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Hard to Place

Erika S. Olson
16 min readOct 25, 2020


(Or, our adoption journey: part 3 of 3)

For obvious reasons, names, places and identifying characteristics have been changed. Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first for context.

After Summer had gone through her methadone withdrawal in the hospital and we finally took her home, we emailed with her birth parents, Jon and Natalie, on a pre-determined schedule that wasn’t legally binding, but that we had agreed upon in good faith and intended to keep. We promised to send them updates and pictures more frequently in the early years, and then less frequently as time went on, until Summer is 18 years old.

When we made this arrangement, we also said that we would be up for visits in a mutually agreed upon location as long as Natalie was clean — meaning not in rehab or actively using any sort of drug. I felt in my heart that Natalie just needed to hear us say we would be open to this, but my gut told me she would never pursue it.

The truth was that we really were open to it. But if Doc Brown showed up and took me back to before we’d completed our adoption training, Past Me would’ve said there was no way in hell I would agree to keeping in touch with my child’s birth parents. I already shared that prior to our training, the adoption scenario I feared most involved a birth mother who had substance abuse issues. But a close runner-up was “birth parents who wanted to remain in contact.”

In fact, we had never even considered adopting from the US when we set out on this journey — that’s how much I wanted to avoid being involved with birth parents. We had planned to get the lawyers’ take on adopting from a few specific countries my husband and I had visited that held special places in our heart.

But in the three-hour meeting I mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 where lawyers presented us with all of the various adoption scenarios we needed to consider, we learned some hard truths about adopting from the countries we had targeted. We realized the timeframes involved, the level of red tape and the extraordinarily high potential for fraud or deception were not risks we wanted to take. The lawyers described being matched with a child and then potentially having to wait years to actually bring him or her home — knowing all the while that the child was languishing in a poorly run orphanage with not enough food and barely any human interaction. The lawyers told us stories of clients flying to meet their children and learning they were missing a limb. Some agencies in other countries would hold back information like this, banking on the fact that once the adoptive parents arrived in the country and actually saw the child that they would still go through with the adoption. Years later I would think back to this meeting with the lawyers, because one of my closest friends had nearly finalized an adoption from a Central American country, only to find out at the last minute that the child had a previously undisclosed disease that would’ve put her other kids at risk. I have since made several friends who adopted children from other countries, and almost all of their experiences confirmed that it can be a heart-wrenching, years-long process.

And so I walked out of the law firm’s building that day in a daze — trying to come to terms with: 1) adopting in the US, and

2) having an “open adoption” — which is common these days — where the birth parents and the adoptive parents meet before the baby is born and potentially stay in contact afterward, and

3) the fact that we would cut ourselves off from many adoption opportunities if I refused to be matched with birth mothers who had substance abuse issues.

My specific fear about an open adoption in the US was that the birth parents would try to find us one day. I never worried that they would want or try to take their biological child back or anything like that — I just felt deeply uncomfortable with the idea of my child’s birth parents knowing who we were and potentially popping up in our lives years later unannounced, with agendas unknown to us.

But again, our state-mandated training helped ease these fears. We watched panels with every birth parent/adoptive parent situation you could think of: where they’d never met, where they met during the pregnancy but they never spoke again afterward, where they stayed in touch via email, where they saw each other frequently … there was even one story we heard where the birth and adoptive parents pretty much co-parented.

We learned that it was deeply, deeply important for the child to know their birth story and for there to not be any secrets, and how being open to the possibility of letting your child meet his or her birth parents could only benefit them, if that was their desire one day. After we completed our training, I had a flash of a memory from months prior, when one of the lawyers shared that when her adopted son got engaged, she sat and sobbed in the bathroom because he had recently connected with his birth mother and had decided to involve her in the wedding planning … and asked her to sit at the head table with him. On one of the most important days of her son’s life, she felt suddenly unsure of her place alongside a woman he was just beginning to get to know, heartbroken that roles she assumed she would take were now his birth mother’s. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Things like this could happen, and you will have to get over it, because it’s not about you. I was devastated, but I was never going to let him know that.”

And then suddenly there we were, saying we would be up for visits with Natalie (Jon was never interested in this option) and committing to sending both of them pictures of Summer for the better part of the next two decades.

