The “we” in this title is almost always exclusive, and it is obviously defined by those who speak the word. Most of the time—and this may be implicitly assumed within the context of adoptee rights—“we” is seen through the lens of white domestic adoptees. “We” does not often include adoptees of color or transracial and transnational adoptees, unless they are the “we” speaking. And while “we” as domestic white adopted persons may juggle a culture of adoption, we do not simultaneously juggle a transposed cultural identity and the deep issues that confront many other adoptees who are not white.
I have often overlooked what is meant by “we.” Part of that is because I am typically focused on one thing: the original birth certificate. And that focus involves petitioning courts on behalf of clients to get an OBC or working as part of state-based coalitions to change the law, whether in Texas or New York or elsewhere. In that work, in that necessary hyperfocus, I overlook a lot. Here is one simple example to understand what it means for me to “overlook,” though to be fair it may more accurately mean “to ignore.”
I assess and draft bills that will, I hope, ultimately make an adult adoptee’s original birth certificate available upon simple request. That should be a right, and I think most of “us” agree with that. In the very specific work of examining nitty gritty language of legislation, however, I’ve overlooked fixes and issues for “other” adoptees, namely intercountry adoptees. In Florida, for example, there may again be legislative efforts to restore an adoptee’s right to the OBC. If there is, it will likely address a single thing: the original birth certificate for adopted persons who are born in Florida. It will not address a separate issue: those born outside of the United States but who immigrated here as children to be readopted—i.e., intercountry adoptees whose US adoptions were later handled under Florida adoption law.
In representing ICAs, the legal issues I see are not primarily about the OBC, assuming one can even be located. They are about, at least legally in many of my cases, proving citizenship, seeking travel visas to their own countries of origin, obtaining a passport, any number of things that—more importantly today than in any other time in a very long time—require a person to prove a “chain of identity,” from born in one country to adopted and living in another. And the simple lack of adoption-related documents to demonstrate that specific chain of identity has become a real issue, not only because the lack of adequate documents can restrict travel or lead to denial of citizenship, but because suddenly an overly complicated set of laws—almost always created within the context of white domestic infant adoptees— make it ridiculously expensive and difficult to get what is required and what should be a right to have as a human: documents showing the full scope of your own identity. So, as bills are introduced in states to address an OBC for predominantly white domestic adoptees, we overlook other issues of “proof” of identity. For ICAs, that proof often involves decrees or certificates of adoption that legally link the identity of one heritage to another. In Florida, those records are sealed, and the language of the statute that seals them treats them like any other adoption:
After registering the certificate of foreign birth in the new name of the adoptee, the department shall place the adoption report or decree under seal, not to be broken except pursuant to court order.
This makes an essential document unavailable to an ICA except through a court order, and I’ve been having to petition courts repeatedly to get these documents, often required for proving citizenship, obtaining a passport, or proving just who someone is. It’s inane, and we as advocates have overlooked this issue as we strive for release solely of an OBC. To be just—and again this is just a simple example within all the complex issues of intercountry adoption—the phrase in this particular statute should be amended to be “not to be broken except pursuant to court order, upon written request by the adoptee if at least 18 years of age, or upon written request of the adopting parents if the adoptee is a minor.” Why “we” overlook that is not hard to figure out. We are not them. We is limited.
My job as a lawyer specifically requires me to represent my client’s best interest. All clients, no matter our different lived experiences. I do not have the lived experience of an intercountry adoptee, so I respond to questions from my clients and work to understand what is needed, at least legally. Foremost, this means I listen. That’s the lesson I cannot emphasize enough, both for me and for “we.” We, and you know who I mean by that, must pause before delivering a lecture a person has probably heard multiple times. We must stop and not be quick to assume that what “we” know peripherally is somehow unknown to others, especially to the “others” who live that life. Listen and do not assume. Then act when asked to act.
Overlooking what is meant by “we” has prompted me to work on a series of posts. I have informally named the series “The Internal Work of Adoptee Rights.” I hope to interview adoptees from all walks of life and all origins. I’m interested in guest posts and in generating comments here or on the posts and interviews as they are published. I’m specifically hoping to have guest posts and interviews from adoptees of color, former foster youth, transracial adoptees, LGBTQ adoptees, and intercountry adoptees. If that’s you, email me with a proposal. The idea is not to duplicate what is already being written or posted elsewhere (and there is a great deal out there when you look) but to make sure voices “we” do not normally hear are further amplified so that we are ultimately compelled to hear them.
In my world of adoption, I’m often surprisingly guided and inspired by two Marge Piercy poems. One is about knowing another person and the complications of true intimacy that may bring. The other is political, written in the context of feminist activism, but certainly resonant with any political action. I encourage you to read the full poem here, but the lines from “The low road” that I constantly find in my head are in the last stanza. I come back to them often, and I hope too that we can come to them as well.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.