PACER of Northern CA: Helping Those Impacted by Adoption Since 1979

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PACER (Post-Adoption Center for Education and Research) was founded by Dirck Brown in 1979, well before most of society even recognized the need for support and education for adoption-affected individuals.

Brown, an adoptee and successful college dean, knew firsthand the lifelong impact of adoption, and after searching for and reuniting with his birth parents in 1976, began an adoption support group in his own living room. His trailblazing idea blossomed from there. The organization was unique in that it provided support for all members of the adoption triad: adoptees, birth/first parents, and adoptive parents.

PACER has been a leader in Northern California’s adoption support community now for over 35 years. It is a nonprofit, grassroots group led by volunteers. PACER’s offerings include support groups, referrals, mental health services, community events, and educational resources for anyone affected by adoption. The group advocates for open records and transparent policies, as well.

April Topfer, PhD, is PACER’s current president. She is an adoptee and pre-licensed Psychological Assistant who has been in reunion with her birth father since 2012. Recently, Dr. Topfer offered to answer some of our questions about PACER’s impressive history, accomplishments, and offerings for fellow adoptees.

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Secret Sons & Daughters: When PACER was founded in 1979, openly discussing adoption issues was still a bit taboo.  Some thought babies were blank slates who should blend in seamlessly with adoptive families with no desire to search for roots. What were PACER’s first years like and which triad members first embraced the group and its’ ideas?  

Dr. Topfer: You could say openly discussing adoption was a bit taboo, or a lot taboo, at the time! Mental health education, practice, and research about adoption issues was not familiarly known, studied, or talked about. 

For instance, we consider Sorosky, Baran, and Pannor’s seminal book The Adoption Triangle and BJ Lifton’s Lost and Found as being classics in the field but they were actually written the same year that PACER was founded. 

Also, adoption expert Dr. David Brodzinsky was just beginning his research about adoption loss. Before this, the only book written by an adoptee about her experience was The Search for Anna Fisher, a 1973 memoir by ALMA founder Florence Fisher, who blazed the way for open adoption records, search, and reunion. 

This gives us insight about the social atmosphere when Dirck Brown and his colleagues launched PACER. Basically, there were still a lot of unknowns and gross misperceptions about adoption triad/constellation members’ experiences. 

Surprisingly, however, the first and largest group of members who embraced PACER was adoptive parents. They were extremely influential in obtaining large funding, grants, and sponsorships. Dr. Joe Davis, a physician from Stanford University Medical Center – and not an adoption triad/constellation member – also embraced PACER and its mission early on. Others were therapists and first/birth mothers.          

Secret Sons & Daughters: Did you get any negative feedback from certain groups? 

Dr. Topfer: No, I have not heard or read any negative comments about PACER from organizations or individuals. In fact, I’ve only heard very positive feedback. 

There may have been negative feedback toward PACER members actively involved in the CA open records movement, though. PACER had not, until recently, committed itself to legislative and lobbying efforts for open records. 

In the past, PACER was afraid they would alienate adoptive parents if they took a public stand against closed records. That has changed, however, since my time as president.  

Secret Sons & Daughters: Are PACER members and participants mostly adoptees or do you have interest from birth and adoptive parents, as well? 

Dr. Topfer:  The majority of our board members are adopted persons. One first/birth mother is a board member. However, we have a large first/birth mother member population, especially in Sacramento. 

Unfortunately, we don’t currently have adoptive parents on the board or any active adoptive parent groups. PACER is interested in changing this and has consulted with NACAC (North American Council on Adoptable Children) about how to reach out to adoptive parents. 

Also, I’ve been soliciting interest from several therapists who are also adoptive parents. Therapist and adoptive parent Nancy Verrier (author of The Primal Wound) is one of them. 

I think the biggest reason adoptive parents have not been involved with PACER is the disparity in experiences between adopted persons, first/birth mothers, and adoptive parents. Adoptive parents have always been the leading force in the adoption industry, as agencies, policy makers, and the media give their experiences more precedence than adopted persons and first/birth mothers. Adopted individuals’ and first/birth mothers’ voices have not been front and center. 

Pacer-Birth Mother stories

PACER has shifted this power dynamic, giving adopted persons and first/birth mothers the support and a forum to express their experiences of loss, anger, guilt, shame, bewilderment, etc. 

Secret Sons & Daughters: What are typical reasons adoptees first contact PACER? Do these reasons vary greatly between men and women? 

Dr. Topfer: The main reasons adoptees first contact PACER are for issues around search and reunion, and a desire to be supported by others who understand their experience. 

I haven’t noticed or heard that these reasons vary greatly between men and women. However, there are more women than men regularly attending our peer-led support groups. 

Secret Sons & Daughters: Can you describe some examples of “breakthrough” or “a-ha” moments for new members seeking support? 

Dr. Topfer: Good question. I don’t know the “breakthrough” moments for other members but I will speak about my own first experience as a PACER member. 

I had attended a PACER adoptee group several times over a two-year span before my breakthrough moment. It took that long because, admittedly, in those first meetings I was intimidated by others who openly shared their search and reunion experiences. 

I was still deep “in the closet” in terms of my search and reunion and exploring my adoptee identity. It wasn’t because I hadn’t searched before; it was because 15 years earlier when I had contacted my first/birth mother, there was not a welcoming response. So, in those first meetings, I didn’t feel I could contribute significantly to the group. 

