Freda, our newly acquired second dog, is snuffling in the dirt I’m digging. I started out planting echinacea, but then I saw the ornamental grass is growing new shoots and I still haven’t cut back the dead foliage from autumn. And then there’s the deeply buried ivy roots I have to cut out of the ground. Then I realized there’s a still some old leaves to rake out of the flower beds. Which is kind of pointless, because Freda’s already been joyfully munching the tips of my irises and hellebores as soon as they point from the ground. The small patch of tulips by the back door? We won’t see their red blooms this year.

What was I doing again? Planting some colorful echinacea.

Sadness weighs on me today like heavy, wet sand, pushing me into the ground as I kneel in the yard. Our friend Kristina has moved from six post-surgery weeks at Hopkins to receiving hospice care at home. The smells of smoked paprika, onions, and sausage drift out the open kitchen window as Ron makes up a batch of stew to take to her husband, Mark, and her parents. I’ve already made up a care package of our other homemade soups and stews from the freezer: Icelandic lamb, lemon-chicken-orzon, and sweet potato-coconut. Kristina has had brain cancer for more than eight years, and the surgery to remove the latest growth of tumor has had a tumultuous aftermath with many complications. I text with Mark to arrange dropoff, asking if he’d like us to stay and visit. Not today, he responds with an uncharacteristic smiley emoticon.

I manage to get the echinacea planted, hoping Freda won’t dig up the newly loose dirt or eat the shoots before we get to enjoy the pink and orange blossoms. I rake up and gather the dead ornamental grass and the dead leaves, and I manage to get most of it squared away. I feel light-headed from bending over, or from sadness, or from wondering too long how I can be helpful or useful to Mark, and I sit at the table in the yard, the chairs still dirty from staying out all winter.

I can’t think of what to do with the dead leaves. Can they be reused as mulch? Weren’t we just talking about getting a mulch delivery? I can’t remember why this isn’t a good idea, but I somehow remember it isn’t. I want to just throw them away–I need the yard clean now to make room for the plants to come–but I can’t think how to get them into a bag. I don’t even remember they’d need to be in a bag. I just sit there staring at this pile of leaves–gloves still on my hands–hidden in the corner of the yard since last fall.

Ron comes out to check on me. He’s done making the soup. I say “I’m too sad to figure out how to deal with these leaves. What do we do with leaves?” He puts the leaves in a bag and we make a plan for soup delivery to Mark, and to take the dogs to the dog park on this gray Easter.



The Time I Agreed with Antonin Scalia

I listened to a 2012 CSPAN interview with Antonin Scalia over the weekend, and I was reminded what a sanctimonious, lugubrious, condescending, and self-serving inconsistent thinker he was. Among other rulings, Scalia may have irrevocably damaged the American middle class and driven it into further poverty with his disastrous Citizens United ruling, but there was at least one decision of his that I agreed with: the case of Baby Veronica.

Baby Veronica was a child whose biological mother put her up for adoption without knowledge or consent of the biological father. The father contested the adoption, saying he wanted to raise his daughter over the objections of the mother. All 50 US states have different adoption laws, as I’ve reminded here many times, and depending on the state, sometimes when this happens the mother gets away with it.

Well, the mother in this case got away with it for two years. Baby Veronica was adopted by a couple, the Capobiancos.

However, the father, Dusten Brown, is part Cherokee, which means Veronica is also part Cherokee. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) stipulates federal protections against children of Native American descent being removed from their families. Dusten Brown sued to get his daughter back, citing the sketchy adoption agreement that did not bear his consent. But Dusten Brown’s objections came, and were adjudicated on, at at time when Veronica had already been placed with and lived with the Capobiancos for the first two years of her life.

Yes, this father wanted to take his daughter away from the adoptive parents she’d known for two years. He’d never had the opportunity to raise his own daughter, because the mother had given her up without his consent.

The case wound all the way to the US Supreme Court, and Scalia, in a moment of humanity I didn’t often see in his rulings, agreed with Justices Kagan, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor that natural fathers cannot be denied their rights to parent under the ICWA.

Unfortunately this opinion was part of a 5-4 dissent, when the majority of the court ruled that Dusten Brown did not have the right under the ICWA to parent his own daughter:

“The Court’s opinion, it seems to me, needlessly demeans the rights of parenthood. It has been the constant practice of the common law to respect the entitlement of those who bring a child into the world to raise that child. We do not inquire whether leaving a child with his parents is ‘in the best interest of the child.’ It sometimes is not; he would be better of raised by someone else. But parents have their rights, no less than children do. This father wants to raise his daughter, and the statute amply protects his right to so do. There is no reason in law or policy to dilute that protection.” 

