Here’s Why We Use the Term “Birth Parent”

Here's Why

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Are you a birth parent, a first parent, or a natural parent?

Most adoption professionals refer to biological parents as “birth parents,” but not everyone agrees that it’s the best term to use.

“Positive Adoption Language”

The term “birth mother” comes from the Positive Adoption Language (PAL) framework developed in 1979. Previously, biological mothers had been referred to as “natural mothers” or “real mothers” which many felt was disrespectful since it implied that adoptive parents were “unnatural” or not “real” parents. PAL also encouraged the use of terms like “place for adoption” rather than “give up for adoption.” The idea was to use language reflecting respect for the feelings and decisions of all parties throughout the adoption process.

“Honest Adoption Language”

Almost fifteen years later, a researcher developed the Honest Adoption Language (HAL) framework, which is generally used by people who believe that adoption is rarely healthy for biological parents or adoptees. They prefer the term “natural” parent because they see adoption as indeed being “unnatural,” and they also use terms like “surrender for adoption,” “lost to adoption,” and “separated by adoption” because they believe that adoption is never a biological parent’s choice, but rather something that they have been coerced to do.

Many of the people who use the HAL framework are those who experienced adoption during the Baby Scoop Era of the 1940s to 1970s, so it makes sense for them to use language that reflects their losses; that was a time during which many women were indeed forced to be separated from their biological children against their will. There are also many unethical adoption organizations today that pressure people to choose adoption for their babies, and HAL works well for people who feel victimized by these adoption professionals.

Which is Correct?

Both HAL and PAL users sometimes use the term “first mother,” but it’s not quite as popular as the other terms, and some adoptive mothers do not like the idea of being “second mothers.” Here at Adoptions Together, we prefer the PAL framework and the term “birth parent” over the others because we believe that adoption, while difficult, can be a healthy choice for biological parents who feel it is right for them. We are very careful to educate our clients about all of their options and to support them even if they do not choose adoption, so we feel confident using language that reflects adoption as having been their choice. We also think that a parent who adopts is just as “natural” and “real” as a parent whose children are biologically related to them.

But more importantly, what do you think about this terminology? Do you consider yourself a birth parent, a first parent, or a natural parent to the child you placed? Tell us in the comments section.

Guest Post: “It Just Seems Fair”

It Just Seems

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A couple of weeks ago we shared birth mom Ellen’s words about birth parents on TV, and today we are re-posting her thoughts about adoptees having access to their original birth certificates, which we wrote about on Tuesday. She also discusses her feelings about the difficult questions that adoptees may ask their birth and adoptive parents as they get older.

As a birthmother, adoptees knowing their given names (at birth) seems to me to be a civil rights issue. Everyone else in the U.S.A. knows their names – why not them? My son happens to know his birth name and it just seems fair that he does.

You also talked about the difficult questions adoptive parents may face when their children get a little older. My feeling is – just tell the truth. Some information can’t be shared, but the basic information, like hair color, health information, size of birth families may mean a whole lot to a person. It may bring up more questions, but that’s part of the job.

I know I have a lot of opinions, but I’ve had many years to think about these things. Being a birthmother means waking up every day without your child. That leaves time to think and feel. Thanks for taking the time to have this blog. Keep writing! So will I.

Positive Adoption Language

Alisha Wolf, LGSW, MPH
Education and Training Director
Adoptions Together & FamilyWorks Together

   I was leading an adoptive parent training recently, and we began discussing Positive Adoption Language (PAL).  Many parents in the training knew about it and stressed the importance of its use. One dad raised his hand and said, “I think lots of adoptive families know about positive adoption language, but I wish more people outside of the adoption world knew how to use it.”

We couldn’t agree more. The words that we use say a lot about the way we think and what we value.  Many words that have traditionally been used to describe adoption carry negative connotations.  For example, describing the person who gave birth to an adopted child as the “natural parent” signifies that there is something unnatural about an adoptive parent and an adoptive family.  See the chart below identifying negative terms and their preferred terms.

Negative Terms

Preferred Terms

Gave up her child for adoption

Placed her child for adoption

Real parent; natural parent

Birth parent, biological parent

Adoptive parent


His adopted child

His child


Born to unmarried parents

To keep

To parent

Adoptable child; available child

Waiting child

Foreign adoption

International adoption

Track down parents


Unwanted child

Child placed for adoption

“How can we teach Positive Adoption Language to the people we interact with?”

Many adoptive families wonder how they can share PAL with the people around them.  While there are many different ways to do this, I’ve found modeling to be quite effective.  Most people outside of the adoption world are simply unfamiliar with adoption and adoption language.  I’ve seen many people tentatively try to ask about a child’s birth mother, but simply don’t know how to refer to her.  I like to meet the person in that moment, saying, “It’s hard to know the right words for all of this, huh?  We call the woman who gave birth to an adopted child his birth mother.”  Showing an openness to talk about PAL can invite more questions and initiate a larger discussion about the way we talk about adoptive families. Like so many adoption-related matters, each family has to find the method of sharing PAL that’s right for them.

How do you share positive adoption language with the people in your life?

