Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
Discussion about adoption tend to focus on parents, both those seeking to adopt a child and the birth parents. But adult adoptees are increasingly speaking out and demanding a seat at the table when adoption policy is formed. Some are challenging specific laws, such as states that do not allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates. We explore the issues adult adoptees would like to see addressed.
- Joy Lieberthal Licensed Social Worker; Korean Adopted person; member, Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative
- Amanda Woolston Adoptee; Vice-President, Adoptee Rights Coalition
- Susan Branco Alvarado Licensed Professional Counselor; Member, Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAttitudes toward adoption have been changing steadily over the past few decades, moving toward openness, including more contact with birthparents and telling children early on that they're adopted. But much of the discussion around adoption is still focused on parents seeking to adopt a child or on birthmothers. There's much less attention to the concerns of adoptees themselves.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAdult adoptees are increasingly speaking out and demanding a seat at the table when it comes to policies involving adoption, including specific laws such as the fact that a majority of states that seal the birth records of adoptees. Joining us to discuss this is Susan Branco Alvarado, she is a licensed professional counselor and a member of the Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative. Susan, thank you for joining us.
MS. SUSAN BRANCO ALVARADOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIShe joins us in studio. Joining us by phone from Philadelphia is Amanda Woolston. She is an adoptee, a social work student and vice president of the Adoptee Rights Coalition. Amanda, thank you for joining us.
MS. AMANDA WOOLSTONThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Joy Lieberthal is a licensed social worker who was adopted from Korea. She is on the accreditation committee of the Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative. Joy, thank you for joining us.
MS. JOY LIEBERTHALThank you so much for this opportunity.
NNAMDISusan Branco Alvarado, as we said, much of the discussion and focus around adoption tends to be on parents looking to adopt or on birthmothers. But adoptees are now speaking out about their rights in the whole process. What are some of the issues you're looking at?
ALVARADOWell, that's a really important question. And I want to start kind of segueing from Ms. Brown or Ms. Donald's discussion recently.
NNAMDIBrenda Donald, yeah.
ALVARADOI'm local. I'm in Northern Virginia. And I do want to announce that Gov. McDonnell has issued that 2013 is the year of adoption, and he's made many a budget amendments for support -- adoption support, post-adoption services. I'm also with a group in Northern Virginia that does advocacy work for adoptive families, kinship families, as well as foster families.
ALVARADOSo that's one way adopted persons are still working locally. But in regard to the major core issues that our organization is looking at, we'd focus on four policies and reforms that we're very interested in pursuing. Those include disruption and dissolution, accreditation, adoptee citizenship and original birth certificate access.
ALVARADOOne problem adopted persons continually face is that when we talk about adoption, we often think of adoption in terms of child welfare. But we forget that children grow up and become adults, and there are many of us out there with credentials, who have professional degrees, who are in scholarship and research. We have a lot to offer, and we're asking to be invited to the conversation.
NNAMDIJoy, the U.S. recently passed legislation related to standards on international adoption -- Joy Lieberthal, that is.
NNAMDICan you talk about that and the Hague Convention preceding that?
LIEBERTHALYes. So recently, the Universal Accreditation Act of 2012 was enacted, and basically, it's a continuation of the original Hague Convention on inter-country adoption. And I think that the State Department and the members of the State Department which is our central authority for international adoption recognized that there was a two-tier process that was going on as far as accrediting and insuring that the agencies and adoption service providers inhere in the United State who are abiding by the same rules and regulations and standards of ethical practice.
LIEBERTHALSo the universal accreditation process is really to ensure that any adoption service provider, whether they are working with a Hague country or not a Hague country, meaning that country has acceded to the Hague or signed on, that we all abide by the same rules and regulations, that we're all required to uphold the same standards of education for perspective adoptive parents, that we are insured with the same vocabulary, that we really are looking at the longevity of the adoption not just as an event but as a life-long journey ensuring some sort of post-adoption services as well as a paper trail in order to ensure that the adopted person has a paper legacy to look back on as well.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to join the conversation. Are you adopted? What issues around adoption do you think need more attention? 800-433-8850. You can send email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Amanda Woolston, one of the challenges is that every state has its own laws. How does that complicate things?
WOOLSTONWell, when a child is adopted, the birth certificate that they were born with is sealed, and an amended one is issued in its place. And that happens -- and the amending happens in all 50 states. The sealing happens in 48 states. Now, this amended certificate does not reflect that an adoption took place. It lists the adoptive parents as the biological parents.
WOOLSTONAnd other information, such as race or ethnicity, date and place of birth may also be altered. And there are only six states that allow adult adoptees to access the birth certificate that they were born with and saying that those who aren't adopted can access theirs.
NNAMDISusan, attitudes have shifted enormously over the past few decades when it comes to adoption toward more openness in general. Can you talk about that's changed, and what it means for adopted person?
