“It’s All About Respect”: An Interview on Open Adoption With Joyce Horn

An Interview on Open AdoptionBy Alix Mammina

Most private domestic adoptions in the United States now take place as open adoptions, where the adoptive families maintain at least some contact with the birth families. But when Joyce Horn and her husband Al started their adoption journey in Austin, TX, in the late ‘90s, open adoptions were still relatively rare. We sat down with Joyce to talk about her experience with open adoption, the changing language of adoption, and her advocacy work with Support Texas Adoptee Rights (STAR).

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alix Mammina (AM): Can you start by telling me a little about yourself and your adoption journey?

Joyce Horn (JH): We started our exploration of becoming an adoptive family in the late 1990s. We lived in Austin at the time and we learned about Adoption Knowledge Affiliates, and so we went to our first conference there and gained a great deal of information and insight and started the process. We met several other couples who were also in the process of wanting to create their families through adoption, so we never felt like we were alone in our journey. After choosing our adoption agency we spent several different days in training.  That along with the monthly training we received through AKA made us feel open adoption was clearly the only healthy choice for our family. 

We were matched with our birth mother in June of 2000. She chose us almost immediately, within a few weeks. We met both over the phone and in person; we were invited to join her for the last few doctor’s appointments, meet the doctor, hear the heartbeat, and coordinate the hospital schedules.  We were honored to be invited to join family and friends at the time of labor. During the actual birth we were outside the door listening because only three people could be in the room for the actual delivery. Within 45 minutes after birth, we were invited into the room and met our precious baby.  Everyone was released from the hospital the next afternoon, and the following morning, the paperwork was signed. 

Since that day our families have been blended in such a unique way.  We have all worked to maintain a very open adoption with both sides of the families of origin.  When I say the family of origin, this refers to grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins, and half siblings. Our child has always known about the adoption.  My husband and I have always said, “it feels like we were adopted, because we were just so welcomed into the families of origin.”

AM: How did you share with your daughter about her adoption? Did you start at a young age?

JH: One of the things we learned in our adoption support group was to immediately start talking about the language of adoption, and we did that starting at birth by saying, “I’m so glad that we’re an adoptive family, I’m so glad that you’re a part of our family, we love you and we love adoption”— and so it’s just always been there. 

After the birth our birth mother was in South Texas along with her parents and her sister.  We would meet about every six weeks or so in Corpus Christi as this was a halfway meeting point and a great place to spend the day together at parks, the beach, the aquarium. In our definition of open adoption, there have been no boundaries, and everyone has been open to showing and showering love and support to both our child and our family. 

From 2000 to 2010, there was no contact with the paternal family. We always knew this was a possibility and were prepared to answer the questions when asked.  In May 2010, that call was received.  Through a series of events the paternal grandparents learned [they had] a grandchild they were not aware of.  Our birth mother met them first and felt it would be healthy for my husband and I to meet them as well.  After a brief phone call, arrangements were made to meet in person to ensure this was going to be a safe, healthy, positive relationship. It most definitely has been and continues to be a wonderful relationship!

When we met the first time they gave us a photo album of their family. About a week or two later we sat down one night [with our child] and explained the birth father’s family had contacted us, we had met with them, and we felt that it would be a positive relationship should they want to meet. This was all taken in stride, as I think there was such an element of surprise.  It was further explained that we have a photo album to share if interested. The decision was made to look at the album, and we made it clear we could stop at any time. After going through the album and explaining who all the family members are, we asked, “What questions do you have?”  There were no questions, but the immediate comment was, “Well, I don’t have a family tree, I have a family jungle!”

AM: It sounds like you put an emphasis even from a young age on empowering her and involving her in decision making. How did you balance that with your roles as her caregivers?

JH: It was quite easy, and I think a lot of it depended on the openness and the personalities of all the family members. We just felt like it was so beneficial to share and make sure that everyone had equal time.  We always prefaced that with, if at any time you feel uncomfortable, you don’t want to see them, you don’t want to talk with them, then you need to let us know that and we will talk about it. It would be up to us as parents to make that explanation as adults to other adults, but that time never came. So, our adoption has always been very open. To this day, through social media, Facebook Messenger or texting we see what’s going on with each other and each other’s lives, and we’re good at sharing pictures and updates.

AM: You’ve been on this journey for a couple of decades. I’m wondering if you could talk about how the language around adoption has changed over time.

JH: Back in the day, we referred to the birth mother as “tummy mommy” At that point in time our birth father was not in the picture and we never really discussed him, but when we did, we referred to him as “tummy daddy.” There were never a lot of questions about who he is, why he isn’t here. By the age of 3 or 4 we stopped using the term ‘tummy mommy/ tummy daddy.’ 

The [paternal] grandparents didn’t want to be called grandma and grandpa. We didn’t really know what we were going to call them. Together [the paternal grandparents] and our child came up with unique names to call each other and that has stuck for 14 years.

It’s been difficult for me personally to break out identifying characters like birth parents, birth grandparents. The politically correct terminology now typically is family of origin. And while I appreciate that, that term to me is too generic in our situation. I think it’s because we know all the players in more detail, and all our family and friends know we’ve been very open to the fact. We would say we are an adoptive family, but once we got to a certain age then we pretty much stopped doing that and felt like it was [our child ’s] story to tell, not ours. If it came up in conversation or [at the] doctor’s office or something like that then obviously we would do an explanation, but otherwise we never felt like it was something that needed to be shared. 

