Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Birds and Bees for Adoptees: Where’s the Buzz?

Guest Post by Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

Central to all our lives is the question of who we are—the desire to know who came before us and what about them we retain in ourselves. 

Do I have my grandmother’s nose? Who had my shade of blue eyes? On whom can I blame my frizzy mousy hair? Am I hot-tempered because my ancestors were Italian or Irish, or do I brood and go off on long cerebral tangents because they were Russian?

When we look at our biological parents, siblings, and extended families, each of us sees parts of ourselves reflected back. Through the act of sex, genes from each of our parents are transmitted, collide into one another, and then ricochet off to form new patterns.  While not clones—we know, we see, we feel—we are from a common cross-pollinated pool in which we have all been dipped. 

In biological families, we can identify who had sex with whom to produce the people we call our own.

For adopted children, however, this family parlor game of dissecting facial features, body type, aptitude, and temperament cannot be played out. Often, as in my own case—my 11-year old son is a Russian adoptee—adoptive parents know nothing of the ancestry or the biology of their children. Adopted children arrive in our lives fully formed, like the stork delivering the baby, void of reproductive biology or history.

For the single-digit age group, the stork tale is a very serviceable story, up to a point. But pinch-hitting, as is true for any temporary fix, ultimately exhausts its usefulness: the introspection and self-awareness of emerging adolescence inevitably disrupts the story line.

The happy-ever-after fairy tales of Disney’s family sagas, whether about deer, dogs, or elephants, give way to the to the weighted truth of sexual consequences in Juno—from “how did the stork know where we lived” to young teens recoiling at the thought that their parents did “it.”

And, as parents know, talking about sexual intimacy, or “having the conversation,” with your child is awkward, self-conscious, and a rite-of-passage parenting moment best when over. When I mustered the cool to broach the topic with my now 15-year-old biological daughter, she responded, “I know all about that.”

My adopted son, however, recently broached the subject with me. While seeking an answer to a question not out of the ordinary for an 11-year old, what he really wanted was for me to talk about his birth. 

He asked if he had been in my tummy. I had to tell him no.

The biological chemistry of baby-making is the same for every child that is birthed. But for an adopted child the context and subtext are altered. Yes, man-sperm, woman-egg, sex and conception—but with adoption, the parents relating the facts and the child receiving them are not perpetuating familial genetic history from one generation to the next. Instead, the biological tale signifies both a beginning and an end. 

By telling my son he was not in my tummy, I was acknowledging he was not of our genetic pool.  His hereditary history is different from his sister’s, from mine, and my late husband’s. 

Some may think this fact sad or harsh. But in truth, all of us are disparate until we form our own family units and form new lines. My son may not have been biologically conceived by us, but we are now a family. His place in it will be forever woven into the future coda, the story, of our family line. His children will be ours.

Adopting Nick into our family was the beginning of his new life as our son and brother to his sister. But telling my son he was not in my tummy implied he was in someone else’s.

So many times I have asked myself who this woman might have been. What were the circumstances that led her to give up her newborn son, which is all I know about her?  Was she young, old, healthy, sick, addicted, abused, overwhelmed, tall, short, athletic, musical, withdrawn or passionate? What is the color of her hair?

Does my son look like her?

Nick doesn’t ask me those questions, although, when pre-school age, he and my daughter would together imagine what his Russian mother might have been like. Instead, he asks about my husband, who died three months after we adopted Nick. Through these stories, I re-create my husband, a father that Nick never knew. These stories are his compass to manhood. Of his biological father, there is no information.

I tell him, “Daddy was tall, like you are going to be. And you like to tell silly jokes, just like Daddy did.” I also tell him, when he says he misses his father, how proud his father would be of him.

Yes, we are all conceived through sex. But is that collision and random assemblage of genes what binds families or parents to their children? Given the currents of love that surge between my son and me, I say the answer is no.

Sex is fun, mysterious, and one of the perks of our human race. Under the right circumstances, it creates new life. But the sexual act does not dictate the way we love our children, wax maternal, or hover over them like bears with their cubs.

