In America today there are more than 7 million adoptees — about 2 percent of the total population. Approximately 1.5 million of them are under the age of eighteen. Many were adopted as infants, but some spent a significant portion of their childhoods in shelters, foster homes, or foreign orphanages, or with parents who eventually lost their parental rights in the courts. These formative experiences often leave emotional injuries that influence how adoptees form relationships and raise their own children. Experts estimate that with the repeal of Roe v. Wade and new state abortion bans, an additional ten thousand infants will be adopted annually.
With the advent of readily available DNA testing, an increasing number of adoptees are searching for their birth parents, and birth mothers are looking for the children they placed into adoption decades ago. Throughout our nation, people are finding new family members they sometimes didn’t know existed.
Faith Friedlander was relinquished for adoption in 1946. Raised in a loving upper-middle-class family, she grew up wondering about her birth mother: Where was she? Who was she? And how much did Friedlander resemble her, inside and out? “The closed-adoption system was set up to erase the past for everyone,” Friedlander says. “Shame, loss, and rejection were very much a part of adoption when I was born.”
Now in her mid-seventies, Friedlander is the clinical vice president of Kids & Families Together (K&FT), a nonprofit in Ventura, California. She and her husband cofounded K&FT in 2000 because, after more than twenty years as a marriage and family therapist, she wanted to focus on helping families and children who had been through adoption or foster care. Friedlander still sees much work to do. A recent study from the Institute for Family Studies shows that, although adoptive parents are generally better educated than biological parents and put more time and effort into raising their kids, adopted children tend to show more problem behaviors than children raised by single parents and in stepfamilies. They get angry easily and fight with other children more, “acting out” in ways that parents, teachers, and relatives might not understand.
I met Friedlander several decades ago, and she immediately impressed me with her calm wisdom, perpetual optimism, and penchant for dressing in purple. I found out she and her family had survived many hardships, including a house fire on New Year’s Eve, a car accident that seriously injured her husband and son, and financial setbacks. I could also tell she had channeled some of her own adoption experience into K&FT, which has helped thousands of families through similar difficulties.
For this interview I met with Friedlander at her office, where we were surrounded by photos of her kids and grandkids, children’s artwork, and the office’s support animal, a very large Bernese mountain dog named Charles. We spoke in detail about the challenges presented by the child-welfare, foster-care, and adoption systems.
Leviton: At Kids & Families Together you often work with adoptees and their parents. Many Americans don’t know much about the issues that can arise. Their image of adoption comes from pop culture, like the popular TV show This Is Us.
Friedlander: I love that show, because it deeply examines the implications of a white family’s adopting a Black infant. That adopted child, Randall, later has some tough conversations with his parents about what he lost when they tried to raise him with a “color-blind” philosophy, and he connects with his birth parents and fills in the family stories he doesn’t know.
When you are adopted at birth, as I was, you love your family, but you also might have feelings that are hard to talk about — of divided loyalty or curiosity. Every time my birthday came around, I wondered if my birth mother was thinking about me, but I didn’t feel I could talk to my mother about that. I did ask her a lot of questions, and she answered them, but I could tell she was hesitating. I saw a look in her eye that said, Am I going to lose my daughter? So I was careful.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I thought again of my birth mother: Had she had anyone to help her? What had her pregnancy been like? It hit me that my husband had a family history, with stories of parents and grandparents, whereas I had only me. I was jealous. If anyone told me I looked like my mother or father, I could only think, We’re not biologically related.
Eventually, just before my mom died, I said to her, “Mom, you weren’t adopted. You don’t know how it feels.” And she understood. I have to tell you, I felt closer to her then than ever, because she finally saw that my curiosity about the circumstances of my adoption wasn’t about not loving her; it was about her knowing me.
In my work I often reassure adoptive parents that when their child asks about their birth parents, it’s not about leaving them, even though in extreme moments a child might scream, “You’re not my real parents!”
Leviton: I have a friend who was adopted as an infant. When I asked if he had any interest in finding his birth parents, he got very defensive and dismissive and said, “I know who my parents are. They are the people who raised me, and that’s all I care about.”
