Setting Adoptive Parents’ Expectations

(Where have I been? I think I got adoption burnout. There is so much crap going on out there that frankly it’s depressing. That, combined with my birthday, which as most of you know I detest as a reminder of my own adoption baggage, made me want to take a serious vacation from adoption. But I’m back now and hoping to blog at least a little more frequently.)
The papers are full of the baby Vanessa case, in which a prospective adopter “won” against a birth father who was never informed of his child nor his rights. I say “won” in parentheses because the only “winners” in this case are the permanent guardian (dubbed adoptive mother), the lawyers, and the adoption agency. You can read the highly subjective LA Times article about the case here.
First of all, I was offended by the LA Times reporter’s coverage of this matter. The print edition of the Chicago Tribune (same parent company as the LA Times) headlined the article as “Baby Vanessa stays at home,” an implicit bias that the adoptive family is “home” and the biological family is not. I also didn’t like the repeated emphasis on “the only parent she knows.” Vanessa knew her mother; perhaps she is unaware to express it verbally, but all children, even (especially!) newborns, are well aware of the existence of and need for their biological mothers. In yet another example of serious media bias about adoption, this article the reporter did her best to make the putative adopter a saint and the biological parents the villains.
As I remarked on Facebook:
I think the process of adoption leads many adoptive parents to think that way [that adoptees are objects to be possessed rather than human beings with feelings]. They are encouraged to pick the “best” products (eg children with less of a possibility of birth parent “interference”), the mythical tabula rasa they can shape as desired and which will make up for not being able to biologically procreate. Just look at the amended birth certificate, which shows adoptees “as if” born to the adoptive parents. Our society is already consumer-driven and the agencies and private facilitators play on that. It sets impossible expectations for the adoptee because no one can ever live up to those perfect standards.
Which makes it clear that the adoption agencies and facilitators are really all about the money and don’t care what happens to people or families after they get paid. Because if they did care they would make sure to set appropriate expectations on the part of the adoptive parents, since this scenario inevitably leads to family disfunction and perhaps even dissolution (whether via the “adoption returns department” or the adoptee deciding as an adult to dissolve the relationship as I did). I think most adoptive parents are reasonable people that get sucked into the adoption industry mindset. You’ll always have some crazies who have to have a child no matter what but I don’t think it would be the rule rather than the exception if it weren’t for the fact that the adoption industry grooms them into believing that they MUST have a child at all costs, and that if they pay enough money they can erase their infertility and re-establish their status in our parent-centric society.

Doss seems to have overlooked the real villain in this case: AdoptHelp, which neglected to check the Ohio Putative Father’s Registry, allowing Doss to believe she would be able to adopt Vanessa without Mills’ consent. Doss claims to have spent $400,000 on attorney fees (which seems excessive) and has made public pleas for contributions to help her pay these costs.

So then the question becomes: Why don’t people go after adoption agencies when they falsely set prospective adopters’ expectations? Why do they go after the biological family instead? Answer: Because vilifying the biological parents ensures continued supply (children for adoption). It’s hard to fight a profitable industry with lots of lawyers and lobbyists to give it teeth, but it’s easy to fight a resource-poor individual, especially when the media and the court of public opinion is likely to side in your favor.
Doss wants to enact legislation that would, as Jane puts it,

give prospective adoptive parents a sort of squatter’s rights to children although they couch it in terms of preventing “reactive attachment disorders,” promoting bonding, or whatever psychological lingo carries the day.

Lorraine, Jane’s co-blogger at FMF, points out:

Doss is not adopting Vanessa; she will be her permanent guardian at this point, not her ADOPTIVE mother.

Speaking from an adoptee perspective, adoptees are neither objects to be owned nor fodder for touchy-feely newspaper articles written about them when they are too young to claim the ownership and privacy of their own origin stories. How would you feel to find out that the public knew about the intimate details of your life before you were able to understand them yourself? Many of us have also wondered how Vanessa is going to feel when she is old enough to understand that her “adoptive mother” (permanent guardian) deliberately prevented her biological father from claiming custody. Will Doss lie about it, in which case Vanessa will find out the truth through casual research? Will Doss bias Vanessa toward her own biological origins in order to preserve adoption attachment? I can tell you that either scenario is likely to result in Vanessa recoiling from the woman she has been groomed to call “mother” and struggling to discern her own identity sans the foundation of origin she should have had, except for a profit-hungry adoption agency and a prospective adopter whose expectations were falsely set.
But back to the question of prospective adopter expectations. What should those expectations be? I think we should treat prospective adopters in the same way Douglas Adams fictionally treated the President of the Universe: anyone who wanted the job was automatically disqualified. Again, from comments I made on Facebook:

There really needs to be better setting of the expectations of prospective adopters. Too often it’s all about them obtaining a child as a status symbol as opposed to actually wanting to reach out to a child in need (because if the latter was the case, why aren’t they taking in the foster kids who actually need help as opposed to taking children from families who lack resources to raise them). Every time I think about how the tens of thousands people pay for one adoption could go to helping a family stay together, it infuriates me.

