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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Adopting a New Outlook : Sharon Kaplan Roszia Has Made a Career of Building Families, but Her Own Experiences Have Changed Her Approach

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sitting in her Tustin office, Sharon Kaplan Roszia recounts her early career in adoptions and shakes her head.

“When I look back on it, I think, ‘Oh my God, how did I do that?”’ she says. “It was what we did then.”

Then was the mid-'60s, in Phoenix. Roszia had a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University and had done stints in probation and the Juvenile Court investigators office. She was delighted to land a job in what was described to her as “country club of social work"--adoptions. And she did her job.

She “played God.” Of three candidate couples chosen by a supervisor, she decided which would get a young birth mother’s child. The birth mother didn’t get a vote.

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She delivered babies--literally.

“I picked up the babies at the foster homes, delivered them into arms of waiting couples and suspected that they lived happily ever after.”

Roszia, 53, shudders at the memory.

“It saddens me greatly that I participated in that,” she says. “It was awful.”

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Awful? A lot of people would wonder what was so bad about bringing babies to new homes. But they don’t see adoption the way Roszia has come to see it.

A traumatic loss in her first marriage, her refusal to give up her child for adoption and her experiences as a foster and adoptive mother all have taught her important lessons about connection and loss, she said.

She applied them to her work as a social worker, counselor and educator and sees adoption as a good but complex institution, filled with opportunities for attachment and fraught with dangers of disconnection. In her view, adoption has been given a joyful veneer by society, but underneath are painful issues that will emerge and must be reckoned with.

In 1986, Roszia and Deborah Silverstein introduced an influential analysis of adoption, calling it “an institution based on loss” and identifying what they called the “seven core issues” that arise in it: feelings of rejection, shame and guilt, the need to grieve, identity confusion, intimacy fears and the needs for mastery and control. The theory is widely accepted and used by therapists and counselors nationwide, adoption experts said.

Roszia also has expertise in “special needs” adoption and the issues that confront families adopting children who are older, have emotional problems, physical disabilities or are from minority or mixed races.

But Roszia is perhaps best known for her work in what is called “open adoption.” Roszia and her co-authors wrote about the arrangements in two books: “Cooperative Adoption” (Triadoption Publications, 1985) and “The Open Adoption Experience” (HarperCollins, 1993).

Open adoption is based on a simple equation, Roszia said: “A child shouldn’t have to lose a family to gain a family. Adoption should be about addition, not subtraction.”

In open adoption, the birth mother or birth parents choose who will adopt the child. Birth parents and the adoptive family meet and might agree to keep some kind of contact after the child has been placed. It might only be sending pictures as the child grows. It might be occasional visits.

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But at the far end of the range, some families carry on “cooperative” adoptions, where birth parents remain an integral part of the child’s life with its adoptive family, essentially filling the role of aunt or uncle.

Despite that closeness, Roszia said, there is clearly only one set of parents in a cooperative adoption.

“The adoptive parents have full legal connection, they have all the legal rights when the adoption is finalized,” she said. “The birth parents have none. Zero.”

And with any parents counseled by Roszia, “the adoptive parents are fully in charge. The birth parents can give input as any relative might. But the adoptive parents don’t have to take it.”

In 1983, Roszia founded Parenting Resources, an adoption education and counseling center in Tustin.

Open and cooperative adoptions were fostered there. Adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees could attend classes, belong to support groups or get individual counseling in any aspect of adoption. It was, Roszia said, the kind of place she wishes she’d had when she was an adoptive parent.

“It gave me the chance to do for other families things that weren’t done for my family,” she said. Although Roszia left Parenting Resources two years, she still teaches its adoption seminars and classes.

In 1987, Roszia’s work earned her the Child Advocate of the Year award from the Child Abuse Council of Orange County. She has lectured in 30 states, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her work has made a profound impact in the field, her colleagues said.

