The Class Politics of Adoption 

 


If we are to treat child adoption like a ‘market’ with its own supply and demand, most prospective adoptive parents are white who prefer to adopt healthy white infants, but most babies available for adoption in America are not white. Since Russia and the Ukraine have banned parents from the United States from adopting their children, healthy white babies are even harder to come by. The reasons why white parents wanting to adopt white babies may seem obvious from the perspectives of race but many studies have shown it is better for children if they are adopted by at least one parent who are of the same race. Race should not be the only deciding factor but it should be considered. Anecdotal stories of black children being raised and socialized as white people by their white adoptive parents presents issues which can be hard to overcome as they grow up.

The supply and demand issue of healthy white babies brings us back to domestic adoptions in the United States. The best demographic for healthy white babies are the babies of white teenage mothers, especially poor teenage mothers whose families will have trouble caring for the baby without assistance from the state. The logic goes, if the child is going to be on welfare until it reaches 18, why not have them be adopted by a family who can care for them. They can finish high school, get a degree, get married or at least meet a more suitable man and then start a family when they are older. Also, teenage mothers in general, regardless of social class, aren’t usually the most reliable or best parents. It doesn’t mean all teenagers make bad parents, but generally speaking, they have a lot of growing up to do themselves before they are able to take care of another person. And without exception, most of these teen mothers do not ride off into the sunset with the boy who got them pregnant, though a lot of them try and put in a valiant effort in maintaining a two parent family unit. A lot of fathers slowly disappear overtime, feeling overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, some don’t even bother to try to be a father, some fathers are pushed out of the picture due to anger by the mother’s family. And as for child support, you can forget about it. The few fathers that stick around are usually supported by their families. The life of a poor teenage mother is bleak, lonely and overwhelming. And the biggest lesson is love doesn’t conquer all. It is one hurdle after another, where the mother, who is still a child herself struggle to overcome. Love is the most important thing in raising a child, but love alone without the adequate support system and maturity is usually not enough.

This then begs the next question, and a sensitive one with political and social class implications. Who gets to be a mother? Just because you can biologically but should you? Is there someone out there more qualified than you to be a mother because they are older, have more resources, stable income and emotional maturity, the ‘everything else’ on top of love that is required for parenting. They also have the desire and love to start a family. Most adoptive couples in the US go the adoption route when they’ve exhausted all options of having biological children of their own. Is it moral or ethical to coax and emotionally manipulate a vulnerable and overwhelmed teenage girl to give up her child and her reward is resuming her old carefree teenage life?  With some private adoptions the mother’s living and medical expenses including maternity care and delivery are fully paid for by the prospective adoptive parents for the duration of her pregnancy. Though no direct cash is given to the pregnant teenage mother, isn’t this another way of ‘buying’ a baby? And as for returning to her old life; it’s ridiculous, no one, after delivering a baby, regardless what happens to that baby, is she ever the same. Most girls will never return to their ‘old lives’ as they were before they became pregnant regardless if they’ve kept their baby or not. Even if they gave the baby up for adoption, they are never the same. There is no ‘returning’ to an old life after having a baby. Their lives separate into before baby and after baby.

To address the shortage of healthy white infants available for adoption and the many prospective adoptive parents waiting for a baby, social workers have begun to zero in on poor white teenage mothers; especially those with intellectual challenges.


 

Should people with intellectual challenges be allowed to be a mother or father children? They perhaps can but should they? Since it’s illegal for the government to sterilize people with diminished mental capacities on the grounds that it’s inhumane to deprive someone the basic right to reproduce, but the question still remains, should people with diminished capabilities have children? Not just for the fear of passing on the same intellectual vulnerabilities, but parenting while you have all of your faculties is hard enough, can someone who has challenges navigating day to day life on a cognitive and intellectual level cope with all that is involved with parenting? It’s back at the same argument, if you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of a child? What is the ‘standard’ in which we deem people mentally fit and capable enough to take on the rigors of parenting? Whose and which standards are we using? Are there any biases in those standards? Are those standards even reasonable? Is anyone really fit to parent at the time they have their baby, regardless of her intellectual or physical challenges? Conventional wisdom and most first time mothers all say they were scared shitless when they bring their first baby home from the hospital. The thought of keeping a tiny vulnerable human being alive on your own, when you’ve never done it before is scary for anyone. The pediatrician’s phone number is kept on speed dial.