But what actually ended up happening after we returned home?

At first, we heard from Natalie all the time. During her pregnancy she texted me constantly, and that continued afterward. However, our adoption team advised us to reply only by email. As you know by now, there were many parts of this process that ripped me apart. This was one of them. We had been forewarned about this exact scenario for months. Both Natalie and I spoke with the same therapist (set up by our adoption team) who gently reminded us that Natalie had her life and my husband and I had ours, and that our role was to be the best parent we could be to Summer and honor Natalie’s wishes to keep in touch. I had to avoid serving as some sort of counselor, confidante or problem-solver for Natalie.

Those reading this who used to follow my LOST recaps back in the day might remember me saying that while Locke was my favorite character, I identified most closely with Jack, because I was always trying to “fix things” (including people). When Summer was born, Natalie had nowhere to live. During her pregnancy, she rotated between a few different friends’ homes, sleeping on couches and in spare rooms. This was to avoid being back at home with her mother, stepfather and sister, who were all addicts — she didn’t want to put herself in the position of being near pills. Her father was an alcoholic who said she’d have to pay him rent to live with him after she delivered. She’d needed to quit her job at the late-night convenience store late in her pregnancy because she couldn’t be on her feet for the hours required. Of course I wanted to help, and I felt like I COULD help. But I also knew that the counselors and therapists and everyone on our adoption team had seen situations like this play out a million times, and they knew it would not end well if I inserted myself into Natalie’s life. So, we did what they recommended: we paid to keep her counseling services going so that a professional could help her. We kept our communication focused on Summer and her milestones. And not a day has gone by since we brought Summer home that I have not thought about Natalie and worried about how she is doing.

My fears grew when she stopped responding to our updates. Jon only responded three times in total — the final time being before Summer turned 1. At that point, he said he was forwarding the messages to Natalie because she “kept changing phones and couldn’t get a new email address set up.” I didn’t really understand that, but it did concern me that after all the texts when we first got home with Summer, as well as an email reply to our one-week update and another to our one-month update, we didn’t hear from Natalie directly again for years.

I worried she had fallen back into addiction. My fears were confirmed when one day a weird sound came from my phone and I was like “What was THAT?” before freezing where I stood and realizing that the sound was a unique alert I’d set to go off if a message ever came through to the adoption-specific email address we’d set up to communicate with Jon and Natalie. Neither of them had written us back in years, and so the alert startled me.

The message was from Natalie. It read:

Hey you guys!!! Ahhh I miss y’all!!! Summer is absolutely beautiful! Makes my heart smile. 😍 I just recently got a phone and set up another email account. I am staying at The Swift Center. I’ve been clean for 7.5 months now. I’m so happy and I’m beginning to heal. I have an amazing sponsor who has just celebrated 40 years clean time. I was one of only 5 women invited to the annual fundraiser today that was held at a local culinary school. Cakes and brownies went for $1000s of dollars! It was AMAZING but my feet are killing me 😆 Well, keep in touch, give sweet Summer all my love.

I was late for a meeting, but I just stood there reading and rereading the message. I felt immense relief — she’s safe! she’s clean! she’s alive! — while also feeling like everything I’d been terrified about for her had come to pass. She had fallen back into addiction … for more than 2 years. I was angry at the world and furious with myself. I suddenly hated her mother again. But the worst thought was: Could I have done something that would’ve prevented this?

After that message, the months turned into years once again.

Then came the Very Bad Day. Two of my favorite people in the world were sick: my nearly-95-year-old grandma was in the hospital and my uncle had just received a devastating diagnosis. I had lost track of time while reading my parents’ text updates and was going to be late picking the kids up from school. I dashed out the door, sprinted several blocks and felt my phone buzz with an incoming call.

I finally reached the gate outside the school and stopped, panting and trying to avoid talking to anyone while I caught my breath and regained my composure. I checked my phone to see the call had come from a blocked number. But then it rang again when I was still holding it. I got ready to dismiss it when I saw the number and instinctively recoiled. I literally thew my phone down on the grass in some sort of weird knee-jerk reaction of shock. Because it was our adoption agency, and I knew that there was nothing good on the other end of the line. It had been more than four years since the adoption was finalized.

