Event sponsors insisted it was not a workshop or seminar, but it had all the hallmarks of one. Flip charts with prompts scrawled in magic marker lined the walls of the hall. On tables sat programs to go along with bright-red information packets. November is National Adoption Awareness Month and invited speakers drove shards of awareness into every heart present.
Billed as a celebration of “life-long, life-changing journeys through adoption,” the event held Thursday at Lyric Hall was sponsored by ’r kids, inc., Family Center, a local nonprofit organization that serves “children in out-of-home care and their families; promoting permanency, safety and stability for children through services to their biological, foster or adoptive families.”
Kicking off the celebration was world-touring harmonica master Chris DePino and guitarist Tony Dioguardi. DePino, a former state representative, was instrumental in securing some funding to get ’r kids, Inc. started in 1996. Mayor Toni Harp, herself an adoptee, was a co-sponsoring legislator of the organization during her tenure as a state senator. Joining the musicians on stage during the reception was state Department of Education assistant and former New Haven alder Sergio Rodriguez, who entertained with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
In her welcoming remarks, Randi Ruben-Rodriguez, executive director and co-founder (with husband Sergio Rodriguez) of ’r kids, talked about their personal adoption journey. Rubin-Rodriguez described the dynamics of adoption—the sacrifice of the birth mother, the excitement of the adopting family—as “a puzzle that in some way, you all have a piece to.” The Rodriguezes have held more pieces than most, having adopted three children and provided foster care for up to thirty-five children over the years.
The extent to which adoption touches the general population, however, may be surprising. According to a 1997 study for the Donaldson Adoption Institute, “six in 10 Americans have had personal experience with adoption, meaning they themselves, a family member, or a close friend was adopted, adopted a child, or put a child up for adoption.”
As an adoptive parent of two children, I figure into that number, but my interactions with guests at the celebration brought me a new awareness about the adoption community. When I asked Sharon Lovett-Graff, a neighbor who is head librarian at Donald Mitchell Library, if there were any adoptees in her extended family, she smiled broadly and said, “yes, me.” My surprise was met with good-natured humor. “Adoption comes in handy,” Graff quipped. “You know those few crazy people that everyone has in their family? I’m not [biologically] related to them.”
On a more serious note, Lovett-Graff said that she didn’t know she was adopted until she was fourteen years old. A difficult aspect of being adopted, she noted, is that often, adoptees cannot access their medical histories. “I know nothing about my medical history,” she said. In many cases, because of archaic notions and anachronistic laws, adoptees are not only excluded from knowing their medical histories, but are also denied access to original birth certificates (OBC), a key to understanding their biological parental connections, cultural heritage, and ethnicity—elements of personhood most take for granted.
Addressing some of those issues was psychotherapist and attorney Karen Caffrey, an adoptee and president of Access Connecticut, a grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the right of Connecticut adult adoptees to have legal access to their OBCs. Before 1974, Caffrey said, Connecticut law allowed adult adoptees such access. There have been some recent legislative gains in restoring adoptee rights, but her organization continues to challenge myriad myths about adoption—myths that, together with discriminatory laws, relegate adoptees to second-class citizenship status in some cases. Access to one’s birth certificate, Caffrey and countless others believe, is a human right.
The featured speaker of the ‘r kids event was state comptroller Kevin Lembo, who, together with his spouse, are adoptive parents of three children. Lembo said that the very moment he saw pictures of his children in a “blue book” of children waiting for a “forever family,” they became his children. It took several years of litigation and facing a judge “who thought our family wasn’t good enough,” however, before the adoption became official and the children, both with special needs, could go home.
Adopting a third child went more smoothly, but raising the child had a whole new set of challenges, as Lembo was awakened to the realities of being a young black man. “As a white person of privilege, I had to teach my black child how to behave when confronted with police.” Lembo also recounted an incident in which a store clerk treated his son in a discriminatory manner.
In a National Adoption Month announcement to state employees the day after the ‘r kids celebration, Lembo encouraged state employees to look into adoption or foster parenting. “I don’t mean to say that being a foster or adoptive parent is always easy,” Lembo wrote, “but the challenges in the context of this life-giving journey have always felt small to me…. Give a child the gift of home and your life will never be the same.”
Based on the success of the r’kids sponsored event, Rubin-Rodriguez said that a much-needed adoption awareness series that will continue the dialogue is in the planning stages.