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Hooray Ohio!

Adoption Network Cleveland‘s Executive Director and founder, Betsie Norris, has been working on legislation for all Ohio-born adoptees to gain access to their original birth certificates for years. Ohio has a wacky three tier system that has allowed adoptees born before 1963 and those after September 1996 to get copies of their original birth certificates but all other adoptees were left in the dark. That’s all about to change thanks to the tireless efforts of Betsie and her team of volunteers, which includes Kate Livingston, founder of the Ohio Birth Parent Group.

This is their press release in its entirety:

Governor is Scheduled to Sign Adoptee Rights Bill — Affecting 400,000 Adoptee Records

Columbus, OH – Governor John Kasich is scheduled to sign Substitute Senate Bill 23 into law on Thursday, December 19th in a private event. Once enacted, this new law will allow 400,000 adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.

Adoption Network Cleveland founder and Executive Director Betsie Norris has been working tirelessly on this cause since founding the organization in 1988. This is the sixth bill in 25 years that has attempted to address this issue in Ohio. Norris stated, “We are grateful that Governor John Kasich has decided to act quickly to sign this bill into law. With the stroke of his pen, he is positively impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands Ohio adoptees.”

The bill passed the Ohio House on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 with a vote of 91-2. The bill had passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday, December 4, 2013. Senators Bill Beagle (R) and Dave Burke (R) sponsored the bill. An identical bill was sponsored in the House by Representatives Dorothy Pelanda (R) and Nickie Antonio (D).

The bill allows Ohio’s most disenfranchised adoptees, those adopted between 1964 and 1996 who currently have no direct mechanism to access their original birth certificates, access to this important personal document upon request. It also creates a mechanism for birthparents from that era to have a voice and indicate their preference regarding contact from their adult child. In addition, an amendment to the bill also allows birthparents a one-year window during implementation during which they can request that their name be redacted from the version of the birth certificate given to the adoptee. If they do so, they must provide a detailed medical history. Based on experience in other states, it is anticipated that very few if any birthparents will seek to remove their name.

After a 90-day enactment period, the bill has a one-year waiting period before any records will be released, therefore “opening day” will be in March 2015.

Original birth certificates in Ohio adoptions prior to 1964 are already available to those adult adoptees under current law. In September 1996, Ohio law changed to allow adoptees adopted from that date forward access to their birth certificates upon reaching age 21, or to their adoptive parents when the adoptee reaches age 18, unless the birthparent has asked not to be identified. The current legislation does not affect the laws governing these other time periods.

Equal access to original birth certificates has been a public policy goal of Adoption Network Cleveland since its founding in 1988. The Cleveland Foundation provided grant support to Adoption Network Cleveland for its work on this public policy initiative.

Adoptees and birthparents affected by this new law are available for interviews upon request.

Adoption Network Cleveland, a non-profit organization, provides support, education and advocacy for adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, foster youth and parents, foster care alumni and professionals. Founded in 1988, Adoption Network Cleveland recognizes adoption as a complex, lifelong and intergenerational journey for all those whose lives are touched by it. www.AdoptionNetwork.org. Adoption Network Cleveland is a member of Greater Cleveland Community Shares. www.communityshares.org.

Being critical of birth parent behavior, not birth parents

blondeboy-insideI wanted to pull something out that Catana said in her comments to my last post because I thought it was really important:

When the teen years begin the issue becomes more difficult because, in addition to everything else, they wonder what their parent’s sexual behavior was and whether they will ultimately end up like them – unmarried and pregnant, and/or irresponsible adults. Teens need a confidante, typically not the adoptive family.

Catana is an adult adoptee so her words should hold extra resonance for those of us raising adopted children.

I think this is a piece that can be very difficult for adoptive parents to understand, especially those adoptive parents who have real reason to feel angry or critical about their children’s birth parents actions (such as in the case of foster-to-adopt when terrible abuse or neglect is what led the child into the system).