Veronica Brown was taken away from her biological father, who always wanted to raise her, at age 4. The adoptive parents were awarded permanent custody. But at least Scalia tried to do right thing: something neither conservative nor liberal. Just the right thing. The humane thing.



Brookfield Documentary

A few weeks ago Weston pointed me to this article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on a documentary film maker working on a film about Brookfield, the maternity home where Susan was pregnant with me.

Caroline Stephenson’s own grandmother endured her unmarried pregnancy at Brookfield, too. Caroline, a TV writer and storyteller by nature, couldn’t leave the stories of Brookfield untold:

Single pregnancy and having a child out of wedlock in 2016 does not carry the enormous shame and stigma that it did up until the late 20th Century. Hundreds of thousands of babies were born in maternity homes like Brookfield all over the country. In researching my mother’s story, I realized that the information collected could help many more people with a similar history. It’s time to decode the hidden past of this dark time for women and bring their stories to light.

The photos, documents, artifacts that I collect will be compiled into a documentary film about the history of Brookfield. If you have information or stories that you would like to contribute, please contact me. Thank you.

Caroline Stephenson

If you’re a woman who was pregnant at Brookfield in Richmond, Virginia, or you’re the child of someone who was, you may want to contact Caroline.


Yesterday I was supposed to be a plane at 7:15am with Susan. We were going to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the annual conference of the American Adoption Congress. I’m using past tense because on Tuesday I had jury duty, and I was selected to serve on a two-week trial. So our trip was cancelled for us by a judge. Thanks, your honor.

Even though I was incredulous that I was selected (“Your honor, I have plane tickets and a non-refundable conference fee, as well as a pretty important diagnostic medical test related to my heart next week”), I also work well within constraints. And I don’t do regret.

Here’s why, as of today, I’m kind of glad we’re not going to the AAC conference after all:

  • The AAC has historically supported adoption records legislation that includes contact vetoes, redactions/disclosure vetoes, and confidential intermediaries. I strongly oppose all these half measures, instead favoring 100% unfettered, unconditional access by adoptees to their birth records.
  • The AAC conference attendees will be as likely as not to be celebrating the recent Ohio law allowing most adoptees access to their records. Most, but not all.
  • I would have a hard time attending open records conference sessions I was interested in and simultaneously politely shrugging off the joy and enthusiasm for a law I don’t support.
  • I was hoping to hook up with activists from Virginia (which is one of the strictest, most closed states), but knew that some of them would happily settle for an access bill.
  • Many sessions focused on support while searching, or the tactics of searching, which I don’t need.

What is a contact veto?

This is a term used to describe a provision in adoption records access laws. It refers to a unilateral prohibition on one adult contacting another adult. It’s usually written such that a birthparent may unilaterally and pre-emptively forever prevent an adult adoptee from contacting him or her.

Why I’m opposed to contact vetoes

It’s unprecedented in our society and our law. There is no other situation in which one adult may pre-emptively FOREVER legally prevent another adult from contacting him or her. What makes adoptees such a dangerous class of people that we can’t be trusted to conduct our personal affairs with the same agency non-adopted adults do? The reality is that most adoptees, when faced with a first contact that includes rejection, don’t keep coming back for rejection over and over again. Secondary rejection is a risk we all fear. It’s what keeps so many adoptees from searching in the first place.

But my main objection is a legal one. There are already laws in place to handle harassment, stalking, and assaults. There is nothing endemic to adoption that means existing laws can’t handle people who can’t take a hint and continue contacting someone after a first rejection.

What are redaction provisions and disclosure vetoes?

If you redact something, you cut or block it out. Think of the government reports released by Snowden. Or of my own adoption records. Even my non-identifying information had literal holes cut in it with an X-acto knife:

Redacted adoption file

Redacted adoption file

This is a (blurry) redacted file from Virginia, a closed records state. It differs from redacted files in open records states in one key way:

My non-id record above is available to me at any time after age 18. There is no involvement by the birthparent in my getting this record. In fact, they’re not told about it. Adoption records in states that have “open records” provisions but with disclosure vetoes/redaction provisions are vetted by the birth parents for optional redaction.

What can birthparents redact in these states? It depends on the state. In Ohio, only the name can be redacted. The birthparents’ names. Their addresses at the time of relinquishment remains unredacted and visible to the adoptee. How asinine is that? I could still find out who the person is with maybe a half hour of searching online.

