In 2004 first mother Cindy Jordan killed herself after the woman who adopted her child, psychologist Susan Burns, wrote a book on how she and her husband Scott, had conned Jordan into giving up her child with false
promises of openness.
Jordan left behind two teenage sons. Her story lives on in the Internet in blogs and Burns' book, Fast Track Adoption: The Faster, Safer Way to Privately Adopt a Baby, continues on Amazon. It tells others how to engage a mother's trust and then manipulate, deceive, and trick her into giving up her child. Judging by their favorable comments on Amazon, some prospective adoptive parents found the book "fantastic" and "priceless" as well as "recommended by our attorney." In fairness, a few people noted their disgust with her tactics, calling it "horrifying." Whether or not those who wish to adopt read books like Burns', they are coached by adoption practitioners on how to charm mothers-to-be including being given samples of "Dear Birthmother" letters,
webpages, and Burns' book.
Promises of continuing contact are a core part of adoption today. Spurred by a declining availability of infants, as well as a recognition that adoptees and their original parents need to know each other, the industry has glommed onto open adoption. The Gladney Center for Adoption, perhaps the premier non-religious agency today, assures pregnant women on its website:
"The face of adoption looks much different now than it did in previous generations. Adoption today gives pregnant women the opportunity to create their own unique adoption plan. You will be able to hand-pick your adoptive family, talk with them, meet them, and correspond with them through letters and pictures allowing you to stay connected as your child grows. You can develop your own desired plan with support from your counselor."American Adoptions tells mothers-to-be:
"Today's adoptions are very different than those even one generation ago, let alone those in the 1950's or 1960's. Gone are the days when a birth mother simply handed her baby over to an adoptive family, never to see or hear from them again--and never knowing how her child grew up or knowing how much her child was loved.
"...Birth mothers not only choose adoption, but they also choose the life they imagine for their baby. From family pets and holiday traditions to values and education, a birth mother chooses a family for her baby that fits all of the hopes and dreams she has for her child."Once the adoption takes place, however, reality rears its ugly head. The fact is that mothers have no control over how her child is raised once they sign the papers and their baby goes into another woman's arms. The pets may have been a ploy, the family traditions may include dancing nude around a maypole, the upbringing and values instilled may turn out to be totally at odds with yours. The adoptive family can divorce, become alcoholic, be abusive, or find that ultimately, the child is a not a good "psychological" fit and treat him or her like an outsider. We have heard of stories when the mother dies, the father remarries, and the new wife does not agree to be more than a legal entity to the child that is not her husband's offspring. Thus begins a life of boarding school and summer sleep-away camps. It happens.
If you read the websites of adoption agencies carefully, you'll see the scope of openness that Gladney and American Adoption promise is limited. Gladney refers only to letters and pictures after the adoption. American Adoptions restricts contact to pictures and letters, supervised phone calls/Skype, regulated Social Media/email, and visits which American Adoptions claims "are the least common form of contact."
READ THE FINE PRINT AND GET IT IN WRITING
Mothers-to-be are often unaware that until they sign their names they are in the driver's seat. They have something the other party wants, and they can dictate the terms of the contract: This is their baby they are negotiating over. However, agency language often begins to instill the idea that the mother's baby already belongs to those adopting, and television shows such as I'm Having Their Baby only implement that idea further. But mothers-to-be considering adoption do have a lot of power--but they must exert it before they sign anything. They can and should negotiate the amount and kind of contact permitted. They should do everything possible to assure that the document they sign in legally enforceable.
But after they sign, first mothers lose the power of negotiation. It's over. They are now locked into an agreement which may not even be enforceable. Adoption agency social workers--whose salaries are, after all, paid by the adoptive parents--usually negotiate the open adoption or, as it is also called, "continuing contact agreement." Mothers who may be so distraught at the time trust the social worker. Dawn, the Bethany social worker who arranged the adoption of Sixteen and Pregnant's Catelynn and Tyler, told them that if they had wanted visits in addition to pictures and letters, they should have asked for "a fully open adoption," which of course they didn't know they could have. We have a vivid memory of the moment in the show when Catelynn's absorbs exactly what Dawn meant. Catelynn's face crumbles. We could feel her pain. But it was too late.