It is absolutely understandable that adoptive parents would feel very angry and resentful towards those birth parents who were abusive and neglectful but it is not appropriate to express that anger and resentment to the child without caveats. It is hugely important that adoptive parents make it clear that their criticism is directed to the birth parents behavior and not to the birth parents themselves.

This can get tricky.

An adoptive parent should never say, “Your birth mom was just an evil person. Your birth dad was always a loser.”

An adoptive parent can say, “I feel so angry that your birth mom hurt you; I wish she’d known how to be a better mom. I am so sad that your birth dad didn’t know how to be a good parent; he’s missing out on a really great kid.”

Again, I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate to be angry and resentful about the behavior; it can be therapeutically important for the adoptive parents to express negative emotions for all that their children have gone through or are going through. But at the same time, it’s vital that adoptive parents remember that even if their children have been deeply hurt by their biological parents, they are still of them.

It’s the same thing we talk about when we talk about divorced parents not bad-mouthing their child’s other parent (even when that other parent deserves it). We need to keep our feelings our feelings and if we can’t do that, we need to talk to an understanding professional who can give you space to get it all out and then put it back together in the best way possible for our children.

Many adopted children certainly will wonder if they will make the same mistakes or struggle with the same demons. And in fact, they might. They need to know that you will love and cherish them anyway and — most importantly — that you will do everything you can to support them no matter what happens. They need to know that even if mental illness or addiction or what-have-you is in their biological heritage that this doesn’t need to dictate the trajectory of their lives.

I don’t want to chastise adoptive parents who are struggling or make them feel guilty for their ugly feelings towards birth parents who have harmed their children but I do want to encourage them to figure out a way to rise above it for the sake of their kids. To be able to do this for your child you need to be able to do it for yourself. If you’re holding onto fears that your child will head down the same path or you find yourself obsessed with anger towards your child’s birth parents, get some help from an understanding (and adoption competent) professional to figure it out.

Safe Discussion for Adopted Kids

growth-insideIn my practice (and in my personal life), I’ve found that tween adoptees tend to be thinking about adoption and about their birth families more than their adoptive parents may realize. They’re not always talking about it but they’re thinking about it. The Adoption Institute linked to a study that looked at this in last month’s newsletter, here’s the abstract:

The adopted children, between the ages of 8 and 12 years, and their parents answered questions about the children’s thoughts and feelings about adoption. Descriptive data and scores on four scales – family, adoption, birth culture identity and discrimination – were obtained. Compared with same-race adoptees, transracial adoptees scored significantly higher on birth culture identity and perceived discrimination. High levels of convergence between the children’s and parents’ viewpoints on the experiences of adoption and related issues were found. Nevertheless, the adopted children scored higher than their parents on birth culture identity, suggesting that at this age adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s connection to their cultural origins

I think there are several reasons why adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s interest. For one thing, just because kids are thinking something doesn’t mean they’re talking about it; they may not even have the words to share what they’re thinking and feeling. But absence of discussion on their part doesn’t mean it’s not on their minds.

The other thing is that many adoptees worry excessively about hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. They pick up on any jealousy or insecurity on the part of their parents real or perceived and they act accordingly.

They may also fear being different than the rest of the family and expressing their interest in their birth origins can exacerbate this worry.

So what is a concerned adoptive parent to do?