Just like the urge to have one’s sexual needs met, the urge to love and protect one’s child is equal if not stronger. Taking a child from its mother is one of most cruel things to do to someone and it shouldn’t be done unless there is a pressing emergency to do so. To remove a child from its mother and family is a serious thing and for the most part, the policies of social services now have focused on family reunification as opposed to permanently removing the child from the home. Studies have also shown regardless of the social class and the situation of the family, it’s always better for a child to remain with one of their family members if they can’t live with the parents than to be in foster care or be adopted.

Massive, longitudinal studies have recently shown that kids, especially older ones, do better over the long term (less likely to wind up pregnant as teenagers, to be addicted to drugs, to land in prison) living with their own kin, even if those families are broken, chaotic, or neglectful. In the best of all possible worlds, “substitute care,” as the state euphemistically calls it, functions as a time-out in a family’s life, a chance for parents to reorganize so their kids can safely come home. – Lisa Miller

Family dysfunction and abuse knows no boundaries, the poor are not any more or less likely to abuse their children than the rich. The poor are simply more exposed than the rich. The poor do not have the money to hire fancy lawyers or the connections to shield their crimes and dysfunction from the authorities like the rich can. While poverty can exacerbate addiction, domestic abuse and general family instability, poverty itself doesn’t cause domestic abuse or family dysfunction.


 

The article ‘Who Knows Best’ for New York Magazine about such a case is about Sara Gordon, a 19 year old teenage mother, who has an IQ about 70, whose baby was taken away from her days after birth because the medical staff at the hospital were concerned about how she was (or wasn’t) properly caring for her baby. Her baby was taken against her will and she was ready to do anything to get her baby daughter Dana June Gordon back. This drew the attention of many people including the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services. This family was prepared to do everything right to prove that they deserved to keep Dana June Gordon but social services at every turn tried to find fault and undermine Sara Gordon and instead of trying to help her parent her little girl. They stood by to watch her fail and then declared she wasn’t fit to parent.  The fact that they had an older Mennonite Christian couple foster the baby with the intent to adopt her while she was getting her parental rights restored was not lost on Sara or her parents. It was very clear to all the observers including the journalist reporting, this is a healthy white baby with a mother who has a diminished intellectual capacity. They were poor, they do not have the resources to fight this, little Dana June Gordon is the perfect baby to legally snatch from her mother, under the guise of doing ‘what’s best for the baby’. For this report, Lisa Miller tried to represent all sides fairly, she tried her best to not editorialize though it’s a very emotional subject and hard to not inject your own feelings about this.

Sara Gordon was single, white and poor when she found herself pregnant. She had sex with a man whom she described as “that low-life scumbag”. There was no relationship, just “sex and a pregnancy.” This same man also had another baby with another woman and he relinquished his parental rights immediately. With Sara Gordon’s pregnancy, he denied paternity altogether. As soon as her parents found out she was pregnant, they immediately made plans to care for this baby. Her mother, Kim Gordon knew that social services will be all over them so she worked out a plan with her husband where she would quit her job at the local hospital when the baby is born and her husband will try to support them all with his job at the local junkyard. The implication is whatever financial shortfall there is they will request state assistance. They live in the state of Massachusetts where universal health insurance for everyone was enacted long before Obamacare was passed and their social welfare and anti-poverty programs are more robust than other states. This was not a family in denial of their limitations, financial and otherwise. This baby was unplanned, but they will move forward and take care of this baby the best they knew how. Kim Gordon is very familiar with her daughter’s disability and has cared for her since she was born and she was willing to take on her grandchild too.

As for Sara Gordon herself, she was giddy to be a mother in a childish way. She clearly had no clue what it entailed or what it meant. She loved Winnie-the-Pooh growing up and all of her baby’s clothes and blankets are Winnie-the-Pooh themed. She looked forward to the birth of her baby knowing she has the full support of her parents. She wrongly believed that it will all go well.

It is also worthy to point out, social workers have to do an impossible job. When facts aren’t black and white as most cases aren’t, they must make a decision based on their experience, judgement and sometimes their intuition or what their gut tells them. For every social worker who overreacts and improperly removes a child from its family, there are scores of others who are doing the right thing by the children they are tasked to serve and protect. Social workers tend to be blamed for everything when something terrible happens to a child. Why wasn’t the child removed from the home sooner if it was seriously harmed by its parents. If the child gets abused at a foster home and it turns out their parents were innocent of the allegations against them, then social services are blamed for overreacting and if it involves a minority family, whispers of racism and discrimination are alleged.

For this case, it’s important to point out exactly what Sara Gordon’s intellectual limitations for they are at the crux of the case social services had against her. Sara has an IQ about 70, which is the only quantifiable measurement in this whole case. She can read, but has difficulty doing so “and prefers not to do it” if she didn’t have to. She missed a feeding at the hospital because she can’t tell time on a clock as she prefers digital clocks. While she successfully filled out the birth certificate and social security number request forms, when the nurses handed her a checklist of things to while caring for her baby, it was too much for her. She was observed to be “checked out, watching cartoons, according to a DCF account, while the baby cried.” The hospital was also concerned that Sara “was not able to comprehend how to handle or care for the child due to the mother’s mental retardation,” A social worker called Scott Henderson came to observe Sara with her baby at the hospital and according to his observation Sara was too slow and too awkward in caring for her baby. She swaddled her baby incorrectly, forgot to burp her after one feeding and took a really long time to change a diaper.

Sara’s mother Kim Gordon feels they were judged the minute they walked into the hospital,

Sara Gordon is not like most of the young women who give birth at this small-town hospital. She takes little care of her appearance, preferring large, baggy T-shirts with wiseacre slogans (“I’ve stopped listening. Why haven’t you stopped talking?”) over clothing that might flatter her more. Her speech is flat, her enunciation imprecise, and she has a hard time paying attention in groups because too much chatter whizzes past her brain.

In short, she was judged for her attire, her intelligence (or lack of) which is associated with her social class, her single status and her youth, or in a word ‘white-trash’. What business does she have bringing another human being into this world? How on earth is she going to care for the baby? It’s not reported if the hospital staff knew of her intellectual challenges prior to her being admitted to hospital.

In any event, DCF decided that Sara Gordon couldn’t go home with her baby. She needed to take parenting classes to prove that she was fit to to care for her baby.

[T]he state articulates a set of tasks and goals, called a “service plan,” that the parent must meet to ameliorate the agency’s concerns and achieve family “reunification.” A drug user might need to enter rehab; a batterer might have to go to anger-management sessions.

However, with the case of Sara Gordon, DCF didn’t seek to ameliorate the state’s concern against her abilities of being a mother, they wanted her to fail so someone else can adopt her baby, a healthy white baby. A prized baby such as Dana June Gordon should not be left in the care of some like Sara Gordon.

Sara, though intellectually challenged was very aware of the fact that she had better do everything DCF wanted her to do if she wanted her baby back and she did. She went above and beyond the checklist which was given to her by DCF.

She attended individual therapy and parenting classes and practiced diapering on baby dolls. She stayed in school. On her own initiative, she took and passed a CPR course.


 

For the next two years she was allowed supervised visits with her baby. It started out as one hour per week to slowly dwindling to just twice a month. Finally she was told that it was DCF’s recommendation that her baby should be adopted by her foster parents, a Mennonite Christian couple, whose religious beliefs the Gordon family found too restrictive and were not consistent with their own beliefs and what they wanted for baby Dana June Gordon. A touchy subject was how baby Dana was being dressed, usually in long uncomfortable restrictive Mennonite clothing by her foster parents. At every visit, Sara made a point to change out of the clothes her foster parents provided and put her baby in the Winnie-the-Pooh themed clothes she bought. The Gordons, and especially Sara, felt her child was slowly being taken away from her right under her nose and there’s not a damn thing she could do about it.

Nothing Sara did was good enough or right for social services, at times DCF sent male social workers to supervise her while she’s taking care of her daughter, and when the male social workers demonstrated that he could change a diaper, swaddle her baby, dress her baby, clean her baby better than she, a woman, the baby’s mother, this was used as proof that she is unfit.

Even after months of supervised visits between Sara and her baby, social workers still observed that Sara was awkward with her baby, slow to respond to her baby’s cries and cues, at times walking away from her baby when she was crying and took an inordinate amount of time to do tasks such as diaper changing, getting a bottle ready and just general care. She was also clumsy and uncoordinated.

It must not have occurred to social services that all first time mothers are clumsy for the first few months, regardless of her intellectual capacity. How intelligent a mother is prior to having her baby is of absolutely no use during those first few months. It wouldn’t have mattered if she was a nuclear physicist. Since Sara only gets to see her daughter for one hour a week, there is no way for her to practice these practical skills of parenting which can only be mastered by repetition.

That Sara’s mother Kim Gordon was proactive and made arrangements to care for the baby before the baby was born, DCF instead of seeing this as a good thing, which most logical people will conclude, they used it against her. This action by Kim Gordon proves that she knew her daughter couldn’t handle the task of being a mother. When Sara Gordon requested more time or more instructions to learn to do something better, instead of being applauded for her willingness to learn and ask for help, she was written up as unfit.

Sara speaks especially bitterly about her first social worker, who would stand aside and watch as she tried to feed, soothe, and diaper Dana during visits, timing her and taking notes on her phone but offering no encouragement. “I needed more time. I can’t learn in five minutes. It just doesn’t fit in my book,” she tells me.

Besides the issue of Sara’s intellectual limitations, there was also the issue of her parents, Sam and Kim Gordon. Many years before, when Sara was 4 years old, the Gordons came under the attention of DCF because of Sam Gordon’s issues with alcohol. He was ordered to go to rehab and Sara and her siblings were put in foster care for 9 months. The family was ultimately reunified and Sam Gordon has maintained his sobriety until now. This was 18 years ago. There were also accusations that Sara had been sexually abused by her father, to which everyone was adamant this didn’t happen. The state’s forensic team could not find any evidence proving Sara was sexually abused. The intervention by DCF ultimately was a positive one for the Gordon family, even Sara admits as much, she said it got her father sober and made him a better person.

For all of Sara’s challenges, lack of awareness of her own deficiencies was not one of them. She fully understands where she needs help and is not embarrassed to ask for help when she needs it. Sara, like many children with intellectual disabilities, was subjected to cruel “retard” jokes at school, but Sara is tough, she got through all that and she doesn’t care. She will ask for help when she needs it. Call her what you want, she will fight for everything in this life, including the right to parent her daughter. This is an extraordinary strength of character and source of pride for her family.


 

When baby Dana’s status changed from temporary fostering to adoption, Sara Gordon charged into action. She filed a discrimination suit in the spring of 2014 on the account of her diminished intellectual capacities against DCF and the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services got involved. She also wrote emails (with the assistance of her mother) to anyone and everyone with influence and told them her baby is being stolen from her by DCF.

