It is often called “a beautiful choice.”
Single mothers who relinquish their babies are commended as selfless and heroic: their biological children described as loved and wanted. Sometimes there is no mother in the scenario, but only an orphaned child in a foreign country who is taken to America for a new start. Sometimes the situation involves a toddler whose parents are incarcerated or drug-dependent, and the State looks to find her “forever family.”
What all these scenarios have in common is this: They represent modern American adoption, and much like American Exceptionalism or capitalism, it has become one of those topics that many conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, do not dare criticize. In fact, many conservatives, especially Christian pro-lifers—and I am one—may not even realize that the subject of modern adoption warrants reflection.
Why criticize something as necessary and beneficial as adoption? Although churches, orphanages, and families throughout history have taken care of orphans and children whose parents have fallen on hard times, taking a child in as one’s own and erasing his biological and cultural ties is a relatively new and distinctly American phenomenon.
Criticism of many practices associated with adoption has occurred within the adoption community for many years, but for the most part, it has fallen on deaf ears. Whether the issue is romanticizing adoption, exorbitant fees, stripping adoptees of their identities and denying them access to their kin, minimizing the emotional brokenness of adoptees, injustice toward birth parents, or pushing adoption as a first choice rather than last resort, many adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, and former foster children are making the case that the time for adoption reform is long overdue.
Despite the positive feelings adoption evokes, few realize that modern adoption in the U.S. actually has its roots in xenophobia and anti-Catholicism, and an ill thought-out reaction to it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to C. Catherine Henderson Swett, a Catholic attorney and adoptee rights advocate.
“Catholic organizations got into child protection because Protestants and anti-papist, anti-immigrant forces were literally rounding up impoverished Catholic children and shipping them out west as labor,” said Swett, who has researched the history of adoption. Well-heeled Catholic families in New York became concerned about poor Catholic children being sent out on “orphan” trains, and formed associations that placed these Catholic children with other Catholic families who were not poor.
Adoption as practiced in the U.S. today began with the entrepreneur Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children's home. Prior to her work popularizing adoption, the eugenics movement had made Americans skittish about taking in the children of strangers, especially strangers who bred recklessly or were not self-sufficient and able to provide for their own, according to Swett. “Tann sold children at high prices and erased their history,” she said. This made the adoptive children more appealing to families. “Eventually the legislatures of all 50 States passed laws enabling adopters to obtain a state record of ‘Live Birth’ with their names on it (instead of their biological parents). The legislatures were led to believe they were shielding children from the damning label ‘illegitimate,’” said Swett.
With almost half of all children born in this country each year being born out of wedlock, many adoption advocates wonder why this legal fiction is still necessary, if it ever was.
Adoption, American Style: Stripping Adoptees’ Identities
One can see the legacy of this history erasure on social media and sites like FamilyTreeDNA. On Facebook, statuses pop up showing men and women, looking for their birth mothers and fathers, holding placards listing sparse details about their births. At other times, one can see photos making the rounds of birth mothers or fathers holding up posters listing information about babies they gave up years ago, and are trying to find. Sometimes it’s siblings you see, looking for a long lost brother or sister who had been put up for adoption.
According to research done by Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy on her blog, “Musings of the Lame,” today, in 48 states, original birth certificates are sealed, and adoptees are issued amended birth certificates in which the names of the biological parents have been removed and replaced with the names of the adoptive parents. Many adoption reform advocates contend that this is unnecessary, as an adoption decree already showed a change in legal custody. In only 6 states—Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon—can all adoptees obtain full access to their original birth certificates at age 18.
Many adoption rights advocates argue that adoptees’ original birth certificates should not be sealed, and that an amended birth certificate is essentially a legal lie. “Adoptees have a right to know the specific details about where they came from, who they came from, their medical history and anything else that pertains to them personally,” said Deanna Doss Shrodes, an adult adoptee, current Tampa Bay, Fla., area Assemblies of God minister, and creator of the Adoptee Restoration blog. “I struggled my whole life with my identity, wanting to know the truth.” In addition, having an original birth certificate enables one to establish ties to Native American tribe membership, to genealogical societies, and to prove eligibility for scholarships.
Shrodes goes on to say that kinship matters a lot to the non-adopted, as evidenced by the popularity of family reunions, amateur genealogy, and trying to figure out which family member a newborn baby looks like. Ancestry.com was recently sold for 1.6 billion dollars, and has 2 million paying subscribers.
