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Secrecy on Adoptions Understandable -- and Wrong

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, October 5, 2008

W hen two children -- two adopted children -- end up dead in a block of ice hidden in their mother's freezer, the entire child welfare apparatus flies into a panic.

Almost immediately after the news broke about the gruesome case of Renee Bowman and her children, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty called a news conference to say that the city had done no wrong (the family lived in Maryland, but the children had been adopted in the District). The Baltimore-based agency that cleared Bowman to adopt dropped into a defensive crouch from which it has yet to emerge. And social workers braced for another round of outraged cries for heads to roll.

It sure looks like someone messed up. You might think that the people charged with investigating Bowman before she adopted one child in 2001 and two others in 2004 should have known and raised alarms about facts such as these: Bowman was convicted of threatening bodily harm to a 72-year-old motorist just two years before the first adoption; she may have had an abusive mate; she filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001; she described her childhood to friends as akin to that of "an abused dog"; and her own mother had been a homeless wanderer of the city's streets.

Now we learn that Maryland's social services agency got a complaint accusing Bowman of child neglect last January, sent a caseworker to the house and concluded that everything was fine -- "clean and appropriately furnished," though with a funky smell that was attributed to mildew.

Still, it is possible, as Fenty and some adoption advocates argue, that everyone did their jobs, that Bowman passed every screening, and that whatever went horribly wrong in her life happened only after she had adopted the children.

The problem is, we can't know. And the fact is, it is our business.

In the reflexively privacy-obsessed world of adoptions, it is somehow an imposition if the public wants to know where the state's wards end up, who is collecting the stipends taxpayers shell out to encourage adoption and how all that money is being spent. We know best, social workers say.

But anytime public money is involved, it's the public's job to demand oversight and accountability, and the only road to that goal is transparency.

I met Adam Pertman many years ago when he was a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. After experiencing the joys and frustrations of adoption, he left the news business to advocate for those who give that loving gift of parenthood. Now, as director of the Adoption Institute, he understands both instincts: the newsman's passionate belief that sunshine is the best medicine, and the adoption world's embrace of secrecy to protect children and grant adoptive parents the same rights birth parents enjoy.

When he trains social workers, Pertman tells them: "Your secrets don't do you any good. The only time you get in the news is when someone dies, and it's because you won't give out any information."

The roots of that secrecy lie in the not-so-distant past, when adoption carried a powerful stigma. "This is a whole institution built on stigma and secrecy and shame," Pertman says, "on people being told to lie for the rest of their lives. You didn't tell your children they were adopted. Amazingly, we got to the other side, and adoption is no longer anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about. But the remnants of that era of secrecy are profound."

Executives at the Board of Child Care, the Methodist church-affiliated agency that investigated Bowman's suitability for adoption, would not talk to me. The top boss didn't even return my call. The reflex is to circle the wagons and board up the windows.

Luckily, some see that public trust is essential. Janice Goldwater, who runs Adoptions Together, a private agency in Silver Spring not connected to the Bowman case, opened her files so I could see how exhaustively her social workers investigate families being considered as adoptive parents.

Adoptive parents tell me they feel as if they've had a colonic irrigation of their finances, family history and even their sex lives. Social workers interview friends, relatives and co-workers; examine tax, criminal and credit records; and ask about religion, guns, drugs and corporal punishment. Families are rejected if they are likely to spank the child, keep unlocked guns in the house or put the child to sleep on a bunk bed or sofa bed.

And somehow a Renee Bowman gets through. How? The pathetic truth is that people inside the system already know that answer, but the rest of us might never know.

The legacy of secrecy lives on. Goldwater, who has an adopted child as well as three birth children, was appalled to see that her adopted child's birth certificate was rewritten to show Goldwater and her husband as the birth parents, a deception that fools no one.

Goldwater and Pertman are both wary of making adoption records public, even in a case that ends in an awful crime. Once an adoption has been completed, they argue, the parents should have the same rights as a birth parent.

But the public has an obligation to children who were placed by the government. Bowman, for example, received $2,400 a month in federal money to defray the cost of raising her three children. In the current system, there is no way to see if that money is being spent as intended.

"There are sound, competent professionals doing this work," Goldwater says. "We have to show people that, not hide anytime something bad happens."

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com

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