Friedlander: I’m glad you brought that up, because I don’t push adoptees to find their birth parents if they are not ready. In my experience you see that attitude more with men than with women. Many birth-parent searches originate with the wife looking for her husband’s birth family. Women have a harder time not knowing their biological and cultural background. Men often like having more information but don’t get actively involved in the journey.
Not every adopted adult needs the same thing, but I do think most adoptees, at some point in their lives, will want to look into their past. And someone in their birth family might come searching for them. With the Internet and readily available DNA tests, it’s not so easy to hide anymore.
Leviton: You’ve said you always knew you were adopted, but there must have been a moment when you were told.
Friedlander: If it happened, I don’t remember it. I do recall talking to another little girl about being adopted, and she asked me what that meant, and I said something like “I belonged to a nurse before I went with my parents.” So before I even understood what adoption was, I knew the word applied to me.
I tell parents they don’t have to go around sharing with everyone that this is their adopted child, but with the child, from the beginning, you introduce that word, saying, “We are so glad we adopted you.” They should hear the word in a positive context. And you can provide age-appropriate books about the different ways families come together. But I will never sit you down and tell you you’re doing it all wrong.
Several years ago, in my private practice, I had a sixteen-year-old girl come to me for therapy. She’d recently discovered she was adopted. Her adoptive mother had even made up stories about being pregnant. Then a relative told this girl the truth. The girl felt profoundly betrayed and angry with her mother. Some people find out they were adopted only when they go through their parents’ paperwork after death. That can be an emotional mess.
So I say: start with the truth and talk about adoption as just another, less-common way of building a family, one that’s not better or worse than any other.
Leviton: I can imagine adoptees struggle with knowing that somewhere in the past they were not wanted.
Friedlander: Every adopted person eventually comes to recognize that there was a parent who didn’t want them, or couldn’t raise them, or wouldn’t raise them, and that made it possible for their adoptive parents to step in. But many adoptive parents don’t want to make room for that thought at all. Some — especially when they adopt through the foster system — have a kind of savior complex. They send the message that the child should appreciate the home they’ve been given and have no regrets. But that child has lost a lot, and their experience doesn’t necessarily match up with the parents’ insistence about what a nice home they have.
Adopting a child because you want to make a difference in that child’s life is different from feeling that you’ve saved them. I’m sorry to say it, but in some Christian evangelical circles, where anti-abortion sentiment is very strong, you sometimes see the attitude that these babies need to be saved from their wayward, incompetent, unwed birth mothers. And sometimes when the kid gets in trouble at school or behaves badly, the parents suddenly don’t want to have anything to do with them. They don’t understand why the child isn’t doing better now that they are in a “good and loving home.”
I do think most adoptees, at some point in their lives, will want to look into their past. And someone in their birth family might come searching for them.
Leviton: Under what circumstances can Child Protective Services (CPS), Children and Family Services (CFS), and other government agencies take a child from the parents?
Friedlander: I should say right off the bat that I’m not a social worker. I work with child-welfare professionals. CPS will step in when a child is not in a safe situation. For example, say there’s a car accident where a parent has been drinking, and the child was in the car with them. CPS would be called to the spot to get involved. If the other parent isn’t available, they might find a relative who will take the child. Anytime the child is placed with someone besides the parent, even an aunt or grandparent, CPS will say the child has “been detained.” From that moment on, the child is officially in the child-welfare system.
Leviton: Can parents appeal a decision to remove a child from their home?
Friedlander: A legal appeal isn’t necessary yet, because their parental rights have not been terminated. That’s an extreme situation where a family court decides a child’s parents are no longer fit to be the legal guardians. Social services, on the other hand, wants the parents to get their kid back, but this can happen only after the parents meet certain requirements: for instance, enter counseling or a drug program, show up for drug testing, attend AA meetings, take domestic-violence classes, or whatever else is required. I know CPS would prefer not to detain a child if they don’t have to. The goal nowadays is to reunite children with their parents as often and as soon as possible. In the past that wasn’t always true.
Leviton: And when a child is detained, they are placed in the care of a relative or foster family?
Friedlander: Yes. Family members are preferred: an aunt or older sibling or grandparent. As long as the relative is leading a decent life — even if they might have been incarcerated or abused drugs in the past — CPS will place the child with them.
