Kristi's Gift

She gave up her infant son to two strangers who became her friends. Now, more than two years later, she's still in his life, visiting regularly. In an open adoption, they're all doing their best for Ryan.

"People think open adoption is this radical idea," says Rappaport. "But it's more about going back and creating extended families."

At the turn of the 20th century, most adoptions in America were open, says Rappaport, and often took place between family members or members of the same church congregation or small town. If a young woman had a child she could not care for, the child often was sent to live with a relative or family friend who could. Oftentimes everyone knew the identity of the birth mother -- even the child -- and everyone involved continued to have some contact with one another.

"People who say, "I was raised by my aunt' or "I was raised by my grandmother,' in a sense, that was open adoption," says Rappaport.

But in the '40s and '50s, as extended families began to live in different parts of the country and the suburbs began to sprawl, adoption became a legal transaction handled by agencies. And it quickly became shrouded in taboo and silence, Rappaport says. Agencies openly referred to infertile adoptive parents as "barren" and birth mothers as "promiscuous," often because they were young and unwed. It was not uncommon for adopted children to remain ignorant of the circumstances surrounding their birth. Even if they learned of it, they were often told to keep it a secret from others. Their medical histories and ethnic heritage were lost to them. As recently as 15 to 20 years ago, hospitals assigned birth mothers a sort of scarlet letter; their hospital doors were labeled with the acronym DNS-DNP, meaning do not show, do not publish. Nurses were ordered to prevent the mother from seeing the child, and the baby often was taken away immediately after delivery. In some extreme cases, the mother's head was forcibly held down during the birth so she could not catch even a glimpse of the infant before it was handed to a social worker. The mother's name was never placed on the hospital door, and if someone telephoned for her, hospital employees were instructed to tell the caller there was no patient by that name. It was literally as if she did not exist.

In some cases, the birth mother was allowed to hold the baby for a short while. But inevitably a social worker would arrive to take the child. And as the social worker walked out the door, the young woman was faced with the surreal fact that she most likely would never see that child again. She would never even know her baby's first name.

"I knew one social worker who said she felt like she was being sent by the devil," says Rappaport. "She would have to go into these young girls' rooms and say, "Give me your baby.' She used to go home and throw up."

These difficult procedures, along with the legalization of abortion and the increased societal acceptance of single motherhood, drove adoption rates down to single digits. The center estimates that a little over 30 years ago, 60 percent of unwed mothers placed their children for adoption. By the '80s the number was down to 3 percent and shrinking.

"California always starts these things," jokes Rappaport, when asked why the Independent Adoption Center started exploring open adoption nearly two decades ago. In truth, the center was troubled by the adopted child's hunger for history (in the '60s there was a movement among adoptees to make it easier to open sealed records), the birth mother's pain and the anxiety of adoptive parents who had few answers to give their children and who wondered if they would one day be left behind when their child wanted to search for his or her "real" mother. As the center began incorporating counseling, meetings between the parents and birth mother before the birth, and facilitated communication after the birth, they were intrigued with what they found. While agencies of similar size were doing eight to ten closed adoptions a year, the center was doing eight to ten open adoptions a week. And they began to notice something else: While closed adoptions had a failure rate of 30 to 40 percent, meaning the birth mother eventually declined to sign over her parental rights, the center's open adoptions had a failure rate of 10 to 15 percent.

And there was something even more amazing. The process seemed to be working long-term. While open adoption is still too new to have produced a large amount of concrete data, one 1998 study cited by some agencies observed 190 adoptive families and 169 birth mothers experiencing some level of openness in the relationship. Four to 12 years after the adoptions, the study, conducted by researchers Ruth McCoy and Hal Grotevant, found no apparent fear among adoptive parents that the birth mother would attempt to reclaim her child or otherwise intrude. In addition, the openness did not interfere with the majority of adoptive parents' sense of entitlement to parenthood. At the center, Rappaport discovered that those involved found the process comfortable and natural. Adoptive parents started recommending the center. Birth mothers started saying they never could have placed their child for adoption if not for the openness. And adopted children seemed, well, almost unaware of all the fuss.

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