  1. Talk about adoption early and often. Don’t wait until “they’re old enough to understand.” Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Make adoption part of your everyday lives and discussion. Practice, if you need to, with a friend so that you can talk about adoption without blanching. Your child should know everything you do (expressed age appropriately) by the time they hit their teens, which means if there are some tough things to talk about, you need to get ready to talk about them. (If you need help, talk to a counselor or a teacher or a spiritual adviser or someone else who knows how to discuss difficult things with kids.)
  2. Assume your child’s interest even if they don’t express it. Remember that every adoption outside of family adoption (and sometimes even then) is a transcultural adoption so even if your child looks like you and everyone else in the family, she or he has a birth culture that is worth exploring. And that birth culture is part of your family culture now so welcome it the same way you welcome your own culture of origin.
  3. This doesn’t mean forcing them to assume an identity of your making, mind you. Your daughter from China may not particularly want to identify as Chinese and that’s OK. What you’re doing is creating opportunity so that she has room to decide for herself. Just like families connected by biology may drag their kids to Irish step shows because they want to remind them of dear old Granny Murphy, adoptive families should celebrate connection as a family. And just like bio kids may grow up to loathe Michael Flatley, so your son adopted from Ethiopia may grow up to loathe injera. But what they’ll remember is that it mattered to the family and trust me, that part of it will matter to them no matter what.
  4. Don’t spend so much time on culture that you forget biology. Your child likely wants to know about his or her birth family, too. If you have information, share it. If you don’t, share what you do have. If you have nothing, talk openly about that. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to do research. And it’s best that you do this exploration before your child hits those tween years so that you’re prepared for their questions.
  5. If you do have access to birth family, help your child have access, too. How this should look will depend a great deal on the reasons behind your child’s adoption but you can get help by talking to other adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees or by talking to a knowledgeable therapist.
  6. Find someone for your child to talk to. As I said before, sometimes we parents are not the best people for our kids to confide in so find a trusted adult adviser whether that be a therapist, another relative or friend of the family, or an adoptee mentor.


Does open adoption get easier?

oab-rt-buttonThe current prompt over at Open Adoption Bloggers is a good one. Does it get easier? It’s a question my clients ask, too, and my answer is Yes. And No.

Open adoption relationships are just like any other relationship — relationships grow and change, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. In the case of domestic infant adoption, things usually start our simpler where it’s mostly adults trying to navigate expectations. As the child grows, their wants and wishes enter in and that always complicates things. Parents — by birth or adoption — don’t have as much control over how kids see things as they might think they do and so no matter how carefully they’ve planned out how to “do” adoption, our children might have other ideas.

So the birth and adoptive parents who hoped for lots of fun visits may have a child who sulks and refuses to enjoy them. Or the birth and adoptive parents who hoped to have a carefully constructed semi-open adoption may be confronted with a child who hungers for more.

In foster to adopt where there is openness, the beginning can be especially hard since there is a lot of upfront baggage everyone has to work through. Children may not be ready for contact but there might need to be some way to maintain connection and then there might be more relationships — siblings still parented or placed elsewhere, grandparents who may have cared for the children for a time.

Families change. People get married and divorced. New babies arrive. People move. Families make plans together at the very beginning not knowing — because how can anyone know — how drastically things might change. People get sober. People start drinking. People convert to a new religion or leave a church altogether.

These things are true of any relationship and so they are also true of the open adoption relationship.

And just like any other relationship, we get better at them if we work at it. Birth parents and adoptive parents can’t control what happens or what other people do, but we can get better at maintaining healthy boundaries and loving people through change. We learn how to trust the love between people even if we can’t always trust their choices. We learn how little control we have over how other people choose to live out the relationships with us and with our children.

Sometimes, certainly, we need help with our relationships and the challenge in open adoption is that few people understand it. Our friends might not, our family might not, and even the professionals we turn to may not. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to correct mistaken assumptions about openness in adoption made by my colleagues.) So then we might need to rely on each other for help and answers. We might need to look for open-minded professionals and help them build their competency. We might need to sit down and think hard on what led us to openness in the first place and trust that those values that brought us here still matter. And we might need to remind ourselves that open adoption is ultimately a relationship and that we know that relationships grow, change, evolve — all of them do — and that we can grow, change and evolve with them.

So yes, it gets harder (because change is hard) but it gets easier (because we get better as we grow, if we want to).

There is always hope.

Adopt-a-this, Adopt-a-that

adoption counselorThere’s a discussion going on in one of the adoption groups about whether or not Adopt-a-Highway or Adopt-a-Pet language is hurtful to adopted people. The original poster specifically asked to hear from adoptees and responses are mixed. Some adoptees do take offense, some do not. Some feel that there are more important issues to be concerned about like open records and others feel that this is a microaggression that deserves attention and action.