If they can’t find a suitable relative, then they turn to foster parents, now called “resource parents,” who have gone through a system of training and credentialing. And a resource parent has to understand that CPS is aiming to return the child to the parents. A child cannot be adopted by a resource family until the parental rights of the birth parents have been legally terminated. Many times resource parents who want to adopt are devastated when a child is taken in by a relative instead.
There’s a big difference between formal CPS protocols and the many, many informal arrangements made. Resource families and kinship families receive money to help support the children. If, on the other hand, a grandparent has agreed to take the child before CPS gets involved, that grandparent wouldn’t necessarily get any money from the state, because the child isn’t “in the system.”
Leviton: Are the desires of the child taken into account during all this?
Friedlander: Very little. If the child is older, and they don’t want to go back to the parents, their therapist or clinician might go to bat for them. There is also sometimes an option for “guardianship,” which is not full adoption. It’s a court order that gives legal rights to someone to make decisions on the child’s behalf, such as where they go to school, when they get medical care, and so on.
We often counsel older kids that they should consider being adopted, because they will have more legal rights in a “forever family.” When the parental rights of the birth parents have been terminated but the child hasn’t been adopted, that child is in a vulnerable spot.
Leviton: I know of resource parents who are happy to get the fees for taking in children but are not really thinking of adopting. It’s like a business to them.
Friedlander: That’s OK. I like to see them as therapeutic caregivers. They are doing a good thing by providing a home for children who otherwise might be moving from place to place.
What resource parents need to understand is how past trauma influences these kids’ behavior. They often have heavy-duty behavioral problems, which makes sense considering what they’ve gone through. It’s not about “fixing” the kids; it’s about getting past the behaviors and being able to build a strong, healthy attachment. These kids need a caregiver who’s able to be there for them, maybe in a way they’ve never experienced before. That’s asking a lot.
Leviton: You used the word attachment; that’s an important part of raising a healthy child, isn’t it?
Friedlander: Yes, it’s extremely important. When a baby comes into the world and has a caregiver who meets their needs on all levels, they form an emotional attachment with the caregiver. The child feels seen and understood. They grow up thinking: I’m lovable. I matter. Caregivers can be trusted. The world is safe. This prepares the child to go out into the world.
When you don’t have that, the child may believe that no one can be trusted, that they are not worthy of love, or that violence is normal. Their first experiences may be of parents who cannot supply what they need. This is what the law calls “neglect.” And when that child ends up in a new home, they need their new caregiver to understand what they’ve been through and help them feel lovable and like they matter, even on their worst days.
Those caregivers are going to need a lot of care themselves. That’s where K&FT comes in. To us it’s all about the child-caregiver relationship. We focus on building a secure relationship between the child and caregiver that was often missing as that child grew up.
Leviton: I can imagine that, with the amount of trauma some kids experience, they act out in unacceptable ways.
Friedlander: Yes, and resource parents, teachers, and peers have to become sensory detectives to figure out what the difficult behavior might be about. For example, a child who never got enough food might need to have food constantly available to feel secure. For them the availability of snacks isn’t just about physical hunger; it’s part of building secure attachment.
Many of these kids have never experienced real playtime or joy. How do you demonstrate to them how to enjoy life? It’s not just talking to them; it’s having experiences with them, showing that they can have fun, and you can have fun, too. Some caregivers didn’t experience these things in sufficient quantity growing up either. Then everyone is learning together.
No responsible organization whose work influences the future of families and children should avoid dealing with the cultural, racial, educational, and medical disparities in this country’s institutions.
Leviton: This country has been going through a surge in drug-related deaths. That must be a factor in how many children CPS removes from their parents.
Friedlander: Absolutely. And there are class and race issues involved. In the more affluent sections here in Ventura County, parents and children can get away with behavior that is not tolerated in the poorer areas like Oxnard. The nonwhite kids are more likely to have neighbors who report them, to be scrutinized by police, and to be disciplined and suspended in school. Believe me, the richer kids and the white kids are misbehaving just as much as the Latino and Black kids, but they aren’t singled out in the same way.
