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Rick Perry, Do Not be Surprised Wendy Davis is a Young Mom

27 Jun

By now we all know that Wendy Davis, hero of the Texas Senate and toast of Twitter, became a mother at age nineteen. In fact, one of the earlier Associated Press pieces that the New York Times published on the filibuster was headlined “Ex-Teen Mom Heads Filibuster Versus Abortion Limit” (whether due to updates, awkward construction, or over-simplicity, the headline has since been changed).

As an advocate for young parents, I was thrilled to learn this somewhere around hour 8 of Davis’s filibuster. Not only does this detail make her personal narrative very compelling, but it means that — while we live in a world that shames young parents and implies they can’t change the world — Davis stands as a powerful counterexample from the top of her raised fist to the bottom of her pink running shoes (which, by the way, are described on Amazon as “Rouge Red” and reviewed as “guaranteed to outrun patriarchy”). While I’m sure Davis is a motivation to many people with widely varying life stories, I hope she’ll be a particular inspiration to young mothers, demonstrating that their futures are not limited because they have children.

There is, of course, an alternate way to spin this part of Davis’s biography, and leave it to Rick Perry to deliver it. Perry stated:

It is just unfortunate that [Davis] hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.

Perry can’t comprehend why Davis would be pro-choice, it seems, because she chose to become a mother after (what he’s assuming was) an unplanned pregnancy at a younger age. (He’s also setting up a false dichotomy between women who get abortions and women who become mothers, ignoring the fact that most women who get abortions are already mothers, and an even greater majority intend to become mothers at some point in their lives.)

The obvious thing that he’s failing to realize, of course, is that pro-choice is pro-choice, and making your choice doesn’t mean you think others should be denied the same options. But the more subtle point is that Davis made a stigmatized reproductive choice, and that having done so likely better equips her to understand the value of destigmatizing and making accessible all reproductive options. There’s often a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” option for pregnant teens: do they want to be shamed for getting an abortion, or shamed for being a young mom? This may be why many young mothers are pro-choice: because they were young parents.

Look at Gloria Feldt, former CEO of Planned Parenthood and another Texas teen mom, or Lauren Bruce, founder of Feministe, or Andy Kopsa, writer for RH Reality Check, or Gloria Malone and Natasha Vianna, both activists helping lead the #NoTeenShame campaign against stigmatizing teen pregnancy prevention ads. And, lest we forget, there’s our own Sophia blogging here at Abortion Gang.

Rick Perry might find it incongruous for a former young mom, whom he views as “choosing life” under less-than-ideal circumstances, to stand for thirteen hours against a bill to gut abortion access — but I see it as an intuitive political response to her own life story. And I see young mothers not just participating in our reproductive justice movement, but helping to lead it.


Abortion Gang Summer Reading List

3 Jun

Summer is nearly here! Hopefully for many of you this will mean some downtime, whether a post-graduation break before beginning a new job or a much-needed vacation from your current one. Whether your plans include long plane rides or lounging by the pool, either should give you the opportunity to catch up on your reading list – and just in case that list isn’t quite as long as you’d like, here are a few recommendations.

If you want to embark on your reproductive justice reading as part of a community, the RJ Reads online book club (organized by Backline) is reading Dorothy Roberts’s Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty this month. There will be local groups gathering across the country — check out the Goodreads group to see if there’s a in-person meeting in your area, or just read along and join the online discussion. You can also check out the RJ Reads site to vote on the next book selection.

If you want to dive into a book on your own, here are a few of my personal suggestions. These books are all newer publications, so hopefully you’ll find something you haven’t heard of before.

Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich. An “on the ground” book with slews of interviews from activists all over the country, including abortion fund volunteers, clinic escorts, current students, and movement bloggers (including our own Steph Herold), this book seems like a 240-page rebuttal to the idea that the our generation isn’t actively inheriting the pro-choice movement. Erdreich includes mention of accusations of complacency levied against younger people, the content of the book argues against just that. She speaks with young(ish) activists that are currently studying law, practicing medicine, founding organizations, sharing their stories, and challenging the movement’s power structure. Generation Roe is a quick read that makes the future of the movement – albeit with its many challenges – seem hopeful.

