Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents (page 3)
Each year in the United States, approximately 14,000 women and a growing number of men make an agonizing parenting decision that they hope will provide their children with the best possible future: They place their babies for adoption. At the same time, policy-makers across this country each year propose and implement measures meant to improve adoption, often based on their perceptions of what these parents want and need. Historically and through the present day, however, adoption-related laws, policies and practices have been made without the benefit of solid research that might answer the most basic, underlying questions: What are the characteristics of mothers and fathers who relinquish their infants for adoption? Why do they choose this path? And how can their needs and rights best be served and protected?
Due largely to the secretive nature of adoption's past, the state of knowledge about infant adoptions in the 21st century is deficient, at best. There is no broad, concrete body of work on who these women and men typically are, what forces shape their decisions, or how adoption impacts the rest of their lives. We do not even know precisely how many babies are placed for adoption in this country annually. Indeed, though domestic infant adoption is what most people think of when they hear the word "adoption," it is the least common type in the U.S. today (after adoption from foster care, from abroad, and by step-parents), and it is the type we know the least about.
This study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute represents the most thorough, intensive and sophisticated effort to date to understand contemporary infant adoption, particularly as it relates to the least-understood and most-stigmatized participants in the process - the women and men usually termed "birthparents." The findings and recommendations in this paper are based on a year-long examination and analysis of decades' worth of research, literature, interviews and experiences relating to the topic. Pursuant to its mission of improving adoption for everyone it encompasses, the Institute's primary objective was to learn as much as possible about these women and men in order to determine how laws, policies and professional practices affect them; what essential rights they should be afforded; and what reforms are needed to optimize their well-being.
Among the principal findings in this report are:
- More adoptions take place each year than is commonly perceived or reported. The Institute estimates more than 135,000 annually, of which about 13,000 to 14,000 involve babies who are voluntarily relinquished domestically. Of non-stepparent adoptions each year, approximately 59 percent are from the child welfare system, 26 percent from abroad, and 15 percent of domestic infants.
- Overall, the parents placing their children for adoption in the 21st Century are very diverse and different from their counterparts in previous generations. They are no longer primarily teenagers; in fact, only about one-fourth are teens. The predominant profile is young women in their 20s who have graduated from high school, many of whom have other children.
- The vast majority of adoption agencies, as well as independent practitioners, offer open adoptions, in which identifying information is exchanged. Many of the adoptions they arrange also are mediated adoptions, in which ongoing information is exchanged through the agency.
- An overwhelming proportion of birthmothers contemporary have met the adoptive parents of their children - probably 90 percent or more - and almost all of the remaining birthmothers helped to choose the new parents through profiles. Contrary to the stereotypes that have been created about them, almost no women choosing adoption today seek anonymity or express a desire for no ongoing information or contact.
- Available data and experience indicate a minority of infant adoptions involve fathers in the process. The strongest protection for their rights and for the legitimacy of the adoption process requires identification of biological fathers and notifying them of adoption proceedings. Many states have established putative father registries to involve these men, but they are too often used as a means of cutting them out rather than including them.
- Principally because adoption is not well understood by the public generally, most women struggling to make decisions about unplanned pregnancies do not have accurate information with which to make an informed choice about whether this is a reasonable option for them.
- In some states, attorneys paid by and representing the prospective adoptive parents also may represent the women (and men when they are involved) considering placing their children. This practice of dual representation raises acute ethical and practical concerns.
- Research findings consistently show that women who feel pressured into placing their children suffer from poorer grief resolution and greater negative feelings. Most states do not have laws that maximize sound decision-making, however, such as required counseling, waiting periods of at least several days after childbirth before signing relinquishments, and adequate revocation periods during which birthparents can change their minds.
- Research on birthparents in the era of confidential (closed) adoptions suggests a significant proportion struggled - and sometimes continue to struggle - with chronic, unresolved grief. The primary factor bringing peace of mind is knowledge about their children's well-being.
- Current research on birthmothers concludes that being able to choose the adoptive family and having ongoing contact and/or knowledge results in lower levels of grief and greater peace of mind with their adoption decisions.