A disclosure veto is very similar in that the birthparent is given a chance to tell the records holding agency “I don’t want my name (and sometimes other identifying information such as address) disclosed to the adoptee.” Forever. Without provocation. Before first contact.

Why I oppose disclosure vetoes and redaction 

For me it’s a legal matter. There was a contract signed in 1969 between my birthmother and the agency. Under pressure from her family, the maternity home, the hospital staff, and the adoption agency, Susan relinquished me to the agency.

There were two parties to that contract: Susan and the Children’s Home Society. I was not involved. There is no ethical ground on which anyone could assert I was a party to that legal contract, since I was an infant at the time. I was not able to understand or consent to my eternal future rights to contact another person being signed away that day.

In addition, at the time Susan relinquished me, my identity was not made secret. It wasn’t until after I stayed in a foster home, was subsequently placed with my parents, and then they finalized my adoption, that my name and original identity was forever sealed away.

The final adoption agreement included my official legal name change. It wasn’t until that day that my original name and identity was sealed under lock and key. None of this paperwork has my signature on it, because I was an infant unable to understand or agree that I would never be able to have this information.

I should not be held–and do not agree that I am beholden to–contracts signed by others stipulating my identity would forever be a state secret. I wholeheartedly reject that this law even applies to me.

What is a confidential intermediary?

Imagine this:

You’re 56. You were adopted as an infant. You apply for any identifying information about your birth family. The state where you live assigns a social worker to your case, someone you’ve never met and never heard of. That social worker receives your entire unredacted adoption file, including your original birth certificate, your adoptive parents’ home studies, and any identifying information about your birth family. But you’re not allowed to see it.

The social worker calls you and asks you why you want to have this information. What do you hope to get out of having this information? Do you plan to contact your birthparents? Are you hoping to have a relationship? What do you hope to gain from such a relationship? How do your adoptive parents feel about your wanting this information? What will you do if your birthparents don’t want contact? And on and on. What you’re dealing with is a confidential intermediary system—in which the social worker is the intermediary between you and birthmother, and the social worker keeps all the info confidential from both of you.

After asking you these invasive and infantilizing questions, the social worker calls your birthmother. You have no idea what the social worker tells or asks her, because you’re not privy to that conversation. You have no assurance the social worker asks questions that might spook your birthmother, or that might offend her. You are kept in the dark about your birthmother’s voice, her motivations, and any subtext you can ordinarily hear in a live conversation.

The social worker reports back to you. Such confidential intermediary programs usually have one of two outcomes: 1) Your birthmother does want contact, but she wants to take it slowly, using the social worker as a go between. Or 2) your birthmother doesn’t want contact at all.

Option 1 is like being set up on the most important blind date of your life. You entrust everything to the confidential intermediary: Her empathy, her ability to read between the lines, her ability to push a little when there’s resistance, her ability to coax, and comfort, and reassure. Option 1 is the most nerve wracking limbo to live in, because you’re starting from less than zero. Not only do you not have a name, but you also are trying to build a relationship right off the bat. And if the birthparent breaks off contact with the intermediary or says no, then your limbo becomes the worst kind of purgatory. To add salt to the wound, you are, in some states, legally bound by existing harassment laws from contacting the birthparent after an unsuccessful intermediary process.

Option 2 is a dead end before things even get off the ground. And, as in the previous paragraph, you’re now forever bound by existing harassment law in some states from contacting the birthparent.

Confidential intermediaries aren’t better than nothing. They’re worse than anything. You’re entrusting your entire information searching process and your reunion–all together at the same time–to a total stranger. Whose only qualification is the fact they have a social work degree.

Ohio’s new law

Last week Ohio’s new adoption records access law went into effect. More than 400,000 adult adoptees were granted the right to apply for identifying information from the state. This was, no doubt, a huge boon for those 400,000.

But the law also provided for redaction by birthparents of their names. And only their names. How irretrievably stupid.

The new law in Ohio gave birthparents until the day the law went into effect–March 20, 2015–to redact their names. After that date the possibility to keep secrets was forever forfeited.

Only 115 birthparents took advantage of the redaction option. 115 out of 400,000. A testament to truly how few birthparents ever wanted secrecy in the first place. About 250 people showed up the first day to apply for and receive their original records. You can see some video of that here.

But there are 115 Ohio adoptees who are now forever forbidden from making first contact with another adult. The adult who happens to have given them birth. All because of contracts signed when those adoptees were infants and unable to understand or consent to the legal proceedings taking place concerning their futures. I find this shameful, deplorable, and inhumane.

