A pioneer in an experiment called open adoption
A tiny blue-eyed girl made her entrance into the world. An obstetrician opened his hands to receive her, just in time. A nurse started to carry the baby to her mother, but another nurse stopped her.
Someone whisked the child from the delivery room. The mother protested, but her baby was gone. The child was taken to the nurses’ station, apart from the other babies in the nursery and mostly out of sight. The mother demanded her newborn. The nurses stalled. The mother shouted: “You better bring my baby right now!”
Finally, more than 12 hours later, and only after the mother had telephoned a hospital administrator, did they bring her daughter.
All these things Patti Pool, 22, would hold forever in her heart. And these: how the little girl’s face peeked out from a white blanket, and how she had puffy chipmunk cheeks and pointy lips just like her own. Patti sat up and propped her daughter between her knees. She cradled her tiny head in her hands. Awed, she saw that her daughter was beautiful. She concentrated on what she wanted to tell her — and quickly, because the nurses might come back and take her away. She leaned forward slightly and stared into her baby’s eyes.
“I’m your mommy,” Patti began. She started sobbing. “But you are not coming home with me.” She had already told her baby why, when the baby was growing inside her. She had told her that her name was Kendall, because she had dreamed since she was a teenager of giving her firstborn daughter that name. “I am giving you up for adoption. I want you to have a good life. I am not giving you up because I don’t love you. I am doing it for you.”
It was Oct. 21, 1983. The nurses took Kendall from her mother’s arms.
No father went to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, just north of Los Angeles, to see Kendall. Only a grandmother came, but she was turned away. Kendall, unofficially, belonged to someone else — a couple Patti had met just twice. Patti was a bartender with a 2-year-old son. She wasn’t living with Kendall’s father. She had tried to give Kendall to another couple — but the woman got pregnant. Now this, it seemed, was Kendall’s only chance for a home.
The next morning, Patti was discharged. She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, to walk out the hospital door.
Kendall, only 2 days old, was left behind.
A good or bad thing?NEARLY TWO-THIRDS of Americans have encountered adoptions in their families or with friends, according to a recent survey. Kendall Pool, however, was special; she was a pioneer in an edgy experiment that has grown into the phenomenon known as open adoption.
Her birth mother would reenter her life and play a large part in it. Children in fully open adoptions remain close to their birth families. They get frequent visits, usually from their birth mothers. Those visits can be quarterly, monthly — even daily. Some birth mothers and adoptive mothers cheer on their children together at soccer games.
Adoption agencies estimate that 90% of infant adoptions in the United States are open enough for adoptive and birth parents to meet at least once — and a quarter are completely open. In 13 states, including California, recent laws allow courts to enforce open-adoption contracts stipulating types of visits and their frequency.
Forty years ago, closed adoptions were the rule. They saved embarrassment, even shame, sometimes for an unwed mother, other times for an infertile couple. Even in the early 1970s, some unwed mothers were sent away to give birth. Some pregnant women gave birth blindfolded and with their hands tied, or were drugged into comas so they would neither see nor touch their babies. A “clean break,” it was called. Their children had their original birth certificates sealed. Many were never told they were adopted.
Often, however, something was amiss: These adopted children were different from everyone else in their families. Sometimes they found out the truth: They unearthed their adoption papers. Or Uncle Charlie, drunk, blurted out that they weren’t really kin. The children had been living a lie: How could they trust their adoptive parents again? Who were their real parents? Were their birth mothers Hollywood starlets? Sunset Boulevard prostitutes? Fantasy mothers who were perfect and would someday come and get them — or, worse, would not?
Even children who had been told they were adopted knew very little about their birth families.
Why had they been given up in the first place?
Social workers noticed worrisome signs. Adoptees struggled with their identities more than most teenagers. Many had trouble with trust and commitment to good relationships. Among children who had been adopted as infants, had never been in foster care and had grown to school age, 41% had seen a counselor for emotional or behavioral problems, compared with 18% of their non-adopted peers, according to a 2004 study by Illinois State University. And 24% had enrolled in special education classes, compared with 9% of non-adoptees.
