' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: December 2009
Join Lorraine in Indianapolis! She will be opening the IAN conference on Friday morning. See details on sidebar.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Surrogate Mother Wins Right to Sue for Custody; Police Chief Sentenced for Stealing Surrogate Items

In the world of convoluted conception, complications are setting in like labor pains--they are not going away anytime soon. On the heels of yesterday's post about a biological mother going underground with her daughter rather than sharing the girl as court ordered with her former gay partner and legal parent, today there's another surrogacy custody fight heading for the courts in the spring. 

A New Jersey judge has ruled that a surrogate mother who bore twin girls not conceived with her ova is the legal mother of the children and has the right to seek primary custody of them at trial in the spring. The woman, Angelia G. Robinson of Jersey City, agreed to bear the children for her brother, Donald Robinson Hollingsworth, and his male spouse, Sean Hollingsworth, using Sean's--not her brother's--sperm. After the girls were born in October, 2006 they went to live with the men, but within six months, in March 2007, Robinson sought custody, alleging that she had been coerced into the arrangement. Since then she has been taking care of the girls three days a week.

Judge Francis B. Schultz of Superior Court relied heavily on precedent established by the New Jersey Superior Court in the infamous 1987-88 case of  Baby M, in which a surrogate mother, Mary Beth Whitehead, carried her own genetic child for another couple, Elizabeth and William Stern, after being artificially inseminated with Stern's sperm. After she gave birth Whitehead breast-fed the baby and decided she could not give her up. In the end, in a legally complicated and convoluted decision, the Sterns were granted custody, but the court ruled that Whitehead's maternal rights could not be terminated against her will, that surrogacy contracts were against public policy. Whitehead was eventually able to win visitation rights, and though I can't find them on the net today, I remember reading at least one story several years later when the girl was visiting Whitehead and her two half-siblings at her home.

At the time, both the adoption and adoption-reform community were deeply involved in the ongoing saga that generated nearly as many stories in the media as a certain famous golfer with a predilection for promiscuity did recently. Though adoption-reform community came down heavily in favor of giving Whitehead custody of her daughter, most of the rest of the media titled toward the Sterns. Working-class Whitehead was portrayed as a somewhat pathetic creature--she was unstable because she changed her mind about giving up her daughter--and the expert testimony at trial was heavily weighted in favor of the upstanding middle class couple, the Sterns. For having agreed to be a surrogate in the first place, for not being of the solid middle class background of the Sterns (Elizabeth (Betsy) Stern was a doctor), for having the temerity to change her mind about giving up her baby, Whitehead was pilloried in the press. However, there were exceptions.

We note that one of our friends, Michelle Harrison, now an adoptive mother to many in India--not from, but IN India--wrote in Perspectives that the testimony of experts was heavily "imbued with prevailing middle-class beliefs about good mothers and good parenting." Which of course would exclude many first/birth mothers--then, and today--from being considered suitable mothers. The New York Times ran an editorial, "There Is Nothing Surrogate about the Pain," that condemned the trial as biased against both women and the working class and called for joint custody. Feminists, who have largely looked away from the plight of first/birth mothers, spoke out for Whitehead. Adoption-reform pioneer Florence Fisher did also.

Yet the prevailing wind was with the Sterns. Even most women, without the perspective of having lost a child to adoption, or in a custody fight, sided with the couple. They simply did not like lower-class Mary Beth. Feminist thinker and author Phyllis Chesler took up Whitehead's cause and wrote in Sacred Bond, The Legacy of Baby M.: "Women who have never been allowed to talk back eventually identify with the aggressor and have no pity for a victim who reminds them of themselves." To which we add: Amen.

It is worth noting here that Mrs. Stern was not infertile but had multiple sclerosis, and was concerned about the possible physical implications of pregnancy. A colleague testified that his wife, with the same condition, had temporary paralysis during pregnancy. Incidentally, the contract between Whitehead and the Sterns is available on line. She was to be paid $10,000 for a live infant. It's really kinda awful to read, and certainly considers the baby as property.

While the Baby M case did uphold the surrogacy contract, the judgment was not laudatory about the arrangement, and the judge in the current case in New Jersey (what is it about New Jersey, is it something in the water?) quoted this in the current decision:
"The surrogacy contract," the Baby M court found, "is based on principles that are directly contrary to the objectives of our laws. It guarantees the separation of a child from its mother; it looks to adoption regardless of suitability; it totally ignores the child; it takes the child from the mother regardless of her wishes and maternal fitness."
Citing that passage, Judge Schultz wrote, "Would it really make any difference if the word 'gestational' was substituted for the word 'surrogacy' in the above quotation? I think not."

All this reminds us once again why we do not like surrogacy pregnancies--with the woman's own eggs, or with another woman's eggs. No matter how you deconstruct the feelings involved, surrogacy contracts create babies on demand, often babies for profit. We ask, how different is the situation of a surrogate mother different from a first/birth mother who agrees to sign--or does sign--papers relinquishing her child but changes her mind hours, days, weeks later? Does the fact that the birth began with a surrogacy contract make the experience different?

We think not. Having given up a child of our own egg, we do think there may be an emotional difference between a purely gestational surrogate mother and a genetic mother, but we do not have the answers today, and nor are we even sure of our feelings.
Now for a change of pace as surrogacy madness continues: In the "how-did-I-miss-this?" category comes the sentencing of an Ohio police chief, Barry D. Carpenter, for breaking into the home of the surrogate mother for Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Carpenter, former chief of police of Martin's Ferry, and two other men, including another police chief from a neighboring town, Chad M. Dojack of Bridgeport, broke into the home of the woman and stole items they intended to sell to tabloid newspapers. :) Yes, that is me being amused.

Carpenter, who did the crime while on duty (you gotta admit, that took some chutzpah) was sentenced to 32 months, but the promise of early release is held out, Judge John Solovan of Blemont County Court, said to Carpenter if  "you accept responsibility and account for your actions and your crimes." Dojack's case is set for January. Charges against Dojack's father-in-law, who is the son of Bridgeport's mayor, who had appointed Dojack chief (ah, the beauty of small towns) were dropped. Parker and Broderick have twins. And Parker kept her Size Zero figure.

Happy New Year everyone!  I am trying to take a break from the blog and get to some other writing work, but the news just keeps on rolling along. --lorraine

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Natural Mother Ordered to Surrrender Daughter in Custody Conundrum

Continuing our discussion of the ethical and practical issues surrounding children born in our new modern world of questionable conception practices, there's more today: A judge in Vermont recently (11/20/09) ordered that the biological mother of a sperm-donor child must transfer custody of the child to her former lesbian partner...with whom the child has no genetic connection. The child in question is a seven-year-old girl, who has been living solely with Lisa Miller, her mother--birth/biological/natural/whatever--ever since the couple broke up when the girl, Isabella, was 17-months old. Read about it at both The New York Times and once again, The Huffington Post.

Miller and her former partner, Janet Jenkins, were married in a civil ceremony in Vermont in 2000, and Isabella was born to Miller through artificial insemination in 2002. The following year the couple broke up, Miller moved to Virginia, renounced homosexuality, and became an evangelical Christian. When William D. Cohen, the family court judge in Vermont, dissolved the union in 2007, he awarded custody of Isabella to her mother, but granted Jenkins liberal visitation rights. All well and good. His reasoning was that the case was the same as a custody dispute between a heterosexual couple. Both the supreme courts of Vermont and Virginia agreed with the judge and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

But because Miller has denied visitation to Jenkins, Cohen found Miller in contempt of court last month and reversed custody to Jenkins. Miller asked for a delay of transfer of custody, but was denied on December 22. Then Miller disappeared with Isabella. "It appears that Ms. Miller has ceased contact with her attorneys and disappeared with the minor child," Cohen wrote in his decision, adding that the only way to allow both parents to have access to the child was to award custody to Jenkins, not her mother. Miller's phone line has been disconnected, and she has not been in contact with her attorney, Mathew D. Staver.

Well, what a fine mess this is, another example of the murky ethical and emotional issues surrounding all these newfangled forms of conception and arrangements.

I have no issue with the original court decision. If the child were adopted, and had no biological connection to the father, yet he wanted visitation, he surely would be granted it, as well he should be. Acquaintances of mine went through the kind of breakup and custody arrangement with a child adopted from China; and the father is indeed a good father to his daughter and remained a vital part of her life. I spent part of Christmas Day with the mother; the daughter, a bright, vivacious teenager now in junior high, sat next to me at dinner and we briefly spoke of her Christmas holiday and how she spent time with both parents this year.

