Adoption is the one option where everybody wins. The young woman can go on with her life, the adoptive parents are ready to be parents, and the child wins because he's put into a two-parent family where he can do better. -- William Pierce, National Committee for Adoption
They adoption agencies treat us like ignorant little sluts who can only redeem ourselves through adoption. -- Laura Lewis, birthmother
Here's a different way to observe National Adoption Week this week: Imagine for a moment that you have a 16-year-old daughter who's six months pregnant. What should she do with the baby?
Twenty years ago, most people -- the figures range from 54 to 89 percent -- would have decided to put the child up for adoption. Today, less than 10 percent make that decision -- slightly higher if your daughter is white, further along in her pregnancy and staying in a maternity home; much lower if she's black, or less than three months pregnant.
The experts attribute the drop to two main factors: The general availability of abortion, and a lessening of the stigma against illegitimate birth and single mothers. A third factor, however, has entered the picture: The perception that giving up a child for adoption is an extremely painful, perhaps unnatural decision, and one that may continue to torment the biological parents for the rest of their lives.
"We used to think that biological mothers were able to forget the baby after the birth," says Sister Betty Ann, at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Center in Hyattsville. "We've since learned that they never do -- it stays with them for the rest of their lives."
A number of vocal, grass-roots adoption rights organizations have sprung up in the last 15 years to protest the closed records system -- a system designed to prevent the biological parents and adoptees from ever meeting once the adoption papers are signed. How representative these groups are of the feelings of most birthparents and adoptees is a subject of considerable debate.
William Pierce, director of the National Committee for Adoption (NCFA), calls these rights groups the "same 2,000 people who belong to each other's groups," and claims that 95 percent of those who make the adoption decision are happy with it.
Sharon O'Hara, who heads the local branch of Concerned United Birthparents, says CUB -- with 1,200 members -- is the largest birthparent organization in the country. Pierce's numbers are reversed, says O'Hara, and claims that CUB membership represents the tip of the iceberg.
Seventeen years ago, "I had my baby at 3 a.m., heavily drugged, and signed the papers at 9:30 a.m.," says O'Hara. "When I asked to see him, the nurse brought him in and he was asleep. After 15 minutes she came back, took the child and said, 'I think that's enough.' I never saw him awake; I was never told I had the right to see him . . . I didn't realize that I could have fought for a year in court. I was 24 at the time."
Stories such as O'Hara's are causing a small crack in the closed door of adoptions, as agencies and social workers are learning that methods they thought were compassionate and humane are perceived as cold and coercive. Some practices -- such as not telling the mothers their legal rights, or discouraging them from seeing their children -- are now rare.
"We used to think it was better if a girl never saw her child, so she wouldn't become attached," says Sister Betty Ann. "But then we found she formed fantasies around the child -- why wasn't she shown the child? Was he alive? Was he deformed? -- and it made the grieving process harder."
Today, the birthmother not only sees the child, but usually is given profiles of the prospective adoptive parents, often including autobiographies. It's more common, also, for many local agencies to ask the biological mothers what sort of people they would like to have as parents for their children.
When Ellie A., a member of the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, searched for her daughter earlier this year, she learned she'd been raised by a rabbi and his homemaker wife, along with their first adopted child. "My daughter," says Ellie, "is a serene, well-adjusted young woman who seems very happy with who she is, and very close to her parents."
Some agencies, including Fairfax County's, employ specialists in pediatric psychology to screen for that sort of match with their "special needs" children. "If you have a baby coming off an alcohol or drug dependency, what sort of parent do you place it with?" asks Carolyn Fowler, head of Fairfax's Social Service adoption unit.
The "radical" birthparents, however, want more than a profile of the prospective parents or a psychologist's say-so that the couple is right for their baby. They want to meet with, get to know, and in some cases, cooperate in raising the child with the adoptive parents.
Such so-called "open adoption" is illegal in the District and, in most circumstances, throughout the metropolitan area. But such meetings and exchanges are held on an informal basis through private placements in Maryland, and in rare instances, before the papers are signed, by some agencies in Virginia.
