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The Intersection of Ethical Adoption and PTSD

by Laura on May 21st, 2013

Is it possible to adopt ethically?

Does adoption automatically equal PTSD?

These two questions might seem strange to have in the same post … The first more applies to potential adoptive parents and agencies, whereas it’s only adult adoptees who are complaining about PTSD, right?

But as usual, it’s complicated.

I’ve had some readers asking me my opinion (!) as to whether they should adopt.  In coming up with my explanation, I realized I need to bring together the decision to adopt … with the issue of adoptee PTSD.

If you’re short on time, here’s the Executive Adoptee Summary:

  • Is it possible to adopt ethically? Yes.
  • Does adoption = PTSD. No.
  • If you do adopt ethically, it does reduce the possibility of the adoptee developing PTSD.

Whoooaaa … before anyone goes getting their panties in a bunch, remember that was the summary. There’s a lot more to it than that!

And yep, today, I’m gonna go there.

Here’s an anonymized compilation of reader questions:

*  *  *  *  *

Hey Adopted Girl …

Dear Laura,

I’m reaching out to ask your opinion about something as an adoptee. My husband and I are thinking about starting a family. However, due to some health struggles and potential fertility issues, I’m not sure it’s in the cards for me.

My husband and I have discussed adoption as a viable option for us to start a family. We have seen it as a positive way to provide for a child or children who may need it. But after reading about your experiences, I’m wondering, as an adoptee, do you feel it is an unhealthy or inhumane road to take in starting a family?

As we consider an option I would never want to do anything to any person or family that would be sure to cause pain or anguish. How do you wish things were handled differently for you?

My husband says

Well, if we didn’t adopt that child, wouldn’t somebody else?

Why don’t you think we could do a good job of helping them with those issues?

As in, if we educate ourselves about the trauma, grief and loss adoptees experience, couldn’t we provide a loving home for someone who needs it?

I’m wondering, do you foresee or imagine an existing–or maybe yet-to-be-developed model of adoption that does allow for an adoptive family to raise the baby from infancy, but is ethical and compassionate to the birth family/ mother?

Personal questions, for sure, so I understand if you don’t want to answer. But I want to consider all points of view before we begin our family. Again, as a person who has lived the life, you bring a unique perspective and any family we raise we want to consider the children’s well-being first.

Best,
Women who are wondering

*  *  *  *  *

Dear Women-considering-adoption …

I really appreciate how you’ve taken a moment to stop and think about what it means to potentially adopt, and take into consideration an adult adoptee! That very step shows already a level of compassion and willingness to learn that is lacking among many adoptive parents.

My first response is: Starting a family is an extremely personal question, and who am I the bat shit crazy adopted girl to give advice?

But jokes aside, there’s no easy answer to the question: Should we adopt?

If I say “yes,” then it’s not a carte blanche to just go ahead and adopt without consideration to doing so ethically and keeping in mind the additional (different?) challenges that accompany adopting a child, as opposed to raising a non-adopted one. And believe me, my non-adopted kids are a challenge every damn day.

If I say “no,” then it’s as if I’m saying that adoption should be outlawed. There are those in the adoption community who are anti-adoption, and pretty much feel that adoption = child trafficking, and should therefore be illegal.

Adoption needs to remain a legal, but regulated, choice.

Read here for some thoughts about how to adopt ethically in last week’s Adoption Manifesto.

The connection between adoption and PTSD

This begs the question … If I adopt ethically that means my kid won’t get PTSD, right? They won’t be damaged?

Riiiight … Well, my answer is: Not necessarily.

Adoption does involve a loss, it does involve grief. But it can also involve joy and fulfillment, and it can give a family to a kid who wasn’t wanted by everyone in her birth family.

The thing is, if you think that adoption directly causes PTSD, because adoption is always a trauma, then yes, it’s hard to give any advice as to how to adopt ethically and for “the right reasons.”

There are different schools of thought about this, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to address this question without getting my head bit off in the comments section.

There are those who think that adoption is equal to child trafficking and should be outlawed.

There are adoptees who believe adoption is only a trauma, one that always causes PTSD. It only involves loss and grief. They would have literally rather been aborted than adopted. (Yes, I’ve read this on online adoptee forums.)