Catelynn is not the only person this has happened to. Adoption agencies and the people who work for them are basically doing a deal, and there are more prospective adoptive parents who want less, rather than more, connection with the first mother after the adoption. It is often in the agencies best interest to not inform women they can ask for more; consequently, they may accept far less than they can get. As we know from the heart-breaking stories that we have heard, prospective adoptive parents may agree to contact only to get the baby. What they promise at the time is not what they deliver later. The Donaldson Adoption Institute found that "women who have the highest grief levels are those who placed their children with the understanding that they would have ongoing information, but the arrangement was cut off." There is a Facebook page called "Mothers of Open Adoption Fraud."
MANY STORIES OF 'OPEN' ADOPTIONS THAT CLOSE
We recall a mother who surrendered her son through LDS Family Services. They agency offered her its standard agreement: letters and pictures sent through the agency once a month for the first year and on the child's second and third birthdays; after that it was up to the parties. The mother, who had met those nice people who were going to adopt her baby, was confident that they would agree to further contact after her son turned three. No deal. On her son's third birthday letter, the adoptive parents wrote that there would be no more contact.
Another first mother we met had an agreement that allowed three visits a year. She visited her son for the first three Saturdays after he went to the adoptive parents' home. She naively assumed that the Saturday visits would continue. At the third visit, the adoptive parents said, "We'll see you next year." She was devastated. Another mother had bedside visits from the prospective adoptive parents who eagerly promised all kinds of contact when she was wavering about relinquishing her child. Since they were so earnest and she now began to feel guilty about how heart-broken they would be if she changed her mind, she reluctantly agreed. The arrangement ended within a short time. When the child turned 18, the mother was able to find him, but he wanted nothing to do with her. He had been raised to think she had abandoned him. She was devastated.
Even if mothers have their own representation, usually an attorney, they may not be made aware of how much latitude they have over the contact agreement. Attorneys may view their role as simply to explain the documents prepared by the attorney for the prospective adoptive parents, rather than negotiate in the best interests of their real client, the first mother. Typically, the attorney for the birth mother's fee is being paid by the adoptive parents. Some states permit the same attorney to represent both the prospective adoptive parents and the mother-to-be.
Furthermore, the mothers trust the people who want to adopt their baby--in way, they have to. They do not want to antagonize them by insisting on more than what is offered. As the baby's birth draws near, mothers may fear those nice people they have chosen from pictures and actually met will lose interest in their baby. Since they haven't made other plans, the mothers-to-be feel pressured to accept whatever is offered.
Open adoption agreements may leave out critical provisions such as how visits can be arranged if one party moves to a distant state. In some cases, geographical distance is deliberate. Agencies and attorneys encourage people to seek children from mothers who live far away and offer mothers-to-be only profiles of distant couples to reduce the likelihood of unwanted visits. Agreements may not include visits by extended family members; they may allow adoptive parents to curtail visits if mothers show up late. Some agreements include the cruel provision that if the mother contests the adoption on any grounds, or the agreement, the whole agreement is void.
SOME AGENCIES HANDLE ONLY FULLY OPEN ADOPTIONS
It's important to point out that agencies vary widely in their approach to open adoption. Some have made openness a core part of their program. In Portland where Jane lives, Catholic Charities only does fully open adoptions. Open Adoption and Family Services considers visits essential. "By working with OA&FS, you are choosing an open adoption philosophy that supports your enduring role in your child's life....These families are working with OA&FS because they want an open, genuine ongoing relationship with you....In creating your open adoption agreement, you choose the number of visits you want per year. Our contracts last until your child is an adult." Since there are no web-based exchanges like those in the Health Care Act which would allow mothers to comparison shop, it may be only the role of the dice that brings mothers-to-be to these agencies rather than those who use openness as a ploy to get mothers-to-sign up. The Internet does make it possible for mothers-to-be to search out such progressive agencies, but how does that affect the fourteen-year-old in Appalachia who does not have Internet at home and knows nothing about what to look for? She barely comprehends what is happening to her. Google searches often result in the most restrictive adoption agencies showing up first.