At K&FT we meet weekly to address the systemic racism that persists in our country. Last week one of my dear friends, who’s about ninety, came to our meeting and talked about the experiences of her two older brothers, who were Tuskegee Airmen [a group of primarily Black pilots who fought in World War II — Ed.]. Her mother had to fight to get her kids into college-prep classes in high school in Los Angeles when most of the Black kids were being tracked into vocational classes. No responsible organization whose work influences the future of families and children should avoid dealing with the cultural, racial, educational, and medical disparities in this country’s institutions.
Leviton: About 60 percent of adopted children are adopted within a month of their birth and don’t have memories of their birth mother. But in the foster system — which nationwide has about four hundred thousand children on any given day — the average age of a child waiting to be adopted is 7.7 years. Approximately 20 percent are never adopted.
Friedlander: With older kids the birth parents often had their rights terminated. It wasn’t as if they willingly relinquished the child. These kids can have loyalty issues. They don’t completely stop loving their birth parents, and they do try to stay connected to them in some fashion. Social workers won’t cut off the birth parents unless they are really unsafe for the child to be with. This is a big change from the past. When I was adopted in the mid-1940s, it was assumed the child would have no further contact with the birth parents. Now adopted kids can still have some safe contact with their original parents and family members. Sometimes, though, the birth parents are totally out of the picture. Many who lose parental rights are incarcerated.
Many people looking to adopt want an infant. Perhaps they want to avoid dealing with the more complex trauma often suffered by older children. I can understand that. They want the child to be integrated into their family, as if they were the birth parents. The child is not a birth child, however, and is forever part of a triad: birth parent, adopting parent, and child. And some adoptive parents look to adopt children with special needs or medical problems, because they have a special affinity or expertise for such children.
As an adopted person myself, I have no problem recognizing the people who raised me as my parents. But where we come from biologically is also important.
Leviton: How are prospective parents vetted?
Friedlander: At K&FT we help potential parents learn about the foster-care system. They have an opportunity to hear from people who’ve gone through the system. They meet birth parents who were able to get their kids back at some point, and birth parents who weren’t able to get their child back. They might also meet with a former foster child.
Resource parents are also evaluated, their whole lives examined. Have they ever been in trouble? It’s not that they need to have had a perfect life. CPS agencies are looking for people who’ve made sense of their lives and aren’t afraid to be honest about their experiences. They don’t care how rich you are. And, at least in my county, we want to know that you’re OK if the child grows up to be gay or converts to another religion. It’s important that you can honor the child’s nature and decisions.
More recently, those making decisions about adoption have begun to look at culture. You don’t just bring an African American or Latino child into a white home and let the parents say, “We don’t care where you came from.” It’s important for the parents to meet the child where they are and deal sensitively with cultural and racial differences.
Leviton: Foreign adoptions account for about 25 percent of the 135,000 children adopted in the United States each year. What special issues come up there?
Friedlander: First of all, those children are losing a country. If they’re older, they may lose a language. And many are coming out of orphanages, some of which are really bad. One Romanian orphan I talked to said he was abused in an institution he called a “slaughterhouse of souls.” Those children may arrive in the U.S. with a lot of trauma. Sometimes Americans want to adopt from a foreign orphanage because they believe they will never have to deal with the birth family.
Leviton: Nationwide about 70 percent of adopting parents are married couples, 24 percent are single women, 3 percent are unmarried couples, and only 3 percent are single men. So we can see some evidence that traditional gender roles and family configurations are being upheld when it comes to adoption.
Friedlander: Here in Ventura County, which is part of Greater Los Angeles, adoptions are more diverse, but other states might take a more conservative view. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that same-sex couples should have the same rights to adopt children that heterosexual couples do, the Court later sided with a Catholic adoption agency in Pennsylvania that discriminates against LGBTQ people. Exceptions for organizations that have a “religious basis” for discrimination still exist. In Tennessee there’s a law that allows religious adoption agencies to deny service to same-sex couples.
Leviton: I’ve read about a Jewish couple suing the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, because the taxpayer-funded Holston United Methodist Home for Children turned them away from foster-parent training, asserting its right to pick only Christian couples for adoptions. A panel of judges dismissed the suit, partially because the couple were eventually trained by a different organization that didn’t bar them from participating. And Holston is currently suing the Biden administration over federal guidelines that prevent such discrimination, arguing that if they lose federal funding, it will violate their freedom of religion.
