New Initiative: “Project Search & Reunion”

As the Director of Post-Adoption at Amara I am tasked with supporting individuals as they navigate the complexities of their adoption stories whether they are young children or 95 years old. For most of the 20th century best practices included closed adoptions, which meant ensuring no contact between birthparents and the adoptive family after an adoption takes place. Nowadays, we recognize the importance of transparency and the benefits of a child knowing about their birth family and ideally being in each other’s lives.

Amara files from the 1950s

Upon beginning my tenure at Amara I found a large number of neglected files full of search and reunion requests from adoptees and birth families. While disheartening, this problem is not rare – especially for child welfare organizations with a long history. Typical staff turnover and 900 finalized adoptions in the almost 100 years of Amara’s history have resulted in some files being overlooked. And though this may be common, we consider it to be unacceptable. So, in March 2018, we launched Project Search & Reunion. The goal of this project is to audit 3,100 of our own adoption files between the years of 1950 and 2000 to ensure that adoptees and birth families receive the information and support they requested, especially in regard to searching.  

This project is unprecedented, as far as we are aware. We are pushing back against the status quo for adoptees and their families in terms of what information they’ve been “allowed” to see and share. We hope this project helps fuel a change in the way adoptions are addressed in the United States. Adoption files often sit dormant behind locked doors as Sealed Records laws prevent adoptees from seeing their own file. However, we firmly believe that all individuals have a fundamental right to access information about their biological origins. And we are committed to providing as much access to Amara adoptees as we can legally provide.

We are already learning quite a bit about adoption practices from the past. For example, we learned that in the 1950s, we conducted IQ tests on children as young as 8-months old to determine if they’d be a good match for an adoptive family. We have read about the women who were “sent away” to be housed in Florence Crittenton Homes to hide their pregnancies from their community. And we have seen, in our own files, instances where adoptees were not told that they are of Native American ancestry. Each of these revelations is alarming.

Sandra* was one of the first people Amara reached out to as part of Project Search and Reunion. Amara called Sandra in March 2018 to share that her birth mother had requested to meet her in 2004, but that, unfortunately, we had not shared this information with her at that time. We also shared that her birth mother has since passed away. To my surprise, Sandra was quite understanding, stating; “I don’t think I would’ve been able to follow through with meeting my birthmother at that time because I love my [adoptive] parents too much and this would’ve hurt them.” We are supporting Sandra as she grapples with the nuanced feelings of guilt about wanting to uncover her personal story while not wanting to “betray” her adoptive parents. This is a common dilemma for adopted people who grew up in an era where secrecy in adoption was prevalent.

Through beginning to share about Project Search and Reunion, the response has been astounding. One individual who was adopted through Amara wrote to us stating:

“…about 14 years ago, I contacted Medina (Amara) and received a letter with non-identifying information** from my file, however, I am so excited at the potential for more info. My biggest over the top wish? A picture of me as a newborn. Second biggest wish – names of the people who cared for me the two weeks from birth to placement. #nomoresecrets #adoption #myadoptedheart #adoptionhealing #itsmybirthright”

We are honored and privileged to conduct this momentous work. We are unsure of our timeline, and can only surmise what lies within those files, but we are committed to full transparency. Righting our organization’s historical wrongs is a humbling process, and we hope this offers a blueprint for the future of openness and access to adoptee records!

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*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

**Non-Identifying Information – Agencies are legally allowed to provide adoptees with non-identifying information which includes very basic details about the birth family members. By definition, non-identifying information cannot lead to or disclose a birth parent’s identity — it does not include the parent’s name, birth date, address or phone number.

Adoptee Mentorship Program - Now accepting applications (Seattle-area)

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On my first day of work at Amara (two years ago), I was greeted by an Excel spreadsheet: A program outline created by Davon, a 12-year-old adoptee. The document was entitled TSSP, which stood for “The Stay Strong Project,” and it was a proposal for a new mentorship program for Amara adoptees, many of whom were in foster care. Davon’s detailed outline included columns for the “who, what, where, when and why” of his program, and he emphasized a core value of his vision: “Mentors should not be therapists. They are role models who desire to have fun!”

I was inspired by his thoroughness and thoughtfulness, and having spoken to hundreds of adoptees over the years, knew his idea fit within the national conversation adoptees are having, about connecting to fellow adoptees in order to strengthen the adoptee identity.  