Family Preservation v. Adoption
Traditionally in many other countries, children who were orphaned or whose parents had fallen on hard times were not stripped of their identities, according to Swett. “In [some] other countries, orphans are placed with a family—never given a falsified birth certificate. Nelson Mandela was adopted at 9, but when he died was buried with his kin.”
“We hear the term orphanages—most are not orphans,” said Swett. “My husband’s parents, who lived in Cyprus, could not afford to feed their kids. He was in something called a ‘Children’s Roof’—saw his mother and father all the time, worked in his parents’ coffee shop after school. He was intricately meshed in his family unit.”
Shannon Dingle, a Southern Baptist and mother to 6 children, four of whom were adopted internationally, said that parents like her who love adoption are in the perfect position to point out injustices in the system. Dingle argued that adoption by non-kin should be a last resort. “By last resort, that means attempts have been exhausted to provide support to the first family, to find possible kinship placements, and to explore in-country foster care and adoption options,” said Dingle. “International adoption shouldn't be the first step when a family is having difficulty caring for their child.”
“Why are we so quick to adopt orphans, but we aren’t as quick to help the widows and mothers behind those orphans?” Dingle asked, adding that some churches are beginning to offer orphan care, which supports family preservation, rather than adoption ministries. Christian ministries that support international kinship care include Compassion International, Project Hopeful (Uganda), and Kidmia International. Church ministries that support kinship care in the U.S. include Safe Families for Children and the New Life Center for Family Preservation (Florida). Organizations that specialize in family preservation with regard to at-risk and foster children in the U.S. include the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, The Kinships Care Practice Project, and the National Family Preservation Network.
Why has Dingle, whose background is special education, adopted internationally? One of Dingle’s adopted daughters is from Taiwan and has cerebral palsy. Dingle said that in Taiwanese culture, the idea of perfection is very strong, resulting in stigma and lack of services for people with disabilities, which leads to institutionalization for children with significant life-long disabilities. In Uganda, from which three of Dingle's other children were adopted, care by extended family members was attempted and in-country adoptive placements were explored, but neither worked out. International adoption was necessary too keep the three siblings together, find an adoptive family open to older children, and meet the medical needs present in the group,
One controversy surrounding international adoptions, according to Dingle, is just how many orphans there are across the globe. UNICEF, which keeps records on the number of orphans worldwide, counts children who still have one birth parent, and children who have been adopted by other kin, among the numbers, so there are actually fewer orphans than many adoption advocates claim, she said.
“People often express interest in international adoption because there is less involvement from birth parents," Dingle explained. “As adoptive parents, especially Christians, we should care about children's original families, no matter where they are."
‘Us’ v. ‘Them’ Mentality
“The biggest concern in the U.S. adoption community [is the belief that biological] parents have too many rights,” said Dingle. “I have a problem with that. We are creating this ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality: us who want to adopt, and them who are having trouble.”
“If I were falling on hard times, I would want people to have compassion,” she added.
Shrodes, who describes herself as a conservative pro-lifer, said those in the pro-life movement need to do everything they can to keep biological mothers and their babies together. “[I] do believe that churches should do more to preserve families. When a girl or woman says, ‘I'm pregnant,’ our first words in response should be: ‘How can I help you?’ not ‘Have you considered adoption?’"
“When talking with non-adoptees and particularly Christians, they seem to have an idea that family matters ... unless you're adopted and speaking of your first family,” said Shrodes.
Another issue surrounding an unexpected pregnancy is that a mother can give her baby up for adoption to strangers, even if the biological father objects and wants to take care of the child. “Adoption and abortion are not the only two choices in the event of an unexpected pregnancy and should not be constantly pitted against one another as an either/or. They are two separate decisions entirely,” Shrodes said . “One reason we can't get people to take a good, long, educated look at what needs reform in adoption is because people keep conflating it with abortion.”
“The Culture of Choice started with adoption,” said Swett. “We told women to pretend they were never pregnant, give up their babies, and go on with their lives. Abortion became easier—no stretch marks.” She added that when we tell women they are too young to be mothers, 100 will hear that message, and of those, one or two may choose adoption, but the rest will choose abortion.