Some social workers, notably in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Texas, said adoption had to open up. Some birth mothers joined their cause.
Others, including the National Council for Adoption, lobbied otherwise. Some adoptive parents joined their cause. They said most adoptees were neither troubled by nor interested in their birth families. Open adoptions, they said, would keep their children from bonding with them and create confusion and divided loyalties. Some foresaw terrible struggles with birth parents. One authority said this could cause emotional child abuse. A growing number of couples went abroad to adopt children, sometimes to keep birth parents an ocean away.
A pathfinder through all of this was Kendall Pool, who became a toddler, then a growing child, then a teenager. Today she is 23 years old. In the annals of open adoption, her experience has been more difficult than most. Because she is a pioneer, her parents did not benefit from experience with open adoption that has developed over the years. Proponents say open adoption generally works.
Is it a good thing? Has it been good for Kendall?
Obstacle after obstacleA FEW HOURS after Kendall’s birth mother left her behind, a couple drove from Los Angeles to Antelope Valley Hospital. David McArthur, 36, was a psycho-physiological researcher at UCLA and the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital. His wife, Dorothea, 40, known as Dorrie, hoped this drive would end a four-year heartache.
Back when she was 35, Dorrie had thought she possessed everything: a good marriage, two master’s degrees, a PhD in clinical psychology, her own practice, a Spanish-style home on a hill overlooking Silver Lake and a weekend beach house in Carpinteria. But then one morning, she awoke in a panic. She wanted a baby. For a year, she tried to get pregnant. Finally, a test showed that she couldn’t.
A Beverly Hills attorney arranged an adoption, but when the baby was born, the birth mother backed out. Now, driving up the 14 Freeway to the high desert, Dorrie was worried. Her lawyer had found another baby, but there had been only two meetings with Patti Pool, the birth mother. Both meetings were at a Denny’s restaurant. Only a few words were spoken about the birth father. He wasn’t even there.
When Dorrie and David reached the hospital, they found the new baby waiting. Her shocks of brown hair were tucked under a little pink hat, and her blue eyes peered out of a small white blanket wrapped snugly around her. Overjoyed, the McArthurs took her home. Her name was Kendall. They renamed her Miranda, after a character whose name they liked in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.”
For more than a year, Miranda’s adoption encountered obstacle after obstacle. First, it turned out that Patti, her birth mother, was a quarter Cherokee, so the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had to approve. It finally did.
Second, Patti had to sign away her rights. She longed to hold her little girl. But she was struggling just to provide Jed, her toddler, with diapers. If she kept this new baby, she would have to end her training to be a paramedic, and then she would be stuck on welfare forever. The McArthurs, on the other hand, had financial stability. Besides, Patti told herself, she couldn’t take Miranda out of the only home she had ever known.
Patti dried her tears. Numbly, she signed.
Third, the court was uncertain about who was Miranda’s father. Two men, it said, could show up and contest the adoption. One was James Pool, from whom Patti was divorced. The other was Leo Tremblay, a former boyfriend.
Miranda was nearly 17 months old when the McArthurs finally took her to court — twice. To David and Dorrie, the sessions were unforgettable. During the first, a bailiff summoned Leo Tremblay. Would he walk through the heavy oak doors to confront them?
The judge waited the mandatory time. Three minutes. One hundred eighty seconds. One by one, they ticked by. Tremblay did not appear. As if she sensed the relief, Miranda put a forefinger on the end of Dorrie’s nose. “Beep!” she said, gleefully. She flashed the judge a big smile, hugged Dorrie around the neck and showered her with moist cookie crumbs.
Two months later, the McArthurs waited in the same courtroom for James Pool. One hundred eighty seconds.
Finally, the judge banged her gavel. “Child freed for adoption!”
The judge turned to David and Dorrie and asked them to raise their right hands. Would they swear to be Miranda’s parents, assume her care and raise her as if she were born their own natural child?
Dorrie could barely speak. “Yes,” she managed.
Miranda left the courthouse holding her new mother’s hand and playing her favorite game, Big Step. She kicked her toes to the sky. Heading north on the Hollywood Freeway, Dorrie turned and looked at her little girl in the back seat. She allowed herself to utter the word. “Miranda,” she said, “you are our daughter.”