Friedlander: Around here there are quite a few Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate birthdays and holidays. When they adopt kids who were not raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the child might feel sad about having these celebrations taken away, if the parents do that. The parents are inviting the child into their value system, certainly, but that child has their own culture and values that should be respected.
Leviton: Let’s talk in more detail about your own experience of finding your birth mother.
Friedlander: First I have to say I didn’t embark on the journey to find her until I’d done a lot of therapy myself. Both my parents had died before I was thirty, so I no longer had the loyalty issue. I’d always known I wanted to find out where I came from, and that there were no guarantees about outcomes. And I’d finished having kids by that point; my youngest was about two years old.
When I’d originally asked my mother why I was adopted, she’d said, “Your mother made a mistake and had to find a home for you.” The idea that I was a mistake was shocking, although I didn’t let on to her about it. Then, when I was about fourteen, I said to my mother, “I was born out of wedlock, wasn’t I?” Those were the words you used in those days. I have to give her credit, because she showed me a picture of my birth mom. I was so pleased! But I didn’t have the guts to ask if I could keep the picture. I gave it back and never asked to see it again.
After my mother died, I told my sister to keep an eye out for any photos that showed a woman in military uniform, and about a year later she told me she’d found three in our mom’s stuff. My birth mother, Catherine — whom everyone called Kitty — was in the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service] during World War II and stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, with her best friend, Lola. They were Navy air-traffic controllers.
After the war ended, Kitty got pregnant. Lola was living in Southern California by then, but the two of them were still very close. Lola’s dentist — my adoptive dad — told Lola he and his wife were looking to adopt. Lola made the connection, and it was agreed that I would go to my parents. After that, Kitty cut off all ties with Lola and my parents. It was Lola who’d sent those three pictures to my parents, along with a letter about Kitty. My parents were apparently supposed to send the photos back but didn’t.
Kitty had named me Valerie Anne. In those days it would have been common just to write “baby” and the mother’s last name on the birth certificate, but Kitty had named me. I don’t know why. Some of this information my mother actually shared with me before she died, and that was huge, to hear it from her. It just made me love her more. I don’t remember this myself, but my mother told me one of the names I had for my invisible playmates was “Valerie.” I also remember loving the look of military uniforms. I thought the WAVES uniforms were so cool.
When I began looking for my birth mother, I first found Lola. I just looked up her name — which was very unusual — in a Los Angeles telephone directory. When I sent Lola pictures of my kids, she told me how much they looked like Kitty. Lola was kind and understood where I was coming from, but at this point she had no idea where Kitty was or if she was even still alive.
Finally I managed to get Kitty’s military records, which allowed us to find her. I should mention that I was doing this search slowly and deliberately, because I was having strong emotions. My husband, David, probably would have accelerated the process, but I told him I needed time. There were plenty of frustrations — like getting documents that were almost completely redacted. I’d be holding a document that could have told me a piece of my story, and it was almost entirely blacked out.
Leviton: This was well before open adoptions became the norm. Could you explain more about that cultural change and how it has affected adoptees?
Friedlander: In 1946 the purpose of adoption was to give a “bastard” child an opportunity for a legitimate life and to let an unwed mother hide her shame over having had an illegitimate child. So all original birth certificates were sealed, never to be seen again. The new birth certificate had the adoptive parents’ names. The only part that carried over from the original birth certificate was the place of birth and date.
Then, in the 1970s, many adoptees began insisting they wanted their original birth certificates. There was a group, which still exists, called the Bastard Nation, and it has worked hard to get records opened for adoptees. I have never seen my original birth certificate, much as I would love to have it. I do know my adoption wasn’t final for at least six months after I was born, because the laws at that time gave the birth mother six months to decide if she wanted to keep the child. Kitty eventually told me that those six months were a hard time for her, but she didn’t change her mind.
Kitty signed documents giving my parents medical authority during that six months. That’s how I learned Kitty’s name: when those records were found in my parents’ papers. At two weeks old I’d been flown from New Orleans to California. Can you imagine? I weighed less than seven pounds and had to be put on oxygen during the flight.