Crow After Roe: How “Separate But Equal” Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That by Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo. From RH Reality Check writers Marty and Pieklo comes this easy to follow legal primer on the current status of attacks on reproductive health across the country. With twelve chapters examining issues on a state-by-state basis, the book provides essential background on the Bei Bei Shuai case in Indiana, the Jennie McCormack case in Idaho, the abortion funding ban in Washington, DC, and for Arizona, Chapter 12: “Banning Everything but the Kitchen Sink.” I was familiar with all of these stories before reading Crow After Roe, but after reading it you have a much greater sense of both the legal framework behind the cases and the potential policy implications that could follow. The book is equal parts frustration and motivation.

The Child Catchers: Rescue Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce. This book has gotten a lot of deservedly wonderful press, along with the expected backlash.  It deftly covers the motivations (both well-meaning and corrupt) driving adoption in this country, considering the role of the Evangelical church and the anti-abortion movement, crisis pregnancy centers, and international politics. I wrote a full review for The Declassified Adoptee, which I invite you to check out.

Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Rickie Solinger. I haven’t actually read this one yet, but it’s on the very top of my list, and I’ll swear by anything Solinger writes. Her Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America should be required reading for every reproductive justice activist in the US, with Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the United States assigned for extra credit.

(The next paragraph contains some minor spoilers, but nothing that would give away the most important parts of the stories mentioned.)

Beyond these titles explicitly about reproductive health and justice, though, it seems I have a knack to picking up books that have abortion storylines in them this spring. I really try to diversify my reading and intentionally pull books off bookstore shelves that, at first glance, seem to have nothing to do with abortion. Yet, three of the four non-abortion books I’ve read in the past two months have all had abortion plot points that have surprised me.

It seems not to matter the genre or type of story: I found discussion of abortion in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (about her hiking of the PCT after her divorce and her mother’s death), Kate Atkinson’s dark novel Life After Life (about a young woman in World War II-era England leading infinite parallel lives in an attempt to stay alive in any one of them), and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (about an American movie actress – and the young man she captivates – in Italy in the 1960s, and a film producer in contemporary Hollywood, with guest appearances by Richard Burton and side trips to Seattle, Edinburgh, and northern Idaho). None of these are niche books about reproductive rights, of course. They’ve each taken their turn near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, which makes me feel hopeful about unplanned pregnancy and abortion being seen as a normalized part of the human experience, a plot decision that so many face at some point in the course of their own personal narratives, but that – depending on the decision and its context – may or may not impact their entire life. But whatever the impact of these decisions, the consideration (or obtaining) of an abortion is not that story’s defining purpose.

Other AGers had their own recommendations, with some older classics and newer favorites, to add to my list:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Sister Outsider by Audre Lord
  • The Birth House by Ami McKay

What are your recommendations? Please share!

Stop the stigma: recognizing all reproductive choices as equal

9 May

Where should I start with this article? Fox News Commentator: Stop Abortions By ‘Celebrating’ Teen Pregnancy

The entire story represents a collision of bad soundbites, all of which perpetuate myths about different reproductive choices — and the liberal Think Progress commentators are just as much at fault as the conservative Fox News pundits.

To sum it up for you: Fox News contributor Nina Easton says we should “celebrate young women who bring a baby to term and find an adoptive parent” as a way to reduce abortion (to Easton’s credit, she also says we should make birth control more widely available). Think Progress writer Aviva Shen responds by misrepresenting Easton’s words — which are really about celebrating adoption — into something about “celebrating teen pregnancy.” Shen then uses some alienating adoption language (using the term “birthmothers” to apply to young women who change their mind about adoption and end up parenting — they’re just mothers!) and rounds it would with some heavy stigma on young parents (misrepresenting data on dropout rates and poverty, for example, and portraying young mothers as “vulnerable” and “entrapped”), while simultaneously condemning Fox News for stigmatizing abortion.

Neither of these narratives are helpful.