Prospective adopters would do well to understand that any information they get from adoption agencies or facilitators about adoption is, in itself, biased. You don’t ask the person selling cars whether the brand his dealership sells is better than the brand across the street. You go out and ask people who have actually bought the car you’re considering. Some of them will tell you they like it, others will tell you they don’t, and you base your decision on a synthesis of the two. In this case, prospective adopters need to get out there and ask advice from biological parents and adult adoptees who have no ties to agencies or adoption profits. That’s the only way you’re going to find out the truth about adoption, and unfortunately a lot of it isn’t as pretty as the glossy brochures or biased media articles would have you believe.


  1. Thanks, 73. Excellent points.

  2. http://Anonymous says

    I think what you are forgetting is that Vanessa bio-parents aren’t raising the children they have. They are being raised by the grandmother ( foster care) and the other child, that the bio-father has, is in permanent custody of child welfare services because of the abuse Mill’s committed against him.

    Vanessa won’t feel any animosity towards Doss when she knows the truth about her dysfunctional bio-family and see’s it for herself.

    It’s sad but true, some children ARE better off adopted.

  3. Anon, that doesn’t change the fact that Doss was misled by the agency about Vanessa’s availability to be adopted, nor that agencies continue to set false expectations of what adoption is (and is not).

  4. http://Anonymous says

    Ms. Doss was “mislead” becuase the bmom lied and if shows/tells a lot about Ms. Doss’s charecter that she is still “allowing” the bmom to have visits despite the pain, emotional and finanacial hardship she has caused.

  5. No, Doss was misled by the adoption agency failing to inform her that Vanessa’s biological father was seeking custody. Why aren’t you concerned about that, or about the way the adoption industry fails to set appropriate expectations about adoption?

    I always wonder what direct connection people who post anonymously have to the matter… If you don’t like my opinion, go elsewhere. No child is better off adopted. Children belong with their biological parents, with relatives if that is not possible, and only with strangers as an absolute last resort. Adoption has far-reaching lifelong consequences that are largely ignored, a mindset that is promoted by happy feel-good articles like the ones surrounding the Baby Vanessa case.

  6. Anon, you’re obviously not an adoptee or a birth parent, so there’s no way on God’s green earth that you could even begin to fathom what it’s like to walk the shoes of either of these roles. Nor do you have any idea of the lies, deceit, & corruption involved in most adoption processes. 99.9% of the time, it boils down to one thing…MONEY! Adoption is a multibillion dollar (per yr) industry. There’s no way they could thrive like this if they didn’t lie to & deceive birth parents. I completely agree w/ what Triona has said. Did the state offer parenting classes to the bio parents of Vanessa? Did they do EVERYTHING in their power to facilitate that she stay w/ a fam. member? No, they did not, & shame on them for this!! By failing to do so, they’re robbing Vanessa of her birthright, her heritage, & her identity!!!

  7. Dealing with these fiascos over and over has proven to be devastating for all involved. Prevention is the only answer. Here’s the legislation I suggest for all states:

    1. Any woman considering adoption should be informed that before her child can be placed in a prospective adoptive home, there has to be a named father, with accompanying DNA test for verification and clearance of paternity rights.

    2. If the woman “doesn’t know” who the father is, she must submit all possible names, and all must be DNA tested. She should be told her child will remain in foster care until paternity has been established.

    3. If she claims “rape” or “date rape,” she must have filed a police report and an investigation report must be submitted to agency to prove her claim.

    As long as adoption facilitators continue to enable and even encourage mothers to feign “not knowing” who the father is or dreaming up ways to avoid naming a father, these cases will continue.

    My bet is that when a woman who claims not to know learns her child can’t be adopted until paternity is established, her memory will improve substantially.

    If these rules had been in place before Vanessa was relinquished, there wouldn’t be a mess like this.

  8. What troubles me about your comment Anonymous is that you have already made up Vanessa’s mind how she is going to feel as she grows up. You obviously don’t have a clue how torn a child/adult can feel about the loss of a parent for any reason. I would ask you from my own personal adoption journey to please not make judgments about ones’ bio parents. We need to know that it is okay that regardless of the circumstances to have deep feelings for them that are separate from our parents who raised us.