Now I wonder if other adoptee newcomers have felt similarly? After finally mustering the courage to talk about my adoption – which felt necessary for my own mental health and wellness – at this same time, I attempted to make contact with my first/birth mother again. As I opened up more, the PACER adoptee group felt less intimidating and more helpful. 

As time progressed, I participated in other PACER events and even went to my first American Adoption Congress conference. At that point, I clearly saw the benefits of being with others who had similar feelings and experiences.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What sort of advice or support do you offer for someone who has had an unsuccessful search or rejection from found relatives? 

Dr. Topfer: This has been my experience with my first/birth mother and her family. The best advice and support I can offer is to practice patience and letting go. 

This doesn’t mean giving up – quite the opposite. It means continuing to hope that a connection will develop but not holding on so tightly that other family member opportunities are missed.  

I see this pattern with adoptees: Their first, and usually only, primary focus is on their birth mother. It’s natural to have this sort of tunnel vision because as adoptees we didn’t receive the genetic bond and love from our first/birth mothers, and we desperately needed it! 

Despite the importance of a mother’s bond, however, an adopted person must realize that he/she has two whole entire families with separate members who may be welcoming, warm, and accepting. In fact, it is other family members who are more likely to extend open arms because they don’t have the loss, shame, guilt, and grief of first/birth mothers. 

As I stated, my personal experience included a restricted “birthmom tunnel vision” for years. 

At the first contact attempt, my first/birth mother screamed and yelled at me. She was in hysterics. This scared me off for another 15 years but I still thought about her often. 

Then, during a therapy session one day, it struck me that I have not only a mother but a father, as well. This felt revolutionary! My therapist was very supportive of my search for him. 

Less than six months after I shifted my attention away from my birth mother, my birth father found me! It’s been two years since we connected and we have a great relationship.

Secret Sons & Daughters: Your site has an excellent, comprehensive list of articles and suggestions for finding an adoption-sensitive therapist. Have you found an increase in the number of mental health professionals that have joined in the belief that adoption has a significant, lifelong, evolving impact on an individual? What type of training is sought by adoption-savvy professionals? 

Dr. Topfer: Thank you. I worked hard on gathering useful articles, videos, and other helpful resources for the website. Many articles are borrowed from C.A.S.E. [Center for Adoption Support and Education, which generously offers free use of information] and other sources. 

In regards to adoption-savvy professionals, I haven’t found a noteworthy increase in mental health professionals and organizations embracing adoption’s significant, lifelong impact. Most therapists recommended on our site have been exploring adoption issues for a while. 

I will add, though, there is increased discussion in the adoption community about adoption competency for professionals. It’s slowly trickling into mainstream mental health. The Donaldson Institute recently released a report about the “Need to Know – Competency in Adoption Therapists” and the APA has an Adoption Practice and Counseling Special Interest Group (SIG). 

A recent California bill proposed that mental health professionals must be certified in adoption competency before obtaining adoption agency referrals. Unfortunately, the bill was gutted and now only states the need for training. Overall, these factors indicate the need for adoption competency is on the minds of professionals aware of adoption’s complexities. 

Regarding training for adoption-savvy professionals; what I do know is that trauma-informed therapy is becoming the standard focus of treatment for not just adults but for children. 

Adoption-sensitive professionals understand the aspects of trauma in adopted and foster children. They acknowledge long-term trauma caused by closed records in adopted adults, too. This opens up different modalities that a practitioner can use to help achieve levels of healing and development—neurological and neurobiological, attachment-focused, somatic, mindfulness, transpersonal, etc. 

In this sense, adoption-savvy professionals perhaps will seek trainings that are trauma-informed, empirical, and experiential. 

Secret Sons & Daughters: Do you have unique support options for individuals affected by various types of adoptions – infant, older/foster child, international, open vs. closed? 

Dr. Topfer: No, not specifically, although we know our group members do have a wide range of adoption experiences. 

We do see the need for more specialized groups, including “professionally-led” meetings, which we hope to start in fall of 2014. They will be facilitated by a professional, be fee-based, closed, and scheduled for a specific amount of time. 

Our current groups are peer-led, drop-in, open, and not fee-based. During professionally-led groups, members will be able to explore their adoption experiences more intimately in a small group.  

Secret Sons & Daughters: What do you think the future holds for open records laws within states and perhaps on a national level?

Dr. Topfer: The trend has been for states to finally open records but with conditions – a waiting period in which a first/birth mother can opt out of contact. Ohio, Illinois, and New Jersey have unconditional vetoes in place. Maine, Oregon, and Alabama do not have vetoes. 

PACER does not have an official stance yet on conditional or unconditional records but we lean toward no compromises and no vetoes. 

A representative from CalOpen, the leading open access organization in California, recently stated: “States that have passed conditional bills are ruining other states’ chances of passing unconditional open access bills. They are unfortunately sending a message that it’s fine for some adoptees to have access but not all; ultimately, that is not okay!”

PACER California access

Personally, I lean toward an unconditional access bill. I used to agree it was okay if some adoptees’ OBCs were sacrificed if the majority got theirs. The compromise seemed acceptable – until I realized my own first/birth mother could redact my OBC, despite Ohio’s recently passed open access bill. 

I was born in Ohio and supportive of the bill (am still partially supportive), but when I read that my birth mother could take away what is truly mine, my heart sank. Those who act too quickly to put conditions on open access bills have not looked deeply enough into this dilemma.

Secret Sons & Daughters:  If you would like to learn more about PACER, visit their comprehensive site: pacer-adoption.org

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