More …

Attachment, Technology and Helicopter Parenting

Erica Moltz, MA, NCC
Clinical Director
Adoptions Together & FamilyWorks Together

Ever-present gadgets we can’t seem to live without rule many of our lives so that when we are physically with our children, we are too busy to be genuinely with them.  Dr. Ron Taffel, a well-known family therapist who has worked with hundreds of families wrote a recent article in a popular journal.  He stated that a growing body of research suggests that this technology and the information overload it dumps on us undermine our ability and desire to interact with and focus on our children.

Many of us spend hours on our mobile devices that are always within arm’s reach, so that inevitably our attention is interrupted.  Between texting, tweeting, on-line chatting, Facebook, emailing and sharing Instragram photos, a lot of parents are distracted from really being with their children.  There was a recent study published by Jenny Radesky in the journal Pediatrics demonstrating that parents who were observed with their children in fast-food restaurants were spending more of the meal absorbed in their smartphones, ignoring their children who were making repeated and escalating bids for attention.

What will it mean, therefore, that a generation of kids has grown up or will grow up getting this kind of agitated, fragmented distracted attention from their parents? What will it mean when hyperaroused parents can’t stop shifting their focus?  If attachment is based on focused interest, attention and attunement, how can chronic distraction translate into children experiencing secure attachment?

You may be wondering, “What happened to the era of “helicopter” parents who are too involved in their children’s lives?” This parenting style is still alive and well with those over anxious parents who encourage their child to participate in a bullet-train of activities that constantly re-directs the child to the next task that needs to be accomplished.  Just as with distracted, technology-infused parenting, “helicopter” parenting doesn’t equate with connection.  When kids are always on to the next activity, on a virtual conveyor belt, this kind of focused attention has the same effect as distracted parenting in that it does not provide anchoring and soothing, reliable attachment.

Research shows that that restful downtime is necessary for kids’ brains to synthesize new information and to internalize secure attachment so that they can develop a sturdy sense of self. This means that along with setting reasonable limits, it is important for parents to strongly focus on creating points of connection and to become partners with their children in fun and relaxing activities during times when the parent is focusing attention on the child.

An effective strategy to help parents create points of connection that encourage attachment is for them to use the PACE model below that was developed by Dr. Dan Hughes, a nationally known attachment expert.

P = Parenting with playfulness so that our children know we delight in them.

A= Parenting with affection and attention.

C=Parenting with curiosity about our child and what is behind their behavior.

E=Parenting with empathy so that our child “feels felt”.

More …

Totes of Hope

The AdoptionWorks team is well aware of the unfortunate reality that children in the foster care system are frequently moved to different foster homes and group homes during their time in foster care.  Often times these moves have nothing to do with them, and they find themselves being abruptly uprooted from living situations, foster parents, foster siblings and schools that they were just beginning to get accustomed to.  When they are moved, it is often with no notice, and with their belongings quickly packed in trash bags.  One can only imagine the shock, fear and confusion that a child must experience when they are moved in this way, only to be made worse by the complete lack of dignity of having their few possessions shoved into trash bags.  

Kerry Pachino decided to do something to make sure that as many foster children as possible can at least have the opportunity to pack up their possessions in suitcases, backpacks and tote bags instead of trash bags.  She has recently created a donation program which is called Totes of Hope, where people can donate new or gently used backpacks, suitcases and totes to children in foster care so that each child has a proper travel bag in which to store and transport their personal belongings.  Kerry will ether pick up any donations herself, and she will also have scheduled drop-off locations throughout the year where she will arrange for pick-ups of people’s donated travel bags.

We are very proud of Kerry for seeing this need first hand, and creating this opportunity for people to donate suitcases, backpacks and totes for such a worthy cause.  Kerry has already put a lot of time into this, and she has collected 150 bags in less than two months since she began this project.  She has hopes of this growing quickly through social media, and believes that Totes of Hope will be able to provide travel bags for many youth in foster care. 

If you have a travel bag(s) that you wish to donate, you can contact Kerry at

More …

Category: Foster Care

A Memoir by Jenna: The Story of a Korean American Adoptee

A Memoir by Jenna: The Story of a Korean American Adoptee
By: Jenna Simpson


While it was never a secret that I was adopted, it was easier for me to believe that my life began not in the distant city of Pusan, South Korea, but instead in an airport terminal.  Sure, I sometimes envied my friends who could rattle off the particulars about their mother’s pregnancy.  Or recount the dramatic events that transpired before their delivery.  I liked my story, though, because it was unique and mysterious.  It featured me as a 6-month old flying over the Pacific Ocean to be embraced by a couple in JFK who longed to start a family.  Through the power of adoption, I gained the most devoted parents who have loved me unconditionally since that day.


Taken minutes after I met my parents, Jeanne and Mark, on December 4th, 1987 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was love at first sight!


The day before my college graduation in May of 2009.

Recently, though, I realized that I never allowed myself to grieve for what I lost as an adoptee.  At 25, I recognized that I never fully explored the feelings of rejection and confusion that often accompany adoption.  Only now have I started to feel sad that I may never have the answers to certain questions:  What does my birth mother look like?  Did she hold me in the hospital before handing me over?  Is she passionate, fiery, and emotional like me?  Or is she quiet, reserved, and tranquil?  Does she think about me often or did she repress all memories of her pregnancy and adoption plan?

