Missing Pieces
Missing Pieces by Lisa Ritter Starr

Public Private Life

by Lisa Ritter Starr

In theory, the difference between private and public is such that the two are almost polar opposites. By simple definition only, private refers to the individual space, while public denotes an area open to groups. Practically, however, these areas overlap  some would say to a much larger degree than they should.

Adoption is an area in which private and public interests not only overlap, but often collide. First of all, adoption is the one way to start a family that requires some form of public permission. It also takes place through a public or private agency, both of which have strengths and weaknesses. Finally, closed adoptions can involve a conflict of privacy issues that is not easily resolved, and in which government policy plays a central role.

Today's families are the embodiment of private life. Because we're a gregarious species, there isn't much we can keep entirely separate from everyone else. Therefore, our intimate circle of private life in this country usually constitutes a mother, father, and one or more children. For many, the term private life is synonymous with family.

Pretty much anyone can start a family. Singles, teenagers, couples, and married partners alike can have families of their own, generally without interference from the public. If you can biologically accomplish it and show a minimum of responsibility, no one can legally stop you; however, if you are an infertile couple or single and you choose to adopt, your family begins in a much more public domain.

First you likely must respond to the very private issue of your fertility by announcing that you want to start a family, but you need help. Usually this means applying to an adoption agency. During this process, even if you are a healthy married couple, you could spend hours carefully choosing an agency from dozens of possibilities only to have your application rejected without explanation.

When and if you are accepted, you begin the long haul. The process of adoption may go smoothly, but it is generally known as an expensive string of legal hoops and seemingly endless waiting periods. Once your initial application is filed, it is time to begin the home study process. This is when you and your home life are observed and evaluated, checked against the agency's criteria for an acceptable environment.

Once these standard tests have been passed, you must wait to be matched or chosen with a child and/or birth parents. If it is a domestic adoption, most likely you will have to pass the test according to the birth parents, too. Finally, if you are chosen and a child is placed with you, in many states there is an additional waiting period of weeks or months before the adoption is legal and you are officially considered a family.

For the adoptive parents, this may be where the red tape ends. But public involvement is far from over in your and your child's lives. If this is a closed or even semi-open adoption, the public arena governs when, if, and how the adopted child has access to biological information. The adopted person may run into any number of blocks while trying to get information about herself  information that non-adopted people take completely for granted, such as the circumstances of birth and all aspects of genealogy.

Many times, the ease with which an adult searches for biological information depends upon the adoption agency. Agencies that govern adoption may be public or private entities. Public agencies are usually some division of state social services. Each state differs in how it handles adoptions, but most try to keep up with current adoption research and methods. The most important research today involves the degree of openness in adoptions, which includes the number of open adoptions, as well as their policy regarding access to biological information in closed adoptions.

If the agency leaned toward openness and the social worker took careful notation of events, it may be relatively easy to get information. An adopted adult can ask for non-identifying information from the agency, which could be anything from minimal notes taken by the social worker about the birth parents, to physical descriptions, religious backgrounds, and reasons for relinquishment.

Both public and private agencies must adhere to state regulations; however, some private agencies can narrow their focus in adoptions. A private agency might be religiously oriented and prefer couples with strong religious beliefs. Others might focus solely on open adoptions. Still others may not be actual agencies, but lawyers or doctors who, abiding by state law, can facilitate any match that they choose between adoptive and birth parents.

The advantages of going the private route include personalized service and possibly a faster placement. On the other hand, a lawyer may charge a fee many times more than, say, the Department of Social Services charges. The advantage of public agencies is that they may have access to more children, are closely regulated for reputability and standards of service, and are more holistic. They are, for example, much more likely to know about adoption trends like open adoption and follow-up matters such as counseling.

Like it or not, adoption has a standardized, legal side that cannot entirely be separated from your private life. If you are lucky, the involvement may be minimal, or you simply may not have occasion to notice it.

Nonetheless it is there, especially for the grown adoptee. Many adopted adults do not like it. If an adoptee wants to research her heritage, she should be able to do so. If she wants to know where she got her eyes or blood type or skin, she should be able to find out. If she has a consistent desire to fill that space that no other information can fill, she should have access to information about her biological family. Maybe they will be willing to fill in some of the blanks.

Often, this is not easy. Biological records have been closed for years, in order to protect the privacy of all involved. Yet the closing of these records was not originally intended to keep adopted people in the dark, just as the forging of a new birth certificate was not intended to erase the existence of the biological parents, as it may seem. Rather, these were precautions designed to keep the greater public out of a private family domain  not, as it has become, to keep children in the dark about their heritage.

This may be what has happened in the past, but it does not have to continue. We all have a sense of what is private and public. We don't get on the city bus naked or walk uninvited into a stranger's home. On the other hand, we are perfectly comfortable to invade the private interests of an adopted person, so ensure that laws  habits, really, at this point  are upheld at all costs.

There will always be an area in which public and private interests overlap. When children are involved, this is especially important. However, it is not appropriate to keep healthy adults from basic, private information about themselves.

The public arena has its place. We must remember above all that the public is made up of private individuals who have rights and privileges. We must also remember to stop turning away when we see those basic rights and privileges being sacrificed to a paper tiger.

Return to the Missing Pieces home page.

What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo