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reforming adoption

Adoption Reform: All We Need is Laws?

This article was originally commissioned and published by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which closed its doors last month. No longer accessible at the Donaldson site, this article was derived from a workshop Addison Cooper (Adoption at the Movies) and I presented at the American Adoption Congress Conference in 2016.


Imagine a glorious time in the future when all adoptees can get their original birth certificates and all open adoption arrangements are codified with a contract. Won’t it be great to be finished with the hard work of adoption reform?

reforming adoption

While changes in adoption laws and policy are necessary, these alone will not make Adoption World all better. If laws were the endpoints, then the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments would have resulted in immediate equality for formerly enslaved and free African Americans. But they didn’t. Now, even 150 years later, our society struggles with these same issues.

Reforming policy and law is one necessary step, but it’s not the last step. Not until ideas of respect, empathy, and inherent value of others also take root in people’s hearts can true and enduring change happen.

Imposed vs Embraced

As an experiment, ask yourself:

  • Why don’t you speed?
  • Why don’t you text while driving?
  • Why don’t you lie, steal, or murder?
  • Why do you pay taxes? Why do you give to charity?

Some things you do because it’s a rule, and some things you do because it seems right to you. Sometimes it’s because “somebody told me” and other times it’s because “I told myself.” What is it that makes us feel good about giving money to charity, but resentful about paying our taxes?  What is it that makes us resent a speeding ticket for going 7 miles an hour over the speed limit at the bottom of a hill, but not resent a ticket for texting while driving in a school zone?

The difference lies in whether we feel motivated by externally imposed rules or internally embraced values. We may resent taxes because we have no choice in paying them and because we don’t always see direct benefits We may not get the same sense of fulfillment from paying our taxes that we do from giving to a chosen charity. Paying taxes and donating to charities are both things we should do, but one type we do because an external force makes us do it, the other comes from within.

Law vs Spirit of the Law

It’s good to have good laws; it’s even better when those laws are followed naturally, because they’re viewed as the right thing to do anyway.

With the desired reforms in adoption, we don’t just want to see compelled behavioral change (because I have to), we want the spirit of the changes (because it’s in line with who I want to be).

In reforming adoption, how can we help people move from “because it’s a requirement” to “because it’s the right thing to do?

The Vibe

To put this in adoption terms, even though adoptive parents and birth parents may have a Post-Adoption Contact Agreement, that doesn’t always mean the agreement comes from the heart. The law says one thing, but the vibe among those in the adoption constellation may say something else. The adopted child will likely sense such a disconnect when contact is made from obligation rather than a desire for connection.

And even if the law says that an adoptee can get his original birth certificate, if the vibe he senses from his family isn’t an open one, he may not actually feel as though he’s free to get his document. He intuits the mixed message from his parents:  Yes you can, but no you may not.

‘Til Death Do I Search

How many times have you heard of an adoptee waiting until the death of her adoptive parents to begin searching for her original parents? Even if she had been legally free to start looking, she never really felt free to do so. A law opening up her original birth certificate would be ineffective for her until and unless her adoptive parents had given the vibe that would have freed her to access it.

Such closedness and brittleness is sad for all involved, including adoptive parents.

Reforming Adoption at the Heart Level

Ideas start big at the macro level, but implementation needs to reach all the way to the micro level, to the minds and hearts of individuals. Fortunately, much is already being done in Adoption World to bring about such changes.

In preparing for our presentation at the 2016 American Adoption Congress Conference, Addison Cooper (Adoption at the Movies) and I began to compile a list of people already doing the work of bringing heart-based change. Take a look.

We started jotting down frameworks on our radar that move people from:

  • external internal
  • separate connected
  • closed open
  • head  heart
  • fear love

Thinkers, Teachers, Writers, Filmmakers, Storytellers

Though by no means all-inclusive, on this list you’ll find adoption reform luminaries like Jim Gritter and Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao. You’ll see organizations like Creating a Family and the Family to Family Support Network.  You’ll see work from the #flipthescript effort, as well as a variety of voices on Portrait of an Adoption.

And because stories are such effective and wonderful ways for people to connect deeply with another person and to truly “get” a new viewpoint, Addison offers films about Angela Tucker (Closure) and by David Quint (Father Unknown). Lori shares memoirs by Anne Heffron and Lorraine Dusky, as well as anthologies compiled by Lynn Grubb and Laura Dennis.

Really, you need to check these out. Each is brilliant for reaching directly into the hearts of the audience.

Feel free to start here and add resources you know of to make this list your own.

A More Hospitious Place

While adoption may appear to be a legal experience, it is also at its essence, as Dr. Randolph Severson says, a spiritual experience. The head is involved, and so must the heart be.

No matter what laws are passed and no matter what agreements are signed, Adoption World will become a more hospitious place if we don’t rely solely on rules. Let us — each of us — also open and engage our hearts.

Let us offer to others what we most desire for ourselves: respect, empathy, and a recognition of inherent value.

Image courtesy nonicknamephoto at

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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6 Responses

  1. As always, your perspective (along with Addison’s) is excellent and causes me to pause and think more deeply about a subject than I ever imagined.

    While I’ve often pondered unjust adoption laws and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about empathizing with my children, I’ve spent zero effort contemplating what little impact laws can have on the general vibe of adoption- or on minds and hearts of individuals.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  2. So much here Lori!! All of it amazing food for thought, especially with this idea that laws don’t yield immediate change with desired outcomes. Particularly when there’s deep roots for the undesirable behavior so many have clung to.

    Thank you for all of this. Gives me a lot to read and reflect on.

  3. I began to understand this when I was teaching a unit on Reconstruction after the Civil War. Yay, we got the laws! But dang, if we aren’t still having relational problems going on 2 centuries later.

  4. Ooooh, this is a great post. So much food for thought. I love this: “because it’s the right thing to do” Wouldn’t it be nice if EVERYONE did the right thing simply BECAUSE it was the right thing to do? I love the perspective you bring to mindsets and laws regarding adoption. I think about how I felt before we began pursuing adoption, and how differently I felt when I got further into the process and read more and heard more varying perspectives through you and adoptee resources. I feel even more differently now that we are no longer in the adoption process, reflecting back on the laws and the situations we saw friends and acquaintances involved in for better or for worse. Thanks for all you do to promote openness and laws and policies that are more helpful for EVERYONE!

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