Published January 09, 2015 | 20 min read

The plan was for mother to meet daughter at the Brookfield Zoo on Chicago’s west side but the thought of this encounter filled Stephanie Austin with anxiety. It was to be the first time she would see her child since 1992 when Austin, then just 16, had relinquished her three-day-old infant because she knew she couldn’t care for the girl.

Five years later Maggie Kealy had grown into a sweet — and inquisitive — kindergartner. Her adoptive parents, Rita and Michael Kealy, provided a loving home as well as a little sister for Maggie whom they adopted from another family. There were no secrets in their household; both Kealy children knew they had been adopted. Maura, Maggie’s sister, not only had met her own birth parents, she saw them regularly. Maggie desperately wanted that, too.

So the Kealys tried to make it happen. Finally, after years of them sending photos and updates of Maggie to Austin, it seemed the time had come for the birth mother to meet the daughter she never really knew. As Austin prepared for the visit, she worried what the girl might think of her and what role she could play in Maggie’s life. Would she be expected to attend every birthday? “I was still young,” said Austin. “If she wanted me at something and I couldn’t be there, I didn’t want to disappoint her.”

The day before the outing, Austin was discussing her concerns with a friend. “All of a sudden, I was like, ‘You know what? If I am wondering so much about this, I am not ready.’” But the thought of picking up the phone and cancelling made Austin’s heart rate spike. In her brief call to Rita Kealy, Austin apologized profusely. “I was sad,” she recalled. “I knew it was disappointing.”

Rita Kealy was devastated, knowing how upsetting the news was going to be for Maggie. But she told Austin, “When the timing is right, you’ll know.” Kealy recalled her own feelings vividly. “It was a painful day,” she told this reporter. After the call ended, Kealy collapsed into her husband’s arms and sobbed.

Stephanie Austin (top, second from right) relinquished her daughter Maggie (below her), then reconnected with her and the girl’s adoptive family.

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The experience of forging relationships between birth and adoptive families, once unthinkable, is increasingly common with U.S. adoptions, which are no longer cloaked in secrecy. But as the Kealys and Austin learned, it is also a delicate dance.

Until the 1980s, birth parents knew little about adoptive parents and almost nothing regarding their children’s upbringing. On occasion, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, newborns were whisked away immediately from the delivery room to prevent any bonding between mother and child or second thoughts about the adoption. Original birth records were commonly sealed and new birth certificates created with the names of adoptive parents. Many children grew up not knowing they had been adopted. If they did know and wanted to learn the identities of their biological parents they had to wait until the age of 18 to gain access to their original birth certificates. Some states still prohibit such access.

About 30 years ago, the terms slowly began to change. Today, most adoptions are considered “open” to some degree — the parties know each other and there are often information exchanges and visits, sometimes from the very moment a child is relinquished. This new and ever-evolving approach has ushered in a complicated set of arrangements, with legal, ethical and emotional challenges for those involved.

Expectant parents who plan to place their infants are more empowered than ever. What they offer is rare — a healthy newborn from circumstances that are well known who is likely facing fewer challenges than a child from foster care. Of the estimated 125,000 annual adoptions in the U.S., only about 14,000 involve American-born infants relinquished voluntarily, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a leading independent research and policy group. By comparison, in 2013, 50,608 children were placed via the child welfare system and 7,092 children were adopted from other countries, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the State Department. (Another 50,000 or so children are adopted each year by step-parents.)


Overseas exchanges, which some prospective parents view as an appealing alternative, have slowed, according to the federal agencies. That’s because they’ve become more difficult — and more troubling in the wake of allegations of fraud and abuse, such as in Guatemala, which shut down its international adoption program in 2008. Russia made news in 2013 when it too banned adoptions, but only to the U.S. Other countries have become more cautious with their programs.

Many American families simply get shut out. Estimates of the number of those who actively attempt to adopt each year range from 100,000, a figure suggested by the National Center for Health Statistics in 1997, to 232,000, once claimed by the National Survey of Family Growth, which has estimated there are about 3.3 times the number of adoption seekers than actual adoptions. Their most recent figures, from 2002, address how many U.S. women aged 18 to 44 have ever taken “concrete steps” toward adoption — it’s 2.6 million, the NSFG claimed, though only 614,000 actually went home with a child.

The result is that birth parents who voluntarily surrender their children have the power to choose who the adoptive family will be. Face-to-face meetings prior to the birth are common, and, if the birth parents wish, arrangements are made for ongoing contact after the transfer is finalized. About 95 percent of U.S. adoptions involve some level of sustained interaction between the families, according to the Adoption Institute. Some states even permit enforceable post-adoption contact agreements.

But whether there is a signed document or not, adoptive parents must accept that many birth parents will play an active role in their children’s lives. And, for the most part, experts say, that’s a good thing.

Children tend to be intensely curious about their origins. Adopted kids want to know why they look different from their parents or siblings, why their birth parents didn’t keep them and how they came to be part of this new family. Having those questions answered at an early age can help a child’s development. Adoptive parents also benefit from having family histories to draw from; information on medical issues and genetic make-up can play a vital role. And in cases in which there are multiple adoptions, siblings can bond over the shared experience.

