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Adam Pertman

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Lessons in Adoption From Harvard, B.J. Lifton, and Oprah

Posted: 02/01/11 10:57 AM ET

I attended two events over the past weekend that, in very different ways, made me think of Oprah Winfrey (who is on the minds of many of us inside and outside the adoption world of late).

On Friday and Saturday, I participated in a national conference at Harvard University that focused on ideas to help the high number of African American children in our country's foster care system. The conference didn't address adoption much, but some speakers talked about the importance of children and youth maintaining biological ties, others touched on identity issues, and yet others broached the impact on parents and siblings of separating children from their families of origin. Those are all big, universal themes that affect tens of millions of Americans to varying degrees at various times of their lives. And, of course, they're all significant concerns within the adoption community.

For a couple of hours in the middle of Saturday, I excused myself from the brain-straining conversation at Harvard to attend to a matter of the heart: I crossed the street in Cambridge to join a packed room of people paying tribute to B.J. Lifton, a spectacular human being and cherished friend whose recent death I still cannot quite believe or accept. It was a powerful, moving memorial service during which speaker after speaker directly addressed one adoption issue after the other, in particular B.J.'s passion for greater openness, honesty and restoring the right of adoptees to access their original birth certificates.

Oprah's name didn't come up at either event, but it was impossible for me, and I'm sure for many others, not to feel her presence. That's because the media superstar's revelations last week -- that her mother had placed a child for adoption nearly 50 years ago, that she had now reunited with her half-sister, that she had herself given birth to a baby when she was 14 -- along with the commanding images and emotional words of all three women, brought myriad adoption issues into the homes of a huge number of Americans to an extent they probably have rarely, if ever, experienced before.

At their core, of course, they were the same issues that resonated at both events I attended over the weekend. What one of the most famous and respected women in the world did was provide televised testimony for some essential truths: that people who create lives never forget them, and deeply grieve their loss; that everyone wants to know from where and from whom they came, regardless of their circumstances; that sibling relationships are innately powerful magnets, rivaling those that draw together parent and child; and perhaps most pointedly and poignantly (and certainly most clichéd), that truth and honesty beat all the alternatives, in adoption as in other aspects of life. Without question, they lead us onto the road to healing, however difficult and complicated the journey might be.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have arrived at a very large, potentially very important teaching moment. I hope and pray that Oprah will view it as one and -- after she takes the time to breathe a bit -- will use her position as a member in good standing of the Extended Family of Adoption to educate the planet about adoption's realities, to help erase the stigmas and negative stereotypes that have undermined far too many people for far too long, and to join those of us committed to ethics-based reforms that will improve the lives of tens of millions of other people who, at least when it comes to these issues, are just like Vernita Lee, Patricia Lloyd and Oprah Winfrey.


I refer to many issues in this commentary; here are some events and resources related to some of them:

* On March 10, 2011, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute (a.k.a. my employer) will hold a unique education-and-entertainment event at the Hard Rock Café in New York featuring hip-hop legend Darryl (DMC) McDaniel. It will focus on equal rights in adoption, on the lessons we can learn from Oprah's story and, specifically, on adult adoptees' access to their original birth certificates. Please attend if you can and spread the word far and wide; for more information, go to www.adoptioninstitute.org and look/click in the upper-right-hand corner of the page. To read my op-ed on adoptee rights on The Huffington Post, go here.

* My upcoming book, Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families - and America, explores all of the issues discussed here, and many more. It will be published in a couple of months and I'll be doing book signings, readings, clubs and other appearances at which I hope to meet some of you out there. Yes, it would be great if Oprah were in the mix somehow! You can order an advance copy on Amazon by clicking here, or stay tuned to my blog, www.adampertman.com, check out my Facebook page, sign up for Twitter alerts, follow or like, or do any of those other techy things that I don't yet understand.

* The Adoption Institute has issued some ground-breaking and some just-plain-important reports on the topics above, along with many others. They include research-based examinations and recommendations on the adoption of children of color from foster care; shaping positive adoptive identity; safeguarding the rights and well-being of birthparents; and, of course, restoring adult adoptees' access to their original birth certificates. To read any or all of our publications, go to: www.adoptioninstitute.org.