This story was on MSNBC’s website yesterday and it’s been making me think. Sandra and Ross Titus recently adopted Jillian. The thing is, Jillian is 29. (Sandra and Ross are in their forties, but this seems less important to me.) They all work together at Nintendo, outside Seattle, WA.
Adoption is, of course, the legal process by which a person or people become legal parents of a child, replacing some other set of parents. Adoption of adults is much less common and in some ways quite different from adoption of infants/children, but the process is essentially similar. It’s the combination of sameness/difference that makes this story thought-provoking to me.
For one thing, it would seem that at 29 you are entitled to make this decision (obviously together with the people who plan to adopt you) and thus, the role of the state as screener should be diminished. This does seem to be the case–there’s no home study (at least in Washington) in an adult adoption. Frankly, I don’t see why any outsider would have the right to object to the process the parties here had in mind.
Notably, while it appears that the adoption does terminate the rights of the preceding set of parents (in this case, the birth parents) they don’t have any right to object to it. That’s different from where the person to be adopted is a child. In those instances, the original parents must either agree to their termination of their parental rights or there must be a basis for terminating them.
Now why would that be different with an adult adoption? If the protection of parental rights justifies the process with regard to a minor child, why don’t the parental rights require the same process if the child is grown?
There’s been a lot of discussion of birth certificates here on the blog. After an adoption is completed, it is common to issue a new birth certificate with the names of the adoptive parents on it. (I know this makes some of you crazy–and there’s lots of discussion of that elsewhere.) That’s what was done here, too.
This seems to me quite striking. In other places I’ve pointed out that parents (and here I mean legal parents) need birth certificates to register kids for school and sports and such like. As long as birth certificates are the required paper for these purposes, it seems only reasonable (to me) to give the adoptive parents the paper they need.
But none of that stuff is at issue here. Jillian Titus is perfectly capable of managing all the details of her life on her own. Yet the birth certificate is obviously important to the people involved. It seems to me that this isn’t about deceiving anyone but rather as a form of affirmance of the new parent/child relationship. It seems to me the importance of the birth certificate is at least in large measure symbolic.
And this brings me to a larger point about the role of law in our lives. I’ve often talked about the importance of legal, as opposed to social, status as a parent. Legal parents have important rights and obligations vis-a-vis their children. When Sandra and Ross Titus became legal parents to Jillian these rights and obligations (to the extent they apply to adults) were assigned to them. But the rights and obligations of a parent are much less important with respect to adult children, who make their own decisions.
But it seems clear to me that this adoption isn’t only about legal rights and obligations. As with the birth certificate, there is an enormously important symbolic/emotional value to the legal process. This adoption isn’t just about rights and obligations–it is a statement of the permanent commitment this family chooses to establish.
That’s an aspect of law that perhaps I have not emphasized enough. We tend to give law enormous symbolic importance. Having relationships recognized in law affirms their validity in countless intangible ways. (This is part of why the struggle for access to marriage for same sex couples continues even where same sex couples can enter into legally recognized relations that bring with them the rights/obligations of marriage.) It’s certainly true that law operates on a practical level, assigning rights and obligations. But perhaps it is just as important that it operates on a symbolic level, affirming the legally-recognized relationships as worthy of societal recognition.