' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Who serves 'Adoptees' Best Interests'?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Who serves 'Adoptees' Best Interests'?

You couldn't pick them out of a crowd, but adopted people are different. Two traits set them apart: a vague sense of disconnection of dislocation, and difficulty forming a strong sense of self. The lack of a specific heritage, which tells them how and where they fit into the cycle of life, is thought to be the root of the problem. To be missing a past might not seem like much, but that's because the rest of us have always known where we came from. "My Mom has really gotten interested in genealogy in the last few years," one 16-year-old wrote me, "and it's fine for her, but it doesn't do anything for me."

Adoptees also lack family medical records at a time when doctors place increasing emphasis on them. At least, I told myself, that was something I could give my daughter when I gave her up for adoption.

My social worker insisted that I fill out detailed medical histories on myself and her father, and I eagerly complied. Through the years, I volunteered to pass on additional information; responses to my letters always indicated that the agency's social workers had no further contact with the family after the adoption was made final. The letters said her family was delighted with her at the time of the adoption. The tone of the letters was friendly, conciliatory; I accepted their content on faith.

When I first became aware that the birth control pills I took during my first trimester of pregnancy might have harmed my daughter, placing her in a category of children similar to those whose mothers took the drug DES during pregnancy, I wrote again. The American Cancer Society and experts at the Memorial S.loan-Kettering Cancer Center with whom I spoke agreed that she should be examined regularly for gynecological abnormalities. I begged for the adoption agency to pass this information on to her parents.

I wrote three letters in as many months before I received a reply. After seven more months, the director wrote and said that my daughter's doctor reported that she did not have the symptoms that I was concerned about. I was assured that her medical needs were being met. Yet when her parents and I met for the first time not long ago, [in 1981] we wondered on what grounds the director had made that statement, since Jane--that's my daughter's name--had never had a gynecological examination. They also wondered why their doctor's letter to the agency--written when Jane had her first outbreak of epilepsy at age 5--never was answered. They were asking for the information I was volunteering to give.

As for the medical histories I filled out, who knows? Jane's parents were not given a shred of medical information; the only thing they knew was my nationality. Nor was the adoptive mother, who has Irish ancestors, told that Jane's real father also had Irish ancestors. It may not seem like much to know that you are part Irish, but it is alt least a tangible piece of information for a teenager grappling with questions of identity.

They did receive a letter about the birth control pills, but it was worded so casually that it was treated with no seriousness. Perhaps the director of the agency assumed that I was lying when I reported what the doctors had told me. We know that the letter from Jane's doctor was received because that's how the agency traced her family to its current address, a feat that took them from August 1978 to March 1979. Is it possible that the agency's filing system is so disorganized? Hardly. It is likely that the social workers were following the letter of New York State law, which says that the original mother and adoptee should not have access to each other's name except for "good cause." Although with medication my daughter did not had a seizure for the past two years, for many years they were frequent and furious. What are the criteria for "good cause"? Whose needs are being served?

Jane's adoptive mother thinks she knows. "The agencies forget who the primary client is--the adopted person. We pay the bills and so they do what they assume we want, even at the expense of the child." Her adoptive father regrets that he was not more aggressive in seeking information, had not written more letters. Our daughter said nothing, and I couldn't think of anything to add.

The case could be dismissed if it were rare, but it happens time and time again, judging by the stories we hear after reunions occur outside agency channels. Medical records are valuable data for anyone. For adoptees, they have become a rallying point because no one denies their importance. but they are only a piece of the whole.

It is in the nature of man to find people one is connected to by birth. The Italians have a saying: Blood seeks blood. At last, my search is over. The injustice of sealed records can do no further damage to me or my daughter. But there are the others. They number in the millions.--lorraine
This originally appeared on February 6, 1982 in The New York Times. I came across it the other day when going through my files, and decided to record it here. So far, I have not been able to pull it up on the Times website, though it must be there in the scans of the day to day paper, but I haven't found it yet. Though easily I can pull up the two regular columnists who appeared that same day.  How easy it is to disappear. Fortunately, I have a hard copy of the whole page, though now it is quite yellow with age.

Birthmark was published three years earlier, in 1979, when I did not know where my daughter was; I had hoped the book (with relevant details about where and when she was born and adopted) would yield up my daughter, but that did not happen. Jane's adoptive mother had been told about the book, but, I believe, not that the natural mother gave birth in April of 1966 in Rochester, New York. In any event, two years after publication I paid a searcher and my daughter and I were reunited; later I learned he had already searched for and located my daughter, from the clues in the book. He was just waiting for me to ask.

Later research about seizures show a connection to a lack of vitamin B6, or pyridoxine. Oral contraceptives negatively interfere with B6 absorption. I took birth control pills for about three months during the early stage of my pregnancy, after an early test (done in a lab) indicated I was not pregnant. I had gone to the doctor too early in the pregnancy. I knew, but I didn't want to know.

Nineteen sixty-five was far removed from the Swingin' Sixties and the Woodstock vibe, which really occurred in the Seventies. In the Sixties I knew "out of wedlock" pregnancies were scandalous and single mothers were shunned. I was a Catholic girl with little knowledge of birth control and felt deeply deeply shamed. Abortion was illegal and not easy to come by.

