The Best Choice For Their Families
Seeking wholeness for all, LSSI supports birthmothers
and adoptive families
Eye on LSSI, Spring 2012 ( Download PDF of entire publication)
No one suspected that Danielle*, a college student, was pregnant — at first, not even Danielle. She’d gained some weight, but she was still getting her period. As winter came, she used bulky sweaters to cover the extra pounds.
“For most of the pregnancy, I stayed in my room,” she says. “I felt like I was going through depression.” When she finally went to a doctor for help, the positive pregnancy test came as a shock. Danielle, an only child of whom much was expected, didn’t feel she could tell her mother. “I didn’t have the resources — a job, a college degree, a [driver’s] license, anything,” she said. The father was completely out of the picture and uninterested. Who could she turn to?
She didn’t have to look far. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) specializes in helping birthmothers as they decide whether to parent or pursue adoption. LSSI’s small but very successful statewide pregnancy counseling program offers pregnant women free counseling and defrays such costs as rent, food and transportation to medical appointments. About two-thirds of participants choose to make a parenting plan, according to Ruth Jajko, LSSI’s statewide director of adoption services and pregnancy counseling. Danielle was leaning toward an open adoption.
Widespread, but little-understood
Open adoptions allow the parents and one or both birthparents to come to an understanding about the level of contact and exchange of information. Though these agreements are not legally enforceable in Illinois, today the majority (55 percent) of U.S. infant adoptions are open and 40 percent are “mediated” (allowing indirect contact through photos and letters). Only 5 percent are closed, according to a March 2012 report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Open adoptions have many benefits, as research compiled by the institute reveals: greater satisfaction for adoptive parents, less worry for birthmothers and, for the child, access to health, genetic and biological family information. Yet institute researchers say myths and misconceptions about open adoption still persist today.
Perhaps that’s because in the past, the vast majority of adoptions were closed, Jajko says. “In the past, adoption carried a stigma. Everything was shrouded in secrecy,” she says. “That left everything in doubt for the child. Our hope is that children adopted now [will] not have so many unanswered questions.”
Just before Christmas 2011, Danielle received another shock: She was having twins. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth prematurely to Calder and Cordelia — before she’d had a chance to select a family from several portfolios available to her. Thankfully, LSSI staff knew that Stephanie and Ron Lundeen, a couple who’d struggled with infertility, might be a good fit. The Lundeens were open to parenting a child of any race (Danielle is African American, and Stephanie and Ron are Caucasian) and wanted an open adoption. Danielle was open to considering a Caucasian family for her child.
More important than the race of the family adopting the twins, Danielle wanted to ensure the twins would grow up understanding her decision. “My biggest fear was that they would hate me,” she says. “I didn’t want that. I want them to know I love them, and I made this decision for them.”
A great common interest
Fifteen months after giving birth, Danielle sits in the Lundeen’s living room and quickly helps the twin’s big sister Maya, also adopted through LSSI, work out a sharing issue with her little brother, Calder. A few feet away, Stephanie, their adoptive mother, kisses and plays with Cordelia, eliciting waves of giggles. Danielle doesn’t live with the family, but she is a welcome visitor. It’s been a few months since she last saw the twins at their first birthday party. So, she spends a little time catching up on their development and sharing some of her own progress with Stephanie.
Although Danielle’s mom still doesn’t know about the twins, Danielle tells Stephanie she is collecting letters and photos. “I want to make a scrapbook so that eventually, when I tell my mother, she’ll see this was a good decision,” Danielle says.
“With open adoptions, you have such a great common interest,” Stephanie says. “[Danielle] is just a wonderful person, easy to talk to and get along with. It feels like she is part of our family.”
Is that confusing? “No,” Stephanie says. The relationship is not one of co-parenting, she explains. Birthmothers surrender their parental rights. Adoptive families and birthmothers work together to make an agreement on numbers of visits and how they will communicate. LSSI staff members work to address any privacy concerns.
“I think initially each side feels like the other holds all the cards,” says maternity counselor and social worker Kathy Santangelo. “It’s why we try to have a birthmother and an adoptive family come and speak [during adoptive parent training sessions] — to let people know what open adoption is really like.” Stephanie and Ron are among several couples who share their positive experiences, helping to dispel any misconceptions.