There are first moms who were coerced–not okay. On the other hand, there are some first moms who believe anything but giving moms help to keep their child is … coercion. I wouldn’t go that far. There does exist cases in which women who, given all the support in the world, would still choose adoption. The exception but not the rule? Possibly, but they’re out there.

But does adoption cause PTSD? No, I don’t think the correlation is that direct.

I don’t like this linear thinking for something as complex as adoption and its effect on the human psyche. Not all adoptees are damaged goods. Adoption doesn’t make you mentally ill. Adoption does involve a trauma. It’s not for nothing that adoptees so deeply identify with the notion of The Primal Wound.

Just as not all trauma survivors get PTSD, not all adoptees develop PTSD.

Unaddressed post-adoption issues can lead to denial, repression, fear of rejection, and unhealthy love relationships.

The human mind has amazing survival strategies for dealing with anxiety, stress and grief.

Adoptees are no different–we develop resilience and adaptability in order to survive. And it’s true, some coping strategies are rather benign. Many adoptees call themselves control freaks, but they can keep it in check. For me, I hate surprise parties being thrown for me–makes me feel out-of-control. It’s different for everyone.

But some survival skill become (unhealthy) coping mechanisms. I’m talking eating issues, sleeping issues, alcohol and drug abuse, staying in abusive relationships because of fear of rejection. _____ [Insert your own unhealthy coping mechanism/post-adoption issue here.]

When these coping mechanisms manifest as physical symptoms that go untreated … it can all lead to PTSD.

So how to reconcile all of this psychobabble when considering adoption?

From a social justice-reproductive justice standpoint, you have a right to create a family as you so choose.

But I get it, if you can’t get pregnant, then what? Adoption is an option, and educating yourself that when you adopt, the child now has you and your family in addition to his original family is imperative. (How that plays out in terms of an enforceable open adoption–that’s a topic for another day.)

So, I say: It’s okay to adopt …

But only with an open mind, understanding that adoption as it is practiced today is a very flawed institution. Anyone entering these murky waters must educate themselves to adopt ethically–for all involved, first families, adoptive parents, and most importantly adoptees.

And no, your kid won’t automatically get PTSD from the experience.

*  *  *  *  *

“Break Time From Working On Wooden Table” by Keerati from freedigitalphotos.net

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25 Comments
  1. Greg permalink

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic. Right now I am exactly where this woman is at. My wife and I are unable to have children of our own and are researching adoption as a way to build a family (at the same time becoming a part of another). I have read blogs and commentary from all parties involved in adoption from adoptive parents to birth/first parents and adoptees as well. I am also in the middle of reading a great book on open adoption. http://www.amazon.com/Lori-Holden/e/B00A5341ZC

    The things I ask myself is if we adopted would we end up messing up the lives of the adoptee as well as the birth/first parents? Would we be just feeding a broken system and being another sad story just because we had a desire to parent and were unable to have a biological child?

    On the flipside by educating ourselves aren't we preparing to avoid mistakes that have been made by adoptive parents in the past if we are privileged enough to adopt? Now I'm not saying that we are more worthy of a child than past, present and future adoptive parents or expectant parents for that matter. What I am saying is that by educating ourselves we can make the best of whatever our situation as parents would be

    Of the blogs I follow and comment on, I have received a lot of anger from birth/first parents and adoptees who all have sad stories and a lot of grief and sadness that their anger is coming from. I understand why they are as angry as they are and for the most part don't take offense to it. The last thing I would want to do is be a adoptive parent whose child didn't feel supported and ended up ruining the child for life as well as hurt the birth/first parents.

    So I'm at a loss not sure what to do but I do know that if my wife and I do pursue adoption we will be confident and ready to address any potential issues that may come our way.

    Again Laura, I can't thank you enough for addressing this topic. Until the issues with adoption are addressed by our government the only way a difference can be made is by if as a society we educate and support one another rather than resorting to scare tactics. You've made it clear you want to educate and support the community. I only wish there were more people like you and a handful of other people in the community who can make a difference.