(The foster parents in this case Jenny and Daniel Fox, by all accounts were good foster parents. They adopted two boys as Jenny Fox wasn’t able to have children of her own. Their two boys were nearly grown and they desperately wanted to adopt another little girl. While they loved baby Dana and would love to keep her permanently, it doesn’t appear they were complicit with DCF in actively trying to remove baby Dana from her biological family.)

Lisa Miller also touched on the issue of what makes a mother. Is it biological connection or connection of the soul between adoptive parents and child? It’s related to the previous point of how much intellectual capacity does one need to be a competent parent. According to the Jenny, being a mother entails:

“[being] a solo operator, a keeper of details, the family’s representative to the world, a resource for her children during squabbles with friends and struggles at school. Jenny cooks and cleans and shops and remembers scheduled doctor’s appointments, ferrying the kids back and forth to church and school. She knows shoe sizes and emergency phone numbers and the names of teachers and favorite foods, and when she disciplines her children, she speaks to them quietly, gently, almost in a whisper.”

For Sara Gordon, blood ties, kinship, biological connections, blood relations is paramount in what defines a mother. She thought of her baby Dana as a “mini-me” and she resembled her mother when her mother was at the same age.

It’s interesting how Lisa Miller points this out. They seem to represent different world views on what makes a family, specifically what makes a mother. The Foxes value competence over blood ties, which is understandable as Jenny Fox is unable to have children. To Jenny, besides that fierce maternal love you have for a child, which most biological mothers will have in abundance without being prompted, you also need to be able to fulfill a list of requirements before you can consider yourself a mother. And that list reads like June Cleaver’s to do list. By judging Lisa Miller’s description of Jenny Fox’s parenting style, she embodies the quintessential ideals of what a mother should be.

The Gordons value blood ties before anything. One doesn’t need to be perfectly organized in order to be considered a good mother. That love which comes with biological and blood ties will compensate for other shortcomings, provided that those shortcomings are not detrimental to the child. It’s a ‘love conquers all’ attitude, where children should remain with their biological family as much as possible.

The view of the Foxes (which is also consistent the view of DCF) is one that is adopted by middle and upper class families. Families with means and resources. The view of the Gordons is one that is adopted by working class and underprivileged families. Blood ties are everything. Family ties are everything. Your kin is everything. No one should come between blood ties and kin, even if the family is less than ideal. To take away a child from a poor family is akin to taking from them what little they have, which is each other.

These two different worldviews is clearly a clash of social-class values.


 

Just how smart do you have to be to be a competent and fit mother? If we are to start down this slippery path, there are plenty of mothers of exceptional intelligence who are sadistic, monstrous and neglectful. Unfit doesn’t even begin to describe them. Their intelligence has got nothing to do with how they are able to parent. Having cognitive deficiencies and not being to navigate certain daily tasks does pose a threat to a child, but what if that person has support? Such as the case of Sara, her mother dropped everything to help her. Doesn’t that count for something? Not if you are poor it doesn’t.

If healthy 15 and 16 year girls, who can’t vote, can barely drive and can’t even hold a job in some states can keep their baby, with or without the support of their parents; why can’t a 19 year old mother with intellectual deficiencies but who has the support of both of her parents keep hers? Yes, Sara gets confused easily, frustrates easily, can’t tell time on a clock, reading and writing ability is stuck at elementary school level, has trouble coordinating and scheduling but she has a mother who is physically and mentally able and willing to step in and help. And it’s not like Sara can’t do any of the things required to parent her baby, she just needs someone by her side to guide her. If women who have been to prison and still can get custody of their children back after her prison sentence, if drug addicts can regain custody after becoming sober, what is the reason why Sara can’t keep her baby?

