The Birthparent Support Alliance launched in 2022, and the response has been incredible. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Meshan Lehmann, LCSW-C, a pregnancy social worker at Adoptions Together, one of our Birthparent Support Alliance members, to learn more about the work they do, talk about common adoption misconceptions, and have a serious talk about ethics and equity in the adoption landscape. The interview was so good it ended up becoming two parts: today, we start with what sets Adoptions Together apart in terms of how they approach adoption, and discuss some of the misconceptions they see in adoption, and next week we conclude this interview by doing a deep dive into adoption ethics, and discuss Adoptions Together's decision to join the Birthparent Support Alliance, a program designed to help agencies provide the post-placement support birthparents need to heal and thrive.
Do you have a personal connection to adoption?
I personally do not, I got involved in the world of adoption from the avenue of maternal health. My focus in social work school was on maternal and child health, and I knew that I wanted to work with people experiencing pregnancy.
Tell us a little bit about Adoptions Together.
Adoptions Together is a nonprofit licensed child placement agency in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC. The agency takes a holistic approach to sustaining, building, and supporting the community. To do this we have a variety of programs to impact families and children with different levels of need. Our child placement programs include an infant adoption program, which is where I work and how we got connected [to On Your Feet Foundation]. We also deliver services to youth residing in public foster care where we match and place school aged children from foster care throughout the country with local and approved adoptive families. We also have a home study program, an education and training program, a counseling program, and a Family Find program. Family Find works with the Department of Social Services, helping children who haven’t been able to reunify with their parents either find connections that haven’t been discovered or reconnect with people who have been in their lives and may be able to provide relational or legal permanency. It’s easy for kids to get lost [to extended family], and then to just stay in the system for a long time, even though there they have family that might not know they are in the foster care system. Adoptions Together is also soon starting a Caribbean program to assist families in bringing relative children to the United States through adoption.
That is a first for us! We’ve never heard of a program like Family Find before. It's so brilliant. Is there anyone else doing anything like that out there?
Yes! Family Find has different versions across the country. We began doing this work 16 years ago in Washington DC and expanded to Maryland. It is a huge movement across the country. Foster care was designed as a temporary intervention to youth unable to live safely at home. Insuring children spend as short a time possible in that system is a priority of our organization.
How would you describe the core values at Adoptions Together and how do you see those values play out when you're working with clients?
The best way to answer that is to share our tag line: Every child, every family, every step of the way. Our agency was founded in 1990 when our Chief Operating Officer, Janice Goldwater, a social worker, was working in the field and realized there was a big gap of services based on race and health of a parent/child. We were founded in 1990, and at that time, most adoption agencies were only serving Caucasian healthy babies and married heterosexual couples. At that time, non-Caucasian babies or babies with medical fragility, in-utero substance exposure, etc were often sent to government services through the public child welfare service and would spend years in state foster care before possibly being adopted into a family of their own. Birth parents could not choose the family or have an open adoption. Adoptions Together was one of the first local agencies that welcomed every child in need of adoptive parents regardless of their circumstances. We worked to intentionally create opportunities for birth parents to identify adoptive parents of any race, single or married, LGBT or traditional. Families of all religious affiliations were welcomed. Stability, maturity, and the capacity to fully embrace the needs of a child for a lifetime was the most single important variable.
During the early 90s, there was an assumption that “social workers know best” when it came to choosing a child’s adoptive family. Adoptions Together was on the cutting edge of shifting this mindset to “the mother knows best” and encouraging birthparents to make that important decision. AT advocated for open adoption and educated families on the benefits of having ongoing communication following placement of a child. So that kind of leads into the core value, which is empowering self-determination; having the birthparent(s) make the adoption plan, choose the adoptive family, and decide their level of desired openness.
And speaking of self-determination, Adoptions Together is an agency that believes in providing all options counseling and psychoeducation when it comes to pregnancy and supporting the mother in making the best decision for herself and her family. This agency recently released a statement condemning the overturn of Roe vs. Wade. In addition, Janice Goldwater, was on the advisory group which founded the “All Children, All Families” program at the HRC Foundation. Our agency received the HRC accreditation seal in the first year possible.
Finally, our agency believes that the work does not end with placing a child with adoptive parents. As I mentioned, “Every child, every family, every step of the way”, meaning we are also here to support families during the lifelong journey after placement. While we provide support to all families touched by adoption in the entire region, we have a contract in Maryland and DC to provide post-adoption services through counseling to families. We acknowledge that at its core, adoption is a one time legal transaction that has life long implications. The lifelong implications of adoption are actively addressed through our programs as we work to provide services that strengthen human connection and create permanency for the child and their families.
We believe that whenever possible children should be raised within their birth families. We recognize that adoption can be a positive action when this is not possible. With this approach our work is to find parents for children -not children for parents. This perspective is an important distinction.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions in adoption?
I love that question and I think about it a lot. There are some complete falsehoods, and then there are pieces that are more complicated, and these both fall into the lens of misconception. One of those that are blatantly wrong is that women who consider adoption don't want, don't love, or don't care about their child. I hear that all the time and it blows my mind. It’s clear that the people [perpetuating this] have no experience in adoption - that it's coming from a place of deep ignorance. There's also a common misconception that women who consider adoption are teenagers. Although this used to be true in the history of adoption, these days I work with more women who are 35 and up than I do women who are younger than 18.
The age misconception is fascinating!
I do all-options counseling with teenagers, but they are oftentimes not clients who choose adoption at the end of the day. Women in their 20s or 30s, often those that are already parenting children at home, are a more common demographic.
One of those misconceptions that’s more complicated has to do with adoption feeling like a choice. For some women, it certainly is a choice. For many, it feels like the result of a lack of choices, even if it’s voluntary. Society tends to view it as simpler than it is due to this dynamic. Historically, adoption wasn't always a choice, it was forced on a lot of women, for different reasons. I sometimes put a little mental asterisk next to the word choice and break it down during counseling, that even though this is a voluntary decision, it’s not a choice anyone ever wants to make. It’s a “choice” that brings a lot of heartache into mom’s life, in exchange for her child to be in a loving and safe home. Not because she doesn’t have all the love available, but because her circumstance and timing are complicated.
There is a lot of grief and trauma in adoption. What do you think everyone in the adoption constellation should we be doing or thinking about, to try and lessen it? There will always be the adoption trauma, but are there things that we can do that that can help?
Definitely. Another misconception is that adoption is always beautiful, which doesn’t leave space for adoption being based on loss. Acknowledging the grief and trauma in adoption is the first step in moving toward ethical adoption. The more we understand about the loss of adoption, the less we push it under the rug, the better job we can all do.
Another misconception is that maintaining an open adoption should be enough to end the grief for birth mothers. For many mothers, open adoption is necessary to heal, but just like any relationship, open adoption can also be tricky for everyone involved. Adoptions Together has a social worker whose role is helping grow and maintain this relationship. It would be great if this was more common practice. The best metaphor to help families understand open adoption is comparing it to an in-law relationship. You might not always have the most straightforward and loving relationship with your in-laws, but for the sake of your spouse (or child) you will always do your best to maintain that connection. Even if it’s hard. But with adoption, it’s more acceptable to call it quits if it gets hard. And that ultimately hurts the child.
I also think more research needs to be done on the subject. Society holds so much stigma for birthmothers and there isn’t a clinical best practice for birthparent grief. Most “adoption competent approaches” do not include the birthparent, the focus is often solely on the adoptive family and adoptee. I hope to see this change in the coming years.
Next week, we conclude this interview with a discussion about ethics in adoption. Check out their website if you want to learn more about Adoptions Together.