Open Letter To Tennessee DCS

In response to the story about “Donna”, the adoptee who was threatened with legal action and jail time for speaking with a willing birth relative, I received the following open letter to Tennessee DCS. It’s from Fr. John “Jack” Sweeley, theologian and author of Rights, Liberties, and Social Justice: How America Lost Its Moral Authority. Am I allowed to say a priest knows how to kick some serious butt? This is posted with his permission.

16 July 2009

Open Letter
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

This letter is written in response to the recent case of a woman threatened with being sent to prison for allegedly violating the no-contact clause that allowed her to receive information, including the names of birth relatives, pertaining to her adoption. What was her alleged crime that could have her doing time in the Tennessee State Prison System? Her “crime” was that after receiving the information for which she paid the Tennessee Department of Children Services $150.00 she had the audacity to contact her birth uncle by telephone – not in an attempt to contact her birth mother but rather just to hear the voice of a person who was a blood relative.

To put the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services threat to put this woman in prison with convicted felons such as murders, bank robbers, and the lowest of Tennessee’s low life criminals, it must be understood that Tennessee claims to be an “open records” state. Open records states are states that by law allow adults who were adopted as children to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate and unless their birth mother has signed a “Contact Preference Form” to the contrary are free to search for, find, and ring the doorbell of their birth mother.

Tennessee is not one of these states. The Tennessee open records case Doe v. Sunquist was decided in favor of the adoptee Doe and that decision was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. Most significantly the judge in that case stated that, “Birth is both a public and private matter” and that, “Birth mothers were never given a promise of confidentiality or anonymity.” Additionally, “If any such promise was given by social workers, maternity homes, or attorneys such promises were extra-legal; that is, outside of the law and therefore not binding on the state.”

In response to the clarity and absolute right of adults who were adopted as children to obtain their original birth certificate, search for, find, and ring the doorbell of their birth mother, the State of Tennessee passed legislation that effectively gutted the decision of the court by instituting both the requirement of a “Confidential Intermediary” licensed by the State of Tennessee to conduct the search and a “Contact Veto Form” which allows a birth mother to state she does not grant permission for the child, now adult, to whom she gave birth to contact her or any of her relatives. The irony of this is that the Confidential Intermediary as part of their search has full disclosure of the adoption record and is allowed to contact not only the birth mother but also all members of her family of origin as well as family members of the family she married into and the family members of any family she may have previously married into.

At this point one may be shaking their heads in wonder at this convoluted state of affairs where in America a woman can be sent to prison for making a telephone call to her biological uncle. If so, you are not alone. So, how can this happen? It can happen because in America it is still believed that there are hundreds of thousands of birthmothers hiding in the closet riddled with shame and fear they will be “outed” by their progeny. Moreover, it is believed by legislators in almost all states that these birth mothers need the protection of the state because if found the result will be disrupted families, divorce, nervous breakdowns, and suicide.

Such a scenario stretches the imagination of even the most imaginative science fiction writer. So, what is the origin of such ideas and why are they believed when they are nothing more than cartoon-like characters? How can they continue to be believed when the experience of states that have opened their adoption records without restriction such as Oregon, Alabama, New Hampshire, and Maine has proven them to be nothing more than poppycock mythology?

They can because the well of reason and experience has been poisoned by The National Council for Adoption that purports to speak for all members of the adoption triad: birth mothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents. As such, it continues to contend that birth mothers were promised confidentiality and anonymity if not on paper than as a verbal pledge and that pledge trumps court decisions to the contrary. However, as my Native American ancestors would say, “National Council for Adoption speaks with forked tongue and cannot be trusted because it lies.”

The fact is that the National Council for Adoption was created by mega players of the Adoption Industry including Gladney in Texas, The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) Adoption Services, and Bethany Christian Services that has adoption centers in over twenty-five states. From its inception, the National Council for Adoption has been a trade lobby for these and other adoption agencies that fear opening adoption records as a consequence of their unethical, immoral, and illegal past as well as present practices. It is the National Council for Adoption that created the bogyman, more accurately the bogeywoman, of the birth mother trembling and shaking in fear hiding in the back of the closet afraid that one day her progeny will knock on the door and her secret will be exposed.

This brings us back to the woman in Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services intimidation of her for making a phone call to her uncle in which she emphasized she was not calling him in an effort to enlist him, a third party, to contact his sister on her behalf. Her only intent was to hear the voice of one person in this world to whom she is genetically related.

What is particularly telling in this sordid farce perpetrated by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services response to this woman is that it concedes the following:

1. The woman contacted the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services prior to calling her uncle to be sure doing so would not violate the “no contact” clause of the document she was forced to sign before she could received the 100 pages of information that contained the names of her birth mother and biological relatives.

