Today, I’m thrilled to publish an interview with Lynn Johansenn, founder of Saving Our Sisters (SOS), a non-profit organization dedicated to family preservation. Lynn graciously honored my request to talk about her earliest efforts toward family preservation and her vision in helping women make a truly informed decision when considering adoption.
Kat: Lynn, I’ve been involved with SOS for over a year. When I first became acquainted with you, SOS was an informal, tightly woven network of first moms and adoptees who were passionate about helping families avoid the pain of adoption. This was accomplished by providing information to resources, basic necessities and/or support to the new or expectant mom. SOS is still the same wonderful network of people providing these resources, but it has grown to become an official non-profit program under the umbrella of Concerned United Birthparents (CUB). It has been an amazing process to witness.
With all of the growth, I’m interested to hear about the beginnings of SOS (technically before it was called SOS). I’d love to hear more about your personal story, how it inspired you to help others facing adoption, the first time you used your voice to help others make an informed choice and the first time a mother decided to parent with your assistance.
You lost your son to adoption in 2011, and I’ve heard you say that you came out of the fog pretty quickly after. It seems that you were almost immediately regretful of having reached out to an adoption agency who took advantage of your fears. You were in a situation where you felt backed into a corner and you didn’t have any options. Would you say that’s an accurate description?
LYNN: Yes, that is completely accurate. I did not want to relinquish my child, I wanted him. My issue was I had no maternity coverage. I contacted the private insurance company that I had a high deductible through, and asked if they would pay for my medically necessary C-section. I was told no. This led me to next attempt to work out a ‘cash price’ for the delivery of my son. I had to work a deal with the hospital, the anesthesiologist and the doctor. The price still was not something that I was able to afford. I was quoted $15,000 and it had to be paid before walking into the hospital in labor. I refused to look at ‘profiles’ until I just ran out of options and time. 12 days before my son was born, I finally threw in the towel and browsed through some that the agency ‘case worker’ sent to me.
Kat: I can’t even imagine those last days of your pregnancy and the feeling of hopelessness you must have experienced, Lynn. Thank you for sharing that with us. Like most of us, I’m sure once you found the adoption community, you must have felt the connection many of us share. Once we discover that connection, it inspires many of us to use our voice. Can you share more about how this experience unfolded for you?
LYNN: Well, I read a few blogs. Then I blogged, which initially, was very therapeutic. It helped me process and document my anger, frustration, guilt, grief and complete and total regret for relinquishing my son. I also started reaching out to the adoption community online, I needed to talk to someone. I ended up in a group that was a ‘happy-dappy’ adoption group, complete with adoptive parents and mothers who relinquished. It didn’t feel right – at all. I couldn’t wrap my head around how anyone could be happy with giving their child away to strangers. I also made some amazing connections. I found a mother about my same age whose story was very similar to mine. Everything in our situations had happened very fast, we panicked, and felt we had no support and that we couldn’t ‘do’ another child. We ended up spending time on the phone. We talked about how we needed to do ‘something’ to keep any other mothers from giving away their children, when they were in such temporary circumstances. That is how all of this started. I put it into motion. In the forums I was in, I started offering advice, and help to pregnant mothers who were out there looking for it. I also gave them the truth of what adoption was. The despair I suffered by losing my son. I also listened and learned from the ‘happy’ people (usually adoptive parents), who challenged my stance on helping mothers keep their babies. They had hesitations, of course using the typical stereotypes. ‘What if they’re addicted/alcoholic/homeless? They should keep their babies?’ I had to be able to answer these questions, and I figured out how to do so. Of course a mother who has no home, is using or drinking needs help. In these cases, we can look for ways to find them help, and look for a guardian within the family who would be willing to take in the infant until mom gets on her feet and does what she needs to in order to be the kind of parent she wants to be. All mothers need and deserve a chance – if they want it. I am happy to report, I haven’t found these stereotypes……we’ve helped a lot of mothers since 2011, and I’m happy to say, there has been only 1 case of a mother who was in this situation. Her family did step up and is helping her and her child.
Kat: That is awesome to hear!
I relate to your experience of finding others who had gone through similar circumstances and then finding the support in each other to start speaking out. It’s very empowering. You immediately had some success in helping other expectant moms because I read on your blog that by November of 2011, you had already spoken to 11 moms. Do you remember the very first time you reached out to someone who was considering adoption and can you tell me a little about the situation and what you said?
LYNN: I do remember, and I’m happy to tell you. It is the same thing I tell them when I’m helping them today. I ask them if they want their baby. I ask them what the situation is that is making them feel like they have to give their baby to really complete strangers. I ask them what and where their support network is, and if they’ve asked them for help, or spoken about her concerns with having another baby. I listen, and then once I have a pretty good idea about where her head is, I start asking how permanent the obstacles she is feeling really are. I offer suggestions on how to eliminate the obstacles. I also start thinking about the resources that she may be able to find locally that would take some of the stress off of her. Whether it be energy assistance, a list of daycare providers, to getting some assistance with any other children she has. We talk about where the father is, and if there are different fathers of her other children, and we talk about the level of support she is receiving from him/them and his/their family, because after all, the children are a part of their family as well.
