Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2008

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Survey Says: Birth Parents are Important

Seventy-six percent of member agencies that participated in a recent CWLA survey say they provide postadoption services for birth parents.

By Ada White

The adoption world is thinking more and more about biological parents these days--a good sign considering their needs are just as important as those of adoptees and adoptive parents during the adoption process. Nevertheless, before the practice of open adoption became common, adoption and child welfare agencies traditionally overlooked the men and women we call birth parents.

Several recent publications have contributed to the growing focus on birth parents. The white paper, Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birth Parents in the Adoption Process, by Susan Livingston Smith with the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, takes a thorough look at better understanding birth parents. Another is a book written by Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.

Fessler, an adoptee herself who eventually reunited with her birth mother, collected more than 100 oral histories from birth mothers in researching and writing the book. Last year, I had the privilege to attend a talk by Fessler in which she played recordings of some of these oral histories. To hear the voices and accents of women who were interviewed from all over the country but who all experienced the same postadoption emotions was incredibly powerful.

To contribute to the growing body of research and information about birth parents, in July 2007 CWLA conducted an Internet survey of its private and public agency members about the postadoption services they do or don't provide for birth parents. The results were encouraging. Most agencies are now offering some type of postadoption service for birth parents, and they are doing so in innovative ways.

As part of the survey, CWLA also took the opportunity to interview a small group of birth parents, not only to get their feedback on the survey's questions and answers, but also to ask them what they would like adoption agencies and policymakers nationwide to know. Their answers were telling.

Two birth mothers who had gone through closed adoptions responded that no birth parent wishes to remain unknown to his or her child; it should be the birth parents' right to receive support for the emotional hurdles they experience during and after relinquishment. When these two mothers' children were adopted, they received neither their children's birth records, nor any information on how to contact them.

"There needs to be more birth parent services available, even now. It's in the best interest of the family's mental, emotional, and physical well-being," said Linda Woods, who was eventually reunited with her child. "Most importantly, no state should be closed--meaning adoptees cannot access their birth records--because every child deserves to know who they are and [where they came from]."

The birth parents interviewed said they felt they had no choice at the time of their children's relinquishment due to a lack of either financial or emotional support. All reported extreme grief after the finalization of their birth children's adoptions, with no way to release their feelings.

Reunited birth mother Linda Pendergast reported losing her husband recently and said, "At least when my husband passed, I was allowed to grieve."

A birth father reported similar bouts with grief; his grief, however, was caused not only by the loss of his child, but also the disconnection he experienced with the adoption process. He reported feeling overlooked by both the agency and the birth mother and her family in his grieving process. And even though his child's adoption was open and had taken place more than 20 years earlier, he still had grief issues.

Survey Results

CWLA collected 54 responses from agencies nationwide. The survey comprised 18 questions, some for demographic purposes. Many member agencies declined to participate, possibly because they do not provide postadoption services to birth parents.

Of the responding agencies, 72.1% were private licensed adoption agencies, and 27.9% were state or county agencies; 76.2% provided postadoption services to birth parents, with the following breakdown--77.1% to birth mothers, 71.4% to birth fathers, and 54.3% to birth grandparents. Additionally, 65.7% said they provide postadoption services to other relatives, including siblings and kinship adoptions. A few agencies reported working with individuals with a significant tie to the child; one agency indicated it also works with foster parents after adoption.

The most common services included resource information (68.6%); referrals (62.9%); intermediary postadoption contacts, such as letters and pictures (62.9%); and birth parent search (60%). Other services included--in the order of use--individual counseling, crisis intervention, lending libraries, and support groups. One agency said it uses "family meetings."

Although some agencies provide postadoption services for birth parents because they are required by their states, others do so because they believe it is best practice. Respondents said they provide postadoption services to birth parents at two major times: early during the first two years of placement, mainly for grief counseling, crisis intervention, and mediation in open adoption arrangements and other support, especially with setting up a picture, letter, or present exchange or to update their records; then, years later, for help with search or reunion efforts.