One argument made by conservatives is that if more single mothers gave their children up for adoption, there would be less child abuse. However, according to information compiled by D’Arcy, if you look at all the risk factors for abuse and neglect as reasons to encourage adoption, adoption should equally be recommended to families where there are step-parents; mothers who are single due to divorce, especially those who are “dating”; anyone who has been abused as a child; unemployed parents; parents who have stressful lives; and children from large families. You would also need to remove all disabled children, and all children under the age of 5 from homes as measures to prevent child abuse or neglect.
“How about giving a helping hand financially to preserve a family instead of causing a needless adoption?” asked Shrodes.
“Scripture does not say we should only help those under 18,” added Dingle
Acknowledging the Brokenness of Adoptees
All of the people interviewed for this piece said they believe adoption is being romanticized by conservatives, pro-lifers, and Christians. “[It] is one of my biggest concerns over children being adopted,” Dingle expressed. “If a child needs adoption, some kind of brokenness and trauma has occurred and that is just not going to be resolved with warm, happy feelings.”
“If it is presented as this glorious thing, and the brokenness is not presented, the training won’t be given, or when parents go through the training , they think ‘Oh, this won’t happen to us,’” Dingle said. “When that happens, adoptive parents aren't prepared, and the children and families can suffer.”
“Regarding orphans, scripture indicates we are to help and care for them in their affliction and need,” said Shrodes.
“If one wants to follow the biblical admonition to help an orphan and care for them, they will start by realizing why the orphan is hurting,” Shrodes explained. “They will admit that the separation of a child—even an infant—from their first family is horribly traumatic.”
As an adoptee, Shrodes said she has a huge problem with people referring to modern adoption as a Christian concept, or something mandated in the Bible. “The truth is that adoption in the Bible is radically different from adoption in modern times. First of all when the Bible speaks of "adoption" it is most often referring to spiritual adoption, as in 'salvation.' The Bible’s adoption doesn’t include sealed birth certificates and [sealed] adoption records,” Shrodes said.
“And yet we keep defending this man-made institution with the Bible,” she continued. “So much is invested at this point in adoption as an institution, most people don’t want to take the risk of looking at what the Bible really says about it. It would require huge changes in not only their belief system but their way of relating to adoptees, current laws, and so much more.”
“I have met many adoptees, as well as first parents, who would never darken the door of a church because they've received hurtful and dismissive messages when they have dared to open up and share their feelings with spiritual leaders,” said Shrodes.
Telling an adoptee to just be grateful for being alive, to just trust in the sovereignty of God, or that his real parents are the ones who changed his diapers is not doing anything to address his pain and bring him healing, according Shrodes.
“This is a human rights issue. There is only a small fraction of organizations still opposing adoptee rights in America, and they are fighting hard to maintain control,” Shrodes noted. “I am saddened and embarrassed that a majority of those who oppose adoptee rights are religious groups and pro-life organizations. I am a licensed minister, a pastor of 26 years, and I am pro-life. And I am speaking out for change.”
“Too many people adopt to fill their needs, not a child's,” she went on. “When a parent—birth or adopted—parents to fill his or her own needs, he or she places unrealistic expectations on a child to fulfill his or her needs. This is very unhealthy and places an enormous, unfair burden on the child.”
Post-adoption issues are real, according to Shrodes and Dingle. “Yes, I know you don't think your child has them,” said Shrodes. “Yes, I know they never say anything. Yes, I know they have never brought anything up."
"They probably won't say anything to you,” she said, adding that parents should make counseling available to adoptees.
In fact, a recent study showed that adopted teens are far more likely to commit suicide than their non-adopted peers.
Foster Children and the Gospel of Luck
“Experts generally agree that family reunification via child-welfare services is ideal as it circumvents the trauma of childhood separation from the birth family, but the theory often does not align with the practice,” writes Tomas Rios, himself a product of the American child-welfare system. “The easy, institutionalized demonization of birth families in these systems is where it all starts to go wrong.”
He said surviving the child-welfare system in the United States pretty much boils down to luck.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A little over 78 percent of children enter child-welfare because of neglect, and much of this is most likely either caused by or exacerbated by economic hardships, according to Rios.
He contends that “government services such as job training, housing assistance, and parenting classes could offer a suitable framework for keeping families together,” and would be much less expensive than foster care or adoption. For conservatives and libertarians who are put off by such government spending, surely churches and nonprofits could pay for and offer such a framework in order to help families stay together.
In cases of abuse or abandonment, particularly those cases in which there are no extended family members willing or able to take care of children, there would still be a need for non-kin to care for and possibly adopt foster children. Some of those adoptive parents found themselves drowning, along with children they adopted, because of prior trauma the children suffered, and insufficient resources.