The program has been in existence for two years and we are now accepting applications from both youth adoptees and adult adoptees for the 2019 season! Slots are limited. 

"My Mind Was So Loaded, It Nearly Exploded"

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It’s 2:30am on Tuesday morning and Lucretia is doing laundry while humming the tune of The Band Played On, a popular song of 1895.

Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde

And the band played on.

He'd glide 'cross the floor with the girl he adored

And the band played on.

But his mind was so loaded it nearly exploded…

The last line is one she’d repeat often during our time together; a time of overwhelming new information and long-lost connections. Just one week ago, Lucretia learned she has an 89-year-old biological brother who lives in Seattle, Washington. Tomorrow, the siblings will meet for the first time. Indeed, her mind was loaded.

In 1923, Lucretia was left at the Medina Baby Home by her biological parents. 15 months later, she was adopted. Lucretia learned she was adopted from a peer in third grade although her adoptive mother denied this truth - even on her deathbed. Lucretia stayed in touch with Medina (now Amara) over the years as she always wondered about her beginnings. Why was she dropped off at an orphanage? Who were her birth parents? Did she have any siblings?

Having grown up in a closed adoption myself, I understood Lucretia’s anguish in a visceral way. In my role as the Director of Post-Adoption Services at Amara, I decided to enlist further support from Della, a former journalist turned amateur genealogist whose keen investigative skills and historical insight helped me understand important aspects of my biological family story. The most nagging question Lucretia desired to have answered was about her birth mother’s origins: “Some of my paperwork states that she was born in Texas and other documents say Mexico. Can you help me figure out which is true?” I thought Della to be just the person to help complete the puzzle of Lucretia’s life story. With Della’s help, Lucretia completed a DNA test through ancestry.com.

Photo Credit: Della Kostelnik Juarez

Photo Credit: Della Kostelnik Juarez

Three months after Lucretia submitted her DNA, I received a phone call from Della. She had located a previously unknown biological brother of Lucretia’s through finding a match on a census! Charles, an 89-year-old man living out his retirement in Seattle, had answered Della’s phone call and immediately recounted stories from his childhood about his sister named Lucretia, whom he’d never been able to find but always knew existed. Through all of the complex emotions Charles felt, he desired to visit his big sister - and soon. As one may suspect, there is a certain urgency to such things when you’re almost 90 years old and in less-than peak health. Charles bought a ticket to San Francisco for the following week.

Just a week later, I found myself sharing a meal with Lucretia at the Heritage, a retirement community in the Marina district of San Francisco, to support her in meeting her biological brother for the first time. Often, supporting such meetings means wading through complex emotions of grief, guilt, and anxiety – yet Lucretia was remarkably calm, waxing poetic about topics such as how modern technological advances have served to isolate people, measuring this statement against her childhood memories of neighbors helping each other on the farm during the Great Depression. She shared about being pastored by civil rights leader Howard Thurman (a powerful influence on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr) when she attended the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States. The more Lucretia spoke, the more my appreciation and amazement grew.

San Francisco Hills

San Francisco Hills

Throughout our meal, we were frequently interrupted by her friends, residents of the facility, who came up to ask Lucretia, “Have you met your brother yet!?” and “When will he be here!?” She excitedly answered “He’ll be here tomorrow! Oh, and I’d like to introduce you to my new friend, Angela - she was adopted too!” 63 years her junior, I beamed inside at the honor to be considered a friend to someone who had experienced so much in nearly a century of life.

After spending the better part of the day at the Heritage, I returned to my hotel room, changed into jogging clothes, and ran up some of San Francisco’s infamous hills. As I took in the sweeping views of the Marin Headlands, I was overwhelmed by the magnanimity of this woman that I’d come to love.

I kept returning to her unceasing attitude of contentment and gratitude at finally having the opportunity to meet her brother – rather than anger at all the years missed. As my feet pounded the pavement, I realized that tomorrow’s meeting was likely to be unlike any other birth family reunion I’d supported. Due to the fact that both Lucretia and Charles’ adoptive and biological parents are deceased, this affair would not be focused on dynamics between those family members (adoptive and birth) but on helping Lucretia integrate and accept a new narrative about her life. I pondered the thought that neither Lucretia nor Charles may live long enough to make up for time lost as siblings. With my quads burning and the Golden Gate Bridge coming into view, I couldn’t help but hear Lucretia humming The Band Plays On, the last line resonating strong for me: My mind was so loaded it nearly exploded…

Wednesday was Charles and Lucretia’s first meeting. It was a private and sacred affair as they desired to share details about their family without anyone else present. It is my understanding that some of Lucretia’s pressing questions were answered at that time.

