The Shape of Families - Ed Leslie
is the presentation by Ed Leslie, during the Unitarian Fellowship
Sunday, Jan 09, 2006 service on “Families”;
in some manner, with or without the name or laws to formalize it, has
been around for millennia. Every Passover, Jews around the world
celebrate the ancient Hebrews' exodus from Egypt under the guidance
of a young adoptee, named Moses. It's a lucky thing for the
institution of adoption that children rarely get as upset with their
parents as Moses did with Pharaoh. (On the other hand, it is
instructive to note how intense an adoptee's drive to find his
biological roots can be.)
adopted people are more like another famous member of their ranks,
Clark Kent, who adores his ma and pa here on earth even as he
maintains an emotional bond to his birth parents from Krypton.
of course, adoption has always existed. Aunts or grandparents,
godparents, or even close friends would step in, and most often still
do, when mothers and fathers abandon their children, are
incapacitated, or die. Through much of recorded history, though,
adoption by non-relatives has been utilized more to meet the needs of
adults than to help children. That's still often more true today,
but it used to be far more blatant. It is believed, for example,
that in Rome, China, and other ancient civilizations, many infertile
couples and parents who had only daughters formally adopted adult
males to serve as heirs, to carry on family names or to participate
in religious ceremonies.
English common law, on which
America's founders modeled our own legal system, made no reference to
adoption at all; in fact, it wasn't until 1926 that England approved
its first generalized adoption statute. Scholars believe that nation
saw no need for organized adoption because inheritance was dependent
solely on bloodlines, and children without relatives to care for them
were place in almshouses, then made apprentices or indentured
servants at very young ages. The colonists in this country initially
followed those traditions, but adoption in the New World quickly
evolved into new forms that reflected the unique nature of a society
instance, the need for farm labour in the 1700's especially on large
plantations in the South, turned a practice called "informal
transfer" of dependent children into a widespread phenomenon.
The hardships of the Industrial Revolution, accompanied by a huge
influx of immigrants, left so many children homeless in the early
nineteenth century that public demand grew for providing improved
care. Charitable organizations, invariably led by and affiliated with
religious movements, spearheaded this movement to end indentures and
systematically place children in permanent homes with families. At
about the same time, adoptive parents began clamouring for laws to
give their sons and daughters some of the same rights, such as
inheritance, that were automatically granted to biological children.
to social forces, Massachusetts in 1851 enacted legislation that set
out strict procedures for giving children new parents. It was the
first U.S. adoption law, and it set several precedents. The most
important was that it defined the needs of children as paramount -
thought that principle hasn't always prevailed in practice during the
hundred and fifty years since.
Massachusetts statute also marked the start of mandatory court
approval for adoptions, while presaging that the process would fall
under the jurisdiction of the states rather than the federal
government. For better and for worse, those were two portentous
decisions that every legislature emulated by 1929, and that we all
live with to this day. The resulting process has helped to prevent
abuses and maintain local standards, but it has also flung open the
door to frivolous decision making by individual judges and led to a
jumble of state laws that have left adoption under-regulated,
unconscionably expensive, and unnecessarily difficult, emotionally
and logistically, for everyone concerned.
One of the most
remarkable chapters in the American adoption story unfolded during
the period when the Massachusetts legislature took its groundbreaking
legal action. In large cities everywhere, public and private
"foundling homes" sprang up in response to the horrendous
conditions in which armies of young children were living and dying.
These well-intentioned refuges rapidly turned into disease-ridden
warehouses where at least as much harm as good, was accomplished.
A novel alternative
to institutionalization was devised by the Reverend Charles Loring
Brace in New York. He founded a benevolent association called the
Children's Aid Society, branches of which still exist around the
world, and he embarked on an ambitious program of relocating needy
children into permanent homes. Reverend Brace believed the optimum
circumstances for child rearing existed in rural areas where the
spaces were open, the people were honest, and the work was hard. His
solution was the orphan train movement, as it came to be called,
which continued into the early twentieth century. B the time it
stopped running, an estimated 100,000 two-to-fourteen-year-olds had
been transported from eastern cities to farms in states as far west
as Nebraska and Kansas.
accounts of the time described how the Children's Aid Society
announced the impending arrival of orphan trains in communities on
its route, and how children were put on display so that locals could
choose the ones they wanted. Records indicate few of these de facto
adoptees were ever legally made members of the families that took
them in, and some were evidently viewed as little more than cheap
laborers. Nevertheless, most presumably wound up in homes that were
more secure and loving than the ones they left behind - not a hard
task considering so many of them left nothing behind at all.
noble the motives or favourable any outcomes from such efforts, the
people who ran the orphan trains typically ignored the wishes of any
biological parents who were still around, in a grim antecedent to the
condescension experienced by birth mothers like Sheila Hansen.
