Searching: A Matter of Ethics

By Liz Montgomery

You've seen it on countless television programs… tearful reunions between birth parents and adoptee. Your heart is touched even though you don't know these people. But what happens if it doesn't turn out to be the warm fuzzy event it was meant to be?

Be assured that this author is a reunion advocate when and if all parties are "on the same page." Even then, it can sometimes turn out differently than expected.

In the past, unwed American birth mothers were often coerced into not keeping their children. In some cases a pregnancy out of wedlock was considered shameful – a disgrace to the family. Many of those birth mothers have suffered silently for years as their children were raised by strangers. Today some of them will go to any length to be reunited while others want to leave that chapter of their life closed.

Some people who were placed for adoption want to satisfy their longing to know more about themselves for medical information, or simply for curiosity. One of our adopted daughters wanted to see her birth mother . . . across the street, no closer. She was merely interested to find out if she looked like her but had no desire to connect. Another daughter chose to connect only to discover that her first mother had abused her. Our adopted son had no desire to look for someone who "hadn't wanted him when he was born." Nothing we said would change his mind.

"Open" adoption, as we know it today, eliminates many of the heartaches of that earlier time. Birth parents and adoptive parents meet and work out arrangements that are agreeable to both parties concerning visits, photos, letters, etc. The need for secrecy or a long-awaited reunion is eliminated. It's true, however, that those involved in an open adoption sometimes drift from the original plan as their lives diverge in different directions after the adoption.

"Closed" adoptions, where birth parents and adoptive parents prefer anonymity, are still an option today. Some choose international adoption because they feel that distance will ensure no birth parent involvement. These parents must anticipate, however, that their child will have questions regarding his/her birth parents that will need to be answered. Whether "Open" or "Closed," each holds risks and rewards. Several credible adoption registries exist where adults who were adopted and birth parents can register their desire and/or approval to be found.

The bond between adoptive parent and adopted child is just as sacred as it is in non-adoptive families. Many adoptive parents fear that a re-connection with the birth parent will interrupt that bond. This does happen occasionally, but it isn't as common as many parents may think. Many individuals who have been adopted see their birth parent as a "friend" while their adoptive parents remain their "loving parents."

Today, adoptive parents usually support what is in their child's best interest – not what makes them, as parents, comfortable. (Some birth parents especially those who spy on their birth children at ball games, from parked cars, or have them followed, have a different view.) Some who have been adopted and then reunited with their birth parents choose to keep their relationship with each family separate. Others simply draw a larger family circle to include everyone.

Following are some real-life accounts about searching that this author has been close to. They illustrate the many potential ways miscommunication and misguided intentions have created unnecessary distress and suffering for adopted children and adults, and their families.

SARAH was sixteen when her mother died. At seventeen, she became pregnant. Marriage was not an option. She lived with our family while she made an adoption plan. Sarah gave birth to a son and then returned home to care for her father. End of story? No. Seventeen years later, with no warning, she received a call from an agency stating that her birth son was emotionally ill and wanted to see her. At the time of placement, she had decided that this part of her life was closed - - and she meant it! Sarah was very angry and refused contact. Had the agency sent a letter giving her an option of "getting in touch" the outcome might have been different.

JENNIFER, was abused by her birth mom and step-dad and was then adopted at age three. Thi Li, her birth mom, was impulsive and explosive. Jennifer had many problems but was making progress in her adoptive home and in school. Then the rumors started. Thi Li wanted her baby back and was "circling in" closer and closer to the adoptive home. The school locked their doors to protect Jennifer from being kidnapped. One cold winter "In-Service" day, when the children were home from school, the doorbell rang. Thi Li aggressively stepped into the house and asked for the return of her child (five years after voluntarily terminating her rights). There was no intermediary. No plan for visitation. A letter of restraint from a lawyer did not deter her. When Jennifer was in fourth grade, Thi Li's boyfriend, pretending to be Jennifer's father, called every school in the area until he found her. He spoke with her on the phone and gave her a number to call. His call upset Jennifer and her parents. As Jennifer grew up, her birth mother found many unethical ways to present herself, interrupting Jennifer's emotional stability. On three occasions, she tried to take her life. Had the school called the adoptive parents to verify the identity of this man, one of these incidents would not have happened. Jennifer, today, is an alcoholic from too many scars …too many shadows of the past.