Yes, stigmatizing abortion is bad. Abortion is common and necessary, and women who need and want abortions should not be shamed. Conversely, though, both the challenges associated with adoption and the flaws in the adoption system are routinely glossed over, as Easton’s comments illustrate. Adoption is not a choice that should routinely be vaunted as superior to abortion or to parenting without a very careful consideration of individual context.

And yet, stigmatizing young parenthood is just as problematic as either stigmatizing abortion or celebrating adoption. As we’ve seen in New York (and everywhere, really), portraying young parents alternately as scapegoat and victim serves no one well. It doesn’t prevent teen pregnancy, and it just makes it less likely that young families will receive the support they need to be successful.

Ultimately, both Easton’s and Shen’s messages, though counter to each other, are problematic in the same way: they attempt to paint one reproductive choice as inherently better than another, which serves to stigmatize those “lesser” options. We cannot argue that adoption is always better than abortion any more than we can suggest abortion is better than parenthood. Instead, we must work to make sure all people have the freedom and resources at their disposal to freely choose the best option for themselves — and stigma of any stripe will only work to diminish such freedom.

What Admission misses about adoption

3 Apr

The most surprising thing to say about the adoption plots in Paul Weitz’s new film Admission (starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd) is, really, how routine they seem. Six years ago — before Juno — it would have been remarkable to find a movie revolving around a birth mother and her story. But now, after Juno16 and PregnantTeen MomGleeThe Baby Wait, a birth mother story seems run of the mill. In fact, while waiting for Admission to being, there was a premiere for The Big Wedding, (starring Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro, Susan Sarandon, and many others) whichalso features a birth mother meeting her son’s adoptive family for the first time. Have we had enough of these stories?

I’m all for Hollywood to keep trying, since I feel like none of these representations have quite gotten it right. This isn’t surprising — movies are about being sensational and dramatic, and less about real-life complexity. The problem with Admission is that it manages to make adoption both a narrow and overwhelming part of the story. When Portia Nathan, an admission counselor at Princeton, discovers that an applicant might be the son she placed for adoption, this possibility seems to tap into some innate, essential well of motherly imperative. She begins empathizing with the frantic parents of other applicants, trying to hold random babies in stores, and bulldozing her way through the admissions process (without even a nod to professionalism) to ensure that her son will be able to attend Princeton. It looks and feels like an implosion, but the viewer is left to wonder if this is because of a recent breakup in which her boyfriend left her for his pregnant mistress, because of some unnamed and unrealized desire to parent, because of her own fractured relationship with her mother, because of her inability to know her own biological father, or because of watching her new romantic prospect interact with his adopted son. The adoption is addressed directly only occasionally, and often frantically, so we don’t have a clear understanding of what the impact has been on Portia’s life. What is the movie trying to say about adoption? Even after watching, I’m not sure.

What it does do, however, is place adoption in the context of a bigger sense of the unknown. Portia does not know her father, nor does she know her son. These disconnections prevent her from connecting with her mother in any meaningful way. We don’t know if Portia wants to be a mother, and perhaps she doesn’t either. In the end, it was this rootlessness that came across most strongly, and contrasted most sharply with the repeated classification of Portia’s life as stable and boring — but it was also what was glossed over most frequently for the sake of comedic purpose. In the end, the metaphor, whether intended or not (and it probably was), between adoption reunions and the college admissions process is at least partially true: the sense of putting oneself out there, of hanging one’s future on an unknowable verdict rendered by an unknown person, highlights how vulnerable adoption can make people.

Here’s hoping that the next birth mother movie — because goodness knows, it doesn’t seem like we’ll have any shortage of them — will find a way to give more space to this complexity.

NYC Teen Pregnancy PSAs: Business as Usual?

5 Mar

I have been pleasantly surprised by the dismay generated by New York Human Resources Administration’s new campaign, which sloppily attempts to “prevent teen pregnancy” by shaming young mothers and inaccurately touting adverse outcomes for young parents and their children.

