October 6, 2008
© Photographer: Nikitu | Agency: Dreamstime.com
Frozen Children, Icy Silence--Time To Adopt Openness
When two children -- two adopted children -- end up dead in a block of
ice hidden in their mother's freezer, the entire child welfare
apparatus flies into a panic.
Almost immediately after the news broke about the gruesome case of
Renee Bowman and her children, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty called a news
conference to say that the city had done no wrong (the family lived in
Maryland, but the children had been adopted in the District). The
Baltimore-based agency that cleared Bowman to adopt dropped into a
defensive crouch from which it has yet to emerge. And social workers
braced for another round of outraged cries for heads to roll.
It sure looks like someone messed up. You might think that the people
charged with investigating Bowman before she adopted one child in 2001
and two others in 2004 should have known and raised alarms about facts
such as these: Bowman was convicted of threatening bodily harm to a 72-
year-old motorist just two years before the first adoption; she may
have had an abusive mate; she filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001;
she described her childhood to friends as akin to that of "an abused
dog"; and her own mother had been a homeless wanderer of the city's
Now we learn that Maryland's social services agency got a complaint
accusing Bowman of child neglect last January, sent a caseworker to
the house and concluded that everything was fine -- "clean and
appropriately furnished, though with a funky smell that was
attributed to mildew".
Still, it is possible, as Fenty and some adoption advocates argue,
that everyone did their jobs, that Bowman passed every screening, and
that whatever went horribly wrong in her life happened only after she
had adopted the children.
The problem is, we can't know. And the fact is, it is our business.
In the reflexively privacy-obsessed world of adoptions, it is somehow
an imposition if the public wants to know where the state's wards end
up, who is collecting the stipends taxpayers shell out to encourage
adoption and how all that money is being spent. We know best, social
But anytime public money is involved, it's the public's job to demand
oversight and accountability, and the only road to that goal is
I met Adam Pertman many years ago when he was a foreign correspondent
for the Boston Globe. After experiencing the joys and frustrations of
adoption, he left the news business to advocate for those who give
that loving gift of parenthood. Now, as director of the Adoption
Institute, he understands both instincts: the newsman's passionate
belief that sunshine is the best medicine, and the adoption world's
embrace of secrecy to protect children and grant adoptive parents the
same rights birth parents enjoy.
When he trains social workers, Pertman tells them: "Your secrets don't
do you any good. The only time you get in the news is when someone
dies, and it's because you won't give out any information."
The roots of that secrecy lie in the not-so-distant past, when
adoption carried a powerful stigma. "This is a whole institution built
on stigma and secrecy and shame," Pertman says, "on people being told
to lie for the rest of their lives. You didn't tell your children they
were adopted. Amazingly, we got to the other side, and adoption is no
longer anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about. But the remnants
of that era of secrecy are profound."
Executives at the Board of Child Care, the Methodist church-affiliated
agency that investigated Bowman's suitability for adoption, would not
talk to me. The top boss didn't even return my call. The reflex is to
circle the wagons and board up the windows.
Luckily, some see that public trust is essential. Janice Goldwater,
who runs Adoptions Together, a private agency in Silver Spring not
connected to the Bowman case, opened her files so I could see how
exhaustively her social workers investigate families being considered
as adoptive parents.
Adoptive parents tell me they feel as if they've had a colonic
irrigation of their finances, family history and even their sex lives.
Social workers interview friends, relatives and co-workers; examine
tax, criminal and credit records; and ask about religion, guns, drugs
and corporal punishment. Families are rejected if they are likely to
spank the child, keep unlocked guns in the house or put the child to
sleep on a bunk bed or sofa bed.
And somehow a Renee Bowman gets through. How? The pathetic truth is
that people inside the system already know that answer, but the rest
of us might never know.
The legacy of secrecy lives on. Goldwater, who has an adopted child as
well as three birth children, was appalled to see that her adopted
child's birth certificate was rewritten to show Goldwater and her
husband as the birth parents, a deception that fools no one.
Goldwater and Pertman are both wary of making adoption records public,
even in a case that ends in an awful crime. Once an adoption has been
completed, they argue, the parents should have the same rights as a
But the public has an obligation to children who were placed by the
government. Bowman, for example, received $2,400 a month in federal
money to defray the cost of raising her three children. In the current
system, there is no way to see if that money is being spent as
"There are sound, competent professionals doing this work," Goldwater
says. "We have to show people that, not hide anytime something bad
UPDATE (11 A.M.): Matthew Fraidin, a law professor at the University
of the District of Columbia law school, this morning passes along an
email by Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition
for Child Protection Reform, arguing for opening up adoption hearings,
as 15 states have already done:
Even journalists who disagree with my organization on everything else
usually find common ground with us on one point: The enormous harm
done to children by the secrecy that permeates child welfare - the
closed court hearings and sealed records.So I'm surprised the Post hasn't done what many other newspapers have
in the wake of child abuse tragedies - demanded, over and over, that,
at a minimum, the court hearings be opened.
One of the reasons the child welfare system in Allegheny County, Pa.
is, relatively speaking, a national model, is that the Pittsburgh Post-
Gazette crusaded to get the courts opened, and then followed up with
outstanding reporting on what was going on there.
Since 1980 about 15 states have truly opened these hearings. And even
though many of these began as pilot projects with sunset dates, not
one of these states has closed them again. And in state after state
onetime opponents of openness became converts. It's been harder to get
records open, but there has been some progress there as well.
How might that have helped in the most recent tragedy? Here's an
excerpt from an e-mail that Prof. [Matthew] Fraidin of UDC Law School
sent yesterday to Petula Dvorak [The Post's reporter who's been
covering the Bowman case]:
"Petula, don't you want to open up the court's file of the adoption
cases to see what is in there? Don't you want to listen to the tape of
the adoption proceedings, or read a transcript? The neglect case files
of the children would tell you when Ms. Bowman entered the children's
lives, what their condition was when they went to live with her,
whether the social worker and GAL and judge really gave Ms. Bowman any
scrutiny: did the s/w or GAL visit the children regularly before the
adoptions were granted? CFSA (and the Board of Child Care, the private
agency that licensed Ms. Bowman) have files, too, showing what Ms.
Bowman told them, whether they checked it out, how well they knew her,
whether they watched her with the children, whether they wondered why
her employment ended in 2000, whether they explored her bankruptcy
filings in 2000 and 2001. Etc., etc. and so on and so forth.
There is a WORLD of information in the court files and in CFSA's
files, and a puzzle in there that, if put together thoughtfully, could
save children's lives. What happened? How? Why? Were there shortcuts?
What assumptions were made? What pressures were the social worker and
GAL (who probably was carrying 75 to 100 cases at the time)
In New York State, Family Courts were opened by order of Judith Kaye,
Chief Judge of New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. No one
has made the case better. Said Judge Kaye: "Sunshine is good for
Isn't it time to demand that the courts in D.C.(and EVERY STATE)let the sunshine in?
My note: The sad truth is that even when these "children" become adults, they are STILL forbidden access to their OWN birth and court files, identity, genealogy and family/medical histories. They remain sealed FOREVER ~ this is a travesty to human rights of millions of adopted individuals.
Frozen children become frozen adults ~ due to sealed records & secrecy in adoption.