Many respondents indicated they often first hear from a birth parent when their children turn 18. Birth parents also typically contact agencies around the children's birthdays, the anniversaries of the relinquishment, and during transition times in the birth parent's life, such as pregnancy, marriage, or health issues.

Asked if the number of counseling sessions provided was limited, agencies indicated a range of one to three sessions, to no time limit at all. Comments to this question included:
  • "Services are time-limited based on need."

  • "Each is an individual case."

  • "We offer free counseling up to six months post-birth."

  • "[Services are] available at any point."

  • "We do not provide counseling for birth mothers."
Seventy-five percent of respondents provide counseling services for up to six months, while 25% make counseling available for one year. No agency reported services lasting more than two years. Postadoption services often are needed more than once, however, usually early in the process for grief and loss counseling, then later, when the adopted youth nears or becomes 18 years old, for search and reunion services.

Mediation between birth parents and adoptive families also was mentioned frequently as a postadoption service due to open adoption placements. Most agencies reported having 50% or more of their adoptions open. A good many actually indicated all or nearly all of their placements are open adoptions.

The survey asked who provides postadoption services to birth parents. In most cases (90.9%), agency staff provides these services, with 2.9% contracted out to private therapists. Interestingly, one agency uses master's level social work students, a seemingly unique, win-win situation, not only for the agency and the university, but also for the student.

Many agencies reported being under-funded for postadoption services. Their funding comes from many different sources, such as state and local government, individual and corporate donations, city tax levies, the United Way, foundation funds, contracts with probate courts, Medicaid, fees for services, and adoptive parents.

One agency charges a $2,000 birth parent counseling fee to every family using their services; another uses the adoptive parents' placement fees, small fees specifically for birth parent searches, and in-kind donations. Other agencies said they are totally unfunded for birth parent postadoption services.

Despite the lack of available funding, 84% of respondents do not charge for their counseling services.

Relinquishment and Reunions

Some birth parents don't receive a copy of their relinquishment paperwork. Instead, it goes to the birth parents' own parents, or to the attorney representing them. Frequently after the adoption, they are unable to get a copy of the paperwork. Or in the case of a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, or accidental loss, they may need a replacement.

The survey addressed the issue, asking whether agencies routinely give birth parents a copy of the child's original birth certificate. Sixty-four percent of agencies said they provide or will replace a copy of the relinquishment/surrender or termination of parental rights to the birth parent. Only 33.3% provide a copy of the child's original birth certificate to the birth parents before the adoptive placement.

The survey also asked about reunions. If the agency uses an active or mutual match system (meaning they can match the adoptee and birth parent if either party approaches them), we asked if the agency contacts the other party to let them know the birth parent or adoptee would like contact, or whether the birth parent would have to use a state-sponsored voluntary reunion registry.

Answers indicated 25.8% of agencies are able to make the match with only the birth parent or adopted adult requesting it. We received quite a few comments on this question, which we interpreted as a need for more in-depth discussion on the registry match process. Of interest is the issue of notifying the birth parent if the child is placed out of state so the birth parent would know which state registry to approach.

We also asked if public or private adoption agencies mailed or handed out information regarding the International Soundex Reunion Registry; 79.3% do not. More than half said they were not familiar with this resource and requested information about it. (See Free Help for Finding Kin.)

More Advocacy Is Needed

During the analysis of this survey, the need to continue advocating for birth parent postadoption services became increasingly clear, not only in the current venue of open records and open adoption placements, but also to provide funding for the grief and loss counseling that birth parents need almost universally.

I also believe birth parents have a right to a copy of their relinquishment, even if they have misplaced their original, and to have a copy of their child's birth certificate. Birth mother

Linda Pendergast brought this to our attention when she explained that although she had a reunion with her son, she still wanted to have a copy of his original birth certificate to prove she had given birth to him.

Ada White is CWLA's former Director of Adoption Services. Former CWLA intern Stephanie Taylor helped conduct the survey and contributed to this article.


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