In Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address, he singled out his special guests Ryan and Rebecca Holets, praising them for adopting a homeless woman’s child.
In case you missed it, here’s the backstory: While investigating a possible robbery, Ryan Holets, an Albuquerque police officer, found Crystal Champ and Tom Key about to inject heroin together behind a convenience store. When he told her, “You’re going to kill your baby,” she began to cry and told him she was looking for someone to adopt the child. In that instant, Holets volunteered his family to become the adoptive family Champ was looking for, a plan to which all parties apparently agreed. After CNN ran a story on the adoption, a rehab facility volunteered to treat Champ and Key for free. And last week, Donald Trump praised the Holetses in his State of the Union speech, saying, “You embody the goodness of our nation.”
The media coverage of this strange event has been breathlessly dewy-eyed and glowing. CNN called Holets a “guardian angel” and praised his “selfless decision,” while Time called the story “inspiring.” Only Slate seems to have noticed that this story is creepy as fuck, writing, “For one thing, the power dynamics of the Holets’ situation are cause for concern: A woman in dire poverty who’s just been caught by a cop with illegal drugs is not in a position, free from undue pressure, to willingly surrender custody [of] her fetus.”
How did everyone else seemingly miss such a glaring issue with this adoption “agreement”?
I need to acknowledge that I don’t have particular expertise on the intersection of homelessness and addiction in Albuquerque or anywhere (though will outlets please stop referring to Crystal Champ with the dehumanizing non-moniker “heroin addict”?). I also don’t know whether Champ or her daughter, Hope, are in a positive situation or not, because Champ has expressed her effusive gratitude to the Holetses, and it would be condescending for me not to take her at her word. What I can comment on, though, as a birth mother who has placed my son for adoption, is the American adoption machine into which Champ has now entered. Sadly, the power dynamics of Champ and the Holets family are far too common.
In 2012, I placed my own child for adoption under vastly different circumstances. There was zero heroin in my life. I embarked on my adoption journey intentionally and early, and I chose my son’s adoptive parents from a book of families. I had a dedicated and concerned social worker by my side the whole way, a roof over my head and an unbelievably supportive network of friends. I still see my son all the time. Due to numerous privileges, I basically landed a best-case scenario.
But my status as a birth mother means I have a front-row seat to many cases that aren’t nearly as rosy as mine. Every year, I attend a birth mother dinner shortly before Mother’s Day — a gathering for all generations. I hear stories of women who were lied to by parents and doctors, women who were hidden away in “homes for unwed mothers,” adoptions that start out open (in which birth parents and adoptive families maintain some degree of contact, as my son’s adoptive dads and I do) but then slam shut. And even the “best-case scenarios” like mine are painful as hell; I literally collapsed with grief on the day my son left the hospital without me, and I do not consider myself “healed” from that experience.
Here are some things you may not know about adoption: First of all, most birth mothers are broke at the time of placing their child. If they weren’t broke, they likely wouldn’t be relinquishing their kid. In my case, my wages were being garnished for student loan debt. Most adoptive families, on the other hand, are well-off; they have to be, because it costs hella dollars to adopt — up to $50,000 or more.
So, the power dynamic between birth parents and adoptive parents is nearly always lopsided to begin with. For instance, on average, adoptive families spend $4,000 to $5,000 on “birth mother expenses” — her doctor bills, her living expenses, her travel costs or counseling and legal fees. (By the way, the Holets have raised over $22,000 on GoFundMe for Champ and Key to get back on their feet after attending rehab, and Ryan Holets explicitly states on the GoFundMe that he is the one handling all the money.) Sure, this money helps out a pregnant woman in her time of need — but do you honestly think that taking money from a family who wants your baby doesn’t tilt the power dynamic? According to the Donaldson Adoption Institute, “more than two-thirds of the adoption community believe privilege and money distort adoption.”
Here’s an example of how money distorts adoption: When I announced my adoption plan on Facebook while I was pregnant, people came out of the fucking woodwork to inquire about adopting my child. Folks I hadn’t heard from in years. Folks I didn’t even know. All told, I think I got at least two-dozen messages inquiring about adopting my child. I was bombarded; I felt like a fertile piece of meat. This was part of why I chose my son’s adoptive parents through an agency. I knew I didn’t have the mental capacity to vet that many families on my own.
