Sunday, May 6, 2018

What if our son's birth mother wants a relationship with him--but not us? Why mothers should be leery of 'open adoption' contracts

Lorraine and daughter, Jane, 1982
In a sign of the times, The New York Times ethics columnist Kwame Anthony Appiah is tackling adoption again, after a recent debacle in a column a few months ago.

This time, the subject is exactly what the first part of the headline reads, for that is the headline in the New York Times Magazine over his column as The Ethicist. The kicker in this adoption story is that the son in question is "about 25" and the contract was a deal which stated that the adoptive parents could somehow can control the adopted person's relationship with his natural mother up until he was 25. The contract stated that he could search--with the adoptive parents' permission--for his birth parents (mother and father) after he was 18, but not search for them without their permission until he was 25.

Clearly this was a so-called "open adoption" contract that relied completely on the agency staying in business, and that fire or flood or other natural disaster did not destroy any records that connected Mother A with Son B. The letter writer goes on to say that the birth mother somehow found the family's home address (quelle horreur!), wrote them and asked to open up the adoption further.

One of the first books about
the failed social policy
of closed adoptions. 
"We were shocked and a little fearful that she found out our last names and address and broke what had been an invisible barrier; fortunately, once we responded through the agency, this avenue wasn't open again." Clearly the answer was: No. Did I mention that these people had been present at the birth and had spent time with their son's birth parents? So while they had met face to face, and been present at the most intimate moment of birth and bonding between mother and son, yet the mother had never been able to learn their names and address without sleuthing on her own. This is not what a truly open adoption is; this is a half-way measure that agencies came up with, and are still using, and many a young, inexperienced, stressed woman is being coaxed into adoption with promises of openness that are in many cases illusionary.

Obviously her sleuthing, the letter writer implies, makes the natural mother some kind of criminal. Or nearly so. Because, you see, "The parameters of our adoption agreement were solid, albeit tinged with some regret on the part of our son's birth mother."

A wakeup call about
the effect of being
relinquished to adoption. 
When young man went off to college, his mother contacted him through the internet--directly! We'll assume he was 18 by this time. "This was not what we agreed to at all, and it was especially surprising and disheartening that she contacted him without including us." She invited the son to her wedding--flying him out to California, having him stay for a week, flying him back--but she did not invite the adoptive parents, nor did she seek their permission to write him, and besides, while they wanted to send her a present and their warm wishes, she apparently did not want that either! She finally did send her email address to the parents, but by that time, they took her unresponsiveness to their entreaties as an insult.

Now the son is at least 25, as the letter opens with the "about 25 years ago" they entered into this arrangement. The son has met his mother, been to California a couple of times, but the letter writer (Name Withheld) is miffed that the woman didn't uphold the letter of the contract, and the fact that he has a relationship with his other mother is "not the connected, united family situation we were hoping we could offer our son."

First memoir from natural
mother, published in 1979
Name Withheld wants to be the "good parent" and write a friendly letter for the "sake of unification of all parts of our son," but she "hasn't been able to." Should she make the gesture, she wants to know, "after we followed all the mutually agreed upon rules and she didn't?"

I'm going to start off by saying these adoptive parents are not the horrifically bad adoptive parents I know of who enter into open-adoption agreements without seemingly ever seeming to comply with even a shred of what's in the contract. Even if the agreement was that the mother had direct contact with the adoptive parent or parents--and thus, the child--provisions of contact have been known with regularity to dissolve within days, weeks, months. Parents magically have a new address, change their phone number to an unlisted one, and send photos of the back of the child's head, which technically fulfills the letter of the contract but most certainly, not the spirit. No matter what was tearfully promised with all sorts of emotional inducements, some adoptive parents run like the dickens from any contact and poison the child toward his natural mother. Name Withheld did not do this, but I write this in hopes that it reaches someone considering an open-adoption contract without knowing exactly who the parents are, and where they live and what their occupation is. That way, tracking them later via the internet should not be necessary.

In this case, the boy/man knew he was adopted from the beginning, and Name Withheld says they complied with photos and updates as per the agreement. Where everything went off the rails, however, was that as adoption openness in society changed--and increasing numbers of reunions made the news, perhaps my own included--the natural mother understood that the deal she made had regarding her own child was not only wrong for her, it treated her son as a possession. In effect, such a contract seemingly legalized a kind of emotional slavery that kept him in bondage until he was 25. Twenty-five!

