Should Adoptive Parents Give Birth Parents Money?

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What should adoptive parents do when a birth parent asks for financial aid after the adoption is complete?  A reader - let's call her Rachel -- wrote in and told me the following story:

"We adopted a baby boy six years ago in an open domestic adoption.  We keep in touch with his birthmother, Liz, who is a single mom raising three older kids. 

Liz works a full time job and receives child support from her ex-husband to help with the costs of raising the older kids, but money has always been tight.  Liz never finished high school, but she did get a GED, and she works hard. 

Recently, Liz contacted us and said that she was in a financial crisis.  Her ex-husband lost his job and is no longer able to pay her child support.  Gas costs have eaten up a huge chunk of her salary, because she commutes about 40 minutes each way every day.  She had purchased a modest, first-time home a year ago, but she can no longer pay the mortgage, and she told us she will be giving up her house.

Liz said that she had no food in the house for her kids, no way to pay her bills, and nobody else to turn to besides us.  My husband and I sent her a large gift to WalMart, so that she could buy some food and necessities, and we also made arrangements to send her a check each month for the next four months.  This puts a strain on our own budget, but we can manage it, as long as it is for a finite time.

What do we do if she is unable to get back on her feet?  She gave us her child, and we can never repay her for that.  We want to help her.  She has never asked for help before, not in the six years we have known her, so we do believe she is in a genuine crisis.  But what kind of precedent are we setting?"

Rachel, it is a tough situation.  First, you are correct in that you can never repay someone for giving you her child.  It is an impossible thing to do, and if you hold yourself to that standard, you could give Liz every worldly possession you have and still not call it even.  We do not buy our adoptive children, and we do not need to pay birth parents back for giving them to us.

That being said, in many open adoptions, the adoptive family truly views the birth family as part of their family.  We certainly view Katie's birth mother as part of our family.  And families help each other out in times of trouble.  Who can you turn to, if not your family? 

It makes perfect sense to help Liz out, assuming you can manage it within your budget. 
It gets trickier if the request for help outlasts your abilities to spare the extra cash.  Liz placed her son with you so that you can give him the best possible life. 

This means that she chose you to spend your time, love, strength and financial resources on him, so that he can receive the parental care, nurturing, education, and emotional support that she was unable to give him at the time he was born.
He is your number one priority now, because he is your son. 

If there comes a point where giving money to Liz detracts from what you can offer your child, you have to ask yourself if the financial aid must stop.  Of course, there is another factor to consider - your son's future feelings about all of this. 

As he grows older and more aware, how will he feel if he learns that his birthmother was hungry and cold while he was warm and well-fed?  Will he have survivor's guilt?  Will he ask you why you didn't do more to help Liz?

There is no easy solution.  There is no right or wrong answer.  There is only your best judgment at the time, using all the information currently available to you.  I suggest you be frank with Liz about the limitations of your availability to help, so that she is aware of your boundaries. 

Money is a complicated thing, and it screws up a lot of relationships.  Do the best you can; keep open the channels of communication, and ask yourself if it feels right.  Perhaps you can also help Liz in other ways, such as teaching her how to make a budget and manage her spending. 

And no matter what else happens, offer her your emotional support during this stressful time in her life.  Your empathy alone is a valuable gift. 

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