No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption
I was born a researcher – or maybe I was just a good student. My dad started taking me to the library by the time I was 6, and I wrote my first research paper on the Great White Shark in second grade. I’m not sure where it came from, but we had reams of that green and white striped continuous-feed computer paper, which I used to make a stuffed Great White Shark that accompanied the paper. My next paper was on Vermont, including details about Montpelier and how maple syrup is made. Point is, by high school, writing was like breathing and research was second nature to me. No wonder my first real job was as a research librarian at The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
I’m not sure at what point the Spence-Chapin Agency began offering fully open adoption as an option – meaning that both the adoptive parents and the birthparents had full contact information for each other, and some sort of agreement for ongoing contact. The agency would have no role in facilitating the continuation of the relationship, once the adoption papers were signed. Optional counseling would, of course, still be available, should either party choose to pursue it. When I asked about open adoption in 1994, I was told, “We don’t really do that at Spence-Chapin.” Interestingly, that was enough for me at the time, and I moved on without pursuing it any further. Perhaps I knew that if I waited long enough, we’d get there in our adoption.
The thing that’s always perplexed me, though, even way back when I was still pregnant with Eric, was the notion that in 1994 – more or less the dawn of the Information Age – any adoptive parent could believe, even for a moment, that a fully closed adoption was still possible. I’d seen the TV shows. Fictional private investigators could find a person based on a single word scribbled on a matchbook cover. And I once heard of a real-life game (I was unable find details tonight on the interwebs after a comprehensive 10-minute search) wherein a person was assigned the task of finding a stranger in New York City simply by asking random people if they knew that person. On average, it took contestants just 6 hours to locate the person in question.
Closed adoptions? Pshaw – the agencies and attorneys were just conning these prospective parents into believing their adoptions would be closed. If they could string the parents-to-be along under this misapprehension, an adoption transaction would likely transpire – what happened after the papers were signed wasn’t really their concern.
As for me, Nancy Drew Jr., I was stashing away details that Kathy and Bruce revealed to me in the back of my mind for later review and use in tracking them down, if need be. Not to steal Eric away – just to find out who and where these people were. After all, they would be raising my son.
Case in point: Eric’s family lived less than an hour away from New York City by train, in a New Jersey township. Throwaway facts until you realize that there are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each of which falls into one of five types: 254 boroughs, 241 townships, 52 cities, 15 towns, and 3 villages. So now I’ve narrowed down the place to a township within roughly 30 miles of Manhattan. Then, at one point during a pre-adoption visit, Kathy revealed that their church had recently had a new roof installed on it. Bingo! A New Jersey township within 30 miles of NYC whose Catholic church had a new roof – we were in business. I was a trained researcher. How hard could it be to find this church and surreptitiously inquire about the family who’d recently adopted a baby boy born in Hoboken?
As it turns out, I would not need any of this information, as the single detail I would need – their last name – fell, almost literally, into my lap. What began as a “closed adoption” would soon enough become open. Hence my entire premise: regardless of what the adoptive family is promised, in terms of privacy and security, any domestic birthmother with enough will power, information collection savvy, and research tools (now readily available at her fingertips) could probably discover the identity of her adoptive family. And if a birthmom could pony up the bucks for a private investigator? All bets would be off.
Please understand, I am not advocating for birthmothers to go sneaking around to find their kids. A direct approach is almost always a better option. But sometimes, less adequately counseled adoptive parents mean well while the baby is still unborn – yet, once he or she is delivered and the papers are signed, they let their fear take over and they run or hide, regardless of the plans for openness they promised, pre-birth. If such a breach of contract were to occur, should the birthmother just slink away, without any recourse? No – she most certainly should not. And what about the birthmom who didn’t know she really would prefer an open adoption? Should she be shut out because the window for agreeing to something she didn’t know would be important to her has now closed? Again, I say no.
Here’s the thing: like it or not, in the internet age, a guarantee of privacy is a thing of the past. Even people who avoid virtual exposure at all costs can be found. A year or so ago, I found online a copy of the original deed to my parents’ house – the one where I grew up – with my dad’s signature and all. He died in 2005 – and he dabbled with the internet for perhaps 9 months, back in the early days of AOL. He most certainly did not knowingly put that kind of information in a public place where people like me could stumble across it. It’s just the way life is in this technology age.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure the search process would be quite as easy for international birthmoms – which seems to be why so many couples find international adoption such an enticing option. In my opinion, however, whatever adoptive parents “gain” by avoiding the birthparent interaction is nothing compared to what their children lose when there is no information available about their bio parents, from medical history to cultural identity to the origin of distinctive personality traits. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the things adoptive kids long for most is a sense of who they are. Yet much of that so often is lost with an international adoption.
According to the bulk of the literature I’m reading online these days about the adoption process, closed domestic adoptions seem to be mostly a thing of the past and are highly discouraged. Thank god! Of course, I met a woman recently who told me she “just didn’t think she’d want any connection” to the birthfamily – something about not wanting them “meddling” and fearing the thought of “being in constant competition” with them. Thankfully, she’s not an adoptive mother – and if she were, I’d hope she’d receive plenty of counseling before being greenlighted to enter into this most unique way of making a family.
Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.