Original Birth Certificates

I feel a sense of power as I sit in my office with an adopted child's original birth certificate on my desk. The certified birth certificate will go into the child's file, and locked away in a vault never to be seen again as mandated by Washington State law. The birth certificates list the full names of the child's birth parents as well as the name that the birth parent chose for them. The adoptive  family does not know the birth parents last names. Nor do they know the name the birth parent originally chose for the child. As I look at the vital document, I feel that I'm committing an infraction of sorts, in knowing that the child to whom this information belongs will never be allowed to view it.  The irony and weight of the moment is not lost, as I am keenly aware of the hours of time, money and longing that I've personally spent wishing for my own original birth certificate.  It's eerie to think that a social worker in the State of Tennessee, someone not too unlike myself, filed my birth certificate away, and locked it up and sealed it  for my eyes never to see.

Why is it that I, an arbitrary social worker, gets to hold, handle, file and seal a document away? A document to those whom are not adopted, consider a vital document- one to be stored next to their marriage license and social security cards in a locked, fireproof box.  But, for the adoptee they lost that right to have access to this document, simply for being born?

I know this debate is hot and raging in many states, but I can't help but feel a sense of debasement as I do to this child what I fought so hard for and wished wasn't done to me.  If all individuals should have the right to know basic information about themselves, what gives a state the right to act sovereign  and supreme over an adopted child?


Adoptee view: What can a tiny baby know?

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In her preface to The Primal Wound, Nancy Newton Verrier states her naivetée when adopting her daughter. She was like most others; undermining and discounting the very child that she was promising to love and care for. She believed that her own adopted daughter would never know or be negatively impacted by being adopted. After all, what can a tiny baby know? They are too young to remember any of it. They just need love.

Admittedly, I too, even as an adoptee, thought this way. It was my perception that adoption does not have much of an impact on those adopted at infancy because, what does a baby know? Though I personally have spent a lifetime dealing with depression, fears of abandonment, relationship struggles, anger, low self-esteem, somatic complications and a myriad of other issues, I never related them back to being adopted. I just thought I was not very valuable or worthy, but didn’t see the link. I didn’t see what now seems so obvious.

As a result of my research, I, among other scholars in this relatively new field of attention to the psychological and physiological impact of adoption, will argue that the relinquishment or separation of child from her birth mother is a traumatic event that deeply impacts the adoptee, creating special needs that must be addressed throughout the adoptee’s life.

I will often use relinquishment and adoption in somewhat synonymous terms. Understanding the definite differences between the two, I will continue to refer to adoption as a trauma recognizing the true trauma is at the point of relinquishment. However, subsequent actions do have the potential to exacerbate that trauma experienced.

Adoption is a trauma that happens to a child. The child is torn away from her biological mother, placed in the arms of strangers and is left with questions, doubts, fears and anxiety with no way to verbalize, express, mourn or contextualize those feelings. Though the common misconception is that a child won’t remember any of it many psychologists believe, with evidence to support, that children remember their birth and the following events, including relinquishment and adoption, up to the age of three.

At this age the only tools a child has to deal with this trauma is through crying or reaction to physical touch and anger. These tools can manifest in overt expression or a marked lack of expression. A baby may cry in response or rarely cry and be perceived as a good and peaceful baby, when in reality she is hurting. She may respond by recoiling from human touch or may become too attached to the sensation and have difficulty learning boundaries. A child may express her anger through yelling, kicking, screaming, crying or withholding emotional expression.

Every adopted child, allow me to reiterate, every adopted child falls into one of two categories. She either acts out and is difficult or is quiet, adaptable and compliant. Of course the degree to which each adoptee acts out or becomes compliant is individual.

Some who act out will go to the extreme of running away from home, threatening their adoptive parents, rebel academically and even attempt suicide. A 2001 study shows that of teens in grades 7 through 12, 7.6% of adopted teens had attempted suicide compared with 3% among their non-adopted peers. The compliant child may become a model citizen in school as well at home or she may just kind of fade into the background, trying not to be noticed or cause trouble. Either way they are both reactions to the trauma of being adopted.

The child who acts out, is, in essence, attempting to initiate some form of rejection from parents, teachers, peers and others in order to prove that she is unlovable or she finds herself rejecting these same people prior to being rejected by them. This type of child is obviously troubled and it is easy to identify as needing help. However, parents and therapists often try to counsel the child into acting more appropriately, instilling tough love or even unknowingly furthering the child’s abandonment issues by sending them to boarding school, camp or other such institutions. Rarely do adoptive parents and counselors see this behavior as a reaction to her adoption trauma. They are never truly treating the source of the wound.

