Adoption: In Whose Best Interest? Who Are the Winners and the Losers?

Most people know of adoption through the self-selecting lens of someone they know who has adopted, or someone “desperate” to parent through adoption as a last resort. They may also have a family member or friend who was adopted as a child but seldom, if ever, talks about it with them on any deep level.

Others get their impressions of adoption from television, movies, and other media. Scripts of sitcoms (such as Modern Family), crime fighting shows (such as SVU), and musical shows (such as Glee), etc., all have included an adoption theme.  In addition to these fictionalized versions of adoption, celebrity adoptions are very visible from the perspective of the enthusiastic mothers or couples who have adopted. Stars such as Madonna, the couple formerly known as “Brangelina,” and Sandra Bullock have publicly gushed over their newly acquired, prized little ones, garnering glowing, positive PR for their apparent altruism in opening their hearts to an otherwise perceived “unwanted” child. Still others assume that adoptees are fortunate to have been saved from being aborted (no more true of adoptees than anyone else), abused (maybe true of some adopted from state foster care, but not necessarily newborns), or left in orphanages (true for some adopted internationally.)

It is through these false, one-sided views that adoption is glorified as altruistic and romanticized, idealized, and idolized as a “win-win.” But is it?  All who know of adoption from this superficial depiction, or second-hand, are missing the backstory­. Even most people who adopt, who initiate the process to gain a child, experience the loss of the child they hoped to genetically produce.

The Adoptee: Gains, Losses, Trauma, and Harm

It is, in fact, true that adoption moves children from lower to higher (or much higher) socioeconomic status and affords them, in many cases, more material advantages than they might otherwise have. But at what price?

We must begin by recognizing that there is no adoption without loss; thus, for the adoptee, it is not a win-win. Internationally adopted children lose family, heritage, and their native tongue.  Even those adopted domestically lose their kin, their genealogy, and usually their family medical history, with the exception of some truly and fully open adoptions that remain open. But all adoptions—open and closed—begin with the adopted person’s original vital record of his birth “sealed” forever in most states. In some states, adult adoptees are allowed access to these records under certain circumstances, through procedures not required of their non-adopted peers.  (See the American Adoption Congress website for up-to-date adoption birth certificate access laws state-by-state.) Upon the sealing of the true and accurate birth record, states issue a falsified, fictitious birth certificate that lists the adopters as the parents of birth. Same-sex couples’ adopted children are issued birth certificate listing parent #1 and parent #2 instead of mother and father.

Who benefits from this state-committed fraud? Birth records, allegedly, were originally sealed to protect adoptees from the stigma of illegitimacy, which no longer exists. Sealed records are perpetuated for the benefit of two parties: the paying customers in the transaction, who obtain the baby they covet, and those who are paid to locate and procure babies for these customers.

The unpleasant reality of this process is far less warm and fuzzy than commonly imagined. People pay tens of thousands – averaging $40k – for children who are priced as commodities by age, skin color, and health status, in a manner reminiscent of slavery.

Most so-called “open adoptions” are semi-open at best. They are most likely to be identified adoptions wherein the expectant mother meets the prospective adopters. Many such adoptions are transacted with a lack of transparency and honesty and arranged through an intermediary facilitator, without any exchange of ongoing contact information and with no means of enforcement of promises of ongoing contact. Thus, both the child and the family of origin lose out.

Every adopted child gains but also loses.

The events that create the joy of adoption for the new parents also have profound lifelong effects that cause adoptees to feel a sense of abandonment, rejection, and identity confusion. We must be cognizant that every adoption begins with a tragedy for every adoptee. No matter how loving the adoptive family, no matter how soon after the birth the transition occurs, every adoptee experiences the trauma of loss and separation, described by adoptive mother Nancy Newton Verrier in The Primal Wound.

As early as 1943, Dr. F. Clothier wrote in Mental Hygiene:

Every adopted child at some point in his development, has been deprived of this primitive relationship with his mother. This trauma and the severing of the individual from his racial antecedents lie at the core of what is peculiar to the psychology of the adopted child … [who] is called upon to compensate for the wound left by the loss of the biological mother.

Infants and young children experience their world as an environment of relationships that affect virtually all aspects of their development—intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral, and moral. Even fetuses recognize voices, rhythms, and smells from the womb. The prospect of losing her child to adoption is stressful for mothers-to-be and those stressors can have a permanent negative impact on the infant in utero in many ways.

Research from National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC) in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2010 indicates that the stress the infant experiences from losing the gestational caregiver releases abnormal amounts of cortisol and adrenaline, flooding into the amygdala and hippocampus. This changes the brain’s growth pattern, permanently limiting an individual’s capacity to regulate thought, emotions, actions, and learning, for the lifetime of the person. Trauma that is the result from incomplete infant-gestational bonding “can lead to lifelong problems regarding physical and mental health.”

