by Addison Cooper, MSW, LCSW
(Editor's Note: Angela and Bryan Tucker are working on a new project, The Adopted Life--Episodes. See the Kickstarter campaign ending November 2015.)
Angela was adopted at a very young age from foster care. Her adoption was transracial. It also was considered a “special needs” adoption—Angela had serious medical conditions, and doctors suggested that she might not be able to walk. Through the strong efforts of her first foster family and her adoptive family, Angela received the treatment she needed. She was able not only to walk, but also to play competitively in sports. While at college, she met Bryan Tucker, who eventually became her husband.
Angela describes herself as an “inquisitive, curious person by nature.” Although her adoption was largely closed to her, she wondered about whether her interests and talents were due to her relationship to her biological family. Her adoptive family entertained her questions, and Angela eagerly looked forward to her 21st birthday, at which point she expected to receive her birth records.
What Angela received was a set of heavily-redacted reports that left her with frustration rather than answers. This experience is familiar to many adoptees, and a growing movement is pushing for adoptees to have full, unrestricted access to their original birth certificates and other historical information.
A couple of years later, with the support of her adoptive family and her husband, Angela decided to search for her birth family. Angela’s husband is a filmmaker, and he captured the process and the meetings for Angela. Recently, with the blessings of all involved, he released the footage as part of a documentary called Closure.
If you’re reading this as a student of social work, I encourage you to view the film. Angela makes multiple cross-country trips to meet, and to know, her birth family. The story is compelling, but there’s more that makes it worth seeing. Here are a few things that I liked, which are important points for social workers to catch, as they may inform our future work with families touched by adoption.
Angela’s family supported her desire to meet her birth family. Although they had mixed feelings, and were honest about them, they did not begrudge Angela the right to have this need met.
Angela’s family accompanied her on her trip. I can think of no stronger show of support. Often, adoptive parents express a willingness to allow their child to go off on their own and track down their birth families at some point in the future; it’s much healthier, and much more conducive to the adoptee having an integrated identity, if the adoptive family participates in the reunion.
Angela was scared about some of the prospects of reunification. She feared rejection and disappointment, and she initially experienced both of them. However, she felt the need for reunion strongly enough that she kept trying, and her family was committed to her strongly enough that they kept encouraging her, and ultimately she realized a powerful and meaningful reunion.
I interviewed Angela for my website this past May. In the interview, she acknowledged that in spite of the reunion, her adoptive family is still the family she considers herself closest to. However, the reunion with her birth family has provided her with answers and peace about a previously clouded period of her life.
Angela isn’t alone. The Canadian documentary, The Invisible Red Thread, follows 15-year-old Vivian, an adoptee who travels to China to learn about her roots. Vivian reported that making the trip gave her enough answers to feel comfortable moving forward in life. Themes of the importance of historical information and connection with people from one’s birth family are also evident in Antwone Fisher, Meet the Robinsons, and The Tigger Movie, although the fictional movies often end with the adoptee deciding not to pursue contact. That does sometimes happen in real life, but “contentment without seeking” probably shouldn’t be seen as more virtuous than “contentment after seeking.”
Many people approaching adoption assume that contentment should come without seeking—that adoptees won’t wonder about their life before their adoption, and sometimes even giving voice to beliefs that it would be ungrateful for the adoptee to do so. As a social worker, you’re in a position to help prospective adoptive parents and their families examine where their expectations come from, and evaluate whether they’re helpful.
Addison Cooper, MSW, LCSW, is the creator of Adoption at the Movies adoption movie review website (www.adoptionlcsw.com). He is a foster care and adoption supervisor and therapist in Southern California. Find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AdoptionAtTheMovies and follow him on Twitter @AddisonCooper.