by Nicholas Mancall-Bitel
Dear Expectant Parent,
We know this is a difficult time for you, having to make a very important decision in finding a responsible and loving family that can take care and raise your unborn baby. We have come to learn that sometimes doing the best thing for our loved ones is hard and it requires a lot of courage. That is why we can assure you we are ready to offer your child a home where he or she will feel loved and welcomed not only by us but by our large family of relatives and friends. We also want you to know we would like you, as the child’s family, to become part of our extended family so you can see by yourself how your child grows happy and healthy.
The “dear birthparent letter” is often the first salvo in a larger pitch known as an “adoption profile,” which prospective adoptive parents create to prove to expectant mothers they are capable of raising children. Along with the letter, adopters include heartwarming pictures of friends and family, personal bios detailing lifestyles and family values, and requisite government certifications, all constructing a distilled snapshot of the adoptive parents. Jennifer Curiale and her husband Jason, who adopted their son Justin in July, used a profile to convince a birthmother that the couple were the right parents for her child. Having already spent some six years trying to conceive and adopt, Curiale struggled with her profile. “You try to think what you would want to know if you were in that situation: you’re a married couple, your ages, what you do for a living, your educational background,” she told me. “But then you have to decide how to portray your personality or the things you like to do.”
When most people think of adoption, they imagine closed adoption, a formal procedure in which the birthmother relinquishes her child, and any legal parental claim, to the state. Beginning in 1935 with the Social Security Act, the US government increasingly regulated foster care in all forms, and over the next forty years, the state continued to take authority from birthmothers. While increased government oversight of child welfare was undeniably necessary, under closed adoption, birthmothers not only lost privacy and control, but also any chance of ever seeing their children again, a strict measure the state justified through the illusion of biological normalcy it granted the adopted family.
However, since the seventies, public opinion has shifted, forcing new regulatory norms. While closed adoption is still common for older children coming from foster care and infants legally taken from households for abuse or other mistreatment, because the system has been increasingly associated with psychologically damaging secrecy and shame, an informal alternative called open adoption is becoming more popular among willing birthmothers. Though adopters must still pass a state investigatory report in order to qualify to care for a child, a birthmother’s approval is the primary authority in open adoptions.
As open adoption has grown popular, a new private adoption industry has sprung up. These adoptions are not necessarily decided by the strength of adopters’ conviction, but more often by birthmother demand, which differs by location and medium. For nearly every regional, stylistic, ethical or tactical adoptive niche, there is an adoption service, but they can all generally be divided into three types: local, individual agents; national and international agencies; and internet-based services. Reversing the classic image of adopters perusing a lineup of orphans, adoptive parents use these services to offer themselves to the world of birthmothers with vulnerable optimism, arguing their cases in newspaper ads or digital adoption chatrooms, awaiting any response from the void.
Some adopters choose to work with local adoption authorities like social workers and lawyers. That’s what Luis Corteguera and Marta Vicente, a couple from Lawrence, Kansas, did when they adopted in 2012. The couple, who penned the letter that opens this piece, worked with a social worker based nearby in Kansas City, who provided them access to an extensive regional network, which included local lawyers who represent birthmothers and support groups for adoptive parents. But that access didn’t reach far beyond state borders, limiting the pool of possible birthmothers. Corteguera is from Puerto Rico and Vicente from Catalonia, so the couple had to find a Midwestern birthmother looking to place a child in an international household. “People told us, because of our last names, we probably didn’t fit the image a lot of people imagine,” Corteguera told me.
The couples’ dispassionate Catholicism, middle age, and Vicente’s unwillingness to give up her career to be a full-time parent all became issues of representation in their adoption profile. It took Corteguera and Vicente over two years to finally adopt; they had planned to stop trying if it took more than three. “We didn’t know if we were going to adopt or if we could keep this up, because our life was kind of on hold,” Corteguera says. “It was pretty nerve-wracking.” The social worker offered all the advice that she could, but race was ultimately a major factor in their success: Their adopted daughter, Isabel, is Mexican-American, and the birthmother picked them partly because she could pass for their biological child.
Local birthmother preferences are less of an issue with private agencies, which utilize large national and international networks to bring adopters together with mothers from afar. However, agencies introduce new hurdles like extra paperwork, certifications, references and home studies (on top of the basic legal qualifications). They also charge for their services, adding to the total financial cost of the process. Eric Gutierrez and his partner Jim adopted their son Isaac in 2001 through an agency called Open Adoption and Family Services based in the Northwest. While private agencies can be large and impersonal, they often work both online and off, providing digital reach while maintaining traditional regional contacts; they can also offer unique services unavailable at the local level, like specific support for same-sex adoptive parents, who still face a medley of discriminatory legislation.
