Monday, April 21, 2014

Open Adoption: The Extraordinary Ordinariness of My Extraordinary Family

Victor Habbick
FreeDigitalPhotos.net
It's the week of school vacation in the Northeast. My daughter is in the backseat of a car, heading south. She is squished in the backseat between her two brothers. It's been a long drive and everyone in the car is ready for the drive to end and the week at the beach to begin. It's a family scene that is ordinary to the point of cliché. But in this case, it is also extraordinary.

The situation is exceptional because the mother in the front seat of the car is the one who lost the daughter years ago to the foster-care system at a time when her own life was in crisis. Back then, she could hardly have imagined that she would be as she is now: healthy, sober, stable, with a good job and a strong relationship, heading south for vacation with a backseat full of kids. But there she is.

It's exceptional because there is another mother—me—states away from the traveling car, receiving updates via text messages and snapshots of road signs. When I began my journey into foster-care adoption, could I have predicted this outcome? No way!

My family is one that is stitched together by adoption, biology, and choice in almost equal measure. And for us, this is ordinary. I rarely write about open adoption anymore because the communications, the visits, the meals shared, etc., are simply part of the fabric of our life. It is ordinary that my daughter's other mother has become one of my closest friends. It is ordinary that the daughter we share communicates openly and frequently with each of us and that we communicate openly and frequently with each other. It is ordinary for two middle-school girls and two pre-school boys to be running around in my backyard with a soccer ball as the adults chat in the kitchen, preparing a holiday meal.

It's so ordinary that I sometimes forget how extraordinary it is. There are many ways to be a family. This is mine.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Yes, We Are Aware That Bad Things Happen in Biological Families, Too

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos
In the past year, as a result of several factors (the publication of Kathryn Joyce's book The ChildCatchers, the Reuters rehoming scandal, and media attention to several heartbreaking cases of adoptee abuse or death at the hands of an adoptive parent), the issue of abuse and maltreatment of adoptees within adoptive families has been receiving an increased amount of attention, both inside and outside of the adoption community. Adult adoptees and others have also been drawing attention lately to less extreme but more widespread instances of microagression against adoptees, such as those illustrated at the tumbler account Sh**ty things adoptive families say to adoptees.

From my point of view, this increased awareness and attention is a very good thing. Until recently, the occurrence of abuse within adoptive families was adoption's dirty little secret obscured by a cultural tendency to believe only good things about adoptive parents. Among my acquaintances are adoptees who attempted to report abuse as children only to be dismissed and disbelieved by people who could not believe that the adoptive parents (perceived as good, selfless, and rescuing) could be capable of abuse. It may seem to some people that the current level of attention to adoptee maltreatment is overkill, but when an issue has long been kept in the dark it is natural and right for it to receive extra scrutiny when it at last comes to light.

But, not surprisingly, with the increased attention has come the backlash, primarily from adoptive and prospective adoptive parents. We are being reminded with increasing regularity that "abuse happens in biological families, too" and "some people are just horrible people who would be bad parents in any circumstances." We are reminded that lots of people, not just adoptees, have troubled relationships with their families. We are accused of giving a pass to biological parents and of always focusing on the negative in adoption.

To this I say, just stop. Please.

First of all, such critics are raising awareness of something of which we are already perfectly aware. Because biological families are the norm and adoptive families the non-normative exception, every single one of us, adopted or not, almost certainly knows more non-adopted people than adopted ones. We all know of people who were abused by biological parents. We all know people who have crappy, dysfunctional relationships with family members who are related to them by blood. We know that plenty of non-adoptive people have also had sh**ty things said to them by family members. No one who is working to raise awareness about maltreatment of adoptees within adoptive families is unaware of or denying any of this. In fact, in some cases, the very people who are raising awareness about adoptee abuse are the same people who are on the ground working to improve conditions and outcomes for all children.

It is a fallacy to assume that raising awareness about one kind of abuse or maltreatment denies the existence of other kinds of abuse. Those who have been speaking out in recent years about sexual abuse by members of the clergy, for example, are not implying that only clergy members commit abuse or that all clergy members commit abuse. Rather, they are raising awareness about one kind of abuse that occurred within a particular purview and was long kept in the dark. They are also examining the factors that are unique to this particular context of abuse and that need to be explored with an understanding of the context, such as the systemic cover-ups that occurred within the church itself.

Similarly, child abuse may happen in non-adoptive contexts, too, but it is still important--essential even--to look at the specifics of abuse and maltreatment as they occur within the adoptive context. In many cases, maltreatment in adoptive cases can be linked specifically to adoption-related causes, such as lack of parental preparation for the behaviors displayed by trauma-affected children or lack of bonding and attachment linked to the child's attachment disruption from the original family or to genetic dissimilarities (in temperament, etc.) between the child and the parent. (Dissimilarities can obviously occur in biological families, too, but are more likely in adoptive families. Additionally, if the parent has been falsely led to believe that the adoptee is a "blank slate," that too can be an aggravating factor.) Though it didn't happen in my family, I've heard many adoptees express that they were treated very differently from non-adopted siblings in the family, sometimes to the extent that the adoptee was abused and the biological child was not.

Adoptive families are also different from biological families in that they are legal entities created by way of human institutions. Because humans created the adoption institution, we are called to look at it more closely when its flaws come to light. We need to look at adoption-specific factors such as home studies and post-adoption support (or lack thereof). We need to be asking what can be done to fix what is broken, and we can't do that without first acknowledging the problems.

