Every Adoptive Parent’s Worst Nightmare: Chelsea O’Donnell Returns to Birth Mother

Every Adoptive Parent's Worst Nightmare: Child Returns to Birth Mother

In August, Rosie O’Donnell’s daughter went missing. She was found and returned; drugs are rumored to have been involved. And then on her 18th birthday, Chelsea O’Donnell left Florida with her birth mother. O’Donnell is said to have cut her daughter off financially and is holding her daughter’s birth certificate and social security card.

The adoption world is in an uproar. An adoptee! Returned! To her birth mother! Woe.

I’ve spent a week attempting to form coherent thoughts on the matter. The more I think, however, the more eye roll-y I get at those flailing their arms as to how it’s their “worst nightmare” that a child they adopted returned to their biological family. I see many more things wrong with this story than a child wanting to be with a birth parent.

Returning to Her Birth Mother Isn’t the Worst Part of This Story

I feel the most worrisome part of this scenario is how O’Donnell cut off her daughter. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of their relationship and, likely, more went on behind closed doors leading to both Chelsea’s decision to leave and Rosie’s decision to cut off finances. But it’s kind of funny when you think about it.

Not funny ha-ha, but funny-really-sadly-ironic.

Again, I don’t know why Chelsea’s birth mother chose adoption. I do know, however, that many parents who eventually relinquish come to adoption’s doors in a state of crisis. They’ve been kicked out of homes, cut off financially or emotionally, and find themselves in a state of panic. With no one else to turn to, an adoption agency or facilitator becomes a safe haven during a tumultuous time. No one informs the expectant parent that flared tempers often cool, that families with closed doors often reopen them, that grandchildren have a way of softening hardened hearts, that there are ways for these parents to financially handle everything on their plate. Instead they’re hand-fed carefully chosen lines about the importance of stability, of two-parent homes, of “being ready.”

The whole turning away of a child in crisis is one well-played out in adoption circles, but it’s often the mother who places her child who finds herself alone. In this case, we have a child who we might imagine or assume is dealing with some stuff, as drugs were mentioned. Also,adoption affects many children (and adults) in ways we didn’t used to speak of or consider. Or, of course, she could be a normal 18-year-old girl wanting to spread her wings and the home in which she was raised isn’t currently supportive of her choices, whatever they may be.

I don’t know.

I do know that turning a child away, especially a child who may already hold trauma from being placed for adoption, seems a specifically unloving path. Maybe it’s tough love. Maybe there really are drugs involved. Maybe safety of other humans in the home is in question. Maybe it’s worse than any of us, sitting at home in our comfy chairs and playing Monday morning quarterback parents, can even imagine.


But I suspect the nuances in this story sway toward a desire to control this young woman’s allegiance. I feel that way most specifically as reports state Rosie is holding Chelsea’s social security card and birth certificate hostage. This act is not only petty, but strikes deep into adoptee issues.


The birth certificate in question, listing Rosie as a parent, was the second one issued on Chelsea’s behalf. The original, listing her birth mother, is sealed somewhere because we like to perpetuate the lie that biology doesn’t matter. We like to erase all of that “beginning stuff,” those real, live human beings who made a child, who contributed biological components that matter a great deal in both good and bad ways. We like to treat adoptees as second class citizens who don’t have a right to know their origins, their medical histories, their most basic of information. So yes, Rosie has chosen to hold that specific piece of paper hostage from her daughter.

That’s not controlling at all.

Nevermind the fact that Chelsea can apply for a new social security card and birth certificate, even with the current ones missing. It will take her a minute, but she doesn’t need them. At 18, she can begin to stand on her own two feet and attain documents on her own. The pettiness of this action is not lost on mothers like me who endured similar actions; my car insurance card was held hostage for awhile which resulted in an unfortunate problem with a speeding ticket and only further compounded my belief that I couldn’t parent the child I was carrying.

If my daughter, at the age of 18, showed up on my doorstep, I’d invite her into my home. I’d sit her down, get her some water and a snack, and I’d call her mom. I’d request her mom call their therapists, and I’d call my own. Together, the lot of us would work through whatever we needed to in order to help our daughter through whatever issue that caused her to set out in the first place. I’d invite her mom to my home, or I’d offer to help my daughter get back home. I’d offer a place of solace for a few days if cooling off time was needed, but I’d report back to her mom regularly.

I’d help my daughter. That’s what I’d do.

I’ve seen a large number of discussion over the past week use this specific story as a reason to keep adoptions closed, to refuse sharing information regarding an adopted child’s biological family. Quite honestly, I see it as the opposite.

