Internet lifts shroud of secrecy on adoption

12/16/2013 8:00 AM

12/12/2013 11:49 AM

Gus met his birth mother only once after being adopted. But she watches his life unfold on Facebook week by week: His first day of preschool, toting a tiny backpack spangled with letters and numbers. The purple turkey he sculpted in class. The Katy Perry song he now loves to sing.

“You can never be loved enough,” said Beth Stapleton, who adopted the 4-year-old with her husband, Joel, right after Gus was born. The Michigan family created a private page to share photos and videos with his birth mother, and later did the same for their adopted daughter. “Why not let them have those connections in life?”

Such connections are no longer so rare. The days when adoption was shrouded in secrecy have faded away, and the Internet is a big part of the reason, according to a new report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

Teens can easily Google their biological relatives. Birth parents can follow adoptive families on Facebook. In a national survey, nearly a third of adoptive parents said they used the Internet to stay in touch with birth families of their kids. Half of those said their child was directly in touch through their own online account.

“The likely end of the era of closed adoption is one of the most profound changes brought about by the Internet,” the institute wrote in its latest report, based on an online survey of more than 2,000 parents, adoptees and professionals. In a report last year, it estimated that only 5 percent of recent infant adoptions were closed.

Nearly three out of four adoptees who were surveyed said they had turned to the Internet to search for biological family members. More than half said they used the Web to learn more without intruding on their lives, keeping tabs through Facebook or combing through public records online.

In some cases, teenagers are reaching out to biological families without their adoptive parents knowing, said Jeanette Yoffe, director of the Celia Center, a Los Angeles-based group that counsels families about foster care and adoption. She urges adoptive parents to establish those relationships before their children reach their teens.

“If you don’t get involved, your teenager is going to do it for you,” said Yoffe, who as an adult found her biological mother in Argentina after her brother created a Web page on Yahoo.

As the Internet has propelled more openness in adoption, some parents are trying to work out legal agreements laying out how and when they will communicate, instead of avoiding any contact at all, said Widener University School of Law professor Mary Kate Kearney. Parents on both sides of adoption, birth and adoptive, told the Donaldson Adoption Institute that the Web made it easier and less stressful to connect.

Communicating online “offers a little bit of distance,” said Aaron Winkle, an adoptive father in Michigan who emails photos and written updates monthly to his daughter’s biological mother. “It brings down the sense of fear. We realize that we long for the same things.”

And thanks to that trail of emails, he added, “our daughter will never have to wonder, ‘Did my birth mom love me?' “

The Internet also has perils: Aggressive online marketing of children has further commercialized adoption, the institute warned.

One especially troubling practice – shunting unwanted adoptees into other homes — has been brokered through online bulletin boards. But for families such as the Stapletons, the ease of posting a photo to Facebook has helped bring their everyday lives closer to the moms that bore their children and paved the way for their kids to connect later if they choose.

“We know that kids have a lot of information at their fingertips,” Beth Stapleton said. “We don’t ever want them to be surprised about anything.”

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