At the Intersection of Fathers’ and Adoptees’ Rights

Let’s take a closer look at things that occur at the intersection of fathers’ and adoptees’ rights through this case. From my plush brown seat, I marveled at the room surrounding me with its monochromatic layers of brown paint and woodwork lining the walls, ceiling, and floors. I heard the older woman to my right release a deep sigh. A friend, she is a mother who surrendered a son to adoption years ago — whose son died before they could ever meet.

My left elbow protruded slightly into an aisle. My eyes followed the floor of the aisle to the tables and chairs ahead of me until they met the round lens of the small camera recording the hearing which brought me to an abrupt consciousness that I was being recorded.

My mind had been drifting from the adoption narrative being repeated at the long boardroom table directly in front of me. A powerful adoption executive, Francis Viglietta of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, sat before a committee of legislators offering opposing testimony to a bill that would restore the right of Pennsylvania-born adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates.

His testimony, in large part, repeated a handful of second- and third-hand stories of original mothers reacting with fear and dismay at their names being known to their surrendered descendants. He said he spoke on behalf of original mothers and promised that he would speak on behalf of adoptees if we needed him to.

Therein laid the root of my discomfort and distraction. Neither original parents nor adoptees need to be spoken for. To advocate for adoptees and original parents is to believe in our strength and resiliency to take up space in the chair power-holders currently occupy to speak for ourselves. The dominant adoption narrative does not permit this, nor does it desire it.

An Unwavering Voice

“Did my voice shake?”
I was taken aback by the question Kimberly asked me as she brushed her bangs away from her face.
“No, your voice didn’t shake,” I whispered. “Are you kidding me?”

Kimberly, who omitted her last name for this interview, had every reason to be nervous. She had just descended from a stage after introducing the dean of a prominent graduate school to more than 200 guests. On the night of December 12, 2013, students, professionals, policymakers, and concerned citizens from all over Pennsylvania and New Jersey filed into the large meeting room of a cozy mainline teahouse. The purpose? To watch the screening of a documentary Kimberly had obtained, to ask questions to a panel of experts that she had secured, and to hear the keynote speaker she had arranged.

The event featured a screening of an abridged version of Not My Life, which tells the stories of numerous individuals who were trafficked for labor, war, or sex. The keynote speaker for the event, Senator Stewart Greenleaf, is the sponsor of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 75.  SB 75, which passed in the Pennsylvania senate just a few days before the event, is designed to educate law enforcement about human trafficking and to eliminate prosecution against trafficking victims who committed crimes while enslaved. “These are victims, not criminals,” the Senator firmly asserted.

Greenleaf’s speech was followed by a panel that featured Stefanie Fritzges, Special Agent of Homeland Security; Shea Rhodes, attorney and former Assistant District Attorney for Philadelphia; Sister Teresita Hinnegan, founder and president of Dawn’s Place and member of the Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking for the Pennsylvania Joint State Commission; Carol Metzker, author of Facing the Monster: How One Person Can Fight Child Slavery; and John Rafferty, attorney and Fulbright Scholar to Ecuador as an advocate for anti-trafficking efforts.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Darlyne Bailey, Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research of Bryn Mawr College, Professor, and Special Assistant to the President for Community Partnerships. The panelists explained how to identify human trafficking and discussed serious systemic issues facing victims. They frequently visited the topic of inadequate shelters and protection for trafficking victims. Guests learned that youth victims are often placed in juvenile detention centers if other shelters are unavailable.

Mere hours after the conclusion of the event, guests began filling Kimberly’s email inbox with overwhelmingly positive support — something she had not expected. Guests found the event to be educational, but also left with a sense that their lives had been changed forever. Kimberly learned she had inspired many to become activists themselves.

I had the privilege of hearing the story of the woman behind this event, and to highlight her as a social worker and an activist.

I have always been inspired by Kimberly. She and I graduated from our undergraduate social work program together, and we are cohorts in our graduate clinical social work program. I am honored that she agreed to share her story and her work with me for this post.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kimberly describes herself as being an “orphan.” She knows nothing of her mother or father and believes that she was abandoned as a baby. She has no birth record or any other records that would verify what she knows of her origins or legacy. “The rest is unknown,” she told me.  Her never-ending search for self-identity was the result of what would define her today. Kimberly recounted the many traumatic and heinous events of her life, but what is important to her is to relay the message that learning to survive and never give up hope is what brought her to where she is today. And, as she said, “It took me 44 years, but I am here now.” Hers is a story that gives us all hope for all children who endure abandonment as a child.

Kimberly found herself in the U.S. foster care system as a young child and recalls studying people — observing their emotions, traits, and behavioral influences — at a very early age as a matter of survival. At 13, she ran away from an abusive foster home, taking only a change of clothes and her stuffed animals with her. “You have to think of how young and innocent I was that my stuffed animals were the most important thing in the world to me,” she told me. “One day, I just knew I had to leave. I literally said to myself, ‘If I stay here, I will die.’”

After slipping out of her foster home undetected one evening, Kimberly lived for the next six years as a homeless youth until she secured herself housing when she was 19. It was then that a local business school sparked her interest in business. Kimberly began working in business in New York at the age of 20 and described herself as having climbed up the corporate ladder for the next 10 years. “I did not have the background these places were looking for,” she recalled. “They want people with privilege, people with MBAs, people who went to Princeton and Harvard who are vetted for this work.” When Kimberly secured a high-ranking position in a prominent financial firm, she proudly remembers being the first person in the history of the firm to hold a position without a degree.