As the founder and director of Abrazo, I am sometimes asked who influenced my adoption career most? I was fortunate to have “come up through the ranks” during a period in American adoption history that afforded me access to an amazing array of adoption professionals (both good and not-so-good,) and I thought this would be an opportune moment to pay tribute to the adoption icons from whom I have learned so much.
Learning what not to do in adoption can be as educational an experience as learning what to do, of course. My very earliest years in the adoption field, working for a closed adoption agency, I was exposed to the (now-late) infamous adoption attorney Stanley Michaelman, who routinely maneuvered birthmothers across state lines for the purposes of his private adoptions like pieces on a checkerboard. Stanley seemed to see his job as “getting people what they want” (people being the adopters who could afford his fees) and although he was a doting grandfather himself, it appeared that other people’s children were to him little more than available stock. Secrecy and legal gamesmanship are scarce components in any ethical adoption, thus any experiences with Stanley inadvertently taught me the importance of truth and transparency and openness.
Although I’d spent my high school years at Interlochen in northern Michigan, it wasn’t until my adoption career began that I had the joy of meeting Jim Gritter. Jim was a veteran adoption social worker with Catholic Charities who had launched a biennial open adoption conference held in Traverse City, Michigan that was the Ivy League training center of the adoption world, bar none. Jim, who authored the books Hospitious Adoption, Lifegivers, and The Spirit of Open Adoption was an unassuming man who seemed to tend towards flannel shorts and corduroy slacks. He was a tireless champion for birthparent rights, and his advocacy for open adoption has long-shaped my passion for the concept. When Jim retired and ended his conferences for good, colleagues begged to him to reconsider, to no avail.
The other big adoption conference at the time was sponsored by the now-defunct Independent Adoption Center out of California. Their conventions were more geographically-appealing than Jim’s, but lacked the same ethos, somehow. IAC’s founder, the late Bruce Rappaport and I went out for drinks once, after his divorce and before my marriage. Bruce had a doctorate in political science, as I recall (a strange qualification for an adoption career?), the slick spiel of a car salesman, and a passion for all things crunchy-granola. He did advocate for openness in adoption practices, but seemed to see open adoption primarily as a means to an end, and observing this, I came to realize that placement doesn’t make an adoption a success; the actual intimacy between an adoptive family and birthfamily after placement does.
When my adoption career began, thirty years ago, birthparents were still all too often neither seen nor heard. A few courageous souls did venture forth to share their experiences and bare their pain, and from them, I have learned the importance of empowering women to make their own best choices and fully supporting them as they do so. I am privileged to know extraordinary women like Lorraine Dusky and Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy and Carol Schaefer, all first mothers who have reunited with the children they placed for adoption. These moms who have suffered loss by a thousand cuts keep me mindful of the magnamity of relinquishment and the need to continually support those enduring the lasting separation and grief that follows.
You know how there are celebrities you have a hard time keeping apart in your mind? (Like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, or Charlie Theron and Cameron Diaz?) Well, two dearly-departed matriarchs of the adoption world are like that to me. I met Annette Baran and Betty Jean Lifton around the same time, and both were elegant, intelligent adoption experts who spoke with candor and grace about the importance of openness as a linch pin in child-centered adoption work. Annette was a small, white-haired woman who looked like the sweetest of grandmothers, but being a straight-talking psychotherapist, she had launched a take-no-prisoners movement against secrecy with her book The Adoption Triangle. She is best-remembered for being the first adoption professional to publicly apologize to the victims of closed adoptions for the damage the profession had done to them. (Annette also loved SAS shoes, and once asked me to check our local factory outlet for some of her favorites for her… which I gladly did.)
A colleague and dear friend of hers was the always-polished and ethereal Betty Jean Lifton, author of Twice Born, Lost & Found, and Journey of the Adopted Self. Betty Jean (or “BJ”) was a petite blonde powerhouse. She had herself been an adoptee in a closed adoption, so it was her own experience that led her on a crusade to abolish secrecy and shame for adoptees and to teach parents (by birth and adoption) the importance of honoring adoptees’ need for truth all across the lifespan. She bravely boycotted a 2006 adoption conference over a dispute about the power of adoption language (much to my chagrin, as I’d gone just to hear her.) I last saw BJ in 2010, when she was presenting her latest paper on ghost stories in adoption in New York City, and her haunting observations have been etched in my soul ever since. That same year, we lost both BJ and Annette, yet the lasting effect both have had continues to empower countless American adoption professionals to make adoption better, for kids’ sake.
The last two adoption experts to whom I pay tribute here are two women that are still with us, and who influence the work I do every day. Patricia Irwin Johnston (author of Adopting After Infertility and Adoption Is a Family Affair) is an adoptive mom whose career was devoted to supporting those with infertility who seek to adopt, and although she has retired in recent years, she still inspires me weekly via her Facebook posts. Sherrie Eldridge is an adoptee whose book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Parents Knew is required reading for Abrazo’s adoptive parents, much as it scares them to read it. Sherrie was a keynote speaker at Camp Abrazo a few years back, and her powerful testimony there inspired the grandfather of two of Abrazokids, himself the product of a closed adoption, to search for and reunite with his own long-lost birthmother.
There are so many other good people who come to mind when I think of adoption reform (folks like Dr. Randolph Severson, Joe Soll, Patricia Martinez Dorner, Lois Melina, Dr. Michael Trout, Jeff Hancock, Sharon Kaplan Roszia, Adam Pertman, Joyce Pavao and Marley Greiner, among them.) Sometimes, when I despair over all the open adoption pioneers we’ve lost, I fail to remember all the good work being done by those still in the field. And the best news is that their influence isn’t limited to adoption professionals, because their books and their speeches and their wisdom are available to all.
May we continue to listen to and learn from these adoption icons, past and present, and particularly to those who are best-qualified to teach us: the people most affected by adoption because they’ve lived (and survived) it themselves.