First we need to dispel few myths about adoption and about every member of the adoption triad: the adoptee, the adoptive parents, and the birthparents.
Let’s Talk About Adoption and Open Records
The big legal debate over the past few years has been over the level of access each member of the adoption triad should have to closed records. There’s been a national debate, and there is now a proposal pending in Congress for a National Voluntary Reunion Registry. At the state level, bills are also being introduced that would allow adopted adults access to their original birth certificates.
There have been two main arguments raised against these efforts, and you’ve probably heard them. First, that adopted adults and their birthparents don’t wish to be found by each other, so they don’t need their records. Second, that adoptive parents are opposed to their adopted children having that information. What many people don’t know is that there is a solid body of research refuting these arguments.
The data say quite clearly that both birthparents and adopted adults do want to be found by each other.
In 1989, the Maine Department of Human Resources Task Force on Adoption did a comprehensive study of adoption issues which found an overwhelming desire to be found by both sides of the triad.
Maine’s DHS admitted it was “startled” to discover how few people didn’t want to be found. Here’s what they found: of 130 birthparents surveyed, all 130 wanted to be found by the child they had placed for adoption. And of the 164 adoptees surveyed, 95 percent expressed a desire to be found by their parents. In 1991, Paul Sachdev did a study that showed 85.5 percent of birthmothers and 81.1 percent of adoptees support adult adoptees having access to records identifying their birthparents.
To be sure, practice-based knowledge further validates that birthparents and adoptees want to be found by one another. Contrary to the assertion that birthparents move on with their lives, and live in fear that the children they relinquished for adoption will intrude upon them, research and the work with birthparents undertaken by Becker in 1989, Demick and Wapner in 1988, and Baran, Pannor and Sorosky in 1976, uniformly finds that birthparents do not forget the children they relinquished for adoption, wonder whether they are alive and healthy and express strong desires to be found by them; and also finds that the grief they experience in having relinquished their children is intensified by the secrecy surrounding adoption and the walls the adoption system has erected against any contact.
Rosemary Avery’s 1996 research on the attitudes of adoptive parents in New York regarding access to identifying information found that 84 percent of the adoptive mothers and 73 percent of the adoptive fathers agreed or strongly agreed that an adult adoptee should be able to obtain identifying information on his or her birthparents.
This research reflects higher levels of support than that found in Feiglemen and Silverman’s 1986 research on the attitudes of adoptive parents.
That study—more than ten years old—nevertheless found that 55 percent of the adoptive parents of American-born children supported legislation easing restrictions on their children learning about their birth families, while 66 percent of adoptive parents of internationally adopted children expressed their support.
In conclusion, the research basically makes it clear that birthparents and adopted adults both want access to identifying information; and, adoptive families, rather than feeling threatened by their children’s needs and interest in their birth families, support that access.
Other research, including that done by McRoy and Grotevant in 1994, demonstrates that benefits flow to all members of the triad when information is more freely shared and there is greater openness in relationships. Policies that facilitate connections between birth families and adopted adults and access to information, have strong empirical and practice support.
Whenever changes occur in social policy, resistance is offered by those who believe and practice the current or former system. Before adoptee access to the original birth certificate was legislated in certain places, hard data existed regarding the impact of information being given to adopted persons.
The results based on states that have instituted adoption reform and recorded in hard data, allow us to shatter the following myths:
Adoption Myth Number One:
Only a small number of adopted people want to know their birth information.
In a study of American adolescents, the Search Institute found that 72 percent of adopted adolescents wanted to know why they were adopted; 65 percent wanted to meet their birthparents; and 94 percent wanted to know which of their birthparents they looked like.
Psychological literature has established that whether mental or actual, searching is understandable and common, and part of healthy adaptation for adopted people. (See A Psychosocial Model of Adoption Adjustment by David Brodzinsky, Marshall Schechter, and Robin Marantz Henig.)
In Oregon, as of February 1, 2007, seven years after passage of approving access in 2000, 9,193 adult adoptees have requested, and 8,878 have received, their original birth certificates.
Adoption Myth Number Two:
Most birthmothers want to forget the past and not have “old wounds reopened.”
Through registries and data collected in states and countries where access was legislated, 95 percent of birthparents who were contacted wanted reunion. In Oregon, only 0.25 percent of birthparents requested no contact.
Adoption Myth Number Three:
Birthmothers need to be protected from searching adoptees.
Birthparents have the same protections under the law as anyone else. They have the right of privacy and boundaries as does everyone, but privacy does not equal secrecy. Privacy is about healthy boundaries; secrecy prevents people from having information about themselves.
