Deactivating Dysfunction

Many years ago, I was on the board of a fairly well known 501(c)(3) organization focused on educating the public on the realities of life as a first mother. My position involved assisting with member communications and website management. Our efforts, however noble they may have been, were continually dampened by personality conflicts.  This strong personality bucked heads with that strong personality. Meanwhile, not so strong personalities retreated to the corner and watched.  Tempers flared, feelings were hurt, and very little work was done.

Around the same time, a well known adoption activist outside our organization was publicly threatening to shoot one of the board members for disagreeing with said activist.  Out in adoption land two separate adoptee organizations were struggling with their own infighting.

Eventually, I resigned from the first mother organization.  While I fully supported their mission and wanted to help, I found them too focused on one upping and sandbagging each other.  I have that sort of drama in my own family. No need to volunteer for it.  After resigning and while pondering the various personalities, I realized that what each person wanted, no, demanded was to be seen and heard.  Every member was talented, educated, and committed yet we could not get out of our own way enough to do any real work. We lacked emotional intelligence.  Our overwhelming need, no surprise considering we had each been disposed of by our families in one way or another, was to be loved and cared for.

I reflected on this experience when Joyce made her ending comments to her keynote. In her case she was referring to the AAC Board. Admittedly, I do not know the details of what is going on with the AAC. I am merely a member who has heard bit of gossip or been invited to view scandalous and inappropriate (to me) Facebook pages.  I am in no position to comment or judge their drama but I do believe I am in a position to ask what can we do about it? This was the question I brought to Joyce following her keynote. Given her work with adoption traumatized individuals as well as her clinical experience and education, what would she recommend?  How can we solve this for AAC and other adoption reform organizations? I am generally more interested in solutions than I am in assigning blame or pointing fingers.

Joyce suggested (and I agree) that nearly every single person working in adoption reform comes to it from a place of pain, loss, and trauma.  This trauma gets in the way.  Okay.  What can we do?

Joyce had no clear advice. I questioned how organizations like Donaldson are able to perform. Are they not also populated with adoption impacted individuals?  Joyce noted Donaldson is staffed with paid professionals. They have a very different operating model for their organization versus a volunteer staffed organization.  Point taken.  Does a formal position and associated compensation make a person behave professionally?  I am going to guess the answer is “no”. Joyce and I were interrupted by a session starting and as a result we did not finish our conversation.  Others at the conference suggested that this is a phase AAC is going through and they have been there before and recovered from it.  They will again. I suppose that is reassuring but I still ask the bigger question.

Can we solve this for AAC as well as other organizations? If we do not, can we truly make progress if we are constantly bogged down by our shared trauma? It feels like two steps forward and three steps back every time an adoption reform organization attempts to make change.


18 Thoughts.

  1. I know the organization of which you speak. We spoke on the phone about my getting involved on the board. I innocently agreed, but hadn’t been a member for a year yet, so was not eligible. But I did produce their newsletter for a few years. Yes, there were conflicts and certain people I refused to interact with at some point, but kept on keeping on. Until the organization began to fail, go under. They had few members, not much support. I believe that AAC will live on, get over the recent weirdness, at least I hope so. Although I couldn’t attend the Denver conference an appear on your excellent panel, I’m not opposed to presenting again. As I did in Cleveland and San Francisco. I’ll be watching what they do to move forward and hope for the best. IMHO, we cannot let organizations, big or small, that educate the public about adoption issues and fight for adoptee and birthmother rights go down. We must do whatever we can to support them as long as they are on the right track.

  2. I have been a member of AAC on and off from the start, was at a meeting in DC in 1979 which was either the first or second AAC gathering, and was on the board for a few years in the 90s. I have attended many, but not all, of their conferences. Was at last year’s train wreck in Boston, did not attend this year and have let my membership lapse for now.. Like Joyce who has been involved in AAC as long as I, I have no real answers on how to fix it, but see the same things happening again and again no matter who is on the board. it almost seems like same script, different players, on and on through the years. Is it because it is all volunteers? Would a paid board do better? Is it because of trauma suffered in the past?

