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Archive for November 2013

Lies We Have Told

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When I started working in adoptions in 1979, it was a paternalistic realm. Adoption agencies knew that secrecy, the standard of the day, would protect them from anyone knowing what went on behind the nursery door — or in that ‘baby close’ where kept all the goods.

I started as a pregnancy counselor.  I was told that I should inform the pregnant person (unwed mothers, we called them then) who was considering adoption that her baby would be placed with a couple who were ‘professionals,’ who had been married at least ten years, owned their own home and could afford to give the baby all the things she couldn’t give him at this time in her life.”  A few young women had questions.  ‘What kind of a professional?  Law? Medical? Education?’  ‘What kind of house do they have?  A mansion?  A condominium?’

As to what was told to the adoptive parents:  “Your baby has a background much like your own.”  If details were asked, there were general statements:  ‘Eastern European’ background. The age of the mother.  The situation with the father of the baby.  Very little else, until early 80s when a Texas couple sued their Texas agency for not disclosing mental health issues in the background; then every placement agency had to give, in writing, the background information, though it was pretty skimpy.  Health: ‘excellent’ or ‘normal’ or ‘good.’ We didn’t know how important information on diabetes, heart disease or cancer would be to the futures of these children we placed with families we trusted, and who trusted us!  Research would eventually show that even preferences for tv watching is genetic; an adopted child is more apt to watch the same kind of TV shows as their birth parents, listen to the same kinds of music;  be athletic or studious; good at math or science – we simply didn’t know that then.

Those were the easy lies; the lies that didn’t matter much (or so we thought).  Even worse were the lies of omission.  Not to tell the adoptive parents who were receiving a child who was six weeks old why the child was that age.  This led to little boys and girls, who learned of their ‘advanced age’ at placement to wonder why their mother had given them up at six weeks – were they ugly?  Cried too much?  What was wrong with ME?  The truth was that the mother signed relinquishment papers at the legal time (3 days in AZ), and then it was up to the agency to find a family for the baby.

In the 1980s,  most moms and babies were kept in the hospital three to five days for a normal birth, five to seven days if a C-section.  Moms were encouraged not to see their babies, not to hold their babies, even if they wanted to, because it would make it ‘too hard’ to relinquish, which after all – society believed – was the best thing for them to do.

The truth is that the babies were placed into foster homes (all foster homes that I knew were very loving homes, by the way) to get ‘pretty’.  Misshapen heads were rounding out, newborn pimples were healed, issues with formulas were solved, so the babies weren’t ‘spitters’ by the time they were placed; they were even sleeping through the night before they were placed!  A pediatrician checked them over, to declare them ready for placement.  All the better to help those inexperienced first time parents accept their perfect baby!  We knew nothing about bonding and attachment – that it’s pacing the floors with a crying baby that helps parents bond with babies and where babies are reassured their needs will be met — whether they are adopted or born into their families!

The first year I worked in adoptions, there were three cases that I knew of where someone from ‘old files’ contacted the agency:  perhaps to update their address in case the child came looking for them one day; some birth parents who knew nothing of where their child went, who cried every year on the birthday asked for some sliver of information about the kind of home they’d gone to.  Gradually more people called in, so that by the eighth year at that first agency, the 3 inquiries per year had gone to 28 per year of contacts over an old case.  A timid voice would say to me:  “I gave up a baby for adoption fifteen years ago. . . .” (or five , or twenty or forty}.  One young woman hesitated, and when I said, “Yes, how can I help you?”  She said, “You mean you’re not going to hang up on me?  I thought you’d slam the phone down as soon as I said that.  You want to help me?”

Once, I had a woman who said she’d given up a baby fourteen years ago, and on the day she came in to sign the papers, she was told they hadn’t found a family for her bi-racial baby (half black, half white).  She knew he was in foster care that day, and she’d gotten her life together now, and if her child was still in foster care, she could take him back.  I assured her the baby was surely in an adoptive home, and I took her name and number and promised to call her back.  I looked at the cross-referenced index cards.  Her baby had been placed with a family the very next day after she signed relinquishments, yet no one had called to tell her!  I called her immediately and apologized that she had to wait fourteen years to learn that her baby had a home the very next day after she signed the papers!  That was cruel!

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only cruel thing I found.  A woman called and asked if there was any health information about the birth family of her 12 year old son, received as a baby.  She told me her son had a possibly genetic condition where the bones developed ulcerated growth near the joints.  He’d had many surgeries; he was bullied at school.  Her marriage had failed under the stress of the problems. I promised to find the file, type up the information that was there and then have her come in to receive the information in person.   I studied over the file; the birth parents were a married couple who had three children with this same disease!  The experts had told them three out of four of their children would have this affliction.  Did some person think because this was the fourth child born to him, he wouldn’t have it?  When I had the mom come in the next day (she brought her son with her), she was relieved to hear that this was the genetic type of this disease, but then she told me this was the third time since he began to have problems that she’d called the agency.  She’d been told there was ‘no information’ in the file.  Worse, there was no record of her having inquired about her son’s background!  I was livid.  Not only did my predecessors LIE to her, but they didn’t have the courtesy to write in the file so I knew how to proceed with her!

Yes, lies were told.  I don’t think it was ever malicious.  The belief was that the cloak of secrecy would shield the agency and its personnel from ever being found out! It was paternalistic thinking; it was ‘we know what’s best’.

It was a pattern of thinking that I’ve worked to correct ever since my early days in adoption.  I listened to stories of adopted persons and birth mothers from the years of secrecy, and I learned how secrecy always hurts.  It’s the stories of former clients that made me decide change was needed.  It’s the reason that I advocate for change in the way adoptions are done today.

Please keep encouraging adoptees and birth parents in search to go back to the agencies.  The people who work there now need to know what effect lies have had on the lives of their clients. The Boards of Directors that have some adoptive parents on them who may fear they will lose their children to their birth parents are learning, too and are now less fearful.  And to go to the Legislatures whose attorney members fear their own dalliances will be revealed, They have to hear from adopted adults and birth mothers and adoptive parents!  It’s time for ‘best needs of the child’ to mean something!

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Written by bethkoz

November 4, 2013 at 5:25 am