Before entering Forever Families, a Livonia-based adoption agency, I paused and took several deep breaths. I was adopted from Romania in 1992 when I was 9 months old and as I stood there, I wondered if I was ready to meet the social workers and decision makers responsible for altering the lives of so many children. I, and other adoptees, live haunted by them, these faceless entities who signed paperwork, made a ruling, and placed us into the arms of strangers. In some ways, it felt like the ghosts of my past were just beyond the door.
I buzzed in. Jean Stenzel, chief administrative officer, greeted me at the front desk. She and Denise Weiss, executive director, cofounded the agency in 1997. Combined, the two women have more than 50 years of experience facilitating adoptions. Together, and with the help of a robust team of social workers, they focus on domestic infant adoption placement services and state ward adoptions. Though they offer support to those who hope to adopt internationally, they are not directly involved in the process.
Stenzel shook my hand and mentioned that Weiss was in a meeting with a birth mother but would return soon. She gave me a short tour of an otherwise ordinary office space except for a small children’s playroom. “We use this room for visitations and meet-and-greets,” she said.
Nervous, I reminded myself why I was there: National Adoption Awareness Month is in November, yet I still felt misrepresented as an adoptee — like no one understands what adoption truly is or its lifelong impact. When the topic of adoption enters the public sphere, it is typically limited to one of three narratives. First, the feel-good narrative. Tear-jerking birth parent/adoptee reunions and comedies like Instant Family fall into this category. The second, adoption horror stories. Whether fictionalized, like The Orphan, or real, like the Tennessee woman who flew her “violent” 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia in 2010, society loves the thrill of an attachment disorder. Then there’s the adoption journey blogs. The ones where adoptive parents tout the “miracles” of adoption and post pictures of themselves holding signs that read “waiting for you #AdoptionRocks.”
We want to think of adoption as the perfect solution, as a one-time, sparkling occasion by fixating on its positive aspects, like giving children a better life, the formation of a new family, and the triumph over infertility. But while adoption does bring joy and happiness, grief and loss are also at the center of every adoption story — a narrative society rarely acknowledges. Nationally renowned adoption experts Deborah N. Silverstein and Sharon Kaplan list both grief and loss as two of seven “core issues of adoption.” Every member of the “adoption triad,” birth mother, adoptive parents, and the adoptee, is affected in varying ways. But I’ve noticed that society, even my own family, finds it difficult to discuss grief and loss.
However, Forever Families is one of many metro Detroit adoption agencies working to change this conversation. At the forefront of the process, their domestic infant adoption services are uniquely personal and human, so I wanted to learn more about how they confront grief during the initial stages of adoption.
Stenzel brought me into a room with a long conference table. She sat across from me, folded her hands, and leaned forward. “Now, what can I do for you, young lady?”
To Parent or Not to Parent
“Adoption is all about choice,” says Stenzel, who manages the day-to-day business operations at Forever Families. However, adoption isn’t a popular choice. According to the National Council for Adoption’s most recent statistics, domestic infant adoptions represent less than one-half of 1% of all U.S. births, about 4.6 adoptions per 1,000 infants.
Weiss joined us in the conference room. She works closely with birth mothers, birth fathers when they choose to be involved, and adoptive parents throughout the domestic adoption process. Women who consider adoption come from all levels of society and circumstances: highly educated women, women who have been sexually abused, women who can’t afford a second child, and women who know their lifestyle isn’t a match, she says. “When a woman comes to us and she’s in crisis pregnancy, she only has two choices: she’s either going to parent or she’s no.” “Crisis pregnancy” is a term used at Forever Families to describe an “unwanted pregnancy.”
Forever Families must ensure they do not “coerce” the birth mother into choosing adoption. Michigan Adoption Code prohibits coercion of any kind, and even forbids adoption agencies from advertising for birth mothers. However, agencies can say they offer free “birth counseling services for women who are pregnant and considering adoption,” says Stenzel.
To help women weigh their options, Weiss gives them a one-inch thick manual, of her own creation, titled “My Plan.” Inside, are hundreds of metro Detroit resources including, parenting classes, women’s shelters, food pantries, and even breastfeeding support groups. Weiss insists that if a woman decides to parent, she must be prepared for the baby. She recalled a woman who showed up one day with 6-month-old twins and wanted to place them for adoption. “We knew she was just struggling for support,” says Weiss. She and Stenzel cared for the babies while the exhausted mother got some much-needed relief. They also provided counseling and helped her find support resources.
Whether a birth mother chooses to parent or chooses adoption, the No. 1 client is always the child, says Weiss. No matter the circumstances which lead women to choose adoption, Stenzel and Weiss put the child’s well-being first.
Choosing the Adoptive Parents
Weiss hands me a photobook created through the online service Snapfish, explaining that Forever Families requires all adoptive parents to make one as a way for birth mothers to get to know them. On the cover, a couple in their mid-30s pose in front of a beach laughing and holding one another. I thumbed to the first page, a “dear birth mother letter.” Reading their tender, desperate words, I felt my throat harden and had to stop.