But this decision breaks my heart. Though I am speculating here, I can envision a scenario where the biological mother with her new-found religion that eschews homosexuality finds it particularly abhorrent to let her daughter visit her former partner, who probably continues her life as a homosexual. What to do? She decides to cut off her former partner, probably with the encouragement of fellow church-members, and so the judge says, OK, Mom, you lose, you lose big time. In fact, everybody loses. We needed a judge with the wisdom of Solomon (but no one is going to order cutting the child in half), and a natural mother with the generosity of the real mother in the Bible who hands over her son to the other mother before he is indeed sliced up.

Save that, maybe Judge Cohen could have threatened mother Miller with jail time (and made good on that threat) if she did not allow Jenkins visitation. The girl has not been with Jenkins since she was 17 months old, but has visited Jenkins in the past, who has done her best to maintain a relationship she clearly wants with the girl. Isabella is now seven, and surely beginning to show some signs of what she wants to do, whom she wants to be with, though of course throughout all this Miller has probably poisoned her against Jenkins. That's also something I'm familiar with.

I'm sorry that Miller has gone underground with her daughter. These situations never have good endings, and mostly likely increase Miller's chances of losing her daughter when she surfaces, and such people usually do. I'm sorry that Miller did not allow Jenkins the visitation the court awarded her. I'm even more sorry that the judge awarded custody of Isabella to a genetic stranger. It's a *@$#ed up world, and the children are the ones who pay the dues. Comments at the HuffPo are, once again, lively, both pro and con the judge's decision. For a thorough discussion of the story, see a 2008 Newsweek story.
On another screwy note, the Brazilian family of the nine-year-old boy who was finally returned to his American father are continuing their legal battle to regain custody. Can you believe this? After a five-year-fight the father, David Goldman, regained physical custody of his son, Sean, on Christmas Eve. The Brazilian grandmother of the boy wants the boy to make his wishes known in court, and while it's very very unlikely that this will come to pass, the Brazilian Supreme Court has yet to issue a final ruling on this matter. They will not convene again until February. I gotta say, is she nuts?

Before Mr. Goldman, of Tinton Falls, New Jersey brought his son back  to the U.S. on Christmas Eve, everyone from Hillary Clinton to Goldman's Congressman got involved. This was a case that attracted international attention and everyone generally agreed the real father's rights were paramount. We could not but help think how once we first/birth mothers sign surrender papers, no matter the circumstances, society basically tells us we should drop off the face of the earth and does not consider the very real emotional ties we have to the children we nourished for nine months in our bodies, children who carry our DNA. Yet everyone knows that it is not so simple as dropping a child in a field and walking away....

To anyone reading this who has been living otherwise under a rock: Goldman was married to a Brazilian woman; Goldman thought all was well and good when she took the boy for a two-week vacation to Brazil to visit her family and the boy's grandmother, but instead of returning she got a divorce, later remarried , and died in childbirth. The step-father (a prominent divorce/custody attorney in Rio) insisted on keeping the boy despite Goldman's pleas to have his son returned to him. Thus began an international legal battle. Goldman says that he is willing to have the boy's grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, be a part of his life. I would suggest he NOT go on visits back to Brazil.--lorraine

Jane here: I just want to say kudos to the Brazilian court for honoring blood ties even though the father has not seen his son in many years. Too often in the US courts minimize or ignore these ties. In protracted custody cases between blood relatives and adoptive or step parents, the courts often apply a kind of squatters rights doctrine ("the best interests of the child" or "the psychological parent") to give custody to the interlopers, ignoring the unbreakable bond that connect children to their natural parents.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Sperm Donor Children Should Have the Right to Their Whole Identity

Do children born of anonymous sperm deserve to know their fathers? Do they have a right to know their fathers?

When a lesbian acquaintance recently became pregnant I immediately wondered who the father was, but it was abundantly clear this was not a question one could ask. But the question nags still: Will the child, conceived and born in the United States, ever be able to know his father--next month, next year, next whenever? Unless the mother is hip to the idea that children need to know not only their maternal heritage--and I'm not nearly close enough to her to know--it's likely that the little boy will grow up with half his heritage missing, a blank where there ought to be connection, data, medical and cultural history, if not love and feelings.

Across the pond, once again the United Kingdom is way ahead of us on this one. Recently a columnist  in The Guardian, Veronica Lee, decried yet another acquaintance of hers having an anonymous sperm donor father a child:
Children have a right to know who their father is and, where at all possible, to forge a relationship with him. For a woman deliberately to have children alone is astonishingly selfish. Many children miss out on having a father through death, abandonment or other unforeseeable circumstances, but this is deliberate deprivation and treats the child merely as the mother's chattel. My friends would argue they have a right to bear a child, but what about their children's right to know their fathers?
Indeed. What about their children's right to know their fathers?

We at FirstMotherForum are all in favor of children knowing both their mothers and fathers, the ones without whose involvement they would not exist, aka their first/birth/biological parents. And recently (12/10/09) the Irish Supreme Court agreed. A 42-year-old man who had fathered a child for a lesbian couple with whom he had been friendly is opposed to their planned move to Australia, taking his now three-year-old son with them. Supreme Court Justice Susan Denham wrote:
There is benefit to a child, in general, to have the society of his father....I am satisfied that the learned High Court judge [who rejected the father's claims] gave insufficient weight to this factor.
Now over at The Huffington Post, Jacob M. Appel, has his knickers in a twist over this decision, calling it "noxious jurisprudential seed" [pun noted] and "a genuine challenge to reproductive freedom and familial integrity." Which right there is a little odd because he assumes that family integrity is anything you want to make it--and has nearly nothing to do with whose DNA you have, why you have blue eyes instead of brown, can't snap your fingers on her left hand, whistle off key, and have the annoying habit of say, twirling your hair when you are concentrating--just like, why just like dear old Dad! Appel  ought to look up the word integrity in the dictionary: "The state of being unimpaired; probity; completeness. See synonyms at honesty." We understand the concept of the modern "family," and in many cases, see no problem. That is life today, and we are not going backwards. We ourselves are part of a blended family. But family, at its purest interpretation, consists of mother, father, and child or children born of those two people--that is the "state of being unimpaired." I can imagine the hackles being raised as I write this, but give me this interpretation here if you can. I'm simply talking semantics now. But back to the column at the Huf Po (where you might want to leave a comment):

Appel is quite worked up, no doubt about it. He rails against Kansan Daryl Hendrix who brought suit against his former girlfriend, Samantha Harrington, who gave birth to twins using his "excess sperm." A divided state supreme court ruled 4-2 that in the absence of a written agreement, Hendrix had no rights. Hendrix pursued his case to the Kansas Supreme Court, but they refused to hear it. Who brings such suits, Appel posits are "men...who have missed the fatherhood train." There's more venom he spews:
Advancing the antiquated argument that every child should have a father, [italics decidedly ours] these forces have succeeded in preventing anonymous donation in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. Great Britain and Canada no longer allow donors to be compensated. As a result, semen sources are drying up. The unfortunate consequence is that, without sperm, would-be mothers will not be able to conceive.
Our friend, Alison Ward, who alerted us to this story, comments that her favorite line in the screed was "semen sources are drying up." We like that sentence, we admit, but we find others that are just as amusing, to wit: ..."without sperm, would-be mothers will not be able to conceive." Yup, that's true. And we applaud those backwards-thinking countries that have ruled that sperm donation should not be anonymous, or for profit.

What is sickening throughout Appel's diatribe is the total lack of consideration and compassion for the children conceived with anonymous sperm. He is critical of those who are "pressuring sperm banks to identify their genetic 'fathers' [quotes his]. ...These trends also threaten to undermine the 'no-strings-attached' [quotes his] policies that make altruistic [italics mine] sperm donation possible." So the children who are interested in learning their paternal biology and identity are likened to ungrateful thugs who won't leave those fathers alone. Appel does not mention the DonorSiblingRegistry which has more than 26,000 donors, parents, and children conceived by donor sperm, and has connected 6,941 half-siblings and donors, according to its website.