L:R Angela, Lucretia, Charles

L:R Angela, Lucretia, Charles

On Thursday, we dined together, which primarily was a silent time of contentedness and delight. Lucretia and Charles stared at each other with gratitude in their eyes, which reminded me of the moment I first looked into my biological sisters’ eyes. I was 26 years old, she was 29 and yet I momentarily saw us as children playing in the yard together in a Cosby show-esque home - I was fantasizing about what could’ve been. I wonder what was going through Lucretia’s mind.

After our lunch, my mind was even more full. I strapped on my running shoes and hit the hills again. With Alcatraz in view and the smells of the Fisherman's Wharf in the air, I felt a certain emotional relief as the barking of sea lions interrupted the soundtrack of my racing thoughts. I couldn’t help but wonder why neither Lucretia nor Charles expressed any anger that they weren’t connected sooner. I wondered if my presence had eased the emotional brunt of this moment enough for their frail bodies to withstand it all. I hoped with all my might that this reunion would remain life-giving and fulfilling for both Charles and Lucretia. In my past experience, a difficult to explain sadness can follow such extreme moments of joy.

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Mostly, I reflected on the enormity of this experience. Lucretia lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s, served as an army nurse during World War II in the 1940s, was a reproductive rights activist during Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, was incarcerated for civil disobedience while protesting nuclear disarmament in the 1980s and lives a remarkably independent life at 95 years old. Yet, she was clear that finding and meeting her biological brother for the first time was unquestionably the pinnacle experience of her life. I was floored by this reminder of the life-long importance of working towards reconnecting, repairing, and restoring connections with family.

Lucretia said it best – and more than once: “I’ve had a lot of beautiful times in my life, but this one tops them all. Who knew miracles were possible at 95 years old?”

With sore calves and a full heart, I have found this experience almost too great to bear. What an honor.

"Project SRC (Search, Reunion and Correspondence)"

I work at a foster-care agency that values courageous leadership. This core value is one reason I chose to accept a position to develop a Post-Adoption department for Amara. It is both outstanding and aggravating that I've already seen this value play out. 

Shortly after I arrived at Amara, I discovered neglected requests for contact between adoptive families, birth families, and adoptees, within case files. I found signed documents requesting information about themselves from their files, letters sent from birthparents to their biological children that were unsent, as well as an adoptee and her birth mother who desired to connect but weren't connected!  While absolutely devastating to discover these errors, historically, this problem is not rare especially for child welfare organizations with a long history like ours. Typical staff turnover and thousands of cases worked on over the almost 100 years that Amara has been in operation has meant that there are files that have been overlooked. Post-adoption file neglect is a likely a nationwide problem within agencies - it is alarming, and injustice and easy to shove under the rug. In fact, I've read numerous reports and heard firsthand stories of agencies that "had a flood" or "experienced a fire" causing them to "lose" all of their files. 

I proposed to our leadership team that we review all files between 1950 and 2000 to ensure that all requests were properly followed up on, to reconcile any errors made, return correspondence (letters, photos, cards) to their rightful owners or intended recipients, or—in some cases—reach out directly to individuals whose cases might be more complicated. In my opinion, the next steps are clear. Information contained within adoption files don’t belong to us (agencies), nor does it belong to the dust that has made its home on the files. They belong to the individuals (adoptees) for whom the information inside pertains. Of course, there are sealed record laws, which prohibit individuals from having access to their file, but we do have the ability to share all non-identifying information without judgement about which info we should share and which we should omit.  Full transparency is in an adoptee's best interest. As is the opportunity to fill holes, complete ones narrative or repair emotional harm that may have been wrought because of neglected files - even if decades have passed. In my perspective, taking collective responsibility for any error(s) or oversights that our agency may have made over the past few decades far outweigh all potential risks. 

The quick response from Amara's Executive Director to move forward with "Project SRC," is evidence of that courageous leadership value that I have admired since joining Amara.

Project SRC is being undertaken with full support of the organization and I'm being supported by a team of hand-selected advisors as we deliver decades old, sometimes very difficult news.

Three cheers for doing the right thing!