But I have compassion for all the people who reached out to me too. After all, the adoption system is so prohibitively expensive and laden with red tape, and lots of pre-adoptive families don’t have the necessary resources to get to the finish line. If you could find a way to circumvent all that expense and bureaucracy by connecting with a birth mother directly, well… wouldn’t you at least give it a shot?
Which brings me to our friends, the Holets family. Champ was in a much different position than I was; she was, and is, a homeless woman struggling with addiction. It doesn’t sound like she had anyone besides the Holetses vying for her fetus. This makes sense considering what I saw at my adoption agency. When I was looking through the book o’ families to choose my son’s adoptive parents, there was a place on the form where prospective parents disclosed how much drug use they were OK with the birth mother having participated in; very few families would have been comfortable with Champ’s level of heroin use.
So, a stranger approached Champ. A stranger who had the explicit power to imprison her and who had been discussing adoption with his wife. A stranger who wasn’t deterred by the knowledge that the child had been exposed to heroin. Whether he thought of it this way or not, Ryan Holets’ connection with Champ was his opportunity to avoid paying $30,000 to 50,000 in adoption costs.
And it must be mentioned, Champ’s future access to her child is now probably entirely in the hands of the Holets. When asked on CNN about the openness of the adoption, Ryan Holets was vague. “We’re sending them pictures. We’re giving them updates. We want them to be able to continue to see her and be in their life. I think she’s going to know how much they loved her. And that’s never going to be in question.”
I’m glad he used the words “continue to see her,” but am distressed that he used the past tense to refer to Champ’s and Key’s love for Hope. If the Holets decide they no longer want their daughter to have contact with her birth parents, they can make that happen remarkably easily. I mean, yes, post-adoption contact agreements in New Mexico can be legally enforceable. But I haven’t seen any evidence the Holets family has entered into a post-adoption contact agreement with Hope’s birth parents. And without one, if the Holetses decide to ghost, Champ’s and Key’s hands are pretty much tied.
For the record, I don’t have a legally enforceable agreement with my son’s adoptive family because in New York, the terms of such an agreement have to be nearly draconian, establishing exactly who reaches out to whom, how often and through what means. We have a written agreement, but it would not be enforceable in court. And even with an adoptive family like mine, who values openness as much as I do, I’m really at their mercy; they recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it.
All in all, the whole Champ-Holets scenario plus the American adoption system in general adds up to a pretty lopsided situation. Slate’s rage is well-placed. But if you think messed-up power dynamics are rare in adoption, you are wrong; they are the norm. If you think the GOP is alone in seeing birth mothers as baby factories, you are wrong.
Do you think every single person who reached out to me wanting my baby saw me as a whole person and not just a conduit to the baby they could potentially get from me? Do you know how many people have assumed I was interested in becoming a surrogate because I’d been a birth mother, presuming that my uterus was just perpetually for rent now? Did you know that some adoptees refer to their birth mothers as their “birth canal,” refusing to use the word “mother”?
Donald Trump dehumanized birth mothers by refusing to include Crystal Champ’s name or story in his State of the Union address. But you know who else dehumanizes birth mothers? The whole damn world. And frankly, it’s annoying to see people only care about us when Donald Trump awkwardly folds us into a skewed speech.
The Holetses seem to be genuinely interested in helping Hope’s birth parents recover from addiction and land on their feet, and I think that’s wonderful — and it’s certainly not true of every adoptive family. But I keep tripping over this quote from Ryan Holets’ CNN interview: “I could have, for example, told Crystal about all the resources that are available. But if I didn’t actually reach out and help her, who else was going to do it, really?”
I dunno, man. If you think your options are either “passively relay information and then bounce” or “immediately adopt child of woman who’s probably afraid I’ll arrest her otherwise” with nothing in between, your thinking might be a little binary. Ryan Holets could have taken an active and helpful role in Champ’s adoption journey without actually adopting her child. Instead, he used his power to get what he wanted. And sadly, that’s remarkably consistent with the adoption industry as a whole.