          I developed the ability to keep thoughts like these in check.  I felt that because of the limited information my adoptive parents were given about my birth history, I had no choice but to fight off these feelings.  Like most overseas adoption stories in the 1980s, it was shrouded in secrecy and stigma.  It would have been too painful to wonder about the first 6 months of my life, knowing I might never have an answer.  At an early age, I learned to respond to difficult questions with a smile.  Kids on the playground would ask me: Where is your “real” mom?  Why did she abandon you?  Don’t you want to find her?  Are you sad that she didn’t want you?  My adoptive parents thankfully provided me with the tools to handle situations like these.  I would explain to my inquisitive peers that not all families look alike and that my birth mother’s decision came from a place of love.  Even adults asked questions, triggering my Rolodex of canned responses.  Don’t you wish you had a picture of your birth mother?  Yes, absolutely, I would say.  If I were you, I would want to know every detail about my birth history.  Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. Afterwards, I would either brush it off or feel guilty that I didn’t respond the “correct” way.

          At the time, I felt like I was doing a good thing by not dwelling on my past.  I didn’t want to overwhelm my adoptive parents.  They were always open about my adoption, but it was not worth dredging up questions that might cause them to feel powerless.  I also didn’t want to feel angry toward my birth mother so I instead compartmentalized most of my emotions, preserving them in an airtight box to be left on a shelf.  Despite my adoptive parents’ attempts to integrate elements of Korean culture into my life, I wasn’t interested in exploring that obscure part of my past.  Like every child, I wanted normalcy and a sense of belonging.  I did not want my adoption to define who I was so I reduced it to an insignificant thing of the past.  


Me on my first birthday in my parents’ backyard in Rochester, New York. In Korea, it is a tradition to place a child in front of a table full of objects, such as books, musical items, and money. The child is encouraged by spectators to pick one of the objects. It is believed that the first object selected will foretell their future. If the child picks money, he or she will become wealthy. If they pick up a musical instrument, he or she will be talented in the arts. I choose the book. As fate would have it, I found myself 18 years later in the middle of nowhere Ohio at a small liberal arts college where I read the works of great writers and poets


Taken after my youngest brother Trevor’s college graduation from SUNY Fredonia in 2013. To the right of me is my fiancé John (28), my brother Trevor (23), and brother, Ryan (25).


In 2011, I stumbled upon a Craigslist ad and everything changed.  The ad listed an opening for a paralegal position at an adoption agency.  The timing was perfect.  I was close to finishing two years at a grueling law firm in D.C. and was desperately looking for an escape.  I had no experience in child welfare but I felt certain that I could add value to the organization as an adoptee.  During the interview, my prospective supervisor asked me if I thought the emotional aspects of adoption would impact me as an adoptee.  I answered honestly: No.  Little did I know my assertion would be far from the truth.

          During my first year at the agency, I witnessed a coworker help countless adoptees navigate the intimidating search for their birth parents.  A memorable case involved a 15-year-old adoptee that hoped to reunite with his birth mother despite his deep-seated fears and anxieties.  Understandably, he was scared that his birth mother wouldn’t want anything to do with him.  He worried that his search could disrupt her current life.  When I heard about his case, I admired his bravery.  I have the same exact fears.  He moved forward with his search after weeks of preparation.  To his surprise, he was able to reconnect with his birth mother and learned that she celebrated his birthday each year with a cake.  His story, as well as dozens of other successful “search and reunion” stories, ignited a desire within me to search for my birth mother.


Me and my team at Adoptions Together, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland. The girl to the right of me in the white sweater is Beth Stahl. She is the social worker who facilitates search and reunion cases for the agency.

In the summer of 2012, I reached out to Spence-Chapin Adoption Services, the agency in New York that facilitated my placement in 1987.  Within a few days, I was having conversations on the phone with the Korea Program Coordinator, Ben, about beginning my search.  The process was simple and straightforward, he explained.  It involved submitting a couple of basic forms.  Even so, I dragged my feet when filling out the paperwork.  At first, I chalked it up to being busy but I knew deep down it was my fear of the unknown.  What if my birth mother doesn’t want to know me?  What if, when I meet her, she doesn’t like me?  What if I don’t like her? I remember thinking this search could turn my life upside down and I wasn’t sure whether I was emotionally prepared for that.  I could reunite with my birth mother and find out she is happily married with children – and that might hurt me.  Or, I could meet her and secretly dislike her and then feel guilty about it afterwards.  What if I found out she was assaulted by my birth father?  Would that impact my self-perception?  Would I feel obligated to keep in touch with her forever?  It was the first time I had ever let myself ask these kinds of questions. 

          I sat in my office one night, overwhelmed by the endless possibilities.  So, I called my fiancé to vent.  His calming advice could do nothing to suppress my insecurities.  A deluge of emotions poured out of me that I had not allowed myself to feel for 25 years.  I had so many questions that needed to be untangled and examined under a microscope.  I realized, though, that my birth mother was 71 years old, and that I might not have much time.  After spending an hour crying at my desk contemplating “what if” questions, I filled out each form and submitted them to Ben.  That night, I cast my dreams into the vast universe, hoping that an affirmation would fall from the sky onto my lap.


My Grandpa and I in Rochester, New York on the day I officially became an American citizen.