By then he could have enlisted in the armed forces, bought any number of guns and ammunition, had sex, fathered a child, married, divorced, remarried, dropped out of school, taken up cliff diving--one of the most dangerous sports there is--committed a serious crime, been arrested and tried as an adult. But lo! he was supposed to Only Search for his Birth Mother with his parents' permission. I've written before how adoption contracts are akin to slavery, and that usually gets a lot of people upset, but this contract lays bare how keenly adoption is related to slavery. For it treats the infant who will one day grow into an adult as a possession traded between two parties, and gives the new owners supposed control in the execution of how said individual lives his life until age 25. His life. Not that of his parents. His life.

In New York, where we are still dithering with sealed-records laws that go back to the Thirties, a committee of interested parties, the Adoptee Stakeholder Workgroup, recently released its report. In it, we were pleased to see that at least one of the people involved pointed out how adoption is related to slavery:  Samantha Howell, Executive Director of the New York State Association of Social Workers (NYSASW), stated that the only other population in our nation’s history who could not freely access their birth records besides adoptees were slaves. Ms. Howell gets it.

In the contract under discussion here, we do not blame the mother who gave up her child for signing such an absurd document, but we sure as hell can lay the blame at the adoption agency or attorney who concocted such a load of bullshit and pretended it was a legal document that the adopted person would have to comply with. And then got the anxious mother, only having recently delivered a child, to sign what was the boilerplate contract presented to her by the agency. No one was looking out for the best interests of the mother, or the child. Every time we write about open adoption, we hear from women whose contracts were summarily ignored, no matter how seemingly heartfelt the promises made, often at hospital bedside.

Mr. Appiah's response notes that the mother making contact with the young man who is also her son was in "her interests" and not anyone else's. He gets around to the point that no matter what, the son is now an adult and can do what he wants. As for any relationship with the birth mother that Name Withheld wants to have with her, Mr. Appiah rightfully points out that the son is the best person to bring that about to "accommodate you." He then asks why she wants that, and points out any any strain in her relationship with the son is likely to arise from the resentment she feels towards the birth mother for not sticking to the letter of the original "open-adoption" contract, and that spending any time with the birth mother while she is still resentful--and of course she is--may not be the best course of action.

Overall, Appiah's response is on point, but for all his degrees and honors, he misses the basic point: that the contract treated the son as chattel, to be traded and contracted for in an agreement over which the said individual had no part. It's obvious that the permission he was supposed to seek until he was 25 was totally bogus, and any good lawyer could have seen that. The provision insisting he ask permission until age 25 was no more than a sop to the adopters, a sop that could never be upheld in any court of law.

And that is what is absurd and upsetting about Appiah's response as The Ethicist in the Times. A few months ago, he dealt with a letter from a birth mother who wrote that she did not want to see the child she gave up for adoption, and gave that mother the go-ahead to not do so, since she had signed away her rights as well as obligations to her child.

While his own black-and-white pedigree is quite storied (check Wikipedia), he seemed to have no regard for the feelings of the adopted individual. In this case, he seems to have made some progress: the last one ended up with 397 comments, mostly from angry adoptees, and of course, yours truly. Following this column, the comments (97 at this writing) are mostly about blithely ignoring the fact that the son who the mother still wants to control is already 25 or nearly so.

And no matter what the Times printed of her letter to The Ethicist, the adoptive mother's desire to be involved with the other mother of their joint son is related to her need to keep control over that relationship. Say the young man broaches the idea of spending a Thanksgiving with his original family one year. I can almost hear her saying, Let's invite 'Susan' and her husband to ours. Not said: That way we can control what happens. That way we can tamp down how you might react to her. That way we can observe and watch and see that you are still the good son to whom we will include in our feelings, and our will, that you are the "good son" we invested all our emotions and money in for years. That way we can see that you are not that enthusiastic about her, but love us better. That way we can see if we should give you that trip to Thailand you are angling for, and pay for your graduate school when you get back.

If I sound harsh here, it's because I've heard of adoptive parents doing just this sort of thing, or adoptees being cut off if they searched or expressed a desire to know their natural parents. When I met my own troubled daughter at 15, her mother questioned me (as in an inquisition) about whether I really didn't have relatives who were institutionalized. Our daughter had epilepsy and at that time, was in a learning-disabled class for algebra. At the same time, she was also writing poetry for the high school magazine.