For the compliant child the situation can actually be much more devastating. As a compliant child who is either not causing problems or actually well engaged and visibly successful, she is not seen as having any problems at all. Parents see this child as well adjusted to life, including being adopted, and with no outwardly troubling signs of concern, this child is often overlooked and not given any form of counseling or assistance in dealing with life or emotional wounds. It is difficult for anyone to see that the child who is often referred to as, “mature for her age” or “pleasant and articulate,” is actually in equal distress to the child who is acting out. Both are hurting, both are devastated by the trauma of relinquishment and both have no way to articulate, understand, contextualize or grieve the loss they have endured.

These two behavior types present themselves at various ages, though adolescence is the most common time for them to reach their strongest levels. Additionally, some may actually experience both behavior types, switching from one to the other depending on their environment or transition back and forth throughout maturity. Also noteworthy is that no matter the age of adoption, infant through teen, all adoptees essentially suffer from the same issues.

Relinquishment in the adoption process is a traumatic experience to a child. I am working with the definition of trauma as defined by the 2000 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders where a person experienced an event that threatened their physical well being and that person responded to that event with fear, helplessness or horror. It is important to recognize that in adoption the birth family and the adoptive family are allowed to choose, however to the child adoption is something that happened to them. When I shared with my adoptive mother that I was studying adoption and its related impact, along with her warmth, support and encouragement came the words I knew she thought, but never thought I would hear. She said, “What does a baby know?”

She had spent some time talking about my adoption and sharing a little bit of added information I don’t recall previously knowing. After being relinquished I lived in a foster home with an elderly couple for two weeks prior to my being placed. I had yet another piece of the puzzle and another incident of attempted attachment and abandonment in my life. She went on to say how she didn’t think a baby would know any better and that all I needed was a loving home. “What does a baby know?”

This line of thinking was not her fault; it was the prevalent school of thought regarding adoption and was widely professed by the “experts” of the time.

In speaking with friends and acquaintances alike about my studies I find I am often challenged in the legitimacy of my work. I share my findings regarding the two behavioral patterns and am met with the challenge that, “every kid goes through that.” I am met with resistance from people who claim that I am finding an excuse to be a victim and dismiss ownership of my behaviors. Explaining about the bonding of mother and child on a cellular level and the evidence of an infant recognizing its own mother at birth, I am challenged with skepticism and, as if we have all learned the same response, “What does a baby know?”

Research shows that, at birth, a baby is able to recognize her mother’s voice. Within a few days of birth she will recognize familiar faces, voices and smells and be drawn to them. With research showing that babies do have a memory, in contradiction to long held beliefs, it becomes unreasonable to assume that a baby would not remember or recognize (at a visceral and thus almost imprinting level) the loss of her mother upon separation.

I have not undertaken an exhaustive study in the area of what newborn babies are aware of immediately following and the days after birth. Therefore, I will not try to answer, “What does a baby know?” However I will answer, “What does an adopted baby know?” She knows her mother, she knows her loss, sadness and hurt, she knows that those who hold her today may be gone tomorrow and that she will be the only one left to pick up the pieces that no one seems to think are broken.

"Baby girl, X" meets her birthmother! Closure

A woman whose mother threw her in a pile of burning trash minutes after she was born has finally come face-to-face with the woman who nearly ended her life.

Amy Woodward-Davis, who is now 41 years old and a mother herself, survived horrific third and fourth-degree burns that covered 70 per cent of her body.

She was born to a 16-year-old mother who didn't know she was pregnant until she gave birth to Amy in the bathroom of her Kansas City home.

Then and now: Just minutes after she was born in 1971, Amy Woodward-Davis was thrown in a burning pile of trash and has since undergone more than 200 surgeries to treat her life-threatening burns
Then and now: Just minutes after she was born in 1971, Amy Woodward-Davis was thrown in a burning pile of trash and has since undergone more than 200 surgeries to treat her life-threatening burns

Then and now: Just minutes after she was born in 1971, Amy Woodward-Davis was thrown in a burning pile of trash and has since undergone more than 200 surgeries to treat her life-threatening burns

She was discovered by her grandfather who thought he heard a crying kitten. When he looked in the backyard, he found that it was a newborn baby, wrapped in newspapers in a pile of burning trash.

