Other children’s advocates, however, point out that whatever the cause, neglect can be deeply damaging to children. Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the children’s advocacy program at Harvard Law School, agrees that “if we eradicated poverty in this country, this would be the best program to prevent abuse and neglect.” But protecting the well-being of children, she says, must take precedence over parental rights.
In some cases, a judge will decide that a biological parent is a danger to a child and will prohibit the parent from making contact. But there are many possibilities for a birth parent to reconnect with an unsupervised child. The internet, along with widely available genetic testing, has dismantled the possibility of truly closed adoption. “Judges’ restrictions mean nothing if a child can search for its biological mother without [adoptive] parents know, ”says Pertman, now at the National Center of Adoption Permanency. “But that doesn’t mean that an 11-year-old should form relationships with people they don’t know without their parents knowing.”
Martin Guggenheim, a parenting advocate and professor at NYU Law School who believes many moves are unfair, is not surprised that birth parents and loved ones are trying to reunite through the web. When he saw the America’s Taken Facebook page he said to me, “When you think about it, how can you not create this website?”
Other online groups have emerged where there are gaps in the adoption process. Adoption disruption groups on Facebook, where adopted children are “resettled”, have arisen at least in part because there is little post-adoption support and follow-up; some families know next to nothing about the problems their adopted children face or how to cope with their medical or behavioral problems. In private adoptions, the lawyer who represents a birth mother is often paid by the birth family, and some adoption agencies fund flashy public relations campaigns that paint the experience in sunny tones. There are no major organizations that share potential disadvantages with birth mothers or help them claim their rights.
Renee Gelin has started an organization and a Facebook group that plays this role by providing crowdsourcing assistance and advice that birth mothers might not have access to. As a single mother, Gelin abandoned her second child for adoption 10 years ago because she was under overwhelming financial pressure at the time. Her work as a computer contractor offered no maternity leave and her health insurance did not cover her high-risk pregnancy. She was overpaid to qualify for Medicaid.
Just weeks before the birth of his son, Gelin agreed to place him with a family in another state. As soon as he was on the plane, she regretted the choice. Although she arranged an open adoption for her son, she says the adoptive family ended the relationship when they found critical blog posts she had written expressing grief about the process. Gelin felt that she had failed to understand that open adoptions exist at the discretion of the adoptive family. In fact, they are not legally enforceable in all states, and where they are enforceable, the cost of legal counsel can be prohibitive for a birth mother.
Gelin’s organization, called Saving Our Sisters, tries to persuade birth mothers that financial strains shouldn’t stop them from babysitting their children. When a woman with doubts comes to SOS online, the group tries to find a “sister on the floor” nearby to bring her diapers, a month’s rent, or a baby swing. Gelin says SOS has had around 90 “backups” – of ongoing adoptions the group has helped reverse – over the past six years. Gelin transferred the blog about his adopted son to a public Facebook page years ago and still posts letters and updates to him, often signed “mom.”
The woman who Pfeiffer’s adopted grandson once gave him a framed image of the boy’s handprint. Pfeiffer took the handprint, painted it red, and made it into the bloody America’s Taken logo. She printed t-shirts and signs and stood outside Guthrie Family Court in front of her truck, which had a decal that read “My grandson is a victim of forced adoption in Logan County. “. She handed out pamphlets and told her side of the story to anyone who wanted to listen. At the time, his message did not extend much beyond the steps of the Guthrie courthouse.