We also need to look at adoptee abuse within the context of the prevailing "better life" mythology of adoption. Many expectant mothers have been told they are selfish to consider parenting themselves rather than allowing their child to experience the better quality of life that adoption supposedly provides. Criticisms of the current adoption system are often countered with the argument that adoption combats abuse and neglect by getting children out of bad situations, without any acknowledgment that abuse and neglect happen in adoptive families as well. Furthermore, many adoptees hear throughout their lives that they are "lucky" and that they should feel grateful for the wonderful life that adoption has supposedly provided. When it turns out that for some adoptees the promised "better life" is actually something much, much worse, that is a story that deserves our attention. 

It's also important to acknowledged that adoptees who are mistreated in the adoptive family have been doubly harmed, first by the many losses associated with the separation from the original family and secondly by the maltreatment in the adoptive home. The biological parent who suffers the loss of a child to adoption only to later learn that the child ended up in an abusive home is also doubly affected. These stories deserve to be heard, and, until recently, there has not been a place for them in adoption discussions. It is not the job of people who have suffered as a direct result of adoption to make adoptive and prospective adoptive parents feel better by "focusing on the positive."

Finally, before I close I'd like to look in more detail at one particular accusation that has been put forth against those of us writing, speaking, tweeting, etc., to raise awareness of adoptee abuse and maltreatment, which is that by shining the light on adoptive parents who abuse we are "giving a pass" to biological parents and thus contributing to the number of children who end up in foster care. In addition to the fallacy that raising awareness about one issue is the equivalent of ignoring another, as I discussed above, this accusation includes another problematic assumption: all or most children in the child-welfare system are there as a result of abuse or maltreatment at the hands of a biological parent. I want to emphasize that if even one child has ended up in the system as a result of biological parent abuse, that is one child too many. I am not giving a pass to any abusive parent, biological or otherwise. But it is important to acknowledge that the reasons why children end up in state care are many and complex. Yes, some end up in care as a result of abusive or incompetent biological parents. Some end up there because of the actions of a step-parent or live-in partner of the biological parent; others as the result of factors such as the parent's failure to provide sufficient food or adequate housing (in other words, because of poverty); still others as the result of "discriminatory practices in society (reports of abuse and neglect) or within the child welfare system (investigations, substantiations, placements, permanency outcomes)" that result in racial and ethnic disproportionality in foster care and foster-adoption. 

All instances of child abuse and neglect deserve our attention and outrage, but we do not serve children by oversimplifying complex realities. We need to be looking at child welfare with a wide lens and with full cognizance of the various (and at times differing) factors that affect biological and adoptive families. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Raising My Voice for Mothers and Children

Image courtesy of sippakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today is International Women's Day. This afternoon I will be delivering a speech as part of Women's Voices Worldwide's Celebration of Speech event. The following is the transcript of my speech.

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I was born into secrecy, shame, and silence. The year was 1966. My mother was an unmarried teen who had been kicked out of high school and made to turn in her National Honor Society pin two weeks before graduation because her pregnancy was beginning to show. She was not allowed to hold me in the hospital. She was not allowed to name me. She left the hospital with empty arms -- and stretch marks. A short time later, she wore white gloves to the courthouse to sign the papers that said she was relinquishing me to adoption of her own free will. A choice is not really a choice if there is no other option.

She was told she would move on and forget. She didn’t.

I myself fared relatively well in that I ended up in a good adoptive family, with parents who loved me and raised me well, although I have also struggled throughout my life with various psychological and emotional issues that I now understand as rooted in the loss of my original family and with the challenges of growing up in a non-genetic family.

On December 10, 1948, almost two decades before my birth, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Allow me to read article number 25 to you now. Bear in mind that this was 1948 so the masculine pronoun is used, but it is intended to apply to both men and women.
• (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
• (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
In 1966 my young mother was told she was not worthy to parent me because she was unmarried, and her lack of financial resources was used as evidence of her lack of capability. No one saw this as a violation of human rights, hers or mine. 

I want to emphasize that this is not an anti-adoption speech. I acknowledge that adoption can be a positive thing in the right circumstance, and in fact I myself am an adoptive mother by way of older-child foster care adoption. I am not “anti-adoption” any more than a person who speaks out about sweatshops, child labor, and other problems in the garment industry is anti-clothing or a person who raises awareness about mistreatment of immigrant workers or overuse of toxic pesticides in agriculture is anti-agriculture. What I am is pro-social-justice. Pro-reform. Pro-human-rights -- including the basic right of parents to raise their own children when they want to do so. One woman’s motherhood must not come at the expense of another woman’s basic human rights. 

When women of any age are unable to raise their own children because of socioeconomic factors, I view that as a human rights violation and a societal failure.

When women of any age face the agonizing choice to let others raise their children because they don't trust that they themselves can keep their children with them and also keep them safe as a result of domestic violence, I consider that a to be human rights violation and a societal failure.

When women are unable to heal from the traumas of their own early lives by way of adequate access to mental health and other services and instead acquire addictions and other destructive behaviors that prevent them from effectively parenting their own children, that too is a human rights violation and a societal failure.

Many years have passed since 1966 and some things have changed and some haven't. Rates of adoption and teen pregnancy have both dropped significantly, but teen mothers still face tremendous stigma and cultural shaming. Many young expectant mothers still experience familial, religious, or societal coercion to relinquish children whom they might otherwise, with adequate support, choose to parent. And we still live in a society that does not truly support parents or value the work of mothering, regardless of age.

In many ways, the world is not so different from that of 1966. But for me, one significant thing has changed.

I was born into secrecy and silence -- the powerless, voiceless child of a mother who had not much more voice than I did. But I am not voiceless now, and I will not be silent regarding the rights of mothers and children.
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