The blogosphere has erupted against this campaign, with some of my favorite responses from Miriam Perez (who was actually brave enough to try the texting services accompanying the ads), Brittany at Advocates for Youth (who accurately stresses that communities with high birth rates need support, not shame), and my friend Natasha Vianna (whose post on is so excellent you should definitely to read it):

It’s this very concept of shaming teen moms that drives us into a deeper hole of isolation. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was a teen mom, I didn’t want to ask for help, I refused to apply for any aid, and I put myself in unhealthy situations so I wouldn’t have to face the judgment of others. It was horrible. Yet, no one ever bothered to talk to me about the occurences in my life that led up to my pregnancy. Or what my life was like before becoming a pregnant teen. No one knew that I was already depressed in high school. No one knew that I already faced many of the adversities that teen moms face too. My life may have been exactly the same if I hadn’t become a teen mom but no one cared to look at me until there was a baby involved (that no one really cared about either).

If you are genuinely interested in seeing teen pregnancy rates decrease,  encourage your school, city and state to provide comprehensive sexual education, increase access to birth control and emergency contraception, provide youth with honest (non-bias) answers when they have questions, and be the support teens need… THEN you will see your numbers decrease. Until then, good luck to NYC with this horrible ad.

But public service announcements like these aren’t new — hence my surprise at the outrage here. Problematic messages like these have been around for a long time, and young parent bloggers like Natasha and PRYMFace (Promoting Respect for Young Mothers) have been writing about them for a while.

I decided to bring all of these advertisements together, in one place, to drive home the point that, while the new NYC ads are terrible, they aren’t out of the ordinary. Take a look at these posters. As reproductive justice activists, we should not tolerate young parents being subjected to these narratives, especially in their own communities. Our response should not be limited to this new campaign, but the narratives that surround young people and their reproductive choices more broadly. Let this outcry be a way for us to begin doing something better.

What can we learn from The Baby Wait?

14 Nov

Adoption has been handled so badly on so many television programs that I approach any new show with credulity. Following Juno, there has been a proliferation of shows featuring real life  “birth mom” stories, including MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, TLC’s Birth Moms, Oxygen’s I’m Having Their Baby, and now Logo’s The Baby Wait. Each have their own special flaws, and some are more dangerous than others.

There are many good arguments that any shows about these intensely personal, extremely fraught decisions are exploitative. How can an expectant woman considering adoption make a free choice when everyone is already calling her a “birth mother”? How can she have the space to make such a decision with a camera in her face? And how could she ever change her mind without looking like a villain on primetime television?

Which brings us to the second problem: nearly all of these shows are presented in a way that favors the adoptive parents. I’m Having Their Baby puts it right in the title who this baby will “belong” to, while the title Birth Moms assumes, of course, that the adoption will and should take place. The Baby Wait seemingly presents both sides of the story, yet really only one set of parents are doing the waiting (and the show’s airing on Logo, a channel with programming designed for LGBT audiences, seems to be designed to appeal to same-sex couples considering adoption). These frameworks mean the shows are biased to present one outcome – adoption – as more favorable than others, and that’s a problem.

However, I have often argued that we need to talk more about adoption, we need to pay more attention to the stories of birth parents, and we need to have people outside of the adoption community learn about open adoption and adoption loss. That is why, despite their many flaws (including whether or not they should be on the air), it’s worth considering these shows for the opportunity they present to educate more people about adoption.

What are they teaching us, then?

To answer this question, I looked more closely at the The Baby Wait, which I find the most nuanced of the shows I’ve mentioned (admittedly, this is not a high bar to clear). The show highlights waiting periods – the time after placement with the adoptive family during which a mother can legally decide to parent her child. The length of the waiting period varies state by state. Again, during this intense, vulnerable time I do not believe you should have television cameras documenting your every thought and move – the very existence of the show seems exploitative. Yet, given that the show does exist, it provides a window into the common narratives and challenges that many surround adoptions today.

Here, I’ve gathered some of the most telling quotes I noticed in the shows first two episodes, with my thoughts on what these quotes tell us about adoption today.

“It would be like losing a child, and that’s not something I want to give much thought to.”

