Monday, July 7, 2014

Adoption Story Part 3 - Extra details about the adoption world

So you've read what it was like for me being adopted in part one, and followed along on my journey as I found my birth parents in part two, but there are a few more things I wanted to add about adoption. As someone who was adopted and worked in the adoption field I sometimes get questions about the adoption process in general... and how it has changed over the years. You might also be interested in what my work entailed when I worked at an Adoption Agency. As you read this, please keep in mind that when I talk about the adoption experience it's in relation to the agency I worked at in the time frame I worked. To find out the specifics of the law make sure to check with an agency or adoption attorney in your state.

Part 1 - Growing up adopted
Part 2 - Finding my birth parents
Part 3 - Extra details about the adoption world

You worked at an adoption agency. How did that happen? Did you actively seek that out?

After the funding fell out at my job (working in social services) I started looking for something within the same field. I had my masters in Professional Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy and had been working with a lot of high risk families and kids (mostly court ordered). I was excited to come across a position as a birth parent counselor at an adoption agency, but they were looking for someone with a license in Social Work. I applied, along with a number of other places hoping that I might have a chance. They took a long time to get back to me, but I later found out that they really were looking to hire someone with a license in Social Work, but not so much for this position - they needed someone to sign off on adoption studies and thought they would combine the roles. They were able to find a licensed person just for that purpose which opened up the credentials for the birth parent position (this is why I often encourage the students I work with to not be totally turned off when their degree isn't the exact degree needed. If it's similar, it's worth applying for as you never know what the possibilities are or the reasoning behind why they need those credentials).

Luckily, I got the job and was able to use my personal experience to help support birth parents. While I worked mostly with birth parents, I also helped adoptive parents understand the birth parents experience - especially when it came to the hospital visit.

What was a typical day/week like when you worked in adoption?

Each day and week was different, which was the most consistent thing about this job. I never quite knew what to expect even when I had a general plan laid out for the week. I would be in the office a couple days a week to answer a specific phone line we had for birth parents. While I was there I did other office stuff (organizing, filing, marketing, etc). For the days I wasn't in the office I often had appointments with birth parents. We worked throughout Minnesota so some days I had to travel 10 minutes to see someone while another day might be a 4 hour drive, but I would say most commutes were within a couple hours. Occasionally, a birth mom might want to come to the office, but usually I went to their home.

Birth father's were involved sometimes, but most of the time I was meeting with a birth mother alone. In our initial meetings we would talk about her situation, what she was hoping for, options (could she parent, did she have any support, what would things be like in a few years), and the adoption process. I never wanted a birth mom to feel like I was talking her into adoption. I wanted to inform her of the process and make sure she had explored all her options. Some women decided to go the adoption route and others didn't. Usually, once a woman called us though, she'd put a fair amount of thought into it and was feeling somewhat serious about the decision. Some women felt the pressure from people around them to make the adoption choice and these were often the most difficult situations and sometimes led to a failed adoption (more about this in a moment).

Once birth moms were at the stage of having the baby I would travel to see her at the hospital the day after she had the baby. Part of my role was to check in on her and see how she was feeling now that she had the baby. We would try to prepare birth parents for this moment, but you never really truly could. This was sometimes more difficult for birth dads as birth moms had the experience of having the baby be a part of them and the baby often felt very real throughout the entire pregnancy. While at the hospital, I would also help to make sure that the hospital was honoring any wishes she had (hospitals for the most part were really great with respecting all parties involved).

The other role I had at the hospital was to help facilitate contact with the adoptive parents. We would work out a plan before birth (when to come to the hospital, how much contact was wanted, plan for leaving the hospital...), but sometimes those plans changed and usually needed a middle person to help it all come together. Every birth family was different in the amount of contact or visits they wanted from the adoptive family. Some adoptive parents were in the room practically the entire time, and for others there was no contact with the birth parents, but most were somewhere in between.

The final day at the hospital I would return to help with the departure. There was paperwork to be signed so the baby could leave the hospital with the adoptive parents if the birth mom chose not to walk out of the hospital with the baby (as sometimes they said their goodbyes and left before or after the adoptive parents). There really were so many different variations of how this happened depending on the birth mom's wishes. It was an incredibly emotional moment and I think for most birth parents it was helped by knowing that they had an open adoption plan set in place (more to come on that too!).