My biggest complaint is in my adult professional career, I have worked with people with disabilities. I have always felt it is very important to recognize the person before a disability. When getting into the field of adoption that language was not followed, and the language was always the ‘adopted person.’ I mean the hair on my neck would just go up and I’d say, “No, no, it’s the person who was adopted, put the person first.” I still feel that way in many cases, so I don’t like the terminology, “adopted person.” But I’ve also learned that because there are so many people in closed adoptions, still so much secrecy, there’s still so many questions such as, “who am I, who do I look like, where did I come from, what are my genetics, what are my DNA, what is my medical history, why do I have certain talents and interests that are so different from my adoptive family” that saying adopted person is actually okay with them, because adoption is first and foremost for them. I think it’s a very fine line and truly depends on the circumstances. 

The other phrase that is often used particularly by the media, is “gave up for adoption.” The more respectful terminology is, “make/made an adoption plan.”

AM: Could you share about the advocacy work you do in Texas? 

JH: For the approximately 600,000 people in the state of Texas who are adopted, most do not have full access to their original birth certificate. There are several misconceptions surrounding this topic. Many people think if a person has access to, or obtains their original birth certificate, secrets will be divulged, maybe a reunion. I’m not saying they have to have a reunion; I’m not saying they have to be best friends, many times they’re not—but every single person deserves the right to know who they are, who they look like, what their DNA is, what their medical history is, what their true ethnicity is, and to deny that is criminal, in my opinion.

[In my work with STAR] we meet with the legislators in their offices, or a member of their staff who can listen to some of the statistics that we are able to show. We advocate for the rights of people who are adopted. When we have those conversations sometimes it’s pretty pointed in terms: do you know who you are and where you came from? And the answer is typically yes. And then we say, “What if you didn’t know?” And they just look at you with this blank stare. 

From there we’re able to say this is why this is so important. Once presented with those facts and figures, it’s a lightbulb moment. Most of the board of STAR is made up of people who are adopted, and they have their own stories and their own history. Some are in reunion, some are not, and that’s been their personal choice. But again, it goes back to the main reasons for wanting that information and it comes down to identity and health—mental, physical, and emotional. 

AM: How long have you been a part of this specific advocacy and what inspired you to get involved?

JH: I was asked to join the board in August of 2022. My first legislative session was from January through May of 2023 and we’re gearing up for the next legislative session, which will begin in January of 2025. In the interim we’ve created a newsletter, we’ve tried to increase our exposure in social media, keeping people aware of other states that are struggling with this as well, which states have passed it, which states haven’t.

If you as a person who is adopted know the name of a birthparent then you can go to the Bureau of Vital Statistics and get your original birth certificate. But part of the issue with that is sometimes the names are misspelled or the names are incorrect or perhaps one of the family members didn’t use the correct name. There’s also sometimes discrimination in the clerk’s offices, not wanting to provide the information perhaps because of their own personal biases. That has happened as well. 

My main reason for getting involved is because I strongly believe everybody has a right to know who they are and where they came from, should they so choose. The fact that those records are sealed and as an adult you have difficulty accessing your personal information is discrimination. If you don’t know the name of your birth parents or anyone in the family of origin then you have to hire an attorney, go to court and present your case before the judge. It’s up to the judge to determine whether they think your request is a good or valid reason. There are people who turn 18, they want [to know] their background, they go before the judge and the judge says, “Well, I think that’s sounds reasonable,” and signs off on it so they can obtain their original birth certificate—but now they’ve had to incur the cost of hiring an attorney, incurred court costs, sometimes spent thousands of dollars. Someone who is not adopted can walk into the Bureau of Vital Statistics, pay $10 and obtain their original birth certificate. Where’s the fairness? In most cases, the person didn’t ask to be adopted, why are they made to jump through hoops? There are also issues sometimes with getting passports or driver’s licenses because you must have an original birth certificate. So ultimately, my reason for getting involved is everybody deserves the equality of having this basic vital information about themselves. Vital records are vital.

AM: What advice do you have for adoptive or foster caregivers who are navigating what language to use with the children in their care?

JH: I think it depends on the circumstances, the parties involved and how long a child is in foster care as to how the relationship between the child and the foster parents develops. Using first names, that was what our family chose to do. I think that’s what a lot of families choose to do is just to use the name—first names, last names, nicknames, whatever.

I think as time goes on, and there’s a level of comfortability and security within the family and the circumstances, then if additional names want to be added, mother, father, whatever, then I think that’s a decision that is made between the person and the family.

 You used the word empowerment earlier, and I think particularly in the foster care system there are so many children who have no power over what has happened to them or what they’re facing. And I think anytime that you can help them to make their decisions, help them to see the consequences of their decisions, that gives them empowerment. I think that is just so important as to who they are as a person, and to show the respect that you have for each other. 

I do think that it’s really an individual thing and there is no right way and wrong way. I think it’s what is best for the circumstances and the people involved and coming as best you can to a mutual decision; I think it’s all about respect, and what is mentally and emotionally healthy for the child. 

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Read more:

My People: Fostering and Language

Real People With Real Stories: An Interview on the Adoption Experience

The Fictive Language of Adoption

A Guide on Inclusive Adoption Language