“DAUGHter,” Miranda said. “DaughTER. Daughter!”
In their driveway, Dorrie lifted Miranda out of her seat. The little girl gazed into her eyes and strung together her first sentence. “I love you, Mommy.”
Nothing for Miranda, though, would ever be that simple.
‘We will always raise you’WHEN MIRANDA was 3 1/2 , Dorrie got a surprise. It was a birth announcement from Patti, forwarded by Dorrie’s adoption attorney. In addition to Jed, her half-brother, Miranda now had a half-sister. Her name was Bryhannah.
That same day, by coincidence, Dorrie met with Sharon Roszia, an adoption expert in Orange County, who brought up the possibility of an open adoption. The mother in Dorrie wanted to run from the idea. What if Miranda grew up to love her birth mother more? What if she wanted to someday go live with her?
But the psychologist in Dorrie could not dismiss the proposal. Wasn’t Miranda entitled to know her birth mother? Her only sister? Wasn’t it cruel to deny a child her past? Inevitably, Miranda would learn she was adopted, and it would make her feel rejected. Openness might help her deal with this central loss.
It might prepare her for any genetic vulnerabilities. And if she could feel loved by both of her families, it might boost her self-esteem. She would know where her strengths came from — and her weaknesses. It might help her figure out her future.
Dorrie and David decided. They would welcome Patti into Miranda’s life, with just one understanding: The adoption was final; only the McArthurs would raise her.
At Eagle Rock Plaza, Dorrie and Miranda shopped for Patti’s new baby. Years later, Dorrie would recall the words she spoke to her little girl, still shy of 4 years old. “My tummy doesn’t make a baby,” she said. “This gift is for someone important who grew you in her tummy. This lady didn’t have the time, money or a daddy to raise you the right way. So she gave you to us to raise. We will always raise you.”
In a box with the baby gift, Dorrie enclosed a letter to Patti. It said: We want you to have contact with Miranda.
Eager as Miranda was to meet her birth mother, the news that she had another mommy scared her. The next afternoon, she awakened from her nap, screaming: The lady who grew her in her tummy had come to snatch her away. On the beach at Carpinteria, she reached a sandy hand for Dorrie’s. “You are my only mommy, right?”
Dorrie tried to ease her fear. She hung photo collages showing how long Miranda had been part of the McArthur family. But Dorrie also showed Miranda pictures of her other mommy. The pictures included Bryhannah and Jed. Dorrie listened as Miranda zeroed in on the obvious: Her other mommy had kept two children. But she gave Miranda away. Miranda must have been ugly, a bad baby who cried too much.
No, no, Dorrie said, soothingly.
Like most adoptees, Miranda had another fear: Would her adoptive parents abandon her the way her birth parents had?
She tested her adoptive parents with defiant behavior that created security — and terrible anxiety: If she behaved badly, and if David and Dorrie kept her, then she was safe. But what if she behaved very badly? Very bad behavior was the real test. The McArthurs would remember three instances well.
One was when David prepared for a business trip. Miranda squatted and wet on the kitchen floor. David slipped in the puddle, fell and broke a foot. He left on crutches, but he came back to her.
The other two were when she soiled her pants at school. “I want my mommy to come and get me,” she said. Each time, Dorrie did.
Miranda came up with a game to reassure herself. “Ask me if I’m your daughter, Mommy. Let’s play that game!”
“Are you my daughter?”
“Nooooooo!” Miranda replied. She stomped her foot.
Dorrie put on her best frown. “What? Of course I’m your mommy!”
Miranda dissolved into giggles. Dorrie lifted her, turned her upside down and tickled her.
In public, they played a quieter shorthand version of the game. Miranda looked up and whispered: “Izzy de mama?” Are you my mother?
Dorrie nodded, winked, leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Yes.”
But it was not enough.
A spate of tantrumsWHEN PATTI received Dorrie’s gift box containing the invitation to open Miranda’s adoption, she was stunned. Locked away in her closet was another box, a shoe box, stuffed with everything that might remind her of the baby she had left behind.