    Somehow AAC eats up and spits out its board and volunteers, no matter who they are or even what their triad position or philosophy is. Yes, AAC has survived in some sense and probably will continue to survive, and limp along, but I disagree that it has ever recovered, since the same drama and mistakes play out every few years. More like a chronic disease that does not kill but never goes away and cripples and disables. Maybe it is the corruption of a little bit of power bestowed on people who have been powerless, or maybe just ego coming before working as a team, or maybe it is the culture of secrets, lies, coverups and cronyism that mirror the adoption industry and continue to be the working model of the AAC Board? Maybe it is trying to be all things to all people instead of having a clear and more narrow goal and sticking to it?
    Perhaps the AAC has indeed outlived its usefulness like the group you used to belong to, and needs to gracefully die so something else with a whole different structure and attitude can take its place. Perhaps the AAC board is just cursed:-) I really have no answers to any of it, but have observed the same coups, board takeovers, firings and shunning of ex-members, and general dysfunction be repeated time and time again since its inception, and nothing really gets better. My reaction to the new regime of AAC , until proven otherwise, is best summed up by The Who; ” meet the new boss, same as the old boss….”

  3. I, too, was part of the organization that you speak of. I, too, left that organization for the discord. That was about conflicting personalities. This stuff with the AAC is about direction and about cronyism.
    Yes, it is terrible that the AAC is going through this distress. But when over 20 people have been tossed off the board, or left voluntarily because of the activities of the leadership, something had to be done. It is awful that it needed to be made public that dozens of members have left the organization. If a board does not pay attention to its members or refuses to involve the membership by refusing to hold elections, preferring instead to appoint their own cronies, then drastic measures had to be taken. Fortunately, the board is now listening and elections have been promised in the near future. A change in leadership was what was asked for and is now in place.

  4. I was also a long time member of AAC and although not involved in the leadership, was loyal for years and attended as many conferences as I could. And I may very well be one of the people who ‘invited’ you to view the Facebook page that you felt was inappropriate because I felt it important to share with my fellow activist friends; something that had been sent to me and asked to share by other former board members. I was certainly not trying to spread gossip or create problems, but when people I respect share something with me and ask me to share with others who might have concern and/or interest, I do so.
    With that said, after all my years of being involved in both of the groups you refer to, I’ve had it. It seems someone is always going to question one’s motives or imply we did something inappropriate and I really don’t have the time, interest or passion anymore, to deal with this stuff. I know for a fact, that my feelings are shared by many others who were long time activists.

    I do have several original mother friends who I am close with and we actually plan our own get-togethers and even retreats to share our experiences and support. I am going on a retreat in fact this weekend, with several other Arizona mothers who did attend last year’s AAC conference and do not feel they want to be involved any longer.

    I am only sharing this not to offer an opinion on the political aspects and distress of AAC or any other organization but to try to make the point that many thoughtful and formerly contributing members of these organizations are sick of it all… not only the political shenanigans of the organizations but the petty finger pointing and vilification of individuals who dare to speak up and share an opinion that is different from someone else’s.

    And thank you Kathy Aderhold for having kept me in the loop about what was going on with the AAC. I hope they can turn themselves around and that you especially are able to be treated with the respect and dignity you deserve.

    • ” but to try to make the point that many thoughtful and formerly contributing members of these organizations are sick of it all… not only the political shenanigans of the organizations but the petty finger pointing and vilification of individuals who dare to speak up and share an opinion that is different from someone else’s.”

      I see this as a critical to the discussion. In full disclosure I had been asked to volunteer to represent my state and after doing some research and talking with others, I opted out. I was turned off by my previous experience with the similar organization. I do not have time or mental energy to be involved in such nonsense. I volunteer my time for real work and progress not politics. Someone at the conference mentioned to me that AAC desperately needed/wanted new members with new views. That would certainly be refreshing but given what possible new members see and are told, I do not see anyone wanting to join. Where does it go? How does it change? Equally important, why should forces that control the adoption industry treat us with respect and dignity when we cannot do it to each other? So many questions. No answers.

  5. In my experience, organizations that do good work or have the intention to do good work are started by people who have great passion to correct the wrong that they perceive needs to be corrected. However, as an organization grows i believe the passion and zealotry need to be replaced by strong and somewhat less passionate but equally committed administrative hands. I say this because I once became the CEO of a charitable organization that had a very worthy mission but the staff were traumatized by the very passionate founder who saw any disagreement as disloyalty and betrayal.

