RAMONA — In 1964, when Deborah Mattson viewed her adult dilemma through the eyes of a young girl, her choices seemed clear. This kind of decision was made by adults, and they had concluded that an unmarried 15-year-old's only choice was to give up her child for adoption.
"It was always: 'You'll want to give this baby up. You'll want it to have a mother and a father, Debbie. You can't provide that,' " she said.
"And it was true that I couldn't provide those things. It was so logical. I couldn't offer those things. Other people could."
So Mattson relinquished the daughter she had named Melissa Kaye, signed papers saying she would never try to find her and walked away with just two photographs of her premature infant.
More than 20 years later, things are not nearly so simple. Mattson, now married and known as Deborah Roberts, is one of a growing number of birth parents trying to change an adoption system that they believe encouraged them to give up their children and keeps mother and child apart, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Many of the changes have come in the last few years, in the form of "open" adoptions and legally established ways for birth parents to contact their children later in life. But much of the reform is too late to help mothers who gave up their children in the 1960s and 1970s; many of them still feel that they are viewed with disdain for doing so.
Roberts concedes that adoption was her only choice. In 1964, she had no money and no one to care for her daughter had she brought her home. Her parents were divorced, and she lived with her father and younger sister. But she resents the fact that the choice was never presented to her.
"I'm mad (because) I wanted to raise my baby," she said. "But I wasn't given any confidence that I could do it."
"We relinquished the right to parent our children, but we did not relinquish the right to love them," said Janet Appleford, branch coordinator for the San Diego chapter of Concerned United Birthparents, an international organization that offers support and assistance to birth parents. "And to not know where your child is, that's cruel beyond belief."
Historically, adoption authorities believed that complete separation of child and birth parent, secured in later years by nearly total confidentiality, was the best course for all parties in the "adoption triad"--child, birth parents and adoptive parents. That has changed in recent years, as unmarried mothers have become more socially acceptable and gained clout because of increasing demand for their offspring, officials said.
More and more often, arrangements are made at the time of adoption for birth parents to stay in occasional contact with their children or to receive periodic updates about their children's welfare from the agency.
About 90% of the families who adopt children through San Diego County's adoption agency continue to exchange letters and photos with birth parents, said Hawley Ridenour, chief of adoptions. About 5% of them allow phone calls or visits, he said.
Birth parents may now sign waivers of confidentiality at the time of adoption, giving their children the right to find them when they reach the age of 21. At that age, adoptees may sign similar waivers, which allow birth parents to find them. The adoptive parents' consent is not needed.
Adoption counselors also routinely suggest the possibility of girls' raising their children themselves, officials said.
But Roberts had no such opportunity when her daughter was born two months premature during what would have been Roberts' sophomore year at Clairemont High School in San Diego.
The adoption agency would not accept a child that weighed just 4 pounds, 4 ounces, so Melissa spent weeks in an incubator--medical care that Roberts, as her mother, was billed for. But soon Melissa gained weight. A decision had to be made about bringing her home.
"I wanted to go back to school," Roberts said. "I wanted to take journalism. I wanted to put out the school paper. I wanted to be a lawyer like E. G. Marshall in 'The Defenders.' I thought the whole world was open to me, until I got pregnant. And then it closed right in."
She relinquished the child for adoption through the Children's Home Society of California.
She was told that her daughter was going to the home of a banker, a family that could not have any more children. Roberts consoled herself with the thought that she was offering them the gift of a child. And her daughter would be raised in a style she could not hope to afford.
"Here was this beautiful family . . . this 'Ozzie and Harriet' family. It was just perfect," Roberts said. It would be 20 years until she discovered that much of the information was not true.
Roberts bought Melissa three dresses and turned them over to the adoption agency. With just the snapshots as souvenirs, Roberts tried to put Melissa out of her mind.