If any social worker made a random check on any given day to someone’s home. They are not responding to any particular allegation, but just for the sake of argument, a social worker lands on your front door step one day, what will they likely find? An orderly house where everything is in its place and the children are quietly and contently eating their breakfast? There are no toys or books on the ground? The laundry is in its proper place? And mom is enjoying her cup of coffee whilst her children are eating their breakfast like something from a Norman Rockwell painting? Any household with small children by default can become disorderly and chaotic. On most days parents have found a way to cope with that disorder and the din that comes with family life. But everyone has bad days where one more complaint about how the cereal is too soggy can send mommy into a breakdown. Parents, even the most competent parents are human. We are not made to withstand the litany of chores that is required in child rearing on a daily basis without a breaking point. What if the social worker walked in on a bad day and they see me being short tempered with my children on what may seem like a trivial matter, does that make me an unfit parent based on one incident? Will they think if someone loses their shit on spilt cereal what else will she lose her shit on?


 

The conclusion of this saga ended in January of 2015:

DOJ and HHS issued a letter finding the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families had committed “extensive, ongoing violations” of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the case of Sara Gordon. “DCF acted based on Ms. Gordon’s disability as well as on DCF’s discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes about her disability,” it said. The letter said nothing about adequate parents or optimal outcomes or a 2-year-old’s best interests. It merely said that in its dealings with Sara Gordon, DCF made assumptions about Sara’s ability, that it did not take into account her strong support network, and that it consistently failed to accommodate her disability to help her live as much as possible like everyone else.

By March of 2015, Dana June Gordon was reunited with Sara and her parents. Parenting is still challenging for Sara as is expected for someone with her disabilities. She still has childlike fantasies about what it’s like to parent. Sara’s parents Sam and Kim Gordon was granted guardianship of Dana June Gordon. This way Sara can still maintain a strong presence in her baby’s life and the safety and wellbeing of baby Dana can be secured. For baby Dana’s third birthday, the first birthday the Gordons got to celebrate with her; Sara wanted to do a blowout style birthday party with Winnie-the-Pooh theme. The Gordons can ill afford it, her parents know that but Sara still believes she can make her daughter’s first birthday with them special.

This story reached its natural and happy conclusion, but how many other unwitting, poor young mothers had their babies taken away from them for no just cause. Their babies were taken away on the account that they are poor and single. It’s an extra bonus if their babies are healthy and white. While adopting children whose parents are not able to care for them is a wonderful thing, when social workers have to go about sourcing babies who meet a specific criteria to meet the adoptive parents’ demands and when those adoptive parents have cash in hand to make this transaction go smoother, it crosses a serious moral and ethical line.

It’s one thing when a teenage mother (or any mother) willingly gives up her baby for adoption because she is unable to care for it, but when vulnerable young mothers who are poor are convinced or talked into giving up their babies because they are doing the ‘right’ thing for the baby, and she’s made to believe, against her wishes, that this is the only choice for her baby, it’s tantamount to baby snatching. Accidental pregnancies happen everyday to women, during the initial stages, she may be confused or scared. But when she comes to and decides what she wants to do with her baby, whether to have a termination, to parent or place for adoption, these are choices she has arrived based on her maternal instinct. Just because a girl is very young or very poor (or both) doesn’t mean she’ll just hand over her baby to someone else who can care for it better. What’s more abhorrent is social services (private and state) deliberately go after people who are poor and know they don’t have the resources to fight this. They think if they put enough road blocks for the young mother, she’ll eventually rollover and capitulate.

Sara Gordon herself and her parents knew, if they were rich, social services wouldn’t dare do this to them. Sara, her mother Kim and her baby Dana each had appointed lawyers paid for by social services to represent their interests. Kim Gordon’s attorney Kalley Walsh felt the way social services is being run is “among the human-rights outrages of our time — “the new innocence project,” – a legal field where attorneys represent clients who’ve been wronged by the criminal justice system to help defendants redress justice, except this time it’s directed at social services.

Adoption is a wonderful thing. Adoption should be encouraged, it should be consensual between birth mothers and adoptive parents and not at the expense taking poor children away from their families.

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