' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Waiting on the sidelines: Peter Kassig's first mother

Monday, December 15, 2014

Waiting on the sidelines: Peter Kassig's first mother

First mother Rhonda Schwindt waited for months for news of her son, Peter Kassig, until she learned from news reports that he had been beheaded by ISIS. Because she was Peter's first mother, not the legal next-of-kin, the U.S. government refused to keep her in the information loop.

Rhonda Schwindt placed Peter as a newborn for adoption with Paula and Ed Kassig, who kept in touch with her over the years, she told Barbara Harrington of Indiana Public Media. Schwindt later married and had two children, Jana and Sam. When Peter turned 18, he asked to meet his first mother, and they were able to reunite within a day. Peter became a part of the Schwindt family and formed a close bond with Jana, 12, and Sam, 10.

After a stint in the army serving in the middle-east, Peter returned as an aid worker in Syria. At first the Schwindts heard little from him, but in the summer of 2013 he started communicating, They made plans to get together for Thanksgiving, but on October 1, 2013, Peter just disappeared--his Facebook page and his organization's website was gone. Around Christmas, Sam wrote to the Kassig's and asked about Peter. At the end of February, the Kassigs told the Schwindts that Peter had been taken. For the next six months, the Kassigs passed on information as they received it. Peter wrote one of the two letters he was allowed by his captors to his sister, Jana.

About a year after his capture, the Schwindts learned from Google alerts that ISIS had announced that Peter was its next target. At that point they heard nothing from the Kassig's. Rhonda doesn't say why she didn't hear from the Kassigs.

Peter was killed on November 16. The Schwindts had no communications from the government during the entire time of his capture. They were not invited to Washington to be included in strategy sessions. They were not allowed to participate in helping secure Peter's release. They have not been offered counseling or any other assistance. The government explained that was because they were not legally the next-of-kin.

But as Rhonda pointed out in the interview, family transcends the legal definition of family:
"I did sign away my legal rights. But that doesn't make us less of a family for Peter. And Jana and Sam didn't sign away any rights....And Peter wanted to be a member of our family, and Peter was a member of our family. Jana and Sam are his blood relatives....they are no less a brother and sister than any other brother and sister than I was to my own brothers." 
In his letter to his sister, Peter emphasized the importance of family:
"Family is undeniable the most important thing. If there is one thing I wish I appreciated more, focused on more, and missed the most is my family. When everything else is gone, family is all you have."

Although Peter's story ended tragically, there is a spark of joy for his first family in having the time with him that they did. Sadly, other first mothers do not even have this opportunity. They are forced on the sidelines by their lost child as is the case of Heidi Russo, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's first mother, and other first mothers whose children refuse them even a nodding acquaintance

The Schwindt's situation reminds me the plight of gay partners in the past when they were not allowed by hospital staff to visit their dying lover because they were not "family." In some cases, relatives of the deceased prohibiting them from even attending the funeral--and in movies much has been made of the cruelty of this omission. The government's rigid definition of family, particularly at a time of this tragedy, seems cruel and unusual and furthermore, unnecessary. Yes, it would have involved going outside of strict protocol to include Rhonda and Peter's siblings, but Peter's adoption and bond with his natural family and siblings should have triggered an ounce of compassion in someone to see that his situation--and the people waiting for him--called for greater inclusion. The Schwindts were family to Peter, as were the Kassigs, and that should have been good enough for Uncle Sam.--jane
Kassig's Birth Mother: 'Peter Was A Member Of Our Family

Should 'adopted' be mentioned when people are in the news?
NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's mother speaks of her love for him--and he can't take it.


Birthbond: Reunions Between Birthparents and Adoptees — What Happens After
by Judith S. Gediman and Linda P. Brown
"In 36 interviews with women who relinquished their children to adoption, the authors present anecdotal documentation of what happens when birth mothers and their children meet. The case histories are bittersweet. For some, reunion provides enrichment and release from guilt; for others the event is wrenching, especially when it occurs in the adoptee's adult life. In considering the many facets of adoption--including the views of birth fathers, adoptive parents, grandparents--the authors of this helpful study allow us to hear voices and attitudes that could change future adoption practices in this country. --Publisher's Weekly. Co-author Brown, a first mother, was legislative director of American Adoption Congress at the time of publication in 1989; her co-author was her childhood friend who did not know of the daughter until many years of secrecy. 

Although this book has been around for a while, its verities still stand: "It is probably impossible for those of use who are not adopted to fully appreciate what it means to know that the parents with whom you grew up, the people whose name you bear, are not your natural parents..The idea that we could just as easily have been someone else--a person with a different name, a different set of parents, in a home with different characteristics, different siblings, different traditions--is not an idea that most of us dwell upon because, in some fundamental way, we accept the fact that we are who we are...." --Page 45. 

It would be a good holiday gift for someone adopted, or a first mother, in recognition of her status. Extremely helpful in helping mothers understand the roller coaster of emotions involved in reunion. 