Besides working with birth moms I also spoke to potential adoptive parents at the orientation/open houses our agency offered. Once adoptive parents signed up they worked with an adoptive parent counselor and had a home study done along with a number of trainings. I provided one of the trainings on the hospital experience and how to interact with the birth family. Plus, I would speak at different schools and agencies about the adoption process.

Since babies aren't born on schedule this meant that my job felt like I was on 24/7. There was one other birth parent counselor so we would take turns being 'on call' for the weekends, but if one of the birth parents we were working with delivered that weekend or wanted to meet, it was our responsibility to do so. For the weekends we were 'on call' that might mean that we would get a call from a hospital that a woman just delivered a baby and wanted to place her child for adoption. We'd have to drop everything and run off to where ever she was and bring our adoptive parents profiles with for her to choose (after making sure it was what she wanted to do, of course). While this position did offer a fair amount of flexibility and often some down time, it felt like I was always working.

How often did birth parents change their mind about the adoption?

For the agency I worked at not very often, but it does happen. As a birth parent counselor we tried to recognize signs that a birth parent might not go through with the adoption. We'd talk about other options that she might have to raise the child and how she's going to feel if she doesn't bring the baby home with her. I recall one woman who struggled so much with her decision and I always felt that she thought she had to go through with the adoption to make the birth father happy. I worked with them as a couple and her alone extensively, but she insisted on going through with the adoption. She changed her mind after the baby had been living with the adoptive parents, but before the adoption was finalized. It was heartbreaking, but I understood that in the end she realized she did have to give parenting a try - it just took her not having the baby with her to realize it fully.

How long does the birth mother have to sign the adoption paperwork (or change her mind)?

Every state is different, but in Minnesota a birth parent cannot sign anything until at least 72 hours after the birth of the child and has up to 60 days to do so. Once they sign, they have another 10 days to change their mind. These days babies usually go right home from the hospital with the adoptive parents unlike when I was a child and placed in foster care for my first couple months. For some states long ago babies had to be in foster care for a year before they could be placed for adoption. Birth parents can ask that a baby be placed in foster care until the adoption is finalized, but I never had one do so in the five years I worked in the adoption field.

Can you talk more about open adoption and how it works?

Sure. Birth parents and adoptive parents would share with us their comfort level with future contact. Sometimes one of the parties didn't get quite what they wanted or were open to, but most of the time it was an important part of the decision process for birth parents so they selected adoptive parents who were on the same page as them. I did see a few instances where the birth parents wanted no contact, but it was the rarity. We would create a document that laid out the wishes of both parents. The document was not legal, but we stressed (especially to adoptive parents) the importance of honoring the agreement. For many, it was mostly pictures and letters which would become less frequent as the child grew. For others, it was letters, pictures, and visits. I knew a number of adoptive families who really embraced their child's birth mom as she was treated like a family member, perhaps picking the child up from school on occasion or attending family celebrations.

How does each party know their legal rights?

At the agency I worked at, both birth parents and adoptive parents had their own attorneys.

What can adoptive parents pay for?

In Minnesota, adoptive parents have to pay for a birth parent's legal and counseling expenses. They can pay for any uninsured medical expenses and living expenses. Any payments made must be reported.

Did working in the field of adoption help you with your search or influence you?

Yes, it influenced me. And yet, I really want to say it didn't. Would I have made the same decision if I didn't work at an adoption agency? Yes. Probably. What it did do for me is give me some more insight into the adoption process. Adoption changed a lot between the closed adoptions when I was born to the open adoptions of today. That's not to say that there aren't closed adoptions today, but overall open adoptions are seen much more favorably than they would have been when I was born.

How is adoption different from when you were born to now?

As I mentioned above, adoptions were closed back in the day. Plain and simple. Each state had different regulations around this and many laws are still in place that make finding birth parents next to impossible. I was adopted in Minnesota through a local agency so I was able to go to their website where they very clearly laid out the search process and cost. However, I know people who were born in other states (or countries) where the searches have been incredibly difficult or just impossible.