He does concede that sperm donors who become aware of a fatal genetic disease (cancer? cardiac arrest?) should be "unmasked," but all other should be perpetually sealed, and that sperm fathers ought to be viewed no different from those who donate organs to others. "Why should society treat my donation any differently simply because it contains a germ-line cell rather than somatic tissue?"

Because somatic tissue does not carry the DNA that determines who and individual is. Because somatic tissue is not hereditary. Because one-half of one's makeup and identity is not contained in somatic tissue.

We wish Mr. Appel had told us a bit about himself. Is he a donor father himself who wishes the cloak of anonymity? Does he know his own biological background and genetic makeup? Was he a foundling who has no background on himself and feels that no one else thus has the right to know whence  she came if that is an issue? Does his sister/girlfriend/cousin have a baby conceived with anonymous DNA-rich sperm?

Because we do not hold the same  "progressive" view of conception and parentage as Appel, we are branded together with Christian conservatives and and other "naturalists." We are progressive on many, if not most, issues, but on a question so basic as the answer to Who Am I? we will argue that everyone has the right to know the full and complete answer, and that test-tube children ought to have the same rights as the rest of us: To know one's identity. If we are talking rights, let's start with the children. 
If you do comment at the Huffington Post, please share it with us here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

We Survived the Holidays but are Mad as Hell

We survived the holidays with scant abrasions on our wounds. Only a few people continued to offer their condolences over my daughter's suicide two years ago, thank the lord, because each reminder demanded a change in tone--Oh, remember you daughter died around this time of year, they are thinking and so they say just that...Why Yes, I do remember, I would imply in tone and look, but I'm thinking, You know, I don't need to be reminded, I think of her quite often, really, and I miss her like hell, and can we just get on with life and not have you think of  THAT every time you see me at the holidays?

...I know people's tongues are loosened by the merry spirits, but hmm....I'd rather not be reminded in the midst of merry-making, thank you very much. People mean well, I know, but there are times when one (that would be me) would rather be just a friend, not an acquaintance with a story trailing me around like a tattered boa I can't quite drop, it's always there.

But in the meantime, the newspapers around the country are filled with reunion stories, from Long Beach to Montgomery, Alabama but still the New Jersey clock continues to run out on the bill that would give adopted people the right to their original birth certificates. The New Jersey Senate passed the bill in 2008, but to become law it needed passage in the Assembly within two years, and now it is clear it will die because the Speaker of the Assembly, Joseph Roberts, refused to let the bill out for a vote, even though the Assembly had to votes to pass it! With a super majority, no less! Even though we flooded his office with letters! A Mommouth College poll showed that the public--75 percent--is for giving adoptees their birth records and right to know who they are.

What's wrong with you, Joe? Have you no decency? Have you no compassion for the thousands of people adopted in New Jersey who had their rights stripped from them at birth? We get quite heated up on the issue, because, because, well, Roberts and his ilk in New York and every other state are on the wrong side of history. And I'm mad as hell.

Yes, those few natural mothers who fear their own children would be able to file a non-disclosure form, for up to a year, and their names would be blocked out from the searching adoptee, but other states with similar laws (Tennessee and Delaware) have had only a minute number of people asking to remain anonymous from their own children, a concept I understand intellectually but emotionally can not fathom. Why would any mother not want to know her child? The mind boggles.

In Oregon, birth parents may file a no-contact form, but the number has hovered in the low eighties of those requesting no-contact for several years, while more than 9,000 original birth certificates have been requested.Who are these women, I wonder? How did their mothering instinct become subverted?

I dunno what's wrong with the world. And while we can't even get the open records for adoptees passed in New Jersey, and New York, where the painstaking step-by-step, legislator-by-legislator work continues, I'm having dreams of throwing opening the records for us first/birth mothers too--as in, why the hell not?

In Canada, our fair neighbor to the North with egads! universal health care, the four provinces (out of ten, along with three territories) that's nearly a quarter of the provinces in number if not in population) allow birth mothers the right to see the adoption court orders, and so they are privy to the names of those who adopted the children they bore. Imagine that. Over her in the backwards U.S.A., the collective mind goes pretty much gaga over that thought, and when we work for open records we don't even bring it up. Are we too brain-washed?  To polite to upset the applecart? Alberta's law has a non-disclosure veto that either side can file, but in British Columbia, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador the door is open to birth/first mothers as well as the adopted.

Here we are more likely to struggle with the attitude that seems to me to be nearly universal among the unknowing: that we mothers HAVE NO RIGHT to search, because we will be disrupting a happy person (and his [adoptive] family) who does not want to be disturbed with their real identities and mothers coming back. Of course we know that is hogwash, but we have gotten into some pretty sticky situations ourselves with acquaintances who brand us selfish for searching. (As in, what part of your pie chart was selfish when you went searching for your daughter?) Those folks are the ones who want to take us out to the woodshed and give us a good thrashing for having such radical thoughts.

I realize I'm rambling on, and getting worked up over this and Christmas is not really over. Time to wash my hair and take off for the movies for several adoption-free hours. --lorraine

Note: The records are sealed in the three territories also. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Thoughts for Those Separated by Adoption

Christmas, not April, is the cruelest time for many of us. All the gaiety, the awareness that families gather round together sharpen the reminder of who is missing: if you are a birth/first mother who has not been reunited, you are ever so aware of the presents you are not buying, the card not being sent, the phone call not made to the child who is absent from your life. You wonder if he/she ever thinks of you at this time of the year. Question not. He is.

If you are adopted, you are wondering if your other parents, especially your natural mother, are out there thinking about you. Question not. She does.

Christmas music seems designed to pierce through whatever shell you have surrounded yourself with and reach down to your very core and remind you: She is gone, she is six or sixteen or thirty-six, who is she today?--oh my god, that girl/teenager/young mother looks like me, could she be her? I used to barely be able to get through Christmas Mass without crying real tears, not just a few watery eyes. The high notes of The First Noel and Silent Night cut right to the heart of my heart. And so many reminders accost us daily: shopping at the mall and seeing people who are the age of your child, or catching a glimpse of a mother and daughter--you note how much they look and act alike, you can not help it--out together for the day, seeing something you wish you could give your daughter, if only you knew where she was.

For those who have been reunited with their lost children, but the initial joy at reconnection has gone aground in the murky waters past reunion, I can only say that I know how deeply disappointing and hurtful that is, and that I understand your fresh sorrow at this disjuncture. I had my time in that hellhole too. But in time and with belief in the innate yearning of blood seeking blood, the breach was bridged, once again, and we moved on. This is not to say time and persistence healed all wounds, for they did not, but they made it possible for my daughter and I to move on, and together. To those of you still in that perilous place of fractured reunion, especially to my good friends who are there, my thoughts are with you, and I hope you too find the peace and reconciliation my daughter and I reached.

Our path is not easy. The way is fraught with brambles and thorns. Memory is relentless and usually unforgiving. I am not a religious person, but it is so easy to ask, Why Me? Or Why Me, Lord? I do not have the answers. But I do know we were not meant to have our hell on earth to provide someone else's joy, to complete someone else's family, yet it does seem that that is the good--someone else's gain--that often springs from the sorrow and grief of losing our children. If I can find meaning in my own life, it is to use my experiences and with the voice of authority for having been there, having done that, given up a child, to work for change in adoption. If I can find meaning in my life, it is to free adoptees and birth/first mothers from the chains of the past that tie us on the rack of secrecy and anonymity. It is is to shine a little light on the injustice that was done to us all when we gave up our children for what we hoped would be a better life than we could provide. It is to try and prevent others from following our trail of tears. It is to work for a better tomorrow.

I will go to Mass on Christmas morning and ruminate about my daughter. I will not pray for her soul because I believe, if there is life after death, that she is in a good place. With her epilepsy, and being given up by me, her mother, she suffered a great deal in her too-short life. I will, I am sure, be once again overcome with emotion when the chorus sings Silent Night. And then, I will share the day with family and friends and good food and fellowship. And I will know that no matter how much I miss her at this time of year, Christmas is only a season, Christmas is only a day.

Tomorrow Christmas will be over, and life will go on.--lorraine

Merry Christmas everyone, Jane and I will be taking a short break here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Our Christmas Gift: No rise in adoptions during lean times

Christmas came early this year in the form of news that even in these lean times there has been no rise in adoptions. More women are keeping their babies.

