The Intermediary System is Not the Solution
(On May 4, 1979 Margaret McDonald Lawrence addressed the General Session of the American Adoption Congress (AAC) in Washington, DC. She expressed concern over the proposed establishment, in various States, of intermediary systems to be used when adoptees return to the agencies which had arranged their adoptions & seek assistance in finding their birthparents. The complete text follows.)
As it has become clear that increasing numbers of adoptees intend to persist in their demands for knowledge of their own true identities and histories, we see a shift in the social work position from unyielding opposition to a qualified approval. The approval is qualified by the new social work position that contact between birth relatives may be alright, but only if social workers function as intermediaries in arranging and managing these contacts. This, they say, is necessary to protect the privacy rights of birthparents, though no satisfactory evidence has been presented to confirm that birthparents either have or want a right to remain hidden from their own children. In fact, adoption movement statistics now prove otherwise.
Social workers’ ability to develop rationales to justify their efforts to expand the need for their services is not surprising. What is surprising is the willingness of some adoptees to accept these terms for themselves and the relatives they seek. Those adoptees who see no other hope of having their answers may be tempted to accept these terms. As some have said “Something is better than nothing.” But let those who accept the condition of intermediaries between them and their families do so in the full realization of the cost to themselves, to the people they seek, and to their fellow adoptees to whom freedom and dignity are too precious for such compromise.
Several states are in the process of amending their laws to include this new intermediary solution. Also included is an acknowledgment of the limitations of the civil rights of adoptees. Each of the proposals being drafted includes the condition that the adoptee may receive information only with the permission of his birthparents–and in some cases the additional permission of the adoptive parents. If the appointed intermediary is successful in locating the birth-parent and acquiring the written permission, then a meeting may be arranged between the two parties. Whether or not the intermediary was successful in locating the birthparents and gaining their permission, the bill for this service is to be rendered to the adoptee. Legislation requiring intermediaries between adult adoptees and their birth relatives would not only perpetuate and expand the degrading chattel status of adoptees, but would extend it into the lives of those relatives being sought, making them involuntary social work clients as well. If some adoptees are willing to endure this new humiliation, they should realize that their relatives may not be so willing. There is no history of free people willingly delivering the management of their lives into the hands of others. It is predictable that some birthparents, who would otherwise welcome contact with their lost children, will decline the opportunity if it must be with social work supervision. Through the reunions accomplished by the activist groups, we have learned that few birthparents have refused to respond to direct contact from their children, and that contacts handled this way have been a positive experience for everyone involved. The few states that have no road-blocks to such contacts also claim no reports of difficulties because of it. In the absence of any real evidence of necessity, the price of the intermediary system looms too large for both adoptees and their birthparents.
To outsiders, the claim of adoptees may appear to be a situation calling for a bargaining stance where rights can be balanced and compromises worked out. It is understandable that legislatures and courts might find the use of intermediaries a welcome compromise. It allows them to offer some relief to adoptees at no risk to themselves or to the shadow-mothers whose need for secrecy is so resolutely claimed by the social work professionals. But there is one thing no person can compromise without serious consequences to his own self-esteem, and that is his right to direct his own life and make his own personal decisions free of the interference of the State. The price of the intermediary compromise is too high in terms of pride, dignity and self-respect. The adoptee position rests on two principles that must remain inflexible. The first is that each person has a right to his own history and identity. The second is that adult adoptees have the same competence and right of non-adoptees to manage their own affairs without supervision of the State through its agencies. The underlying principle of the adoption movement is the determination to be free of those limitations that have not been imposed on non-adopted citizens. The issue is whether adoptees are to be allowed to emancipate from chattel-child status into autonomous adults, or are they to continue to be infantilized by the ongoing control of the State and agency, birthparents and adoptive parents? Lincoln once said “for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it by being a slave himself.” Would legislators either seek or accept social work supervision of their own personal affairs? On what evidence do they decide that they are capable of managing without supervision, but adult adoptees are not?
