I’ve been setting aside birthday cards for several weeks in anticipation of my milestone birthday tomorrow. And this morning, over breakfast, I decided to open them.
One of them was from an address I thought looked familiar, but couldn’t quite place. And when I opened it, I found myself staring at what I consider to be the single most offensive piece of mail I have ever received: a hand-signed birthday card from the adoption agency that placed me with adoptive parents when I was a small child.
I’m turning 60 tomorrow, and this is the first birthday card that the lovely people at Hope Cottage have ever sent. I sincerely hope it’s the last.
Pro marketing tip: after someone sues you, testifies against you in the State Legislature, writes op-ed pieces exposing shoddy practices, and can be found on Google by searching your name and the phrase “the world’s worst…” anything, it’s probably best to drop them from your direct mail and email marketing lists.
Children Are People, Not Products
The adoption industry is HUGE, with trade associations, marketing certifications, and a range of products sold around the world through sophisticated marketing tools. Healthy white infants — the most sought-after product — are hard to come by in the U.S. Mothers who feel themselves to be too young to be good parents, or who have other highly personal reasons for being unable to keep a baby, now have many choices.
They can get help from an agency like The Pressley House, a home for unwed teen moms that helps them keep their kids. Then can go through a private adoption, where wealthy parents often provide “scholarships”, cars, and lavish gifts that would be illegal for an adoption agency to offer, since selling children is still illegal in the U.S. And, of course, they don’t have to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
So the industry that once presented itself as the savior of young women and babies reinvented itself as the savior of children who would be doomed to a life of deprivation or even starvation if left in their home countries. They sell a lot more than adoption services, of course. They also offer counseling — for parents considering adoption, for parents who adopted a child they no longer want (you can sue for wrongful adoption, and several hundred adoptive parents every year surrender children they have decided weren’t as advertised), and for the children who were placed in adoptive families and want information about their birth families.
But the primary product remains the smiling kids and adorable babies, and those joyful photos of the “created families” picking up their new children at airports around the country. Somehow the fact that these children who are the adoption agency’s products don’t stay cute little kids forever seems to have escaped the industry’s notice.
Children are people, not products. They grow up to be adults who want and need factual information about their medical and genetic heritage, including information about their birth families. This inevitably brings a fair percentage of them into conflict with an industry that thrives on secrecy and hidden information.
Yet the industry simply ignores the facts, and seems to assume that the children they “rescued” are going to be grateful forever. So they add their “alumni” to marketing mailing lists. They use snail mail, which offers me no way to opt out other than calling and complaining — something they should be glad I don’t do, as I can’t vouch for my language or attitude given my feelings about the place. The cornerstone sign that read, “Founded by the Benevolent Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” is gone from their multi-million dollar edifice in the Uptown area of Dallas, but I still think of them as shadowy figures of evil.
I’ve written extensively about my history with Hope Cottage elsewhere. Even if I hadn’t done that, you’d think that having sued to get the accurate information required by law in Texas might possibly have given them a hint that I’m not one of their biggest fans.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying bad things about the parents who so desperately wanted a child that they were willing to settle for me after Hope Cottage described me in the Dallas Morning News as “a cross-eyed little girl, who if she works on improving her appearance, might someday earn a home.” I was six months old at the time, and “earning a home” through hard work doesn’t really seem as if it was a priority for me, since I was nearly two — and barely a week from being shipped to a state home for mentally defective kids — when someone finally agreed to take me. Nor am I saying that some children don’t need and want adoptive homes.
Liars Needn’t Try to Win Me Over
Hope Cottage hired liars in the 1950’s, the 1970’s, and the 1990’s. I am sure of this because they lied about me and to me in each of those decades. So why should I believe that they’ve changed their “just make it up” attitude now?
Once an organization lies to me, it’s a waste of time and effort to try to win me over with cute marketing materials or invitations to fund-raising events. But ever since they got my address (off the lawsuit to get my complete files instead of just the “redacted” information they wanted to give me), Hope Cottage has sent me two or three pieces of mail every year.
I know that none of the people who signed the card were there when I was a child. By now, I’m probably older than all of them.
They aren’t the ones who wrote snide comments about my birth parents and me into my records.
The signers of my birthday card aren’t even the people who lied to my face 42 years ago when I was pregnant for the first time, or 22 years ago when I asked for my genetic and medical records a second time because my daughter-in-law was expecting my first biologic grandchild.
The lies started with the negative comments and outright falsehoods about my birth parents in the files. Every detail of my birth mother’s appearance, from her lipstick to her claims to have a college degree, was criticized and doubted. They said that my birth father couldn’t be found to give consent for the adoption — but the address in their file is still owned by his estate, 60 years later. I’ll bet my adoptive parents would have been pretty shocked about what was in those files about them, too. The lie that stands out is about the “fenced yard” behind the “neat and tidy home” they lived in, and about how the investigator saw my mother mopping a floor. (My adoptive mother had a maid most of her life and had a phobia about fences — I don’t know what home the investigator visited, if any, but it wasn’t any house my parents ever lived in, as none of them had a fenced yard.)
When my adoptive parents agreed to take me, they were told I was “about six months old” and that my birth mother had dropped me off there because “she didn’t like the way the baby looked.” (Hope Cottage knew exactly how old I was — I was born at Hope Cottage, and relinquished at birth — and I’ll bet my mother didn’t like the looks of another blue baby after watching the first two die.)
I could forgive those 1950’s vintage lies. But when I got pregnant in the 1970’s, and went to the agency to ask about potential birth defects, a smiling social worker holding a folder told me there was absolutely no indication of any health problems. I found out later after a judge finally ordered them to turn over every scrap of paper relating to me that the folder in her hand that included my medical history as a “blue baby” and the documentation of an older sibling’s death from a heart defect, along with the story of another sibling’s death.
The Consequences of Sealed Records
By my third encounter with Hope Cottage, 22 years ago this week, Texas had passed the medical and genetic information act of 1989, which required adoption agencies to “fully and accurately” record and report information that could be relevant to the health of the children they placed for adoption.
That’s when my daughter-in-law and I went to ask about possible birth defects, and were told once again that there was “nothing in the file” that would give cause for alarm.
That lie proved costly for three generations of my family when my granddaughter was born November 13, 1991 with the same heart defect that had killed my siblings. The heart defect that was deadly before my birth was treatable by the time she was born, but the damage from the stroke she had because no pediatric cardiologist was on hand at her birth is permanent.
If we’d known that I carried the gene for a heart defect, a $27 blood thinner might have prevented the stroke. Instead, the stroke required more than $1.2 million in leg braces, medication, therapy, and ongoing treatment.
The emotional damage for our family was dramatic. Read what my son, Geoff McAlister, said about Hope Cottage in his testimony before the Nevada Legislature when it considered an open records bill. My son is a strong, loving father. At the time of his testimony, he was one of the headliners at the Excalibur Hotel & Casino’s show on the Las Vegas strip, and the legislators recognized him from billboards all over Las Vegas that showed him as a knight in shining armor. When he nearly broke down as he described watching his daughter struggle with her leg brace and the taunts of classmates, more than one politico was wiping his eyes, too.
I’m long past crying — but I am not past the anger at the way Hope Cottage packaged and sold me all those years ago. Getting a birthday card from them for my 60th birthday is insulting — and wastefully stupid from a pure marketing standpoint.
Don’t they have better things to do with their time and money than wasting it on a birthday card for someone who hates them, and would throw a party if regulators finally shut them down?