National Adoption Awareness Month: Hearing Voices of Loss

Every November since 1984, the media features stories about adoption to mark National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) and National Adoption Day.
11/10/2014 10:33 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Every November since 1984, the media features stories about adoption to mark National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) and National Adoption Day.

Many whose lives have been permanently changed by adoption have mixed feelings (at best) about the month's glorification and promotion of adoption. Adoptees and their parents are becoming increasingly vocal and seek to focus awareness on the challenges of adoption that many struggle with personally and politically in order to mitigate as much future pain as possible.

The initial intent of NAAM was to draw attention to the one-hundred thousand or so children in state foster care whose parents have had their rights terminated and who have no extended family to care for them. Such children could benefit from more permanent care than high-risk, temporary foster care.

This is a noble goal. However, the current adoption industrial complex has co-opted National Adoption Awareness Month into the mass marketing that promotes and encourages all forms of adoption as if they were all equal, when international and infant adoptions do nothing to assist children in state care. The well-intentioned goals of NAAM are lost in the media frenzy in the same way the religious meaning of Christmas is overshadowed by commercialism. Christmas has become a shopping competition that starts earlier each year and, likewise, adoption has become an entrepreneurial endeavor that focuses on procuring infants and children from around the globe to meet the market demand, irrespective of the needs of American children in care.

The same is true of the federal adoption tax credit legislation, enacted in 1996 to encourage the adoption of special needs children from foster care. The vast majority of these tax dollars support adoption from overseas, and the adoption of infants, as opposed to those the credit was intended to help. In 2004, only 17 percent of taxpayers claiming the credit adopted children from the U.S. foster care system. In 2005, nearly 90 percent of adoption tax credits above $100,000 supported adoptions that were not from foster care.

The positive images and rhetoric of NAAM and the adoption tax credit use foster kids as the hook without distinguishing foster care adoption from the other types of adoption, as if all served an equal social good.

Adoptees and Birthparents

The celebration and promotion of adoption, which reaches its annual fever pitch during November, is not without its controversy and criticism. Some adoptees and their parents find it offensive, while others find it hurtful and insensitive to their loss.

"National Adoption Month is a month dedicated to a wholesale celebration of a complex institution that embodies both joy and sorrow for all those connected to it," says Amanda Woolston. An author and psychotherapist with a master's degree in social work, Woolston founded Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights and Lost Daughters and is best known for her internationally-recognized, award-winning adoption blog, The Declassified Adoptee. She says of NAAM:

"While various organizations use this month to celebrate and market their services, adoption's true need of critical discussion, post-adoption services, and recognition of those whom this institution has brought loss is pushed further down on the priority list. Only those who can celebrate are openly invited to be visible and participate in the public face of adoption this month. Those who have been harmed by backwards societal thinking about adoption, those who call out adoption's issues with racism, sexism, disablism, and classism, those struggling with adoption's archaic policies, they are told they do not matter. It's time to flip that script."

Woolston is one of the adoptees who articulate what NAAM means to them in the video, Adoptees "Flip the Script" on National Adoption Month.

Some whose lives have been permanently changed by adoption resent celebrating a process that sanctions lies and inequality, denying adopted persons access to their own birth certificates. Cathi Swett, a reunited adoptee and attorney, is founder and downstate coordinator of New York State Adoptee Equality. Swett says that promoting adoption, as is the goal of National Adoption Month, is "like promoting divorce. Children need caretaking... No [one] needs to have the State declare them a legal stranger to all their kin and falsify their birth records forever. The children and grand-children of adoptees cannot do genealogy. There is no reason for this. "

Lee Campbell, a professor of social science, is founder of Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), a national nonprofit that serves all those touched by, and concerned about, adoption. CUB provides support and resources for birth parents and advocates for family preservation. Happily reunited with her son for 36 years, Campbell still finds National Adoption Month painful. She aches for mothers who live in one of the majority of states in which "they still cannot know the fate of children who were harvested from them" at a time when unmarried mothers were shamed and scorned. Today, many mothers, says Campbell, "believe they are placing their babies in 'open' adoptions" only to become "victims of an ultimate betrayal of trust. And, for that, they have no redress or even acknowledgement...

"It's not just a domestic situation either....The American adoption industry has tentacles that rake across the globe, upending vulnerable families everywhere. In truth, until the spotlight expands to include birthparents of all ages and places, only those who benefit from our loss can bask in this month's blindingly bright focus on adoption."

Adoption joy is the result of tragedy, not unlike organ donation. In both cases, the tragedies are often preventable. While we encourage the latter, we do so with great respect and dignity. Organ donation is carefully regulated to protect against exploitation, not commercialized or hyped as a "win-win," as adoption is often portrayed. It's reprehensible to imagine funeral directors, monument, or cemetery salesman plying their wares in a hospital as adoption agencies and baby brokers do. Ironically, we maintain sanctity for life-saving, non-sentient tissues, but not for human beings that are coveted, but not needed, and who grow into autonomous adults with kinships and needs of their own.

We need to hear the voices of those that adoption was intended to serve and keep the focus of National Adoption Awareness Month on foster care while increasing awareness and sensitivity of, and working to decrease, the unfortunate familial separations that precede adoption placements.