Sunday, March 28, 1999

For some birth mothers, open adoption eases pain of loss

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT THOMAS — It's not difficult to guess which of these women know their children and which do not. The answer is written in their eyes.

        The women are standing in front of several hundred people at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Fort Thomas. The priest has asked them to face the congregation for a blessing.

        One young woman twists her hands and looks straight ahead at nothing. Behind her, another blinks back tears.

        Some of the women are in their teens, others middle-aged.

        All have given up children for adoption. On this Sunday, a crowd of Northern Kentuckians has gathered to thank them.

        “Father God ... give them strength and courage, the strength to love and let go ... ”

        Some of the women are smiling. They participated in open adoptions, and they know their children are safe. They might even spend holidays with them and their adoptive parents.

        The ones with closed adoptions look stricken. They are haunted by questions: Where is my baby now? Is he happy?

        “Look down with love upon these birth parents today ... and give them peace in their hearts.”

        After the service, four of the mothers circle me eagerly. They are older, and their pregnancies occurred when closed adoptions were the rule.

        What they testify to — and what this service makes clear — is the humanity of the modern approach.

        While some would-be parents work through attorneys or adoption services that do not encourage contact with birth mothers, many are choosing a different route. In Northern Kentucky, Catholic Social Services has long been a leader in the truly open adoption.

        This isn't just an exchange of photographs every few years. The agency trains birth and adoptive parents to form lasting relationships. Adoptive parents read five books to help them understand the birth parent's perspective.

        “I think it's wonderful that people finally got the idea that this is the way it has to be,” says Denise Fossett of Cincinnati.

        She gave up an infant years ago and now runs a support group for birth mothers. Once, she took a late-night call from a woman hiding in a closet — she hadn't wanted her family to hear her sobs.

        “The agencies told you, "Sign this paper, go on with your life; you'll forget,'” says Susan Archambault of Burlington.

        But it wasn't true.

        Thirty-four years ago, she relinquished a son in Michigan. When the federal building in Oklahoma was bombed, she worried her child might have done it. The suspect, they said, was from Michigan.

        As the women shared their stories last Sunday, the social hall at St. Catherine's filled with children and beaming parents.

        Among them were Karen and Joe Elfers of Fort Wright and their two adopted daughters, Jenna and Jessica. The Elfers went through open adoptions, and now they are blessed with babysitters galore — not only from their families, but also from the birth families.

        Mrs. Elfers tells a story about Jessica. In kindergarten one day, a classmate declared that “birth mothers were women who sold their babies.” Jessica was very hurt.

        Mrs. Elfers called Jessica's birth mother, Angie Carpinello, who came up with a plan. She invited Jessica over for a slumber party, and the two made heart-shaped cookies together.

        Later, Jessica stood up and told her classmates all about it.

        Not every open adoption is this open. The nature of the relationships depends on those involved, Mrs. Elfers says.

        Catholic Social Services has done about 135 such adoptions in 12 years.

        “I know when we started doing this, at first everybody was like, "Are you crazy? Why don't you leave it alone?'” says Monica Kuhlman, the agency's director of adoption services.

        But she and her co-workers had worked with people affected by closed adoptions, and they knew the cost.

        “If there was a traffic accident in the area and a child died, we would get calls: "Is that the child I gave up for adoption?'” Ms. Kuhlman says.

        I'm thinking back to last Sunday's prayer service — to the moment when the birth mothers faced the congregation.

        As the priest's blessing filled the room, a child came trotting down the aisle. She was very little and wasn't sure what was going on. But she recognized one of the women, and she just had to say hi.

        The child stood before the altar, giggling.

        Her birth mother smiled.

Support groups
        For information on open adoption or the Friends of Adoption support group for adoptive families, call Catholic Social Services at 581-8974 and ask for Monica, Terry or Kathy.

        The Birth Mothers Sharing support group, for birth mothers who have experienced closed adoptions, meets the first Thursday of every month, from 7 to 9 p.m., at St. Luke Hospital in Fort Thomas. Call 271-5926.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at