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April 15, 2000
Column #972

ADOPTION A GROWING OPTION THANKS TO BILL PIERCE

     Should adoption records should be open, so an adopted child can obtain the name of its birth mother, or a birth mother could have access to her child after relinquishing it for adoption? Some allege that more women unable or unwilling to raise a child would allow it to be adopted, rather than abort it -- if they could have continuing contact with the child. 

     TV talk shows regularly feature stories of adopted children who as adults seek their birth mother, and are happily reunited. 

     There is a reality not given attention by Oprah. When most women agreed to relinquish a child for adoption, they were promised confidentiality - and sealed adoption records. A birth mother wants her privacy protected, so that a future husband and family might not learn that she had given birth out-of-wedlock. Similarly, adoptive parents would not want a child they are rearing to meet its ''real mother'' which can only be confusing.

     Yet the Clinton Administration introduced the ''Model State Adoption Act'' in Congress in 1998 seeking to mandate ''open adoption.'' Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), an adoptive father himself, opposed it, noting: ''After Great Britain changed its adoption laws in 1975 to allow adopted individuals to view their unamended birth certificates, a significant decline took place in the number of children placed for adoption.''

     How significant? There was a 93 percent plunge in adoption after adoption privacy was eliminated. The adoptions of infant children fell from 4,548 in 1975 to 322 in 1995.

     Had such a bill been passed by the U.S. in 1975, we would have had only 1,610 infant adoptions, not 23,537. The remaining 22,000 U.S. babies would have either been parented by unmarried single women or aborted.

     The person most responsible for giving those kids a future was Dr. William Pierce, founder and president for 20 years of the National Council for Adoption. On Wednesday night,  Pierce, who recently retired from the Council, was inducted into its ''Adoption Hall of Fame'' by Rep. Oberstar who flatly asserted, ''Without Bill Pierce, the national scene would be vastly different than it is today. The Model State Adoption Act would have become law, which would have permitted the opening of adoption records retroactively.''

     ''He also single-handedly pioneered the basic reform of the foster care system. He experienced the pain of children left behind in foster care, bounced from one home to another - and did something about it,'' said Oberstar. The Adoption and Safe Families Act passed by Congress in 1997 says that if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 18 months, he has to be returned to his family of origin or be allowed to be adopted. 

     At the urging of Pierce and the National Council for Adoption (NCFA) Congress passed two other adoption incentives. One is the Adoption Tax Credit of $5,000 ($6,000 for special needs children). Another reform made it illegal to be racist in adoption and foster care. New laws prohibit social workers from blocking white parents from adopting black children. There simply are not enough black parents to adopt all the black children in foster care.

     The result? The number of foster care children being adopted doubled between 1995 and 1998 in Illinois, and rose 75 percent in Texas, partly due to strong pressure by Gov. George W. Bush, a passionate adoption advocate. Nationally, there were 9,000 more children adopted from foster care in 1998 compared to three years earlier.

     However, this progress is modest compared to the need. There were nearly 1.3 million children born out-of-wedlock in 1998 alone, less than 2 percent of whom were relinquished for adoption. No wonder there were 12,596 adoptions from foreign countries in 1997.

     Yet at least one million American couples would like to adopt a child. 

     What are the major barriers to doing so? In NCFA's new ''Adoption Factbook III,'' Pierce outlines 21 barriers to adoption. Two examples. The Supreme Court ruled that unmarried fathers can block the adoption of a child. But even married fathers can not prevent an abortion.  Therefore, adoptions plunged from 89,200 in 1971 to 49,700 in 1974. 

     Second, adoption horror stories make the press, but rarely the joyous stories of adoption. 

     Who knows the current Miss America, Lynnette Cole, and Miss Teen USA, Ashley Coleman, were both adopted? Miss Cole's story is dramatic. ''I was considered unadoptable. I was thought to be mentally slow,'' she says. "My parents are truly a blessing. They told my brother and me that we were more special because we were chosen."

     Anyone considering adoption should read the ''Adoption Factbook." Call 202 328-1200.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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