She had joined the Army, completed her service and moved half a dozen times, finally back to Southern California. Bryhannah had been conceived during a one-day affair with an Army doctor. Now Patti was married to still another man. Even in Patti’s new life, Miranda’s adoption made her feel guilty. What if she saw Miranda and wanted to grab her and run? What if she didn’t want to? Would it mean something was wrong with her?
Would Miranda love her? Hate her?
At Dorrie’s urging, Patti consulted with Sharon Roszia, the adoption expert, and finally agreed to come to Miranda’s house. She would bring Jed, now 5, and Bryhannah, 4 months.
“I want to see them,” Miranda said, “but just once.”
They arrived at noon on a clear, sunny day.
Neither family would forget how Miranda, 3 years and 7 months old, climbed into Dorrie’s arms and stared hard at Patti. She said nothing.
“Hello, Miranda,” her birth mother said.
Bryhannah was at Patti’s breast, nursing. Miranda decided to defend Dorrie. She fondled her adoptive mother. “My mommy has breasts too!”
But she wrestled with the ambiguity. “Am I going to stay here with my mommy and daddy?”
“Yes,” Patti replied, relieved to see how loved Miranda was. “Forever. This is your home, and they are your mommy and daddy. I will never take you away.”
Miranda would remember seeing Patti’s pain.
After the visit, Miranda seemed remarkably at ease. She asked Dorrie to pretend to be her sister and play with her. Two days later, she sat on Dorrie’s lap. She had a faraway look.
“What are you thinking?” Dorrie asked.
“About Bryhannah and Jed,” Miranda replied, wistfully.
She awoke several times that night. “I want to go see where they live and then come home again.”
But the prospect brought a spate of tantrums. “Are you trying to see if I will give you away if you are very difficult?” Dorrie asked, exasperated.
“Yes!” Miranda said.
So Dorrie told her a story. It was about Mrs. Grundy, a brown bear with a cub named Andy. One day, Mr. Grundy went into the forest for food and never returned. Then Mrs. Grundy fell out of a tree and broke a leg. She couldn’t take care of her baby. Two kind white bears came along and offered to raise Andy — to keep him safe, find him lots of honey and teach him the ways of the deep, green forest.
Mrs. Grundy loved Andy and knew she would miss him deeply, but she had to let him go. The cub missed Mrs. Grundy but came to love his new parents. Mrs. Grundy healed, then found a new mate and had a new cub.
Andy and the new cub played together, but Andy always went home to the white bears.
He learned that both families loved him.
Miranda listened intently. In a small voice, she said, “Tell it again.”
Back to her birth nameAS MIRANDA GREW, she was drawn ever more to her birth family.
Patti appreciated bright colors. Miranda liked hot pink, purple and orange. Patti was athletic and loved riding a Harley-Davidson. Miranda excelled at gymnastics and was happiest upside down on a monkey bar.
David McArthur, on the other hand, built a harpsichord. He and Dorrie sang in a classical choir. Miranda couldn’t carry a note. The shelves in the McArthur home were loaded with learned tomes. Miranda repeated first grade. Tests showed she had a learning disability.
To ease Miranda’s adoption anxieties, David and Dorrie sent her to a psychologist. When she was asked to rank the people in her life, Miranda listed birth family first. During Patti’s visits, Miranda asked: “Do you love me even when I’m bad?” The answer was always yes. Occasionally, she crawled into Patti’s lap, if only for a few seconds. Each visit seemed to decrease Miranda’s sense of being rejected.
But the differences between Miranda’s two families took a toll. Dorrie and David found Patti self-centered and impulsive. When she joked once about swapping kids, Dorrie bristled. Patti, in turn, found it difficult to trust Dorrie. When Dorrie said she was keeping an adoption journal, Patti, who was chatty, began to measure her words, afraid that Dorrie might write them down and use them against her.