The most important need? For the children to know that their birth parents loved them.

“That’s such a basic, primal feeling that it’s hard to get just from your adoptive parents saying, ‘She loved you,’” said Susan Smith, a social worker, retired professor and now program and project director at the Adoption Institute. “When you know the birth parent and she gives that message, it’s much more real. And I think that’s just a real basic foundation for an adopted child to feel OK about themselves.”

A 30-year ongoing study of the subject found that those involved in open adoptions are generally more satisfied with the arrangement than those in closed adoptions and that on the whole everyone benefits from the transparency. Nevertheless, the amount of contact tends to fluctuate over the years due to where families live, children’s development and changes in the biological and adoptive parents’ personal and professional lives.

“I think there is this process where families are trying to figure out: How close are we going to be? How much contact are we going to have?” said Harold Grotevant, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a principal investigator of the study, called the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project, which began in 1984.

But this new level of openness can create problems, particularly when one side decides to back away.

John and Donna Garrett, adoptive parents who live near Atlanta, made a decision in 2009 to suspend visits between their son, John Miles Garrett, and the boy’s birth parents, John and Lisa Hamrin. The child was four at the time and the Garretts felt that they needed to establish themselves as John’s parents, to make sure he understood that his life at home was with them. Their son’s encounters with the Hamrins amounted to three or four visits a year but were confusing matters for the boy, they felt.

The Garretts informed the Hamrins that there would be no more in-person contact until John reached the age of 10 or expressed an interest in seeing them again.

“It wasn’t like we were just closing the doors,” said John Garrett, 44, who promised the Hamrins that he and his wife would continue to send emails and update a Web site they had created to share photos and video of their son. “The goal was not necessarily protective because he doesn’t need to be protected from his birth parents,” he added. “I think it was just him knowing who we were.”

The Hamrins, both now 28, said they were shocked by the decision and panic-stricken that they would never see little John again.

Lisa & John Harris

“I was very fearful that this was the beginning of the end of our openness,” said John Hamrin. “They said out front that they were thinking about a six-year break and that really scared me. That’s a long time, especially for a child.” Said Lisa: “We were spoiled with the amount of visits. To know that was now going to be cut off for so long, it was heartbreaking.”

Ultimately, however, the Hamrins accepted the change. “He needed this time apart and this break,” Lisa said of her son. “And we just had to trust that they knew what was best for their family.”

Two years and many photo updates later, the Garretts remained true to their word. Little John, by then six years old, started asking questions they said only the Hamrins could answer: Why didn’t they keep him? Why did they wait to get married until after he was born?

So a new visit was arranged and answers provided. “We were like, what? We were not prepared for that,” Lisa said. They were too young to be parents or to be married, they told him, but that never changed how much they loved him. “He was like, OK! And then he went back to his toys,” John Hamrin said.

The families remain in touch by phone, email and the photo Web site, and they saw one another again in late July. More get-togethers are being planned.

Jane, a 36-year-old birth mother from Boston, faced a similar challenge but had a much different result.

When she placed her daughter with an adoptive family 13 years ago, she said the parents agreed to an increasing level of contact with her daughter. But after three years they stopped communicating without warning or explanation. There was nothing Jane could do. Though birth parents often enjoy unprecedented access and privileges, adoptive parents are the recognized guardians and hold all the legal cards.

Jane asked that this story use only her middle name so as not to upset her daughter’s parents and risk the adoption closing again. “I can’t rock the boat,” she said. She declined to provide contact information for the adoptive parents.

Jane’s agreement was not in writing. But even if it had been, such contracts are not honored in many parts of the country. As of 2011, 26 states (including the District of Columbia) had passed statutes allowing enforceable post-adoption visitation agreements, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When disputes are litigated, the courts are obligated to act in the best interests of the child. A judge might impose a penalty if adoptive parents refuse to comply with an agreement, such as a fine or a contempt ruling, but no court has overturned a finalized adoption or ordered the return of a child over a contact violation.

“Nobody’s going to take your child away if you don’t follow it,” said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and the father of two adopted children, ages 17 and 20. “But it means that society is telling you, and the law is telling you, that you’ve made a promise. You should keep it.”

In Jane’s case, she simply waited and hoped. In 2011, her daughter’s parents suddenly resurfaced — at the girl’s urging, she suspects. During the last three years, Jane and her now 13-year-old have spent several hours chatting on Skype and posting on Facebook. They even met in person in June for the first time since Jane relinquished the girl as an infant.

But the seven years without any communication were agonizing, Jane said, and she remains angry and bitter toward the adoptive parents for cutting her off. While she tries to put those feelings aside for the sake of her daughter, she also worries that she could be shut out again at any time. “I just hope that we’ve come so far now that it’s kind of impossible to backtrack,” she said.

Open adoptions with multiple children add a layer of complexity.

Zoe and Chris Crabb, adoptive parents in an Atlanta suburb, have two sons with different birth mothers — and very different relationships with their biological families.

