Thursday, June 12, 2014

Adoption History: Georgia Tann

Credit: K. Dahlquist & R. Bangert

My thanks to K. Dahlquist & R. Bangert for creating the above graphic and for granting me permission to share it. I have in fact done my own research, and I was surprised by what I learned about Georgia Tann.

Before I began reading Barbar Bisantz Raymond's book The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, I knew that Georgia Tann was an adoption worker who who had helped to bring about the practice of amending adoptee birth certificates. And I was aware that her motivation in doing so was to cover her own tracks, given the illegality of the many adoptions she arranged. But I didn't truly understand the extent of her influence and the degree to which the current institution of adoption is her legacy.

For Georgia Tann, adoption was a client-based business, and her clients were the wealthy adoptive parents who could afford to pay her "fees." (Tann's incoming money far outstripped her operating expenses.) What's more, Tann didn't just serve her market -- she created it. Adoption rates skyrocket during her time of operation, starting in her native Tennessee and rippling outward from there. She promoted the doctrine of the blank slate to make her children more appealing and marketable. "Georgia didn't actually believe the children were blank slates, but she made her sales pitch with conviction." (Raymond, pg 78) Tann's methods were unethical to the extreme. She kidnapped. She lied. She coerced. She falsified documents.

She was also a master propagandist who promoted (among other things) the premise of "undeserving" versus "deserving" parents.
[The] babies were, she said, born innocent--blank slates. By virtue of either their single or poor status, their parents, however, were tainted. According to Georgia and the theories of reformers, children raised by these tainted parents would quickly become tainted too. Single mothers, who before their children became marketable would have been forced to raise them, were suddenly considered incompetent to keep them. (Raymond, pg 84)
The results of Tann's methods are chilling. Her actions were devastating not only to the parents who lost their children but also to the children she was supposedly helping, a disproportionately high number of whom were abused or died. But Georgia Tann's direct victims were not the only people she affected. Tann paved the road for the juggernaut that was the Baby Scoop Era, and her influence ripples even into current times.

In her informative and thought-provoking article "Despite Progress, Forced-Adoption Practices Persist Throughout the United States, activist and writer Jessica DelBalzo takes up the history of adoption with the baby scoop era and follows its practices into our own times, ending with familiar question "Will we learn from the past, or will we repeat it?"

Of course, in order to learn from it, we have to know it. The Baby Thief is a good place to start.

This post was originally published at Sea Glass & Other Fragments.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Three Types of Adoptive Parents

In the book Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens, authors Debbie Riley, M.S., and John Meeks, M.D., discuss three categories of adoptive parents. The following is my paraphrasing of the categories.
The Three B's 
1) Blind: In this category are those adoptive parents who tend to minimize the impact of adoption on the adoptee and the family. These parents are apt to talk about adoption in exclusively positive terms and downplay differences between the adoptee and other family members. The adoptees in such families are not encouraged talk about adoption or the original family, and in fact may be actively discouraged from doing so. 
2) Blaming: The adoptive parents in this category tend to emphasize the impact of adoption on the family and typically blame the child for not fitting in. They are keenly aware of incompatibility and typically view it as a problem of flaws in the adoptee. 
3) Balanced: These are the parents who encourage open and honest discussion and are able to acknowledge differences without blaming the adoptee for them. Adoptees can talk about the original family or other adoption issues without damaging relationships in the adoptive family.
I find this a useful, if oversimplified, framework. Adoption and adoptive parenting are complex matters; no doubt there are adoptive parents who fit into more than one of these categories and others who fit into none. Nevertheless, I see aspects of my own experience in these three groupings. 

My own adoptive parents fit into the first category, for the most part. Like many other adoptive parents of the era (1960s), they were educated to believe that adoptedness would not be a significant factor in my life. They downplayed its significance, as they had been taught to do.They had been told that they should tell me early on that I was adopted and that as long as they did that, carefully explaining that I was loved and chosen, all would be well. I would be, for all intents and purposes, no different than as if I was born into the family. It was a well-intentioned approach that did not work well for me. Ignoring adoptedness didn't make it less of a factor; it simply meant that I had no safe space to process it. My adoption-related grief and identity confusion stayed underground until my mid-twenties, when it began to emerge in a series of small breakdowns (short of duration, but overwhelming emotionally). I've been processing ever since.

My parents were supportive of my search and reunion, but they remain largely "blind" to its significance in my life. When I tell my adoptive parents things about my relationship with my biological family members, they seem mildly but not especially interested. I never get the sense that they want more details; rather, I perceive them as wanting as few details as possible. I've also noticed that my adoptive mother has a tendency to forget things that I've shared about my relationship with my original family. I understand this as self-protective on her part, and I don't blame her, but it does not encourage openness and sharing on my part.

The "blaming" category of parents is one that, unfortunately, I have run into frequently both online and off. Blameful adoptive parents tend to talk a lot about the child's flaws and challenges, sometimes emphasizing a diagnosis, such as reactive attachment disorder, or speaking about the adoptee's original family in a way that implies that the child has inherited unappealing characteristics from the biological parents. I call this the "bad seed" mentality.

Fortunately, I have also encountered present-day adoptive parents who seem to best fit into the "balanced" category. I'm encouraged when I encounter such parents as I believe this approach is the one that is most likely to support the adoptee's well-being.

I don't believe that adoptive parents can completely shield adoptees from the challenges of adoptedness, but we can walk beside them and offer empathy. We can let them know, again and again, that whatever they are feeling is OK and normal.

"Balanced" is the category that my husband and I strive for as adoptive parents. We do a lot of listening, and we try to make connection and trust-building the guiding principle our relationship with our both of our children, one of whom was adopted from foster care and the other of whom was adopted by my husband in what is known as a step-parent adoption.

Do we always succeed? Are we always the parents we want to be? No, not at all. But I do think it helps us to have an intention and to come back to that intention again and again. You might even say that it is that intention that keeps us "balanced."

Image courtesy of gubgib /