Building a Family

Excerpts from a Speech given at The Foundling's 140th Homecoming

By Wendy Freund, LCSW

October 18, 2009


Many people do not realize how common adoption and foster care really are. Stories of building families through foster care and adoption are part of the human experience. Moses comes immediately to mind. Americans have always created families through foster care and adoption either formally or informally, and our country loves search and reunion stories. Just turn on the television or go to the movies and think about Popeye, Heroes, Bones, Mighty Aphrodite, and Superman. Once you start you can’t stop seeing more examples, some positive, some negative.

  • People need to know their past

  • People need to have a coherent story of their lives

  • People need to feel connected

People Have A Right to Know Their Past

All families attempt to tell their narratives in a cohesive fashion. They may bicker and disagree, even about factual events, such as when grandma had an operation or grandpa entered this country. Many people know their birth stories, but many others do not. Think about it now. Do you know how your parents met? Do you know the exact time you were born and where? Can you tell me what your mother was doing when she went into labor? Was it an easy delivery? People who have been adopted struggle in particular ways with their history and may know some or none of it. One gentleman told me that he wondered if he was even born.

New York State has very restrictive adoption laws. Adoption agencies cannot share the names and birthdates of birth parents with people who have been adopted. They cannot tell where the birth parents lived or worked. In 1984 the New York State Mutual and Voluntary Consent Registry was established. It allows agencies to share certain but not other information, has an anonymous method for updating medical history, and will foster a reunion if both parties agree. It also has a system for matching up siblings.

The Bureau of Vital Statistics is the only body that can release a legal birth certificate. At the time of adoption, the original birth certificate is sealed. The names of the birth parents are deleted and the names of the adoptive parents are inserted. It doesn’t matter where the adoptive parents were geographically, whether they were anywhere near the hospital, or whether they were at work at the time. Their names still go on the birth certificate. This is the only legal document that is altered in this manner.

Adoptees often feel that their civil rights have been violated. Many say they never agreed to surrender their original birth certificate and feel they are entitled to it. Kansas and Alaska, however, never closed access to birth certificates. Alabama, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Tennessee have opened access resulting in a better understanding of the process and seeing that it proceeds smoothly. Many birth mothers are relieved when they hear from their children and very often the adoptees feel more complete. Of course, there is an opt-out clause for those who feel that they are not ready. But historically, birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents have largely responded positively and have shown themselves to be sensitive to each other’s needs.

Everyone Needs To Have A Coherent, Chronological Story

Each of us is lit from within. We absorb information from our surroundings, but we need a strong core and sense of self to get through life. We reflect on our lives. All of us talk to ourselves and grapple with self awareness. We talk to ourselves and say thing like:

In my family we eat pasta on Thanksgiving

In the old country my family worked on a chicken farm

Cancer runs in my family

I’m Hungarian

We don’t get Alzheimer’s

My Grandfather fought in World War One for the Germans

These stories help us to live our daily lives because they give us grounding in time and place. They help us to foresee what our children will be like and anticipate how we will age and even die. It is easier to make smart choices in life when you know yourself and have a strong sense of identity. For the adoptee it is difficult to pick up the phone and call for background and medical information. The need to make contact has to outweigh that difficulty, especially when the birth mother had stayed in a maternity residence. Some people start with their medical histories and then move on to wanting more background information or even a reunion. Others have no desire for a reunion. Both decisions are normal; everyone has different needs. Some people have been in foster care; some have been in multiple homes. It is hard to maintain a faith in connections and a sense of basic trust when you have had to move several times. But siblings with parents who were unable to care for them, and who have regained contact with one another, often wind up unusually close, often closer than siblings who lived with their parents.

It would be wonderful to have memories, pictures, and mementos of all of the places a person has lived, but some of them have nothing tangible at all. One would wish that albums were kept but most often they were not. In the absence of material, the best one can do is unearth the story by searching and finding out about the number of homes lived in and what were the relationships within those homes. I never tire of hearing these stories because each one is entirely unique, a window into a family’s and individual’s life. Of course, some of these stories emerge piecemeal, out of chronology and missing vital fragments. Nevertheless, those who can never know the whole story need to reconstruct it as best they can.

Many professionals speak of the triangle, or the adoption triad. I don’t think that a single triangle really represents accurately the experience of most. It must be modified so as to include the agency and foster care. Many individuals who were in care go on to be adopted. Adoption and foster care are experiences that last throughout the life cycle and, unfortunately, some of the history of early placements can be vague. Every side and every angle of the historical structure, however incomplete, must be included.

We struggle to find useful language to talk about the adoption and foster care experience, but we have no way of talking about multiple fathers and mothers. Many young people came to America alone because of poverty and war. They were lonely and challenged. They looked for friendships and congregated in dance halls, pubs and ethnic hangouts. Sometimes they became pregnant with children they were not in a position to raise. Many young girls were waitresses or domestics, sometimes living in their employer’s homes. Without a home, an income, or family support, they could not raise a child. For them, deciding on adoption was a selfless act. They wanted their children to have stable two parent families. But the adopted person often wonders why they were given up and who was the family that they are linked with genetically.