Only about half the states have laws which recognize open-adoption agreements and provide for their enforcement.* Oregon's statute permitting open adoptions, referred to as continuing contact agreements, is typical. Judges can refuse to approve the open adoption agreement, however, and order the adoption without the agreement. But failure of the adoptive parents to abide by the agreement does not nullify the adoption.
If the adoptive parents do not comply with the agreement, first mothers must seek mediation, usually through the adoption agency. If mediation doesn't work, they must then hire an attorney to go to court to enforce the agreement. The judge can refuse to do so; he many decide not enforcing it in the best interests of the child. Judges are people first, and bring to the bench their feelings just like the rest of us. The judge can also modify the agreement, if he finds exceptional circumstances since the parties entered into the agreement. In other words, the adoptive parents may try to smear the mother in order to convince the judge not to enforce the agreement.
FIRST MOTHERS OPT OUT TOO
Yet the open-adoption failure is not all one way. Sometimes first mothers fail to comply with the continuing contact agreement--much to the dismay of the adoptive parents. Adoptive parents have told us how much the children look forward to visits from their other mother, only to be disappointed time and again. They are sad because they see the children's distress; they want the children to grow up healthy and feeling loved. They are aware of how much damage a first mother's rejection or disinterest is likely to cause. Some of these mothers simply find it to painful to visit; they may think of the contact agreement only as a benefit for them, which they can comply with or not, unaware of how important it is to their child.
Open adoptions came about because of events in the early 1970's: The search movement documented that both adoptees and natural mothers suffered from adoption itself, and the media picked up on the story. Adoptees need to know their origins; and mothers found the grieving for their lost children was endless. Legalization of abortion, better birth control, acceptance of single mothers, and better sex education drastically reduced the supply of adoptable babies. Because of the adoption reform movement, some mothers began demanding open adoptions; some forward-thinking social workers began doing them--in California Wisconsin, and Michigan. The movement spread. Agency heads saw that they had to change to remain in business.
Yet while openness improves adoption, it does not fix it. Mothers learn after their baby is born and gone that openness reduces the pain of separation, but never ends it. Most mothers, even those who pride themselves for giving their child "a better life," still suffer lifelong grief, even though it may be less than those who relinquished our children in a closed adoption. And what is promised in a bedside "chat" with people who want your baby may turn out to be only dreams.--jane and lorraine
Gladney Center for Adoption
American Adoptions: You Are Not giving Up By Choosing Adoption
American Adoptions: Open Adoption with the Family and Your Child
Catholic Charities: Pregnancy Support and Adoption Services
Open Adoption & Family Services
Oregon Continuing Contact Law, ORS 109.305
Dr. Susan Burns
Suicide of a Birthmother
*See Child Welfare Information Gateway, "Post Adoption Contact Agreements Between Birth and Adoptive Families" for a summary of state laws current through May, 2011.
Susan Smith, Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birth Parents
Are Open Adoptions a Boon for Birth Mothers or a Scam?
When an agency promises 'semi-open' adoption, look elsewhere
Today's new mantra: My Baby, Not my Child
An adoptive mother asks "How can adoption be less horrific on first mothers?"
Catelynn & Tyler's open adoption will stay open; for other first mothers, not so much
The Worst Adoption Agency in the World: Gladney
This is the last in a series on how the adoption industry convinces vulnerable to give up their children. Others in the series are How money rules infant adoption posted December 1; How the adoption industry convinces women they aren't 'ready to parent' posted on December 15; Is giving up a child for adoption a 'loving' decision? posted December 20 and Fathers: Are They Necessary posted January 17.
BOOKS WE LIKE
Lost Daughters: Writing Adoption From a Place of Empowerment and Peace
"...a tough book for mothers who relinquished because whatever we may have told ourselves about the “good” reasons to let our children be adopted, these poignant and sad essays belie that with the sheer force of a body blow.--from Lorraine's review
The Stork Market: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry
by Mirah Ribin
"a must read, for anyone touched by adoption. It is an informative, well-documented and fascinating expose of the many abuses permeating a muti-billion dollar, unregulated adoption industry. Written in a crusading, investigative reporting style, The Stork Market is a courageous book. It will please many in the adoption world, but is sure to threaten others - especially those who profit from the lucrative business of adoption."--Child psychologist David Kirschner at Amazon.