    I have not been a member of the AAC but I find any kind of infighting off-putting. I don’t know if I would attribute the problem to people seeking love. I lay it at another one of adoption’s gifts. Having once felt powerless I think there is a strong desire – which may be conscious or unconscious – to never be rendered powerless again. I think the work that all of us in adoption have to do is try and recognize when we are being triggered and acting in non-productive ways and try and work it out or at the very least work around it.

    • ” Having once felt powerless I think there is a strong desire – which may be conscious or unconscious – to never be rendered powerless again. I think the work that all of us in adoption have to do is try and recognize when we are being triggered and acting in non-productive ways and try and work it out or at the very least work around it.”

      Agreed completely UM! Particularly on the issue of control.

  6. One more observation; nothing is going to change in AAC until the board shows respect for the membership by honestly letting them know what is going on, even when there are serious problems, rather than being obsessed with covering everything up so as not to look bad and upset the new people and rank and file members. Just admit the board is a dysfunctional mess, membership is dropping, many positions are vacant, and ask for help from the membership rather than treating them like children who should not be told the dog has died, but has been “sent to the farm.”

    • I am in agreement with you Maryanne and your sent to the farm comment made me chuckle. I am all for transparency. .”Look, we are struggling, we made a mistake, we fecked up, we need help…can you help?”.

  7. People cover things up because they have something to hide. AAC is not an organization that has the overhaul/reform of adoption at heart. They promote it.

    The registered agent of the corporate office of AAC is listed as:
    Company name: AAC
    File number: N00026019
    Filing state: Missouri
    Filing status: Good standing
    Filing date: June 3, 1981
    Company age: 34 years, 9 months
    Registered agent: Kris A. Probasco 1129 W. Kansas, Suite B, Liberty Mo. 64068

    The address and registered agent for both (AAC and Adoption and Fertility Resources) are the same, Kris A. Probasco 1129 W. Kansas, Suite B, Liberty Mo. 64068.

    There’s more information but it’s about all this mother can stand to have just written down this much. Tell me who exactly is AAC there for? What agenda is running it? When one of their statements under *The AAC is Committed To* section is –Changing public policies related to adoption practices in order to acknowledge adoption as an extension of family–. That gave me a cold chill the first time I read that section. It still does. Since when has adoption NOT been acknowledged as an extension of family? It sounds so much like agency speak it’s scary.

    When divergent interests are attempting to run the same organization it seldom works well. As many years as this organization has been in operation it causes me to wonder. How long did it take the group/s in Australia to ‘git ‘er done’? 20 years?, 30 years? 35? I really don’t know. But for all the talk there seems to have been little effective or momentous action from AAC.

    For that matter how come AAC has a ‘conflict of interest’ section, and listed under that they list some organizations they apparently see as “conflict of interest”, Origins, BN, and CUB of all things. No mention of adoption agencies or other. I find this very unsettling.

    I would like someone in authority in AAC to explain all this to a mother’s satisfaction. and no, that won’t be easy to do. My ‘mother of loss early warning alarm system’ went off with them several years back and I walked away, cancelling membership after less than a year. There are some really fine people involved with AAC but the agenda of the organization leaves me doubting any effectiveness they really have in regard to changing adoption practices or policy’s to something consistently ethical and in best interest of ALL parties, especially the child.

    I *feel* they are promoting adoption as a continuing practice and it gives me the creeps, as it is promoting child abandonment (as seen from the child’s possible point of view) no matter how ‘sanitary’ or ‘sanctioned’ the methods used. Maybe that is a big part of the divide, some want adoption as an option and others would like to see something entirely better.

    An organization as ‘large as’ and supposedly committed to the betterment of adoption practices, AAC should have the ability to at least make statements to the press to counter the propaganda put out in regard to open records. IF they had the will to do it.

    Nothing is going to change when something keeps gumming up the works. Who in adoptionland are treated as perpetual children? Or not worth information? Who hides things in regard to things adoption? Who has much to gain in keeping the status quo? Who has much to lose if things are changed? Improved? Made entirely ethical?

