Last year, the story of our traumatic decision to find a guardian family for our daughter was sensationalized by the media, painting us as giving away our child. What really happened was that we saved our daughter– not from having me as a mother or any of us as her family– but from her self-destructive tendencies. Public interest was so high in our story, another update flew to the top of Yahoo’s front page after appearing on ABC News Online on December 11, 2012. I am the mother of three children under 12 years old. One of them, my daughter, polarized the previous seven years of my life as her mental health deteriorated far more rapidly than I could have ever conceived. My daughter grew in another’s womb, but is as much my daughter as the two that grew in mine. The sticky part is that her birth mother was an addict and while pregnant, she used drugs and drank excessively. We didn’t find out until our daughter was nearly 3 years old. Within 10 days of our finding out, her birth mother committed suicide– overwhelmed by her own struggles, secrets, lies, and guilt. We had no idea that the birth mother had abused any substance while my daughter was in utero.
Our paid adoption facilitator had posted our “dear birth mother” letter online and we were contacted by at least four women– who for varying reasons we chose not to go further with– before Doreen. The facilitator, who was a practicing adoption attorney, administrated the awkward “getting to know you” parts of the introductions, the psycho/social interview and paperwork, the medical files and work history, and the background checks. To complete the process, which involved people in several states, we hired additional attorneys. We began the process with only seven weeks left in Doreen’s pregnancy. We were eager to finish up with all the details as soon as possible, so we carefully followed all instructions given to us by this adoption professional. I had met Doreen once the week before our daughter’s birth and felt comfortable with her reason for choosing my husband and me to adopt her baby. She said she had picked us because she loved our son’s smile and he seemed very happy, so in her mind, I was an incredible mother. Frankly, we picked her because she picked us. At forty years old, I had experienced eight miscarriages since my last pregnancy. I wasn’t in a state of complete desperation, but pretty near that. Doreen had a clean medical record, an iron-tight story, and details to back it all up. I had no reason to suspect anything could go wrong. The one big hole in our plan? There was no one watch-dogging the birth mother to look for inconsistencies in her story.
While Illinois has reformed adoption laws since 2003 when my daughter was born, and an adoption like ours could not happen anymore (at least not in Illinois), other states have been slow to follow, which means that what happened to us can happen to another couple if they are not cautious. “Unfortunately, federal adoption reform is a long way in the offing,” says Adam Pertman, Director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organization. The DAI is currently conducting a major research project on the rogue nature of adoption marketing through the internet with the hopes of shaping national ethical standards that all the states will follow. Formal not-for-profit adoption agencies do not skip the all-important step of having a social worker interview the birth mother. But all too often, agencies that crop up with strong marketing from outside of a home state often do. While there was no stone left unturned in the contractual end of our adoption, there was no one looking out for my husband and me to confirm that the birth mother was indeed who she said she was.
Recently I was watching a Parenthood episode during which a major character in the show approached the coffee cart girl at her office about giving her baby to her. I wanted to yell at the screen like I was watching Halloween II, “Watch out!”
The dialogue went like this:
Her: “Hey, honey? You know how I was joking about asking the latte girl if we could have her baby? What if I did?”
Him: “You can’t walk up to someone you work with and say, ‘Excuse me, can we have your baby?’ We know nothing about this girl.”
Her: “She is lovely, smart, beautiful, and so young.
Him: “And great at making lattes. She could be a crack addict!”
Her: “She’s not a crack addict! Think outside the box here, this is falling in our laps.”
My heart skipped a beat. Just like in the fictional plot, the birth mother agrees to give up her baby to the couple because they seem like a nice family. I lost a night’s sleep reliving the moments in our lives that were parallel to this dysfunctional portrayal of adoption. There is no doubt to me that those of us piecing together our idealized families with adoption at the foundation can understand both sides of this dialogue– the hope and the skepticism. The question remains: Who is really watching out for our best interests when we are all myopically working toward holding a child to love for the rest of our lives? Talk about rose-colored glasses. Even though adoption is much more heavily policed than it was just eight years ago, the internet is a dangerous place to be creating families.
In an article penned by Bonnie Rubin of The Chicago Tribune in May of this year, child welfare advocates say that some six years after the Adoption Reform Act, Illinois has made real headway in shutting down shady, for-profit agencies and adoption operators, but the internet has opened up “troubling loopholes.”
“The internet and adoption is like the Wild West,” says Pertman. “Stuff is happening out there that no one is moderating, regulating, or paying attention to … Adoption should never be about recruitment, but about assisting those unable to raise a child,” Pertman continued. “It’s about helping the child find a family, not casting a net and seeing what you can pull in.”
I remember fantasizing that because my husband and I had adopted her daughter, Doreen would somehow have an epiphany and pick up the pieces of her life. Instead, she would become addicted to street drugs and Oxycontin and commit suicide by drug overdose in less than three years. I know now that she was an addict. Doreen never meant to purposefully hurt us or our family in any way, as I’m sure she never meant to kill her baby’s braincells by abusing drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant. I’m certain she thought she was doing the best thing for her baby in finding her a “real” family, knowing her own truth and knowing she could never raise a child in the state she was in. I can’t count how many times I have been asked, “If you had known that your daughter was brain damaged from alcohol exposure and was born of a woman with a serious mental illness, would you have followed through with the adoption?”
I love my daughter unconditionally, and I have thought of the answer to this question over thousands of times. My heart tells me I would have thought I could fix this. I was a powerful survivor myself, and my gut instinct tells me we would have adopted knowingly, thinking we could help her overcome this and realize a life of joy and reward. The truth is because I didn’t know about her brain damage and wasn’t able to explain her behavior to myself or anyone else early on, I repeatedly experienced finger-pointing from all directions by all sorts of professionals which only served to erode what confidence I came into the adoption with.
There have been times when I have experienced depths of unparalleled hopelessness and felt much to blame for my daughter’s inability to assimilate into our family. But again, I stress there is no regret. The concept of magical thinking comes to mind, having been on topic with the recent death of Steve Jobs. There is a huge amount of magical thinking in adoption. We all deeply want to believe in the power of our own optimism to bring about our idealized reality, but sometimes there are twists in the road. I am a huge advocate for adoption and always will be. It continues to be integral to building beautiful families, some just a little more compromised than others. No one knows more than I do that the process of adoption can feel excruciatingly slow. At times it may seem as if it will never happen, especially when employing that magical thinking. But, the safeguards that are in place to protect families as well as the adoptive children who will join them are integral to the process and must be exercised. Skirting those safeguards out of a desperate need to speed up the process compromises the future of adoption and the future of our idealized families.
*Names have been changed.