As an adoptee, letters like this are difficult to read. Not only because of the great love expressed, but because heterosexual couples, unlike gay couples or singles, often detail their struggles with infertility — which is one of the main reasons couples choose to adopt. The reality of being someone’s “plan b” smacks me across the face. Though my parents love me with all their heart and embraced adoption as their calling, I know, deep down, that had they been fertile, they wouldn’t have chosen to adopt.
Adoption is an intentional act, maybe even more intentional than conceiving naturally, but by the time an infertile couple decides to adopt, they are already emotionally drained and grieving the loss of their would-be biological child, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. For the adoption to be healthy and successful, adoptive parents must cope with feeling like they weren’t meant to be biological parents and grapple with questions like “why me?” Both Stenzel and Weiss counsel adoptive parents and help normalize their worries, sadness, and insecurities as they wait for a child.
“How do the birth mothers choose?” I ask Weiss.
“They’re all such good people that sometimes there has to be something that clicks,” Weiss explains. It could be because the applicants are Red Wings fans, or because they vacation in the same places, or because they have a “dog named Coco.” Stenzel describes it as a “gut feeling.”
Ensuring adoptive parents are “good people” is a rigorous process. Forever Families accepts all applicants, including singles and gay couples, but each is subject to a risk assessment. They must pass local police clearances, state clearances, and Adam Walsh clearances (i.e. they cannot be a registered sex offender). Forever Families also assesses the applicants’ social and family histories, financials, education, and conducts a home study. “It’s an extremely invasive process. We’re getting into your personal life and you have to be comfortable enough with us, or whatever agency you choose, because we’re going to be asking you questions that you just don’t tell a stranger,” Stenzel says.
Once approved for adoption, applicants enter a “waiting pool.” Michigan did away with waiting lists, a system which placed children with adoptive parents on a first-come-first-serve basis, in the mid-1990s, Weiss says. Now, all applicants have an equal opportunity — but they must be selected by a birth mother. For adoptive parents, the wait can be agonizing. They are no longer in control and their dream of having a child lies in the hands of someone else.
Challenges Agencies Face Throughout the Process
When a birth mother selects adoptive parents, Weiss makes sure her requests concerning the adoption are met. She can choose to meet the adoptive parents or not, to have an open or closed adoption, or to receive financial assistance from the adoptive parents if needed. Birth mothers can be compensated for job wages or for living expenses, but not for both, Stenzel explains. To protect the agency, the reimbursement is distributed after the termination of rights, so it cannot be “misconstrued” as payment for the child or coercion.
Until a child is born, it is considered a nonentity, and adoption can’t legally occur. After delivery, the birth mother signs temporary placement orders, which allows the adoptive parents to take the child home, Stenzel says. According to Michigan law, birth parents may consent to adoption outside of court within 72 hours of birth, and with a lawyer present. They may even change their minds during that 72-hour period. However, circumstances such as an unknown birth father might prevent an out-of-court proceeding. Though adoption agencies must prove they made fair efforts to locate a birth father, if they are unsuccessful, paternal terminations can be conducted on unknowns, Stenzel says. The reasonable expectations clause in the Michigan Adoption Code addresses all the “what ifs” and prevents a birth father from showing up and taking the child years later.
Months of paperwork, preparation, joy, and pain accumulate in 10 short minutes. At the adoption hearing, the birth mother terminates her parental rights, papers are signed, and the child is placed permanently with the adoptive parents.
The Lifelong Effects of Adoption
Adoption is a “loving” decision but a difficult one, says Stenzel, “There’s a grieving process. Nobody goes into adoption gleefully and happily. They do it because they know it’s what’s best for the child, not because it’s a pleasant experience.” She pauses before adding, “People misguidedly think placing a child for adoption is throwing a child away…” her voice breaks, and tears roll down her cheeks. “I’m getting choked up about it… it bothers me. They’re making a very difficult decision not to raise them because they can’t at this time in their life. Don’t look down on them for that choice.” Birth mothers, she says, are the strongest, most admirable women she has ever met, and they never stop caring about their child.
Many human experiences are legitimized and delegitimized by pieces of paper. Life and death, marriage and divorce, adoption. However, I think one fact remains after adoption is said and done: no amount of paperwork can alter the biological link between parent and child. This is the adoptee’s loss, a primal loss that society tells us to be grateful for.
I am grateful. I love my parents and the life I was given; it’s preferable to a Romanian orphanage, though most things are. But I’ve also lost much: a culture, a language, and knowing what it feels like to look at someone and see a resemblance. We must stop forcing adoption into a pretty box. It is unison and heartbreak, joy and sorrow, losses and gains – an oddly beautiful paradox.
Through their passionate client care, outstanding counsel, and sacrifice, Stenzel, Weiss, and the many social workers at Forever Families are changing the adoption narrative. They pour their hearts into their work, into others, and respect the loss and grief in adoption.
When I left, I realized these two women weren’t ghosts; they were more like a far-off dream. And though adoption can be painful, kindhearted advocates like Stenzel and Weiss are lighthouses in a dark storm.
To learn more about Forever Families, visit forever-families.org