Setting aside the pros and cons of adopting as a gay couple, Gutierrez was at an advantage, given his experience as an ad agency director. OAFS agents taught adopters to “market their parenthood” through adoption profiles. “We were creating a brand for the Jim and Eric family. We were creating a story,” Gutierrez says of the couple’s profile. “And fundamental in advertising and branding is the communication should really point to the audience, not so much to yourself. Rather than spending every paragraph and every sentence talking about us, you want to create a communication with that prospective birthparent that’s a little bit more about them.”
But expensive, heavy-handed services don’t always yield results. After working unsuccessfully with two agencies, Curiale became disenchanted and decided to seek out birthmothers over the internet instead. “I think in this day and age, the digital network aspect is crucial,” she says. “More and more pregnant women, especially younger women who are considering adoption … go to the internet. They’re going to Google ‘How to adoption’ and just see what comes up.” She adds, “Less and less, I think women walk into an agency and ask for help. They’re in their rooms and online.”
Adoption websites, in addition to offering wide exposure, are usually cheaper than agencies, though they lack any significant support services. While Curiale was interested in connecting with birthmothers over the internet, navigating the tech adoption landscape alone remained intimidating, so she sought middle ground. She finally found success after posting her profile to Adoptimist, which functions both as birthmother network and ad agency for adopters. Taking adopter marketing to the extreme, Adoptimist helps promote adoption profiles across Google and social media through ad creation and placement, though it offers no legal, matchmaking, or counseling services. The company describes itself delicately on its website as “a technology company devoted to family-building.”
Company co-founder and president Philip Acosta launched the service in 2012 as an alternative to the leading service at the time, ParentProfiles, one of a number of adoption ventures owned by Elevati, a company based in Provo, Utah. Acosta explained to me that adoptive parents build profiles similar to those on the other sites, but that Adoptimist marketers edit the content, customizing photos and blurbs “to make the page look good.” Occasionally the team vetoes content altogether — for example, if an adopter is wearing sunglasses in a photo. “That’s not going to help them make a connection at all,” Acosta adds. After profiles are tweaked, the team distills them into ads in several sizes for maximum exposure, then blasts them across the internet. While ParentProfiles drives hits to profiles through other adoption websites, like Adoption.com, BirthMother.com, CrisisPregnancy.com, and UnplannedPregnancy.com, Adoptimist primarily pushes profiles to social media and search engines: Premium offerings include Google ad banners and AdWords, promotion on the company’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram pages. Down the road, Acosta has sights set on Vine and Instagram video, though he admits it’s difficult to predict how effective any platform will be for adopters.
Like a startup in beta testing, adoptive parents on Adoptimist can use analytics like pageviews or click ratios to improve their profiles. Acosta explains, “They can see how many pageviews they’ve had, from which states, how long someone stayed on the page, all of these different statistics that they can use to find out if they’ve created a compelling profile on the site.” The site even ranks families based on these numbers, allowing adopters to see how many birthmothers (registered with the website) visit their profiles. Because Adoptimist emphasizes pageviews, rather than more significant contact like ParentProfiles’ “favorites,” traffic can be difficult to interpret. Curiale says she looked at her analytics, but admits that she didn’t understand much of the feedback.
All of these services add up, creating one of several barriers that limit who can find a child through open adoption. The total cost of Curiale’s search was around $17,000, which she says is typical for a two-year process that also involves material distribution, agency fees, legal expenses, and more. Such prohibitively expensive services practically disqualify entire tax brackets from considering open adoption. So do less visible barriers. Removing government regulation has allowed entrenched social privilege — as expressed both in the services adopters can afford to utilize and the preferences of birthmothers — to replace legal qualification as the primary hurdle to adopters. When Corteguera and Vicente were indirectly guided toward their “ideal” profile through successful examples, they immediately recognized the advice for what it was: pressure to lie in order to accommodate normative expectations. “The supposed ideal adoptive parents are a white couple in their twenties, where she is a stay home mom and they’ve got a big house and maybe a dog,” Corteguera says. “This story wasn’t really our story. It was the story we would tell birthparents.”
If there is clear upside, it is that, despite all the strategy and curation, the connection between adoptive parents and birthmothers remains as deep an emotional bond as any other familial commitment, and seemingly as random. A birthmother chose the Curiales because they, like the mother’s boyfriend, enjoy Thai food. “It’s something so little and innocuous as that,” Curiale says. Though she chalks it up to luck, perhaps such idiosyncrasies play a greater role than the marketers and adoption agents like to admit. They offer a glimmer of a person, hopeful and ready to care for a child, shining through a sea of monotonous, curated profiles.
Photo by William Creswell