A few weeks later, I received a call from Spence-Chapin.  It was Ben.  He greeted me in his normal, soothing voice.  I sensed an uncomfortable pause, though, after we exchanged hellos.  Before he could tell me the news, I realized she was no longer alive.  He informed me that she had passed away in 2006.  The wheels began to turn in my head while we spoke over the phone.  She must have passed away while I was a freshman in college.  She was only 65 years old.  Had I known something was wrong, perhaps, I would have tried to reach out to her sooner.  “Was she sick?” “Was it an accident?”   His response crushed me. “I’m sorry but I can’t give you any more details.”  It was because of the stringent adoption laws in Korea.  She was my birth mother, though.  I felt entitled to this information and wondered if it was all sitting in a file on his desk.  For a minute, I even wondered if I could bribe him for answers. Was it cancer? Or was it unexpected? Were her other children there to comfort her?  Shouldn’t I have access to my medical history? In that moment, I felt like my search came to a screeching halt. 

          I mourned a loss that was different from other losses I had experienced.  I lost the chance to know my birth history.  I lost the opportunity to meet my birth mother and show her the person I had become.  I would never know her name or be able to hear the sound of her voice.  In the months leading up to my search, I started to picture myself riding in a van with my adoptive parents to my birth mother’s home in Pusan.  We would be ushered through a door by one of my birth siblings and greeted by an older Korean woman with a round, cherubic face.  She would have tears running down her wrinkled face and say something profound like: “Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you.”   And despite any language or cultural barriers, we would understand each other.  For the first time, I would recognize my face in someone else’s.  My almond-shaped eyes and chubby cheeks would mirror hers. 

          It was hard to fathom this dreamlike sequence I had envisioned would never play out in real life.  At the same time, I felt a huge sense of relief.  While I consider myself to be a fairly strong person, I cannot say for sure that I would have been emotionally ready to handle any curveballs.  What if I reached out to my birth mother and learned that she was not ready to have a relationship with me?  Would it ruin her marriage or her relationships with her children, if I suddenly resurfaced in her life? 

          As time moved on, questions like these began to fade away.  Nevertheless, my desire to visit Korea only grew stronger.  I reached out to Ben once more to learn about opportunities at Spence-Chapin for adult adoptees.  He encouraged me to apply to their annual month-long program for adoptees that wish to return to their birth country.  I would spend a week on my own in Seoul and then travel to Naju (a city in the Southwestern part of Korea) where I would stay at a “Baby Reception Center” to help care for infants that were placed for adoption.  I applied as soon as I got home that night.  Perhaps, this is what the universe had in store for me, I thought to myself as I mailed off my application.  I waited patiently for the cosmos to answer my prayers.

Taken from the plane shortly after departing from Baltimore on May 29, 2013.


          A few months after submitting my application, I found myself on a plane full of Koreans heading towards Seoul.  I remember naively thinking to myself:  Where did all of these people come from?  It was the first time I was part of what people call “the visual majority” as an adult.  I chuckled at the ridiculousness of it all.  I am surrounded by Korean people on a runway strip in Baltimore.  While we waited for our plane to depart, I furtively watched a team of stylish flight attendants stow people’s luggage away with more elegance and grace than a ballerina.  These women are flawless, I thought to myself.  My clumsy American gait and wavy hair is going to make me stick out like a sore thumb once I get there. 

          In a way, my predictions were right.  While store clerks and cab drivers appeared puzzled by my inability to speak Korean, numerous people would ask me if I was Japanese or Chinese.  Even after straightening my wavy hair and buying dark-rimmed glasses to match the voguish women of Seoul, I often felt out of place.  For the first time in my life, I was straddling two worlds.  On one hand, I was surrounded by people who physically resembled me.  To the eye of an unseasoned tourist, I blended in.  To insiders, though, I felt self-conscious about my tan skin and wavy hair.  I constantly worried that any minute someone was going to pick me out of the crowd and “out” me to everyone.  They would point their SPF-moisturized finger in my face and scream in Korean: “IMPOSTER!”  And, sure enough, I would stand there, mortified and confused, as the crowds dispersed around me.  My paranoia dissipated as time went on.  The people I met on my trip were welcoming, which made it easier for me to embrace myself in Korea.

I tried to experience everything with an open mind and open heart. 


Taken during a bus tour in Seoul. It is of a woman meditating in Jogyesa (Temple). If you look at the windowpane, you will see colorful lotus lanterns in the reflection. These lanterns are displayed each year around May to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.

I tried to not be so hard on myself.  Each time I felt out of place or alone, I reminded myself of my journey and all of the people in my life that were supporting me. 


I got my hair cut and styled by a woman who was apparently not a fan of my normal curly hair. Check out the signature peace sign, by the way! ; )

I ate to my heart’s content.

I soaked in all the views.

I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way.


My fellow adoptee traveler, Nicky, and I wearing traditional Korean dresses before attending a tea ceremony.


Friends serenading me on my 26th birthday in a karaoke bar in Geoje.  

During my time in Korea, I was able to let go of the insecurities that were weighing me down.  I forgave myself for missing out on the chance to meet my birth mother.  It was a hard pill to swallow, but I eventually realized that I was not ready to open that door growing up.  And that is okay.  I revisited my history on my own terms and at my own pace.