The burns were so bad her race was not immediately clear.

The Houston Chronicle tells the story of how Amy, known at the time as 'baby girl x',  was treated and spent more than two decades in and out of Shriner's Hospital which specializes in treating burn victims.

Amy was adopted by Shriner's burn technician Lena Woodward and her husband after they spent a year as the young girl's foster parents.

At the age of 5, Amy became curious about why she was being teased by her classmates about her burns.

Mrs Woodward and her husband decided to explain the issue in the simplest of terms, saying that she used to have a bad mama who burned her but now she has a good mama who won't.

As time passed, that served as sufficient explanation for Amy, who was more focused on getting through her 200 surgeries and her schooling. When she was 21, Amy decided that she was done with having surgery.

Healing: Amy was adopted by a burn technician who worked with her at a specialty hospital where she was treated for 22 years Healing: Amy was adopted by a burn technician who worked with her at a specialty hospital where she was treated for 22 years

'I'm all right with myself,' she told The Chronicle.

'At some time in your life you have to be at ease with your mind on how you're going to look, and this is how I'm going to look.'

In 2009, when Shriner's announced a significant staff cut, Amy told ABC 13 that the hospital workers made her feel like she was at home during her 22 years as a patient, and that they helped her come to terms with what happened.

'I didn't look like this before and I know I didn't I had to get burned to look like this and I accept that. They did a wonderful job with me,' she said at the time.

Amy has since reconnected with both her biological mother and father, who was 19 and living in California at the time of Amy's birth.

Growing up: Amy learned she was adopted at age five, but it wasn't until this May that she finally met with her biological mother face-to-face, though she still won't answer why she threw her in the trash
Growing up: Amy learned she was adopted at age five, but it wasn't until this May that she finally met with her biological mother face-to-face, though she still won't answer why she threw her in the trash

Growing up: Amy learned she was adopted at age five, but it wasn't until this May that she finally met with her biological mother face-to-face, though she still won't answer why she threw her in the trash

In 2006, Amy spoke to her biological father for the first time. That phone call was the first time that her father learned that Amy existed.

Just this May, Amy took the biggest step towards resolution by visiting the family home where she was found burning in the backyard pile of trash.

Her biological mother and father, who have since married and had two other children, gave her a tour of the house but one room the skipped was the bathroom where Amy was born.

'I didn't want to face the fact that this is where I was born and nobody took my life seriously. I was born in this bathroom, and the next thing you know I was burned up,' she said.

During the visit, she and her mother exchanged glances and pleasantries but the looming question went unanswered: Amy has asked her mother several times what happened on the day of her birth, but her mother has never answered.

In that effort, Amy went into social services after completing her undergraduate and master's degrees and now works as an adoptions caseworker in Child Protective Services.

'I didn't get the closure, but I would love for the other kids who came behind me to get the closure,' Amy told The Chronicle.


Are we hard-wired to desire biological children?

If you're considering adoption in conjunction with having biological children, then you may encounter the statement, "your child is so lucky to have gotten your great genes!" This statement has the potential to leave the adopted child in the lurch. Consider how the adoptee may feel at that moment... I grew up with seven other siblings (six of whom were adopted), thus only one out of my seven siblings was privy to receiving these genetic comparison comments. This sibling routinely heard, "you've got those striking blue eyes just like your dads!" My origin-less brown eyes watched this scene play out time and time again over the years. I began to wonder why people's go-to comments when making small talk is generally related to physical appearance and comparing that to the biological parents. When meeting newborn babies, the run of the mill conversation usually settles around physical appearance and which parent the child resembles more. Is this a simple culturally polite conversation starter, or something more?

Ang and Sandy
Ang and Sandy

It wasn't until I searched for (and found) my biological family at the age of 26 that I began hearing these social niceties for the first time. I'll admit, the fact that my birth father and I resemble each other so closely, does hold a special place in my heart and I'm not sure why. Even though my birth father and I don't know each other very well, I do feel an extra flutter of connectedness when people look at our picture and comment "you and your birth-dad have the same smile!" This makes me wonder, do I feel this way because I've waited for 26 years to hear this, or is this a comment that we are all hard-wired to hear and enjoy?

In the same way that humans may be genetically predisposed to show empathy, to tend towards social altruism, or have an inborn belief in a higher spiritual being, are we also hard wired to desire biological children?