woman and children

Blossoms in the Dust: Thinking About Adoption

Mervyn LeRoy’s film Blossoms in the Dust is loosely based on the life of Edna Gladney, an influential Texas mover and shaker who is credited for finding homes for orphans, and for having the term illegitimate permanently removed from vital records in the state. Blossoms in the Dust is an ideal movie to share with the family; it simultaneously warms and wrenches the heart; it entertains, inspires and, educates the audience about a woman who made the world a better place lest she be forgotten with the passage of time.

Adoption trains
Ad for the Kentucky Children’s Home

Blossoms in the Dust effectively expresses Edna Gladney’s deep passion for advocating on behalf of orphaned and abandoned children. A series of fictionalized scenes throughout the movie give the audience good insight as to her values, sense of morals, and mission in life. One particular scene midway through the movie portrays Edna Gladney’s giving a biological father every opportunity to change his mind before officially handing his baby son over for adoption. This scene emphasizes that Edna Gladney took the separation of babies from their birth parents very seriously. That the biological mother had passed away, and that the biological father was gallivanting off to Mexico, makes this oftentimes difficult decision easier for an audience to accept. Further, it is important to remember that the alternatives for children abandoned and abused were not rosy back in the late 1800s when The Gladney Center was established, nor at the time of this story in the late 1930s.

Nor are they rosy now. The contemporary failures of the foster care system are all around us. All the respectable research shows that adoptive parents do a better job of raising children than foster parents (Merlyn, 2013). The foster care system is proving inadequate to assist, especially given the increasing numbers of children and families in distress (NPR staff, 2013).

This is a situation that is proving disastrous for the overwhelming majority of the babies involved, and it is certainly detrimental to the overwhelming majority of the teenage mothers. Yet this terrible predicament is quite understandable, given the ways in which the superiority of biological kinship has been reasserted in recent decades, not only in law but also in politics and culture—and in the ‘adoptees rights’ movement.
Combine the new prestige of blood with the collapse of any stigma surrounding out-of-wedlock birth, and you have what might be called a crisis of care in America; and this crisis will be with us for years to come in high rates of cognitively deprived, asocialized children, and teenage girls dropping out of school with subsequent high rates of unemployment and drug abuse (Merlyn, 2013).

Another scene in the movie shows Edna’s careful determination in matching babies with their adoptive parents; a rambunctious baby girl was joyfully placed with her tomboy of a mother. A later scene shows Edna Gladney risking jail time to protect a boy from his birth father’s attempts to reclaim him. Inner turmoil over a father’s desire to reunite with his son, or a boy’s future wish to know about his father, is most likely not even a consideration in this story. In any case, Mervin LeRoy’s film does the life of Edna Gladney justice, as the real woman was every bit as passionate, energetic, and inspirational as the character. Further, while the story of the movie was written solely to highlight the work of Edna Gladney and her achievements, its representation of adoption itself is oversimplified. Yet, that is in no way a mark against the exceptional film that was meant to entertain, inspire and educate in less than two hours.

The Adoption process is multi-faceted

As with everything else in life, the adoption process can be viewed from several perspectives. Blossoms in the Dust offers a limited view of adoption, which today is quite multi-faceted and complex, and with which most people (certainly at the time of the movie} have no experience.

. . . [the film] was based on a deeply moral intuition. Anyone past the age of forty remembers that children often bore the negative brunt of society’s concern with marital order, stability, and legitimacy, as if any break in the line of biological lineage presaged social chaos (Merlyn, 2013).

Today, we may take a different perspective. For example, we may have concerns about the particular boy whose birth father was after money in the movie. The audience has good reason to presume that the boy is well cared-for by his family and enjoys privileges far beyond what his con-artist biological father could provide. However, let’s suppose that this boy develops an insatiable urge to know the identity of his birth father. Does he have a say in the matter? When a child truly wants to know his roots, should the character and lifestyle of his birth parents factor in the decision to reveal their identity?

In 1999, six-year-old Elian Gonzalez’s mother risked both her life and his in order to escape from a brutal dictatorship and live in freedom in the United States (“Saving Elian,” 2001). However, as we remember, things did not go as planned. She drowned and little Elian survived to become the center of an international political controversy. A childhood in Cuba may be vastly different from a childhood in America, but does that matter in the decision of whether to separate or to reunite a boy and his father? People with opposing opinions on both sides argued passionately across America for months, separation being advocated by relatives on his mother’s side who wanted him to stay with them in the US. The prevailing decision was that the boy belonged with his father, thus he was returned. This was likely for the best since, possibly for political purposes, Elian and his Cuban family were treated well by the Communist regime, and most importantly, he got to live with his father with whom he had undoubtedly already bonded.