Kinsella and Monk reported the “Impact of Maternal Stress, Depression & Anxiety on Fetal Neurobehavioral Development” in Obstetrics and Gynecology, September 2009:

The prenatal period is a critical time for neurodevelopment and is thus a period of vulnerability during which a range of exposures have been found to exert long-term changes on brain development and behavior with implications for physical and psychiatric health. .   . . Clinical studies link pregnant women’s exposure to a range of traumatic, as well as chronic and common life stressors (i.e., bereavement, daily hassles, and earthquake), to significant alterations in children’s neurodevelopment.

Despite these challenges, most adoptees are perfectly well adjusted, having the resilience to cope with these early traumas.  Still, adoptees, even in the best possible scenario, face a lifelong task of integrating complex issues regarding personal identity and are thus over-represented in mental health facilities “for understandable reasons,” according to Gordon Livingston, MD.  As a result, adoptees are seen in greater numbers in special education classes, private therapy, youth residential facilities, substance abuse programs, and prisons.  Some facilities, such as Three Points Center in Utah, exist solely to treat adoptees with mental health issues.

Four-and-a-half percent of adopted individuals have problems with drug abuse, compared with 2.9 percent of the general population.  At the Wellness Resource Center in Boca Raton, FL, up to one-half of clients in drug treatment are adopted. That percentage, observed anecdotally by multiple mental health care providers, is notable considering that only 2% of the population are adopted.

A Dutch study found that adopted children had 1.52 times the likelihood of meeting criteria for anxiety. About 16 percent of adoptees had anxiety disorders, compared with 11.2 percent of the non-adoptees.  Twice the number (about 8 percent) of adoptees met the criteria for substance abuse or dependence, compared with about 4 percent for non-adoptees.

Another very alarming statistic is that adoptees are four times as likely to attempt suicide as non-adoptees, according to a study in Pediatrics.

2003 Swedish study in Lancet found that international adoptees were more likely than Swedish-born children to attempt and to die from suicide (odds ratio 3.6, 95% CI 2.1-5.9). More recently, adoptees were found to be nearly 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than non-adopted offspring, according to a September 9, 2013, study in Pediatrics, (Keyes, et al.)

Howard, Martin, et al. studied “Early Mother-Child Separation, Parenting, and Child Well-Being in Early Head Start Families” and  found that “early separation has consequences for both children’s aggression and negativity.”

“What if the question were framed differently” asks Michele Sharpe.  “Why are outcomes for children adopted into stranger families worse than for children who grow up with their own people? In that case, we might be inspired to answer the question: ’Because they are being raised by strangers’!”

If we listen to adoptees, we can learn ways to ameliorate the pain suffered by adoptees.  The losses they suffer have no rituals and go unrecognized and ignored.  Instead they are told they are “lucky” and expected to feel grateful.

The Mothers and Fathers

The only view the public sees of mothers who surrender children for adoption is via reality-type television programming about teen moms. These scenarios feed the false belief that all mothers willingly give away their babies and that doing so is in their best interest, as it is for their child. The reality is that for any mother—from anywhere in the world, and no matter how willingly—it is a lifelong loss. (See “Universality of the Grief Experienced by Mothers Who Lose Children to Adoption”).

While for the child adoption may be a loss and a gain, for many families of origin it is simply a loss. They gain nothing in return.

Mothers and fathers in impoverished parts of the world are often duped with promises that their children will go to another country to be educated and then return.  Having a child “rescued” by adoption leaves these families as destitute as they were before.  Many have no idea what they are signing, can’t read, or never sign anything. Others have their children stolen by baby traffickers.

Take, for example, Madonna. According to the pop star, she rescued a very ill child who might otherwise have perished of malaria and tuberculosis.   Madonna claimed that she was told the boy was abandoned, but the child’s father, Yohane Banda, who brought his son to the orphanage because he was unable to care for the sick days-old infant after the child’s mother died, claims that “I always imagined that when he was better, or I had got another wife, I would go and take him back. I did not think anyone would want to take him away.” Banda visited his son regularly, cycling the twenty-five miles to the orphanage to “bring him food from my garden, then sit and play with him for a while. I wanted him to know that I was his father, that I love him very much.”  In addition, the boy’s uncle and other family members protested David being taken out of the country by a “rich white donor,” noting that “other parents at the mission who have had their children adopted [are] still living in their poverty.“

Angelina Jolie was reportedly shocked to hear that her adopted son Maddox might not have been an orphan whose mother had died, but rather may have been sold by his birth mother in a desperate attempt to escape a poverty-stricken life. Lauryn Galindo, who helped Jolie adopt from Cambodia, pleaded guilty to visa fraud and money laundering as part of a ring that paid poor Cambodian women as little as $100 or less for their children. The agency that handled hundreds of such adoptions charged fees of $10,000. Additionally, the FBI closed down Seattle International Adoptions Inc., the agency used by Jolie to adopt Maddox, after former owner Lynn Devin pleaded guilty to false claims that some children the agency handled were orphans.