More typically, the birthmother arranges to leave a memento -- a picture, a letter, sometimes a scrapbook -- for the couple to share with their child as he grows. Occasionally, the two couples work out a regular exchange of pictures and information through the agency or another third party, exchanges agencies admit have been going on informally for years.
Because of the District's strict legislation, Ruth Dub, director of the Barker Foundation, has never arranged a meeting between biological and adoptive parents, and says she would be hesitant to do so "even if it were legal. What if the biological mother didn't like them? Who could satisfy her?"
"I could see it in the right hothouse situation," says Sister Betty Ann, "as a tool for reassurance. But what if the birthmother is a troubled young woman? Would a couple be ruled out on the basis of a whim?"
The right hothouse situation seems to have worked for birthmother Beth Grove and adoptive parents Joyce and Tom Repasy. Grove asked the Fairfax County adoption unit for a couple with her same values to raise her child -- and asked to meet them before the birth. The Repasys complied and say they felt "like we'd all known each other before."
Happy with her choice of prospective parents, Grove says she still was ambivalent about the adoption after her daughter was born. "I must have walked and fed and walked that child for 24 hours, trying to pray," she says, "and then I remembered all the positive feelings I'd had meeting Joyce and Tom, and a great peace came over me."
She continues to keep in touch with the Repasys even though she is now married and mother of a 4-month-old son.
This may be an ideal, but many social workers question its feasibilty. At a recent conference on adoption sponsored by Fairfax County Social Services, a member of the audience described the darker side of open adoption: "I agreed to meet and exchange information with the birthmother," she said, "but the girl just can't let go. She calls me every week. I'm not looking forward to 18 years of babysitting."
Exchanging identifying information is not a popular option with many adoptive parents, who feel threatened by the possibility of the birthparents retaking their children. Many birthparents and social workers find this worry unfounded: "I've never heard a birthmother say, 'I want the child back' or 'I want to be the parent,' " says Fowler.
"All birthmothers probably want to know the same things about their child," says Ellie A. "Are you okay? Do you look like me? Do you forgive me? Are you happy?"
For Jo V., such an exchange of information may have averted a tragedy.
In 1981, 21 years after she had given up her daughter for adoption, Jo discovered she had a progressive disease -- collagen vascular syndrome. She also learned she'd been given the hormone DES during her pregnancy and was advised by her doctors to notify her child.
Jo took the case to a New York State court, asking the judge to forward this and other medical information to her daughter. Jo also has severe asthma and must be given massive doses of antibiotics before simple surgery. And there is a family history of quick deaths resulting from the lungs being filled during a bout with a cold or pneumonia.
The judge refused her request.
This year, through a private searcher, she obtained the name of her baby's adoptive parents and their address at the time of the adoption. The couple had moved, but she contacted a neighbor, telling her she was a friend of the family.
" The neighbor told me the family moved last year after their daughter died," she says. "I just fell to the floor."
The girl had had bronchitis, the neighbor told her, when she underwent a root canal. Her daughter's lungs, Jo says, were filled with fluid.
Jo did contact the adoptive parents, who gave her a series of pictures -- "everything from baby pictures to one taken of her, the baby and her husband the Christmas before she died.
"I feel if I could have gotten to her, I could have warned her, and my daughter would be alive today," she says. "Now, I have nothing in my life but these pictures."
Although many agencies will pass on medical information, Sister Betty Ann maintains "there must be closure in adoption. The adoptive family needs closure, or else it becomes a semi-permeable membrane, not an adoption. And the birthmother needs to make a decision."
How the birthmothers make the decision is perhaps the biggest bone of contention between adoption advocates and rights organizations. Each local agency emphasized that the adoption decision needs to be the birthmother's alone; each offers extensive counseling services with social workers, birthmother groups and outside speakers.