As for the things that the industry doesn’t tell them, I explain for example, that there is NO REASON she needs to sign in the hospital. As long as she has a safe place for her and her baby to go after delivery, she should take the baby home, she will be recovering from giving birth anyway and that she can place her child for adoption at any age. People waiting for any baby will not care if the baby is a day or 5 months old. They will happily take her baby. The industry professionals want a mother to sign as SOON as the state statutes say she can, and in my opinion, before she can get her wits about her and truly feel the bond her and her baby have. I also explain that open adoption agreements are not enforceable without a TON of cash. If the relationship becomes closed, she will have to take the people that have her child to court (if she is in one of the few states that enforce these agreements), and to remember that they have more money than she does right now. I also tell her that her child’s original birth certificate will be amended and sealed away, and not even her child will be able to obtain it in many cases – it will be like she never existed.
Kat: I think that’s an important point that you highlighted, Lynn. Most of the time the mom is pressured to sign as soon as possible. You are so right that she should never face that sort of pressure and in fact, any such pressure is a good reason to delay signing. What are some other high-pressure tactics that you explain to expectant moms?
Lynn: I explain what coercion is, and I ask her if she has had any experience with it. For example, has she ‘matched’ with people who want her baby? Has she received any money while pregnant, had bills paid, or clothes purchased for her by the agency or prospective adoptive parents? I ask her if the adoption entity has explained whether or not she will have to ‘pay back’ the funds if she changes her mind. I explain how having people in the hospital before, during and immediately after she gives birth (especially people who want her baby) is distracting and even dismissive to her personal experience and bond that she will have with her baby. Pre-birth matching is coercion. I explain that it creates ‘obligation’, and once I ask her how she will feel if she changes her mind……it then clicks. She will feel bad for them. Once they understand the coercion, they understand why matching, and the money and the ‘gifts’ is so very wrong.
I also talk to her about how there is no guarantee how her baby will feel as an adult that he/she was given away, and that her intentions may never matter. Some adoptees grow up and are very angry. Every household has the same challenges, divorce, job loss, lack of funds at some point or another and there is no guarantee that the people who want her baby won’t experience them. I tell her to reach out to adult adoptees and speak to them, so that she can really hear it from them so that they can tell her what it is like to grow up ‘adopted’. I tell her to speak to mothers who have a successful open adoption (if she can find one, I only know of 1 mother in one).
Kat: As an adoptee from open adoption, I really appreciate that you talk to them about how it used as a coercive tool. And you are so right – not all adoptees are going to say they were happy within that arrangement. This is an aspect that most agencies refuse to discuss.
It must have been an exhilarating experience the first time you were able to assist a mom in keeping her baby! Having been personally involved in one instance myself (via SOS), I can say that I was ecstatic that this beautiful family wasn’t separated. It was a truly wonderful experience to see the mom and baby together. I’d love to hear more about the first time you experienced this and any details you’d be willing to share.
LYNN: It was. I didn’t have a ‘network’ back then focused on family preservation, and all of my work was done via the internet, so I never got to meet her. She really didn’t need to receive any monetary or financial assistance. She contacted me via an online forum discussing adoption and pregnancy. She just needed an ear, and someone to help guide her through some of the decisions she needed to make as a mother. She needed information. I really just encouraged her to ask for help, and tell her family and friends the truth, that she wanted her baby. She listened, and kept her baby. She was also very thankful, and it was extremely uplifting, and I believe it helped me begin healing. I gave her what I needed when I was in her shoes. I also remember thinking how easy it was. All she needed was an ear, and some advice.
I was over the moon as they say, and talked about it with my closest friends and family about it. I even lost a few friends over it. Especially the one that was thinking about adopting because she wasn’t conceiving. I was a mother of loss on a mission back then, and hadn’t quite healed enough to educate or deliver my message and intentions with tact. I guess you could say I had an abrasive way of communicating my passion. Thankfully, I have been able to build this amazing network and we have helped more mothers than I can count which has helped me heal some, and my regret, passion and focus for family preservation and adoptee rights can be communicated in a way that I don’t come off as just another ‘bitter birth mom’ to the majority of society. I know that people who despise what I do will always consider me bitter……..and deep down……maybe I am, but I’m putting it to good use.
Kat: Yes, passions can run a little heated to say the least, but we’re always learning and improving! I can appreciate your desire to use your experience to inspire you to help others. That’s my desire as well.
Lynn: I never imagined that there were so many who are on the same side of adoption who share the same views. By that I mean, adoptees and mothers of adoption loss. I never knew anything about adoption before being a pregnant mother in complete and total panic mode. I was totally blind to it, and was sold the industry facade and had no idea the complexity, the stress on the relationship I have with my older daughter, or my extended family that doing this even with the best of intentions was going to cause. Sadly, it is a permanent solution to my so very temporary problems that literally dissipated within a few short months after losing my son.
Kat: Lynn, thank you so very much for sharing so many details of the early days of your story and your efforts to help moms who are facing adoption. It’s so important to know the history, the inspiration and the vision, and I hope to talk to you more about this in the future. I’d like to express my gratitude to you for taking time to talk with me and for sharing so much.
Lynn: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this, and share with others the beginnings and focus of what has become Saving Our Sisters, and most of all, thank you for everything that you have done! <3
Saving Our Sisters is a 501c3 non-profit program. Please consider donating to this organization that is dedicated to preserving families. Donations can be made via the Concerned United Birthparents website (select Saving Our Sisters for your donation) and may be tax deductible (please check with your tax advisor). In a time period where we are accustomed to seeing exorbitant director salaries and very few donation dollars being spent on the actual organizational purpose, it is extremely refreshing to know that the work SOS accomplishes is done through volunteers. 100% of the donations go to the needs of the families helped!