          I also made a concerted effort towards the end of my trip to care less about my appearance.  Growing up with Asian features in a predominantly white suburb definitely conditioned me to be self-conscious about my appearance.  And after years of developing a greater sense of confidence in the United States, I was shocked at how uncomfortable and out of place I felt in my birth country.  Throngs of slender women with pearlescent complexions would glide by and I would start to critique my body and the way I talked, walked, and dressed.  I reminded myself, though, that I look different because, well – because I am different!  I have Korean features that I inherited from my birth parents and I have facial expressions and mannerisms that emulate my American parents.  Rather than viewing myself as someone who aimlessly drifts between two worlds, I started to see myself as a unique and evolving combination of both.       

          Finally, instead of fixating on the things I lost as an adoptee, I reminded myself of what I gained from my journey.  I gained a deeper connection to my adoptive family who has been my rock since day one.  I grew closer to my fiancé, John, who, for the past 8 years, has held my hand through life’s exhilarating highs and turbulent lows.  I became more confident in sharing my story to close friends and coworkers.  I am more committed to my work as an adoption professional.   Most importantly, however, I have gained a deeper appreciation for myself.  Since my return to the United States, I have a renewed sense of self and am proud to call myself a Korean American adoptee.   



          When I learned the news of my birth mother’s passing, I felt as if I hit a dead end.  All of my pleas for answers were in vain, I told myself.  Eventually, though, I began to look at things in a different light and could see beyond the impasse.  Sure, I will probably never know my birth mother’s name or understand the full story behind her adoption plan.  But those hiccups did not hold me back from traveling to Korea where I learned some valuable lessons along the way. 

          The most important thing I learned was the value of self-acceptance.  Once I began to recognize and embrace certain parts of myself that I had kept on the shelf – my Korean heritage, my adoption story, all of the things that set me apart from my peers – I was able to fully appreciate myself as a whole.  I no longer felt the need to fill in any blanks or cover up any holes.  I might never have all the answers, but that’s life.  Like every other person on this earth, I am a mosaic – made up of different parts that give me character.

          My adoptive mother who is an artist often champions the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi.”  It is a term that centers on the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection.  In his book Wabi Sabi Simple, Richard Powell describes it as something that “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  It’s often difficult to integrate this concept into my life.  I shudder at anything asymmetrical or lopsided.  I like clean lines and balance.  When I was younger, I would rip pages out of my coloring book anytime my crayon strayed over the line.   Nevertheless, as I’ve gotten older, I see why my mother is a strong advocate of this aesthetic.  She understands the inevitable nature of imperfection.  A plate with a chip is no less of a plate because of its chip.  There is a story behind that imperfection, which makes it beautiful.  


Even though my adoptive mom is white (half Irish, half Polish), people often tell us that we look alike because of our similar facial expressions, body language, and voices. It’s uncanny!

My mother also reminds me often that we cannot control the things that are beyond our control.  While this overused maxim inspires a lot of eye rolling from me, I know that it holds a lot of truth.  When I landed in Korea, I knew that I had control over my outlook.  I could maintain a tight grip on my boundaries to eschew vulnerability.  Or, I could let my guard down and embrace all of the parts that make me who I am.  I am grateful to have chosen the latter during my trip.  By embracing all of the pieces that make me Jenna, I was able to see beyond my losses and realize the invaluable things that I had gained along the way. 


           Near the end of my trip, my chaperone Ms. Kang casually asked me during dinner if I wanted to visit my birth city.  This question made me feel tense and anxious.  My natural reaction was to formulate a list of reasons as to why it was a bad idea to go.  It could dredge up difficult feelings.  Was it worth driving through a big city without any specific destinations?  In my adoption papers, the typewriter ink bleakly reads “A Hospital in Pusan” next to the space where it asks for my birthplace.  There are a dozen hospitals in Pusan and who knows if the hospital I was born in still exists.  Perhaps, I can come back with John or my adoptive parents when I feel more settled.  I laid my chopsticks on the table and turned my focus back to Ms. Kang who was waiting for a response.  Before I could change my mind, I agreed to go.  What if I had let my fears influence all of my life decisions?  I would have never applied for my job at the adoption agency.  I would not have searched for my birth mother or returned to Korea as an adult.  I refused to let my fears stop me from visiting a critical part of my past.          

          The next day, Ms. Kang drove me up and down the streets of Pusan.  “Take pictures of your birth city, Jenna,” she instructed.  Your birth city, I thought.  I dutifully obeyed by snapping photos of buildings and random passersby on the streets.  A vibrant fruit truck parked in front of a pharmacy.  A congested stream of traffic inching along a steep road.  Tall office buildings with signs emblazoned across their fronts, advertising age-defying cosmetics and Samsung gadgets.  My hour-long photography session was interrupted by a shocking update from Ms. Kang.  She explained to me that she had reviewed my adoption records earlier that day and found the hospital where I was born.  “Do you want to see it?” she asked over the hum of traffic.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  Just when I had started to let go of my lost puzzle pieces, I was offered the chance to revisit a landmark from my past.  With tears streaming down my face, I responded: Yes, of course. 