  9. If the prospective adoptive mother had to spend $400,000 in legal fees to retain custody of Vanessa, I wonder at what point she realized that what she was doing was not only ridiculous but wrong.

  10. While the child may be better off adopted, as I was, Anonymous is wrong about how the child feels or will feel. Even children reared by (you raise livestock and crops) dysfunctional parents still love and cling to their parents.

    I was also fortunate because my adoptive parents were completely honest with me about the facts of my adoption. Vanessa is fortunate in that the truth of her origins will not be a secret.

    Most families exhibit some dysfunction. Surely going to such extreme measures ($400K) to retain custody of a child that she should never have had custody of is indicative of some kind of dysfunction.

  11. http://Anonymous says

    Let’s don’t forget both the parents of Vanessa aren’t raising their children. In fact, Vanessa’s biodad didn’t even complete his “parenting plan” in order to get Vanessa back ( that speaks VOLUMES about his “wanting” to parent his fourth child). Also, let’s remember Vanessa bio-mom didn’t WANT TO raise her ( even though she had two kids in foster care being riased their grandmother).

    If you are think a child is “better off” in this dysfunctional family then being adopted into a better environment, then I think you’re not thinking!

  12. http://Anonymous says

    “I completely agree w/ what Triona has said. Did the state offer parenting classes to the bio parents of Vanessa? Did they do EVERYTHING in their power to facilitate that she stay w/ a fam. member? No, they did not, & shame on them for this!! By failing to do so, they’re robbing Vanessa of her birthright, her heritage, & her identity!!!”


    Actually, the bio-father was suppose to complete his case plan in order to regain custody of Vanessa, and he did not. Child services had been involved with the Mill’s family before and obviously they ( the bio-parents) didn’t do what they were suppose to do and ALL of their children ended-up in foster case ( and this was way before Vanessa was born). So, to answer your question, help was given. Also, when is it the responsibility of others to help parents be good parents? If you chose to bring a child into the world be prepared before the child is born, everybody else who wants to be a good parent does!

  13. Anon: And what about the fact that the agency deliberately concealed that the biological dad was trying to gain custody? You seem very willing to vilify the biological family with no concern whatsoever for either the agency’s role in this situation or Doss’ excessive and obsessive attempts to keep hold of this child.

    And you have completely ignored the point of this post, which is to question why adoption agencies fail to set appropriate expectations. Prospective adopters need to be aware that things can happen at any time that may make a particular child unavailable for adoption. They can’t get their hearts set on a child, referring to her as “theirs” when the adoption process hasn’t even been finalized. Some prospective adopters have only met the child through photographs, yet buy entire nurseries full of clothes and toys and go about telling everyone about “their” daughter or son! No parent owns a child. All human beings own themselves. As parents we are merely caretakers helping them grow into the unique people they are meant to be. I believe adoption, with its extensive fees and disparate pricing (“healthy white infant” vs. “healthy black infant” etc) encourages a perverse perception that not only can you own a child, you can pick one out like an item from a catalog (or return it if it doesn’t meet your expectations).

  14. Interesting and typical that Anon claims to know how Vanessa will feel:

    “Vanessa won’t feel any animosity towards Doss when she knows the truth about her dysfunctional bio-family and see’s it for herself.”

    Most likely, her emotions will be complex. That Doss fought to keep her from her biological family will probably make them even more so.

  15. http://Anonymous says

    I work with children in care who have been fostered out and mom given plenty of chances to parent. This isn’t helpful to either mother or child. If its a choice between a life in care or adoption, I believe adoption is the lesser of two evils. At least the child has the opportunity to break free of the family cycle of dysfunction eg three generations in care. Close family members are difficult to assess for suitability eg grandma raised the dysfunctional father – what makes her such a good parent now? Also what happens when grandma dies? This is the one story I can actually understand the amom paying thousands to keep Vanessa away from that fate.

  16. http://Anonymous says

    I’m an adoptee and I think the other anonymous replier makes some good points. I was in foster care as baby and toddler and would much rather have been in an adoptive home from birth. Being bounced around in foster homes is not good for babies or children and I sure would not have wanted to be in the care of my birth mother or any of her relatives-ever! I don’t think that just being related by blood gives you the right to a child if you are not fit to raise that child. But I do think that we as adoptees have a right to know who our blood relatives are and not have our early lives erased by the courts when the adoption takes place.