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Open adoptions bind lives through a baby

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  • Open adoptions bind lives through a baby

    Open adoptions bind lives through a baby
    Sunday, November 21, 2004
    By Gabrielle Glaser
    Newhouse News Service
    Last fall, Mandy Phibbs was a girl in trouble. But her predicament also put her
    in demand.

    Mandy, three months pregnant, had decided to place her baby for adoption. One
    afternoon, she sat at the suburban Portland, Ore., agency she had chosen,
    sifting through stacks of "Dear Birth Mother" albums filled with notes and
    photos from prospective parents. All had the comfortable middle-class lives
    Mandy, then 17, knew she could not provide her child.

    The agency had suggested that she set a list of conditions. And so she had: She
    wanted the parents to be Christians older than 35, married for several years
    and already raising a child. She ruled out families in Oregon: "Schools are
    better in Washington," she said.

    The most important requirement also created the most complexity: Her baby's
    family must be within driving distance so that she could continue to be part of
    her child's life.

    She would eventually choose a couple in suburban Seattle to become her baby's
    parents. They would be with her on the day of delivery and will be in her life
    from now on.

    Such open adoptions, in which a child develops relationships with both birth
    parents and adoptive parents, are a striking departure from the secret dealings
    of a generation ago. Adopting families had scarce information about birth
    mothers, who after delivery left hospitals with little hope of ever seeing
    their children again.

    The lifelong sorrow, well-publicized, of adoptees and birth parents eventually
    led to another model. The first open adoptions are believed to have started in
    California in the early 1980s.

    Word of them has slowly spread. Officials are seeing an increase in the number
    of babies placed for adoption after decades of decline.

    "Because of open adoption, more birth mothers are coming to adoption than ever
    before," said Shari Levine, executive director of Open Adoption & Family
    Services. The Northwest agency, with headquarters in Portland, facilitates only
    open adoptions. Its placements have risen from 20 in 1985 to roughly 60
    annually in the past few years, Levine said.

    No central agency tracks private, domestic adoption statistics. But adoption
    officials who specialize in open adoption have likewise noted a rise.

    Sharon Fitzgerald, of the nonprofit Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant
    Hill, Calif., said placements at the agency, which has offices nationwide, have
    increased 8 percent in the past five years.

    "What's more important than the raw numbers is that the nature of adoption is
    changing," said Adam Pertman, author of "Adoption Nation" (Basic, $17) and
    executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York.
    "Birth mothers are no longer treated simply as baby-making machines."

    From 1970 to the late 1990s, the number of children placed for adoption
    declined from roughly 90,000 to 50,000 annually, according to a recent issue of
    The Future of Children, a policy journal jointly produced by Princeton
    University and the Brookings Institution. The drop is attributed to the 1973
    legalization of abortion, the availability of contraception and the growing
    acceptance of single parenthood.

    Meanwhile, as many as 1 million families hope to adopt, said Brad Imler,
    president of the nonprofit American Pregnancy Association in Irving, Texas.

    And as many as two-thirds of them, officials say, are now willing to welcome
    women like Mandy into their lives.

    The process is not universally accepted. Thomas Atwood, the executive director
    of the National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Va., sees problems with
    open adoption.

    "It is not necessarily in the best interest of the child," he says. However,
    there is little data to determine how openness affects children. He is
    concerned about cases in which the birth parents' behavior may be damaging to
    the child.

    Harold Grotevant, a University of Minnesota professor who is the co-author of a
    longitudinal study on open adoption, has found no evidence of harm to the child
    or to the parents involved.

    "Everything we've looked at disagrees with the premise that openness in itself
    is harmful to children," he said. His studies have found that the open adoption
    process lessens the grief for birth mothers and was not harmful to the adoptive

    It is in the West, with a tradition of independence that lends flexibility to
    the notion of family, where open adoption predominates.

    "In many parts of the East Coast, open adoption is just smoke," Fitzgerald
    said. "But it's wildfire in the West."

    In her first trimester, Mandy weighed her future as a mother, and it looked
    bleak. What could she impart to a child? She hadn't yet graduated from high
    school. Her parents, young themselves, had divorced when she was small.

    "They did the best they could," she said, "but I wanted more for my child."

    She was raised by her father, Shawn Phibbs, a contractor. But at 16, she chafed
    at his rules and struck out on her own. She had a bout with drugs and drinking,
    started seeing a man many years older and moved into his trailer on the coast.
    She soon discovered she was pregnant.

    Not long afterward, she left the man and returned to the home of her father and
    stepmother, Fawn, 44, in Forest Grove, Ore. Fawn, mother of a 24-year-old son,
    is an advertising agency executive who grew up in foster homes.

    Both insisted that Mandy, who hopes to join the Air Force, continue her
    education, and Shawn, 39, encouraged her to consider an open adoption.

    After their own two decades of child rearing, they felt ill-prepared to raise
    another child. And Shawn told Mandy, "You can't go to college with a baby in
    your back seat."

    Throughout her pregnancy, that crisp sentence became Mandy's mantra.

    Abortion was out of the question. She had had one, at 14, and her eyes well up
    when she thinks about it. She still can't forgive herself for it, she said.

    So one by one, she called adoption agencies listed in the yellow pages and met
    the one she felt accorded her the most respect. Some of them, she said, treated
    her like she was just a number.

