Open adoption advocate Reuben Pannor at his office in Vista Del Mar in 1984. (Los Angeles Times )
People have an intrinsic right to know their ancestry — at least Reuben Pannor thought so.
A Los Angeles social worker and trailblazer for the open-adoption movement, Pannor co-wrote "The Adoption Triangle," a 1978 book that served as the movement's bellwether.
His work paved the way for a paradigm shift in adoption culture. Before his published argument, the idea that a birth parent would maintain any contact with a child given up for adoption was almost unheard of. Experts feared that including an active role for birth parents would inevitably damage the bond between adoptive parents and child.
Pannor, whose writing and research is also credited with giving voice to unwed fathers, died Dec. 22 of complications of old age at his Pacific Palisades home, said his son Jonathan. He was 90.
"He was incredibly pivotal," said Ann Wrixon, executive director of the Independent Adoption Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open adoptions. "We all considered him a saint for the work that he did."
Today 90% of adoptions in the U.S. are open to some degree, Wrixon said.
"I know it sounds obvious, but in 1978 it was revolutionary," Wrixon said. "He took a lot of grief."
Denying birth parents legal rights, Pannor told The Times in 1991, "permits the loss of all genealogical and historical connections of the child with his birth family. Every human being has the innate right to know and be a part of his natural heritage."
Pannor, whose twin brother Harry also became a social worker, was born in a small village in Lithuania on July 4, 1922. Faced with mounting anti-Semitism, the family immigrated to New York, arriving by boat two days before the twins turned 7. They eventually settled in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where his father worked as a tailor.
During World War II, Pannor joined the Army Air Forces and was stationed at Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago off the coast of Brazil, where he predicted Atlantic Ocean weather patterns.
He went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Cornell University and a master's degree in social work from Columbia University. Visiting New York's Museum of Modern Art, Pannor met his future wife, Sydell, and the couple moved to California after they married.
Over the years, he served as director of community services and director of adoptions at what was then called Vista del Mar Child-Care Service in West Los Angeles.
Inspired by the downtrodden boys who sometimes accompanied pregnant teenage girls to appointments, Pannor conducted hundreds of interviews with the young fathers. The resulting 1971 book he co-wrote, "The Unmarried Father: New Approaches for Helping Unmarried Young Parents," brought attention to unwed fathers and helped humanize them.
The unwed dad, Pannor told The Times in 1971, "is treated as if he exists only in fantasy and is not a real person with needs, fears, doubts and perhaps guilt feelings."
He became something of a spokesman for unwed fathers: "Surely when the child begins to ask about the mother, he'll also ask, 'But what about my father?' "
But seven years later Pannor made his biggest impact with "The Adoption Triangle."
He collaborated with UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Sorosky, who had researched adoptees with identity problems, and fellow Vista Del Mar social worker Annette Baran to write the open-adoption movement's seminal book.
For Karen Vedder, a long-standing advocate for the rights of birth parents, the book encouraged her to tell people — after years of secrecy — that she had given a daughter up for adoption.
"Reading his book gave me courage," said Vedder, mother of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who decided that at 24 she wasn't ready for a second child. "There aren't too many people other than birth parents that really understand, and Reuben understood."
Pannor grasped the complexities of adoption and felt compassion for everyone involved, his son said, offering a personal example. When the younger Pannor, who is gay, decided to adopt two children, not everyone supported him — but his father always did.
In addition to his son Jonathan, he is survived by his wife, Sydell; daughters Suzanna and Gerry; eight grandchildren; and a sister, Esther.