          We drove up to the hospital.  It was small and pristine and sat on the corner of a busy intersection.  When  Ms. Kang and I stepped out of the van, an elderly nun emerged from the shade of a nearby tree and walked towards us.  The nun and Ms. Kang conversed for a few minutes before guiding me into the hospital gift shop.  The nun pulled a book down from a shelf and flipped to a photo of the hospital in the 1980s.  “It was founded in 1964 by a priest who wanted to serve the poor,” Ms. Kang told me after the nun spoke.  I gazed at the photo, contemplating what would happen if I walked off the premises with it.  Ms. Kang soon gestured me towards the hospital entrance.  In single file, the three of us marched through the lobby to ascend a flight of stairs.  The nun explained to Ms. Kang (who then translated for me) that the second floor was where women used to deliver infants in the 1980s. 



As I peered down the hallway, I wondered which room I had occupied as an infant.  It was the most surreal feeling to walk through a place that I had been 26 years ago.  I felt like I was in a movie scene that I wanted to preserve in time forever.  I remember wishing that I could just shout directives at someone through a TV screen: “Hey, you!  Yeah, you, over there, sitting on the couch. Could you rewind this scene for a few seconds and then press pause?”  I needed more time to absorb everything around me.  Alas, I was not able to travel back in time or press pause.  I obediently followed the nun and Ms. Kang down the flight of stairs to tour other parts of the hospital.  But the memory of that moment remains so vivid in my mind that I am able to replay it often.    

          So, do you remember when I told you that my life began in an airport terminal?  Yeah, so maybe that wasn’t really what happened.  I was actually born in a hospital located in Pusan, South Korea.  It is the place where my story officially began.  It is the place where I spent my first minutes on earth.  It is the place where I shared moments with my birth mother before we parted ways.  And it is a place that I can revisit in my dreams or in real life for the rest of my life.  To most people, a walk through a hospital sounds like the antithesis of romance.  But for me, it was a sacred moment that allowed me to understand my past. 

  Me in front the hospital where I was born in Pusan, South Korea.


          When I returned to the United States last year, I was determined to write about my experience in Korea.  Sitting down to write out my thoughts, however, proved to be a far greater challenge than I had anticipated.  I could not believe that after all of my intense soul-searching, the hardest part would be in the quiet moments after my trip when I tried to make sense of everything.  So I slammed my computer shut and walked away from writing for a while.  I became immersed in my job at the agency, focusing my attention on deadlines and projects.  I distracted myself with graduate school papers and reading assignments.  I also started planning my wedding with John after we officially became engaged in May.

         My yearlong retreat from writing came to an end a few weeks ago.  My coworkers during lunch reminded me of the post I had secretly been avoiding.  Oh, THAT thing?  I thought, staring down at my half-wilted Caesar salad.  I must have completely forgotten about it!  Deep down, I knew it was time to revisit my story.  I was done with graduate school and felt ready to take on the world as a new social worker.  Later that night, I booted up my computer and began to feverishly type.  I reminded myself of the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi.”  I embraced the imperfections rather than gloss over them.  I admitted my frustrations as an adoptee.  I was more honest with myself. 

          My trip to Korea was not the answer to all my questions.  In truth, it actually dredged up more questions.  Nevertheless, I understand that my story, like everyone else’s, is comprised of unfinished pieces.  I may never know my complete birth history.  Or have the chance to meet my birth siblings.  But I can appreciate the fact that my story is an evolving work in process.

          I will return to Korea someday.  Next time, I hope it is with John and my family so I can show them the art galleries and markets that are tucked away in various corners of Seoul.   We can traverse the country by van and take ferries to different islands just like I did with Ms. Kang.  And years down the road, I will take John and our future children to the hospital where I was born so I can tell them my story.  The story of how I came to know my past.  

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The Invisible Disability

Janice Goldwater, LCSW-C
Founder and Executive Director
Adoptions Together

For years, many professionals and parents believed that without facial features or a lower IQ, the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure was not severe.  Some thought that bright-eyed kids who exhibited highly impulsive and very challenging behaviors just needed more intensive and creative interventions from their stable loving parents.  Yet their parents were pulling their hair out with frustration!   We thought there was little that could not be understood within the parameters of early adversity, attachment, trauma and temperament.  We asked ourselves why some children responded so well to treatment, to the stability and attunement their parents provided, while others’ behavior and ability to function just seemed to get worse with each passing year.

Why were some children so able to function well one moment and be so out-of-control the next?  How can they struggle so much with cause and effect thinking and make the same poor choices over and over again?  Clearly, something was missing in how parents and professionals understood what was happening.  Could children with no facial features of alcohol exposure, no maternal reporting and a normal IQ have brains that were altered by alcohol use?

The answer is YES.  It is now widely recognized that depending on the gestational age at which alcohol is consumed, different parts of the brain/body are impacted.  In fact, for facial features to be altered by alcohol, consumption must have occurred between the 5th and 7th week of pregnancy.  Today we know that the majority of people who are impacted by prenatal alcohol consumption have no external manifestations and many of the difficulties do not surface until school age and beyond.  The list below includes some of the challenges that may occur when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy.

  • Learning difficulties
  • Problems with language
  • Lack of appropriate social boundaries (such as over friendliness with strangers)
  • Poor short term memory
  • Inability to grasp instructions – problems with math
  • Failure to learn from the consequences of their actions
  • Egocentricity – Concrete thinking
  • Mixing reality and fiction (truth telling)
  • Difficulty with group social interaction
  • Poor problem solving and planning
  • Hyperactivity and poor attention
  • Poor coordination.

