A writing colleague, Dale Kwong, put a book of essays in my hands just a few days ago. Somebody’s Child, published by Touchwood Editions, is hot off the press and includes Dale’s essay which I had the pleasure of reading when I was the Writer in Residence at Memorial Park Library two years ago. It includes essays by some other writers whose work I know as well. Normally I take my time reading a book of essays, slotting them into times when I don’t want to bury myself in long pieces of fiction. But this is a book I’ve been awaiting for reasons other than celebrating the publication of my writing friends.
I began a career in social work when I graduated from the University of Alberta with a B.A, major in Sociology, minor in English in 1969. In those years, there were few social work programs in Canada, and qualifications for work with social service departments varied from a degree of almost any stripe, to related life experience. I started out in the Lethbridge regional office of the Department of Public Welfare, soon to be renamed the Department of Social Development, and later in my career, the Department of Social Services and Community Health. Inexperienced, twenty-one years old, I was given a diversified caseload that included all the financial assistance programs, as well as the full spectrum of child welfare. I had a rural area that extended from Taber to Grassy Lake, and under child welfare authority I apprehended children in cases of neglect, supervised foster homes, did “surrender” counselling and court documents with unmarried mothers who were relinquishing their children for adoption, and completed adoption home assessments, placement visits and final court work for adopting families. These were the times of secrecy and sealed documents. Adoption was no longer an informal shuffling of children from one family member to another, or shifting within communities to those who were willing to take in orphans and if all else failed to orphanages where children awaited being “chosen.” Government agencies were mandated to protect children. The mandate was long overdue. The wisdom behind the secrecy was that it would protect adopting parents from interference from “natural” parents, and it would protect children from the stigma of adoption. No one but the members of the adoption triangle ever need know that the child was not “born to” the adopting parents. Even Registration of Live Birth was altered to state that it was so. In my early adoption work, I was troubled by the assurances I was authorized to give all concerned that their secret would be safeguarded forever. I had a sense that life had no forevers, and each time I helped a sobbing young woman sign away her rights to a child —often without ever holding or looking into that baby’s eyes, because that was the advice of the time, that it would easier that way—and each time I urged her to put this loss behind her and get on with a new life, my words rang so false in my own ears that I’m surprised at how few lashed back in anger. I went back to university after three years of work, earned an MSW and then worked again for Social Services, as a casework supervisor. I left the government agency when our first child was born, but the births of all three of my children put that early adoption work into a sharp new perspective and I wondered over the years about the young women I’d met, about the babies I’d seen placed in foster care or adoptive homes. When I returned to social work some years later, it was to a private adoption agency and to a new wisdom. Adoption through private agencies was open, and mothers (now called birthmothers) didn’t relinquish or surrender; they chose a family, met with prospective parents, made arrangements about future contact in the child’s life. Many of the families applying to adopt were frightened of open adoption, many of the families of the young women who were choosing adoption for their child also questioned this new philosophy. For me, it made such perfect sense that I grieved for the long ago “birthmothers”, adopting families and adoptees in whose lives I’d had such a brief but significant role. When the Alberta government took the huge step of facilitating adoption reunion if both birthparent and adoptee were consenting, the agency I worked for was licensed to facilitate search and reunion and I became their agent in that work. With identifying information in hand, I tracked adoptees for searching birthparents, or birthparents for searching adoptees. The stories that unfolded were validation that the decades of well-meaning secrecy were a mistake. That work was the probably the most heart-wrenching and gratifying of my social work experience.
The stories in Somebody’s Child touch my heart more profoundly than I could have imagined. These are the voices of people who have lived the adoption experience. Each time I finished an essay and put down this compact volume—crayon drawing on the cover of a child walking away, each hand held by an unseen adult—it was with the sense of awe at the tears, the anger, the joy contained within. I am deeply grateful to the contributors of this anthology and to the editors and publishers for the courage and honesty, the guts it took to bring these personal stories to the world. Some of them are told with a quiet eloquence, simply the facts, others (Dale’s among them) are stunningly beautiful literary work. All of them reinforce what the back of the book tells us: “identity is universal to the human experience.” Like the pieces of the puzzle in the lives of adoptees seeking their identity, these essays fit together to form as complete an understanding as is ever possible. The ragged edges should teach us what we need to know.