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“She’s made huge contributions to adoption, and she learned it through the front lines--as a social worker in adoptions and as an adoptive parent,” said Joyce Maguire Pavao, founder and director of the Center for Family Connections in Cambridge, Mass., which works with families formed by remarriage, adoption, foster care and guardianship.

“She has so much compassion for birth parents and adoptees and adoptive parents,” said Cindy Shacklett, co-founder of Full Circle, a Tustin-based adoption support group. “She’s a remarkable person to keep everyone in that big hug of hers. She’s one in a million.”

Jim Brown, chief of the adoptions branch in the state Department of Social Services, praised Roszia’s clear thinking and skills as an educator.

“If we have an adoptions philosopher in California, Sharon is it,” he said.

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A Mission Viejo couple that has been involved in a 10-year cooperative adoption credits Roszia’s counsel for the relationship’s firm foundation.

Wendy Levin said she and her husband, Stan, had planned to have only minimal contact with the birth parents of their daughter, Melody, once she was born. That’s what her birth parents wanted. But after Melody’s birth, they changed their minds.

Roszia helped the Levins and the birth parents learn about cooperative adoption and work out an arrangement that works very well to this day, Wendy Levin said. Melody, 10, sees her birth parents--and her birth grandparents--during the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays and on her birthday. She talks on the phone to her birth mother and counts on her for a big buy of Girl Scout cookies every year. Wendy and Melody’s birth mother are friends in their own right.

“Sharon is a very wise person,” Levin said. “I remember, verbatim, things that she said. I was voicing my fear that my daughter would love her birth mother more than she did me, and Sharon said, ‘You know, Wendy'--it still chokes me up to think about it--'kids never run out of love. They have different kinds of love for each person in their life.’ She said that the kind of love Melody will feel for her birth parents is the love for a favorite aunt and uncle. Which is the way it’s turned out in our case.”

Roszia has always been willing to help people build their families in new ways, said Silverstein, a licensed clinical social worker who is both a colleague and close friend of Roszia’s. A prime example is the story of how the women met.

Silverstein and her husband wanted to adopt a 14-year-old boy whose foster mother was dying. No one else wanted him, but social workers told the Silversteins that they couldn’t approve them. The boy was older than the Silverstein’s oldest child; conventional adoption wisdom said such a placement would upset the family structure. They heard of Roszia, who was then a social worker at Children’s Home Society of Southern California, and turned to her. She agreed to help them, and the adoption was done.

“She guided us through it,” Silverstein said. “She’s willing to take risks, to be a little unconventional.”

Silverstein said Roszia is leading her field in her current job, “setting a different tone for adoption” by expanding the definition of family.

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For two years, Roszia has been the program director for the Kinship Alliance, a national educational institute that brings together experts from such disciplines as psychology, religion, art and drama to find new ways to strengthen families built by adoption and foster care.

Roszia said that the early life experiences and problems encountered by some foster children and adopted children might mean they need the attention of more than just their nuclear family to thrive. Some children, she said, “will need 50 or 100 adults who are firmly committed to them"--a “kinship circle.”

Those extended families might include their adoptive parents, birth parents, foster parents, teachers, even their social workers, therapists or Little League coaches, she said.

The organization has sponsored two “Kinship Camps” for children and their broadly defined families. Members of the alliance will offer training in kinship issues during a “Kinship Institute” in Dallas this June, just before the meeting of the Adoptive Families of American Conference.

“It’s still my whole interest in openness, but in a much broader way,” Roszia said. “It’s looking at who belongs to children, not who children belong to.”

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Roszia’s vision is not shared by everyone in the adoption world. There are organizations and adoption agencies that think traditional adoptions, with closed records and minimal contact between birth parents and adoptive families, are best.

“Basically we have a different world view of adoption,” said Mary Beth Style, vice president for professional practice with the National Council for Adoption. “I think we see adoption very positively. She puts adoption in the realm of a pathology. I find that very troubling.”