While prospective adopters and adoption profiteers moan the decrease in international adoptions (IA), it is a result of such corrupt practices that (IA) has been stopped from countries such as Guatemala, Ethiopia, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda, and Ghana, reducing IA numbers drastically in recent years.  (See the State Department website for current information on which countries now allow out-of-country adoption and the requirements.) Russian adoptions were closed as a result of abuse and abandonment (sometimes fatal) of Russian children adopted by Americans.

Taking children from their culture, without concern for their families’ needs —not just by the rich and famous – continues to be a common practice..

Madonna created Raising Malawi, a charity that supports orphans and vulnerable children of Malawi through health, education, and community support. Others who are less able to create such a foundation can donate to many existing charities, such as Save the Children and UNICEF. Why pay tens of thousands to “save” just one child, when the same funds could be used to help entire communities build schools or obtain medical supplies? That is altruism.

Domestically, mothers-to-be face tremendous pressures as a result of demand outpacing the supply. From the late 1940s, starting after WWII, until the late 60s – early 70s, being pregnant and single was stigmatized. This historical period has been dubbed the Baby Scoop Era because of large numbers of babies placed for adoption to spare their mothers, and the “unwed” mothers’ families, the “shame” of their “sin” of non-marital sex.

Pregnant single women were shuffled off to maternity homes, hidden away in secrecy. The steady flow of expectant mothers with no alternatives created a steady supply of babies. Books such as Rickie Solinger’s Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade, Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, and The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption and Forced Surrender by Karen Buterbaugh document the phenomenon and the plight of women victimized by society’s scorn.

Then in the 1970s came greater accessibility to birth control and acceptance of single motherhood, with students continuing to attend school while pregnant. This, of course, put a huge dent in the supply of babies available for adoption; at the same time, feminism also encouraged delaying childbirth while pursuing education and career, which in turn led to an increase in infertility issues. Add to that a reduction in international adoption, and marriage equality for same-sex couples – who could now also compete for the dwindling number of newborns being placed for adoption – and you have a higher degree of pressure, manipulation, and coercion of mothers-to-be who consider adoption than ever before. This dark, exploitive side of adoption is hidden from public view.

Mothers are led to believe that they are in control of the process by choosing prospective adopters from photo profiles and meeting their top choices.  However, these vulnerable, pregnant women are then “matched” with those who seek to adopt their baby. The moms-to be are encouraged to accept their “expenses” to be paid by the prospective adopters, despite the fact that most expectant moms would be entitled to housing and medical costs from the government. These payments and the constant contact during the pregnancy are done to create an incomprehensible obligation and pressure to go through with the adoption even if they are having second thoughts or have changed their minds. The mothers are not provided independent legal counsel and are often duped into “open” adoptions that slam closed once the papers are signed.  Mothers who attempt to reverse consents to adopt that were obtained fraudulently or through coercion are often silenced with gag orders. Fathers have even less voice in the placement of their children for adoption.

Lessening the Loss of a Perceived “Win-Win”

Current adoption practices serve only one client, the adopting family. The child—in whose best interest adoption purports to be—has been reduced to a desired product in a consumer, market-driven world, commodifying the child whose rights need to be protected.  The mothers of these children are too often reduced to the discarded wrap in which the gift came, exploited for the same adult-centered goals.  The intended parents should not be the client; the child should be. His or her rights should be paramount, prevailing over the needs, wants, desires, or desperation of all others.

When we lift the curtain, remove the rose-colored glasses, and see the demand-driven market aspect of adoption and the lifelong harm it causes, society needs to do everything in its power to reduce the number of family separations. Instead of encouraging and promoting adoption via tax credits and other incentives, we need to put in place resources to protect children, mothers and families in crisis.

Clearly there will always be orphaned and endangered children with no family members to care for them safely, but in order for adoption to be in a child’s best interest, every child deserves a thorough search for stable and able kin who would want them before stranger adoption is considered.

In order for alternative care to be in the best interest of the child, such care must stop requiring the unnecessary eradication of the adopted person’s original identity and replacing it with an “as if born to” pretense, protected by the fraudulent issuance of fictional birth certificates.  Hiding a person’s true, original identity from them is not in any adopted person’s best interest, but rather the interests of those who profit from their losses. These gaslighting, secretive practices need to be replaced with a form of legal guardianship that gives the new parents all rights in terms of health and education of the child in their care while respecting, honoring, and maintaining the child’s identity and kinship connections.  Only then will adoption be in the best interest of the children it purports to protect and serve.

Mirah Riben is author of two internationally acclaimed books and approximately 200 published articles exposing the underbelly of the adoption industry here and abroad. Read other articles by Mirah, or visit Mirah's website.