  2. It is so necessary to start addressing these issues.Personally I don't believe anyone has a right to start a family in any way they see fit. Many ways are not ethical, repugnant or exploitative and involve large sums of money, but some folks seem able to reconcile that. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night!

    To Greg I'd say research, read and inform yourself as much as possible.There are ways to help kids, improve their lives and be a good mentor other than adoption.These days in America particularly, it must be very hard ,if not impossible to undertake an ethical adoption because of the $$$ involved. Money skews ethics, allows exploitation and creates a market so that children become a product to supply to adults who ask and is no longer about finding the very best families for the kids who need them, undoubtedly some do and always will.

    • Greg permalink

      Von,

      May I ask which perspective you are coming from?

      As far as starting a family any way I see fit, if it were up to me my wife and I would start a family the old fashion way. However, there are two things needed for that to happen and unfortunately due to a genetic condition I was born with that's not physically possible. So its not a choice for me its something nature handed me just as nature handed me a learning disability that made my childhood and adulthood a challenge. But I am not someone who feels they are entitled to start a family.

      My wife and I already give to charities if that is what you are referring to. But that still doesn't fill the void in my life. I think you are referring to Foster Parenting when you are referring to finding needy children with families. That is completely different than creating a family through adoption. Understand that Foster Parenting is very emotional and not for everyone. I do not want to have our emotions toyed with anymore than they already have. If you are a Foster Parent with Foster children I'm sure you know better than I do. While it is doing some great work for a good cause its something that is very difficult and not something for me. Being a mentor, temporary guardian vs a parent are completely different things. The former does does not fill the void in my life. Again I am not entitled to the latter but understand that unless you have gone through what I have it's not fair for you to sit here and tell me what to do and feel just as its not fair for me to do the same thing to do without having walked in your shoes.

      I agree that the so called non profit industry needs tougher regulations. If you did that then there is no need for the adoption tax credit that then could be put to supporting birth mothers after placement. However, someone has to fund a home study being conducted, support for expectant parents who are considering adoption (regardless of if they place), support for birth parents after placement, follow ups with adoptive parents post placement and the administrative costs involved in these services. There is no such thing as a free lunch and you need someone to fund these items. I think what needs to happen is similar to what happened with Health Care Reform where insurance companies are only allowed to spend a certain percentage of premium on administration costs. Adoption agencies should only be allowed to have a certain percentage of their books on staffing and administration. They have no advertising budgets as all licensed agencies are put up on a government website where they are listed and provided with their forum to explain their services. All on equal footing no extra money needs to be put into it.

      • Greg — Thanks so much for your extended comment … I just wanted to jump in on one (small) part — the problem with the home study is that it is often conducted by the agency themselves, and whoever does the homestudy often does not check-up on the veracity of whatever the prospective adoptive parents have said. So, the home study needs to be performed by an independent 3rd party. Yes, the PAPs can pay for it, but it must be truly neutral, not run by the adoption agency–who is trying to approve those paying clients.
        Laura

      • Greg permalink

        Thanks Laura. I didn't know that. What you are saying makes sense. It almost makes sense for that third party to be a government agency that has no benefit in the PAPs being approved. I could see where a private third party company pushing for approvals to compete with other companies that provide the same service. But then again the adoption agencies can always lobby the government as they already do.

      • Greg — Yes, I mean instead of the Adoption Tax Credit, the cost for the home study — I think $700 – $800, could be absorbed by that tax credit. Or a private third party–one that simply makes money by being a creditable accrediting organization for couples and singles hoping to adopt. It's complicated, for sure, but change is needed.
        Laura

      • My perspective Greg is one of ethics.I believe it is imposssible in America today to undertake an ethical adoption.Where money changes hands and adoptions are not conducted by a Government body set up for the purpose where adopters are stringently assessed and must pass a strict Approval Panel by an experienced panel of experts in the field you will never have ethical adoption and will always 'play' at it. There will be mistakes, injustice and abuse for which adoptees will suffer. Sadly nothing replaces parenthood and the urge to be a parent and to parent. I have walked in those shoes I do know what it is to have to accept that one may never be a parent.It is hard and difficult but not nearly as hard as being a parent, particularly an adoptive parent for some.