ALVARADOCertainly. In regard to openness in this context, we're talking about open adoptions where adopted persons grow up having some form of contact with their first families or birth families. We know now with research that actually contributes to well-being and adjustment when it's done well, so that's one thing that has changed.
ALVARADOAnother piece that has changed -- Joy alluded to this -- is that we now realize that adoption is no longer just a one-time event. It's a life-long developmental issue. And we are also more aware of, especially in trans-racial adoption, how a person's ethnic and racial identity needs to be incorporated within the family as a whole and needs to be something that needs to be developed. We're no longer advocating the colorblind approach.
NNAMDIWell, Joy, Susan mentioned open adoptions, but it's my understanding that there is also such a phenomenon, if you will, as a semi-open adoption. What's that?
LIEBERTHALI think you're walking into the quagmire of adoption lingo, Kojo. You know...
NNAMDIOr sinking in it. Go ahead.
LIEBERTHALYes. I think that, you know, as we are evolving in our creating best practice in adoption, we are also evolving in our language. And so just saying standard open adoption is insufficient to describe the different permutations that adoptive families enter into.
LIEBERTHALAnd as Susan said, there are some families that have limited contact with their first families or birth families, and then there are other sphere they're completely open, where the families, both sets of parents are in regular communication and celebrate all of the things that are wonderful about the child that they bore and that they adopted together.
LIEBERTHALSo there are various levels of openness. So when you say semi-open, it is that. It is not completely open in a sense of regular communication, direct contact. It could be in the form of letters, it can be in the form of, you know, annual visits and things of that sort.
NNAMDIJoy Lieberthal is a licensed social worker and a Korean-adopted person. She's on the accreditation committee of the Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative. Susan Branco Alvarado is a licensed professional counselor and a member of the aforementioned Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative, and Amanda Woolston, is an adoptee, a social work student and the vice president of the Adoptee Rights Coalition.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Do you think we need more standards around the adoption process both domestically and internationally? Well, Susan, it's kind of been a dramatic change from just a few decades ago. Back then, around 36 percent of adoptions were open while today some 95 percent of adoptions have some degree of openness. What has this meant for adopted persons?
ALVARADOWell, this means a lot. As I mentioned before, we have research showing that openness and contact with birth families or even information about your first family certainly helps toward emotional and psychological adjustment and integration of identity. I think we are seeing now within the past decade that, with the advent of social media, more people are finding their first families via Facebook or other social media outlets.
ALVARADOAnd it actually has shown that there are some complications in terms of figuring out boundaries and what roles people have in people's families, be it their adoptive families or first families. But we're showing that it helps with identity integration in the long run, and that's important because, as I mentioned before, it is a lifelong developmental issue.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Ellie in Fairfax, Va. Ellie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLIEHi, Kojo Nnamdi. I was adopted in '85, but just two years ago, I found out my father forged my mother's handwriting when he gave me up for adoption. And right now there's a battle of the inherit of the birth family. And my birth family is refusing that, to give me my share, and is using the adoption as an excuse. So what do I go about it?
NNAMDII'll start with you, Joy Lieberthal. What does Ellie do about her situation? What's available to her from, I guess, a legal standpoint?
LIEBERTHALI think the first thing that comes to my mind is mediation. I think that it's very important for all the parties involved to be together and actually have a discourse in the same room together. I'm sorry, Ellie, that you're going through this incredibly difficult piece of information as well as trying to navigate where you fit into both families.
LIEBERTHALSo my -- what I would do to encourage your empowerment and your ability to figure out where you fit into both these families is really to begin a dialogue with both and encourage you to either find some sort of a mediation process in order for you to be able to understand what your rights are as an individual and as -- your rights are as a member of both families as well.
NNAMDIAnything you can add to that, Susan?
ALVARADOI'm sorry, Ellie, that this is happening, and I think your story underscores what happens when unethical adoption practices start from the very beginning and the legacy that they can -- and impact they can have on a person throughout their life would.
NNAMDIAmanda, anything you'd like to add?
WOOLSTONI think that Susan and Joy have done an excellent job, and I echo that I'm so sorry that things like this happen. It's what we're working to fix and just making more transparency in adoption overall so that people can always know what their rights are and what's going on, and we're not fixing issues like this after...
NNAMDIAmanda and -- I guess this gives us the opportunity to talk about how having access to a birth certificate can be problematic if one is an adopted person, including the -- what you -- the documents you may need to get a passport, correct?
WOOLSTONAbsolutely. There are a lot of complications that it can cause on -- from many different ways that you can look at it. First and foremost, we're not being treated the same as everyone else. And when you treat us differently, it's taking a problem-focused approach to being adopted, and that just sends a negative message out into society about what being adopted means. And so that has contributed to a lot of the stigmas and stereotypes.