Noah, 10, arrived when he was six weeks old and came with restrictions. The Crabbs agreed to share photos and information with the adoption agency but were to have no direct contact with Noah’s birth mother, whose name and other details were withheld from them. Her last name, however, was inadvertently left on a legal document.

Elijah, adopted four years later, was an open book. His birth mother, Clare Allen, met the Crabbs before his birth and she chose them over other prospective parents. The Crabbs signed on for as many as three annual visits, a deal that would expand greatly over the years. Allen’s parents, Libby and Lloyd Allen, play an active role in both boys’ lives and consider them equally their grandsons. Noah and Elijah, 6, spend time at the Allen household and the two families often share weekends and holidays together.

It was, in fact, this deepening relationship that prompted the Crabbs to track down Noah’s birth mother, Anne Dunn, four years ago. They found her with the help of the mistakenly revealed last name. Chris Crabb, 53, had been skeptical about open adoption before his experience with Allen. “The idea of an open adoption was totally foreign to me,” he said. “When Anne didn’t really want to have contact, it didn’t bother me. What changed it for me was meeting Clare. Clare made it so easy.”

Despite the way things have worked out, Allen, 26, struggles with the arrangement. She cherishes her encounters with Elijah and has no desire to reduce his time with her and her family, but having been adopted herself, as was her own birth mother, she is keenly aware of how painful adoption can be for parents and children.

“I always think about Elijah, every day,” she said on a May afternoon in her parent’s living room in Duluth, Georgia, adorned with framed photos of her, Elijah and Noah. “But there are days you don’t want to be reminded and there are toys in your bathtub.”

Zoe Crabb, 48, is not surprised by Clare’s anguish. Two of her own sisters relinquished children for adoption in the 1970s so she has some sense of the emotions birth parents experience. She said she would worry only if this wasn’t difficult for Clare.

“I fully expect it to hurt,” she said. “If it didn’t I’d be more concerned.”

Dunn, 33, who lives about 100 miles northeast of Atlanta, was less comfortable with having contact with her son and his family. Still, she has met with Noah a handful of times, developing a relationship she calls “tentative.”

Surrendering him, she says, was painful and she continues to feel guilt over that decision. “I have a lot of admiration for Clare with as much openness she is able to have with Chris and Zoe and Eli and how much she is involved in their lives. But I don’t think I would be able to do that — emotionally I’m not sure if I really want to get that attached,” she said. She added: “Chris and Zoe, I think, want it way more open even than what I am willing to do now.”

Clare Allen and Elijah Crabb at her college graduation this spring.

Dunn’s ambivalence, and Allen’s struggles, are not atypical among birth parents in this modern age of adoptions.

“Are you a parent or are you not?” asked Brenda Romanchik, a clinical social worker, trauma specialist and adoption expert who’s written extensively on the subject. “If you have all this contact and this responsibility then exactly what kind of adoption is this?”

“It’s one of the reasons why I’m just really focused on keeping things child-centered,” said Romanchik, 54, a birth mother herself. “Because if you keep them child-centered, then it’s not about your needs, it’s not about the adoptive parents’ needs, it’s about what the kid needs.”

After Austin bailed out on the meeting at the zoo, her daughter’s adoptive parents watched Maggie struggle to understand why her birth mother kept her distance. “I did not go to bed feeling good most nights,” said Michael Kealy, 54, who said that Maggie was so upset she would often cry herself to sleep. “This was not a once a month sort of a thing. This was two to three times a week, if not more.”

What more could they do to convince Austin to step up?

“There was really nothing except to be persistent,” he said. So the Kealys continued to write letters to Austin. “It wasn’t stalker-ish. She wasn’t getting letters once a week. But certainly we would look at each other from time to time and say, ‘You know, is it too soon to send another letter?’” They always ended their notes with an invitation to call any time, saying, “We’d be delighted to hear from you and Maggie would too.”

It took seven years but Austin, now 38, — an adopted child herself who didn’t meet her own birth mother until a few years ago — came around.

“Every year on my birthday I would cry because I would sit and wonder, does she remember me?” Austin recalled thinking about her own biological mom. “That’s the kind of thing that pushed me to want to meet Maggie. Because even though she had pictures and letters and stuff like that, meeting the actual person, at least for me, would have meant a huge thing. Also, face to face, you can ask questions, you can get answers.”

They finally met on a late summer day at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. It turned out that Austin, then 28, and Maggie, 12, liked many of the same things: shoes and makeup, pickles and tattoos. They chatted non-stop.

“There were, you know, hugs and of course some tears and I was like, `Ugh, crying, gross, eww!’” said Maggie, now 22, who, remains close to Austin. “And so it was kind of a little awkward. But then we started walking through the gardens and looking at the flowers and talking about everything and anything and it turned into something not so awkward.”

The Kealys hung back as it all unfolded. “I was absolutely overjoyed and ecstatic,” said Rita Kealy, 55. “It was just one of the best days. And Maggie was, like, beaming! Beaming! Because she finally had this missing link in her life.”

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