Patti divorced her second husband after a fight so brutal it prompted a friend to call the police. Now she had to work the graveyard shift as a medical clerk. Sometimes she could not scrape together enough pennies to buy milk for Jed and Bryhannah. Her utilities were cut off. When her monthly food stamps ran out, she took her children to her parents in Lancaster for dinner. Finally, she was evicted, and she moved in with her parents, who by then were living in a double-wide trailer in San Diego County.
Her visits to Miranda grew less frequent.
Miranda, now 6, tried to hold on to her. She learned that Patti’s name for her had been Kendall. In a burst of tears, she told Dorrie she wanted to be called Kendall — but that she was afraid to go to court to change her name. “Maybe they will take me away!”
Dorrie hugged her and said she didn’t have to go to court.
Miranda learned to spell Kendall and then to write it. She coached her reluctant parents. “Mother?” she said, then directed Dorrie to reply: “Yes, Kendall.” After a while, she answered only to Kendall. Even if the house were burning down, she said, she would not respond unless they called her Kendall.
She and her adoptive parents compromised: Miranda-Kendall. But slowly, she became simply Kendall. To Dorrie, the change seemed to make Kendall more affectionate.
With the name change, however, Kendall began having nightmares again. But now they were about Dorrie. In Kendall’s dreams, Dorrie was stung by a bee. Dorrie was hospitalized, and she left Kendall alone. Then Dorrie was arrested — and she left Kendall by the side of the road.
Kendall sang a new song she had thought up especially for Dorrie, who would recall its title years later: “You Are the Loveliest Mother.” She pulled out a doll that Patti had given her. Kendall had named the doll Baby. She made Baby jump up and down to get Dorrie’s attention, and then she questioned Dorrie about adoption.
She asked Dorrie to play hide-and-seek and to call out: “I HAVE to find my daughter! I will not lose my daughter!”
Eventually, Kendall’s anxiety eased again.
By the time Kendall was 7, Patti had moved into an apartment in El Cajon, near San Diego. She invited Kendall and the McArthurs for Thanksgiving dinner. By now, Dorrie and Patti had developed a warm friendship. Indeed, this was Kendall’s fourth Thanksgiving with her birth family. It was a memorable one.
Kendall and her half-brother and half-sister chased one another; played ball, Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders; and built a spaceship of Legos. Kendall and Bryhannah watched Jed’s karate moves. They listened while he read to them. When Bryhannah hugged her mother around the knees, Kendall did too. Both of Kendall’s families gathered around Patti’s table and ate turkey and stuffing and broccoli casserole.
When it was time to leave, Kendall beckoned Patti to the car window. “Squeeze my hand,” she said. Patti did. Kendall climbed out of the car and reached up. Patti lifted her. Kendall wrapped her legs and arms around her birth mother and gave her a deep hug.
Patti whispered: “I love you, sweetie.”
For the first time, Kendall said: “I love you too.”
Unspoken resentmentLURKING BENEATH everything, however, were the differences between Kendall’s families.
Patti spanked her children, sometimes with a belt. Once, when Jed stole some money, she stripped his room of everything but his bed and dresser and put him in “jail” for a month. He could come out only to go to the bathroom and to school.
Dorrie, on the other hand, believed that parents should never hit children. When Kendall misbehaved, Dorrie took pains to explain why she shouldn’t. She coaxed Kendall to say why she was being naughty. She gave her timeouts and stopped her allowance. At worst, Dorrie canceled visits to Kendall’s birth family until her behavior improved.
Patti harbored a strong and mostly unspoken resentment about what she saw as Dorrie’s leniency. But to Dorrie, her way was important for Kendall, whose adoption and learning difficulties could cause shame and low self-esteem. When Kendall had trouble at school, Dorrie moved her, hoping to find somewhere she would fit. Kendall switched elementary schools three times.
How, Patti wondered, would Kendall ever adjust to life in the real world? Maybe Dorrie was great at tackling other people’s problems, but not her own daughter’s. Was Dorrie spoiling her to ensure that she loved Dorrie more?
Why, Jed and Bryhannah wondered, couldn’t they get away with things the way Kendall could?
When Dorrie canceled visits, Bryhannah took it personally.