I let the call go to voicemail. I texted my husband: “The agency called. I cannot deal with this. I want you to call them but I don’t want you to tell me what it’s about until the kids are in bed.”


I got the kids and we headed home. My mind settled on three possible reasons the agency would ever call us again:

1) Natalie was pregnant and wanted to know if we would adopt the baby,

2) Natalie wanted to physically meet up with us, or

3) Natalie was dead.

I did not think it was #2, because even though she changed email addresses frequently, she knew how to get a hold of us, and I didn’t see any reason why she would involve the agency in a request to meet up. Natalie had made comments to us after Summer was born that led me to believe it could be #1. But I could not focus on anything for the next several hours because somewhere deep inside of me, ever since the first phone call I had with her the day we were matched more than 5 years prior, I have been terrified of someone calling to inform me that Natalie had OD’d and died.

There had never been a faster bedtime routine. Once the kids were down, I steeled myself and rushed over to my husband.

“I can’t take it anymore. What did they say?”

“They said that Natalie’s sister is pregnant. They wanted to know if we would be interested in adopting the baby. They said that in situations like this they always reach out to adoptive parents who know family members. They said there was no pressure and that there were other adoptive parents on their list but they wanted to talk with us first. They had already contacted the couple who adopted one of her other children, but they are much older now and were not interested.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him we weren’t interested.”

“Oh,” I said. Suddenly unsure. As if my husband and I hadn’t already discussed a scenario like this dozens of times before and decided that our family was complete.

“That’s what we decided, right?” my husband asked, looking alarmed.

“Yeah … yeah.” I said.

Three more hours passed, and my husband and I retreated to our respective home offices to work. Eventually we met up again, both in our pajamas and seconds away from my husband turning out the light.

I said, “It’s just that… well, her sister was an addict too, remember? And she had a young son that we were so worried about…” Everything Natalie had told me about her sister had surfaced in my mind since our earlier conversation.

“Yeah. I mean, the situation is not good,” my husband replied.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she’s due with a girl in a few weeks. And she is on heroin. And she is in jail.”

“WHAT THE … WHAT??? She’s on heroin AND IN JAIL?!?!!? I shouted. “WHY DIDN’T YOU MENTION ANY OF THIS BEFORE???” And then I totally lost it.

“Uh… because I knew it would upset you?” he replied.

He was right. But now, horrified, I rethought everything. This baby was going to be here any second, born addicted to full-blown heroin. Would they make Natalie’s sister deliver in the jail? Who would adopt this child? Should WE adopt this child? We COULD adopt this child. We had been through the withdrawal process with a baby (though heroin withdrawal would be much tougher than methadone withdrawal); we could give this baby a wonderful life.

“Should I have not told him we weren’t interested?” my husband asked, thoroughly confused. “I thought we’d decided we were done having kids.”

We had. He was right. Trying to “save” a child is a horrible reason to adopt.

But yet.

I still think about that baby girl. If I believed there was even the slightest chance our agency would’ve shared that she was adopted and that everything turned out OK I would’ve followed up, but I know those details must be kept confidential. I am only slightly comforted by the fact that they’d told my husband they had other adoptive parents to call.

But yet.

When we were matched with Serena and Kevin to adopt their baby boy who was mixed-race and would likely “look Black,” we learned about a horrible adoption term: “hard to place.” This is what the adoption world calls babies and children who:

1) are not white (with Black children being the hardest to place, by far), or

2) are born addicted to something, or

3) are older than 4 years old, or

4) have a known health or physical issue, or

5) are part of a sibling group, among a few other things.

The adoption industry gives “incentives” to families willing to consider these babies and children. A built-in incentive is that you will likely be matched much, much sooner if you adopt a hard-to-place child. Other incentives include expedited paperwork processing and legal work, in addition to lower fees. That’s right. As detailed in this 2013 NPR article entitled “Six Words: ‘Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt,’” there is such a huge imbalance of adoptive couples waiting to adopt white children vs. Black children that laws of “supply and demand” have been perversely applied to the adoption market.

While I will still forever be proud of our adoption marketing booklet that I believe had a hand in Serena choosing us within two weeks and Natalie choosing us the day we went back into the adoptive-parent matching pool, the reality is that neither Serena nor Natalie would’ve even seen our booklet in the first place if we had not been open to adopting hard-to-place babies.

