“We Have the Power to Change Things”: A Review of Adoption Nation by Adam Pertman

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a publicist, asking if I would review Adoption Nation, which had been recently updated and revised.  At the time I was in the throes of completing my master’s thesis, and the author’s name did not immediately register (Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute).  But the title caught my attention, so I asked her to send it. (My thesis is on the historical and theological foundations of adoption, so I figured one more book on the topic wouldn’t kill me.)  

Last week I finally picked up the book . . . and nearly dropped it. My mind flashed back to November 2008, when I posted an article on Catholic Exchange entitled “Anti-Adoption Advocates: How Should We Respond?”  The article was originally intended as a response to an NCR article by Melinda Selmys, “It is in Love That We Are Made,”  which I felt painted adoption in an overly negative light.  As a relatively new adoptive parent (Craig and I foster-adopted in 2002), I was sincerely puzzled that anyone would see any aspect of adoption as anything but good. 

I soon discovered otherwise.  However, in my eagerness to defend adoptive families, I classified several groups and individuals as “anti-adoption” who considered themselves “pro-adoption reform.” For about a week, I opened my e-mail with one eye open, bracing myself for yet another diatribe against my own ignorance, idiocy, and religious fanaticism. The general consensus was that I should stop writing about adoption until I knew what I was talking about (apparently four unwed pregnancies in my immediate family and foster-adopting another sibling group was not enough to form a legitimate opinion on the subject).

The more constructive and charitable respondents suggested that I stop reading the National Council for Adoption website and check out the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute instead.  

So when Adoption Nation arrived in the mail, and I realized that Adam Pertman was the executive director of the Donaldson Institute, part of me was scared to crack it open.  But I’m glad I did. Although I didn’t agree with him on every point (I still think he casts the NCFA in an unnecessarily negative light), he doesn’t resort to straw men or name-calling.  Rather, he articulates the issues and supports them with cold, hard facts. That in and of itself makes the book worth reading for anyone who wants to learn about the realities of adoption as it is practiced here and now.

Open Adoption

As open adoption (in which birth and adoptive parents meet before and sometimes after the adoption is finalized) becomes increasingly common, the affects of this form of adoption on children – in particular, their bond with the adoptive parents — will require continued scrutiny.  However, Pertman summarizes the present-day scenario succinctly:

“The bottom line, though, is that greater openness, for adoptees, means an upbringing rooted in self-knowledge and truth rather than equivocation or deception; for birth parents, it helps diminish angst and permits grieving,[1] and therefore increases their comfort levels with their decisions; and, for adoptive parents, it eases personal insecurities while establishing a steady stream of information for their children and for making critical parenting decisions (based, for example, on the birth family’s medical history)” (p.17).

By way of comparison, the NCFA in their Adoption Factbook IV included an article by Thomas Atwood, “The Jury Is in Regarding Adoption Openness”.  Atwood indicates that the research supports NCFA’s position that issues of privacy and openness should be resolved by “mutual consent” rather than by across-the-board legislation:

Until recently, the research has been inconclusive regarding the optimal level of openness in adoptive placements. But now, Professors Grotevant and McRoy have published, with Yvette Perry, a finding on this issue that the adoption community has long been waiting in Psychological Issues in Adoption: Research and Practice … In the article, the authors conclude from their research that “a one-size-fits-all approach” regarding “the desirability and undesirability of fully disclosed or confidential adoptions . . . is not warranted. … [T]he development of adoptive identity is quite varied, depending on individuals, families, and aspects of the kinship network …. But …. this variation does not appear to be significantly dependent on level of openness (p.453).

Open Records

Pertman recognizes both the complexity of adoption advocacy and that a number of issues pertaining to adoption reform (such as open records legislation) can be polarizing. And while Pertman comes down strongly on the side of mandated open records, he acknowledges respectfully the existence of alternate points of view. (Even this much of a concession is a rare thing.)  

To his credit (back to the book) Pertman does not vilify “the other side,” though clearly he is no fan of the National Council for Adoption, and is critical of NCFA’s efforts to prevent mandatory open birth record legislation.  Yet he acknowledges that those who testified against the proposed legislation may have had legitimate concerns. “They undoubtedly were sincere about their views, and some presumably had legitimate anxieties about the effects a specific reform might have on their particular situations. What they were not, however, was representative of the populations for whom they purportedly spoke” (p.149).  From Pertman’s perspective, this minority opinion should not unduly influence the outcome for the (presumed) majority.

Pertman argues persuasively, and between his book and my thesis research I found myself re-evaluating some of my own assumptions about adoption in general and the relationship between adoptive and birth families in particular. And yet, at one point I felt the author overstated his case with respect to the issue of open records (as opposed to the NCFA’s standard of “mutual consent of both parties”).

Earlier in the book (p.124), Pertman writes:

There is no evidence that unsealing these [adopted children’s birth] records increases the rate of abortion – or, for that matter, that it decreases the number of adoptions. Similarly, there is no evidence from any of these states that adoptees who get access to their birth certificates then go on to stalk their birth mothers or otherwise disrupt their lives.

A couple of pages later, Pertman recounts the story of Gail Gilpatrick, “a thoughtful and articulate woman in her fifties who loves her adoptive parents and, by her own description, doesn’t do ‘crazy stuff’” (p.128).  The author goes on to describe how this woman contacts her birth mother three times, being told each time that the contact was unwanted.