- Women who have the highest grief levels are those who placed their children with the understanding that they would have ongoing information, but the arrangement was cut off. Such contact/information is the most important factor in facilitating birthparents' adjustment, but only 13 states have laws to enforce post-adoption contact agreements in infant adoptions.
Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Adoption Institute's work on this paper was that there are no current studies that have examined a representative sample of women (or men) choosing to place their children for adoption today. The most recent research focused on adolescent respondents but, as noted above, that age group comprises only a minority of contemporary birthparents. Additional research therefore is vital in order to develop laws, policies and practices that genuinely address the rights, needs and desires of women and men who choose adoption for their children.
Rapid Changes in Adoption Practice
Adoptions today have changed radically from the clandestine and often-coercive arrangements that many young women experienced in earlier generations. For example, historically, birthmothers were primarily unwed teenage mothers who often had to drop out of school and leave home during their pregnancies. Today that profile is rare. The Adoption Institute's analysis of available data indicates that only about one-fourth of women choosing adoption are below the age of 20. Most birthmothers have completed high school, and many have other children. According to practitioners, the most common situations among women choosing adoption today include women in their early- to mid-20s who are just becoming independent from their parents, and single women with other children who believe they cannot manage parenting another child at this point.
The Institute also concludes that total secrecy has become rare in current infant adoption practice, and it is considered poor practice for everyone concerned by a growing majority of professionals. So-called closed (or confidential) adoption, in which there is little or no contact or exchange of information, is actually a relatively recent phenomenon that became prevalent in the U.S. by the 1950s. The body of research on birthmothers who relinquished children for adoption in the era of total secrecy chronicles a negative, long-term impact of this experience on many areas of their lives, including triggering chronic, severe grief reactions and contributing to ongoing complications in future parenting and marriage relationships.
Living with the uncertainty of what became of their children is identified by birthmothers in closed adoptions as the most difficult factor they cope with, and receiving information about their children is singled out in the research and literature examined for this paper as the most important thing that would help to bring them peace of mind. That reality flies in the face of contemporary stereotypes of birthmothers as women who crave anonymity and oppose contact by the children they placed for adoption; rather, the desire to know about their offspring appears almost universal. For example, one study of birthmothers in Britain, who ranged in age from 22 to 81, found that all but nine of the 262 respondents (about 3 percent) wanted basic information about their children. The same small number said they wanted to preserve the secrecy of their identities.
Beginning in the 1970s, agencies began offering alternatives to absolute secrecy; there has been a progressive trend toward more openness in infant adoptions ever since, and the great majority of agencies now offer adoptions that are open to varying extents. Still, the proportion of adoptions today that are planned to be closed (confidential), mediated (information exchanged through agencies), or open (identities exchanged) is not known. We do know that almost all prospective birthmothers (approximately 90 percent) choose and meet the adoptive parents of their children, and even the majority of those who do not meet are able to choose the new parents from profiles. Furthermore, many pregnant women today seek open adoptions that include written agreements for ongoing contact with the adoptive families. Several studies reviewed in this report found those birthparents who have had contact with the adoptive family since placement have lower levels of grief, regret and worry, along with more peace with their decisions, than those who did not have this opportunity.
Some expectant parents make adoption plans with the desire and explicit assurance that they will receive information about or have ongoing contact with their children and their families - but subsequently have to cope with the impact of the adoptive parents reneging on that agreement. Currently, 20 states permit legally enforceable adoption contact agreements, but only 13 apply to infant adoptions. (Penalties for violation of such contracts include fines, but never return of the child). This is an area of law in which reforms are critically needed to support the long-term well-being and adjustment of birthparents. Another is the enactment of statutes restoring the right of adopted people, once they reach the age of majority, to gain access to their own birth records. This is a vivid example of how misconceptions about birthparents can lead to misguided and even harmful practices; that is, state legislators frequently use birthmothers' supposed desire for privacy as a rationale for keeping birth records sealed when, in reality, only a tiny minority wants to stay closeted and the vast majority want information about or contact with the children they relinquished.
Recommendation 1: Establish legally enforceable post-adoption contact agreements in all states and permit adults who were adopted to regain access to their own records.
Reprinted with the permission of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. © 2007 Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. All rights reserved.
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