For years birth parents and adoptive families were prevented from connecting, as experts thought it would be confusing to the child. Historically many birth parents and foster parents did not come into contact with each other and intuitively did not trust each other. Foster parents sometimes saw the birth parents as evil: How could they not take care of their kids? Birth parents saw foster parents as people who wanted to steal their children. It was all about blame. No one knew one another personally, but this was the narrative they created about each other. The child was caught in the middle, like in an ugly divorce.
When David and I opened Kids & Families Together, I was strongly in favor of birth and foster parents getting to know one another and working together in the best interests of the child. I saw the foster parents as mentors for the birth parents and hoped they would form a lifelong connection. And, in my experience, whenever birth parents and adoptive parents get to know one another as human beings, feelings begin to shift. Birth parents can fail because they have no support and feel isolated and alone. So I came into K&FT believing strongly that everyone needed to work together.
This was not the way Ventura County saw it in 2000. Social workers’ goal then was to keep birth parents and foster or adoptive parents separate. Today K&FT educates new resource parents on the need to connect with birth parents for the benefit of the child. Many still carry the old beliefs, however, and it takes time to build these bridges. I passionately believe that past connections matter, and resource and birth families should not see them as a threat. I think you can never have too many people who love and care about you, even if you don’t see them that often.
Leviton: You found Kitty’s mother before you found Kitty, right?
Friedlander: Yes, because we were worried about scaring Kitty off. In the early 1980s David posed as Lola’s son and said he just wanted to get in touch with his mother’s old best friend, Kitty. When David talked to my grandmother, she lied and said she didn’t have a daughter named Kitty. He left a phone number and our address anyway.
Not long afterward Kitty left a message on our machine. Driving home after getting the news, I imagined flying her out to our home in Southern California and beginning a relationship. But when I got home, David met me in the driveway and explained that she had called back, and he’d talked to her, and she was very angry. My six-year-old daughter was listening to this and asking why my mommy didn’t want to talk to me, and I was trying to explain that it wasn’t the mommy who’d raised me; it was my other mommy. I was a mess.
Kitty had told David that if she had known I would try to contact her, she would have had an abortion. That’s how bad it was. She added, “If she wants to know who her father is, tell her I don’t know. It could’ve been one of many!” Over the years I came to understand better how much shame she must have dealt with; how society denigrated sex outside of marriage, along with “out of wedlock” pregnancy. I now feel more sadness than anger when thinking of Kitty’s words back then.
David reassured her that I wasn’t trying to hurt her, and he got her to agree to call back — collect — and talk to me. I told my family they could listen through the door, but I didn’t want anyone in the room with me; it was just too much. When I received the call, Kitty had a very thick Eastern Seaboard accent and told me I was going to ruin her life. I told her I just wanted her to know I’d had wonderful parents, and they’d been good to me, and I loved them very much, and I was grateful she had given me life. I told her, “I’m sitting here shaking,” and she replied, “So am I.” That kind of calmed her down. I didn’t ask about her own family, because I wanted to keep the focus on the two of us and not make it seem like I was intruding. I asked, “Did you ever think about me on my birthday?”
She got emotional then and said that when I was very little, she’d thought about me all the time, but after more years had passed, she’d figured I’d grown up and didn’t think of me as often anymore. I asked if she’d be willing to receive a letter from me if I sent it to a general-delivery post office. (I didn’t want her to think I was trying to find out her address.) I had written a piece in grad school explaining why I felt the need to search for her, and I wanted to share it with her. She said yes, and I sent her a letter and pictures of me and my children, and I told her how much I appreciated her willingness to talk to me. I really thought I’d started building a bridge. In my heart of hearts, I began to believe that on my next birthday I’d get a card from her. And, of course, my birthday came and went, and I didn’t get a card. But I respected her wishes, her silence. Then, about eight years later, I passed my exam and became a licensed marriage and family therapist, and I began to wonder about Kitty again. Had she even received my letter? I’d moved, so she might have been unable to find me if she’d wanted to.
By this time we had Kitty’s address and some information about her family. And David and I did something we probably shouldn’t have: we went to where she lived on Halloween and spied on her. We were sitting in a car trying to see her, and at one point I got out to stretch my legs. While I was gone, David saw a woman who walked like me. It was Kitty. She was with a man who was obviously her husband.