  8. I have a different perspective. I don’t think the problems with the AAC or other adoption reform organizations are at all related to adoption. I’ve been involved in grassroots activism my whole life in many different areas/issues, and have seen similar dysfunction in every single one of them, regardless of the issue. People are people.

    I will say that in my time on the Executive Committee of Bastard Nation, and now over the last few years coming back to the organization after a long break, we have ( at least during my periods of involvement) never experienced this kind of deep, long term, structural dysfunction and other issues. The AAC was a mess back when I first got involved with it, some 20 years ago. Like Maryanne says, this is entirely status quo when it comes to the AAC. BN leadership and regulars have all been longtime friends and we often remark to each other how we’re the only ones we like in AdoptionLand. And I think it’s because we are united by one, and only one, issue, and that’s equal rights for adoptees. We walk that walk and have from the beginning. We don’t get into the fweeings, we don’t try to create safe spaces, we don’t tolerate dissent with respect to our founding principles. Amanda touched on this in her AAC keynote, if someone in your organization doesn’t like what you’re doing, they can start their own. I think one reason we’re hated by the dysfunctional groups is because we don’t have the internal issues they constantly struggle with, constantly shifting purpose, the disgruntled membership.

    BN founders and leadership also mostly came from backgrounds of activism and politics. So we were and are not thin-skinned like so many in AdoptionLand. Karen Caffrey keeps running around saying BN and the AAC should adopt her “rules” that she uses for her organization, which are absolutely ridiculous and have absolutely nothing to do with successful activism. In fact as I and others have pointed out to her, we’ve been a part of successful activist movements that daily violate every one of her “rules”. They’re more suited to a daycare than activism. The AAC doesn’t know who or what they want to be. And that’s ever been so.

    BN is bound together by a deep and abiding loyalty to one thing – the adoptee rights community. And I mean actual adoptee rights, not groups like the AAC and their state affiliates and Legislative Chair who use the rhetoric even while they’re screwing adoptees over. They are not our community. We’re also adoptee led, which makes a huge difference. We aren’t having the colonizing and self-appointed, self-serving allies that dominates the AAC. Being an ally involves mutual consent, and we don’t consent to being co-opted. Most of us in BN do not feel that we have “shared trauma”, in fact it’s a group of some of the mentally healthiest and most together people I know. We resent laws and structures that attempt to rob us of our dignity and treat us as ‘less than’, and that shared outrage is valuable. I can’t imagine bonding over shared trauma, in fact I think the constant focus on it in AdoptionLand is one reason it’s so dysfunctional. People shouldn’t get into political activism or organizing as a means to work through and bond over shared trauma, IMO. Not to say there isn’t a place for that, but activism and reform isn’t it.

    Unlike the AAC, BN is a 501c4, so it doesn’t have the same requirements re elections that thr AAC does and we also moved away from paid memberships during periods when we didn’t feel like we had the organizational structure and ability to deliver value to paid members. Newly reformed and becoming larger and more successful, that will likely change soon. So to be fair, BN isn’t as handicapped as the AAC are being a c3. But Cindy makes a good point about Origins, BN, and CUB being listed by the AAC as conflicting with their interests. Doesn’t that pretty much say it all when the largest national adoptee rights organization is considered in conflict with the AAC’s mission and goals?

    Donaldson is not an example of an organization lacking in dysfunction, BTW. Two words. Pertman Era. Also itdoesn’t really do anything. And yes, they’re paid, and paid well, so their sole impetus is to continue to try to make themselves relevant in the area of grant writing and fundraising which means they don’t take any courageous stands, they aren’t fighting for legislation or reform. They focus on sloganeering and platitudes and town halls about nothing. The problem in AdoptionLand, whether the AAC or Donaldson, is NOT too much passion and zealotry. It’s lacking in both. Organizations like this are allergic to taking any kind of stand that isn’t malleable and subject to whims and palatable to the lowest common denominator. They’re conflict averse to a fault. They have no moral compass because they have no point of view.