Those 115 people were left behind because the supporters of this law thought the collateral damage was worth it. I disagree. It was not worth it. Even despite the emotional reactions of the adoptees receiving their records in the link above.

The activists in Ohio should have demanded a clean bill–one that respects the rights of ALL adult adoptees to have the same rights as non-adopted people. The right to know their original identity, without shame or secrecy. But once again, legal documents signed decades ago are abrogating the rights of people who were too young to understand or consent what was happening. Shameful.

American Adoption Congress

Back to the AAC. I’ve known for years that the AAC includes a large contingent of people who help author and testify for legislation such as that which just passed in Ohio.

In fact, in the 1990s I testified in Maryland–where I’d just moved–in favor of proposed legislation including similar provisions. The proposed Maryland law ended up being passed, and now in Maryland there is a confidential intermediary system. One that I now wholeheartedly oppose and am ashamed to have supported at the time. I wish I could go back to that day in the Maryland State House in Annapolis and instead testify against the proposed law. I would have said abrogating the rights of some adoptees in favor of giving others what they’ve always longed for isn’t worth it. I would have said they were not a party to the legal documents signed when they were infants. I would have said infantilizing adoptees is a shameful, harmful practice that continues to tell us we’re not worth of the same protections under law as other people. I would have said I am not ashamed of who I am or how I came to be in the world, and if you are, then that’s on you.

Good people disagree on these issues. I have adoptee friends who disagree with me. But I can’t back down from my position: The AAC and other organization that help author and testify in favor of proposed compromise legislation such as that which contains contact vetoes, disclosure vetoes, and confidential intermediary systems are not true reformers. They are harming and continuing to infantilize adoptees by admitting that we are not capable of acting with the same maturity and agency as other adults.

Until the AAC stops supporting compromise legislation, I will not support them. And so I’m glad the judge called my number on Tuesday and ruined my travel plans by empaneling me on a two-week jury trial.


Johnny Appleseed

I’ve been sitting on this draft since early January. Just came back to finish it up today ahead of big events next week.

Every December, in the week before Christmas, the Johnson clan (Dodie’s mother, Kathleen’s, side) gathers at Uncle Tom’s house outside of Marion, North Carolina, just east of Asheville. This is the first year I went. I met about 50 relatives for the first time.

Uncle Tom is Kathleen’s brother. She’s the oldest of five siblings, and I was invited to this gathering with the words “You never know if this will be the last Christmas they’re all alive.” Guilt trips run in every family!

On the way to Marion from High Point, we passed Uncle Tom’s RV dealership on the left (“biggest chain of dealerships on the east coast”), then a run down old building where Kathleen said she and Max used to go out for steaks on early dates, and then the small hillside cemetery where Dodie is buried. We wound northward into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, alongside Lake Tahoma, ringed mostly with summer homes. A seasonal restaurant sits on a tiny island in the middle of the lake, with a footbridge its only connection to shore. The mountains near the lake are high enough that the locals, at least, refer to a nearby ridge as the Eastern Continental Divide.

Tom’s house backs up to a state forest. I was told there may be bears wandering in the rhododendrons in the yard. Deer heads line the garage walls, and the driveway is made of paving bricks. Tom lives there year round, and the house is beautifully decorated for entertaining, with jumping deer wallpaper in the formal dining room. I complimented Uncle Tom on his home, but he modestly poo-pooed its sense of style, saying “If I can’t shoot it or toss a fly to it, I don’t know about it.”

Over the next hour, I met my other great aunts and great uncles, all younger than Gramma: Bud, Lallage, and Wanda. And about 45 of their spouses, children, and grandchildren. At one point, the crowd got big and loud enough that it was hard to hear the person standing right next to me. But people were still arriving. A man walked up to me and put out his hand to shake mine. He couldn’t hear me when I introduced myself, so I yelled “WE’RE RELATED!”

Gramma, Mina, Craig, and Noni kept checking on me. “Doing ok?” Surprisingly, and with the help of some wine, I was. I got constant family tree updates from them and from total strangers other relatives.

“Now, you’re my second cousin, because Kathleen is my great aunt.”

When it was determined that everyone had arrived, and the house was stuffed with people, we were all directed to form a circle and hold hands. All 50 of us. Just like at Camp Mont Shenandoah. No wonder I felt so at home.