In the first episode, this quote was said by Paul, an adoptive father, when discussing the possibility that his new daughter’s birth mother would decide to parent. My response: exactly. Exactly! This is what the mother is going through during the waiting period. She is losing her child. That is the grief that she is facing to make way for your joy (and, in this case, to be used for television drama). Paul does recognize this, saying “This is now also a loss for Gen. And we have an incredible responsibility to live up to our end of the deal.” Yet, because of the way the show presents it, Genavieve’s loss is always portrayed as somewhat easier than the loss that Mark and Paul would face should she change her mind.

Genavieve is our birth mother.”

No, Mark (Paul’s husband), Genavieve is your daughter’s birth mother, not yours. I think it’s important to recognize that Genavieve has one replacement to the child, and another relationship with her daughter’s adoptive fathers. We don’t have a word for that relationship, making it difficult to situate birth parents within adoptive families. (And, in fact, because your daughter only has two adoptive father, you could drop the “birth” part – it’s not necessarily to delineate between an adoptive mother and a birth mother in this context.)

“I was really sad when they handed Morgan to Mark and Paul before me. I know they’re going to be her parents, but I’m her mother. I want to hold her so badly.”

Seeing Genavieve’s face when, immediately after birth, her daughter was handed to Mark and Paul before her was one of the more heartbreaking moments of the episodes. She, who had done all the work of pregnancy and delivery, has the moment of joy taken away from her by hospital staff who favor the adoptive father’s claim to the new baby. This was a moment to respect her, her work, and her relationship with her daughter – and it was denied to her.

“$36 for a piece of fabric?”

At a Gymboree store, Genavieve’s boyfriend seemed aghast at the cost of a baby outfit that Genavieve wanted to buy as a gift during her first post-placement visit with her daughter and Mark and Paul. Meanwhile, we’ve seen Mark and Paul in their beautiful Manhattan apartment, at their country house in Pennsylvania, and looking at $1000 strollers in a store that is actually called Buy Buy Baby. These examples highlight the differences in background, specifically class background, that birth and adoptive families often face. So often, adoption involves the transfer of children from families with less means to families with more, and adoption decisions are made from less privileged position. This is not just about money, it’s about who gets to parents on what terms, and whose parenthood is deemed acceptable (though, surely, the fact that the adoptive parents here are a same-sex couple warrants discussion beyond the scope of this post). This is not a system that promotes reproductive justice.

“That concerned me that she would be there and she would be holding Morgan.”

Paul and Mark both expressed nervousness at having Genavieve and her family over for Thanksgiving before the waiting period passed. This nervousness is understandable, and reflects a fear that many adoptive parents feel. This tension early in the relationship could make it challenging to forge the type of trust and friendship required to make open adoptions successful. It’s understandable as an emotional response on the part of the adoptive parents, and it’s good to see them openly discussing it — and it’s even better that they didn’t let this nervousness alter their plans to see Genavieve.

“If she tries to get Morgan back, she needs to leave.”

… said Genavieve’s mother when Genavieve was feeling a large amount of regret, threatening to quick her out of the house if she chose to parent. Lack of family support is a common reason for expectant mothers to consider adoption.

“I want her back so bad. I’m so tired of people saying that I can’t do it. And for once I just wanted someone to say I could.”

It’s easy to say that Genavieve couldn’t have been a mother – and it likely would have required a great deal of support for her to parent her daughter, as well as taking her longer to finish school and become self-sufficient. Mark and Paul are loving parents with a secure and stable home. When they keep custody of Morgan at the end of the episode, the viewer knows she will always be loved and provided for. But to what extent was this family made at the expense of a young mother’s own hope to parent her child, a hope that continually dismissed and belittled? It’s easy to say that this happy result was the inevitably best result, but we must wonder if another path was possible – because Genavieve will likely be wondering that for the rest of her life.

“Alright, well, take care of yourself!”

This is the parting line from the social worker (or employee at the adoption agency, it’s unclear if she was, in fact, a social worker) when Genavieve calls to confirm she will not be changing her mind. To which I say, where the hell were you all episode, social worker? Where were you when Genavieve was feeling depressed? Where were you when Mark and Paul were feeling nervous about their first visit? Where were you when everyone needed ongoing support and counseling to process their grief and joy, and make sense of this new and strange relationship?  And where will you be now that the adoption is complete? Perhaps she was there all along and it simply was never filmed, which was a huge misrepresentation. The more problematic scenario, though, is that she wasn’t there, and Genavieve was not receiving the support that every parent in this situation deserves.