Despite our new knowledge, prenatal alcohol exposure continues to be overlooked when children experience problems at home and in school.  When unrecognized, this Invisible Disability can become even more complicated as secondary mental health problems may emerge when affected children and youth try to manage expectations that they may not be able to achieve.

The good news is that when the impact of prenatal alcohol consumption is recognized, specific interventions can and do work.  Simply helping parents, therapists and teachers understand what affected children and youth may struggle with allows all of those involved to relate in the most enriching manner possible.

With the advent of brain imaging and a much greater understanding of how the brain works, it is incumbent upon all of us to educate ourselves so we can best meet the needs of our growing youth, including those who may have been impacted by alcohol.  Information is power.  The more we know, the more precise we can be in responding to the needs of others.

To enrich your understanding of the impact of FASD and learn strategies for helping children who may be affected, please consider a conference for professionals, parents and educators on April 29th:  Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD); Attachment; Trauma; Implications for Managing Behavioral Challenges.  For more information, please visit
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Tags: Conferences,FASD,Attachment,Trauma,Behavioral Challenges,prenatal alcohol exposure
Category: Foster Care
Category: Adoption

What To Do if Your Child is Being Bullied

Erica Moltz, MA, NCC
Clinical Director
Adoptions Together

Bullying is a widespread problem in our schools and neighborhoods.  It can be very harmful to children and is often very difficult for parents to deal with.  Below are some definitions of exactly what bullying is and strategies for helping your child.

What is Bullying:  It is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.  Bullying is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time.  A child is being bullied when another youth is making threats to them, spreading rumors, attacking them physically or verbally and excluding them from a group.  Children who bully use their power, such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or their popularity to control or harm others.  Both children who are bullied and children who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

Types of BullyingVerbal bullying is when mean things are written or said about a child including teasing, name calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm.  Social /relational bullying occurs when a child’s reputation or relationships are hurt, when a child is left out on purpose, when other children are told not be friends with the child, when rumors are spread about a child or a child is embarrassed in public.  Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions, including hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking or breaking a child’s things, or making mean or rude hand gestures.  Cyberbullying  can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It can be posted anonymously and distributed to a wide audience and is extremely difficult to delete.  It involves using email, social network sites, cell phones, web cams, text messages, Internet sites to send mean messages, spread rumors, and post embarrassing pictures or vides and fake websites or profiles.

When and Where Bulling Occurs: It can happen during or after school.  Although most reported bullying occurs in the school building, a significant percentage happens in places like the playground or school bus.  It can also happen traveling to and from school, in the youth’s neighborhood or on the Internet or on texts when your child is at home. 

Signs that Your Child May Be Dealing with Being Bullied:  It may be going on if your child is reluctant to go to school or get on the computer; if your child’s mood changes after looking at his/her cell phone or going on the computer; if your child is frequently sick, with headaches and sleeping problems and often wants to stay home from school; if  your child is moody, anxious, depressed or withdrawn; if he/she keeps losing money or other valuable items or has a lot of damaged or missing belongings; if there are unexplained bruises or injuries; and if your child doesn’t seem to be eating lunch and comes home unusually hungry or lunch comes back home.

Why your child may not ask for help: Bullying can make a child feel helpless and he/she may want to handle it on his/her own to feel in control again, or the child may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale if they tell an adult.  The child may fear a backlash from whom ever is bullying them.  Bullying can be a humiliating experience and your child may be uncomfortable sharing what is being said about them, whether it is true or false, and may fear that they will be judged. A child who is being bullied may already feel socially isolated and may fear being rejected by their peers who give them support and can protect them from being bullied.  If a child has been exposed to trauma and distressed attachment then they may feel shame, making it even harder to ask for help from adults.

What You Can Do If Your Child is Being Bullied:

Listen with empathy and curiosity to what your child has to say. Be supportive without getting too emotional.  Help your child name the feelings he/she is experiencing.  For example, you can say “I am so sorry this is happening to you and I wonder if you are feeling scared and embarrassed. “

Refrain from blaming your child; it is not his/her fault. Define the bulling as “wrong”, that it has to stop and that you will help.

Be aware of your own Triggers that may be activated when you find out your child is being bullied.  For example, if you were bullied as a child you may have intense feelings and relive some of your anger and helplessness as a child. Remember that if you get too emotional it may make it harder for your child to come to you.

Use the mindful strategyStop, Drop, Roll –  to feel calmer and more emotionally  regulated.  Stop the interaction, Drop into a calm, centered place, and Roll Out with a new thoughtful strategy.

Coach your child on how to avoid bullies at school and whom to go to if he/she feels unsafe. Give you child some control by communicating that he/she may not be able to stop the bullying immediately but could get away from the bullying person and find someone to talk to. Role play short and simple responses and encourage your child to then leave the scene. Have slogans they can say like, “I have had enough or cut it out or it’s not funny”.  Let you child know that fighting back verbally or physically often will often only result in escalating things and fuel the child who is bullying. Encourage your child to find a buddy at school that they can be with for support.

Step in when things escalate to the point when you feel your child isn’t safe and the child cannot handle it on their own. Ask your child what would be the most helpful thing you could do to help.

Find a teacher or administrator in the school who will help. Encourage your child to use them as a safe haven when they need a break or time out to get away from the bully. 

