Our family adopted two children from Ethiopia almost ten years ago. We used a large, reputable U.S. agency who worked with several orphanages in the region. All was fairly smooth, efficient, and, in the world of adoption, affordable. No red flags, sort of. We ignored some little questions we had, a few inconsistencies—but we have great kids.
Fast forward nine years. We still have great, well-adjusted kids. My cool idea to try to find my son’s birth family while my oldest and I visited her birth relatives in Ethiopia was a fun adventure, for a bit. But when the agency documents led to a reunion with the wrong father, the little inconsistencies of the last decade seemed more significant. Further investigation led to the right family, but one with a very different story than what we were told by the agency. I don’t think the agency lied exactly, but that they, like us, chose to ignore the little questions. The real story is very painful and one we haven’t shared with our children yet. The most excruciating element is that the birth parents clearly were not fully informed about the choice they were making. They were misled. That breaks our heart, not only for the parents, but for our son. How should we frame his story for him? “Your parents loved you very much; they thought you were only going away to school for a while?” “You were stolen?” “Your parents lied to give you a better life?” It’s hard. But it does renew my commitment to a new way of doing domestic adoptions.
I’m an adoption attorney. I used to represent potential adoptive parents in their quest to find an expectant mother to place her baby with them. I, like most agencies, facilitators, and attorneys, advertised for expectant parents, presented them with profiles of my clients, and had potential birth moms sign an understanding that I was representing the adoptive parents. I told her she could ask for her own lawyer if she wanted one, but in a manner that clearly conveyed she didn’t really need one—I had her back. And I did. I think. I’m honest, ethical, compassionate—I genuinely care about the moms I work with. I honestly did my best, but for both the adoptive parents and the birth parents. When interests conflicted (and they sometimes, perhaps even often, do), I tried to be balanced. I expect there were times I erred in one direction and times another. My practice was fairly typical. There are a handful of states in which separate legal representation is required for birth parents, but in most states, it’s a little used option.
Two years ago, I joined a brand new, not-for-profit law firm dedicated to birth mother representation. It turned adoption practice on its head. When an expectant parent comes to our firm, we help her match with a family right for her—we don’t have any clients to put forward, so we’re free to really help her explore her options. We make sure she meets with a neutral social worker right away, to help explore her options, needs, and support system. We have a legal consultation with her, advising her in a confidential setting of issues concerning the birth father, any lifestyle issues she may have, and her desires concerning the adoption process and future contact. We help her make a hospital plan and represent her in the construction of a detailed, specific, written post adoption contact agreement with the adoptive parents. We also connect her with a support system including a case manager, counselor, and peer support. The adoptive parents are represented by their attorney or agency as well. One benefit of this is that the adoptive and birth parents are free to develop their personal relationship in an organic manner, and trust that their respective adoption professionals will guide them through the more difficult issues attendant in the process. Another benefit is that adoptive parents can be assured that their child’s mom has been fully informed of her rights and guided through her decision and placement by an advocate dedicated to her best interests.
This takes me back to Ethiopia. What a different story I would have for my son if his birth parents had met with their own advocate. Even if his story was hard, he could at least have the assurance that his birth parents were not taken advantage of, that they had made an informed decision, and that they were treated with respect. That seems like a pipe dream in the international context, but here in America it should be a given. Every child deserves to know that their birth parents’ rights were respected, that their decision, though painful, was fully informed, and that their adoptive parents were in no way complicit in anything unethical. Sadly, this is not the standard of practice in America—it costs the adoptive parents a bit more money (not much; perhaps $2,000 on average), it changes business as usual for many agencies, it shifts the balance of power in the adoption a bit—giving expectant parents a clearer voice may be uncomfortable for some—but it’s gaining acceptance. More and more ethical adoption professionals are recognizing the value of represented birth parents. Those who remain resistant should be questioned as to their motives for their resistance. Adoptive parents are in the best position to demand change. Demand that your child’s birth parents be given the opportunity to confer with their own attorney. We like to say, “honor the birth parent, honor the child.” The easiest way to begin that commitment to honor is with the simple act of asking your attorney or agency to allow you to hire an attorney for your child’s birth parents.
Jill’s heart has always been with kids: from organizing Easter Egg hunts for foster kids during law school, to driving kids from the Union Rescue Mission to school each day during a Metro bus strike before starting her work day at the legal aid clinic she ran on LA’s skid row, to teaching Sunday School, Jill’s free time usually involves something fun, messy, and kid-centered.
“AdoptMatch’s mission of making adoptions accessible, ethical, and empowering to birth parents and adoptive parents alike makes me excited to go to work in the morning and more appreciative of the blessing of coming home to a full, noisy house in the afternoon.”
Jill’s crazy love for her own six children (a brilliant mix from 4 to 22, adopted and biological) highlights the awe-inspiring love and vision required when a mom chooses to place her child for adoption.