As for his chastising the natural mother for not wanting to stick with the contract, I was reminded of another incident in my life. Years after I found my daughter, and she was spending summers with us, a childless lawyer/friend, having dinner at our house with his wife, asked this: "What part of your pie chart was not selfish when you contacted your daughter?" I gave up my daughter in 1966, in the era of closed-adoptions only, and I found her and reunited with her in 1981, when she was 15. (Story told in detail in hole in my heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption)

I'd been grilled in court by attorneys opposing unsealing records, listened to agency workers and their attorney berate me at hearings, but I'd never heard such a bald statement of resentment and disapproval directly from anyone before. He is godfather to an adoptee, daughter of mutual friends. I don't remember what I said, but instead of throwing the bum out, I tried to explain about adoption from the adopted individual's point of view and sent him home with some material to read, including The Adoption Triangle. It was eventually returned I am certain, unread. Appaih's response is not as overtly nasty as that comment was, but he certainly still displays little to no understanding of the adopted individual's point of view, or what the contract implies. Mr. Appaih himself is half black, and it is surprising that he does not see how the issue of ownership is implied in the contract, or make note of it.--lorraine

What if Our Son's Birth Mother Wants a Relationship with Him--But Not Us? 
What if I Don't Want to See the Child I Gave Up For Adoption?
Adoptee Stakeholder Workgroup (Also see link on FMF Facebook page)
Considering Open Adoption?  (Read our permanent page)
The Adoption Triangle
by Arthur D. Sorosky, MD, Annette Baran, MSW, and Reuben Pannor, MSW.
"A bright glimpse of a previously dark subject.... The book is as true and open as the changes advocated...comprehensive, factual, forward-looking, totally honest, readable and thoughtful." -- Los Angeles Times

You Don't Look Adopted
by Anne Heffron
July 7, 2016ified Purchase


  1. I wouldn't give these adoptive parents much credit for complying with the "open" adoption agreement. They were required only to send letters and pictures through the agency. When the first mother tried for more contact (breaking the invisible barrier), they refused and employed the adoption agency to slam the door. More sensitive adoptive parents would have tried to inform themselves about the effects of adoption on the first mother and the child and explored whether to make the adoption fully open. If they had done that, they might now have the connected family relationship they desire.

  2. A rather intelligent comment was that that 18 year with parental permission-25 year without searching thing, must really have been about the support/openness the AGENCY would give, which the adoptress would have misunderstood. The adoptress simply did not know what the mutually agreed upon contract said, made her own version of it and Appiah fell for it... as usual.

  3. By its nature, adoption is an aberration.

  4. I suspect the open adoption agreement was what is called in legal arguments, a "contract of adhesion". This means a contract where once party has all the bargaining power and the other party doesn't even know what's in the fine print. An example is a rental contract prepared by a slum lord stating the landlord can't be sued for injuries caused by his negligence. Another example are banking and investing contracts requiring disputes to be resolve by arbitration. Congress made these illegal under the Financial Protection Act but the R's are trying to change the laws and bring them back.

    Vulnerable pregnant women often don't know they can negotiate the adoption agreement. They sign the documents prepared by the agency which naturally favor the party paying the bills. This was true for Catelynn and Tyler of 16 and Pregnant. Only later did they realize that the adoptive parents has total control of the relationship.

  5. I agree with you, Jane. Also, I don't see how you can include terms that dictate whom your son can and cannot contact once he no longer is a minor. You cannot put restrictions on his actions as an adult while he is a powerless child.

  6. Tiffany, The Ethics column written about here only appeared on line in the middle of last week, and in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday. Please resend your comment without the erroneous message in your first line. Appiah had another column--which I refer to in the post--at the end of January and which we also wrote about at that time. Thank you.

    1. I don't remember what I wrote anymore. :) Severe jet lag from getting home very late last night from vacation, which explains why I was having deja vu reading this and thinking it was referencing the article from January. That, and why is this dude repeating EXACTLY the same mistakes yet again?! It's like, wait, haven't we been here before? This horrible advice sounds familiar.

