Ten to one. In some areas of the U.S., that is the disproportionate ratio of couples seeking to adopt children as compared to the discouragingly small number of babies available. So great is the demand from would-be parents that some young unwed mothers are being offered large sums of money—even a four-year college education—to turn over their newborn offspring. As if the statistics weren’t bad enough, the tight adoption market is being complicated by “right to know” advocates, who assert that adoptive children should automatically be able to learn the identities of their natural parents upon request, thus ending the long-standing code of adoption confidentiality. Few are more concerned about the problems of adoption than Ruby Lee Piester, 65, executive director for the past 18 years of the country’s largest combined maternity center and adoption agency, the Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth. A foundation-supported complex of 13 buildings set in a handsome campus of rolling lawns, the home has as many as 145 unwed young women “in residence” at any one time. The childless Piester, like her husband, James (a retired real estate manager), is an opponent of abortion and a firm believer in adoption. Her commitment led her to become a founding mother of the National Committee for Adoption, the nation’s first full-time lobby and clearinghouse for adoption issues. Earlier this month the NCA held its first annual conference in Washington. Shortly before, PEOPLE’S Kent Demaret spoke to Piester about her views on the current state of adoption in America.
Is there a crisis in adoption?
Yes, there is. Though thousands of children are put up for adoption each year, there simply aren’t enough to meet the demand. The gap is widening as contraception and abortion whittle down the birthrate. At the Gladney Home last year, we had 352 babies up for adoption—and some 3,000 applications, most of them from childless couples unable to conceive themselves.
What is the current status of adoption legislation?
Most adoption law is handled at the state level with a variety of procedures. However, a new federally recommended code of practice called the Model State Adoption Act is being prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services. Besides trying to unify adoption methods with a set of proposed guidelines, the Act aims to spur the lagging adoption of older children and those with emotional or mental problems. Government subsidies would be offered to people who balk at adopting problem kids because of the high cost of caring for them.
What objections do you have to the Act?
One disturbing feature is that it recommends allowing the natural father to extend his veto power over adoption until after the child is born, rather than before birth as is generally the case. Our experience is that some previously disinterested fathers, or their mothers, become anxious to keep a baby once it is born, especially if it’s a boy. Such a practice can make things difficult for a mother favoring adoption.
How can so-called right-to-know clauses endanger the adoption process?
Such provisions, if they are ever enforced, could be disastrous for adoption because they threaten the privacy of those involved. The average age of the expectant mothers who come to Gladney is 17. Mostly, these are fine girls from all-American families who have had an unfortunate experience, and one of the first things they ask about is confidentiality. They are looking forward to the time when they can pick up their lives, get married and have more children. They see problems ahead if anyone can find out who they are.
And the adoptive parents?
They are just as concerned. They don’t want to raise a child and have the natural mother or father try to take it away later.
What if the right to confidentiality is taken away?
More girls will get abortions; perhaps 50 percent of those who come to Gladney now would do so. Also, many girls who do give birth will lie about their backgrounds to protect themselves, and then we won’t get the honest information we need to help the children.
What do you now tell adopters and the natural parents about each other?
Everything but their identity. Adoptive parents need to know if there is, say, diabetes in the natural family.
How do you answer the argument that both parents and child have a “right” to know each other’s identity?
I have heard both adoptees and biological mothers say that while they appreciate each other’s need for contact later in life, they would not want the other person to simply come to their house one day and ring the doorbell. I know of a 60-year-old woman who had had an illegitimate child when she was young. Now someone has managed to contact the mother, and she is terribly distraught by the experience. We’ve had girls at Gladney who have become prominent—one went on to be a Miss America, and several others married politicians. They should have the right to decide whether or not they want to be contacted.
What if their decision is yes?
Our new National Committee for Adoption has worked out a way of arranging contact discreetly, via a third party. Adoptees over 18 and mothers register with the agency. Then they are matched up if they desire, by the agency or some central organization.
If they do make contact, what’s the usual result?
It varies. One woman told me that her hunt for her mother was beneficial because she finally knew her adoptive parents were the ones she truly identified with. She absolutely did not identify with her real parents, but she had to go through some painful experiences to find that out. I also know of a woman who had a baby after being raped, and she is terrified that her identity will be traced.
How do you manage adoptions?
At Gladney, a mother never meets the people adopting her child, but we make certain she meets other adoptive parents, to reassure her about the kind of folks who will be bringing up her baby. All the applicants are carefully screened. We also try to match up physical characteristics. It helps a child as he grows up being told that he looks like his “parents”—even if he is eventually told, as he should be, he was adopted.
What if a woman decides to keep her child or abort it?
At Gladney, we don’t press anyone. If they opt for an abortion, we have them talk to a doctor about how and where it can be done.
And if she opts for adoption?
Then we contact the natural father. If she won’t tell us who he is, the courts won’t allow the adoption. Sometimes, though—in rape cases or if the mother has been very promiscuous—that requirement can be waived. We also don’t let the girl sign anything until at least four days after the baby is born. If she still wants adoption, she signs the releases and a judge then awards the baby to the parents we deem best. But the whole process isn’t final for another six months, during which a follow-up investigation is conducted to make sure everything is going as it should.
What are the concerns of the mothers?
They want their child to have a good home and be raised like a natural child. They also stress the need for stability—and discipline.
And the adoptive parents?
They are not as threatened as people might think about losing their child’s affections when it learns it has been adopted. But they are fearful that the child could be taken away from them after a few years. They want to know exactly how the mother feels about giving up the child, and want some assurance that she won’t change her mind.
What kinds of prospective parents seek to adopt?
They are usually 25 to 35, active churchgoers, have a suburban home and an annual income averaging about $25,000, and have been trying to start a family of their own for many years. Interestingly, we find that about 25 percent of them do have a natural child within a year after adoption.
Where is the competition between adoption and abortion headed?
Right now, I’d guess that two-thirds of unwed pregnant girls never even consider adoption. Young people have tended to accept abortion as the current thing. But now, with all the debating on abortion, we see a trend away from it, especially among college girls. If the new law leaves confidentiality intact, more people will turn to adoption agencies. Then the number of adoptable babies will become more in line with the number of good homes available to put them in.