I never imagined that 32 years later, I would still be at this, still trying to get New York and all the states to give adoptees the right to their own, true identities. While sorting through the Times on line yesterday, I came across the quote by Cyril Means, the (late) attorney on the suit brought by ALMA to unseal birth records for the adopted: "Apart from slavery there is no other instance in our laws, or in any other jurisprudence in civilized system of jurisprudence, in which a contract made among adults, in respect of an infant, can bind that child once he reaches his majority."

Change is coming, yet in most states this is still true. 


  1. Change on this issue are impossibly slow. I can not believe adoptees are just expected to live with no background and no medical information. No one else is treated this way.
    I have my annual medical checkup coming up. My MD mails the paperwork to fill out ahead of time. I crossed out the entire page asking for medical info, as I do every year, and mailed it back. This year I received a call from an incredulous nurse saying the doctor could not believe I still did not get my medical info. I explained the problem, again, and the nurse sounded like she had never heard of such a thing. She went on to say " it's very important, you know." Yes, I know.

    Thanks for a great post. You always hit the nail right on the head! If only we could get some key people to listen !

  2. Lorraine wrote:"You couldn't pick them out of a crowd..."

    To some extent, I have to disagree with this. I can often tell when someone is adopted even without being told. And it's not because I meet the person with their family members and they look nothing alike.

    I remember reading a book called, "Natural cures 'they' don't want you to know about", and I just had an overwhelming feeling that the author, Kevin Trudeau, was adopted. So I researched his background and it turns out he is in fact an adoptee from the BSE. Mr. Trudeau is now in prison but that's another story.

    I also remember someone telling me that her (bio) son was in a boarding school for children with behavioral problems and that the school was filled with adopted kids. She mentioned that she could almost always tell right away if one of her son's friends was adopted. She described the adoptees as 'traumatized' children.

    I also had an experience where I was told a woman was adopted and I found it remarkable that she looked exactly like her 'adoptive' mother. Since the adoptee in question was born in the 1940s, I wondered if her adoptive mother was actually her aunt or perhaps even her own natural mother who adopted her to adhere to the proprieties of the time. A scenario a la Loretta Young.

    I realize none of this is scientific, but as I said at the beginning of my comment, I can't totally agree that adoptees can't be picked out of a crowd.


    1. Wow, that is interesting. You know we did a whole post about Loretta Young's daughter...

      Loretta Young's 'adopted' daughter wasn't adopted at all

      Jack Nicholson's "aunt" was really his mother; he found out late in life.

      As for the boarding school tidbit: I once wrote that the son of friend's of ours who ended up for a year at a boarding school for troubled kids told his parents that he was the only one there who wasn't adopted or whose parents weren't divorced. When I looked the school up in the internet, they specifically mentioned programs for adopted kids. When I see stuff like this, and later hear all the hullabaloo about Primal Wound theory, I wonder why there is such resistance to it's basic premise: that being relinquished at birth is a huge trauma that nothing wipes away, and that some will react more intensely than others.

      I admit that since there have been such eruptions about Primal Wound (here and elsewhere) I almost winced when I wrote that first paragraph--even though I say "You couldn't pick them out of a crowd." I think you need even more radar than I have...and maybe the kind that comes from also being adopted..and Primal Wound.

      I cannot recall the name of the school, darn it. I think it had "Brook" in the title and it is in Massachusetts or Connecticut or some other New England state. Later, I noticed the website no longer referred specifically to problems for the adopted. If anyone can find, please let me know.

    2. Maybe it takes one to know one.

      Btw, Eric Clapton's 'mother' turned out to be his grandmother and his 16 years older 'sister' turned out to be his mother. He learned the truth about his parentage at the age of nine and said the fact that his natural mother did not take much interest in him and left him in the care of his grandmother was the issue that most negatively affected him throughout his life.

    3. Here is another time when I just knew instinctively that the children were adopted. I was watching an episode of the (now defunct) Katie Couric show and she was interviewing a young man and woman who were twins. The story was about how their father was bludgeoned to death by their mother's lover, a man whom they were also very close to. Practically as soon as I tuned into the program, I had a sixth sense that the twins were adoptees. And they were. They were adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage. Now, obviously, the twins looked very much alike and perhaps I picked up that they didn't look like their parents. But the images of the parents were rather fleeting and not that clear, and since I wasn't seeing the twins right next to their parents I'm not sure it was that.

      The twins, Greg and Alexa Ammon, actually made a documentary about their lives. While I wouldn't describe their situation in American as a 'better' life, they would have had a hard life in Ukraine, too. They were born to an alcoholic addicted prostitute. And they ended up inheriting a cool million each after their adoptive mother passed away from cancer not long after the tragic death of their father.