John Triseliotis, a researcher from the University of Edinburgh, found in 25 years of study that adoptees needed genealogical and background information to confirm their identities based on both adoptive and birth families. In researching the impact of opening records in Great Britain, he found those who did search “did so with considerable forethought. Furthermore, the vast majority are over-careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.” (See In Search of Origins: The Experience of Adopted People by John Triseliotis, Routledge and Kegan Paul, January 1, 1973.)
Ninety-four percent of non-searching birthmothers were pleased when contacted by their adult birthchildren, according to a recent British study. (See The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption Search and Reunion Experiences, British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2005.)
Adoption Myth Number Four:
Lifting secrecy will increase abortion.
Data from states where access exists reveals that if it has had any effect on adoptions and abortions, it was to increase adoptions and decrease abortions. Since adult adoptees in Oregon and Alabama obtained access to their original birth certificates in 2000, abortions have declined much faster in those states than in the nation as a whole.
Between then and 2003, resident abortions declined 10 percent in Oregon and 13 percent in Alabama, but only 2 percent in the nation as a whole. In other words, after adoptees gained access in those states, abortions declined five times as fast as in the country as a whole.
Workers at pro-life centers such as Birthright report that young women today will only choose adoption if they are assured of updates or contact with the adoptive family. Gretchen Traylor, a Birthright counselor in Minnesota, says “When adoption is under consideration, the young woman’s overriding concern is that she will be unable to contact her child later in life, and that the child will not be able to find her as well. Pregnant women tell me that if such contact is not available, they would rather abort.”
In a national survey of 1,900 women having abortions, not one woman cited the inability to choose a confidential adoption as a factor in her decision to have the abortion. (See “Reasons for Terminating an Unwanted Pregnancy,” Guttmacher Institute, 2003.)
A September 24, 2004 Wall Street Journal article reports that those parts of the country practicing open adoption currently do not have enough couples to adopt infants being relinquished by birthparents wanting open adoption.
Adoption Myth Number Five:
Opening up adoption will break up adoptive families.
“With a law that gives adults access to their original birth certificates, nothing changes while the adoptee is a child under the care of adoptive parents. Birth information and contact with the birth family does not replace one’s relationship to adoptive parents, but rather leads to a more cohesive identity for some adult adoptees.
Research from the United Kingdom on the results of access found that the loyalty and love adopted peo ple felt toward their adoptive parents and family did not lessen as a result of the search and reunion process. In some cases, adopted people reported that the experience of searching enhanced their relationship with their adoptive families. (British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2004.)
After New Zealand allowed adult adoptee access to adoption records, researchers found that reunions actually strengthened relationships between adoptees and their adoptive parents, often laying fantasies about the birth family to rest. Results showed that adopted children and adults can successfully integrate two or more families into their lives. Finding birth relatives does not mean they relinquish their adoptive ones. (See The Right to Know Who You Are, Keith C. Griffith)
Research conducted by the University of Minnesota and University of Texas reveals that parental fears about entitlement in open adoptions were unfounded, and in many ways, contact with the birth family strengthened the bond between adoptive parents and children. (See Openness in Adoption, Harold D. Grotevant and Ruth G. McRoy.)
Adoption Myth Number Six:
Adoptees conceived by rape or incest (and birthmothers too) will be devastated by search, reunion, and/or learning the truth about their origins.
While unsavory details of one’s past are not pleasant to cope with, they still are a part of one’s life. Denying access to someone’s personal information is robbing that person of his or her heritage. The contents of the information are not as important as the fact that information becomes available, and questions are able to be answered.
New Zealand found that adult adoptees can better cope with such traumatic revelations than with not having any information at all. Interestingly enough, many had already fantasized the event. Most adoptees know that in exploring the unknown void of their origins, anything is possible, and realize that there must have been difficulties or they would not have been placed for adoption. This information remaining secret increases the shame. The reality, once it is confronted, is less than the enormity of the secret.
One adoptee conceived from rape said of his birthmother:
“When we met things were pretty tense between us. I knew that she was holding back something. I asked her and she told me. We both held each other tight and wept for almost an hour. Then we shared exactly what had happened and we shared our hurts and fears….It was one of my birthmother’s fears that one day I would find her and ask her. And now that traumatic time had come. Somehow, in the sharing of our deep personal grief feelings, we built up a relationship. We now understand each other on an issue that no one else seems to understand.”
You will hear all of these myths repeated as conventional wisdom by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
But they are false, and the overwhelming majority of Americans are suffering under their deceptive and erroneous influence.
Talk given to Chicago DHS by Rhonda Noonan, the Clinical Director of Shadow Mountain Hospital, an in-patient psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rhonda is the coordinator of the Adoption/Attachment Disorder Treatment Track.