    I agree with everything MaryAnne says and especially with her suggestion that the AAC should simply go away and give up. Can anyone point to one thing they have accomplished for adoptees? They’ve been silent and nonplayers on the biggest issues in adoption and adoptee rights of the past three decades, from the UAA, to unconditional records access, to the CCA, to ICWA. This year they reached new lows in giving out a humanitarian award and $500 to a former paid searcher and felon whose sole contribution to adoption reform has been her constant pimping of her book. Another award for legislative work went to someone who never actually has passed any legislation. They’re a joke. The NCFA of all people has actually led the charge on the CCA amendment. The NCFA! I secured one of the three Senate sponsors. Meanwhile, crickets from the AAC.

    If I was part of an organization that was decades old who couldn’t point to one significant accomplishment for the community it alleges to serve, I’d say it was way past time to throw in the towel.

    So IMO they should get out and go away. Their conferences are maybe of some use, so if they wanted to reform and essentially just serve as an organizational structure around which there would be annual conferences, that could work, but they should partner with other groups in doing so, like BN, like the KA community, etc. so that their conferences don’t consist mainly of a bunch of therapists accumulating CEUs.

  9. Thank you all for the widely differing and interesting comments supporting my suggestion of dysfunction within the AAC and the adoption activism community at large (which was my point, using AAC as an example). Summary seems to be that AAC should go away, BN is the perfect model and that there is no such thing as shared trauma. I find the last statement most interesting when professionals cite stats that 52% of individuals in mental health systems are adoptees (Pavao). Must just be those bad genes, eh? Clearly being snarky as I am going to have to disagree with Shea that there is not trauma in adoption. Maybe not with the members of BN but certainly with other adoptees and first parents. There certainly is with this first parent.

  10. Adoption reform will come…sadly, with the added abuse to each other because of the on-going trauma of being adopted or being conned out of a kid by a coercive adoption social system. This is why each person associated with adoption Cannot Take Anything Personally because everyone in this community is damaged. The this end, use Google Scholar search, to find scientific evidence to change laws. Two examples. 1. Bioethics Research Library: Maternal-Infant Bonding: The Impact of Early Separation or Loss on Family Development.; 2. Prenatal development of the Brain EBSCO (ISBN 0-88048-499-3)
    Focus reasons against adoption by finding and using neuroscience research on the Right Side of the Developing Infant Brain…the right side is associated with intimate/human bonding. Is an adopted person bonded to an adoption parents neurologically through an intimate path, or through a survival path? And, where is the trauma of separation kept in the brain? It has to be in the primitive brain…that has no social behaviors can be unpredictable.
    Research to find valid neuroscience reasons to maintain family…and then start supporting this evidence by applying conversations of Ethics…Research can be done independently and shared…no one needs to collaborate face to face…Can we start?????

  11. As an adoptee who has only been involved in adoptee organizations for a very short time, who doesn’t know the history or baggage of the organizations or personalities and doesn’t know where the bodies are buried, I’d like to make a couple of observations. I will admit my views are tempered by my own experiences and observations, and the knowledge that I have gained from a select few.

    First of all, organizations must abide by their own bylaws. If there are supposed to be elections, then there darn well better be elections. If interim appointments must be made, they should be made sparingly, and only until such time as proper procedures can be followed.

    Regarding the awards, I, too, found it quite odd that the AAC would give a legislative award to a person whose legislative efforts have not borne any fruit. Texas? Yes, good work was done and groundwork was laid, and the failure of the bill wasn’t necessarily the fault of any of the Texas organization, but still it didn’t pass. And in the meantime, has the AAC recognized the successful efforts from Ohio or Colorado or other states whose adoptees can now obtain their birth certificates and adoption records? Or did the award just need to go to a member of the AAC board, to cement their loyalty?

