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Opinion: From orphan trains to DNA: As adoption evolves, many paradoxes remain

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, and this year, after more than 20 years facilitating an advocacy, search and support group for adults touched by relinquishment and adoption, I am keenly aware of one thing: despite its evolution, adoption involves complicated paradoxes.

With respect to laws, much has changed for the better. Colorado’s first adoption law mandated that adoptions were to be executed and recorded “as in the manner of real estate.” Children were essentially viewed as property. Colorado has been on the forefront of national trends that created safeguards on the front end of the adoption in the 1940s, and now provides birth/first parents with copies of records they signed and allows adult adoptees access to copies of original birth and adoption records on the back end.

Richard Uhrlaub

However, Colorado law still treats adoptees as less than property in one important area: assurance of accurate information on an original birth certificate. Providing false information for preparation of an original birth certificate in an adoption proceeding is an unclassified misdemeanor, which, at a court’s discretion, could carry no penalty at all. By contrast, providing false information in a real estate or financial transaction is a felony. This disparity needs to be addressed by the state legislature.

Today, American adoption has evolved from what started with orphan trains and local social services, largely operated by churches and counties, to become a multi-faceted, billion-dollar global enterprise divided into categories that include infant, foster care, international, trans-racial, single parent, same-sex parent, embryo and kinship adoption.

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Each facet produces a different set of lived experiences, and during adoption awareness month, the social media activity promoting, castigating, celebrating, grieving, analyzing and fundraising for adoption-related causes escalates to a deafening roar from both real and self-proclaimed experts.    

The thematic tagline driving the industry rightly asserts that every child deserves a loving home, but it’s far more complicated than that. As Adoptionland’s territory has expanded, its paradoxes have been amplified:

  • Modern infant adoption is purportedly about finding homes for children who need them, but also undeniably about acquiring babies for people who want them.
  • Relinquishment and adoption make both adoptive and birth/first parents intimate strangers to the adoptee, but in different ways.
  • Adoptees are both cherished family members and, to one degree or another, commodities.
  • Birth/first parents are humans in need of resources, empowerment and ethical treatment, yet simultaneously the essential tacit manufacturing sector of a global economic system.
  • The foster care system has been hailed as a lifeline for abused and neglected children, and rebuked as a fast lane to disaster for those who age out of the system without being adopted.

Some lawmakers in states that have yet to restore adult adoptee access to records still live in the belief that, despite the advent of consumer DNA testing, sealed adoption records somehow prevent adoptees from identifying biological family members.

Roughly 35,000 intercountry adoptees whose adoptive parents thought they became citizens when adopted are still vulnerable to deportation.

Relinquishment and adoption simultaneously resolve and create major life challenges. Adoption, even under the best of motives and circumstances, serves both love and money.  

As a result, those “touched by adoption” face unique, but not insurmountable, challenges that leave us navigating a paradoxical world framed by grief and gratitude; loss and love; ambivalence and attachment; fantasy and identity; statutory legalities, monetary ambiguities, and human realities.  

Certain paradoxes may always remain, but here are three issues that lawmakers can address now:

(1)  The Colorado legislature can continue to lead the nation by aligning penalties for providing false information in preparation of human vital records with those involving property transactions.  

(2) State legislatures should follow the lead of states like Colorado and restore adult adoptee access to records.

(3) Congress should pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act to protect international adoptees.


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Rich Uhrlaub, M.Ed. serves as president of Adoption Search Resource Connection. He was adopted and raised in Denver by devoted parents, and connected with birth family members in 1995.  Contact: info@asrconline.org.

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