Many people who do not have a cogent story build their families with fantasies and ghosts. The secretiveness built into the adoption system only increases this unreality. In the absence of information, people begin to create pictures of their family based on shreds of information. People who adopt and foster children who have been in their care also take on this ghost family with a sense of rejection and loss. These children need a special kind of love and support even while they themselves may be rejecting or mistrustful.

For the adoptee, the important journey from fantasy to reality can sometimes be very stressful, and can lead to crises. As many know, having a reunion with one’s birth family can dispel many secrets, but it can also reveal a very different story than the one the person has been living with. It may be a bitter pill to learn that your birth parents used drugs or struggled with physical or mental illness. While learning the truth can be very helpful, our clients often need support to help them absorb the new information.

People Need to Feel Connected

Walking down the city streets or riding on the highway it is easy to see how much all people need to be connected. Everyone seems to be talking or texting on a cell phone. People need to reach out, to be heard, and to share experiences. Perhaps this is to some degree intensified by the weakening of family ties and traditional family structures. The need for connection can be extremely strong in those who have experienced foster care. Their “parental” structures can be very complex. Consider the idea of “The Three Parent Model” in Family Preservation: The Second Time Around, by the North American Council on Adoptable Children. The authors describe the three sets of parents all of whom have value and play an important part in a child’s life. Birth parents give life itself and with it basic characteristics such as physical appearance, basic personality, special talents, and predispositions for certain diseases. Legal parents carry the financial responsibility, make educational decisions, give permission to travel out of state, and make decisions regarding medical treatment. An agency, group setting or governmental body can be a legal parent. Nurturing Parents provide love, discipline, food, clothing, toys and care during sickness. Individuals who are in foster care are connected to all three sets of parents.

Adoptive parents sometimes feel they are sharing decisions and responsibilities with the birth family or agency, which can sometimes make the raising and disciplining of the child particularly difficult. To help strengthen their connection, adoptive parents need to claim their child. In this process they learn to see the child as their own and an equal part of the new family. They learn to accept the whole child, including all those aspects that are different from themselves.

All children need families or a specific adult with whom they can feel connected over the long haul. Today we know how important these connections are. Agencies are hiring private investigators to locate that one special person in a child’s life that is capable of rising to the position of mentor or special guiding figure. That person can be an aunt, a teacher, or a significant older friend, and may very well show up in a careful combing of the case record. He or she may have never even lived with the child, but what really matters is their desire to be involved with that child over the years – perhaps a lifetime – and the ability to help the child reach their individual goals and potential.

Searching and reuniting with the birth family is another way to connect. Making a good reunion is like getting married. Young girls and boys talk longingly about the desire to get married without thinking through the meaning of such a step. Two people who have not spent decades together may share basic needs but their wishes, expectations and dreams may be very different. Before a reunion takes place it is best to think through what kind of relationship is desired. Do you want to share birthdays and holidays? Are there religious differences that must be addressed and respected? If you have been adopted how will you accommodate both parties? What about the grandchildren? I recommend proceeding slowly and cautiously because it is always possible to add on contact, but pulling away from a runaway train is difficult. Often there is an initial honeymoon that may not be sustained.

Making the initial contact is a sensitive issue. Some birth mothers never did tell the birth father, their family, or their children about the pregnancy. Such a woman is often in shock when she is found and needs time to think her situation through. A gentle letter may be the best way to approach such a woman. Husbands tell me that they would have been able to integrate knowing about their wife’s earlier pregnancy much more easily than having to live with the knowledge that their wives didn’t trust them enough to tell them in the first place.

Adoptive parents may feel threatened by a reunion but as we move along in time we see that such events are becoming much more common. For better or for worse, anyone who watches television or uses a computer knows how little privacy and confidentiality is left to us. This does create a milieu in which the polarization of separateness and sharing has somewhat diminished in general. Here there is an opportunity for the principals involved to shed some of their destructive family myths in favor of the discovery of a consciousness of kind. There is also an opportunity for the adoptive parent to support and encourage their adopted child in his or her quest for a more solid sense of connectedness. I recently worked with one adoptive mother and her grown daughter who came in together and shared the experience of the daughter’s successful reunion with her birth mother and their comforting of each other was quite compelling. I have found that teenagers, while being in most fragile situation when it comes to reunions, are usually quite curious as they start to re-delineate and strengthen their identities. They are highly skilled on the internet and are natural searchers. Siblings usually make the easiest reunions. They have no history of rejection at each other’s hands and are often grateful to find each other. I think of such a reunion as a “free pass.”


Americans build their families through birth, adoption, and foster care. Each type of family may bring unique challenges. No one way to build a family is preferable and our attitudes towards secrecy have changed and so has our technology. The systems of foster care and adoption are ever evolving over time.