KIM gave birth at fifteen. She was highly selective in choosing an adoptive family. She made it clear to the social worker that she did not want to be contacted before her birth daughter was eighteen. Kim's life was unstable for a number of years. Finally she met and married a fine man. They had a child. Life was good until the day she received an unexpected letter from her fourteen-year-old daughter. As a new, unsure mom of a one-year-old, Kim was not ready, or emotionally prepared, to relate to a birth daughter whom she didn't know. Neither the teen, nor her adoptive parents, were at fault; the agency failed to comply with Kim's "Do Not Contact Until Eighteen" request. Three years later, Kim still has not answered the premature letter. The innocent birth daughter likely has interpreted this as a second rejection. Timing is everything!

LISSA, biracial, was adopted by a Caucasian family. Her birthmother, grandmother and half-sibling are mentally challenged. At sixteen, Lissa was the object of an unethical, subversive search that frightened her. (To protect her identity, details will be spared. Suffice to say it became a police matter.) Her adoptive parents were willing to support her desire to be, or not to be, found. Lissa's life was already complex and turbulent as she tried to make sense of her identity, her social world and her adoption. With mascara-drenched tears, she told her adoptive parents that she did not want to be found. Unfortunately, they had to prepare her in case she was unexpectedly approached in a public place. Had the individual(s) searching contacted the agency first, this case might have had a different ending.

SHERI was a beautiful college cheerleader. When she became pregnant, her parents hid her away in a foster home. She grew close to the foster family. When she delivered, the doctor and nurses refused to let her see her child until the foster parents intervened. Saying good-by to her birth daughter was a tender/tragic moment but the "adoption plan" was in place. Twenty-five years later, the adopted daughter, with help from the placing agency, reunited with her mother in the foster family's home. There were tears and high moments but there were also some disappointments. Birth mom was still very beautiful; the daughter did not bear a resemblance. Birth mom was soft-spoken and religious; the daughter was not. Their differences cast a shadow on the meeting. They parted politely leaving the door open to future contact if desired. They took the risk. Was it the right choice? Only time will tell.

DAVID was one of eight. Each child had a different father. When he was seven, his birth father gave him to a child molester. His alcoholic mother tried to push him off a roof when he was ten. Through a series of foster homes (including ours), being adopted, and getting cancer at age 16, David survived. He married not knowing where his other siblings were. Finally, he discovered a half-brother living in another state. The brother was mentally ill and needed money and long-term emotional support. It had been a risk and David knew that. What he didn't know was that he was going to lose his life to Hepatitis C-- the result of a blood transfusion in his teens. Life became painful. His wife left. David could not "carry his brother" and his own load, too. David died. His half-brother was not there by his side. As one of his foster families, a piece of our heart went with him.

NIKKIE, is biracial and adopted by a Caucasion "professional" family. Though she was not inclined, her adoptive parents located her birth mother, also a professional person. Nikkie politely invited her birth mother to her wedding. The birth mother politely attended but felt like the "fifth wheel." The birth mom has other children and much conflict within her family. Nikkie's world, as well as her birth mother's, is nowcomplicated beyond their choosing.

In conclusion: Those who desire to search must (1) consider that the feelings and lives of (at least) two people will be indelibly changed forever. (2) Weigh the risks involved . . . "blood is not always thicker than water." (3) Ask the placing agency, not an online investigator or an intrigued freelance librarian, to be an intermediary. (4) Seek counseling if the reunion is not a rewarding experience.

Whether or not to search is a very personal decision. It's delicate. It's an intimate part of the world of adoption. Handle with care!

The author and her husband are adoptive parents of four. They also have had many experiences in foster care.