  1. So, so sorry for all your pain and loss. When we give our babies to strangers to raise we loose everything...but we do this for that one child. We may never get anything back. If we can at least see our childrens successes in life, we can know that choice was the right choice at that point in our lives. Im so sorry that you have been robbed of that second opportunity to matter in your son's life. I don't think anyone understands that you lost a son too. My heart aches for you....a birth mother who wishes someone cared.

  2. (formerly one of the anonymous posters) Wondering if anyone knows *why* the government excluded the first family?

    Was it a *cultural* problem--i.e. first family doesn't count?

    Or was it a *legal* problem: only legal family could be directly involved?

    Both are wrong, but each requires a slightly different approach to solving.

    I like the analogy to the hospital situation with same-sex couples. Because even if the obstacle is just cultural, not legal, we need laws that protect those who are discriminated against because of a biased culture.

    1. My wonder is..
      since Petter chose contact with his first mom (so the info had to be available) Why didn't his second mom call her with the news?
      hurts my heart so much

    2. We will likely never know what was really going on in the minds of the second family. What we do know is that, prior to Peter's death, the second family *was* in contact with the first family, giving them regular and timely updates.

      I will go out on a limb and say that precious few people can relate to the trauma of having your child kidnapped and held hostage by a terrorist organization--and then ultimately beheaded.

      I can only begin to imagine the state of shock the second family was in when they got the news. Last year, when facing a family crisis that was far far less traumatic than this, I have sometimes found myself unable to reach out to other biological family members, people I have known my whole life. Honestly, sometimes it was hard to muster the will to even call my husband, who I rely on most for support. Sometimes, I couldn't even do that.

      People respond differently to extreme stress and trauma. The fact that the second family wasn't immediately thinking about the first family in the face of such devastating news isn't really all that surprising--and may not be because the devalued the first family.

      This is one of many reasons why the government should be obliged to contact the first family if the first family requests to be kept in the loop. If this happened to a divorce couple--with, say, only the custodial parent getting government notification--I think most people would see that as wrong.

      Let's hope that some day this will be seen as a basic right for first families.

  3. From the Indy Star article: "Rhonda Schwindt was 25 at the time of Peter's birth and could have supported him financially. But she said her life was a wreck and she wasn't ready to be a single mother."

    25? This wasn't a BSE mother. She made a choice.

    "Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible."
    ~Doris Lessing

    A POed Adoptee

  4. The Schwindts should have been notified, absolutely, given ethical concerns. But governments are all about protocol. As an adoptee raised by a father who worked in the upper echelons of the DoD, I can tell you that there is so much damn red tape and other bullshit. It is horrible, but honestly, making sure that the Schwindts were notified was not on the list of tasks of staffers.

    This also has to do with the way adoption is enshrined in our society. Legally, Peter had one family, and that's where the focus lay. Not that it's right, but that's how things stand. Adoptees are seen as having (or supposed to have) one loyalty: to our APs. Such a nightmare.

    Too many shitty variables here. Yes, the could haves and should haves lie in a huge heap.

    It says volumes that one of two letters he wrote was to his sister Jana, and that he sought out his first family when he was 18. Those relationships were meaningful to him: if people had looked the slightest bit beyond protocol, they might have seen that. PETER was the main concern; his wishes, his support, and then supporting the people he loved after his death.

    The loss is keen and raw for both of his families, but only one is recognized, and will be, until laws change and adoptees are seen as human beings with complex ties. Even better, I would like to see adoption rare, rare, rare. I wouldn't wish this limbo on anyone.

    Anonymous @ 8:46, thanks for the Doris Lessing. Right on.

  5. My daughter made her "choice" prior to the birth of her daughter. She spoke to her uncle (the person who adopted her daughter) frequently. Then she signed the voluntary termination of parental rights while under the influence of pain medication only a few days after the c-section she had to have to deliver her daughter (not planned, BTW). She did it without reassessing her "choice" after the birth of her daughter and with adults who were clueless as to what she was going through under laws designed to take advantage of women in her situation. Unfortunately, she also did it in a state with irrevocable consent. No take backs for her. She was 20, and it was 2010. So, she isn't a BSE mother, either. Does the fact that it wasn't during the BSE make it a "choice"? I don't know. However, we live with what we did.
    She's been allowed to see her daughter 4 times in the past 4 and a half years. My husband, me, and our other children haven't been allowed to see our granddaughter at all. It was a kinship adoption. The ONLY reason we went through with an adoption is because this was my husbands brother. Whatever. The law only recognizes my BIL and his wife as her parents. It could care less what her mothers intentions were when she relinquished. It could care less what is in our granddaughter's best interest. It could care less about the loss felt by first/birth mothers and their families, or how they are forever waiting for any news of the child they lost to adoption. If everyone would stop believing the propaganda that women who relinquish go on to have better lives and forget about their children, maybe we wouldn't have BS like this with Rhonda Schwindt being excluded. Maybe the government would have some compassion.
    However, we all know the adoption industry relies on society believing women walk away without looking back. So, according Rhonda Schwindt a seat at the table to be a part of strategy sessions for a missing child she was never supposed to miss in the first place may damage business. And, I dare say allowing Peter Kassig's n-family to be any part of a public face in Peter Kassig's story would be considered bad for the business of adoption. A lot of adoptive parents would probably resent it, and they do pay the bills.