Ron admits he once held some misconceptions. Before the Lundeens looked at adoption through LSSI, Ron assumed all adoptions were closed. “I was won over to the idea,” he says. “Why aren’t all adoptions open? I wanted my kids to know they were adopted from the beginning … and have as many supportive connections as possible.”
“I think parents sometimes hold back [from open adoption], because they wonder if their children will still feel like their kids,” Stephanie adds. “But these are so our kids. [Open adoption] is just a way to make a different kind of extended family.”
The only way to go
That sense of extended family is something Rockford-area parents Joe and Deb also appreciate. They built a family with their son, Dylan, 7, and daughter, Jade, 1, through LSSI’s adoption services. For them, open adoption was the only way to go.
“Ultimately, I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Joe says. “Eventually, all children want to know their connections. Children with a lot of issues later on seem to have more of a closed adoption. We’d rather let our kids know from Day 1 that a lot of people love them. And Brittney [Jade’s birthmother] doesn’t have to wonder about us for 18 years, either.”
Practically speaking, Deb says it’s taken away any fear of her children looking for their birthmothers. “That’s because they already have a relationship,” she says. “Adoption is part of who Dylan and Jade are. There’s nothing to hide. We know [Dylan’s birthmother and Jade’s birthmother] love them just as much as we do.”
Deb and Joe keep in touch with Dylan’s birthmother, Ashley, by e-mail, as is her preference. Their updates and photos are a comforting reminder that Dylan has a loving family. Ashley sends Dylan presents for his birthday and holidays, and she visited the family on his fourth birthday. She’s happy with the open arrangement with Dylan’s parents.
“Deb and Joe give him love, stability and everything he needs… This is what [I] wanted for him,” Ashley says. Ashley, herself adopted as an infant, feels empathy for her own birthmother, and is glad her maternity services counselor “was there every step of the way.”
Jade’s birthmother, Brittney, welcomed visits from the beginning. She wanted her older daughter, Bella, now 2½, to get to know Jade.
Like Danielle, Brittney came to open adoption by way of LSSI’s maternity services. “I already had one daughter, and financially I wouldn’t have been able to care for her,” she says.
Maternity counselor Amber Francis, who worked with Brittney, helps birthmothers decide whether to create a parenting plan or an adoption plan. “Some people have no idea what they want to do,” she says. “I’m a neutral party to make sure they’re getting medical benefits, counseling and more. If they want to make an adoption plan like Brittney did, I help present the profiles of families. Brittney had six families to consider. For her, Deb and Joe stood out.”
“When I met you, it felt like this was meant to be,” Brittney tells Deb. “A closed adoption would’ve been harder. This way, when you keep in touch, you don’t have to feel that part of you … is gone forever.” When Brittney’s eyes tear up, Deb reaches out and puts an arm around her shoulder. She doesn’t immediately say anything. She just listens.
Jade’s first birthday party “reminded me how fast they grow up,” Brittney continues, sharing how welcome the family, especially Deb’s mother, made her feel during the party. Her smile is lovely but heartwrenching. “There are good feelings, but at the same time you feel the loss, too,” Brittney says.
There is a lingering silence. Then, Deb offers softly: “That’s the other thing. With open adoption, you can’t ignore that while you are happy, someone else is sad.”
Jajko acknowledges this reality, too. “There is a bittersweetness for everyone in the adoption triad,” Jajko says. “In order to come together, most had to experience a loss (of a birth child, of an imagined biological child or of a birth family). So LSSI works to help everyone involved come through this whole.”
Maternity counselor Amber Francis can empathize. “I was adopted, too, and I didn’t know my birth family,” Francis says.
“You wonder things like, ‘Who do I look like?’ Dylan’s birthmother was also in a closed adoption where she knew nothing of her history, and she didn’t want Dylan to always wonder,” Deb says. “I know from working with Brittney, that after surrendering [her parental rights], it gives her great comfort on really hard days to know that Jade is loved and well cared for.”
Brittney and Deb wear matching heart pendants – a gift from Joe and Deb not too long after the adoption papers were finalized. “I haven’t really taken it off since you gave it to me,” Brittney tells Deb.
“We experienced a long journey with infertility,” Deb says. “But looking back, if we’d had [biological children], we never would have experienced this. There is no greater compliment in the world than someone trusting you to raise their child.” Deb and Brittney smile at each other, both certain that open adoption was the best choice for their families.
To learn more about LSSI’s Pregnancy Counseling services, call 888/671-0300 or visit www.AdoptionIllinois.org/pregnant.html.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.