New York agency Spence-Chapin even thought about hiring a new person to handle the expected uptick that never happened, according to Sue Dominus writing (12/19/09) in The New York Times: "We're somewhat surprised," said Helen Lauffer, associate director at Spence-Chapin. "But the numbers haven't gone up." If anything, she adds, "even fewer women have sought the agency's services this year." The same dearth of available product was also true of an agency in Vermont.

To which we say HOORAY! Women are keeping their babies!

The social workers quoted outright say that they expected an increase in available product, i.e., babies, due to hard economic times since it is a major factor why pregnant women give up their babies for adoption. At first glance the column is a straight-out report of the situation at adoption agencies today. Speaking of the rationale of why mothers surrender their babies, Dawn Smith-Pliner of Friends in Adoption of Vermont, said:
"...if some of these pregnant women felt their lives could be improved upon by being able to get on their feet and do well by themselves, and have the baby they placed be proud of what they'd been able to accomplish, then it's a different decision. It's a difficult decision, but something about it might feel good. But if the achievable goal, a half-decent job, isn't an option to work toward, then I might as well keep the baby--that's tangible. You wake up every morning and there's that beautiful baby."
RIGHT! You don't have to wait until you might someday be reunited--with the vale of tears and conflicting emotions that unleashes--so that your child might be proud of you.

That train of thought supposes this kind of resolution to a person being given up for adoption: Look, says a birth/first mother to her reunited child, I became a cool TV weather woman/rocket scientist, college graduate and none of that would have been possible if I'd kept you! Aren't you proud of me? Aren't you glad I gave up up so I could have a career? Somehow this rankles the blood. We wondered if this convoluted reasoning is possibly what is being fed to women today as an encouragement to relinquish their babies and make them feel better about doing it: that someday their children might be "proud" of them. Which we at FirstMotherForum find completely specious and the most absurd bit of reasoning we have ever encountered.

Adoption today, even with a promise of open adoptions, offers no guarantees: no guarantees that the adoption will remain truly open (see our numerous previous posts on open adoption) or that there will ever be a reunion, since in only eight states can adoptees reasonably except to obtain their original birth certificates with their original identities therein recorded. As for the post reunion period, they are so often fraught with anger and bitterness--to think that they would be mitigated by pride of one's birth/first mother's career following relinquishment--we can only throw up our hands in amazement.

In truth, my daughter may have been proud of me in some sense--I did become the journalist I was on track for when I became pregnant with her, and it's unclear how I would have done that if I had kept her, but that sure did not stack up as equal to the why-didn't-you-keep-me? undercurrent that was always and forever the big rock-candy mountain of conflict between us.

To go back to the idea that women are keeping their babies because they can have this concrete and rewarding relationship with their own flesh and blood, Ah yes, we get that: There is a baby,  your baby, and not the lifetime vale of tears that trails women who give up their babies. Oh, yes, we first/birth mothers get up every morning, get dressed, put on makeup, have our lattes and go out to meet the world. We laugh, we cry, we make love again. We have jobs, husbands, sometimes other children...but we do not forget. We never forget. Some of us might hide in the closet, and those of us older might keep the baby we gave away as a terrible secret from children who come after, or even our husbands, but the baby that is gone remains in our hearts. You do not have a baby in your body for nine months, a baby who carries your DNA, and forget.

Several reasons are noted in the Times column for the decline in available babies: the greater acceptance of single motherhood (thank God); and a changing marketplace. More birth/first mothers may simply be connecting with adopting parents through the Internet, allowing them to pay more expenses in exchange for a baby than is possible through regular agency channels. That also leads to greater possibilities of fraud, as some cases have been reported, and of course, borders on baby selling. 

The piece conveys a tone of gee-this-is-too-bad-for-all-those-nice-couples-who-want-to-complete-their-families-with-someone-else's-baby, as Dominus quotes a plaintive prospective adoptive parent about how long they have been waiting:
"It's like the longest pregnancy ever" said Lynne Berman, a Friends client who lives in New Jersey and has been waiting for more than two years. "You set these ultimatums. You think, 'This will be the last Mother's Day, or the last thanksgiving.' But then another one rolls around."
From our perspective, it would have been refreshing to see that plaintive tone balanced with a quote from a young mother who kept her baby and is happy she did.

One last piece of deconstruction: one of the agencies, Friends in Adoption, located in Vermont, has a
client base of adoptive parents mostly in the New York area. That factoid means this: poor rural girls and women from an area of lower contraceptive use and curtailed abortion services add up to a good product-supply location to meet the high demands of the New York market.

We know that some, particularly prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents who chance upon FirstMotherForum might be offended at our choice of words, that is, using "product" where "baby" would suffice. But we interchange these words precisely to make a point: that adoption is a business today just like any other, subject to the laws of supply and demand. The only difference is that the product being exchanged is a living person, not an inanimate object. We use these words to make people aware that adoption has gone from a service to take care of babies without other options to a business to supply people who want children. And in the process, a lot of "do-good" feeling gets intermixed so that people with the best of intentions end up only increasing the pressures on the world's poor to give up their babies. They do not consider that for every happy adopting parents, somewhere a poor mother grieves. They do not think of helping the woman keep her child by supporting both of them, they think of increasing their own joy by taking the child. But that ignores the fact that they are leaving behind a woman not only in the same dire poverty that led her to offer up her child or children, but now they are leaving behind a poor woman who daily grieves for those children.

Not long ago, we were in touch with a family who was considering from Ethiopia, but with a certain amount of persistence and good will, they were able to locate the mother or mothers in question. At this moment, we are not sure of the outcome, but hope to be able to fill you in at a future date. But on the international front, we can report that due to heightened attention to corruption in international adoptions, that number is also declining. Thus just in by David Crary of the AP:
The number of foreign children adopted by Americans plunged more than a quarter in the past year, reaching the lowest level since 1996 and leading adoption advocates to urge Congress to help reverse the trend.[Italics added] Figures for fiscal year 2009, released by the State Department on Thursday, showed 12,753 adoptions from abroad, down from 17,438 in 2008 — a dip of 27 percent and nearly 45 percent lower than the all-time peak of 22,884 in 2004.
Adoption advocates may be clamoring for "Congress to reverse the trend," but we are not. What is Congress supposed to do? Hold up aid to poorer countries in order to allow more babies to go through the adoption mills? Mills that have promoted, either knowingly or unknowingly, kidnapping and corruption in international adoption?

The world doesn't get it yet. But we will keep on writing about the abduction of children and corrupt practices that fuel international adoption until we take our last breath. In the meantime, we thank Ms. Dominus for brightening our day, just a few days from Christmas, one of the worst times of the year for many who have relinquished.
In the interest of full disclosure, we know and admire Ms. Dominus from our previous incarnation as a feminist/humor/advice columnist (with my husband) at Glamour where she helped edit our monthly offerings. We hope she takes our deconstruction of her column in good humor --lorraine

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

They call me "biological mother." I hate those words.

I am a mother who gave up my daughter for adoption. I am a mother who relinquished my daughter for adoption. I am a mother who surrendered my daughter for adoption. I am a natural mother. I am a biological mother. I am a first mother. I am a birth mother. I am a mother who was reunited with her daughter after 15 helllish years apart. I am a mother whose daughter committed suicide. I suppose that means I should write: I was a mother. I am a grandmother now--two grandchildren, one who acknowledges me, one who apparently does not want to know me. I am still her grandmother.
I am all these things, and I have millions of sisters. Together we should be able to change the world. But if the language we use must be rigidly pure before we can agree to work together to change the laws to protect more women from unscrupulous, biased laws designed to get babies away from their mothers (see previous post), we will never get anywhere. We will continue to fight over matters that do not forward our cause. We will accomplish nothing.

I do not like the appellation "birth mother" any more than those of you who have written that in the comments, including the one from Anonymous who was very very angry and seems to be reacting to something else she read, and accused us of  "hurting and conspiring against other hurting, vulnerable birthmothers [one word]" as well as ignoring others with "OPINIONS and feelings other than YOUR OWN..."  Obviously she has issues with First Mother Forum.

Remember the word "queer," as in "he's a queer?"  And then the gays co-opted the word themselves, and we had Queer Nation and the like, and you know what, queer lost its power to hurt. Likewise, bastard has been claimed by many adopted people--see Daily Bastardette--and that slur too has lost its sting among adoptees, some of whom which only to be called "adopted individuals" or "adopted people."

