Monday, May 14, 2012

The Once Silent, Now Activist Adoptee

by Susan Perry

I am happy and honored that Amanda has asked me to write for Lost Daughters.  I started my blog Family Ties in April because I have a lot to say about adoption, and it's hard to interest the media in those adoption stories that fall outside of the human interest realm.  I've been working with NJCARE for over ten years now, trying to convince legislators to pass an Adoptee Rights Bill.  Last year, we came close.  Both the Assembly and Senate had approved an acceptable bill, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed it, opting instead for an unworkable system of confidential intermediaries.  The fight goes on.  To introduce myself here, I am going to include some of a post I wrote last month, because it documents my personal story and explains how and why my feelings about adoption have changed.  Once, I didn't talk about adoption at all.  Now I am motivated to speak out.  Here's my story:

I am a 61-year old happily-married mother of two daughters, grandmother of three boys and three girls, ranging in age from 16 months to eight years old.  For the first 50 years of my life, I didn't speak out about adoption issues.  Growing up, I don't think I knew another adopted person.  I was expected to blend in, and for the most part, I did.  I grew up in a close-knit community and loved my family, friends and neighbors.  During my high school years, I played tennis and basketball and continued my love affair with all things sports-related.  In college, I refined my critical thinking skills and fell in love.  I thought about my original family from time to time but worked hard to put those thoughts out of my mind -- the adoption culture during that era did not encourage adoptee inquiries, and I didn't want to be labeled as one of "those adoptees" -- fragile and emotionally deficient.

I married right after graduating from college, and my husband and I built a fulfilling life together.  I had my first profound adoption thoughts, I think, when my first daughter was born.  The birth of a new and unique human being is such a life-changing event.  After our Kate was born, I lay awake half the night, feeling euphoric about her arrival and deeply unsettled about my own personal history.  Where was my original mother?  And how could she ever forget an event like this?

Once again, I pushed those thoughts to the background as I devoted myself to being the best parent I could be.  Three years later, we had another daughter, and the following years were busy, as we built careers, attended school and sporting events, coached teams, helped our daughters to navigate the teen-age years, nursed ailing parents, and did all the things that a life as responsible parents and community members entails.

I really did not confront the reality of the adoption culture until I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in my late forties.  I couldn't have been more shocked had a bolt of lightning come down from the sky and struck our house.  My long-term outlook was unclear.  I had to have my right big toe amputated and have follow-up scans every three months for a few years to ensure the melanoma had not traveled to my lungs or my brain.  I was terrified.  I felt as if I had a sword hanging over my head every moment of the day.  During my hospital stay, I was asked to join a controlled study along with other melanoma patients, and I was ready to participate -- until the doctor learned I had no family medical history.  I was disqualified.

That was the moment in my life when I decided that I would no longer be the victim of an adoption system that makes no sense.  My daughter, who is a physician, urged me to try and obtain my medical history.  Being a naive and eager-to-please type of adoptee, I started my quest through the "proper" channel -- the agency that had placed me for adoption.  The search process became unsettling and offensive as I gradually came to realize that of all the people in the adoption circle, my rights came in dead last.

The social worker eventually informed me that my original mother wanted no contact.  I was absolutely devastated.  I was hurt to the core of my being.  I really did care for this person I wasn't supposed to think about.  Deeply.  "Did you get my medical history?" I asked.  "Well, she wasn't very forthcoming," replied the social worker.  Now I was hurt and very, very angry.  "I am here," I wanted to shout.  "I am a mature adult.  I have a right to ask for my own personal information, on my own terms."

And that is what I did.  I hired a private investigator, who located my original mother quite easily.  My daughter crafted an easy-to-fill-out medical questionnaire, and I forwarded it to my original mother along with a compassionate and carefully-written letter.  While the agency's search had taken nearly a year, my original mother responded to my questionnaire within the week, and the following week-end, she picked up the phone and called me.  We had what I believe was a mutually-beneficial conversation.  We came to an understanding.  We behaved like the adults we both are.

Since that episode, I have become passionate about adoptee rights.  And even though most adoptions today have some degree of openness, I have learned during my advocacy struggles that many adoption myths and unethical practices persist.  For example, one legislator said to me during a private meeting that sealed records must remain in place because "people need to keep secrets."  I wish I had had the confidence then to say, "What people are those?  And what about the rights of the adopted person who signed no contract and did not ask to be yoked to a life-time restraining order?"

Then there was the attorney I had consulted during my efforts to locate my original family.  As the legal expenses grew, he informed me that my chances of success weren't good.  "You've already had cancer," he explained, "so the 'good cause' angle probably won't work.  And wanting your medical history isn't a good enough reason to unseal your records.  Because, he added, then every adoptee would be able to secure her own records."

Aha!  Another illuminating moment.  In a sane world, every adoptee would be able to ask for her own records.  Perhaps the final straw for me came when I consulted a therapist to deal with my anxiety after the melanoma diagnosis.  When we talked about my adoptive status and how that made me feel,  I showed her the "non-identifying" information about my original family that I had received from the agency.  She took one look at it and said rather dismissively, "So, your birthmother was young and uneducated.  What else do you need to know?"  Once again, I felt deeply misunderstood.  Obviously, this adoption thing was something I was going to have to navigate on my own, using my own instincts and common sense.

Many professionals, legislators, members of the public, and unfortunately members of the press just don't get the adult adoptee perspective.  I'm hoping this blog might help to inform them.  I have to accept that all of us involved in the adoption world are at different steps on the journey, and some people are more comfortable than others speaking out.  But I'm hoping that as more and more voices are heard, we can all agree that there is something profoundly wrong with a legal network that makes people feel defensive about learning the very basic facts about their lives.