I may not have physically conceived my son, but we did conceive our love for him. The next time he asks if he came from my tummy, I’ll say, “No, you came from my heart.”

Fran Cronin began her writing career in New York, with guest editorials for Sculpture Magazine followed by contributing stories for Technology Today. In addition, she wrote scripts and copy for health and safety print and media campaigns while living in Washington, D.C. She is currently a journalism master’s candidate at the Harvard Extension School. Her most recent article, “Why Do the Russians Make It So Tough to Adopt?” recently appeared in Adopt-a-tude.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fostering and Taxes: How We Parented and She Gets Paid

Guest Post by Blue in TX for Adopt-a-tude

Blue in TX originally posted the following piece in Open Salon, where it created quite a furor. This is her personal take on a financial aspect of foster parenting that surprised and disheartened her. As she says after the back and forth at Open Salon, "the jury is still out" about fostering and taxes. Her situation may not apply to other families in other states. She and Adopt-a-tude welcome comments that provide more information and help demystify the finances of fostering.

The going rate for a kid in the United States is $4,600 and change to families making $110,000 or less in 2009. At least that's what my tax prep computer program is telling me. (A $3,650 dependent deduction plus a $1,000 child tax credit.) So, the mightier your uterus, the bigger your tax break.

My uterus is weak and puny and has produced only one child. But we foster parent, and one of the ways the government compensates foster parents is by allowing us to claim tax deductions and credits for our charges as though they had popped out of our own baby-makers. Or so we thought.

So, I set about doing our taxes to include the little boy who spent a little more than half the year with us in 2009. No big deal, right? Wrong.

According to our case worker, the only time you get to claim a foster child as a dependent is when the state has forcibly wrenched the child away from his or her natural family. Voluntary placement kids are still deductible by their natural parent(s).

Many kids in foster care are in care because their parents voluntarily gave them up—either because they could not afford to feed and house them or because they are in prison, or because they just don't want to be bothered.

One of our friends fosters two little boys who were voluntarily placed at birth. They are both six years old now. For six years, our friend has fed, clothed, loved, Band-aided, taught, and honored these children, apparently all without being able to deduct them as dependents. To a single mom on a high school teacher's salary, that's a huge disadvantage, financially.

A couple of years ago, when our finances were less tight and we had not even dreamed of a child, I would have thought "how crass—griping about a tax deduction instead of thinking about helping a child." I still feel somewhat like that—we won't stop fostering if we can't claim tax deductions; in fact, if the government revoked all tax deductions and charged people for kids instead, we'd still have had our own son, and been just as grateful for it.

I just have to wonder what we are trying to achieve as a society with the policies we have set around children and taxes.

On the one hand, we have a problem with more demand for social services than we have the will or the heart to budget for. The more impoverished the kids, the more demand. Worldwide population growth is an environmental concern on many levels, from food scarcity to global warming.

But instead of teaching family planning in our schools and encouraging young people to have fewer rather than more children, we offer the single biggest tax incentive available to average people (outside of the mortgage interest deduction) to those who procreate the most. And we discourage families from taking care of kids whose own parents can't care for them by denying that tax deduction to at least some of those caretaker families.

The little boy we had in our home was moved to another foster family because he was behaving threateningly towards our son. He's a great little boy and is now in a home with his natural sister, where his behavior is exemplary. He and our son still play together. We would have cared for him even had we known from the start that we would not be able to claim him as a dependent.

His mom has five children. She was broke and homeless and living in her Escalade when she placed the kids in care. Now she's broke and living with some guy with whom she reportedly smokes dope and goes to bars when she's not in hairdresser classes.
She sold the Escalade and bought a little BMW 5 series with the proceeds. My heart broke for the eldest child when she first saw her mom's new car. She's a precocious seven-year-old and can count well enough to see that three car seats, two booster seats, and Mom will not fit in that car. Since the mom can claim all five children despite them being in other homes more than two thirds of the year, she should get a handsome sum back from the government after she does her taxes. Hopefully, she will use the money to get a more suitable car and put a deposit on an apartment.