In Blossoms in the Dust, no such bond existed between the boy and his crook of a biological father, making Gladney’s decision to conceal his birth father’s identity appear beneficial. A happy ending to the story would be that the boy grows up content, and feeling like his place in his family is no different from other members.

Adoption politics

However, each case of adoption is unique and one size does not fit all; therefore, regulative policy is difficult. Adoption involves many variables, e.g., circumstances and personalities of the parents (birth and adoptive) and the children involved, whether adoption records are open or closed, whether the adoption is domestic or international, and existing adoption laws. In the US, adoption laws vary by state (e.g., State of Texas, 2016), and only a handful allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates (which are usually sealed after the adoption is official).

Meanwhile, domestic adoptions are increasingly open, meaning birth parents control who adopts their child and thus may negotiate future accessibility rights in case the child should want to contact them. This trend represents a cultural change in attitudes.

There was a time when adoptions were a source of shame for a birth mother, and weren’t discussed in the adoptive family. But that slowly changed with birth control, a demographic shift in babies available for adoption, and the ‘adoption rights movement.’ Today, 95% of infants in the U.S. are placed in ‘open adoptions’ where the birth mother and the family have some sort of contact (Fabrizio, 2016).

The passage of Measure 58 in Oregon in 1998 was important because it framed the issue of adoption reform in terms of civil rights and equal protection of the law rather than in terms of psychological needs or medical necessity. The resulting law now gives adult adoptees access to birth certificates but it also allows birth mothers to indicate whether or not they wish to be contacted (Carp, 2004).

The Gladney Center has always tried to honor the desires of both potential adoptive parents and birth parents regarding placement and future communication with the child. Yet, even though the work of open records activists, and the recent advent of open adoptions that take mystery out of the process are appreciated by some, adoptive parents may fear the intrusion of birth parents and/or birth parents may wish for permanent confidentiality.

Madonna and African children
Madonna and African children

Even with the best of intentions, planning, and policy, adoption can be a minefield of problems. The heart-wrenching “Baby Jessica” case in the early 1990’s resulted in a court order for adoptive parents to give their daughter back to her birth parents (Newsweek staff, 1994; Zoe24, 2015). Another example is Madonna’s very public attempts to follow in Angelina Jolie-PItt’s footsteps and adopt children from Africa. While Jolie’s international adoptions appeared to go smoothly (Shahid & Pearson, 2015), Madonna’s have been mired with public controversy and legal complications (Peretti, 2009). All parties involved with the adoption process are in vulnerable positions, hence the need to protect themselves with all the legal measures, paperwork, and background checks.

Further, agencies are relied upon to guide both birth and adoptive parents through the process, and are expected to overcome obstacles that include politics, international cultural practices, issues with adoptees rights, and other complications (e.g., see: Swenarski, 1993; Baker, 2004; Ragland, 2012).

Edna’s namesake, The Gladney Center for Adoption based in Forth Worth, Texas, along with the handful of branch offices elsewhere, prides itself in helping families; however, it is not immune to criticism from adoptee activists’ groups and private detectives hired by adoptees in search of their birth parents’ identities (Dusky, 2009). Simply put, agencies have to abide by the laws of the state in covering their bases, and adoption is a very expensive undertaking for the legal aspects and more.

Costs related to adoption

Thousands of dollars exchange hands in the US when parental rights are transferred. In licensed agencies, the costs are high largely because of the costs of medical care related to the birth and the legal work related to adoption, but also because of the costs of pre-natal housing, counseling, and healthcare for the birth mother as well as travel expenses often required for case workers’ home visits and travel expenses for the baby and adoptive parents.

They [old-line agencies in this marketplace] are torn between the principle that parenthood should not be charged for and the reality that social services are expensive. … The agencies, many of which receive donations or government subsidies, say that parents’ fees could not cover their costs. Mr. Wright in California notes that when licensed agencies work with pregnant women, about 80 percent end up keeping their babies. And for most agencies, he said, ‘the cost of serving the 80 percent can’t be paid for by the fees of the other 20 percent’ (Mansnerus, 1998).

Companies, of course, have the opportunity to include any medical-related issues they choose in the insurance provided as an employee benefit. In the late 1970s, noting that his firm’s insurance covered such medical procedures as abortion and vasectomy, Jerry Hassebroek asked therefore if coverage could be provided for employees who wished to adopt. The firm responded positively and obtained this coverage in complement to the medical coverage provided when an employee or spouse gives birth. In fact, the “benefits are paid regardless of whether the adoption is completed” (Accenture, 2015). However, even though other companies now provide such benefits, many adoptive families may not have access to such assistance. Therefore, we wish that adoption coverage could be an option under all new healthcare policies.