Kitty’s daughter Judy was also there, trick-or-treating with her kids. From our hiding place I could see her interacting with her children, and I liked her immediately. In later years Judy told me, “Oh, you should have come over and said hello!” But at that point she had no idea I even existed.
I mailed a second letter to Kitty, and this time I asked her to let me know that she’d received it. About a month later she wrote back and gave me a little bit of information: nobody in her family had died of cancer, that sort of thing. It was a very cold letter, with no salutation. She didn’t even use my name, and she didn’t sign it. I felt great pain and disappointment, but with time and distance I was able to see how fearful and threatened Kitty must have been by my very existence. I began to feel sadness for her instead of anger.
I had asked in my letter if we could get together in person, just once, to share our stories. But in her response she said that a meeting would not be right for her, and she also said something that made me angry: that a meeting would not be right for me either. I was hurt that she thought she could say what was right for me. My daughter’s reaction was “Well, Mommy, you’ve got to admit: you’re both passionate people.”
I had to accept that the relationship I’d fantasized about was not going to happen. Many years later, around 2001, Lola got in touch with Kitty, and Kitty was again unhappy about being pursued and convinced I was behind the whole thing. But she did write to Lola and explained that her life in Corpus Christi had been wilder than Lola had known, and she could only hope that the man she’d fancied most was my biological father. She said that after she’d gotten married, she’d decided she never wanted to be reminded of that time, never wanted to look back, and she wished we would all just leave her alone. But along with this rant was one admission: “Because I loved my baby despite everything.” So I had that.
I was done with Kitty, but my daughter and husband weren’t. My daughter contacted my half sister Judy without my knowing it. Kitty had passed away by this time, leaving three children, thirteen grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, and a brother.
It turned out Kitty had never looked at the letter I’d sent with the family pictures, although her husband had read it. She hadn’t lied to him about my existence. She’d told him to burn the letter and the pictures.
Leviton: So once Kitty had died, the other members of her family were willing to engage with you?
Friedlander: More than willing. They had been totally in the dark about my existence. In fact, when they first heard about me, they thought it was some kind of scam. But my half brother Ricky put together a timeline from the information we gave them and concluded that I really was Kitty’s child. One of Kitty’s grandchildren found me on Facebook and immediately said I looked just like her grandmother.
We weren’t expecting them to embrace us so enthusiastically. But my half sister Judy had always wanted an older sister, and now she had one. I got some closure with Kitty, and as a bonus I had this wonderful new family who wanted to get to know me. I went with Judy and placed flowers on Kitty’s grave in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.
Leviton: Finding birth families is easier than ever today, but without the proper psychological preparation, it seems like a lot of these connections could be awkward or even harmful.
Friedlander: Whenever anyone reaches out to me about searching for their birth parents, I advise them to go at their own pace. I know I never could have handled it without the emotional and physical support of my husband and my family. My daughter and David’s brother, Danny, did a tremendous amount of work, using a combination of genealogy and DNA, to find my birth father — the same way police detectives found the Golden State Killer after several decades. [Laughs.]
Leviton: When you talk to clients, do you share your personal history?
Friedlander: Not always. I did cowrite a chapter in Karen Doyle Buckwalter and Debbie Reed’s book Attachment Theory in Action about my journey as an adoptee. So I don’t hide it. But mostly I use it to convey the message that “there’s nothing wrong with you.”
My half siblings felt sad that their mom had felt such shame about me, and they are upset that she treated me the way she did. At this point they’ve seen all the letters and have a good idea of what happened. I’ve been very up-front with them, even when it doesn’t make me look good.
As we were walking away from Kitty’s grave, Judy said to me, “You are more forgiving than I would be in the same situation.” I told her I’d had many years to deal with my feelings, whereas she was new to the subject. And I had another advantage: I had her and her family. They were so supportive. I’m still meeting new cousins and so on.
I really thought I’d started building a bridge. In my heart of hearts, I began to believe that on my next birthday I’d get a card from her. And, of course, my birthday came and went, and I didn’t get a card.
Leviton: Your family has also had experience with foreign adoptions.
Friedlander: Yes, my niece Huyen was adopted from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon and has been on her own journey to reconnect with her birth family, which I helped her do. She was raised in a white American family with lots of very tall people, in an all-white neighborhood, and she had always felt different, even though her family had worked very hard to help her be proud of her Vietnamese heritage.