Noni shushed everyone to make some announcements: there were two new people to welcome into the fold: 1) the unborn baby in a very pregnant belly (notice how I’m sooo gracefully not putting the name of my cousin here? I don’t remember it!), and 2) me. I’d already met everyone, or nearly everyone, in the previous hour but Noni reminded everyone that Dodie’s daughter had joined the fold for Christmas this year. Gramma and Mina, on either side of me, squeezed my hands.

Everyone around me started to sing to words to Johnny Appleseed:

Oh, the lord is good to me, and so I thank the lord

For giving me the strength I need

The sun, and the rain, and the appleseed

The lord is good to me. Amen.

My eyes couldn’t hold my tears as I joined in almost immediately. I couldn’t hear my own voice because my throat was swollen and choking from crying, but I knew every word. I’d sang that song hundreds of times at camp, at the beginning of every meal in the Feedbag. In my emotional muscle memory, there is no way to feel closer to a large group of people than to hold hands and sing that song. (Or any of about 100 others.)

Johnny Appleseed, you’re a peach.

Kathleen & her siblings, L to R: Bud, Lallage, Tom, Kathleen, Wanda

Kathleen & her siblings, L to R: Bud, Lallage, Tom, Kathleen, and Wanda



Craig, Uncle Bud, me, and Bud's son James, who turned to me during dinner and said "Dodie was my best friend in the whole world."

Craig, Uncle Bud, me, and Bud’s son James, who turned to me during dinner and said “Dodie was my best friend in the whole world.”




Birdie the dog

Birdie, the lab-basset mix, in her fleece during a cold snap last week

A month ago

Four weeks ago today, we brought Birdie home. Birdie is a basset hound-labrador retriever mix, about 30 pounds and about a year old. We had to go just south of Richmond to get her from the foster home where she’d been for two months. A quick, in-and-out, surgical strike on a Sunday. We didn’t even tell any relatives we’d be in town because we needed to get back to Baltimore to settle her in as much as possible before starting the work week routine the following day.

The adoption happened so fast that we didn’t even have all the supplies we needed before setting off for Richmond that Sunday. So we aimed to stop at a Petsmart north of Richmond to pick up some necessaries for the trip: a tag with our phone and address on it, a new bed to ride home in, and a few toys in case she needed distraction on the ride back to Baltimore.

The Petsmart we stopped at was across the street from Brookfield, the maternity home where Susan spent her pregnancy with me, and where I lived for the first 30 days of my life. Although I’d chosen that location from Google Maps, it didn’t hit me until we turned onto Route 1 from I-95 that we’d pass right by it.

As I turned the car into the Petsmart parking lot, I pointed left and tapped on the driver’s side window: “That’s where I lived for 30 days with Susan when I was a newborn.” Ron told me I should write about the moment, and here I am.


Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers in Baltimore

Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers in Baltimore

This morning I went to a yoga studio I’d never visited before. It’s in an old textile mill complex on the banks of the Jones Falls in a particularly Appalachian feeling part of Baltimore. Parking for the businesses in the mill is in a lot on a hill overlooking the complex. Surrounding the old mill buildings are several old stone houses and larger buildings.

When I came out of class and walked up the hill to my car, I saw the old Florence Crittenton maternity home.

For a few months last year, Laura and I (and her writing partner, Charlotte) were working on an immersive theater piece about life in a 60s maternity home we’d hoped to stage in the now-disbanded Crittenton home. Then my professional life went a different way, and I withdrew from the project. I hadn’t even thought of the site since those writing sessions. We’d imagined girls and women being dropped off by their parents, trying on maternity clothes, and doing chores in their locked-down environment. Unwed mothers in these institutions were generally not allowed to leave once they arrived, except after they gave birth to a healthy, adoptable baby.

Designated as a historic landmark in 2013 for its “service to Baltimore girls and women,” Baltimore’s Florence Crittenton home is now a hot property. A commercial developer wants to redevelop the beautifully situated property and build townhouses on it. He wants to demolish the dormitories unwed mothers resided in during their pregnancies and keep the larger buildings.

Good decision.

Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea

A fascinating look at adults who left South Korea as infants and children during a boom time of white Westerners adopting children from there. So many of these adults are moving to South Korea and choosing to live there, either temporarily or permanently, that the government has created new laws to deal with their immigration status. And there’s a neighborhood in Seoul known for a high percentage of Koreans raised in America or Europe and who speak little to no Korean.

The author herself is a parent of internationally adopted children. This is an unflinching look at what it means to live between two (or more) cultures, and to wonder if you really belong anywhere at all.