  7. I found the column being discussed on-line. Here are a few thoughts:

    First, the letter-writer acknowledges that the situation was "tinged with some regret on the part of our son’s birth mother." This does not seem to be a reference to her current feelings. It seems to indicate that they had some understanding at the time that she did not really want to part with her son.

    Second, she writes that they "agreed to therapeutic meetings that his birth mother requested with adoption specialists because she wanted to loosen the arrangements and spend time with our son. Every expert we met with advised us that we should stick with the original parameters of our agreement. We attended every meeting she arranged."

    This ignores the fact that most of the so-called experts are very pro-adoption and will generally support the preferred position of the adoptive parents. There isn't much support for first mothers seeking a greater relationship with their relinquished child. And most first mothers don't even know who the people are that might support a deeper relationship between the child and the natural mother. For example, I doubt that the first mom knew the names "Lorraine Dusky" or "Joe Soll." Of course, had the adoption taken place 15 years later, she probably would have found these names, and blogs like FMF, on-line. But I doubt that the APs would have made different decisions with regards to opening up the adoption.

    Third, Appiah writes "Her decision to make contact with your son was a response to her own interests, not to anyone else’s." Why is it unreasonable for a mother who loves her son to want a relationship? Why are the needs of the first mother automatically defined as selfish? Why is it wrong for her to seek a relationship that would bring her happiness? This is the inverse of the way prospective birth mothers are coerced by telling them that they should be selfless.

    Fourth, Appiah says "Given that she hadn’t heard from him, she had no evidence that he wanted her in his life. Had your son wished to contact her, he was free to get your permission to do so, and he didn’t." This completely ignores the pressure that children feel to not upset their APs by appearing disloyal. And it ignores the possibility that the young man wasn't sure whether his b-mom even wanted to know him. I seriously doubt that these APs ever told him, when he was a kid, that she had stated a desire to be a part of his life growing up and was told no.

    Finally, it seems clear that there is an entire story on the other end--the first mother's end--that is pretty typical of what we have heard so many times, but that is completely ignored by the letter-writer and the columnist. It sounds like the first mother never wanted to give up her child, didn't have anyone looking out for her, had to deal with lawyers who represented the needs and desires of the PAPs, desperately missed her child and tried to open the adoption, and eventually resigned herself to counting down the days until his 18th birthday.

    (To be continued in the post immediately below this one)

  8. Jay, that's why those ages are more likely really about the ages on which the agency would disclose information.

  9. (Continued from the post immediately above)

    At this point, the natural mother--and perhaps her extended family--are in a totally different place than the the APs are. They have a different history that they are looking back upon. (I suspect that the young man's first mom would be particularly disdainful of the narrative regarding the "mutually agreed upon rules"). They are looking back at an unjust system that broke the b-mom's heart. They are looking back on APs who broke the b-mom's heart. They are looking back on 18 years of regret and sadness, that was finally alleviated somewhat when the child became an adult. The APs' vision for the future is the furthest thing from their mind, and no doubt has been for decades, ever since a truly open adoption was denied to the b-mom.

    The a-mom seems clueless as to how far apart she and the b-mom are. She actually asks "is it up to me or us to make the gesture?" At one point she says "we’re still in a standoff of sorts." I don't see how it could be more clear to her that the first mother isn't interested in knowing her, and wants a totally separate relationship with her son. She isn't waiting for a gesture, and doesn't feel like she is in any kind of standoff. Say what you will about Appiah, but at least he seems to get that much.

    1. Thanks for writing all that you have, Steve. To my mind, you really get it.

      This line really jumped out at me in particular:

      'Why is it unreasonable for a mother who loves her son to want a relationship? Why are the needs of the first mother automatically defined as selfish?'

      Thank you for your understanding and empathy. It's really appreciated by me.

  10. Adoptive parents have no right to force a "contract" on a 25 year old man. They certainly didn't include the fact that he would be an adult or nor did they ask him for his permission to do this. What they did wasn't even legal and personally if I was him I'd sue their asses off along with the agency. It is more and more obvious that the adoption system goes against all adoptees Constitutional rights and that is unacceptable.

  11. The law should be the final arbiter in these contracts. I do not support birth mothers who break legal contracts anymore than I do adoptive mothers who do. Sadly there are both.