  6. Kellie C: I personally hate the focus the only years prior to abortion as when there was a "choice" available to women considering relinquishing their babies. Today's young women are being lulled into the idea that giving up their baby is such a great "gift" to those who want children and don't otherwise have them, and the laws are so punitive to women like your daughter, and social workers really do troll hospitals looking for tips on which young women might be vulnerable, and agencies do their damnest to make the women who make "adoption plans" feel as if they are god's gift to the human race....and so, the "choice" aspect becomes fogged in a blanket of half information and often, outright lies.

    We have a couple of posts by women who felt totally pressured to give up their babies once they stepped inside an agency, and were brainwashed into even talking to prospects who might give up their babies, as well as adoptive parents. You can find the posts if you use the search function in the upper left corner. Search for "Bethany" and ...."Pressure to give up baby."

    I'm so sorry this happened to you and your daughter. The situation you describe --and with a close family member--is totally despicable. Yet another heart-breaking adoption story. When will they every end?

    1. Thank you, Lorraine. The CPC did a number on our daughter. She was set on not making us responsible for her daughter after they "counseled" her even after we repeatedly told her it was okay. We would take guardianship. After I explained I was afraid of a stranger taking her, and that anything could happen and we wouldn't be able to help, she agreed adoption wasn't the way to go. However, once she was presented with her uncle and aunt as an option she thought that was better. Honestly, I did, too. I thought it was a great idea, at first. I started having my doubts later, but I never did enough to stop anything.
      I can't say I didn't play a roll. I take responsibility for my part as does my husband. It's just too bad everyone who played a part won't take responsibility.
      If the laws weren't so horrible in Illinois, my daughter probably could have got her daughter back.
      I hate to be a pessimist, but I don't see any of these stories ending any time soon.

  7. I think Peter Kissig's natural family was treated as they/we always are in adoption: they were rendered invisible, their feelings were disregarded, their profound connection to their son and brother was trivialized, and their grief was unacknowledged.

    This is my, and my family's, experience of adoption both during the closed years of my son's childhood and young adulthood, and subsequently post-reunion as a result of his adoptive family's (and particularly his adoptive mother's) hostility to our existence in his life.

    I really feel for Peter Kassig's first family. Their pain will be magnified immensely by the lack of respect and acknowledgment shown to their grief. This is why society has rituals for grieving, to help those who mourn. This family won't have that.

    It also strikes me that Peter Kassig's feelings are being disrespected too.

  8. So very sad concerning Peter Kassig's situation, as well as his first family's feelings and concerns being disregarded and ignored during such a scary and horrific time. There's simply no humanity at times.

    This reminded me of when my (birth) daughter was much younger. We started in 1985 with a "semi-open" adoption, turning fully open when she was 9. I often thought in the early years "what if" something happened to her adoptive parents? Like maybe both were killed in a car wreck or something. Would anyone even think to notify us?? Would we be remembered? Heaven forbid if the whole family was killed...how long would it take for us to find out? Was it written in the will to notify us? Did a trusted family friend have instructions to contact us? To this day I do not know if any care was taken in our direction should a tragedy occur.

    Just something to think about...

    1. I think this is an important point for adoptive parents. I took care of all this for our daughter. It took a few minutes to send her mother all pertinent contact info of all named guardians in our will. Then I printed out the parents contact info and put it with our will. My in laws know of our open adoption, and we spoke with them about how we want it maintained. When we update our will again (not something we do often as it's several hundred dollars), we will include all this info as well as a maintenance of contact section for the guardians to adhere to, legally. But I do trust my in laws, especially my MIL, to follow our wishes. They obviously wouldn't be our choice for guardians if I felt I couldn't.

      But no one ever talks about this stuff. It's really important, but it just gets ignored. Of course, I have friends who don't have wills for the care of their children if something was to happen to them, and that is just unbelievably careless to me. So I suppose I should not be surprised that many adoptive parents do not take care off this.

  9. Current news story out of Tennessee. http://columbiadailyherald.com/news/local-news/mother-fights-her-14-year-old-son-s-custody-rights-father The father was not allowed to enter his name on the birth certificate. The family says that their rights under the Indian Child Welfare act are being ignored. They are looking for legal representation.

  10. We are left on the sidelines for everything.... and sometimes we end up cleaning up the mess left behind. I know I have to clean up - pay for things that should have been taken care of 10 years ago, long story. At any rate, sometimes I feel like all I am is a wallet.



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