Slavery is the condition of having to submit to the power of others to control our lives. Undoubtedly legislators fail to see a significant violation of human rights in this proposal, because they do not realize the adversary relationship between power and liberty, and they do not realize that investing social work professionals with so much discretionary power is inappropriate to the goal. How would the intermediary solution work in the hands of the social agencies? Unfortunately, those within the adoption triad who have had occasion to deal with social agencies have learned a distrust of them. It would be safe to conclude that some petitions for information would result in success. It would be just as safe to predict that a great many will not. Social workers have exercised their power to influence outcomes in all areas where they have been free to do so. This situation, as in all others, unlimited professional discretion will come at the expense of their clients. They will not hesitate to decide which reunions should take place, and which should not. There will be adoptees who receive nothing but their bill from agencies who will claim a refusal on the part of a birthparent–but whose refusal is exactly as genuine as the epidemic of fires that have snuffed out social work records.
In order to bring the issues surrounding the intermediary question into clear focus, it is necessary to examine the myths and motives that surround the adoption experience. Outsiders need to realize that social agencies not only control adoption procedures, but also control the information about the institution which is provided to the courts, the legislatures, and the public. It is the child welfare establishment that has provided the picture of birthmothers as indifferent–as mothers who abandon their unwanted children with a wish to remain forever hidden from them. They know that this is seldom true, but it helps to facilitate their work for the public to believe this. Society does not dismiss the importance of the natural family as readily as the social planners, and so it is useful to portray relinquishing parents as different from caring parents. The birthmother must be different, an aberration, for if it were true that she had the same degree of love for her child as all other mothers, the good of adoption would be overwhelmed by the tragedy of it. Adoptive parents are presumably somewhat relieved of guilt if they can be assured that the birth-parents truly did not want their child, for under those circumstances, it is possible to feel entitled to claim the child of others. Neither society nor the mother who holds the child in her arms wants to confront the agony of the mother from whose arms that same child was taken.
But that agony is real, as we have come to learn through our experience with reunions. It is a cruel punishment to require relinquishing parents to bear the life-long anguish over the fate of their lost children when the relinquishment, in over 95% of the cases, was done as an act of caring. If concern for birthparents is genuine, then a compassionate legislature ought to provide some way that the birth-parent can learn of the fate of their children who were lovingly relinquished to a better life than they could give them. The social workers, whose determination to continue their protection, are really a determined to hold them to a life sentence. People who are parents would be more empathetic. Who really believes that a mother does not want to know of her child? “Protection” is a subterfuge on the part of agencies protecting their power and on the part of adoptive parents who have a real but irrational fear that their child would prefer the birthparents. The adoptee’s claim of his right to his own true identity rests on the fact that the loss of that identity and history represents a real personal injury. One’s biological history is as much a part of the essential self as limbs or senses. To be deprived of knowledge of one’s origins and ancestry is to be maimed as surely as to be deprived of limbs or sight. While legs are essential to our ready navigation, being aware of one’s own human history is essential to our psychological well-being. The injury inherent in the destruction of personal identity is compounded by the callousness of others to a loss they cannot see. Were it a limb missing, there would be sensitivity to the loss and sorrow for the person so afflicted. The amputation of one’s connection to humanity is not visible, and the afflicted person appears, outwardly, to be whole. But inwardly, there is an essential part missing, and the effects of this loss will vary among adoptees according to their own life experience. The adoptee’s quest is reduced to a triviality by the social work professional’s interpretation of it as a mere and mild curiosity. Curiosity is a shockingly inadequate word for the dynamics underlying the search, and yet there is no adequate way to translate the experience of isolation and unrelatedness to those who have no like experience. We cannot tell the “born” what it is like not to be “born”, but adopted. We cannot tell those who are securely rooted in human history what it means to appear into a world in which we cannot be connected with biological connections to other people. We can only continue to stand firm that we have a need and right to our own human histories, and this right must be recognized as a civil right that cannot be abrogated at the pleasure of others. Those of us who will not accept the intermediary solution that incorporates an acceptance of our rights being contingent on the will of others are not simply arbitrary rebels being unreasonable. Instead, we are committed to a vision of human dignity that cannot accommodate a compromise…not for ourselves or for our families. The only just proposal would be to amend the law to recognize the absolute right of adoptees to their own records, including original birth certificates.
Thus ends the talk. Let the games begin!
**Note: For further reference and information concerning the credibility of Margaret McDonald Lawrence, please see “Inside, Looking Out of Adoption” (Paper presented at the Eighty-fourth Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, Sept. 4, 1976.