One of my major "if I could change the world" issues is adoption. Well, not adoption, but the stigma that adoption creates in our society. There is absolutely, without a doubt still a significant stigma for biological parents who choose adoption. I hear it all the time. "How could you give your child up?" and "I could never do that. I could never give my child away." The social workers, Judges and posters might say all the right things about making the choice to give the child a better life and how that is true love (a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with by the way), but our society most definitely does not send that message as a whole. After five years of working with teen parents and then in dependency, I am convinced there are communities in which abortion is more socially acceptable than adoption. Really. And how can we let that be?
I do think the stigma has decreased a great deal for the child, and I don't think I've ever met anyone who thought less of a child or didn't fully include the child in a family because he or she was adopted. (And I've met alot of families created by adoption in my work.) But, I am very clear that this stigma still harms the child. As they reach an age where they are aware of the significance of adoption, many kids begin to struggle with the idea. They ask "why didn't my Mom want me?" or "How could she just give me up?" Not every kid asks these questions, but most do. And I'm not talking about the teenage angst where you look for any reason to have drama in your life. Honest questions and honest pain. They all seem to come out the other side of it fully intact, but they are hurt by the idea. And why? Because we, as a society, have told them that their biological parent did something unthinkable and "gave them up." It is eventually outweighed by the adoptive family and the caring people who tell them that their parent wasn't able to give them what they needed, so they decided to let them be raised by a family that could. But, that's what we should be telling them every day with all of our words and attitudes, not just when confronted head on with the situation and their pain.
And even the people who have chosen to work for the disenfranchised for no benefit other than the satisfaction of doing the right thing, the people who say all those "right things" to the biological family when faced with it, even they contribute to the social stigma without being aware of it. Don't get me wrong. They believe in adoption, and they believe it is an amazing and beautiful gift. Its our language that does us in. My colleague, who does not practice children's law, called me the other week for referrals to give a client who happens to be a teen parent kicked out of the house by her mother. I asked her a couple of days ago whether her client had any luck at the places I suggested. She says "Well. She's decided she's just going to give the baby away. She said she would give the baby to her Mom, but when her Mom wouldn't do that she decided to give the baby up for adoption and asked me to help. I told her I wasn't going to do anything until she talked to BETA."
Now mind you, the content of her reaction is right. The teen Mom is staying with friends, caring for a two month old, has no money, and is generally overwhelmed and scared. Telling her to call BETA, a full service social service center for teen parents and poor families that will help her look at her options, is right. Pushing her to do it and refusing to talk about how to do anything else until she does is right. (Or at least in my opinion all of that is right.) If she's going to decide not to raise the child herself, she should decide that while the baby is still an infant. But, she needs to get the counseling and information to make that decision with full knowledge of what her choices are. None of that is wrong, but I couldn't help but think "How is this poor girl going to make a right decision when everyone is using the term 'give up'? Even the way my colleague described the girl's choices made me feel that something was wrong with this.
This is a colleague I can speak freely with, so I said just that. That I agreed with her, but I cringed at the phrases "giving away" and "giving up." She could hear it when I said it, and while she hadn't thought about how much stigma was still associated with adoption (not being so immersed in that world) she agreed with me. And in talking about it, I realized I couldn't think of a positive word associated with what a biological parent does in the adoption. The colloquialism is "give up" and the legal word is "surrender." We do use "place" sometimes, though usually the State or adoption agency is the one placing, not the biological parent. But place didn't really seem positive either, that seemed to imply a disregard for the fact that this was a human, not a knick knack. On rare occasions, I have heard the term "free the child for adoption" used, and while that's better it still doesn't feel positive to me. It brings for me images of slavery or imprisonment.
So, my colleague and I (and another poor colleague who wandered in and got caught in our quasi-philosophical discussion) decided that we are going to change our language around adoption. We are going to use the word 'release', at least until we come up with something better. It still has some of those same connotations that 'free' has, but it didn't seem to have so many to us. "Release" made us think of butterflies or birds or animals released back in to the wild. It made us think of letting our children go out in to the world to find their way or letting a sick loved one go to find their way from a painful life to heaven or peace. Sometimes you have to let go to let the people (animals) you love find a better way, or their own way. And all of that seems to apply here. Biological parents release the child for adoption, so that the children can have more than they would have had with them. For me, at least, it's a positive word.
And maybe, just maybe, if my colleagues and I start being more thoughtful and positive about our language around adoption, someone else will hear and be more thoughtful about their language. And maybe, one person at a time, the stigma will be broken down. And then more children can be released, rather than raised in homes that aren't truly able to raise them. And the ones that aren't won't suffer for knowing it. And the biological parents will be recognized for giving a gift - the gift of a better life to the child, the gift of a fully functioning citizen to society. It can happen, if we are conscious in our words and attitudes.