Organizations such as CUB, however, claim that such counseling is little more than brainwashing. They believe that adoption agencies are inherently set up to foster adoption, and all information offered will be prejudiced.
Not true, says Fowler, whose agency places fewer than one-third of the children born to clients who ask for adoption counseling. "Adoption for us is the option of the last resort, to be taken after we've explored every reasonable possibility of keeping the child in the family, if that's what the mother wants."
"Some of these public agencies will try to keep the child in her home regardless," Dub claims, "but what if the mother's a drug addict, or the family members have criminal records? Adoption for us isn't the option of the last resort."
The Barker Foundation is an adoptive-family-oriented agency, she says, with such families serving on their board. They place "more than 50 percent" of the babies whose biological mothers they counsel for adoption. And if their clients don't choose to place their children for adoption, they may be handed a bill for any extra expenses Barker incurred on their behalf -- expenses covered by the agency when the adoption option is exercised. Counseling, however, is free -- as it is at most local adoption agencies.
Such counseling often includes bringing in those who have placed their children for adoption, as well as teen mothers who have elected to keep their children, to speak with the clients.
The single mothers they choose as speakers, says Denise Revels, who runs an outreach program for Catholic Charities, which counsels pregnant teen-agers under 17, "don't try to make it look better than it is. They'll tell you it's much tougher than they imagined."
Statistics on these teen-age mothers are fairly grim. Nearly 40 percent of those who keep their children are in, or fall into, poverty, as opposed to 18 percent of those who choose adoption, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study cited by the NCFA and questioned by CUB. Slightly over half of these single mothers, says the study, go on some sort of public assistance; 61 percent of children whose parents never married live below the poverty level -- as opposed to 2.3 percent of those who were adopted.
"They make money the only criterion for being a good parent," says a CUB spokesperson.
O'Hara also questions the validity of the statistics, which she says are skewed by race. "Most teen-age single mothers at this point are black," she says, "and the reason black people are poor is . . . not because they choose to keep their children."
Economics aside, teen-age parenting is still considered a difficult and sometimes dangerous option. "Anytime you have children parenting children, you're asking for trouble," says Sister Betty Ann.
Then there's the question of who mothers the child -- the birthmother or, more likely, the grandmother. "Anyone who thinks that it's easy for a mother to be in a home where her mother is raising her child is pretty naive," says NCFA's Pierce.
"It can work if the teen-age mom agrees to be the sister, or if the teen-age mom is the mom, and her mother backs off," says Sister Betty Ann. "The thing that hurts the baby is confusion over the roles -- when it's unclear who's the mother."
Add to this the contention by many social workers that teen-age pregnancy is often a symptom of a massive breakdown in communication within the family -- many parents don't even realize their daughters are pregnant until the eighth or ninth month, or the day of delivery -- and you're talking not about a hothouse for growth, but a tinderbox.
"We've held off on taking a permanent entrustment from a teen until she got mental counseling, because we felt she was under duress from her parents," says Fowler.
Many agencies are following St. Ann's lead in offering grandparents discussion groups. Some also offer to act as intermediaries between the birthmother and her parents, or to monitor discussions between them.
Where does all of this leave the birthfather? The image of that parent as the Great Disappearing Act is based largely on fact, social workers say; perhaps half to two-thirds of them do nothing more than sign release papers, if that, and agencies spend much of their time trying to track them down. "These aren't all the boy next door, you know," says Sister Betty Ann. "Some are married, or older men."
Those birthfathers the agencies do see, however, "want to share, want to participate in planning for their child," says Catholic Charities' Revels. Male members of CUB believe they are often shut out of decisions affecting their children, and say that more birthfathers would become involved if the system were more open. But Sister Betty Ann, who's been trying to start a birthfathers group, says "it's awfully hard to get them to come."
The fathers, and the birthmothers, continue to play at least a genetic role in the lives of the children they relinquish for adoption. "Adoptive parents have got to realize that they're not having children," says CUB's O'Hara; "they're taking and raising some other woman's child."