It is not quite the same with birth mother, or birthmother, but deciding not to work against archaic laws over this issue is counterproductive. We need to unite, not fracture our numbers into separate subgroups fighting with each other. A few years ago, adoptee and author Betty Jean Lifton was disinvited from one of Joe Soll's conferences because she would use the term "birth mother" in her presentation, and it generated a ton--a ton--of quite heated commentary at Daily Bastardette when our bastardette friend wrote about it.

I get it about the language. I hated the Dear Birthmother card I got from Jane one Mother's day--when it surfaces in my top desk drawer it still makes me queasy, even though the sentiment expressed inside is--hell, the truth is, I hate the damn card. But I did not send it back. I did not tell her that I flinched when I opened the envelope. In fact, my emotions were mixed because I was pleased she had remembered me that year in Mother's Day greetings, and often she had not. Sometime later, however, I found the courage to mention that I liked another card better. I did not make a big deal over it, but she got the point.

At my daughter's funeral, friends of hers approached me and one woman asked me if I were Jane's "biological mother."  The question was asked without malice, in a friendly upbeat manner and I happily said yes, actually pleased that she did not use the agency-approved and schooled adoptese,  birth mother. When I said yes, she immediately told me, "Jane talked about you all the time." Now, am I going to get offended by the woman's casual use of  "biological?" I did not.

But I will always bristle in the presence of the woman who corrected a friend a few days after we got back from my daughter's funeral when my friend used the word "daughter" without modifiers. I was not at this event, my friend Genie, who had known my daughter, was speaking to my husband, and this other woman, yes, an adoptive mother, was standing there. After the second time Genie referred to "Lorraine's daughter," this woman could not hold back. "Birth daughter," she corrected Genie. My husband said he said nothing, and simply went on talking. Screw that, I thought to myself when I heard about the exchange. But I have to see this woman because she is part of a large circle of friends, and I do not say to her: "So how is your ADOPTED daughter? Still having migraines?"  (She does.) I bite my tongue, ask nothing, know we will never be more than acquaintances.

When I wrote Birthmark back in the dark ages of reform of the late Seventies, I had this to say, and the words are on the jacket:
They call me "biological mother."

I hate those words. They make me sound like a baby machine, a conduit, without emotions.

They tell me to forget and go out and make a new life.

I had a baby and I gave her away.

I never say, I am a birth mother if I am speaking to someone and about to spill the beans, I always say: I gave my daughter up for adoption. Yet I do not feel that I am debasing myself by using birth mother in writing here because, whether we like it or not, that term has become part of the accepted nomenclature. We can try to change the accepted usage, but it is going to be an uphill battle, given that many adoptive parents can not manage to refer to us with "mother" in ten feet of their mouths.

Some  call us "birth canals," (on RainbowKids.com) or "woman who labored my son," (see Wanting A Child) or "reproductive agent." Those are not quite worth discussing. They are what they are. They are said in fear of our bond with our children. They are said in an attempt to diminish what they know they cannot. When someone called me a "reproductive agent," I felt that she was repeating what she heard from another of her friends, an adoptive grandmother and her husband...the very same one who told me, "You are our greatest nightmare." By comparison, birth mother sounds almost angelic.

As I have said before, I put "birth mother" there at the top of the blog because that is how more people come to read what we have to say here. Adoptive parents do not google "women who gave their children up for adoption forum" to find out what we are thinking, how we are feeling. Nor do most mothers who are gingerly, perhaps secretively, looking for the support and community they need. They do not know that "birth mother" is verboten, that "first mother" is preferable but still highly suspect. Rightly or wrongly, they know "birth mother." They google "birth mother forums," and sometimes they find us.

And I am glad.

One mother can do much, but a huge sisterhood of us can change the world. No matter what we are called. --lorraine 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Birthmothers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Shame

“A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP.” I read these words, engraved on a wooden panel above the door to the assembly hall, every day at Chicago’s Hyde Park High School. My 50th reunion is coming up next year. It’s time I begin stepping up to end unnecessary adoptions and keep families together.

I’ve been involved in lots of causes over the years, end the war, keep abortion safe and legal, encouraging Oregon’s governors to appoint more women to top positions. Other than appearing in an ad in 1998 for Oregon’s Measure 58 which gave adult adoptees the right to obtain their original birth certificates, I’ve stayed away from being publicly involved in reforming adoption laws. Standing up in front of strangers, confessing my birthmotherhood, has just seemed too hard. But now at age 67, I know I’m running out of time.

For the next few years and perhaps more, I’m committing myself to trying to change Oregon’s surrender law. This law allows a woman to sign an irrevocable consent for the adoption of her newborn immediately after she leaves the delivery room, exhausted from the delivery, experiencing hormonal changes, and likely still under the influence pain killers. The prospective adoptive parents may have been in the delivery room and she is under pressure not to disappoint them. Although the law requires that she be informed that the surrender is irrevocable, the explanation is usually provided by an employee of the adoption agency and may be couched in terms of the necessity of irrevocability to keep the baby from going into foster care.

While women considering adoption are entitled to three counseling sessions before birth at the prospective adoptive parents’ expense, the law does not specify any particular information be imparted The counseling as a practical matter may be directed to helping the mother deal with her loss rather than giving her the power to prevent the loss.

Oregon is one of the worse states in terms of protecting mothers’ rights but other states have joined the race to the bottom. Legislators across the country have accepted as true the adoption industry’s claim that giving up a child needs to be made “simpler.” As Prof. Elizabeth Samuels points out in a 2005 Tennessee Law Review article "Time to Decide," “Many state laws appear to value an increase in infant adoptions over the goal of encouraging careful deliberation.” Heck, even President Barack Obama in his Notre Dame speech said adoption should be “more available.”

Participating in this blog gave me the push I needed. Lorraine and I wrote an article for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, responding to a glowing article about an adoption attorney who represented birthmothers. The attorney’s duties include obtaining his client’s signature on a surrender document and delivering her newborn child to the adoptive parents. The Bulletin refused to print our article (which we posted here) but it did print a shorter version in the letters to the editor.

Last month, a politically-experienced attorney who had represented a woman challenging the adoption of her infant son saw our letter and contacted me about working to change Oregon's surrender law.

Birthmother Delores Teller and I met with the attorney, who has brought about legislative reform on two other tough issues, and his good friend, a professional lobbyist. “What are your organizations? Who are your supporters?” they asked. “Surely women who have been victimized as you have would have banded together and demanded change.”

“Well, yes, sort of,” we responded. “There is CUB and Origins, and folks from Ethica are supportive, perhaps AAC would get on board. Maybe some adoptee groups.” “How many people are we talking about in Oregon?” they asked. “Not many we admitted.”

Ah, there’s the rub. We could have the best of bills, the best of logic, but if we did not have the numbers, we would get nowhere. Surely, if, as we claimed, thousands of women in the US were suffering from the loss of their children, they would have banded together and demanded reform. If they’re not telling their stories, politicians assume they don’t have stories to tell.

“It’s not that simple”, I whimpered. “Women are shamed into silence. We don’t have heroines. Feminists, who should see us as the victims of the patriarchy, are too busy adopting to care.”

As I drove home, the French National Anthem popped into my head. “Aux armes citoyens!” If we are going to storm the Bastille, we have to come out of the closet.

Here’s a challenge to our readers. Find out the time periods for surrender in your state and post them here. Your state statutes are probably on your state’s legislative website and you can access the information under “adoption”. And if you can’t find it, contact your state legislator or state senator and ask for help. Not only will he get you the information but you may be commencing the process of educating him about an injustice.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Daughter's Suicide

 photo by ken robbins
by Lorraine Dusky (c) 2009

Two years ago today my daughter pried open a locked gun cabinet, took a pistol, drove off to a secluded spot and put a bullet in her head. It was not her first attempt at ending her life--and though of course it was shocking and immediately unbelievable when the news came over the phone about twenty to twelve that night, my first coherent thought was: she is at peace. My daughter is at last at peace. You had to know my daughter to understand why that's where the news of her death would ultimately lead.