Now, domestic adoptions are much more open. They come in all shapes and forms. The agency I worked at focused only on domestic adoptions whereas other agencies provided both domestic (newborns, older children, special needs...) and international adoptions.

What do you think about closed adoption vs. open adoption? Do you think that all closed adoptions should now be open?

This is clearly a heated topic for many who have been impacted by adoption. Some adopted individuals feel that their closed records should become open and I understand their point of view. However, I also want to be respectful of those birth parents who may not want those records open. While there continues to be a stigma for women in these situations (often young and unmarried), it was even greater years ago. Many of these women kept the adoption secret from their families and opening that up might create challenges they are not open to and I feel I have to respect that as well. In fact, I know one woman who found her birth mom, but her birth mom never told anyone that she had placed a child for adoption. While they have a relationship where they connect from time to time, the birth mom still has not told anyone in her family about her daughter and likely never will.

Personally, I feel that in all closed adoptions there should be a process that allows each party to go back to their adoption agency (or a central database of sorts) to sign a release of information so it would open the door if each side chose to and any medical information on file should be readily shared (mine was, but was limited in nature as it was collected when my birth mom placed me at 19 years old).

Would you ever adopt a child?

I would be open to adopting, but I've settled on the one child plan for our family. If I couldn't get pregnant I would have thought of this more seriously. Jesse and I even talked about it early in our relationship as a possibility.

I will admit that if I was looking to adopt a child I would prefer a baby and that it be a domestic open adoption. I'd want as much family history that I could get to pass on to my child, and I'd want to have an open relationship from the start with the birth parents if they were open to it. For me, I feel that it's not only that I'd want to know the people my child came from, but it seems respectful to my child. Having said that, I respect that people have different feelings on this and I don't think one type of adoption is better than another.

What are some things to never say to an adopted person? How do I refer to adoption?

It's not that uncommon to hear that someone say that so and so was 'given up' for adoption, but what's more appropriate to say is that someone was 'placed' for adoption. I don't take too much offense to the 'given up' language since I used to say that all the time and I understand that many people grew up with that terminology, but I do try to use language that is more respectful to all parties involved. I also try to respectfully correct language that isn't appropriate.

Also, my 'real parents' are the parents who raised me... so that would be my adoptive parents. The people who I get my genes from are by birth parents or biological parents. For me, 'birth parents' feels like a better fit.

I think in most instances people are naive, but mean well. I was once at a retirement party where a woman and her children were being introduced to the group, but instead of saying "this is Mary and her sons" they said "this is Mary and her adopted sons". The boys were late teens so it seemed especially unnecessary to point out that they were adopted. However, the mother was white and the boys were black so I assume the person introducing them felt the need to clarify how that might have happened. Totally unnecessary. These boys were her sons. I know she may have wanted to clear up the race difference for the group, but by saying they were adopted can make some feel less than. It's not that you can't talk about it, but that it should be discussed differently. I've talked about my adoption plenty, but no one introduces me as Frank's adopted child.

Do you know any good books or resources about adoption?

Well, if you are thinking about adopting do your research and make sure to check out several different agencies. In Minnesota, there are a number of adoption agencies, but I will mention a few here:

Adoption Minnesota
Lutheran Social Service
Catholic Charities

Check out their sites for more information about the adoption process and the types of adoption they assist with. As far as books on adoption? I actually haven't read a ton. Mostly I've picked up those that tell true life stores of reunitement like A.M. Holmes' A Mistress's Daughter, which I have to admit I am glad I read after I found my birth parents and not after. It's an interesting read and shows that everyone has a different adoption story.

The Portrait of Adoption website provides a list of other books on adoption worth checking out. I've been meaning to check out The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption  by Lori Lavender Luz as it was written by a friend of a friend and I hear it's quite good.

I've also found the Adoption: Share the Love Facebook page to be a great spot to positively bring together people touched by adoption.

There are so many adoption resources out there so this just hits on a few. If you are interested in adoption I'd recommend picking up one of these books or starting with an adoption website. And, if you have any questions feel free to ask. I may not be in the adoption field anymore, but I might have some useful insight for you.

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