by Julia Ryskamp, Duke Engage Intern

Originally published at Duke Engage Blog; reprinted with permission.

On my first day of work at Amara, I was asked multiple times “what do you know about the foster care system?” My answer: next to nothing. I knew a girl from high school and a neighbor who were adopted as children; I knew that children had to be removed from their homes and birth parents when placed into foster care; I knew that the U.S.’s foster care system was vastly underfunded and overwhelmed. Outside of that, however, I was incredibly ignorant, and on my first day of work, I was troubled by my ignorance of this system that touches the lives of so many millions of people in the country.

Less than three weeks later, I am amazed at how much I have learned about foster care and adoption in Washington state and the United States, and how much my understanding and perceptions of the needs and struggles of adoptees and adoptive families have been broadened and deepened. I feel privileged to work with Amara, and am grateful for how welcomed I have been here.

Amara is a nonprofit that works to support kids in foster care and the families that are dedicated to taking care of these children. Their mission statement hangs on the wall across from my desk at work and inspires me each time I see it: “Amara works to ensure that every child in foster care has the love and support of a committed family – as quickly as possible and for as long as each child needs.” Amara provides support and training to prospective and current foster families; they offer workshops on open adoptions, transracial adoptions, and fostering for LGBTQ families, amongst other things; they work to ensure that adoptees and adoptive parents have the support and community they need to promote lifelong familial stability. This latter mission is carried out by Amara’s Post-Adoption Program, with which I am working this summer. A new program that was started only three years ago has only six of us (including us two DukeEngage interns) working on initiatives to support adoptees—both children and adults—and their adoptive families after adoptions are complete.

Our main work for the summer centers around Project Search & Reunion, a project that seeks to audit Amara’s adoption files from the years 1950 to 1999, carry out any neglected search-and-reunion requests, and provide adoptees and birth parents with any information or support they seek in the process of understanding their identity and their personal adoption narratives. There are over 3,000 adoption files stored in Amara’s archive room, from the 1920’s to the 2000’s. Each one needs to be carefully and thoroughly read, while taking notes and documenting the information found in the files. Not only are we working to create an online database of these adoption records, but we are also looking for information or items—like baby pictures or a letter from a birth parent to her birth child—that need to be given to their rightful owners. It is not an easy task. It can be tedious, draining, and emotionally overwhelming; the information found in the files is more often than not unexpected and surprising. Files can take hours and hours to read through, and usually I need to take breaks to process the information and clear my mind. Some files describe the Florence Crittenton Homes that unmarried girls were sent to in order to hide their pregnancies from family and friends; some describe the emotion, uncertainty, and pain that birth parents felt when the time came to legally terminate their parent-child relationship and relinquish their babies; many files document adoptive families’ preferences for white babies only, and hesitancies to accept children with special needs or medical issues.

Looking at old baby pictures, reading through interviews with adoptive and birth parents, and scanning over the minute details of every unique adoption, it is hard not to feel an intimate connection to the people whose information is contained in the inconspicuous manila folders. Having access to this confidential and very personal information is an immense responsibility. Handling and taking care of the files are daunting tasks in themselves—lose or misplace a file and you have essentially lost a person’s story and identity (this actually has happened a lot in hospitals and adoption agencies: files are lost or destroyed and the information they contain irretrievable; Amara is unique in that it still possesses every single file from its 100-year history). Amongst all of the feelings that arise while reading through these files, I always feel a deep sense of gratitude that Amara trusts me to respect and protect these files and the stories contained within them.

But there are other emotions I cannot avoid when I read through these files: confusion and guilt. I often feel like I am trespassing into people’s lives when I read through their files; I feel I do not have any right to be reading this information; I feel saddened by the fact that I likely know more about an adoptee’s birth family and early life than they do. This is because most adoptions throughout the twentieth century were closed, meaning that no contact between birth parents and adoptive families takes place after adoption. Furthermore, due to sealed record laws in the United States, adoptees are not allowed access to their files, so even though I can read through their early life stories and family history, they cannot. When I first learned about this, it didn’t sound right or fair to me, and that’s because it isn’t right or fair. Project Search & Reunion is attempting to right this injustice in ways that are both legal and ethical, and Amara is pushing for changes to current adoption practices.

My supervisor at Amara, Angela Tucker, the director of the Post-Adoption Program and an adoptee herself, introduced me to the concept of ‘adoptee rights’ on my first day of work. I had never heard of this before, and, honestly, had never considered it. But it’s based on the seemingly obvious idea that all adoptees have a right to possess their own adoption records and original birth certificates, to have contact with their birth family, and to know their family’s history and their own medical history—to know where they come from, what culture or group they belong to, and who they themselves are. Protecting adoptee rights fulfills a fundamental human need to know and understand one’s own identity.

Every day at work, while reviewing these files, I can’t help but reflect on my own family and identity. Now more than ever I feel so privileged that I know my ancestry, my family history, my cultural background; I feel privileged that I have unrestricted access to my own birth certificate and my own medical records. I have baby pictures of myself; I have a strong sense of place and belonging in a loving family; there is no uncertainty in or redaction of my life’s history; I know who I am and where I come from. These are privileges that millions of adoptees—both children and adults—do not have.

Luckily, progress is being made. Trends in modern adoptions are towards openness, in which birth families and adoptive families are encouraged to meet and be a part of each other’s lives. A few years ago a law was passed in Washington state that allows adoptees to be able to gain access to their original birth certificates, with their birth parents’ names on them—although retrieving these birth certificates involves a complicated legal process and access is still not completely unrestricted. Project Search & Reunion seeks to eventually create a comprehensive manual to guide other foster care and adoption agencies in the process of file-reviewing and information-sharing—an unprecedented project. Amara is working to create and promote new standards regarding the openness of adoptions and adoptees’ access to records, and I am so excited to be assisting them in this important and monumental mission.

Learn about assisting with Project Search & Reunion here!