“American Baby” Adoption Then and Now: Better or Worse?

American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser (2021) is a very well-written addition to adoption literature. It is also the third book about American domestic adoption of white babies in the period after WWII and before Roe v Wade known as the “Baby Scoop Era” (aka BSE), a time of increased extra-marital pregnancies leading to a high rate of newborn adoption placements. It is estimated that up to 4 million children were placed for adoption in the period between 1945 to 1973, with 2 million during the 1960s alone. It also simply overlaps the post war “Baby Boom” era when more babies born than any other time in US history.

Rickie Solinger first documented this historic phenomenon in her groundbreaking 2000 book, Wake up Little Susie. In 2006, Ann Fessler followed up with The Girls Who Went Away and subsequently the 2012 film A Girl Like Her. In addition, there are webpages, including a Wikipedia page, dedicated to and describing child adoption in this time period.

Additionally — or perhaps as a result of the amount of focus on this time in adoption history — some mothers and adoptees identify themselves online in adoption search and support groups and chat rooms as BSE babies or BSE mothers, as if they and their loss and separation experiences are somehow unique or more significant than adoption loses that occurred prior or subsequently. They are not. Loss is loss whether it occurs during peak a period or not.

Glaser does a magnificent job of describing in great detail what it was like for Margaret — a Jewish woman from New York — as she lives with the fear of anyone discovering the secret of her adopted-out son 20 years prior while longing to know of his well-being. The description of this mother’s agony, grief and shame are made poignantly, dramatically and at the same time excruciatingly real. Spot on. And yet . . .

It’s concerning that such intense focus on this historical era in adoption history creates a false impression that all the negative aspects of domestic infant adoption are in the past, ended magically in the mid 70s, and now we are enlightened and adoption is honky dory. It is akin to limiting discussions of racism only on lynchings or segregation and dismissing or diminishing the newer forms that Jim Crow has taken such as voter suppression and profiling to name just two. There is a risk that maintaining continued and repetitive retrospective focus on adoption practice in this limited time period gives a distorted view of adoption ills as if all adoption lies and secrecy were confined to a set period of time that ended in the 70s. No more secrecy. No more lies. If only that were true.

Yes, things were more secretive in the past. Growing up the 50s, I was kept in the dark about financial struggles my family endured and not permitted to attend the funeral of one of my grandparents. Gay people were closeted and cancer was spoken of only in whispers. Divorce was shameful. In white middle-class families there was great emphasis was on appearances. And yes, it was an era of maternity homes aka homes for “unwed mothers” where young expectant women were hidden from public scrutiny which could be vicious.

Virginity and chastity were exalted. Sex unmentionable and expected to be limited to marriage. And shame was a mighty sword that was weaponized against women — not men — who dared to step outside that boundary, committing the “sin” of “getting themselves” “in trouble.”

So, yes, it is true that things were different. Different. Worse in some ways perhaps, but that by no means equates to all is well in adoption now. Far from it.

Today, there is the facade of “openness”

“Open adoption” is a sugar coated illusion created by those who profit from the redistribution of children. It’s a marketing ploy to beef up the falling numbers by painting a vision of adoption loss today as somehow less painful than in previous decades because of less secrecy. The allure of openness has replaced shame as the tool with which to persuade expectant mothers to relinquish their babies to baby brokers who feed the insatiable baby-hungry mega-billion-dollar adoption industrial complex.

Mothers-to-be are fooled into believing that they are in control because they get to choose the parents of their child from slick, hyped-up profiles of smiling couples pitching themselves and all the reasons they “deserve” your child and have so many wonderful advantages to offer.

Expectant moms are led to believe that open adoption, by taking the secrecy out of adoption, makes a loss somehow less a grievous loss than suffered by mothers of past decades. It’s as true as it would be to lead a widow to believe that having an open casket will help ease her grief and lessen her loss.

The truth is far less glamorous or romantic and far messier and more underhanded. Open adoption most often involves the enmeshing of prospective adopters and expectant moms, financially and emotionally, as courts in most states allow for direct payments for “expenses” which are loosely defined. Young women facing an impending birth alone are vulnerable victims to the show of friendship and even affection lavished on them in the hopes that they will stay the course and not decide against adoption. This unhealthy monetary and illusionary entanglement creates false expectations for those seeking to adopt and feelings of obligation and indebtedness for the mother-to-be. This is bad policy, if for no other reason than it increases the risk of emotionally and financially draining contested adoptions on grounds of coercion. Two states go as far as to allow for pre-birth consents to adoption (see, for instance the case of Kimberly Rossler.)

Mothers considering adoption today are kept in the dark every bit as much as the mothers of the bygone BSE because they are still provided no legal counsel other than that paid for by the adopters, a clear conflict of interest. They are thus at high risk of being duped, coerced and lied to. They too often enter into open adoption with false expectations, believing all open adoptions involve visitation, unaware “openness” runs the gamut from being able to choose and maybe even meet the prospective adopters (technically known as “identified” adoption); to letter and photo exchanges — with or without knowing the adopters’ identities and location; to visitation. Adoption brokers often fail to ascertain that all parties to an impending adoption are clear and on the same page about what level of openness to anticipate. Nor are expectant moms told that post-adoption contact agreements are unenforceable promises that can be ended at the whim of the adoptive parents.

They are not told that so-called “open adoptions” all begin in the same way as closed adoptions: with the signing of a relinquishment of parental rights. Giving up all rights to your child means you have no right or say in how your child is raised nor any right to be part of his or her life in any shape or manner. Open adoption is not joint custody wherein both parents maintain parental rights and neither can violate the visitation rights of the other without proving just cause. Open adoption agreements are unenforceable because the adopters are the only legal parents — the birth parents having relinquished that right. But naïve young women in crisis are not explained any of this and go into open adoptions believing fairytales of having the best of both worlds: the ability to continue their education or just live unencumbered, while having a relationship like an aunt to their child. Sometimes that occurs, but too often it does not.