  3. I did a presentation at a meeting of some district directors of what was then called Dept. of Social Services (in Michigan; department name has been changed at least twice since then). One of the exercises I put them through opened their eyes on the medical issue. I gave each a copy of a medical intake form from a local doctor's office. I told them no one would see their answers; they were not to be collected or read by anyone else. I instructed them to fill out the forms ONLY with family medical history that was known before they were born. In other words, any knowledge of family health conditions that had been diagnosed since their birth was not to be included.

    It took the directors a while to think and write, and I didn't see much actual writing going on; there apparently wasn't much to write. When they finished, I asked them how confident they would feel presenting this form to their doctors for help in diagnosing a medical problem they might have. I saw frown lines on a sea of faces. I continued. Were there any deaths in their family from diseases not named on the forms they filled out but now known to be genetic? And lastly, if they did need more current family health history information, were there family members they could consult to get it? I didn't have to connect the dots. The looks on their faces told me they got it. And it was as if they hadn't ever thought of it in those terms before.

    What did it accomplish, though? Apparently nothing. They didn't come forward to testify for our access bills a few years ago.

  4. When my adoptive parents "got me" in 1956, my natural father told them that my mother died less than a month previously from uterine cancer. Because of this, as a teenager, I had twice yearly PAP tests, looking for uterine cancer.

    I was reunited with my father and siblings and extended family (natural mother’s family) in 1974. No one talked about health issues. They were too busy comparing me to the others as to who I looked like, who I sounded like. Meanwhile, my father handed me my mother's death certificate. Cause of death: cancer of the kidney.

    My grieving father had given the wrong cause of death to my adoptive parents (I do not blame him in any way – he had just lost his wife of ten years and the mother of their five children). They, in turn, gave me the wrong information. I, in turn, had been tested for the wrong medical problem.

    In college in the 70s, I developed very frequent bladder and kidney infections. I asked my gynecologist if it was possible that these were indications of cancer. That is why we petitioned the hospital for my mother’s records, and mine, at my birth and during the three months prior to her death. To my relief, no, my bladder and kidney problems were due to stress and not inherited tendency to cancer.

    My full blood siblings, however, drilled it into me that I “did not have my facts straight”. They told me off, saying that Mom died of cancer of the uterus and that I was lying. Apparently, our grieving father had told them that our mother died of uterine cancer. Apparently he had never given them our mother’s death certificate.

    Additionally, the judge who presided over my adoption never bothered to ask my father for my mother’s death certificate. This was in 1956, a time when society believed that babies were “blank slates”. Environment meant more than biology.

    My father was not required to fill out medical history forms during the months before my adoption became final. Nothing was mentioned about his medical history, nor of his parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. My father was not required to provide any medical history of his deceased wife’s family. My father finally told me in 2003 what his parents died of a few years after he relinquished me. His father had gangrene in his leg. His mother died of colon cancer.
    Health care is vital. We adoptees need to know the truth.

  5. If you look closely, watch a family together, you can sometimes pick out the adopted one. I never knew my genealogy, I have been reunited, and still don't know all of my own genealogy but I am driven to search for other people's family tree, and I am good at it. Just love it. I do still struggle with looking in the mirror and seeing myself, I'm getting closer, but there is a disconnect.

    1. Meow: I never thought of it like that, but I guess I see people sometimes and think: must be adopted. Personally, I know one family of prominence in the arts and the daughter adopted two children 20-something years ago. Then she had a son. That son is so clearly a member of the family--college, looks like grandpa (the star of the family) and his uncle and his mother, etc., and I also know the adopted son. Nothing about his physical type or facial features resemble the family in any way; he works in a hardware store; the biological son is going to graduate school. I can't imagine how much like an odd duck the adoptee feels, though his adoptive mother is a terrific person. I was at a luncheon recently with all of them, and oddly enough genetics came up and the adoptee pipes up with the data of how many chromosomes we share with our biological parents, and I thought: of course he knows that; he is paying attention--why wouldn't he?

  6. Robin, you are absolutely right about Eric Clapton. His bmom was knocked up by a Canadian soldier, and gave birth at the age of fifteen or sixteen in her parents' living room, attended by her mother as midwife, while Nazis aircraft bombed the city.

    He found his father in Canada, well into EC's own adulthood, but his father died before he actually could meet him. Clapton admits having problems achieving true intimacy with women until fairly late in his own life. He's been a loving father to a daughter born to a woman he did not marry before he married Pattie Boyd Harrison. Both had admitted that their mutual drinking problems, plus Pattie's inability to bear children, scuppered that relationship.

    Both EC and then-girlfriend Lori Del Santo were shattered when their four-year-old son fell many stories to his death that a cleaner had left open. Hell, I was destroyed: I once snagged a prime parking spot at my ob/gyn's office shortly after my middle son had received a life-threatening medical diagnosis, and just before my youngest was born. I collapsed into sobs over the steering wheel when "Tears in Heaven" came on the radio. Another driver approached my open window, asked casually, "Are you coming or going?", took a closer look, and then gently extracted me from my car so I could subside to hiccups on his shoulder. "That song, it gets me too," he confessed as we mopped our faces and said goodbye.

    EC's most recent marriage and fatherhood appears fairly stable, fortunately, but he suffered more than a lifetime's worth before reaching that point.



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