WOOLSTONAnd then there's also the more practical complications, such as you could be denied for passport, job security clearances, driver's licenses. And then now if you need your driver's license or a DMV-issued license to get a voter ID card, you may not be able to vote. So, even practically, it's very inconvenient, and it doesn't make much sense...
NNAMDIWhich is one of the reasons that you advocate around birth certificate access, correct?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Oh, please go ahead, Amanda. I interrupted you.
WOOLSTONOh, no. I just wanted to also add that also people are denied for membership in their original tribe. If they're a Native American adoptee, they can be denied for membership and benefits as well.
NNAMDIAs Ellie seemed to be having trouble convincing her original or birth family in this situation. Ellie, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. We're discussing the rights of adopted persons. The number is 800-433-8850. Have you had trouble accessing your birth certificate or other documents? You can also shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about adoptee rights or the rights of adopted persons with Joy Lieberthal. She is a licensed social worker. She's a Korean adopted person. She's on the accreditation committee of the Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative, as is Susan Branco Alvarado. She is a licensed professional counselor. Amanda Woolston is an adoptee, a social work student and a vice president of the Adoptee Rights Coalition.
NNAMDIWe've been taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Susan, you're working on some of the issues we've been talking about, specifically in Virginia. Can you tell us about that? You mentioned that Gov. McDonnell has made this the year of adoption, and you're looking at legislation to look at some of the issues we're talking about. Specifically what pieces of legislation?
ALVARADOHe introduced support for adoption recruitment and post-adoption services. He's offering up $1 million to help families purchase needed items after their adoption has finalized, and he's offering up to $1,000 per child per family. I'm with an advocacy group called Faces of Virginia, and, like I mentioned before, they are working with not only adoptive but also kinship families and foster care families. And they do mentoring programs similar to the ones that were mentioned previously.
NNAMDIOverall studies seem to show that contact is positive for adopted persons. You're a counselor who sees adoptees in your practice. What have you found in your work?
ALVARADOI have found that, overwhelmingly, contact is quite positive, and contact can be, as Joy mentioned before, all the families coming together. It could be starting gradually with letters. But what I have found is it helps even very young children start building the sense of their identity. Oftentimes people worry that it will confuse children, and we've actually found that it lessens confusion and helps children understand where they fall within both families. It can be quite positive.
NNAMDIChildren are not that easily confused. Here...
ALVARADOThey are not.
NNAMDI...is Julie in Hagerstown, Md. Julie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JULIEHi. I just have a question. I was adopted from Korea in 1973 and don't have an actual birth certificate. I have what's called a certificate of birth. And it's just about as big as a credit card, and it's just a laminated piece of paper. And I often have difficult time when I'm applying for different things or having to show my birth certificate, that it's not recognized as an actual birth certificate. Is there something -- is there some way that I can get a more recognized form, something more like a birth certificate?
NNAMDIAmanda Woolston, is there something you can recommend for Julie?
WOOLSTONI have to be honest. I'm not sure. I think Joy might be rather to answer that question than me.
LIEBERTHALYeah. Julie, for Korean adoptions, we are not considered a full and final adoption in Korea, so we actually have to be re-adopted here in the United States. So I would recommend if you are in touch with your parents to ask them for their -- your re-adoption papers, as well as possibly a certificate of naturalization. The certificate of naturalization is really what would be the formal federal ID certificate that you would get.
LIEBERTHALIt has a small picture of you and possibly your signature. I'm not sure when you were naturalized. If you don't have that, then I would look for your re-adoption papers. And the final adoption decree would be what you would be looking for in order to file for anything, like your passport, your driver's license and other forms of federal identification.
NNAMDIAnd, Julie, since you're calling from Hagerstown, Md., I'm going to put you on hold because Linda in Annapolis, Md. wants to tell you about a development that may be relevant to your situation. So here now is Linda in Annapolis. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAThank you. I'm pleased I'll be able to tell you about this. We are from two organizations, Access Maryland and the American Adoption Congress. And we have two bills at this time. The House bill is HB22, and there has been a hearing -- there was a hearing Jan. 17, and SB 165 has a hearing scheduled for Feb. 12.
NNAMDIThis is in the Maryland General Assembly?
LINDAMaryland. This is just for Maryland.
LINDASo you can find information both on the Maryland legislature, and I don't have the address...
NNAMDILinda, what would these bills do?
LINDA...dcmaryland.org. Everything is there -- the bills, the judiciary committee that it's going before in the House, the judicials' proceedings committee lists that's in there. And they could just -- this is any one from Maryland listening, and it will help them. They can write letters.
NNAMDIWell, Linda, can you briefly tell us what those bills would do?
LINDAI'm not hearing you.
NNAMDICan you briefly explain what those bills would do?