    The first "Dear Birth Mother" album Mandy saw was from Jan and Ken Sharp, a
    suburban Washington couple in their 40s with a 2-year-old son, Sam. As she
    sorted through all the others, the Sharp family kept drawing her back. Jan, a
    former teacher, and Ken, an assistant suburban fire chief, seemed to radiate
    warmth even from the laminated pages.

    "There will rarely be a day that I won't think of you and wonder how you are
    doing," Jan wrote. "Just as you will think of your baby and me, I will always
    remind this child that they are lucky enough to have two mothers who love (him
    or her.)" The words were compelling -- and revealing.

    "It wasn't all about her," Mandy said.

    Last Halloween, Jan was chatting with some relatives when the phone rang. It
    was the Sharps' caseworker, calling to say an Oregon birth mother wanted to
    meet them.

    Jan was stunned -- and wary. Nothing in her path to parent- hood had been easy.
    Infertility was painful enough, and adoption was proving no less trying.
    Sometimes she wondered if she wasn't destined to remain a teacher, shepherding
    children to adulthood only in the classroom.

    Once the Sharps turned to adoption, they were chosen quickly by a birth mother.
    But the adoption fell through at the last minute when the father refused to
    sign termination rights -- from prison, no less.

    Nine months later, the Sharps adopted Sam after a surprise call. He was 7 weeks
    old and had been in interim foster care as legalities formalized from his birth
    father's home state of South Dakota.

    Ken, 46, had a daughter from his first marriage, now 22, and together, he and
    Jan had Sam.

    "Let's count our blessings," he told her. He couldn't bear to see his wife
    endure any more torment.

    But Jan, 41, an energetic woman with expressive hazel eyes, was reared in a
    large Roman Catholic family in Wisconsin. She couldn't imagine just one child
    in her life and persuaded Ken to keep their file active at the agency just a
    few more months. Then the call came.

    Within weeks, the Sharps drove to Portland to meet Mandy at the agency. They
    had instant rapport, and the couple went with Mandy to her obstetrician's

    Jan stood watch over Mandy's gel-covered belly as she peered at the ultrasound
    screen. A 9-ounce fetus floated peacefully, spine and organs intact.

    "It's a girl," the technician announced.

    In late April, Mandy was ready to give birth, and the Sharps drove three hours
    to the hospital. Finally, little Chloe was born. She weighed 6 pounds, 2

    Within hours, Mandy asked to sign the papers that would relinquish her parental
    rights. The birth father came to the hospital to sign them, too, and quickly
    left. Mandy wanted to do it soon so she could just focus on the baby.

    "I just wanted her to know how much I loved her," she said.

    Mandy held Chloe tightly. She told her how much she loved her and explained her

    "I knew it wasn't logical," she said.

    On the day she left the hospital, she dressed Chloe in a flowered cotton outfit
    and asked the nurse for a duplicate set of footprints. Chloe slept, oblivious
    to the emotions around her.

    Jan and Ken stood by, both hopeful and helpless.

    "What do you say to someone?" he asked. "Thanks?"

    Tears slid down Jan's face as she took Chloe from the nurse. She kept thinking
    about Mandy. "Focus on the baby," she told herself.

    Once outside, Jan and Ken locked Chloe, snug in her infant seat, into their
    car. Shawn helped steady his daughter as Fawn loaded her trunk with Mandy's
    bouquets, the giant birthing ball and a teddy bear.

    And like Chloe in the car driven by her father, Mandy slid into the back of the
    car driven by hers.

    As Jan and Ken fastened their seat belts, Jan turned to Ken and said: "This
    looks good on paper, but it sure doesn't feel right."

    Mandy dove beneath the windows so her weeping would be out of sight of the
    Sharps. She gulped for air like a fish on a boat deck as Fawn stroked her hair.

    But she had to compose herself for a meeting at a restaurant with the Sharps
    and Chloe. Agency officials recommend such "placement ceremonies" after the
    families leave the hospital. They serve as an emotional punctuation point at
    the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

    Everyone was exhausted. At the restaurant, Chloe was perched in her car seat
    between Jan and Mandy. Mandy had no appetite and looked over often to check
    that the baby was breathing.

    Ken and Jan presented Mandy with a gift, a necklace with Chloe's birthstone, a

    The couple had pondered what to give her for weeks.

    "Here we are, with the big pay-off, a beautiful, healthy little girl. . . . And
    poor Mandy," he said. "Mandy was just going back home to her room. Mandy wasn't
    pregnant anymore, she didn't have any doctor's visits anymore, and she was all
    alone. You can't imagine how awful you feel. Overjoyed you have that baby but
    awful thinking of what the birth mother is going through."

    He was right to wonder. Certainly, the dinner hadn't brought much "closure" for
    Mandy. That night, Mandy took one look at her room and turned around. Without
    her belly, without her baby, her own double bed seemed enormous.

    So she slept on the living room couch, just outside her pqrents' room. In her
    hands, she held the receiving blanket that still smelled like her baby.

    The night before the Sharps left for home, Mandy, Fawn and Shawn drove to see
    Chloe at their hotel room.

    Mandy held and fed Chloe and thanked the Sharps again and again. In turn, they
    thanked her yet again.

    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"
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