By Jeremy Loudenback, ChronicleOfSocialChange.org
Every holiday season, 17-year-old Jordain Rodriguez sends a note to two families she barely knows with a simple wish: She’d like to see her nieces and nephews.
Around the holidays and on each of the children’s birthdays, she writes emails to the two families who adopted her family members, asking for pictures, any recent updates and a chance to talk to them.
But as the children grow up, Rodriguez remains shut out from their lives, and they from hers.
Nearly three years ago, Rodriguez’s five nieces and nephews were adopted by two families in San Jose, CA. The four oldest—now aged 8, 7, 6 and 5—went to one family. The youngest, just 2 years old, went to live with another family.
Because both of the adoptions are considered “closed,” Rodriguez is largely cut off from her nieces and nephews. As she struggles to remain a part of their lives, Rodriguez is angling to change the rights of foster youth and their families in the adoption system in California.
In a closed adoption, the adoptive family and the birth family do not know each other. Contact between the birth family and the children does not take place after the adoption has been finalized, and information about the adopted child’s birth family is sealed until the child turns 18.
For Rodriguez, contact with the families has been sporadic, despite promises of regular updates from the family that adopted three nieces and one of her nephews. Initially, they sent her pictures, but now contact is intermittent.
After several months of no contact at all, Rodriguez recently received a couple pictures from the adoptive parents with just a terse reply: “Sorry for the delay.”
“I’ll never get enough pictures,” Rodriguez said. “It’s hard when you don’t get a response. I miss them like crazy. If I emailed them every time I thought of the kids, I would email them a thousand times a day.”
Despite her young age, Rodriguez feels especially connected to the children. She helped her older sister raise the kids and was a steady presence in their lives.
“Their dad was in and out of jail for a lot of their lives so I would be the one who would wake up to make bottles, change diapers or watch the other kids while [their mother] was away with one of the kids,” she said.
She describes being in the hospital room for the birth of her first nephew as “the biggest moment of my life.”
But at age 13, life abruptly changed for Rodriguez. She was taken from her parents by child protective services and placed in relative foster care with her grandmother. Not long afterward, her nieces and nephews entered the system as well.
She remains haunted by the experience, especially when social workers arrived to take away some of the children.
“It was the worst thing I have ever had to do,” Rodriguez said. “They didn’t want to go, and they were scared to go in the car with a stranger.”
About a year later, the children were placed with an adoptive family, and Rodriguez and other family members—including her parents, her brother, her boyfriend and both of her sisters—were allowed a final visit before the children disappeared into the adoptive system.
“We didn’t tell the kids it was the last visit, but you could tell they knew this was the last time,” she said. “They were all upset. You could just tell.
“After the visit, I was very mad that I couldn’t do anything to keep them with me and that I had no say so about what the parents decided. I started crying a lot. It just broke my heart to see them leave.”
During the process, she worked with the Real Family Project to create a video about her story and listened to the experiences of adults who had been adopted in childhood. Issues like grief, abandonment and identity development may often follow adoptees into adulthood, leading to unresolved trauma long after an adoption occurs.
“I didn’t think that the hurt would stay with them so long after the adoption,” Rodriguez said. “It opened my eyes. Without answers, kids are always going to wonder where their families are.”
Still, Rodriguez remains conflicted about what would happen if she ran into her older nieces and nephews in San Jose, where they all live.
“If was in a store and I saw them and they didn’t already see me, I’m not sure I would let them see me,” she said. “What is that going to do to the 8-year-old or the 5-year-old, to see their aunt and then never see her again because the parents aren’t even going to change their minds?
“That’s going to hurt them.”
But Rodriguez is not content to let fate handle matters or wait until her nieces and nephews reach 18, when they’ll be able to access information about their biological family if they wish. In February, along with other members of the California Youth Connection, Rodriguez will make a visit to the state capitol in Sacramento, where she’ll present some of her research to legislators in support of a bill to better protect the rights of family members in the adoption process.
“In closed adoptions, [adoptive parents] have all the power,” Rodriguez said. “The biggest thing is not making this just about siblings. It needs to be about all of the biological family. If they’re a good influence on the kids and if they have good intentions, [the law] shouldn’t just let adoptive parents rip them away.”
But for now, Rodriguez is trying to focus on her own life. Living at her grandmother’s house, she is working hard to stay in school and thinking about her future—maybe she’ll become a social worker, a detective, or even join the U.S. Navy.
Rodriguez received some good news this holiday season. After sending an email to the family who adopted her 2-year-old nephew, she received an immediate response, and an opportunity to see him again.
The day after Christmas, Rodriguez met with the family at a park for about an hour. The visit went well, with the parents filling her in about the progress of her youngest nephew. The toddler has just taken his first steps, leaving Rodriguez delighted that she was able to witness an important milestone.
She is cautiously optimistic that she will have another opportunity to see her nephew again in the near future, but she is dependent on the family to allow further contact.
“I hope I can see him again soon—maybe in a few weeks—but adoption is a really complicated situation,” she said.
Rodriguez says she won’t stop her steady stream of emails to the family that adopted her other four nieces and nephews. She knows that a visit with them is not very likely at this point, but Rodriguez wants them to know that she’s out there and that she hasn’t stopped trying to see them, despite the lack of interest from their adoptive parents.
“They’re just waiting for me to give up and stop emailing, and that’s not going to happen,” she said.
Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter for the ChronicleforSocialChange.org, where this article first appeared.