LINDAWhat the bill is? All right. The bill is mainly to give adoptees the original birth certificate, a copy of it. And that copy is something that, without that copy, there are some things that they can't do. Like, it's hard to get passports and they have to go through 20 hoops, when if they just had a copy of that with them. And that has been a problem which occurred after 9/11. It made it harder for adoptees. But a lot of them just want it because it's theirs. It's a human right to have your own original birth certificate.
NNAMDIOK. Linda, thank you very much for your call. And, Julie, I'm hoping that this information can be of some assistance to you. But thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you. This isn't always clear cut, and there are many parties involved when it comes to adoption. What if, for example, birth parents have been promised anonymity? Whose rights in that situation are paramount? Susan.
ALVARADOYou know, we have so much research now showing us that, yes, these were promises issued a long time ago and that actually there are many birth parents who are interested in reuniting or at least finding out how their children -- that they may a have relinquished in times past for adoption -- are doing. Amanda could better answer this question.
WOOLSTONFrom having read the literature and the research, there isn't a whole lot of evidence to support the promises or even expectations about anonymity. You'll hear them pop up every once in a while in dialogue. And I think that there's a reason why it's not so prevalent. And the reason is policy wise. While most states make it difficult for adoptees to access birth records, all states have some law on the books to allow this record to be released.
WOOLSTONAnd so when birth records can be released at any time by discretionary of a judge or by the state itself, as these are government documents, it's really -- it's unfair to the mothers of adoption to create an expectation otherwise. And it's also unfair to the adoptee who has had no voice in the adoption process at all. And we also know that adoptees discover the identities of their biological parents all the time even with access to -- without access to their birth certificates. It's a very small world.
WOOLSTONWe end up, you know, working side-by-side with our biological family members, we vacation in the towns where they live. That -- that's my story. And so it's an unfair expectation in a small world that we live in, especially in light that they established human right of a child to have access to their original information.
NNAMDIYou can't just let that hang there. We vacation in the towns where they live. That's my story. And then you don't tell any of the story at all?
WOOLSTONI know. Well, it's a really interesting story. I was born in Tennessee, and I was adopted to New Jersey. And I happen to have an adopted aunt and uncle who lived up in New England. And I would go see them once or twice a year, and it just so happens that one of my aunts and uncles and three cousins lived maybe, you know, five, 10 minutes away. And some of my cousins teach in the same school district as some of my other cousins. So they have mutual friends. And, yes, so I could have bumped into them and not even known it.
NNAMDIIn -- on our increasingly globalized world. But there are still people who are struggling to find more information as is Joy in Bethesda, Md. Joy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOYHi. I have a comment. I'm adopted. I'm in my mid-50s. I have a half sister who is also adopted. She is 45. She is up in New York. And she found me a year ago because her adoption agency, they finally, after many years, let her know that she had a sibling. They didn't say the gender but only that she had a sibling. She -- I had happened to put something in ancestry.com looking for my biological father and put in enough information that she could discern that I was the sibling.
JOYAnd that -- we had a wonderful reunion. And, in fact, her middle name is Joy, and her daughter's middle name is Joy, so lots of I. Isn't that sweet? And she's actually opened a whole world through research she has done through Genealogy where we've discovered all sorts of second cousins and even more people named Joy. I mean, it's been -- it's really quite lovely. But her frustration, I was -- my adoption was a private adoption.
JOYHer adoption was through an adoption agency in New York, and she has been seeking information on her biological father. I've been able to filter in on the biological mother side, but she's been told that he is deceased. But she's -- she hasn't been able to get any information on his ethnicity...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. Very quickly, Joy. Are you looking for guidance for your sister about she might go about finding that?
NNAMDIOK. Can anyone provide Joy with that kind of assistance? Amanda, Joy?
WOOLSTONWhat I could recommend is if he's -- if she doesn't have access to her original birth certificate and he's not listed on there, there's DNA testing. There's a DNA service called 23andMe. It's 23andme.com. And there's also the International Soundex Reunion Registry where he knows that she exists, he may have registered, and she may be able to connect with him there. It's isrr.org, I believe.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
LIEBERTHALMy other recommendation would be to actually go to the state at the American Adoption Congress, as your former caller Linda was talking about, have representatives in all the states that help adoptees navigate the search process as well. There are many, many volunteers who give up their time to help other adoptees gain more information about their past.
NNAMDIJoy, thank you very much. Good luck to you. We're just about out of time. Susan Branco Alvarado is a licensed professional counselor and a member of the Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative. Susan, thank you so much for joining us.
ALVARADOThank you so much.
NNAMDIJoy Lieberthal is a licensed social worker. She is a Korean-adopted person. She is on the Accreditation Committee of the Adoption Policy Reform Collaborative. Joy, thank you for joining us.
LIEBERTHALThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Amanda Woolston is an adopted person, a social work student and the vice president of the Adoptee Rights Coalition. Amanda Woolston, thank you for joining us.
WOOLSTONThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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