Keep your child talking whether it is to you or to a safe adult at school. 

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Tags: bullying,triggers,mindful
Category: Adoption

Thoughts from a Retiring Adoption Professional

Susan Ogden, Domestic Infant Program Director

I am retiring from Adoptions Together after directing the Domestic Infant Program since 2000. It’s been a privilege to provide assistance to the many hundreds of birth parents and their children who have come to  Adoptions Together these last 14 years. I came to adoption work as an adoptive mother who brought home an infant in an open adoption 21 years ago.

Adoption has changed dramatically in the past 14 years. It’s become more open, less shameful, and more collaborative for birth and adoptive families. We’re gratified to see the positive long term effects on children in open relationships from the beginning of their adoptive placement. At the same time, children adopted several decades ago are now seeking contact through social networking. As an agency established in 1990, we can respond to older children and their birth parents and help them navigate the contact with its challenges and opportunities.

One of the most problematic changes in adoption is matching birth and adoptive families through the internet, with out of state for profit providers seeking expectant parents in Maryland, DC and Virginia for families in other states where laws may not be as protective as our three states. Many expectant parents are at risk of not being provided with all the information they need to keep their children in their family or make an adoption plan that meets their needs. Social workers at licensed adoption agencies and our adoption attorney colleagues will be dedicated to the best interest of children and ensure their biological parents get help while in crisis, whether they choose adoption or not. Not every parent in crisis is given adequate information and sometimes they are at risk of being exploited due to misinformation. The increase in reproductive technology, particularly surrogacy, has also brought ethical and practical issues to medical and adoption professionals.

We were proud to participate in a change in the Maryland law in 2013 (similar to the law in Virginia) which made short term living expenses for parents considering adoption legal in Maryland. Maryland expectant parents can receive financial assistance to address their critical needs, which among other things means they can have less stressful pregnancies and healthier children. They can also benefit from laws in our states that protect them with longer than average revocation periods and binding post adoption contact agreements.

At the core of Adoptions Together’s work is  dedication to client service: we are available 24 hours a day to talk to parents in crisis; we quickly respond to mothers needing counseling after delivery; we  take custody of children regardless of their medical needs; we support and assist parents in creating adoptive homes and we counsel women to ensure they understand their options and choose the best one for themselves and their child. Like any institution, adoption will continue to evolve. Our commitment is to make our practice ethical and respectful to the clients who need us during a challenging time in their lives.

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Pathways to Mindfulness (Even on Snow Days)

The snow days when kids are home from school are a mixed bag for many parents.  On the one hand, it’s always great to break up routines and not have to get children up and out to school on a strict schedule.  On the other hand, several days at home without a routine can be very stressful, especially when parents are using up their precious vacation days and/or may be trying to work from home while managing their bored kids.

We know that children absorb the stress of the adults in their lives so that stressed out parents can unintentionally create stressed out kids. At those times when we are at the “end of our rope”, the last thing we want is for our kids to get more dysregulated.  Mindfulness is a very effective self-care strategy to help us control our stressed out thoughts and responses.

Being mindful does not mean that you have to DO anything or believe in anything.  It means that you simply notice, in each moment, where you are, what is happening and how you are responding. What we learn by cultivating mindfulness is that the actual present moment is often less stressful than focusing on what happened in the past or may happen in the future.  Mindfulness is not about believing in anything, meditating for hours, or blocking out thoughts.  Practicing mindfulness simply involves noticing our thoughts and coming back to the present moment and what is actually happening.

In the book, Child’s Mind, Christopher Willard lists several very helpful images that help keep us from getting stuck on thoughts about the past or the future that cause us anxiety, worry and regret. 

  • Sitting by a stream and watching thoughts carried gently downstream on leaves or boats.
  • Watching a spring or fountain bubble up with our thoughts trickling away.
  • Noticing our thoughts being carried past on a conveyer belt or marked on signs carried by marchers in a parade.
  • Observing our thoughts as autumn leaves landing softly on an empty and accepting blanket.
  • Following the bouncing ball of thoughts or perceptions as in an old TV sing-along.
  • Being aware of our thoughts as clouds, forming and dissolving and reforming in the sky and then blowing away.
  • Sitting on a train looking out the window at what the scenery brings (rather than climbing out each time you see something interesting).
  • Erasing a chalkboard or white board of thoughts and wiping it clean.
  • Imagine shaking a snow globe that then slowly becomes totally still when you stop shaking it.

Willard also reminds us about all the opportunities in our daily lives to practice mindfulness:

  • When we are waiting at red lights or stop signs, or for our computer to boot up, or water to boil, or coffee to brew.
  • When we hear a phone ringing, or walk up or down the stairs.
  • Watching a subway pulling into the station.
  • Picking up an object like a toothbrush or a mug.
  • Turning on a faucet.
  • Noticing the space before checking text messages or email.

The trick is to let thoughts that rush in float past us without getting stuck on any particular thought, and recognizing that the nature of our busy minds means that we will have to remember, over and over again, to come back to the present, to our bodies, to the sounds in the room and to our breath.

Please contact Erica Moltz, Director of the Counseling Center if you are interested in counseling, phone coaching or simply talking more about mindfulness, 301 422 5101 or


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Tags: Mindful Parenting
Category: Foster Care
Category: Adoption