For many mothers who enter into so-called open adoptions, the reality is a far cry from the fantasy. Too many end up in the same place as mothers of traditional closed adoptions with the addition of feeling foolish and betrayed when reality comes crashing down on false expectations. Some mothers have faced immediate deceit such as phone numbers disconnected as soon as the adoption is finalized. Others get a slower, more gradual cold shoulder or excuses, apologies and far less communication than expected. Adopters can use any excuse, often that they find continued contact disturbing for their child or family.

On the other hand, some mothers lucky enough to have merciful and honest adopters who keep the promise of openness often find it difficult to maintain and it is the mother herself — not the adopter — who chooses to end contact. Some find it too painful to watch their child call someone else Mommy.

For the adoptee, if an open adoption ends (by either party) he or she is left no different from any adoptee since the 1940s when original birth certificates were first sealed and new falsified, so called “amended” certificates of “birth” were issued listing the adopter(s) as the parents of birth. In the majority of states today, adoptees of any age have no legal access to their true, rightful, original vital birth record . . . as do non-adopted citizens. Unless their adoption remains open, they are at the same risk as past adoptees of not having their familial medical history and face the same danger of unwittingly committing incest.

Focusing on the BSE overshadows the fact that adoption practices have changed but not necessarily for the better.

Currently:

  • Pregnancy termination, once secured by Roe v Wade, is being chipped away or ended in many states.
  • Birth control access, limited access to pregnancy termination, along with acceptance of single motherhood has greatly reduced the number of women who would even consider adoption, while at the same time . . .
  • Infertility remans high as women continue to delay childbearing well into their 40s. According to a report by report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in 2019, the number of babies born in the U.S. hit the lowest level in more than three decades, continuing a five-year downward trend.
  • Add to that same sex marriage increasing the pool of those seeking to adopt and you have a huge demand for a scant number of possible domestic infants for adoption

All of this combines to increase the pressures on expectant mothers are subjected, making adoption today riskier today than ever before.

Gone are social workers and their “fitness” scrutiny. Gone are age restrictions and even criminal background checks. Adoptions agencies today — even those with a non- or not-for-profit tax status — are businesses with salaries to pay and overhead costs. These expenses are only garnered by getting mothers to sign in the dotted line and completing a transaction at a fee of approximately $40k per placement. Any social workers left are employees of adoption business enterprises. Home studies, screening or vetting of perspective adopters is a joke — a rubber stamp — because the adopters are the sole paying customers that such businesses depend on to remain operating and the social work employees — where required by law — rely on for their salaries. The one and only requirement prospective adaptors must meet today is the ability to afford the fee or beg borrow and fundraise for it.

Yet, adoption remans in high esteem in the eyes of the public who believes it is a win-win and an act of altruism, not entitlement or classist exploitation. This rose-colored view of adoption is reflected in the fact that those who adopt are awarded with federal tax credits. Originally designed to encourage adoptions from foster care, tax credits are now given for domestic infant and international adoption, which do not benefit society or the children in foster care who cannot be reunited with family.

While book after book focuses on the bad old days, we are living in the worst of times when it comes to adoption.

In the 50s and 60’s adoption agencies had such an abundance of babies being surrendered for adoption they had to set restrictions on who could adopt and who not. Those too old or too young were eliminated and some agencies required proof of infertility and declined couples who had children. The babies too were scrutinized, often left in foster care until it was clear they were healthy and meeting standard developmental criterion, as was the case of David Rosenberg, which Glaser focuses on throughout her book. David, she writes “idled” in foster care despite “existing studies proving the importance of attachment and the harm of moving an infant from one foster mother to the next.”

Nowadays, the reverse is true. Open adoption almost always means prospective adopters in the delivery room violating and disrupting the natural mother-child bonding process. Instead, the paying clients get to hold their womb-wet prize while the post-labor mom is left with empty arms.

The volume was higher in the past than now. There were a great deal more unnecessary losses based on temporary situations and puritanical societal mores. While fewer domestic infant adoptions take place today, make no mistake that the corruption has escalated. We cannot afford to divert attention from that by lamenting the past. Diminished supply to meet a demand that has not decreased, and in fact likely has increased, intensifies the pressure for women to relinquish.

The past is the past. In some instances, we can hope to learn from it. We can bemoan the past, but we cannot change it. On the other hand, but we have a chance to change the present if we focus on the current problems in child adoption which are many and serious. Times have changed and shame no longer holds the same power now as it did on past decades. Maternity homes are all but non-existent. To use a crass analogy, adoption has flipped from a buyers to a “sellers’” market, driven by high demand. There are no lessons from the BSE that are applicable to today’s money-driven adoption marketplace.

This book is beautifully written and an excellent addition to adoption literature but it must be read and judged in proper context.

Where is the outrage at the out-of-control privatized independent infant adoption where money talks and babies — especially white healthy newborn babies — are valuable commodities to be trafficked? Where are the books exploring the current lack of regulatory oversight or ethical standards in the entrepreneurial world of infant adoption?

Trauma is trauma and loss is loss no matter when the loss occurred. We need to redouble efforts in the here and now to get the money out of child adoption and end the reign of unscrupulous baby brokers, the exploitation of mothers in crisis, and the trafficking of babies for adoption.

UPDATE 2/17/21: Ms. Glaser responded to my inquiy as to whether she is planning to write a follow-up as rumored. She replied that she has no plans for a book about current adoption practice.

Edited 3/6/21

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