Simultaneously, the children themselves were dealt with less as
individuals with rights, desires, or emotions than as possessions
that could be taken at will and given away. That attitude still is
evident in too many adults' behavior toward young people today and is
perpetuated by current adoption law, which essentially treats the
transfer of a child from one family to another as a property
popular notions is that "everyone wins" in adoption because
it allows birth mothers to resolve a problem, satisfies a deep desire
for adoptive parents, and places children with families in which they
can thrive. It's a wonderful ideal, but it was a myopic vision during
the time of the orphan trains and it remains one now. Adoption's
glory is that it has fulfilled the dreams of millions over the years,
but it has always been an emotionally wrenching and legally
complicated process because, by its nature, it must balance the
rights and needs of vulnerable people. One of the stark realities of
this little-understood institution is that nearly all adoptions are
initiated by women and men suffering from heartbreak and loss. For
many of these participants, including some who reap enormous benefits
from the ensuing process, the wounds never completely heal.
Adoptive parents may love their children absolutely, but many
nevertheless feel the ache of their infertility forever - and never
stop wondering about the biological baby that never was. And birth
parents give up the lives they created, tiny beings who look like
them, who gestated inside their mother's wombs and, for nine months,
were as much a part of them as their limbs; it's incomprehensible
that there are people who believe that a woman, especially, can
relinquish a child and then put the experience aside, forget about
it, pretend she didn't part with a piece of herself. During the
current period of fundamental change, perpetuating the myth of
"everybody wins" can impede progress because it trivializes
or even ignores the feelings of grief, insecurity, and identity
confusion that are integral components of adoption, for adoptees as
well as their sets of parents.
Within the adoption world,
such simplistic views can undermine relationships among adoptive
relatives, between adoptive and birth families, and between
professionals and their clients. They also can lead people inside
and outside the triad to unintentionally say and do things that
inflict emotional pain on relatives, friends, and acquaintances who
are tied to adoption. Children tend to get hurt the most, and the
during the revolution, we live in a nation in which "You're
adopted!" is sometimes a taunt; "What kind of woman would
give away her baby?" is still considered a reasonable question;
and, "I'm sorry you couldn't have real children" is still
meant as an empathetic remark.
I learned about
adoption, and the pain that can be experienced because of it at a
very early age.
mother was the first born of ten children within a righteous southern
Ontario Irish family; five boys and five girls.
Two of the boys were
dead early - a 13 year on his bicycle hit by a truck, and a
twenty-one year old hit by TB while attending UofT. To-date only one
boy, yet four of the girls have survived - my mother being the oldest
( my dad was one of one
girl and five boys born to an immigrant ukerainian family in Manitoba
- non surviving, and no adoptions. )
my mother’s siblings however, there was a total of nine (9)
brother (Don) and his wife adopted a boy and girl.
sister (Iris) adopted a boy, the second child of four, as well as the
third child, a girl, having two sons of her own.
sister (Jean) adopted two boys, and a girl.
sister (Madeline) adopted a boy and a girl.
you might imagine, the Christmas family gathering at my maternal
grandmother’s home involved quite a number of people, as most
of my mother’s siblings had remained living in the southern
Ontario area, while my father’s family was spread throughout
the west starting at Thunder Bay, mostly in the Winnipeg and Calgary
their credit, my aunts and uncles did not try to keep the adoptions a
secret. Every child was told they were a “child of the heart”.
a youngster I could also see that each adopted child was loved and
treated the same as biological children. There were no Cinderellas
was, however, under the age of ten when I first heard the most
frightening, hurtful words of my life; “You were adopted you
know; they can take you back.”
parents were compassionate enough to explain to me about the love and
caring that is part of the parents decision to adopt a child into
their family and lives. From that day onward, I always thought of my
adopted cousins as the ones who were the “extra special’
kids of our families.