So did Patti. It fed her growing resentment that open adoption went only one way. It also seemed to Patti that Dorrie overemphasized the fact that Kendall was adopted. Kendall’s first doll, a gift from a friend of Dorrie’s, came with adoption papers. Since Kendall was 5, Dorrie had read adoption books to her. Together, they watched adoption programs on TV. Each year, the McArthurs celebrated Kendall’s adoption day.
Adoption, Patti thought, should be a place setting on Kendall’s table — but not the centerpiece. Patti feared that reminding Kendall constantly about being adopted increased her insecurity.
Patti began to withdraw. Alarmed, Dorrie scheduled both families to attend sessions with Kendall’s psychologist. Patti drove home from the first session secretly seething. The whole exercise, it seemed, was designed to persuade her — and only her — to change her behavior. She found each visit with the McArthurs emotionally exhausting.
Patti stopped calling. It was enough that Kendall knew everyone loved her; she would be fine.
When Kendall turned 9, her birth mother missed a birthday visit to Disneyland — and a therapy session. Kendall received a gift from Patti, but it was a week late — and there was no card, not even a note.
Kendall wondered: Had she done something wrong?
She began doing poorly in school. Before each visit to her therapist, she developed a rash. At Thanksgiving that year, she asked Dorrie to not talk about Patti. It made her too sad.
One night, while Dorrie and David were at chorus rehearsal, Kendall and a baby-sitter watched a TV show called “Being Adopted.” Kendall grew agitated, then angry. She demanded some matches.
The sitter phoned Dorrie. As a psychologist, Dorrie knew of two adoptees who had burned down their houses. If they did the worst possible thing, would they still be loved?
Dorrie and David rushed home.
For weeks, Kendall wanted to cuddle. “Izzy de mama?” she asked, over and over. While Dorrie was visiting a friend in Colorado, Kendall wrote on a doorjamb: “I love my mom very much. Do you love me? Please say yes.”
Finally, in June 1993, Kendall called her birth mother, but Patti’s telephone was disconnected. Kendall’s grandparents knew where Patti was, but they wouldn’t tell.
Kendall’s birth mother had disappeared.
Tomorrow: A fateful decision at 18.
About this story
Interviews and a journal: This story is drawn from more than 195 hours of interviews with Kendall McArthur; her adoptive parents, Dorothea and David McArthur; her birth mother, Patti Dick; Patti’s husband, George Dick; Kendall’s half-siblings, Bryhannah Fife and Jed Pool; her birth father, Leo Tremblay; her fiance, Devin Coury; and her friend, Donna Simons. Most of the quotations are taken from a 700-page adoption journal in which Dorothea McArthur contemporaneously recorded dialogue, intending to write an adoption book. Both Kendall and Patti said Dorothea accurately recorded their quotes, if not always their intentions.
Records: Documentation for this story includes hospital birth records, adoption applications, court records, Kendall’s academic and psychological evaluations, her report cards and Patti’s Army records. Information is also drawn from letters between Kendall and Patti and between Dorothea and Patti, as well as from records in a shoe box that Patti kept of belongings relating to Kendall’s adoption. Additional material is based upon 15 studies and books about adoption. The survey showing that nearly two-thirds of Americans have encountered adoptions in their families or with friends was conducted in 2002 by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Adoption experts: Other information is drawn from interviews and consultations with Sharon Roszia, program manager at the Kinship Center in Santa Ana, who introduced Dorothea McArthur to the idea of open adoption and provided her and Patti with adoption counseling. It also is based upon consultations with other experts, including Suzanne Arms, author of the adoption book “To Love and Let Go” and a close friend of Dorothea; Eileen Mayers Pasztor, a child welfare professor at Cal State Long Beach; Brenda Romanchik, a birth mother advocate and director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support; Fred Riley, commissioner of Latter-day Saints Family Services; Heidi Cox, executive vice president and general counsel of the Gladney Center for Adoption, an early opponent of open adoption; Jim Gritter, child welfare supervisor of Catholic Human Services in Traverse City, Mich., an early proponent of open adoption and author of several books about open adoption; Kathleen Silber, associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center; Thomas Atwood, president and chief executive of the National Council for Adoption; and Susan Smith, program and project director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.