Another year passed after the agency called us about Natalie’s sister; another year not hearing anything more from Natalie herself. And then, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we received an email from the adoption agency informing us of yet another new email address for Natalie. After we forwarded our most recent update to the new address, we got this reply from her:

She’s so big!!! Omgosh. And so beautiful. She looks so happy!!! Brought me such joy to see these pictures. Please keep them coming! I just started a new job and have been looking to rent a house. I hope all is well. Please give Summer all my love…

Recently it was time to send another update. We received a reply again — the first time we’ve gotten two replies in a row since right after we brought Summer home. This one said:

Wow!! Thanks so much for the update and awesome pictures! Please let me know how the remote-schooling works out! Summer looks so happy and this makes my heart so full. Definitely crazy times. I was laid off for a little over 3 months. Grateful to be back at work but also being very careful!! I love you guys. Summer is never far from my thoughts and prayers.

I can’t put into words the mix of relief and hope and awe this message gave me. Natalie seemed to be doing the best she’s been in her adult life, despite the statistics that have haunted me about opioid-addiction relapses and deaths during the pandemic. I am so grateful for the recovery center she went to and for the sponsor who I can only assume is still helping her.

We will never know if Summer’s biological cousin born on heroin was adopted. And I continue to worry about her other cousin who was living with Natalie’s sister at the time we adopted Summer. Did Child Services take him when Natalie’s sister went to jail? Was he left to be raised by Natalie’s addict mother and stepfather? Will he also fall prey to the cycle of poverty and addiction when he’s older? I hope these children are OK. It’s almost too painful to think about.

But I am thankful our adoption journey has forced me to do exactly that: think about uncomfortable things. About the racism Serena’s children will have to face. About my past failures and how I need to speak out forcefully against bigotry anytime I see or hear it. About how I used to judge addicts so harshly and felt so superior, like it was “their fault” — and now my own daughter is now genetically predisposed to addiction. About the opioid epidemic that always seemed so distant to me, but is really in all of our backyards. About the cycle of poverty that has dragged down tens of millions of people in America and how no one seems to want to do anything about it except enact policies that would make life worse for those already suffering.

Above all, I think about the hundreds of thousands of babies and children that no one wants — the hard to place.

I believe it’s the duty of every single one of us to question our leaders and go a step further to both support struggling families and help the 443,000 children who need permanent, loving homes. We should demand plans for how to handle and financially support not only the current overload of hard-to-place children in foster care, but also the dramatic influx that will be sure to come with further restrictions on women’s reproductive choices.

There are lots of strong opinions when it comes to these issues, and somehow it’s all become a political lightning rod. There needs to be less fighting and more action, especially by those who support policies that will result in hundreds of thousands of more unwanted children.

Ways to take action can include:

  • Donating to and volunteering at women’s shelters or other nonprofits focused on family aid
  • Pressing elected representatives, with emails, phone calls, letters, and at rallies, for increased sex education in our schools and for free and accessible birth control (which is one of the simplest ways to lower abortion rates)
  • Pushing legislators for more research funds for male contraception and education on and promotion/mainstreaming of reversible vasectomies, which would drastically reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions and remind people that birth control is not just a women’s problem
  • Questioning religious leaders and pointing out hypocrisy; the concept of being “pro-life” is meaningless if the support ends at birth and only applies to babies
  • Fostering or adopting multiple children

My family’s story has a happy ending. Most unwanted children’s stories — and their mothers’ — almost surely will not.

I get a pit in my stomach whenever access to birth control or abortion is restricted further in this country. I know the dire consequences of those laws and feel the weight of the abuse, neglect, tragedy and death wrought upon the hard to place. I want the conversation to stop being about how we can control women’s choices and start addressing the underlying reasons there are still so many unwanted pregnancies in the first place. And I would like people to start having these conversations from a place of empathy and love.

Love propelled Serena to complete her degree and keep her family together against all conceivable odds. Love shortened Summer’s methadone withdrawal by weeks and weeks. Love is helping Natalie stay clean and alive. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if ~300 million of us approached the problem of this country’s unwanted children with love?



Erika S. Olson

Author and freelance writer. Film critic and movie blogger. Fan of all things pop culture.