We Need a National Adoption Month Unscripted

11/02/2015 12:11 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2016
closeup of a pencil eraser...
closeup of a pencil eraser...

National Adoption Month reminds me of a broken record, playing the same song ad nauseum.

In what has become an all too predictable script, the president this past week again marked the beginning of National Adoption Month by highlighting the pressing need to find homes for the 400,000 children lingering in foster care. Much as he has done for the last few years, he also highlighted the need to overcome barriers that too often prevent children from finding homes, and recognized the "selflessness of adoptive families... for opening their hearts and doors" to young children in need of a family to call their own.

Don't get me wrong. This is a song that deserves substantial air time. As I've written elsewhere, we need to do a lot more to overcome the barriers of racism and homophobia that result in my foster care brothers and sisters lingering for over two years, on average, in the foster care system. In that light, the president's annual proclamation does our country a service by drawing attention to the need to find children homes.

But as an adult adoptee, I think moving beyond the president's traditional script to include more voices and to address a broader array of issues can enrich our perspective and create a more realistic national adoption narrative. It can also help transform the adoption industry into something more conducive to helping foster children and adoptees everywhere.

Finding families for foster children, for example, is a great place to begin our discussions about National Adoption Month. But focusing on this and on thanking adoptive families and adoption professionals, as so often happens in the president's Adoption Month proclamations and elsewhere, paints a false picture suggesting that the adoption experience and needs of adoptees ends once they find families.

The reality is that adoption is a lifelong experience and finding a "forever family" is only the first step to meeting the needs of adoptive children. After finding a family, for example, many adoptees need help to overcome the grief and pain from being separated from their birth families. Many need to work through the stigma that lingers over being adopted. Many are not placed in safe and stable homes. Many also have unique needs particular to their racial and cultural heritages, their sexual orientations, and much, much more. And the needs of adoptees do not suddenly vanish once they reach adulthood.

We do a disservice to the very people the adoption system is supposed to be about--the adoptees--when we gloss over these complex realities of adoption. We compound that disservice when adoptee voices are silenced, when, even during National Adoption Month, we have to fight to have our voices heard.

Just once I'd like to see President Obama mention in his annual Adoption Month proclamation that tens of thousands of adult adoptees have their rights trampled upon each and every day that they are denied fair and equal access to their original birth certificates. Just once I'd like to hear him acknowledge that such records are critical to adoptees' rights to know who they are and where they come from. I'd like to hear him acknowledge how such records can be instrumental to obtaining medical histories, which can impact family planning and give desperately needed information to help treat life threatening diseases.

But even more than that, I'd like to see progress towards real change.

Currently there is no federal law that protects adoptee rights to their original birth certificates, an oversight that effectively relegates adoptees to the rank of second class citizens. The Obama administration could, however, draw upon the national attention given to National Adoption Month to sponsor legislation would help protect adoptee rights across the nation. Such legislation could also help standardize access to birth certificates and help protect adoptee access to records in a manner that is uniform and less confusing than the current system in which access and rights vary state to state.

There is also no law requiring parents inform their children that they were adopted. That means that an incalculable number of U.S. citizens may never know the truth about their being adopted. They may be forever cut off from connecting with their true ancestries, even from knowing medical risks they face. Having accidentally discovered as an adult that I was adopted, I can tell you that leaving such revelations to chance is not the best way to protect children's rights.

Thankfully this, too, is a problem that can be fixed. President Obama can direct his administration to introduce legislation mandating that parents inform children of their adoption status while they are still children. Some might think this would intrude on the rights of parents, that it would mean the government interfering in the raising of our nation's children. These are arguments worthy of debate.

But in having that debate, let's remember one thing: this is about the adoptees, and their needs and rights have to come first. Everyone has a fundamental right to know they were adopted, to know who and what they are. No one should ever have to discover, as an adult, that their whole lives have been a lie.

These are just some of the many ways we need to #FlipTheScript on National Adoption Month. We need to enable more adoptees to have their voices heard, to talk about more issues facing the adoption community, and to challenge our nation's prevailing adoption narrative. In short, the president has been singing a good song, but it's time for a new melody with new lyrics. Otherwise, as inevitably happens to any song after it's been played out, audiences will simply change the station and nothing will ever change.

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DaShanne Stokes is a late discovery adoptee, author, speaker, and commentator known for his work on civil rights and social justice. He recently completed a memoir about his experiences.