Other child advocates, however, point out that, whatever its cause, neglect can be profoundly damaging to children. Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, agrees that “if we eliminated poverty in this country, that would be the best abuse- and neglect-prevention program.” But protecting the welfare of children, she says, has to take priority over parental rights.
In some cases, a judge will rule that a birth parent poses a danger to a child and will prohibit the parent from making contact. But many avenues exist for a birth parent to reconnect with a child unsupervised. The internet, along with widely available genetic testing, has dismantled the possibility of a truly closed adoption. “Judges’ strictures mean nothing if a child can search for his birth mother without [adoptive] parents knowing,” says Pertman, now at the National Center of Adoption Permanency. “But that doesn’t mean an 11-year-old should be forming relationships with people he doesn’t know without parents’ knowledge.”
Martin Guggenheim, an advocate for parental rights and a professor at NYU Law School, who believes many removals are unjust, is not surprised that birth parents and relatives attempt DIY reunions through the web. When he saw the America’s Taken Facebook page, he told me, “When you think about it, how do you not create this website?”
Other online groups have emerged where there are gaps in adoption processes. Adoption-disruption groups on Facebook, where adopted children are “re-homed,” emerged at least partly because there is little post-adoption support and monitoring; some families know almost nothing about the issues their overseas-adopted children faced or how to cope with their medical or behavioral challenges. In private adoptions, the lawyer who represents a birth mother is often paid for by the birth family, and some adoption agencies fund flashy public relations campaigns that paint the experience in sunny tones. There are no major organizations that share with birth mothers potential downsides or that help them with their rights.
Renee Gelin started an organization and Facebook group that plays that role by crowdsourcing assistance and advice that birth mothers might not have access to. As a single parent, Gelin gave up her second child for adoption 10 years ago because she was under crushing financial pressure at the time. Her job as a contractor in IT offered no maternity leave, and her health insurance would not cover her high-risk pregnancy. She was paid too much to qualify for Medicaid.
Just weeks before her son was born, Gelin agreed to place him with a family in another state. As soon as he was on the plane, she regretted the choice. Although she had arranged an open adoption for her son, she says that the adoptive family ended the relationship when they found critical blog posts she had written expressing grief about the process. Gelin felt she hadn’t understood that open adoptions exist at the discretion of the adopting family. In fact, they are not legally enforceable in all states, and where they are enforceable the cost of a lawyer can be prohibitive for a birth mother.
Gelin’s organization, called Saving Our Sisters, tries to persuade birth mothers that financial strain shouldn’t prevent them from keeping their children. When a woman who is having second thoughts reaches out to SOS online, the group tries to find a “sister on the ground” nearby to bring her diapers, a month’s rent, or a baby swing. Gelin says SOS has had around 90 “saves”—adoptions in process that the group helped reverse—in the past six years. Gelin transferred the blog about her adopted son to a public Facebook page years ago and still posts letters and updates to him, often signed, “Mom.”
The woman who adopted Pfeiffer’s grandson once gave her a framed image of the boy’s handprint. Pfeiffer took the handprint, painted it red, and made it the bloody-looking logo of America’s Taken. She printed up T-shirts and signs and stood outside the family court in Guthrie in front of her truck, which had a decal that read “my grandson is a victim of forced adoption in logan county.” She handed out pamphlets and told her version of the story to anyone who would listen. At the time, her message did not get much further than the Guthrie courthouse steps.