2. The woman was told by the person she spoke to that contacting her uncle by telephone would not be a violation of the “no contact” agreement she had signed.

3. By law the birth mother had 90 days to return her “Contact Veto Form” if she did not want her progeny to contact her or any of her relatives.

4. The woman had been told she could call her uncle and the call was made prior to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services receiving the birth mother’s “Contact Veto Form” that she did not want to communicate with her progeny nor allow communication with her relatives.

As incredulous as it is, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services sent a letter to the woman, the letter in which it threatened to send her to prison, stating that she had violated the “no contact” agreement she had signed in two ways. How could this be true?

First, she had contacted her uncle prior to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services being in receipt of her birth mother’s “Contact Veto Form” which stated she did not want to be contacted and none of her relatives could be contacted.

Secondly, she was in violation because at the end of her conversation with her uncle she told her uncle, “If you talk with her about me thank you; and, that I have never had any bad feelings about her giving me up for adoption.” According to the letter, “This is an attempt (aim, try, seek) at contact via another person.”

The first alleged violation is in flagrante delicto (invalid by its very act) because the woman called her uncle predicated on the affirmation by a social worker at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services that to do so was not a violation of the “no contact” document she had signed. The woman cannot be held responsible for the obvious failure of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to create a policy that requires no information is to be released prior to the 90 days given birth mothers to return the “Contact Veto Form.” Moreover, if such a policy did exist, she certainly cannot be held responsible for employees of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services who either do not know of the policy or do not follow it.

As to the validly or rather invalidity of the second so-called violation I am dumbfounded by both the words and how they are used. Is this the best an educated person can write who presumably has not only a bachelor’s degree but also a master’s degree in social work? Thank goodness for my degree is in psycholinguistics not so that I can try to understand the intent of the social worker’s statement but rather so I can at least try to understand the total lack of linguistic skills, the lack of facility of the language, in which it is written.

The first conundrum is to try to unravel what is meant by “…attempt (aim, try, seek)…” Why was it necessary to use four different words to express one thought especially when “aim” and “seek” in no way either denote or connote “attempt” as if in some way “attempt” was the antecedent to “aim” and “seek”? All that I can surmise from this jumble of words is that the writer was in the same position as were my students when I was a college professor and they either did not know or could not articulate the thought they were trying to convey. Consequently, they used what I call “the shotgun approach” stringing together several words hoping that one of them conveys what it is they cannot convey by the proper use of the language. Like my students, perhaps the social worker does not have sufficient vocabulary development to make the proper citation or perhaps this is simply an example of a person who is ignorant of how to write a sentence.

That said and as condemning as it is, perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the word “contact” is absolutely the wrong word to use to express the social worker’s intent. What does the word “contact” mean? “Contact” in English is taken from the Latin contactus which in turn is taken from contingere which means “to touch or seize.” It is also related to langere which also means “touch.” When combined with the Latin com which means “together” we can now denote the word “contact.”

To contact is therefore an act or action of bringing two entities together in physical proximity. As such, it is immediate and requires that the two entities are within physical touching distance. Contact can also mean a relationship in the abstract such as coming into contact with previously unknown philosophical constructs. Contact can also be used in the sense of making contact with colleagues at a seminar. Contact also has specific meanings in such fields as the physics of electricity, in higher mathematics as in tangency and coincidence, in mining as the geometric term for marking the limit of a vein, and in medicine when two persons are close enough to pass a communicable disease between them.

As the social worker was not using “contact” in any of its denoted meanings and most likely is ignorant of that fact due to a deficiency in Latin, the only response to this statement of alleged violation of the “no contact” document given both its erroneous denotation and expression is that the statement in fact does not convey any intelligible meaning. Consequently, it is not a valid statement.

What this woman has been subjected to by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is nothing short of their version of the Nightmare on Elm Street followed by The Amityville Horror. This kind of bullying and intimidation would not be tolerated by any other public agency because doing so would be on the nightly news and public outrage would follow.

Yet, not only this woman but approximately nine million – yes nine million – Americans who live in, “the land of the brave and home of free” who were adopted as children are denied their civil right to search for, find, and ring the doorbell of family members lost to them.

To put this into perspective, the only other citizens of America in the same position as adults who were adopted as children are people in the Federal Witness Protection Program who also are not allowed to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate or search for, find, and ring the doorbell of family members lost to them.

In his, Letters From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “No man is free until all men are free.” Adults who were adopted as children in America, with the exception of a few states, are not free because they are denied access to that very document that denotes their true identity, their true self, which is their original birth certificate. More importantly, they are not free because contact vetoes are a de facto restraining order issued without the necessity of birth mothers appearing before a judge and presenting sufficient evidence that harm would result if their progeny searched, found, and rang their doorbell.

Monsignor John W. Sweeley, Th.D., Pastor