Denis Donovan, a Florida child psychiatrist, has predicted that the open adoptions Roszia favors will perpetuate a “new fashion of parental rights without parental obligations” and create serious developmental and behavioral problems for children raised in such arrangements.

“What adoption does is to transfer responsibility,” he said. “What open adoption does is to diffuse responsibility such that no one definitively has it. And if you’d like to produce some very confused, diffuse and disordered people, you could hardly come up with a more efficacious manner of doing it.”

Roszia said she would agree with Donovan--if open adoption was co-parenting by birth and adoptive parents. It isn’t, she said.

“None of us in the open adoption field have ever said it’s co-parenting. It’s one of the things I talk about most forcefully: there is one set of parents here,” she said. “The adoptive parents are in charge.”

And Roszia said that Style is wrong about her characterization of adoption.

“I really believe open adoptions are a reflection of the fact that adoption is healthy,” she said. “There’s no reason to keep it a secret. I think secrets are pathological, not adoption.”

But she also doesn’t think adoption should be society’s first choice.

“I believe whenever possible, children need to be given the opportunity to stay with their family of origin,” she said. “When that fails, when all the resources we can muster to help parents and children stay together aren’t enough, then we have to do everything we can to cut children’s losses, so they don’t have to trade off anything unnecessarily.”

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Loss and disconnection are things Roszia has experienced personally, and when she lectures, she tells audiences that.

But she doesn’t go into the incident that had the deepest impact on her life and work. In 1963, Roszia was a 21-year-old graduate student, deeply in love with her husband of two years and pregnant with their first child. A knock at her door shattered that pleasant world.

FBI agents stood at her doorstep. and they told her a story she couldn’t believe: The man Roszia had met, who had swept her off her feet with his brilliance and worldly charm, was not the upstanding businessman she thought him to be. The name he used was false. He was wanted in seven other states, under other names, for embezzlement. He had other wives.

Roszia’s family was horrified. They worried that the scandal would mar the images of other family members in Cleveland, where Roszia was raised.

“There were concerns about this getting picked up in the Ohio papers,” she said. “They wanted me to divest myself of anything to do with this man, including giving up my child for adoption. I was nine months’ pregnant, in total trauma and under incredible pressure from my relatives.”

Roszia fought her family and kept her baby, whom she named Lori. When her husband was released on bail, she went back to him.

“Lori has asked me why, and I said that I needed to finish it. I just couldn’t have the FBI take him away. I had to finish it. I look back on that time, and I’m grateful. I have pictures of him with her. I have things I could give her: memories. He was a wonderful father. He got up at night with her. He talked to her for hours.”

But he disappeared just before he was to be extradited to face embezzlement, fraud and flight charges in another state.

Roszia filed for divorce and bankruptcy, finished school and got a job to support herself and her daughter. Two and a half years later, she remarried and the family moved to California.

She still has no idea what became of her ex-husband, or whether Lori has half-sisters and brothers as a result of his other marriages. The FBI has refused to give her any information about him, she said.

So, like the many adoptees who are always looking for the relatives they’ve lost, Roszia finds herself scanning faces in crowds.

“If I see an older man who might have his build, it’s not uncommon for me to stare. And he had a deep, wonderful voice, so if I hear a voice like that in a restaurant, I’ll turn around and check it out.

“I know what I speak of when I talk about how loss has reverberations in people’s lives,” she said. “I know that everything I teach and work with in the area of kinship, loss, grief and healing is all a direct reflection of what I’ve had to do on my own journey.”

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Roszia’s journey also took her through life as a foster and adoptive parent. She and her second husband, from whom she was divorced three years ago after a 26-year marriage, helped raised several foster children. They adopted a sister and brother, 3 and 4 years old, in 1970. Their mother had died of a drug overdose; their father could not be found.

Because Roszia specialized in the adoption of children with special needs, the agency that placed the children with Roszia and her husband believed she could handle the children’s problems.

