At 17, Minka Disbrow placed Ruth Lee in an adoptive home. For 77 years thereafter, she thought about her daughter and wondered where she was and who she had become.
Meanwhile, Ruth was raised knowing she was adopted, but never thought of searching for her birth family. That is, until she developed heart problems in her seventies and her doctors asked for medical records. Soon thereafter, Ruth’s son petitioned a court to open her adoption records and the mother and daughter reunited. The connection between the two women was instant and they have since visited each other regularly and gotten to know each others families. The whole story is available here.
While the story may have limited impact in the mainstream media, it has already gone viral in the open adoption community. But not for the reasons one would think. Two frequently discussed issues arise in this story that are pertinent to families and professionals involved in open adoption: proper adoption language and the openness of adoption records.
The language we use in discussing adoption is pivotal in creating the relationships that adoption strives to build and maintain. In adoption, there is little room for terms like “biological child,” “real child,” “biological parent,” or “real parent.” Expanding one’s family through adoption is equally legitimate to bearing one’s biological children and there is therefore no reason to differentiate between the two. An adoptive parent is no less of a parent than a biological one, and while the two types of families may encounter different challenges in life, neither is superior to the other. In most adoption scenarios, a birth family is referred to as a birth family and the adoptive family is, quite simply, the family.
Equally important are the terms used in describing a birthmother’s choice to place for adoption. In this article, Ms. Disbrow is quoted saying that she loved her baby so much, she wanted to do what was best for her. These are not the words of a person who has no choice but to give up her baby. In fact, Ms. Disbrow did have a choice: she could choose parenting the baby or she could choose to place for adoption. Nevertheless, the article opens with the idea that Ms. Disbrow simply gave the child up.
Using language with positive connotations serves two purposes: first it reflects that a birthmother is making a loving choice to place her baby in an adoptive home. Choosing adoption is never easy for an expectant woman, but is always done in the best interests of the child. Thus, she is not giving her child up, rather she is choosing adoption. Additionally, instilling the habit of using positive adoption language in the community at large helps all members of the adoption triad to see adoption in a positive light. Adoption is not something to be embarrassed about, and is certainly not second-best to being raised by one’s biological parents. As such, it is important to use language that allows children to see themselves in the most positive light possible.
A second issue raised by this article that is a hot topic in the adoption community, but not often broached in the mainstream media is the availability of a court’s adoption records subsequent to an adoption being finalized. Most state courts seal adoption records, which means they are not available to the public. While this protects the privacy of interested parties, the courts have carved out means for members of the adoption triad to obtain information about their own specific cases.
Proponents of open adoption are petitioning their respective state courts to open adoption records. The opening of these records allows access to the child’s original birth certificate; medical information that may be pertinent to the child’s health and other information regarding a child’s origins. The importance of unsealing adoption records is readily apparent upon reading the article about Ms. Disbrow’s case: her daughter needed medical information- if she had been unable to unseal her adoption records, she would never have reunited with her birthmother.
Those opposed to unsealing court records believe that such an action would violate the privacy of birthparents who wished for their identity to remain anonymous. To balance these interests, some states have created systems through which mutual consent can be obtained prior to allowing the unsealing of records. Currently, many states who don’t maintain adoption registries require extenuating circumstances to unseal adoption files.
This story is, indeed, sensational: the likelihood of a reunion this late in life is slim, and the ensuing relationship between the families is extremely touching. Most professionals agree that more openness in the adoption world today would result in many more similar stories- something that both the mainstream and the adoption community look forward to reading about.