    My cousin whose adopted son has had a lot of issues did not welcome the entrance of his birth mother into the picture at a very difficult time as it gave him options and outs that were not good for him with his first mother who was eager to curry favor but had no idea of the difficulties. It did not end well and anyone who saw what happened would agree that the it was not s good time to bring in new factors. That the birth mother could not wait the year until her son turned 18 is particularly galling. Whether it would have made a difference in outcome is unknown but young adults and adolescents often have difficult stretches, often quelled by time and maturity

  12. Yes, the law should be and is the final arbiter on this and all contracts. This contract did not appear to have any restrictions on the first mother searching; it sought to prevent this through secrecy which didn't work.

    I can't imagine a judge upholding the provisions regarding the son searching. A person cannot be bound by a contract to which he was not a party. The hubris of the adoptive parents in this case is shocking. Whether it is beneficial for the son to have a relationship with his first mother is something for him -- not the adoptive parents to decide. He appears to have been 18 when his first mother contacted him.

    What's sad is how little this adoptive mother and some others know about the effects of adoption. If they knew how much first mothers grieve over the loss of their child, perhaps they would have second thoughts about adopting. These adoptive parents think that the adopted child's interest in the first family is mild at most. They're unaware of the power of the connection to the natural mother and family.

    1. I wish more adoptive parents could be open to the importance of that connection. Sorta kinda off topic link. I'm usually not a fan of the reunion stories in the media because I feel like they make adoption out to be some pretty experience it is not, but I did like this one I read this week:

      The adoptee, Air Force Col. Bruce Hollywood, talks about how he had never really been interested in searching for his mother, but his adoptive parents had tried to encourage him and even offered to pay for him to go to Japan: "It took that heart attack in 2005 for Hollywood to set out to find his birth mother, something his adoptive mother, who had passed away, had repeatedly encouraged him to do. Before that, he said, he never felt something was missing. His adoption was not something he had reflected on much....His parents had told him his birth mother’s family name and even offered to pay for a flight to Japan for him. He had always declined."

      I was full on crying by the end.

      Although I agree it would have been better had Hollywood and his mom never been separated, it sounds like his mom understood the societal shunning he would have experienced and made the choice she felt was best for him. (It's a serious case of "society really sucks" because it sounds like that was solely her reason, which is so sad, but if you understand Japanese culture, even today, then you know she was right to expect he would be shunned.). And it sounds like his adoptive parents really got that, and they really understood the impact it had on his mom. They respected that it was his choice to initiate the reunion, so they could only encourage it, but they also could have chosen to say nothing and be happy that he never seemed interested, and they didn't do that.

      I hope you check out the article. His mom sounds like a lovely person, and it does have a happy, if quite bittersweet, ending.

    2. Tiffany, I liked this story too. I do wish that when the a-mom went to see the b-mom she had brought their son with her. It would have been wonderful for her to see him once. And I wish they had exchanged contact information. But that wasn't the attitude toward adoption back then. For the a-mom to have gone to the first mother with a picture was pretty remarkable in its own right, by the standards of the day.

      And I also fumed when I thought of the societal attitudes that made the mother feel obligated to part with her son. It is horrible that people hold these values. Promoting adoption is not the answer--changing the values is.

    3. Tiffany, I prefer the news that in the second month of this year in Haarlem, the capital of North Holland, (spelling it Harlem, could be better English, but we would not want to give New Yorkers false hopes), a guy born in Thailand got his adoption revoked, based on the single fact that he could not handle the identity he HAD as a result of the legal fiction. So he made his first mother his only mother again, before he went to search for her... That's real hardcore-going-into- reunion, retaking your birth right identity before searching, so you can just be looking for your mother. It might still be hard for her when she would be found, granted.
      No hard feelings for the adopters, nice people, contact will continue as is, he just had serious problems with having to pretend to be their son, so they are now in the having-to-give-him-up-for-the-best situation and feeling that that HURTS...

  13. Okay - so, what I want to know, since there are a number of great legal ideas here - what do you do when you find out that the adoption was illegal due to a "lie" told to the judge (the current judge of the same court was the person that questioned this), and the "adoptive parents" removing the child from the country for 7 years to prevent the parent for stopping the adoption? How do you deal with that kind of issue?

    1. I have no idea, Lori. Sounds like "legalized" kidnapping. And sounds impossible to fix. Karma may get them.



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