Even though the original poster stated that she wanted to hear from adopted people, she got a lot of adoptive parents weighing in about what they thought of the programs. (I responded, too, to post that my daughter does find the Adopt-a-Highway programs offensive. I should have added but didn’t that she doesn’t mind the language when applied to pets because her dog is one of her favorite people. She gave me permission to share this with the group and with you.)

Of course as adoptive parents we have opinions about things like the language used for highway support programs and shelter dog rescue because we are participating in adoption, as well. But the temptation to let our experience define adoption for everyone in the constellation sometimes gets the best of us. Part of this is because as parents, we get used to making decisions for our kids* — what to eat for lunch, when to clean their rooms, how to dress for winter weather — and then we keep doing it. We think we know what they want or what they should want so we keep stepping up and speaking up.

The problem is that our kids know adoption in an entirely different way than we do and if we speak too fast or get too pushy, we run the risk of silencing them.

We may not be bothered by Adopt-a-Highway but our children might. Or we may find it offensive but our children don’t.

Our kids need to grow up to integrate their adoption experience into the whole of their lives and we can best support them in doing this by giving them room to feel differently than we do about things and space to talk about it. In particular, we need to give them room to have negative feelings about adoption and/or the cultural assumptions about adoption.

I understand the first rush to try to comfort our kids, but unfortunately it can look like dismissal.

“Oh honey! They don’t mean anything by that! It’s just another way to say sponsor a highway. It’s a good thing! They’re taking responsibility to keep this part of the road clean!”

It sounds like comforting but what it does is shut our kids down. What it unintentionally says is: You’re too sensitive. Your hurts are not reasonable. Please do not share them with me because I can’t handle it.

For those of us who take a more activist route, starting a letter campaign to the Adopt-a-Whatever people is less jarring, as long as we allow our children to stay out of it. There are times when kids who are adopted just want to forget about the whole messy thing and this is all right. We can model advocacy and still respect their right to feel differently by making it clear that we are not speaking for them.

We want our children to grow up and be strong, independent and true. We can support this by giving them space to feel their own ways about adoption in general and their adoptions in particular. Sometimes we need help with this. If you want help, hit me up.

* Note: For the purposes of this blog I’m referring to adoptive parents who are currently parenting children. I think it’s important to make this distinction because adoption discussions often assume that adopted people are perpetually children so I want to be clear in this case I’m writing to those who are parenting kids.

Grandparents in Adoption

starfish-insideTomorrow’s all Adoption Meeting (7pm at the Karl Road Library) is about grandparents. We have a couple of birth grandparents who regularly attend meetings and hopefully they’ll be there tomorrow night.

Back when I was running Open Adoption Support, (which, by the way, I’ve handled over to the fabulous Heather.PNR) we got lots of emails from grandparents. This is a population that is nearly invisible and terribly under-served. Not that birth families in general get enough services (because they don’t) but there is really nothing out there for birth grandparents.

Here in Central Ohio there is the Kinship Network, which exists to support families who are caring for relatives’ children. I’m not sure how active it is (I had a client trying to track down someone to call her back so she could get some direction/help but she never heard from anyone) but it’s not for families who are dealing with adoption fall-out.

Grandparents, like parents, are generally ill-prepared for the level of grief that comes with losing a family’s child to adoption. Even when adoption is truly the best choice and truly supported by the birth family, it’s still a major loss. Grandparents and other extended family members have their own issues of grief, guilt, regret and sadness.

The circumstances around the adoption complicate matters. Grandparents may have pushed the adoption and are now overwhelmed with guilt as they see their children struggling with the loss. Or they may have wanted to step up and parent themselves only to be pushed out of the decision or have realized that their wants don’t come into play. Or they may be revisiting their frustration, anger and sadness for other choices of their adult children, which made the adoption inevitable.

Anyway, that’s what tomorrow’s meeting is about (and not just the experience of birth grandparents but also of adoptive grandparents). I hope to see you there!

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