“It’s an open adoption. I know it’s very different. It’s not how it’s normally done. But Kristen is a part of our lives.”

In the second episode, adoptive mother Marcie begins the conversation of open adoption with her friends at her baby shower, stressing the importance for her relationship with Kristen, the expectant mother who plans to place her daughter with Marcie and her husband Mike. She’s starting the conversation early and focusing on the mother as a person with her own importance, without even mentioning the baby. There is a respect conveyed here that Marcie will continue to show throughout the episode.

“I was so ashamed. Before I got pregnant with Ellie, I was in the good place, I was starting to pull things together and I was going to go back to school. Then I found out I was pregnant and I just became so obsessed and I became wrapped up and consumed with the shame. ‘Oh, she’s still so young and here she is on Baby #3.”

Kristen has a 4 year-old son and a 13 month-old daughter. Because of a history of substance abuse, her son lives with her parents, while she and her daughter live with her mother-in-law. It worth noting that the show is featuring a birth mother who isn’t a teenager and who already has children. What’s more important here, though, is the huge amount of shame that Kristen will continually mention. Whenever life-altering decisions are made because of shame and stigma, we, as reproductive justice activists, must know we still have a great deal of work to be done.

“We were thrilled, because we had seen the pain she had gone through, so in order for her heart to be healed and be able to have what she desires so badly was a blessing for us.”

Here, Marcie’s mother tell Kristen how pleased she felt when she learned Mike and Marcie had been matched for an adoption. One of the less discussed challenges in adoptions is the prolonged, exhausting, emotionally-draining struggle with infertility many couples face. In moving on to adoption, many couples must mourn the loss of the family they thought they would have, and make room for the new kind of family that adoption requires – a family that has room to include an ongoing relationship with the birth parents as well.

“You know that if at moment you want to see her, you just need to call us and say you’re on your way.”

Mike says this to Kristen while they’re at her home the first day of the adoption. Mike and Marcie went to Kristen’s house after they were discharged from the hospital so that she could spend some more time with the baby, and so that they could have longer to say goodbye. The openness he’s conveying here is what most birth mothers need to feel supported in their decision. They must feel welcomed as part of the child’s adoptive family in their own right.

“I still can’t seem to shake the shame about getting pregnant.” And later: “I’ve definitely avoided people because I’ve been afraid of them thinking I’m a bad mom or that I’m not good enough or that I’m a let down.”

Oh, Kristen. No women should feel this, and no women should be making decisions based on shame.

“I love you so, so, so, so, so much.”

So says Judah, Mike and Marcie’s son, on the phone to Kristen when he first meets his new sister Ellie. Kristen tearfully replies that she loves him, too. Kristen is part of their family.

“How are you?”  “I’m worried about you.”

A phone conversation with Marcie and Kristen, showing Marcie’s ongoing recognition of and concern for Kristen’s grief. She goes on to say, “I know that we have Ellie, but we have you first. You were put into our life before she was. I hate to know that you’re hurting so bad.” This is an adoptive mother that is not just looking for a child to complete her family (though she is, of course, looking for that), she has genuine care for Kristen outside of the fact that Kristen gave birth her daughter.

“I got a whole new family.”

In the end, this is what I have found is most important for birth mothers’ ongoing well-being and mental health: are they considered part of their child’s adoptive family? When the answer is yes, they have less regret and experience more joy in continuing to be part of their child’s life. This does not mean it’s easy. Kristen also says: “Am I gonna feel this way for the rest of my life? … Is there more that I could have done or should have done?” And the answer to this, too, is yes: she will probably wonder about this forever. For birth mothers even in the best of open adoptions, there is almost always a loss accompanying whatever is gained. This grief should be an openly acknowledged part of adoption, because only be first acknowledging it can we become accountable to it.