That's our case worker's hope anyway. I'm not holding my breath.

Foster parenting is wonderful and terrible. Amazing children, amazing love. Monotonous paperwork that goes on forever, home inspections, CPR classes, licenses, continuing education. Getting attached and having to step aside for a natural family member. Getting attached and having to admit that there are some behavior issues that you just can't handle.

Voluntary placements get turned away by our agency regularly because there is no home to place the child in. I wonder how many families won't take voluntary placement children because of the tax rule giving the deductions/credits for voluntarily placed children to their natural parent if they choose to claim them. Personally, I think that we foster parents who've actually cared for a child during the greater part of the year have earned the $4,600.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Can Birth Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Adoptees Come Together and Discuss Best Practices?

By Lisa @ Pack of Three for Adopt-a-tude

In my last post, I responded to an invitation from Editor Martha Nichols and offered one adoptive parent’s response to the reality show "Find My Family." My post sparked a spirited exchange. Now, after reading, listening, and processing, I’m back.

To be honest, I had no idea (like many people, I'd guess) about the extent of trauma experienced and the strength of feeling within the community of birth mothers. 

My situation was different.  I adopted from China. My daughter was left at the orphanage gates when she was 7 days old. I adopted her at almost 18 months of age.

I'm guessing there are many adoptive parents like me who were, or still are, under the impression that birth mothers here in this country make a "choice," albeit painful and difficult. Few of us are familiar with the difficulties or complexities that surround that choice—or the fallout that can occur afterward. What I am familiar with are the many adoptive families and parents who are part of our everyday life who love their children without qualification, who are wholly committed to doing whatever it takes to help them blossom into happy, healthy human beings. Some live comfortably while others—single moms, teachers, social workers—stretch to cover basic family expenses.

In any case, I've now read many of the blogs of birth mothers and understand better some of the trauma and lifelong pain adoption can entail.

I extend myself here, once again, with the hope readers will be gentle and understand I do so in the spirit of wanting to learn more. Here’s why:

In the middle of all the strong reactions to my post on Adopt-a-tude, I was invited to serve on the board of an adoption agency. The agency has a clean, longstanding record of good work in the field of both domestic and international adoption. I've met and interviewed with the agency's director and board members and can tell you they are good, giving, unselfish people whose hearts truly are in the right place.

The agency operates with the belief that the best place for a child is with his or her birth parents. If that’s not possible, then the next best place for a child is with their extended birth family. Barring that possibility, the next best option is an adoptive parent or parents from the child’s birth country. If that’s not possible, then the next best thing is to be adopted internationally. The last, least ideal option is for the child to grow up in an orphanage. In keeping with this philosophy, close to 70% of the agency’s placements are for older, waiting children—that is, children who have already been relinquished and are either in foster care or orphanage settings.  The agency's work is not profitable. I've seen the numbers. Adoption fees barely cover 50% of their work. The rest is supported through donations.

So, here are my questions:

(1) If you were me, or if you were a potential adoptive parent, what specific questions would you ask an adoption agency to ensure you were comfortable with their priorities and practices?

(2) Regarding an adoption agency’s domestic adoption work, what specific practices would you look for to understand how an agency ensures birth mothers understand their rights, options, and emotional risks?

(3) Regarding any proposed services an adoption agency or other organization offers—or that you recommend be offered—to prospective mothers considering placing a child for adoption, who do you believe would be the right agency, organization, or person/s to provide those services? Additionally, who do you believe should support (fund) the delivery of these services? (I’m aware this is a delicate question. I ask it with complete sincerity.)

(4) Regarding an adoption agency’s efforts to facilitate international adoptions, what specific practices, policies, or guidelines should one look for to ensure the agency’s work, in fact and in spirit, serves the purpose of connecting waiting children with waiting, loving families and doesn’t—consciously or otherwise—encourage child trafficking?

These are obviously touchy subjects. It’s my hope that those who choose to respond will be thoughtful, informative, even creative.

I appreciate everyone’s time and interest.