Though FirstMotherForum.com is about adoption and its far-reaching effect on birth/first mothers, adoption was only part of Jane's cross to bear: the first was her epilepsy. Her epilepsy. It truly controlled her life from the time of her first seizure when she was five. Eventually drugs (Depakane, and then Depakote) mostly, but not completely, controlled her seizures, yet they extracted a huge toll. Epilepsy medications dull intelligence, and that was her great disappointment. No matter what she did, or how hard she tried--getting a degree from a two-year school with honors, taking on-line English college course and get an A, winning a trophy from her local Toastmaster's organization--she somehow found it impossible to keep track of simple things, math was her downfall, her organizational skills were pretty much non-existent, and no matter how hard she tried, she found herself failing at one job after another except the most menial. And that killed her. Google epilepsy and suicide or drugs for epilepsy and  suicide, and you find no dearth of articles.

But the being given up. That was a part of her tsouris also, and of course there is no way to fathom what part it played in the entire arc of her life. You can read about adoption and suicide too, and know they are not unconnected. I know of four suicides, one serious attempt, and only one of them does not have an adoption connection. Three adopted individuals; one birth mother. Does this prove anything? No, these are just a personal accounts, but still, there they are.

Jane and I talked about my giving her up sometimes, but there was no way to sort out any of this, not really. Yet it was obvious to us both that the "being given up" was a sore that would always be there. Our relationship had its high points and its lows, though we knew each other for more nearly a quarter of a century, there was always the sense she held that meant she could walk away at any time. Her other mother might say the most awful things to her, and on occasion did. One time after a particularly brutal fight, when her adoptive mother told her that she did not love her, Jane, she called me crying and when I picked up the phone the first thing she said was: Tell me that you love me.

Yet within the week, her other mother called and apologized, and they were a family again, albeit somewhat fractured. But still back on track. In less than a week. They would go on as before.

Not so with me. If I made the slightest transgression, and sometimes I did not even know that I had somehow crossed an invisible line, she would cut me off for months, even years. I was dead to her for long stretches of time. Less than a year before she died, we had a falling out over something that seemed designed to hurt me, and I told her so, not happily. In all the years that I knew her, from fifteen to forty-two, she had never come to visit me from Wisconsin where she was raised and lived on her own dime. I paid. I always paid. That was okay. But now she got it into her head--as a way to prove to herself,  to both her families, to everyone who ever fired her that she was indeed smart--that she would be a contestant on The Millionaire. What's the worst that can happen, she said? I'll come to New York and see you.

Trouble was, she arranged this trip at the very time--the only time in the year--that I would not be in New York. I would be attending a niece's graduation in Michigan. Jane could have come any other weekend, but when The Millionaire gave her that very weekend to try out, along with hundreds of others, and she did not change it, which, from looking at the website, she surely could have. I had told earlier not to make her plans that weekend, I was very specific about the dates before her "tryout" was finalized; but she ignored that and made non-refundable air reservations before she called to tell me the great news.

I was irritated, more than just a little bit, and told her so. But I did not scream at her, say anything really nasty, I was as hurt as I was angry. We had a few short words over the phone, and I figured, oh, well, that is Jane, I'll have the find the money to bring her back here. She came to New York, stayed with a friend of mine in Manhattan who had befriended her, stood in line with hundreds of other people to take the test of The Millionaire, and did not make the cut. I was in Michigan, she was in New York, she would not take a call from me.

Then she cut me me off for months, from June to October. My emails went unanswered. I apologized beyond what seemed reasonable for my supposed transgression, but I thought, well, you know, I gave her up, I don't have a lot of leeway with here. She changed her phone number to an unlisted one. A letter came with a bright red stamp on it that said: REFUSED. I began to think we would never get over this.

And then one fall day, she called, and we both said at the same time: How are you?  I did not recriminate her--what would be the point?--and we chatted that day as if there had been no break in our communication. And what do you know--for those two, three months, we had possibly the closest relationship we had ever had. We spoke three, four times a week, emailed in between. Sometime later, I brought up the disruption--gingerly--and asked that she never cut me off again like that. She readily agreed. I didn't push for an analysis or apology. Without words, everything was understood and known between us. We both knew what the break really had been about: that she had been given up. That I had no right to be cross with her, ever, because I had committed the original transgression, the primal one, that we would spend our lives trying to heal the breach.

Shortly before the end, I have a couple of emails about our relationship that are so comforting, about what I and my family (including my husband, not her father) mean to her. I cherish them dearly.

Then a new low period hit: mid-December, a time when her premenstrual disorder (it runs in the family) engulfed her like a tidal wave. We talked and talked on December 8, she made up crazy stories about her husband that had no basis in reality and wept profusely. The stories that had too many odd details to be believable provided a way for her to spill out how bad she was feeling. I listened that day for hours. Four times we were on the phone. I begged her to take the prescription progesterone that I had finally convinced her to get for her PMS, as it had helped me tremendously. She took the progesterone, she calmed down. We spoke on Sunday, the following day, and she seemed...normal.

Over the next couple of days, the emails were about what she was making for dinner, the Green Bay Packers game, the darts league she and her husband were in. Normal stuff. Everyday stuff. All is well for now, I told myself, we've weathered that storm. If she will take the progesterone before her menstrual periods, she'll be as okay as Jane could be.

On Wednesday, December 12th, she wrote me a short friendly email, told her daughter before she left for school that no matter what, she loved her, and wrote a terse note that was left in her printer. It began:  I am tired of the craziness. At the funeral, I learned that when she was not talking to me that Saturday, she was spilling out the same grief and nuttiness to a friend. At the time, she was taking her epilepsy medication, drugs prescribed for her depression; she was in the throes of rabid PMS. So who or what is to blame? Nothing can be pinpointed as the single cause.

I wish I could share the grief today with her daughter, my granddaughter, take her for a walk or a cup of hot chocolate at the Deli Bean, Reedsburg's homey answer to Starbucks, but Kim is in Wisconsin and if she is passing the day without remembering, I am not going to be the one who reminds her. So I will not call or email her today. Yesterday I went to the funeral mass of a man I knew in town, not well, but well enough. He worked for our neighbors as a caretaker when they were away in Florida, and over the years we got to know one another as nodding acquaintances, and then, more. When we saw each other at the grocery store, we would stop and chat for a few minutes rather than simply nod and walk on by. Jack was a good man, a veteran, a dog lover like me. My profuse weeping at his funeral was way out of proportion to our casual connection, but I understand that I was weeping not for him, but for my daughter, and, weirdly enough, for another individual who had died long ago but for whom I had not properly grieved.

I wish I could find meaning in all this, today on the anniversary of my daughter's death. Essays are supposed to wrap everything up and teach us a life lesson, or at least be profound. But I find no reason here. She is gone; I miss her, I miss Jack and the other person too. Life goes on. --lorraine

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Adoptee Rights: The Clock is Ticking in New Jersey

Although the New Jersey ICare asked that letters be sent yesterday, if you were too busy, please write and send a letter or a post card today. But time is running out. Corzine will soon leave office.  
This is the letter I sent yesterday to 
Assemblyman Joe Roberts
Speaker of the Assembly
Brooklawn Shopping Plaza
Rt. 130 South & Browning Road
Brooklawn, NJ 08030 
Dear Speaker Roberts: 
I am writing to ask you to post the adoptees’ birthright bill (A-752) in the Assembly Human Services Committee and then released to the floor for a vote. Although I write from a neighboring state, I do so because sealed records have caused so much heartache and psychological stress—as well as physical—to so very many. 

I am a 67-year-old grandmother who relinquished a child for adoption in 1966. I was happily reunited with my daughter in 1981, with the blessing of her adoptive parents. For more than a quarter of a century we had a relationship that was sometimes up, sometimes down--but knowing where the other person was/who that person was made for a great sense of calm in both of our lives. My daughter had epilepsy and its attendant physical and emotional problems; she committed suicide in December of 2007. 

During my pregnancy I was misdiagnosed, and prescribed birth control pills for the first several months, with the obvious result of Vitamin B6 being leeched out of my body, a well-documented side effect of birth control pills. The amount of hormones in those early pills was up to ten times greater than today’s dosage. It is now suspected that a lack of B6 in the developing fetus leads to epilepsy, just as a lack of folic acid leads to spina bifida. 

When my daughter was six, she had her first grand mal seizure. Her physician contacted the adoption agency in hopes of obtaining updated medical history from me. Around this same time, I wrote to the agency myself and informed them of the birth control pills. Though I had not taken DES, its ill effects on the fetus and later the individual was much in the news at the time. The adoption agency did not even bother respond to her doctor’s letter. As for me, I was informed that she was fine and happy in her family. 