While Pertman should be commended for his willingness to look at both sides of the issue, this example was troubling.  Nor is he entirely successful on explaining it away: “Adopted people rarely become as obsessed as Gail or tread so close to becoming stalkers. The adoption world is filled with far more accounts of happy reunions, and even the problematic ones are rarely as one-sided or unnerving as this one. But I chose to tell this story because it shows that even in extreme cases, adoptees don’t seek to embarrass or expose anyone. They only want to fill the void in their own souls. Gail would have stopped her pursuit the second her mother said, ‘Yes, I did this and here’s why.’”

Okay, let’s think about this. Just how “rarely” does this kind of thing happen?  A simple of “birth mother stalk” produced several stories, including this article about New Jersey adoption legislation and this article on “Faith and Family,” in which a 65-year-old adoptee contacts a birth sibling (who knew nothing about her mother’s first child,  conceived by rape) who confronts her mother – an 83-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. Additional stories include adopted children being stalked by birth mothers.[2]

Next, Pertman insists that Gail would have stopped stalking if the woman had admitted to being her mother. How can he know that – and does it justify her behavior?  Would this explanation suffice in other circumstances?  For example, if a couple who entered into an adoption agreement with a birthmother, who later changed her mind, would they be regarded with understanding and compassion if they continued to park outside the young mother’s house, despite repeated warnings that their attentions were unwanted? Would it matter that they “only wanted to fill the void in their own souls”? Of course not.  No one would deny their loss – but neither would this conduct be tolerated.

As I said, this was just one point in the book when I felt the author failed to drive home his point. And in many other respects, the book is well worth reading for anyone who wants a good overview of adoption as it is practiced in contemporary American society. 

Foster Adoption

I especially appreciate what Pertman has to say about foster-adoption. It was this section, more than any other, that won me over (my husband and I foster-adopted a sibling group in 2002). Pertman also argues strongly in favor of shifting the focus of prospective parents from international adoption to adopting from state agencies, using a line of reasoning I found particularly insightful, comparing the needs of children in foster care to those adopted from international institutions:

There aren’t nearly enough adults willing to do the hard work [of adopting older children from foster care] that children like these require. The bitter truth is that they are our equivalent of institutionalized children from overseas, and, to varying degrees, most have incurred the same kind of harm anyone would if subjected to mistreatment and deprived of intimacy and stability. They are classified as having “special needs” not only because their complexions are dark or because they are no longer infants, but because they have truly special needs. Most have experienced traumas and losses that can lead to behavioral and emotional problems if they are not helped to heal, and some have developmental disabilities due to early drug exposure or other maltreatment.

                The picture looks bleak, but the children’s prospects needn’t be, because, like their counterparts from abroad, they can markedly improve if given sufficient attention, affection, and services. Nearly every study of boys and girls who spent their early years in foreign orphanages, in conditions generally worse than those of children in foster care, shows the great majority rebound impressively after they’re adopted. Yet middle- and upper-income Americans eagerly spend large sums of money to adopt from other countries rather than seek sons or daughters who are available within the United States for next to nothing (pp. 205-206).

Again, there were some points regarding the appropriateness of foster-adoptive placements for children with which I did not entirely agree, but overall the information is presented (both the need and the solution) in realistic yet hopeful terms.

While I did not read the book in its entirety, what I did read I found helpful enough to recommend to others who are contemplating adoption or foster care.  Pertman’s book reminded me that where adoption is concerned, in the words of human-rights activist Lenny Zakim (quoted on the first page):

“It doesn’t take much to start a revolution of thought and spirit. It takes one person and then another and then another. We have to have the willingness to be respectful of each other and not to let differences become obstacles. We have the power to change things.”

Editor’s Note:  In writing this review, my intention was simply to alert my readers to a resource that they may find helpful. Because the subject of sealed/amended records tends to be polarizing, I have closed comments on this post.  (Adam Pertman advocates for open records, yet he is willing to acknowledge the hard cases that have been used to argue other points of view so I recommend him to those who are still undecided.)
When I was given the opportunity to review this book, I seriously considered declining precisely because I didn’t want to get caught up in a lot of heated rhetoric. So I’ve decided to take the same approach to this topic as I take to holiday dinners with my non-Catholic relatives: take a deep breath, acknowledge the differences, and agree to disagree.
I recognize that this is easier for me to do than for those on the other side of the issue:  Fact 1: the vast majority of states continue to hold a standard other than mandatory open records. Fact 2: As an adoptive parent whose children already have access to their birthparents, this is a non-issue for my family. Fact 3: Nothing I could say here would possibly change the minds of those who are intent on changing Fact 1.  Therefore, I go with the “holiday dinner” approach, choosing not to spend time endlessly arguing over a topic that tends to draw more heat than light.

[1] Some have suggested that open adoption – particularly among teenage birthparents – has the opposite effect. One article that is especially worth reading is Dr. Marianne Berry’s “The Risks and Benefits of Open Adoption.”:

[2] That the “mutual consent” standard protects children as well as birth parents from unwanted contact is seen in this Salon story about a birthmother stalking her child: http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2000/05/08/stalked/index.html.   Birthparents stalking their children through Facebook: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/may/23/birth-parents-stalk-adopted-facebook.