But the children turned out to be far more troubled than anyone realized, Roszia said. The boy stuttered terribly, the result of the emotional trauma of his mother’s death. The girl was terrified of men. There was a suspicion that the children might have been given drugs when they were toddlers to quiet them. And no one was sure whether the children had witnessed their mother’s death.

“We struggled with a lot of therapy and very difficult adolescent years, with both children,” she said.

Today, Roszia said, she has extremely limited contact with them but doesn’t regret the adoption.

“No, our adoption did not turn out the way I wish it could have. And some of it was because we weren’t appropriately prepared. The tools available today weren’t available then. And some of it was the kids’ history. If you put all those things together, we didn’t have the best shot at making it work. But I love the kids and I would do it again.”

Roszia’s adopted daughter has children now. And once again, Roszia said, she is learning about family and kinship from her own life.

She knew two of her adopted daughter’s children were living in Idaho with a family that had been friends with their mother. But that’s about all she knew.

When she was lecturing in Boise in November, she asked her colleagues if they could tell her anything about her grandchildren. Roszia received word from the children’s social worker that they were fine. The family they were living with was planning to adopt the children.

“I said to the social worker, ‘I have a commitment to those children. If you need me to be a grandma, if you need me to be a repository of information, if you need me to be therapy support, whatever role, talk to the family and let them know. I’m not in any way wanting to intrude on the parenting of the girls, but I’m interested in doing something.’ ”

The social worker called back to say the family did want to talk to her; the children had been asking questions about their mother.

Roszia said she has spoken with her grandchildren, exchanged cards and gifts with them and plans on visiting them this summer.

“They call me Gramma Sharon From California--like it’s one long word,” she said.

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In spite of all the serious issues in her life and work, Roszia said she’s happier than she’s ever been. She thinks it has something to do with being in her 50s.

“It’s a time when you kind of claim yourself as a woman a little differently,” she said.

She claimed a new name as part of the process. Three years ago, when her marriage ended, she didn’t want to continue using her ex-husband’s name. But she didn’t feel she could go back to her maiden name after so many years, either. So she reached up into the Eastern European branches of her mother’s family tree and plucked out her new name: Roszia.

“I loved it,” she said. “I liked the way Sharon Roszia sounded.”

She formalized the change before a judge, had a friend sketch the scene and went out for a celebration with friends.

The party, it seems, continues to this day.

“A friend said to me, ‘You seem so happy.’ And I said that I’ve never been more centered, more sure of myself, more loving, open and strong than I am now,” Roszia said. “And I’ve never been less certain about anything. I do worry about things: The future of my field--the polarization and conflicts we have that confuse families so much. I worry about what’s happening to families and children in the United States, and how the changes in Washington will affect them.

“But personally, I feel happy all the time. Part of it is coming to grips with what you can control, and what you can’t. I know what I’ve contributed to over the years, in my career and personal life. My life is a demonstration of what kinship is about.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sharon Kaplan Roszia

Background: Age 53. Born in Louisville, Ky., raised in Cleveland, Ohio. “I consider myself a Midwesterner.” Lives in Santa Ana.

Family: Divorced, with three adult children. Is very close to her brother, a cancer researcher; her sister, an artist; her mother, 73, and her stepfather, 79.

Passions: Books on personal growth and spirituality. Friends and family. Sweets.

On how she got into social work: “Actually, I backed into it. I wanted to teach history. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a little girl. But I hated (college) education classes. They were boring. So I looked around, and since I was always interested in what makes people think and tick, I gravitated to social work.”

On breaking the rules as a young social worker: “I can remember bringing some of my birth mothers home for an afternoon gabfest around the pool, which was considered extremely iconoclastic at that time. But it felt to me they ought to know each other. They were very lonely.”

On resistance she encounters as she talks about loss in adoption: “I think people are very focused on the good things that can happen for children. I don’t think they understand the trade-offs. The family that loses a child and the family that gains a child are affected for life.”


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