Yet years later, after my daughter and I were reunited, her adoptive parents and I jointly wrote to the agency, Northaven Terrace in Rochester, New York. The responses we received casually referred to the physician's earlier letter, sent a decade earlier. We will never know what might anything have changed if her physician, her adoptive parents, and I had been in contact, but surely her psychological stress—a trigger for seizures—could have been lessened for years. She was a girl who had to wear a hockey helmet to school because she fell down so frequently. She was a girl who needed all the love and reassurance she could get, wherever she could get it. Her parents unquestioningly understood this, and my husband and I became a part of their lives. 

Issues just such as this were considered by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare nearly three decades ago, when, after holding numerous hearings o the issue around the country, the agency included these words in a proposed Model Adoption Act in 1980:  
 “There can be no legally protected interest in keeping one’s identity secret from one’s biological offspring; parents and child are considered co-owners of the information regarding the event of birth….The birth parents’ interest in reputation is not alone deserving of constitutional protection.” 
While some provisions of the act were promulgated, the late Sen. John Tower of Texas, an adoptive father, led the opposition to this provision in the bill. He succeeded. He was on the wrong side of history. 

The time to correct this is long overdue. It is time for bold action.  Please release the adoptee’s birthright bill for a vote, and join other the states (Alabama, Alaska,  Oregon, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, Tennessee), all which have corrected legislation made in a different era that has become cruel and unusual punishment in this day. Kansas, in its wisdom, never sealed birth records from individuals adopted as children. 

People who were adopted as infants were never asked what was in their best interest, and women like myself were never given a choice regarding anonymity from our offspring. I did not seek it at the time; I did not ever. Confidentiality, then, was in effect forced upon me if I were to place my child for adoption, and at the time, I did not feel I had an option.

The time is long overdue to give adoptees the right that the rest of us take for granted, that is, the answer to the question: Who Am I? Identity is many things, but surely it begins with the knowledge of one’s true origins—the real names, the accurate date and place of birth, information that is contained on an original birth certificate. To say that it is inconsequential is to deny reality. One can not imagine what it is like to spend a lifetime wondering where he or she came from, and what is the story of one’s birth. Adopted individuals deserve to have the same rights as the rest of us--the right to one's own true history--and the state should not be in the business of protecting the very few birth mothers who seek anonymity from their children. You do not similarly protect fathers named in paternity suits. 

The bill that would give adopted individuals the same right as the rest of us, A-752, has been passed by the New Jersey Senate in a 31-7 vote and has the support of 50+ member of the Assembly. Gov. John Corzine has said he will sign the bill, but time is running out. 

It is your time to be on the right side of history. It is time to shepherd this bill to the floor for a vote. As Martin Luther King has said: Justice delayed is justice denied.

Lorraine Dusky 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Is Wanting to Know your Original Identity--Before Adoption--Natural?

Is it natural to want to know your heritage? is the question du jour to judge from comments about yesterday's blog. "It is the most natural and desirable aspect of an adolescent or young adult to have curiosity about his forebears, about his biological heritage and the sequence of his generational connectedness," Robert Jay Lifton, respected psychiatrist, thinker, author (and husband of adoptee and author Betty Jean Lifton) has said. We were both testifying in a trial in New York City for a woman who wanted to unseal her records in approximately 1977. "Incidentally," he added, "that curiosity is immediately stimulated by the very announcement that he or she is adopted. It is inevitable."*

My daughter (whom I relinquished to adoption) had an older brother, also adopted. He professed not to be interested in his natural parents or heritage, and turned down my offer of help after I found my daughter, Jane. He was in high school at the time.

Jane was always curious, and had told her parents she wanted to search as soon as she could; in fact, because of her epilepsy, her parents had tried to find out more about me, with possible contact in mind though ours was a closed adoption from the dark ages of 1966 in upstate New York. But they had no luck; I hired a searcher, found her, we met when she was fifteen.

Years pass. I was interviewing Jane for a book I would eventually write about our reunion and relationship, and she casually commented that her brother's not searching "was a gift he gave their parents."

Now, why is a lack of curiosity about one's forebears a "gift," if not a concept implanted by the culture?

More time goes by. Her brother marries, wants to have children. He now searches, hits a wall, and as far as I know, was unable to find out anything--another New York sealed-birth-records story. We all do things on our own timetable.

Adopted people who do not search are not deranged, as some of your seem to think I believe, but to not know one's heritage, and to insist there is no need to know, is surely a sign of cultural influence that is peculiarly American. We are one of the only countries in the world--if not the only country--where this attitude has taken such a firm hold. I am not saying that all adoptees or birth parents want to or will have a relationship, or should; that is for them to decide.

But as for the urge to know the truth of one's origins? Innate. Essential. Inborn. --lorraine
*Quoted from Birthmark. Because I had also testified in that trial, I was able to receive a transcript of it from the attorney for the adoptee, the wonderful and generous late Gertrude Mainzer.

PS: One last thought: if you have not yet written to Joe Roberts (see sidebar) in an effort to get the adoptee rights bill to the floor of the Assembly in New Jersey, please do so TODAY. If you are from New Jersey, were adopted in New Jersey, relinquished in New Jersey, so much the better; but if not, please still take the time to send a snail mail letter to him. We have been working to give adopted people their original birth certificates for more than two decades here, and we believe we have the votes--but the we can't get the bill to the floor for a vote. We want to inundate Roberts' office with letters. Without action, NOTHING HAPPENS. Now is the time to make it happen. Now is not the time to do nothing. Your letter might be the one that makes this happen. Tomorrow I will post the letter I sent.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why I Still Love Find My Family

Back to Find My Family because the show has certainly struck a nerve with lots of grumbling that it doesn't give adoptive parents the air time they deserve because they are the ones who bandaged the knees, did the late night emergency room runs, etc. We know, we have heard that before. We understand that adoptive parents did what we were not able to do: raise our children.

We know that many of the people who raise our children can't even talk about us as more than a "birth canal" and the "woman who labored my son."  We have seen those references, the first at RainbowKids.com and the second in a book called Wanting A Child (apparently anybody's child will do).

But folks, Find My Family is not about how noble it is to adopt because there are so many children who need homes, a questionable premise regular readers of FirstMotherForum are aware of. The ABC reality show is about the fact that simply obliterating a person's identity because he/she was adopted by a new family and given a second identity does not work! Thus the tears, thus the running up the hill to the family tree to meet the person or people who give back an identity that was lost, thus the emotions running high.

Reality all right.

Yes, I know, I can hear people clucking in the background that not every adoptee wants to search, and not every adoptee feels "incomplete" with knowing his or her identity, and to them I ask: Why Not? What makes them cut themselves off from their past, or the search for their past? Isn't it just a little weird to have your slate wiped clean at whatever age you were adopted and have the world tell you--what happened before doesn't matter? Isn't not wanting to know unnatural? Curiosity is normally seen as a sign of intelligence, but when an adopted persons asks Who am I? it is often interpreted as a sign of pathology.

Anybody thinking clearly realizes this is total baloney, the result of years of brain-washing by a culture that views adoption as a pure good, not complicated by the messy emotions of a grieving birth mother and a child who grows up confused. But adoption is painful. Adoption is always painful. The healing can only truly begin with full and complete knowledge of one's story, one's heritage, one's cultural and familial identity.

Yet in 42 states of the nation, it is still not legally possible for an adopted person--of any age--to say, Hey, you know, I want to know who I really am. I want to know what my story is. I want to know who my mother is and why she gave me away. And by the way, I want to know who my father is, too. Did he even know I was born? Was I given away because something is wrong with me?

Only six states allow individuals adopted as children access to their records: Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, New Hampshire, Maine, and Oregon. Delaware and Tennessee place restrictions on this information at the request of the birth parent (though only a minuscule number do this); numerous other states have various kinds of limitations that prevent individuals from freely having this information simply by asking for it. We are talking about letting adults have the same rights as the rest of us: the right to know from whence we came.

Getting the legislation passed to let the fresh wind of truth into an adopted person's life has proven incredibly difficult--and though I hate to say it because of the hackles this will raise, it's often an adopted parent who blocks the legislation. Weird, wouldn't you say? If they love their kids so much, wouldn't they want them to be free? Adoption then is more about ownership than our culture admits. The counterpoint to this is Lou D'Alessandro, the adoptive father and legislator who was the driving force behind the legislation that opened up New Hampshire and gave adopted individuals the right to have their original birth certificates.