    And then there was the conference itself. Since I haven’t attended other conferences, I have nothing to compare it to with respect to attendance or organization, but it didn’t seem many people were there. And the cost (My Lord!)—I saw one person, a non-member walk-in, who coughed up $275 to attend one day. For that money the person got to attend a keynote address, two break-out workshop sessions, an awards luncheon, a support group meeting and a film. Seriously? Why do you start at 9am and not earlier? Why do you have six break-out workshop sessions going on simultaneously? Why not cut the number of breakouts in half and double the number of sessions? It wouldn’t be hard to do if you cut back on the 30-minute breaks between events. [shrug]

  12. Suz, Shea did not say there was no trauma in adoption, but that in her opinion, shared trauma was not a good basis for activism. Shea said: ” People shouldn’t get into political activism or organizing as a means to work through and bond over shared trauma, IMO. Not to say there isn’t a place for that, but activism and reform isn’t it. ” There is trauma in adoption for many mothers and many adoptees, but this varies greatly from person to person, and when it is made the basis for activism and bonding, it effectively excludes the many mothers and adoptees who do not feel they are traumatized victims or see that as their core identity. No need to get defensive about being traumatized by surrender and long-term rejection; I share that part of your story, as do many, but not all.

    I agree with Shea on this, and also with her analysis of AAC: “The AAC doesn’t know who or what they want to be. And that’s ever been so. ” AAC has continually tried to be all things to all people and ended up being nothing effective. Their forays into legislation have generally led to miserable compromised bills, and their constant blaming BN for not supporting legislation BN has always said upfront they will not support is tiresome and not exactly honest.

    Cindy, thanks for your in-depth research on AAC as an organization. To clear up one thing, Kris Probasco is or was a social worker who was not a triad member, who was instrumental in forming AAC. She was a good friend of Annette Baran, also a social worker and non-triad member who was involved in supporting open records for many years until her death. Jean Paton, the woman who started the adoptee rights movement in the 1940s, was one of the founders of AAC but broke with them over making it so much a social work organization, among other things. Jean was then treated very shabbily by AAC. As has been already said, this dysfunction was there from the beginning. AAC has always been pro-adoption in a broad sense, but they also tried to accommodate anti-adoption people and adoptive parents and agencies at the same time, which just led to confusion and some very strange presentations at their conferences.

    I had no idea that AAC officially considered “Origins, BN and CUB” a conflict of interest”. Thanks for the laugh:-) Gee, they still took my money as a long-term member of BN, NJ Origins (now defunct) and a CUB Board member. In any event, AAC has continued to go downhill, agreeing with Shea on their dreadful pick of Villardi award winner this year. BN is not “the perfect model” for anything but the narrow focus of adoptee rights activism and legislation to get access to their own OBC. There is still plenty of room for an organization like AAC to deal with the therapeutic aspect of adoption, to hold yearly conferences on this that reflect the real interest of triad members, and to be run by a Board that respects the members and is transparent in its operations. If AAC needs to be dismantled and something new can step into that niche, that is a good thing. If AAC as it exists could actually change, get out of legislation, and work on therapy, adoption in the arts, adoption research, family preservation, long-term support for those who are traumatized while welcoming the input of those who are not, that would be a great thing too. But they need to narrow their focus as BN has done, and stick to what they are good at without attacking groups and individuals with a different focus.

    • Maryanne – It was this portion of Shea’s comment I found curious.

      “Most of us in BN do not feel that we have “shared trauma”, in fact it’s a group of some of the mentally healthiest and most together people I know. ”

      Seemingly, based on this statement, BN members have felt no negative effects from adoption and are able to be uber successful in their activism as a result.

  13. Suz, Shea didn’t say that there’s no trauma in adoption. What she said was “Most of us at BN do not feel that we have “shared trauma” “. “Most” and “shared” are the operative words here. She most certainly does not presume to speak for all.

    Speaking for myself (which should go without saying, but just in case . . . ), I do not believe that “bonding through trauma” is a desirable way to form community, or even that, on its own, it is a good foundation for friendship. All experience is individual, and when people “bond through trauma” it seems to me that their individual experiences run the danger of bleeding into each other in such a way that important distinctions become blurred and indistinct.
    It creates a morass of suffering or “slough of despond” which exacerbates, rather than relieves, pain, making it more difficult to extract meaning from one’s particular circumstances and to decide what to do with them. “Bonding through trauma” may seem empowering, but in reality it is, as Robert Burton wrote of melancholy, “a friend in show, but a secret enemy”. Healthy relationships call for more vital and urgent common interests and goals than the backwash of past suffering.

    I also take issue with your implication that the claimed 52%of adoptees in the mental health system are there solely because of adoption related trauma.

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