In Vietnamese there’s an expression, bui doi, which literally means “dust of life” and refers to the children who were fathered by American GIs during the war. There were rumors in South Vietnam that, once the North Vietnamese took over, they were going to cut off the hands and feet of children who were not full-blooded Vietnamese and anyone who’d collaborated with the Americans. So Huyen’s mother took Huyen to the Friends of the Children of Vietnam in Saigon and left her there, saying she’d return for her. She thought she was going to be able to evacuate to the U.S. with her daughter, but it turned out they were only taking children.
More than three thousand Vietnamese infants and children were brought to the United States in what was called Operation Babylift. Once here, they were sorted out and put up for adoption where appropriate. There’s been plenty of criticism of that operation. It’s not at all clear that the evacuations were always in the child’s best interest. Huyen was almost four years old when she was adopted by my husband’s brother. Danny and his wife had been in a slow process of being screened to adopt internationally, and all of a sudden they were given twenty-four hours to decide whether they wanted to take this little mixed-race Vietnamese girl. Being adopted myself, I formed a special connection to her when I married into the family.
I remember they videotaped her singing Vietnamese songs when she first arrived. She didn’t know a word of English. She was so cute, and we all loved her immediately. Within six months she’d completely forgotten the Vietnamese language.
Huyen’s mother was Vietnamese. Her father was a United States soldier. They were very much in love. After he was sent back to the U.S., he tried to get Huyen and her mother out, but there was a glitch because Huyen’s birth family had fled Hanoi when the French were pushed out in 1954, settling in a refugee camp outside of Saigon. The U.S. considered her birth mother to be North Vietnamese and wouldn’t approve their passage out.
Huyen is now a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, grief, and loss. She has written about her story for Shirley Peck-Barnes’s book The War Cradle and the anthology Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency.
I went to Vietnam with Huyen in 1996, and Huyen met her mother. It seemed like for the first twenty-four hours her mom never let Huyen out of her reach. We also met Huyen’s grandfather, who’d had a very special relationship with her when she was small.
Leviton: Had you already made contact with Huyen’s birth family before you went to Vietnam?
Friedlander: No, we didn’t think we were going to find the family as quickly as we did. It was so special for me, as an adoptee myself, to be there when Huyen reunited with the family she’d been taken from twenty years before. I knew my role was to give support — this was her journey — but it was difficult for me emotionally to see them welcome her. I’d had nothing but rejection from my own birth mother. And I was in a foreign land, far from my own support system. It was hard.
But I held it together and was happy for her. They were so glad that she’d been raised with love and also that her American family had wanted her to find them. A few years later Huyen found her birth father in the United States. It was pretty amazing because she didn’t even have a name for him when she started searching, but she got guidance from some Vietnam vets online. Huyen was able to meet him and get more answers about what had happened.
Leviton: Why did you and David decide to establish Kids & Families Together?
Friedlander: It was certainly connected to my own experience of being adopted, and also to my sister Janet’s experience of adopting three half siblings out of foster care. (I was raised with an older sister and brother in my adopted family.) After my own children were out of the house, David asked if I’d ever thought of specializing in adoption in my therapy practice. I liked the idea and went into a nine-month training program, where I learned about the foster-care system and how government grants worked. Then I found out there were virtually no support services for adoptive parents in Ventura County. When families with adopted children had trouble, there was nowhere for them to turn. Once the kids were placed, that was it. There was clearly a need for more.
I often say we started in 2000 with a lot of passion and absolutely zero credibility. I took trainings that spoke to me and learned about the theory of attachment parenting. I tried to help anyone I encountered along the way. We developed relationships with county social workers, and we rented a beautiful old house to be our offices. We’d invite social workers over for lunch and have conversations about what the community needed.
Here we are twenty-two years later, and it’s kind of unbelievable to me what we’ve built. We have a staff of sixty-five. We’ve learned to write grant proposals and fundraise. We have a number of bilingual parenting educators, clinicians, therapists, and peer partners. We have helped parents who have gotten their kids back and become better parents, and some of them are now helping other parents get their kids back. Who better to support struggling parents than people who’ve dealt successfully with the child-welfare authorities themselves?