Adoptees need for birth parent connection varies

It is apparent that some adopted children have a stronger innate pull to their biological family than do others. Some adult adoptees are willing to put forth significant resources towards locating their biological families, while others appear to go through life without giving it much thought. An example lies in my own family.

When my husband was five years old, his mother remarried, and he, along with an older brother and an older sister, were subsequently adopted by his stepfather. His stepfather thus became their father, legally as well as in all other ways. During the process, new birth certificates were issued and the children’s surname changed to that of their new father, who became Dad to them. All ties to his birth father were permanently severed, apart from an annual phone call between his mother and his birth father. While his brother and sister have some vague memories of him, my husband has no recollection of his biological father. So content is my husband with his Dad that he never expressed any more than a mild curiosity about his biological father, whose death went unannounced to the three siblings until three years after the fact. Of the three children, my husband’s sister experienced the stronger innate pull to her biological father and his family. Indeed it was my husband’s sister (suspecting that something was wrong because her mother had not heard from her birth father in a long while) who wrote a letter to their great aunt, and from there, learned of her birth father’s death. While she felt deep loyalty and love for her father who was always present in her life, she still lamented over the lost opportunity to get to know her birth father, something she had planned to do in adulthood. She continues efforts to stay in contact with members of his family. That being said, the brothers have taken time to save easily-obtained information about their biological family. Thanks to the contributions of many people to sites online, such as Ancestry.com, LinkedIn, Facebook, and numerous others, such research is practically effortless.

In contrast to my family’s experience, a long-ago acquaintance of mine persisted for approximately 25 years attempting to find her birth mother. Her unique journey brought her into contact with various open records activists groups, and she learned about adoption agencies’ allegedly falsifying records, coercing women out of keeping their babies, and other unethical practices. Bastard Nation is an adoptee rights organization formed to campaign for restoration of adult adoptees’ right to access records that pertain to their historic, legal, and genetic identities (Bastard Nation, 1997). A relentless drive combined with support from fellow adult adoptees resulted in a happy ending—a positive meeting between this woman and her birth mother.

The Adoption circle is wide

When informed only through movies such as our current feature, there is a tendency to believe that the story of adoption is overwhelmingly that of the young unwed mother in trying circumstances. However, adoption touches every demographic, especially so when it comes to children born with disabilities.

Several years ago while on vacation, my husband and I met a couple with whom we had much in common; we were similar in socioeconomic background, college-educated with full-time jobs, etc. However, there seemed to be a sad aura about them. Later on in the week, I learned that they had recently transferred the parental rights of their child. It had been a devastating shock to them to discover at the child’s birth that their newborn was afflicted with Down’s Syndrome—called “Superkids” at Gladney (“Superkids”, 2016). The couple brought the baby home and, after a short while, came to the realization that it was not possible for them to adjust and manage their lives with a baby who had special needs.

Adoption was seen as a solution when they learned of families who seek to adopt children with disabilities, and Down’s Syndrome in particular. During this emotionally wrenching conversation, they expressed immense gratitude for the parents who welcomed the baby into their family. A local-to-Atlanta organization called Families of Children Under Stress (FOCUS) is geared toward families of children who are either medically fragile or have developmental delays (FOCUS, 2017). Many of the families who participate in its activities are adoptive parents. Indeed, these families have a special gift.

My daughter Catherine is medically fragile and has been cared for by many nurses over the past year. I am consistently amazed by the number of nurses I meet who are adoptive parents. Most if not all nurses enter the profession with a caring heart and throughout their careers, they have higher exposure than the rest of the population to children who desperately need homes. Thus, many nurses either begin or enlarge their families through adoption.

I wish we could make it easier and less expensive for parents with noble intentions to provide for their children and find better ways to assist the children of those who don’t have their best interests at heart. The calling to be a parent is miraculous, no more or less so whether adopting or giving birth biologically. When assuming the responsibility with resources to manage, it is a most rewarding decision.


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Baker, M. B. (2004, May 24). Adoption lawsuit may force change at Gladney. Retrieved from Star-Telegram, https://www.genealogy.com/forum/general/topics/adoption/20502/

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Dusky, L. (2009, Nov 27). The worst adoption agency in the world: Gladney. Retrieved from First Mother Forum, https://www.firstmotherforum.com/2009/11/yet-another-reason-to-despire-gladney.html

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Peretti, J. (2009, Jun 12). Madonna, Mercy and Malawi: Her fight to adopt a second African child. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/jun/12/madonna-mercy-malawi

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One thought on “Blossoms in the Dust: Thinking About Adoption”

  1. Mary’s summary of adoption issues is excellent.
    Edna Gladney developed a most important agency. I live in Dallas and know many families with Gladney babies. To have or to be a Gladney Baby is a badge of honor.

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