In New Jersey right now, the Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts (see sidebar here for call to action) is sitting on legislation despite approval by the Senate in a 31-7 vote and the support of 50+ (of the 80) Assembly members. In New York The Adoptee Bill of Rights has been stalled in Codes Committee by the Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver since 2006, even though it has 70 sponsors.

What will it take to move hearts and minds not only in New Jersey and New York but in every state of the nation that punishes people for the privilege of being adopted? If it is Find My Family, we are all for it. --lorraine

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pieces of String to Short to Save

Chutzpah, a Hebrew word meaning “someone who has over-stepped the boundaries of accepted behavior with no shame” according to Wikipedia. An example of chutzpah a Jewish friend told me is a man who murders his parents and begs for mercy because he is an orphan.

Chutzpah abounds in the fantastical world of adoption. Well endowed (silicon-enhanced?) country singer Tammy Cochran tells of a near tragedy in her short life:
"I started adopting a child back in 2005 and ran into some difficulties pretty quickly with that adoption …. My facilitator got arrested for some illegal activities that she participated in. It kind of put all of our adoptions in jeopardy -- with everyone that was working with her on adoptions at the time."
Determined to have her child, Tammy persevered. According to “The Boot” (a website for country music fans with pages on such subjects as “Best Cheating Songs” and “Best Flat Broke Songs”):
“The adoption, which was supposed to take about nine months, took two long years to become finalized....
'It was a huge emotional roller coaster. I was home here in Nashville. At that point, my adoption was completely in jeopardy. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to bring my son home. I was very upset, obviously. I wrote this song 'Half the World Away.' It's kind of a lullaby-type of song pouring my heart out. I wanted to let this little boy know that I was going to wait for him as long as I had to wait for him. It just expressed what I was feeling at that time. And it honors the birth mom that had the courage to let her baby go.’
Honors the birthmother? Please. And that kid is Tammy's because she paid big bucks to a crook even though she never laid eyes on him?

And then there is mattress peddler Sleep Country USA, using foster kids for PR. Sleep Country asked for donations of pajamas for foster kids this summer. With winter approaching, it switched to requesting used winter coats. Now, it wants toys for Christmas. I’m sure foster kids feel good, going to Sleep Country with “foster kid” stamped on their foreheads to collect their pajamas, coats, and toys. And what are those foster parents doing with the money the state pays them to take these kids in? Surely they can afford $5 pajamas from Target, $20 coats from Wal-Mart, and a few toys from Toys R Us.

Hey, Sleep Country, why don’t you give pajamas, coats, and toys to kids who really need them, those from poor families whose welfare grant is about a third of what foster parents get?

Speaking of foster kids, The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department recently adopted a rule waiving camping and day use fees for foster families who adopt a foster child until that child turns 18. These fees range from $5 for day use in a state park to $24 for parking a RV.

An earlier rule gave families with foster kids free camping. Foster parents screamed “unfair” when they lost this perk if they adopted the kid. So, now they get to keep it. The whole thing sounds like the brainchild of someone who works for the OR Parks and Recreation Department who has kids from foster care, because it is so off the wall. Either the family has its own resources to care for the child, or they are receiving subsidies from the state. Either way the family can afford $24 to park its RV, which cost many thousands of dollars in the first place.

This fee waiver raises the question of how families prove they are eligible. (“See the wacky kid tied down in the backseat? We just adopted him.”) Perhaps the Department of Human Services will mail a park pass along with the amended birth certificate.

And because adoption-related stuff never fails to catch my eye, this last one, an ad for Chili’s restaurant ought to win the tastelessness of the year award “I want my baby back!” screams the ad, followed by “baby-back ribs, that is.”

Ron Blankenbaker, a long time columnist for the Salem, Oregon Statesman-Journal used to include what he called “Pieces of String” – short, telling nuggets – in his columns. The phrase comes from a story he recounted about children going through their deceased mother’s belongings. In the attic, they found a large bag filled with strings labeled “Pieces of String too Short to Save.”

If you have other short snippets of adoption related stories, please add them here so we call all enjoy them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ethiopian Adoption: Trying to Do the Right Thing

The other day while we were blogging about Find My Family, I got an email from a certain C.U., who was trying to adopt from Ethiopia. However, being a person of good conscience, she found that she and her spouse were going to adopt children who already had mothers. They were not orphans. She was horrified and stunned and did the right thing, as you will see. We've emailed back and forth a couple of times, and C.U. offered to share her experience here because it needs to be out in the wider world:
When we decided to adopt from Ethiopia, our assumption was that the children would be truly orphans! Having nobody! However, when we found out the children have living birth mothers, we simply asked our agency why the mothers did not want their children, and if a family sponsorship program would be more appropriate. Our agency [Ed: Celebrate Children International, Oviedo, FL] director became very defensive. She didn't know why the mothers didn't want to raise their children, we would find out those details when we  traveled, she said (when it would be too late). She said there was no such thing as family sponsorships in Ethiopia!

However, we have since researched and found out that there are many such programs and that any ethical agency would both sponsor and support these programs. We have gotten the feeling from the beginning that something very shady is going on, especially since the agency was directly involved in the relinquishment process. In fact, in the videos we received, we can see families that appear to be lining up in the background for their own interviews. Very, very fishy. And you are right, when I tried to bring this to the attention of other mothers in the group, I was reprimanded for questioning this wonderful woman who has a heart to find families for orphans. In fact, I was kicked off the agency's yahoo group and my login was disabled, simply for asking questions about ethics in adoption!!

I would love to figure out a way to shut this agency down, but that is not my primary goal. My primary goal is to find the children and return them to their families, since I believe that is where they belong. By the way, when we terminated our contract, the children went right back up on the waiting child list. And I have contacted all the photolisting sites that continue to list this agency's 'orphans' and they have ignored my plea to remove them from these photolisting sites.

We have been at a loss as to how to handle this. We knew we did not want to adopt children who were not orphans, yet we did not want to leave them in the hands of a crooked agency who would just adopt them out to someone else. For two months we have been working with the Ethiopian Embassy. All our communication has been through one person there. She assures us that they are all very concerned about our evidence, she assures us that our case is being investigated. However, two months have gone by, and even though we have given them the name of the city, orphanage, pictures of the children and their mothers, and the name of the facilitator we have heard nothing about the well being or whereabouts of the children. Why would they not be able to find the children unless they are not really looking for them?

Anyway. I have been under an incredible amount of stress, knowing we committed to these children and we don't want to feel like we abandoned them. We have no idea how to go about finding orphans in Ethiopia without the help of the adoption agency! I thought maybe with your passion for birth mothers and your research, maybe you would know someone who could help us? We would like someone to investigate what is going on and hopefully return the children to their families. We have contacted the State Department, Joint Council, U.S. Embassy, state of Florida. Nobody really seems to know how to help us. Do you have any ideas?

I suggested she work with one of the organizations such as my all time fave, Women for Women International, which supports women for a year in war-torn countries such as The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and teaches them a trade so they can support themselves and their children, but I realize that will not help her find the mother of the children she wants to support in Ethiopia. Jane suggested that she contact Congressperson or Senator and ask him/her to get after the State Department to look into this; her local media, and the local media, as well as a reputable agency like Holt in Oregon and ask for suggestions on what to do about this rogue agency.

I want to add that while infrequent readers of our blog will find that we are not happy with many adoptive parents, our hearts are gladdened when we come across ethical people such as C.U. In another email, she asked about the special-needs children that other members of her family had adopted--would we have them languish in under-funded orphanages when they could be with families who love them and give them the best care they can? Obviously not. But most people--lets say, Madonna, want and adopt cute, healthy kids. Who have families who want them and have a different idea of what adoption means than we do in the Western world where the social contract pretends that the past is of no matter, that heritage is not important, that parents give up their children and do not long for them all their lives.

Along this same vein, Chinaadoptiontalk has great post, "They Will Return to You," about the different perceptions of what adoption is to people in other nations, not Western. And while we previously have noted that Christian World Adoptions were not facilitating adoptions from Ethopia, their website says they are back at it again. How many more children and mothers must be savaged and lied to before agencies like Christian World Adoptions and others are stopped? How many more children will be kidnapped from the streets of Karachi or Kathmandu?
We will return to the subject of adoptee gratitude soon. --lorraine