I have not really written this post to encourage you to watch this show, or others like it. But, for those that are watching it, or are having conversations with those watching it, I hope that you’ll think carefully about what’s shown, what’s missing, what challenges your assumptions about adoption, and what needs to change.

The Legacy of Georgia Tann: When adoption looks an awful lot like kidnapping

26 Jul

Georgia Tann is among history’s lesser-known villains. It seems like the role of director of the Tennesse Children’s Home (from 1924-1949) should be played by a mild-mannered, hard-working, well-meaning social worker. And indeed, that was the image that Tann projected during her thirty years playing that role. She was saint and savoir to thousands of orphaned and abused children, tirelessly finding stable middle-class homes where they would thrive.

Except she wasn’t a saint, and they weren’t orphaned or abused.  Instead, she was a kidnapper on the largest scale.

Tann removed children from safe, loving, but frequently poor, homes. She did this by taking them from doctors’ offices and telling their parents they were sick – and after selling the child, telling the parents the child had died.  She fabricated reasons to take them directly from the home “for the child’s welfare.” She stole the children of single parents from nursery schools.  A criminal with a flair for manipulation, she frequently placed children in adoptive homes with many of Memphis’s more powerful figures, so that they would feel an obligation to uphold the legality of the adoptions.  Across the country, Tann arranged adoptions for actress Joan Crawford, writer Pearl Buck, and New York governor Herbert Lehmen (who, as governor, closed adoptee’s access to their original birth certificates).

Many of the secretive policies around private adoptions in the United States have roots in the precedent that Tann set, and in the laws and court decisions that she worked (and bribed) to push through. Sealed birth certificates? High payments from adoptive parents? For-profit business models? Lack of birth family rights? The direct transfer of children from poor families to richer ones – for the good of the child? These are all part of her legacy.

This is coercive baby-stealing, corruption of the highest degree.  But isn’t it a thing of the past?

It isn’t for Encarnacion Romero.  Romero is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, who was arrested in a raid on her Missouri workplace. While detained, a judge ruled Romero’s “lack of visitation” was tantamount to abandonment. Her son was placed in foster care, her parental rights were terminated, and her son was adopted by a married, white American couple.  An investigation by indicates there are over 5,000 children either in foster care or with adoptive families from the same reason.

It isn’t for Erin Yellow Robe. Yellow Robe lives on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One day a social worker called to tell her that she was going to be arrested for using drugs, and that her children were going to be taken into foster care. Even though Yellow Robe denied ever using drugs, even though the threat was made based on the accusation of one person (who turned out to have a grudge against the family), and even though her mother was willing to care for the children, they were taken away – in violation of both logic and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Yellow Robe was never arrested. The Crow Creek tribe, to which Yellow Robe belongs, has lost 33 children to white foster homes. There are only 1,400 people on the reservation. An NPR investigation indicates that approximately 700 Native American children in South Dakota are removed from their homes every year under similarly dubious circumstances.

Unlike the in Tann’s story, though, these removals and adoptions are public ones, meaning they are conducted by the state through the foster care system. This is no longer about one dangerous woman; it’s about an abusive system.

For these families and those like them, the legacy of Georgia Tann isn’t a historical footnote. It’s a tragedy that they live every day.  The legal system continually allows parents to be deprived of their parental rights for crimes either nonexistent or disproportionate to the response, and those in power seem to let it happen “for the good of the child.” It’s no coincidence that the children are removed from poorer families and families of color, and placed with white, middle-class foster and adoptive families. Who is more likely to have access the resources and power when it comes time for a court to make its final rulings? Perhaps it’s time that we reassess what is for the good of the child. And perhaps our first answer, barring evidence to the contrary, should be with the family from which they came.

It is disingenuous to entirely conflate these coercive tactics and adoption, and that is not what I am trying to do.  There are ethical people who work in the adoption system, and there are ethical adoptive parents who work hard, every day, to live in adoptions that respect their child’s birth family and support their child’s complicated journey through life as an adoptee. But as long as adoption is, in part, a systematic way of transferring children from families with less privilege to families with more privilege, we should not be surprised to find these abuses hiding within that system – sometimes in plain sight.