Devin Rose, a Catholic apologetics author, and his wife, Katie, believed they were infertile when they decided to adopt toddler twins from the child-welfare system.
“In our case, we hit a sort of perfect storm: After we had adopted the twins we improbably got pregnant, and just before our son was born the twins’ older sister had to be removed from a neglectful caregiver and came up for adoption,” Devin Rose said.
The Roses had four children under age of three, and as it turned out, all three children they adopted from foster care had experienced severe previous trauma. “We were not aware of the serious possibility that young children we adopted—babies—would be so wounded as to make it difficult or impossible for us to help them connect to us. That is not something that the adoption agency or caseworkers tell you. In fact they themselves may not even know it,” Rose continued.
Most days, the three oldest children spent the day constantly screaming and engaging in destructive behavior. Rose’s biological son had to begin seeing an occupational therapist due to noise sensitivity, and his wife began having panic attacks, and was diagnosed with acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
After consulting with in-home adoption therapists about working with their three oldest in order to heal their emotional trauma, Rose and his wife realized he would need to quit his full-time job, hire a cook and a nanny, and deplete their savings while he and his wife spend all of their time working with the children, and even with that there was no guarantee the children would find healing. After talking to their pastor and spending a lot of time in prayer, they made the decision to find other homes for their adopted children.
“We like to think that ‘love is enough,’ but we loved our children—all of them—and gave everything we had to connect with them. It was not enough. Love is not enough,” he said.
Family and friends shunned Devin and his wife and treated them as pariahs because of their decision. It got so bad, the Roses had to change parishes.
“Families who dive into adoption without understanding the very real possibility that their child will have significant special needs are in danger of failing. The other children in the family suffer, the parents suffer, the adopted child suffers by not getting what he or she needs. No one wins, all because the family took too much on, more than they could handle,” Rose said.
“Situations similar to our own are happening all over the country right now,” he continued. After posting his family’s story on his blog, he said he received numerous private messages from people in similar circumstances.
Rose went on to say that everyone involved in adoption needs to be better informed. Adoption caseworkers need to better understand the signs of early childhood trauma, including emotional trauma. They need to be more aware of the personalities, limitations, and resources of potential adoptive families, including what children those families already have or may soon have. Adoptive families need to be given much more information and resources, access to therapists, occupational therapy clinics, and early childhood intervention programs.
What Reform Might Look Like
When talking to the people I interviewed for this article about reform, several of the same topics came up again and again. First, adoption of any child by a non-family member should be an absolute last resort. Every effort needs to be made to help the first family keep a child, whether it is the biological mother or father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. Adoption should not be romanticized, but be promoted as an emergency response when every other option has been investigated. Adoption must be child-centered, and not about starting or completing another person’s family. Biological mothers and fathers should not be coerced to give their children away, and should instead, be given assistance to keep their children.
Second, there is a desire in the adoption community to deal with the money issue: Either make adoption free or significantly streamline the fees so they are reasonable, and make those itemized costs available to adoptive parents. This reform will reduce much of the commodification aspect of adoption, and possibly lead to adoption agencies being less predatory.
Adoptees should not have their identities and their biological ties erased. All adoptees, past and present, should have access to their original birth certificates. Original birth certificates need to be accurate, and include the names of the biological mother and father.
“Adoption shouldn’t be secret,” said Swett. “It should be publicly celebrated. No secret court sessions, no closed files. It should be celebrated like in a marriage, so people can object,” and biological family can have the opportunity to adopt the child.
Organizations, agencies, and churches need to stop presenting the positive aspects of adoption without honestly addressing the trauma and brokenness that precede it. Pastors and churches need to find ways to minister to adoptees, as well as to biological parents who have relinquished their children, and adoptive parents who are struggling. Shrodes made the suggestion that in order for an adoption agency to be licensed it must make lifelong counseling available to adoptees.
Churches should consider changing their focus, and consider providing programs to help parents and their children stay together, both here and abroad, in the form of economic help, job training, parenting classes, and child care. If adoption fees are reformed, perhaps that would free churches and church members to raise money to help family members and non-kin who have adopted foster children to get the counseling, therapy, early childhood intervention program access, and respite services they need.
Conservatives would do well to finally admit that family and biology are as important to adoptees and their parents as they are to everyone else.