Friday, August 07, 2009

Adoption is not retroactive

This post is about adoption of teens in foster care. Right now I don't have the brain cells to consider implications for adoption in any other situation. It is also written from the perspective of a foster and potentially adoptive parent. (Yeah, our voices get heard the most. Here's one more.) Anyway, I'm going to try to stay away from the particulars with Gary. Though that is obviously what's on my mind, I'm going to try to write a post about what teen adoption.

The main reason for adopting a teen is to give that youth permanency. It is a legally binding promise to be there. It can be dissolved, but it is difficult to do so. I think Gary knows that our commitment to him is already there. Like marriage though there are legal rights that come with adoption. We would be his next of kin, which is handy when you are sick. When we die, he would get a share of our stuff. There would also be the advantage of not being in foster care anymore. Even with an agency as good as ours, there are still inconveniences and stigmas. Nobody else has to deal with someone they never met showing up and saying, "Hi, I'm your new social worker. I'm going to meet with you every month and ask you if you are happy."

It's sort of creepy.

But there's stuff that adoption does not do.

Even if Will was never Gary's genetic father, and even if he ceases to be his legal father, he will always be the man who was his father. Gary is who he is, in part because this man was his dad. Whatever that means, it won't go away. Termination of parental rights is more like a divorce than an annulment.

I don't think we foster/adoptive parents always get that. The first parents and always still the first parents. David's mother lost her parental rights when David was about twelve, I think. David never wanted to see his mother. He called social workers and expressed his concerns about the possibility of his brothers having visits with her. He refused to go places if he thought he might see her.

And he never called her anything other than, "my mom."

He said, "I never want to see my mom again" and "my mom isn't even legally my mom anymore."

I saw that in Gary today. He said things like, "my dad isn't my biological dad anyway. I don't think it really makes a difference if he has parental rights. My dad hasn't been in my life for years."

I kept hearing "my dad."

I said to him, "You know, in some ways, no matter what happens, he will always be your father."

Gary looked at me confused. I said, "He will always be the man who was your father. He is part of what made you who you are. Whatever is good or bad about that will still be true. He will still be the man who was your father."

In the US, when we adopt someone we falsify their birth certificates. We often change their names. We sometimes act as though we can re-write their past. What came before didn't happen, doesn't matter. Or if it does, it is over. We act like the adoptive parents replace the first parents.

We don't. Not really. We substitute for them or succeed them.

Our relationship with our children may be precious and wonderful, and maybe even help them heal, but it does not change the past.

No matter what the birth certificate says.


  1. I hate that the birth certificates are changed. I think there should be a new certificate, but it should be called an adoption certificate, not a birth certificate. Or at the very least, a new BC with two lines for parents: birth parents and adoptive parents.

    Our teens haven't wanted to be adopted because they didn't want to loose their birth parent(s). No matter the circumstances surrounding neglect or abuse or whatever, they still want the formality of that connection. Yet they have all hated the stigma of being in foster care.

    Does Gary still talk with a therapist? If so, does it seem to help him process his emotions around his father and that whole situation?

  2. The only good thing about Gary's situation right now, is the fact that he has you guys in his life and there is a track record of you being stable, supportive and loving. Wishing you all the best. I have mixed feelings on the birth cert issue but of all my kids, Rob was the oldest when I adopted him (6) and he WANTED to have it "match." We do however have a copy of the original as well.

  3. You know Lee, I have mixed feelings about birth certificates too. The only thing I am very, very clear on is that original certs should not be sealed.

  4. Anonymous8:27 PM

    I have only recently found your blog and I have been reading way past when I should be in bed! I want to thank you for writing. The idea of being a foster parent has been with me since I started teaching. I don't know when or if it will ever fit with the life I have now but I hope that it does. This post felt so profound and yet so very simple. Thank you for helping me truly see things from a different perspective. I realize that I have a long way to go and so much to learn before I could ever step into the fostering world. I could write more but I don't want my comment to go on forever! Thanks again for writing!

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on first families. I also have mixed feelings on "new" birth certificates. We adopted last year and still haven't requested a new certificate or soc.sec.#...We've kept his given birth name, including his last name. He's named after his granddad, dad and deceased brother. That is who he is...and who he came from. How could we not respect that???? How could we try to erase that??? I appreciate your bringing up this sensitive issue. Thanks.

  6. We've adopted twice - a baby who is now 24, and a 13 year old who is now 17 (she joined our family at 9). Adoption of older kids is so very different - much more complicated, because of the length of their lives outside your family. I also think there should be a different process than changing birth certificates to reflect a "non-reality" situation. A friend's daughter's birth certificate says her mother gave birth to her at 14. That just seems silly, with all we know today about attachment and other adoption issues.

  7. I have mixed feelings on the birth certificates, for different reasons. There are women to give birth reluctantly, because they feel strongly anti-abortion, yet have no connection to the pregnancy. Often this is a result of rape/incest situations, but others simply feel they made a mistake in having sex with the bio father and wish it had never happened. Part of their rationale of giving birth and then placing for adoption rather than aborting is that they don't have to have an ongoing connection, and through that, they can distance themselves from the situation. For those conceived in rape/incest, they often express that they don't ever want the child to know where they came from, because the reality is so unpleasant, and they fear that the child would feel like the "spawn of satan" as one family member mentioned.

    I think if the bio parents are in agreement, then the child should have access (under the guidance and protection of the adoptive family, especially in cases where the bio fam is chock full of dangerous behavior, rather than the run-of-the-mill average joes) to that info.

    But closed adoptions and sealed birth certificates have a purpose for some situations.

    And for other situations, until you've been stalked, threatened or endangered by the bio fam of the foster child you are fostering/adopting, you can't possibly understand the necessity of sealing the adoption.

    Keep in mind- most kids in foster care are not there like Gary, who committed some crime. Most are there because their parents either endangered/abused/neglected them to the point that reunification and rehabilitation were not possible. Continuing contact in those situations often does more harm than good, not only to the child, but to the adoptive family. Sometimes it even prevents the bio family from moving on past their loss and finding new direction. They become established in their anger and grief and can't transition.

    I know it is frustrating to deal with sealed records when you have one of the "ok" cases (which probably make up at least half of the foster/adopt situations), when the birth parents aren't able to parent, but the kids still have a relationship with them and it isn't harmful. No kid should have to change their identity against their will, BUT..

    ...some kids choose to. Some kids don't want to identify with the crap they came from. Some want to move past the jerks that hurt them, and especially in a small-town situation, they want to move away from the stigma that carrying that birth last name brings with it.

    I personally don't see that the birth certificates affect attachment. That's a stretch for me. Want to explain that?

  8. I think you should copyright the phrase "Adoption is Not Retroactive" and we will make an entire foster care curriculum out of it - OK? :)

    But seriously, I think this post is brilliant. If there is one thing that I wish I could explain to everyone in the foster care system (birth parents, foster parents, social workers, judges, therapists etc) is that adoption is not retroactive. Even if you adopt a child at birth - those nine months in their mother's womb not only effect the child that they will be (through genetics, prenatal care, or lifestyle choices) but they MEAN SOMETHING to the child.

    Birth certificates should not be sealed- at least not after the child is a legal adult. I understand the reasons to protect a child when they are young. But every person deserves to the right to locate their biological family. The small percentage of cases that involve rape/incest or other extreme trauma do not outweigh the need of many other adopted children to know their heritage. And again, even those traumas are something that is a part of them - they deserve to know the bad and the good. In my humble opinion, of course... :)


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