I like to think that no prospective adoptive parent wants to adopt a baby whose mother really wanted to keep him–and might have done, with the right kind of support. But adoption agencies by and large are in the business of adoption. They are not in the business of counseling or supporting women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies to do anything else but place their children for adoption.
That being the case, while “coercion” may be too strong a word to apply to all adoption agencies, it is hard to see how any adoption agency is not mostly hoping that the expectant mothers that come to them will choose to place their babies for adoption. For this reason, it can be hard to sort out a relatively ethical agency from a downright coercive one.
In the end, you have to make the call for yourself and look most of all to the individual circumstances of any placement you find offered you, but there are things to watch for as you research the best agency you can find.
Not all of these is a sure sign in and of itself that your agency is practicing coercion with expectant moms. But each of them is a reason to look closer.
Caveat: This is all in reference to adoptions in the United States.
1. Calling expectant women in crisis pregnancies “birth mothers” before they place their children, or even well before they’ve given birth. The term “birth mother” is questionable in and of itself. Many mothers who have placed children for adoption find it an offensive label that distances them from the fact of their real motherhood. But to call a pregnant woman a birth mother (read: “merely” a birth mother) before she has signed away her parental rights–even before she has given birth–is to subtly distance her in her own mind from the possibility of keeping her baby. She is always-already “just” there to provide a baby for others to adopt.
Adoption professionals should be referring to pregnant women working with them as just that–pregnant women or expectant mothers. These women may be considering adoption, but they are not “birth mothers” at least until they have placed (if indeed it is ever appropriate to call them this).
This ought to be a red flag, and it is. But, here’s the rub: I have never come across an agency that didn’t do this at least somewhere in their materials, website or just in talking among themselves. What that says to me is that “adoption coercion” is almost a redundancy. [Healthy, newborn infant] adoption in the United States is coercive. But we can work to make it less so by letting the agencies we work with–perhaps especially the best of them–know that this language is offensive and inappropriate.
2. Providing agency “counseling” for expectant mothers—often this is about talking mothers into placement not truly helping them make a decision. The TLC show, “Birth Moms” gives some sadly excellent examples of this. The counseling basically amounts to a “how to give up your baby” class. How can you know what kind of counseling an agency offers? All you can do is ask. Listen carefully and consider what it would sound like to you if you were a pregnant woman thinking about adoption. Is it the kind of counseling you would want or need?
3. Providing housing—esp. on agency grounds—for expectant mothers. It’s a fine line that different states handle differently. How much pre-birth assistance to a pregnant woman is okay and what amount counts as coercive or as baby-selling? Any amount of help can place a sense of obligation on the woman that she owes her baby to the agency (or prospective adopters) in return for help and services. On the other hand, it feels cold not to offer a woman help when she is pregnant, whether she plans to place her baby in adoption or not. If you yourself end up giving assistance to an expectant mother, be sure to remember what it is–assistance to an expectant mother. Make sure the woman hears from you that there are no strings attached to your help. If you can’t say this to her with honesty, don’t accept the “match.”
4. Websites that subtly give one message to prospective adoptive parents (open adoption means the birth mother might get a letter once in a while and she will probably lose interest in a few years) and another to expectant moms (open adoption means you will always have access to your child, you will still be in his life as much as you want to, with no mention that open adoption is not usually legally binding).
This agency’s website is an excellent example of this double-message. I used the form on the “pregnant?” side of this website to ask if open adoption is legally binding in the state in which it operates (Louisiana) and how soon a woman was allowed to sign a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) without revocation in the state. The response was that no, open adoption is not legally binding there. If you watch the birth mother testimony videos about how “in control” they are of their adoptions, you will hear no hint of the fact that in the state where they live, the adoptive parents of their children could change addresses, phone numbers, never contact the agency again and disappear–legally–regardless of promises made to their children’s first mothers.
Always read the whole website, both the “for birth parents” side and the “for adoptive parents” side. Request all print materials given to each as well and maybe even call the agency posing as an expectant mother to see how eager they are for you to “work with” them or for you to use their “services.” That work and those services are for the sake of getting babies to prospective adoptive parents, not for your sake.
5. Being a for-profit agency–or a not-for-profit one that seems a bit too well-heeled. Find out what the fees cover and what the agency’s finances are like.
The agency we used to adopt our children has fees that are roughly the same as the current federal tax-credit for adoption. They do this to keep adoption within the reach of a maximum number of parents, regardless of income. (Of course, tax-credits are not accessible to all income-levels, but it’s the best we are doing in the United States right now.) This leaves the agency with a shoestring budget to keep the lights on and the phones hooked up and put gas in the social workers’ cars. Poverty in an adoption agency can be a good thing when it means no one is raking in cash by selling babies.
