Activists aim to expose darker side of adoption

Movement: Members say most adoptions are centered on money, not the child.

August 15, 2004|By Dru Sefton | Dru Sefton,NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

The term "anti-adoption" sounds ludicrous. Who could oppose placing an unwanted child into a loving home?

An entire movement, it turns out - fighting with a primal passion to expose what activists insist is adoption's darker side: the lifelong trauma of women coerced into surrendering babies. Adoptees denied their heritage. And, they say, a billion-dollar industry that focuses more on money than youngsters' welfare.

Some leave careers to write letters, track legislation, research articles and books. They work for anti-adoption nonprofits. They educate "vulnerable mothers" and provide baby supplies and financial resources.

The activists insist a mother should first be helped to keep her child. In cases in which that is impossible (say, the woman is incapacitated), a family member or other caring adult should have guardianship. The child should be aware of that relationship. Money should not be exchanged.

Adoption supporters say that logic is flawed.

"The fundamental problem with anti-adoption folks is their lack of recognition that parenting is vastly more than conceiving and giving birth," said Thomas Atwood, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Va. "It takes the full-time, selfless commitment of a mature person. If a woman is not ready to parent, her most loving and responsible decision may be to make an adoption plan."

Psychotherapist Joe Soll, himself an adoptee and longtime anti-adoption activist, disagreed.

"There will always be babies who need new homes," Soll said from his Congers, N.Y., office. "But why must names be changed, records sealed, why must children lose contact with their family?"

Soll has spent 20 years counseling single, pregnant women for free. Thousands of anti-adoption activists share his zeal.

"I've been in children's welfare a long time and I've never seen this level of volatility in other issues. Feelings run very high," said Madelyn Freundlich, attorney and author of the book The Impact of Adoption on Members of the Triad (triad being mother, baby and adoptive couple).

Anti-adoption groups confront a public puzzled by their cause. Some 94 percent of adults polled either held "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" opinions of adoption in a 2002 national survey by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit focusing on adoption policy and practices.

But people don't know the whole truth, said Jessica DelBalzo, who runs Adoption: Legalized Lies from Flemington, N.J. It's an Internet-based support and activism nonprofit with about 250 members worldwide.

"Offering up fake parents is not serving the best interest of a child," DelBalzo said.

Adoption, she said, centers on money, not the child.

Revenue statistics are elusive. Adoptions are handled at the state level through thousands of licensed and unlicensed public and private agencies, as well as independent attorneys; fees vary widely. Marketdata Enterprises Inc., a research firm in Tampa, Fla., estimated in a 2000 national report that adoption services are "a $1.4 billion business."

And the number of adoptions is not systematically compiled. Estimates from agencies and experts range from 60,000 to 138,000 in the United States each year.

DelBalzo, 24, mother of a 21-month-old, was first troubled by adoption after writing a paper in high school. Her research since has put her in contact with hundreds of mothers who surrendered children, "and 99.9 percent," she said, "did so without full information." The majority later regretted it, DelBalzo said.

She said women report feeling pressured to do the "best thing" for their children and aren't advised of other options: seeking financial assistance (WIC, welfare, food stamps), asking a relative or father of the baby for help, aborting the pregnancy. (There are anti-abortion and pro-abortion advocates within the movement, DelBalzo added.)

Some anti-adoption activists surrendered children during the so-called "baby scoop era," the 1940s to 1970s. Then, pregnant, unmarried women often were sent to "maternity homes" run by social workers or religious groups.

Karen Wilson Buterbaugh became pregnant as a high school senior in 1966 in Annandale, Va. Her parents sent her to a maternity home in Washington. She gave birth, and her daughter was taken 10 days later.

"We're trying to educate society about what occurred then and what's happening now with adoption," said Buterbaugh, of Richmond, Va. "It benefits those who adopt, and people with money and power backed by religious groups and the adoption industry."

Buterbaugh, 56, is co-founder of MORE (Mothers for Open Records Everywhere) and OriginsUSA, working toward a federal inquiry into "illegal, unethical and improper adoption practices."

Activists like Buterbaugh "are raising legitimate issues in regard to the way adoption is provided," said Freundlich, policy director for Children's Rights Inc., a legal advocacy and child-welfare watchdog group in New York. "There are ethical concerns we should all be thinking about."

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