Birthfather Fear

The first thing you notice when looking through the literature on birthfathers is how little there actually is. When we think about the "adoption triangle," those people who play pivotal roles in an adoption, we are generally talking about the child, birthmother, and adoptive parents.

Often, our thoughts about the birthfather in an adoption that is taking shape are colored with fear. Will he come along at the last minute and say that he wants to parent the child? Or will he enter the picture even later than that when the child has gone home with his adoptive parents?

The New York Case of Robert O. v. Russell K. had people involved with adoption riveted in 1992. An unwed couple in New York broke up without the birthfather knowing about his girlfriend's pregnancy. The birthmother did not name the birthfather and relinquished the child for adoption. Ten months after the court had ordered the adoption, the birthmother told the birthfather about the child, and the birthfather tried to get the adoption "vacated." The court denied the motion, saying that the constitutional right to form a qualifying relationship existed only for unwed fathers who showed their willingness to be custodial parents promptly. Because this birthfather did not know about his son either before or right after his birth, he lost the case and the adoption that had already gone through remained valid.

Many saw this case as a victory with regard to birthfathers who showed up unexpectedly to prevent an adoption but, of course, this was hardly a victory for birthfathers who had been left in the dark.

Dawn Smith-Pliner, Founder and Director of Friends in Adoption, an adoption agency based in Vermont, tells a different kind of story, one where the birthfather is not considered an adversary-rather, he is part of an adoption plan. In this case the birthfather, Shane, also got involved at the last minute, declaring that his child would be placed for adoption "over {his} dead body." The agency sprang into action and arranged counseling for both the birthmother and birthfather. The birthmother agreed to "babysit" her baby boy until things got resolved.

Eventually, Shane came to believe that adoption was in his son's best interest. But he realized he needed to know that he would have a relationship with him, too. Shane had grown up fishing, and he needed to know he could share this experience with his birthson one day. He and the birthmother got to know the adoptive parents and they created an open adoption which is thriving. The birthmother and Shane have since gotten married to other people and they, along with the adoptive parents and their son, now 12, attend the adoption agency's picnic every year. And chances are good that one day, father and birthson will go fishing together.

Birthfathers are an essential part of our adoptive children's identities. No one knows that better than Paul Schibbelhute, a well-known birthfather and Vice President and New England Regional Director of the American Adoption Congress, an organization committed to adoption reform. He is a mechanical engineer living in New Hampshire, but his passion is for getting legislation passed that allows adult adoptees' access to their original birth certificates. (As of this writing, there are seven states that allow this: Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Tennessee.)

Schibbelhute was in college when he learned that his girlfriend was 5 months pregnant back in 1977. Her family took charge of having his son adopted. "The last person they wanted to deal with was the birthfather," says Schibbelhute.

Today, after much searching Schibbelhute has a relationship with his birthson, Josh, and the birthmom. Schibbelhute has been able to talk with his birthson about the circumstances around his birth and adoption.

It is Schibbelhute's belief that you cannot deny a person the right to know about his beginnings. He acknowledges that not all birthfathers are responsible-but many are.

Birthfathers and Their Adoption Experiences, a book by Gary Clapton (2002) takes us into the heart and soul of the birthfather experience. It is based on a long-term study of 30 birthfathers living in the UK. Clapton, a birthfather himself, conducted in-depth interviews of thirty birthfathers before, during and after the adoption of their children. Some of these men were directly involved with the adoptions and some were deliberately left out of them.

All of them expressed feelings of loss. One said, "There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of him {the child}. I feel as if there is something inside me that has been ripped out and I feel empty and nothing is going to fill that." Another said that the initial void closed up but, like many of the men, he talked about the "regular presence" of the child in his thoughts in the ensuing years.

This sounds surprisingly like comments birthmothers have made. And, in fact, the resonance with experiences of birthmothers was the central finding of Clapton's study. He points out that this has implications for policy and practice in adoption.

Clearly, it's time we reconfigure the adoption triangle to include birthfathers whenever possible. Our adopted children can benefit from knowing about the "other half" of their genetic heritage and, perhaps not all but many, birthfathers need to play a role in their adoptions.

Carolyn Berger, LCSW, is Founding Board Chair of Path2Parenthood, and has a private practice specializing in Fertility, Adoption, and All Forms of Family Building. She is a parent through adoption.

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