    • Von,
      I agree that exploitation and fees should be taken out of the adoption equation — I think this should be regulated by the government. But, what I meant by having a right to start a family is: adoption should remain legal. It should be regulated, but families should be able to have ethical and legal access to the variety of ways to start a family. That was my main point. Thanks so much for jumping in on this very important conversation!
      Laura

  3. Adopt onus permalink

    Greg, you have your mind made up already. The only opinion you want to hear is one that supports your view that you will be able to have an ethical pain free adoption. Stop looking for answers that you don't want to hear.

    • Greg permalink

      This is simply not true. I have not made up my mind and neither has my wife. I want to hear differing opinions which is why I read a lot of birth/first parent and adoptee blogs that put everything in perspective. It's helped teach me that if my wife and I pursued adoption that it would be anything but pain free the rest of our lives. We have not researched any adoption agencies yet so I don't know about finding one that is ethical or that if we are privileged enough to be selected that we wouldn't have ethical issues that were beyond our control.

      I do know that we would not accept a potential placement where there was a question of whether the relinquishment was a joint decision for the expectant parents. For instance a situation where the mother wanted to relinquish but the father was planning on filing for custody is a situation we would back out of. I would not adopt at all costs. I'd pass on a longer wait for the right situation.

    • Thanks for your comment — Just to say, have no idea as to whether Greg has made up his mind or not, but for those who are looking to adopt, I have the opportunity to help educate them as to ethical ways to do it. That's not to say that adoption will be pain-free, but learning what loss and grief and pain IS involved will give adoptive parents the opportunity to help those adoptees through processing their pain.

  4. Barbara Thavis permalink

    You wrote: From a social justice-reproductive justice standpoint, you have a right to create a family as you so choose.

    —————-

    So if they so choose to go and take one of your kids that's okeydokey?

    We can't have it both ways. 90% of US infant adoptions are coerced based on the systems in place. There are not enough UNWANTED infants to go around to help out all the deserving infertile parents. Reproductive justice? I don't get why someone is ENTITLED to another's infant child.

    Why have a manefesto asking to not have coercion in adoption if you are not willing to spell out for inquiring adoptive parents what coercion looks like. They don't know and are coming to you for guidence.

    • Barbara — you are so right. I'm actually in the process of educating myself more now about how open adoptions can become legally enforceable and coming up with what I believe is necessary in eliminating coersion in adoption.

      My point about reproductive justice is simply that adoption needs to remain a legal option–I don't want the government saying "no," you have to keep and raise your kid. That said you're totally right, we must have more education about how easy it is to coerce an expectant mother. But, if something is legal and done ethically, that is reproductive justice for mothers and for couples wanting to raise non-biological children.

      I agree — no one is "entitled" to another's infant child. Very true!

  5. I was adopted from a German orphanage by an American couple and collaborated with other "foreign" adoptees to create this video showcasing the human rights abuses embedded in international adoption.

    Peter Dodds
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJlnfkRtBX4

    • Peter — Yes, there are so many human rights abuses within international adoption. This is such a huge area begging for change. Yours is such an interesting "Cold War" story–adopting from Germany.
      Thanks so much for writing — I hope I'll see you commenting here again,
      Laura

  6. Hi and Thank you for this post. I'm not here to debate the right and wrongs of adoption – in my opinion, it varies from circumstance to circumstance. I'm a former foster now adoptive mom (yes, I've been called everything from patient saint to the worst kind of evil, and depending on your perspective, any of those opinions could apply.) I wanted to add that there are things the adults considering adoption could do prior to going down this path …

    1. First and foremost, know yourself and become self-aware. If you come from a dysfunctional childhood, seek help to address those issues, know your triggers, and be aware of how you cope with stress. That way you will not bring your issues into your relationship with your child.

    2. Read everything you can about ATTACHMENT and how to create these bonds with children who have had early trauma

    3. Let go of your fantasy child and recognize that the child in your life is an individual separate from you with hopes, needs, and dreams all his/her own

    Wishing you all lots of love and happiness now and always.

  7. One last comment. You said – "When these coping mechanisms manifest as physical symptoms that go untreated … it can all lead to PTSD." That is not my understranding of PTSD and how it occurs.I think it is slightly misleading, especially in the case of adopees.

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