changes. “What many people don’t understand when talking to birth parents is when you place a child, you’ve lost a child; one of the reasons I believe in national standards are trying to change the counseling expectant parents get because they really do experience a lot of coercion; it’s very subtle and it’s changed over the years but I think that anybody that is coerced to do something, that just ups the regret level they are going to feel for their entire life; if they are making the choice themselves, that gives them a different outcome.”
Last month, several media outlets revealed the story of an adopted person in Iowa who had petitioned the Iowa courts to release the names of her biological parents based on medical need. Reportedly, she had struggled with alcoholism and mental health issues for several years, and her treatment providers believed that access to her full information would assist her recovery.
This woman’s petition traveled through the lower courts, arriving at the Iowa Supreme Court, where the justices unanimously decided that this woman’s mental health needs did not warrant releasing the identities of her biological parents. Many of the same tired arguments appeared in narratives about this case, such as the lifelong anonymity guaranteed to biological parents when they relinquished their parental rights to adoption, as well as the assumption of harm that may befall biological parents should their identities be revealed without their permission.
The majority of states continue to deny adopted persons the right to access their original information. Because of this, adopted persons may turn to the court system for relief; however, they are frequently denied access by the courts even when medical need is documented. The reasons for court denial can range from being “too sick” or “not sick enough” for the information to make a difference.
In the Iowa decision, it appears that the judgment was based in part on the perception that there was no assurance the adopted person would actually be able to overcome her mental health problems if she were granted access to her own information. This person wasn’t even given a chance to try and work through the difficulties that understandably result when a person is forced to journey along life’s circuitous path without basic navigation tools.
The truth is that no person should have to be “too sick” or “not sick enough” to access their own vital information. And surely we’re past the debate surrounding whether or not this information makes a difference for an individual’s emotional and mental health. The research is clear that it does and personal experience also supports this truth, regardless of whether or not someone is adopted.
We all want to know our full story; this is a human need not an adoption need. What’s needed in adoption is to view those of us most closely connected to this experience through this human lens. When we do so, we will see that the desire to know all parts of what makes us who we are is universal, transcending the circumstances surrounding one’s birth. This is not a need that can be diminished by asserting the rights of one over the rights of another. The birth experience is equally shared between parents and child; each has an equal right to full knowledge of this primal human experience.
What’s also needed in adoption is for those of us most closely connected to this experience to continue to engage in meaningful dialogue within and outside our community to combat misperceptions and ensure humanity in policies and practices that impact our communities. At The Donaldson Adoption Institute, we are preparing for the final stop of our Let’s Adopt Reform National Tour in Chicago, Illinois on April 28th. When we first started out on this journey last November in New York City, some people expressed that they were tired of having the same conversations about adoption repeatedly with little change in certain critical areas, such as access to original information for adopted persons. The court decision in Iowa is certainly reflective of antiquated perspectives that contradict all we know about best practices and lived experiences in adoption. As we continued our four-city tour throughout the United States, we saw that people had plenty to say, and that the conversation does help us move forward and realize the necessary steps for movement in the adoption and foster care adoption experiences.
We must continue this conversation and envision new and innovative ways to communicate the adoption experience in order to ensure vital changes in policy and practice. It’s daunting, yet, necessary. Please join us in Chicago where we will continue to ignite a new dialogue about adoption in the 21st Century until decisions like those we saw in Iowa become obsolete in the wake of every state allowing adopted persons to access their original information without restriction.