Renee Gelin was halfway through her second pregnancy when everything started to go wrong.
The 43-year-old IT contractor in Florida had developed hyperemisis gravidarum—round-the-clock nausea that can lead to dehydration and other complications. It was 2011 and her pre-Affordable Care Act private insurance policy had a $10,000 deductible and, she learned too late, required a pregnancy rider that could only be added prior to pregnancy. She made too much money to qualify for Florida’s Medicaid.
Gelin had already had a C-section during her first birth, and expected another for her second. She was told it would cost $15,000-$20,000. She was already six figures in debt from when her business went under during the recession. Her boyfriend’s finances and credit had been decimated by identity theft, rendering him unable to help.
Gelin’s family lived across the country and the friends who watched her daughter after school said they couldn’t take on a newborn. “I started to really feel helpless and overwhelmed,” she said. “It all came together at the worst possible time.”
Although both Gelin and her boyfriend wanted to keep the baby, because of finances, adoption began to feel like the only option. “I remember feeling like I was playing Beat the Clock,” she recalled. “I had to get all this figured out and all this done before [my son] was born.”
Three days after her son’s birth, Gelin signed the papers and her son was gone. The loss felt heavier than she expected. “The old me died in those first five weeks,” she said. “I became this after—this before and after Renee.”
The agency Gelin went through offered little in the way of counseling, so she went online for emotional support and guidance. In online forums, she learned that her son’s original birth certificate was sealed. She hadn’t realized: In the United States, when an adoption is finalized, a new birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parent’s name on it and, until recent changes in some states’ laws, the original becomes permanently inaccessible. She also learned that both she and her son could suffer from long-term separation trauma.
Then, within months, Gelin's financial situation unexpectedly turned around. And at the end of the year, she received the insurance claim for her son’s birth: paid in full with no patient responsibility. She called the insurance company. “My son is gone, and I can't get him back, because you told me you wouldn’t pay this,” she recalled saying. The woman on the other end of the line didn’t have an answer, nor did anyone else except for a vague explanation about the procedure’s coding on the bill, something Gelin said she still doesn’t understand.
"They couldn’t take anything else from me.”
Gelin was filled with devastating regret, but had no real legal recourse for getting back her son. She learned that nineteen states, including Florida, do not have revocation periods—except in cases of duress or fraud—and not all that do automatically return the child. Most revocation periods are a month or less, some just a few days.
She wanted to scream: Why hadn’t the adoption agency told her any of this beforehand?
Gelin felt robbed. She wished he had been given more information; that, instead of ushering her along, someone had sat her down and walked her through the technical implications of adoption. “We had very good intentions, but there was no discussion about the impact” on either of them, her relationship with her then-boyfriend—now husband—the daughter they were already parenting, or their future daughter, she said.
Frustrated, she began to speak out publicly about what she was going through. As a result, her son’s adoptive parents ended contact.
Even though, like 95 percent of domestic adoptions, that of Gelin’s son was supposed to be “open”—meaning that Gelin would be able to contact him—she learned that open adoptions are only legally binding in 29 states and DC. And if she wanted to sue, she would need the money for a lawyer, and would have, according to accounts from many women online, an unlikely chance of finding a judge not biased toward adoptive parents—all information she learned online after signing the papers. On top of that, because the birth certificate was sealed, her son would have no way to find her as an adult.
“I really felt like I had nothing else to lose,” Gelin said of that moment. “They couldn’t take anything else from me.”
Eventually, Gelin gave up on getting her son back. She began channeling her energy into another endeavor: saving others from the experience she had.
A 2016 study by The Donaldson Adoption Institute shows that Gelin’s experience is not uncommon, and not the worst of what some birth parents endure during the adoption process. It found that nearly 85 percent of surveyed mothers would have liked to know more about available parenting resources—such as housing, medical, childcare, and food assistance, parenting classes, and counseling—before deciding to go the adoption route. Furthermore, almost 78 percent wish they had known more about the implications of placement. The study also found that 44 percent of expectant mothers reported being put in contact with birth parents to learn about their experience with adoption, but only 21 percent reported being connected with parents who had considered adoption but ultimately decided against it.