6. Being in a state that allows TPRs to be signed too early and without a revocation period. Some states allow non-revocable terminations of parental rights to be signed by a mother as soon as 24 hours after the birth of her baby.
(When I questioned that Louisiana agency above, the answer was 72 hours after birth with no revocation period–or opportunity to change your mind. This is the same law we have in my state where our children were adopted. One came to us right after those 72 hours were up and the other came 10 days after birth because she and her mother were both still in the hospital. But in general, agencies tend to push for the TPRs to be signed as soon as legally allowable. A great agency is one that not only does not push this way, but perhaps provides temporary care for a baby a mother isn’t sure she can take home, but isn’t sure she can relinquish. Our agency sometimes uses the services of a larger, nearby agency, that offers a nursery for this purpose, giving mothers more time to think through a decision after the birth of their babies.)
Look around and you will often find other abuses occurring in states with short TPR signing limits—like egregious violations of the rights of biological fathers. Utah is a notorious example. If you can help it, just never, ever adopt a baby born in Utah. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but I stand by it.
7. Providing nothing but adoption services. An agency that also provides foster care, or single-parent/low-income assistance to women actually parenting their children is a good indication that women are encouraged to make their own decisions rather than pushed towards adoption. Many “social services” agencies do all of this work, not merely adoption.
8. Abortion versus Adoption rhetoric. When adoption is portrayed by the agency as merely an alternative to abortion and parenting the child is not explored in much detail, it erases a woman’s agency to choose to keep her baby. An over-emphasis on adoption as the non-abortion alternative to a crisis pregnancy also tends to indicate a moralism in an agency that is likely to extend to disapproval of single, young or poor mothers rather than a desire to help them keep their babies. Religious-based agencies (though not all of them–Lutheran Social Services being a notable exception) often have this rhetoric. You can be sure that the rhetoric alone is shaming to single women expecting babies, and shame is coercive.
For a thoughtful post on why adoption is not simply an alternative to abortion, see Racilous.
9. A high percentage of pre-birth matches that don’t “fall through” after birth. The rough percentage should be close to 50/50. When few mothers are choosing to keep their babies after birth, the agency is probably doing something coercive rather than just happening across women who turn out to place in higher than typical numbers. That might sound hard–who wants to go through the disappointment of a missed chance to adopt? But it is realistic.
10. An overall “babies-for-parents” rather than “families-for-babies” attitude in the agency. If you feel like a customer, if the adoptions an agency is making feel like orders fulfilled, if you are not challenged to think about the possibility of accepting a harder-to-place child rather than the perfectly healthy same-race newborn you might have produced biologically, the agency might be emphasizing adoptive parents to the detriment of expectant mothers and their children.
I also tell friends who ask to look at the guidelines for adoptive parents. If they have too many restrictions (income, marital status, age, current number of children, years married, sexual orientation, etc.) it could be a red flag. Willingness to work with any qualified (passed a home study) prospective parent shows that they are most concerned about finding parents for babies who need them and less about wooing the perfect, monied customer with a Leave it to Beaver profile that can impress expectant moms (or worse, shame them about their own deficiencies) into placing their babies for adoption.
Wait, Make that Eleven
This is a tough one, but in general, encouraging prospective adoptive parents to meet a baby before the mother has signed her final TPR can be a problem. I know adoptive parents who were present for the birth of their child. I know first mothers who wanted the adoptive parents present. Often, people are very happy with this arrangement. Especially in hindsight, when things have gone well, it can be a beautiful memory.
But things don’t always “go well.” For this reason, an agency should not encourage it. Having adoptive parents at the birth or hospital after birth can create a serious difficulty for a mother who has decided she wants to keep her baby. And of course, it can be gut-wrenching to watch the birth and then find out the baby won’t be yours after all. If possible, a pregnant woman should have her “own” support for her birth experience, rather than the adoptive family–or at least in addition to it.
For just about every red flag on this list and a few extras, see my write-up of that awful TLC show.
The longer I live adoption, the more important these ethics become. I am grateful that we were able to find just about as ethical an agency as I have ever found–though they are far from perfect–and that the individual circumstances of our adoptions fulfill my ethical standards. But it has taken years to learn just what those standards are, because the problems in adoption are not well known by people outside of it. Adoption is too often assumed to be an uncomplicatedly good thing. It is far from this.
Please add your own red flags, anecdotes, or links in the comments and let’s keep spreading the word.
Update May 2013: For those who are concerned about the possibility of corruption in International adoption, there is a wonderful post here, that gives some bullet points to consider when choosing an agency/country/program. It’s part of a series considering the importance of reform and ethics in international adoption–especially on the part of people who are motivated by religious beliefs to help “orphans”.