The process of adoption wasn’t always like this. During the post-World War II baby boom, adoption transformed from a system to help babies find homes into an industry to primarily help couples find babies. As documented in Ann Fessler’s book, The Girls Who Went Away, during the mid-40s through the mid-70s, known as the Baby Scoop Era, teenagers and unwed young women were usually not given a choice to parent. Instead, they were often belittled or abused by medical professionals and not allowed to see their babies once they were born, or ever again.
The explicit coercion of that era gave way to domestic adoption industry we have today—which is regulated by an inconsistent patchwork of state laws, unlike the federal regulations applied to international and foster care adoptions. And gradually, demand grew: By the mid-70s, increased access to birth control and legalized abortion and lessening stigma of single parenthood plummeted the supply of healthy white babies. In 2014, approximately 18,000 infants were placed for domestic adoption. In 2017, the CEO of the National Council for Adoption estimated that around one million families are trying to adopt at any given time in the U.S.
The second phase of the study by The Donaldson Adoption Institute, released in 2017, found that more than half of the surveyed birth mothers felt coerced into adoption in some way during pregnancy, either by their partners/families or by the agencies themselves. Subtle coercion by agencies can begin with agency pamphlets themselves: promising the child emotional and financial stability and parents who can provide the best education. The Donaldson researchers found that, during the first few meetings with birth parents, agencies tended to go straight into
adoption logistics without covering other options and relevant information, such as parenting resources, access to independent counselors and legal representation, and support groups before and after birth. Additionally, information gained about the expectant parent's life—for example, concerns about finances or emotional support—are often used to dissuade a woman from changing her mind later. The researchers also found that some adoption professionals only considered their work successful if the adoption goes through.
For her book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, journalist Kathryn Joyce spoke to dozens of women whose experiences matched those in the Donaldson study. Both also found that, whether intended or not, the practice of matching—when expectant parents choose the family who will raise her child—increases the belief that someone else should be raising her child. The process usually involves giving expectant parents profile books or websites made by prospective adoptive families that, Joyce told VICE, are "often showing their class and the lifestyle that they could provide to a child, which serves as a form of pressure in and of itself.” And as the expectant parent and prospective adoptive parents form a relationship, that pressure compounds, said Joyce—especially if the prospective parents are present for the baby’s birth.
The women Joyce talked to “were made to feel that they were not competent or deserving of keeping the child that they wanted,” she said, “that somebody else was a better-suited parent, and that the non-selfish thing to do would be to give the child up.”
The first time Gelin shared her story was at a Concerned United Birthparent (CUB) retreat in 2014. The experience “was freeing,” she said. “I felt like I had taken back the control I had lost in the situation.”
Propelled by positive response, in 2015, Gelin and Lisa Woolsey, another birthmother, founded Saving Our Sisters (SOS), a grassroots “family preservation” organization. And soon, Woosley launched the organization’s primary program, Sisters on the Ground, a network of volunteers who help expectant parents get the resources they need to make the most informed decision about their child’s future.
First, that’s giving expectant parents information: making sure they understand their options, including parenting; what the adoption process entails, both bureaucratically and emotionally for parent and child; and talking them through the doubts they are having about both adoption and parenting. Sisters on the Ground volunteers, of which there are nearly 500 across the country, commit to emotionally supporting a birth parent for one year, though parents are free to end contact at any time. “Our goal is to build a relationship,” Gelin said. “We have no gain in whatever [a mom] chooses to do. We just want to make sure she has education and support.”
The other primary function of the organization is to address the fact that most women (four out of five, according to the Donaldson study) put up their babies for adoption at least in part because of financial concerns. So, Sisters also help expectant parents sign up for Medicaid and WIC and help them find jobs or apartments. In many cases, they also give small donations to parents faced with immediate financial hurdles.
In 2018, SOS received $16,050 in monetary donations to assist expectant parents with rent, utility, or car payments. Gelin recalled one woman who only needed a $125 plane ticket to get home to her family who would be able to help her. The average monetary assistance is $800, which includes donations of items like car seats or diapers.
SOS can’t help expectant parents in larger distress, particularly those who are not given maternity leave or job protection, or who have an active case with child protective services. They also require that parents have good long-term support after initial help from SOS, so they are not stranded a month or two into parenting. Still, between July 2017 and May 2019, SOS helped 304 women.
Gelin says she is not anti-adoption—but she is against unnecessary and uninformed adoptions. She wants expectant parents to have someone “listening to what your concerns are, listening to what things you feel are preventing you from being the mom that you want to be.”
One of SOS’s 304 women was Sarah Johnson.
When Johnson (whose name has been changed for privacy), gave birth to her second child in April 2018, she didn’t know anything about adoption. She, too, suffered hyperemesis with both of her pregnancies. Johnson was a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom and, during her pregnancy, her boyfriend lost his job. Then, the couple lost their house. They moved in with his family, who said there wouldn’t be room once the baby came. “It was just a lot of things,” she said. “I was feeling super negative.”
At the hospital, Johnson and her labor and delivery nurse talked for hours. Johnson spoke of her fears of having two children and the possibility of having to start over without her boyfriend. The nurse began to say things like, “you have so much on your plate and maybe it is too much,” Johnson recalled. She suggested that adoption could alleviate some of the pressure.
Eventually, Johnson had been awake for 48 hours, was taking pain medication post-childbirth, and agreed that the nurse was right. With that, an adoption facilitator arrived at the hospital with the prospective adoptive parents, Johnson recalled. “I was terrified,” Johnson said. “The doctors at the hospital, the nurses, everybody was like, ‘This is such a selfless thing. You can tell you love your kids because you’re trying to do what’s best.’”
"My whole body missed my baby."
Johnson and her boyfriend later met with an agency-affiliated social worker. In her state, parents cannot consent to adoption until 72 hours after birth. They were a few hours early. She recalled that the social worker changed the time on the documents to be in compliance with the law, which Johnson found concerning.
After two days, Johnson wasn’t sleeping or eating; she was crying on the floor and her milk was coming in. “My whole body missed my baby,” she said.
Johnson asked an online birth parent support group if anyone knew how to revoke an adoption. Someone connected her to SOS. The next day, Gelin had someone writing the revocation letter and paid for it to be notarized. She set Johnson up with a Sister on the Ground named Rebecca Lopez, and warned that the facilitator, agency, and the couple were likely to attack.
In the days that followed, CPS visited Johnson, though they declined to open a case against her; the facilitator and adoptive parents threatened legal action; they offered her money for the baby. “They really ran me down to try to not take the baby back,” she said.
“It was unbelievable to me,” said Lopez. “Every single thing I had heard of, it was a full-blown retaliation when she decided to revoke.”
Even after the revocation paperwork went through and Johnson, her aunt and uncle, and Lopez traveled to the agency, the agency then said they could not return the baby on a weekend. While they all waited for the baby to be returned, people from SOS jumped in to pay for the additional nights at a hotel.
Then, Johnson got her baby back.
“I had no idea there was this side of adoption until after I was there,” Johnson said. “I had never even considered that there were any negative sides.” She recalled that her doctor’s office had ads for adoption agencies, but nothing for organizations like SOS.
Johnson and her boyfriend broke up. She moved in with her aunt and uncle, who had previously stepped in as parent figures when Johnson was a teenager and her parents passed away. SOS made sure she had practical items to get started.
A year later, she’s been working full-time as a cashier at a grocery store. She’s surrounded by extended family. “The negatives that I thought would happen didn’t. I thought I’d be so overwhelmed and so incapable of doing it,” Johnson said. “But here I am, killing it. It’s fine. My kids are awesome and healthy and safe and happy.”
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