While Rosie seems to have acted in typical Rosie-throws-a-fit fashion, it seems beneficial for a child to feel safe in more homes than one. To have a safe place to go when another place doesn’t feel safe—whether imagined, felt, or real—is a good thing. This is not Worst Case Adoption Scenario. This is not Lifetime movie-esque. This is a child, now an adult, with a number of people who love and support her.

More love is good.

Again, I don’t know the ins and outs of this particular story. I do know that adoptive and birth parents involved in open adoptions can use this instance to talk about the “what would you want me to do if” types of issues that might arise if a similar thing occurred.

And, when it comes down to it, I hope that Chelsea knows unconditional love. As a birth mother, I relinquished my daughter to someone I thought would show her that love. I have simultaneously held such love in my heart for my daughter since that time. I hope my daughter knows that, no matter what, she has two moms who love her and have her back.

I hope Chelsea has someone in her life showing her that love right now. We are all deserving of such love.

Photo: Redd Angelo


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13 Replies to “Every Adoptive Parent’s Worst Nightmare: Chelsea O’Donnell Returns to Birth Mother”

  1. I had not heard of this story yet but then I’ve not been watching/reading the news lately. What a cluster.

    At 18 Chelsea is an adult whether Rosie likes it or not. Chelsea is free to make decisions and choices her parents might not like or agree with. Even unhealthy ones (such as drugs). Tough love is not making demands willy-nilly. It does not hold documents hostage. Cutting off money is a different matter (to me) but I don’t have enough facts to judge that part of the decision.

    Charlie’s birth mother still has not reconnected with the adoption agency or me but I know that if Charlie ran away to her at age 18 I would do my best to sit down and have an option honest discussion about the situation with everyone involved.

    Taina, a friend’s daughter, ran away to my house one night last year. She is only 10 but strong willed. She and her mom butt heads all the time. Kelly, her mom, and I are thankful that Taina felt loved enough to come to me instead of wandering around in the dark. I pretty much did exactly what you described minus the therapy part.

    If I can do that with a child who is not my own biologically or adoptive, then I can MOST certainly do that with my son and his biological family.

  2. This is what the Amish and Mennonite do when the adopted children want to leave. It’s wrong. Rosie is wrong. Why wouldn’t the daughter want to see her birth mother? At 18 it’s time for the daughter to decide how her real life plays out. Advice may come from both sides – threats too – but it’s the daughter’s decision.

  3. We have an open adoption and we visit about 1x a year. I wouldn’t want my son to live with his birth mother because she makes some bad (and illegal) choices. Just like I don’t allow my son to go to a certain friends house because I know the parent’s allow under age kids to drink and do drugs. That being said, I do want him to have a relationship with his birth mother, but I also want him to be safe. It is a tough one….and you are right, we don’t know all the facts. I wouldn’t turn my back on my son though….sounds like Rosie is insecure and just blindly cutting her daughter off.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and perspective here. I echo your sentiments about not letting children go to unsafe spaces; I am soooo much the same way. I *hope* that in discussing the reasoning behind those choices with our sons that they understand it when they hit that unfortunate and magic age of 18 and thusly make responsible choices. You know? Big, hard parenting stuff there.

  4. I have also been struggling to wrap my head around this situation – like you, I feel like on the one hand I don’t know the particulars of Chelsea’s adoption, whatever other issues may be going on, or her relationship with either of her mothers; on the other hand, I can’t imagine a situation where I would cut off support from my children or hold their identifying documents hostage because I didn’t like something they were doing. (And here I am talking about when they are young adults and presuming there isn’t a situation where I need to intervene – like getting a drug-addicted kid into rehab or something like that.) Whatever is going on, it does seem from where I’m standing that Rosie’s actions are all about control, and that bothers me a lot. I found myself nodding in agreement with everything you’ve said here.

  5. As you stated you dont know the ins and outs of Rosies situattion. I believe that when Rosie adopted Chelsea she agreed to an open adoption. Also the bio mom was/is a drug addict. Chelsea suffers from mental illness that requires medication. I have a son who also suffers MI and I understand what Rosie has most likely been through with this child and also know that street drugs can cause psychosis in someon with MI. I can not imagine what Rosie is going through but cutting this child off financially is the BEST thing she could do. I also understand the adoptee side of it as my ex husband was adopted and we have NO info on his bio parents and I just ordered a DNA kit. He loves his parents but would just like to know where he came from and I want a medical history for our children.

    1. I like how everyone refers to Chelsea’s birth mother’s past addiction as though no one ever finds recovery. If this was an adoptive parent we were discussing, who had already passed a home study and been certified as “good enough,” any addiction would be referred to, without a doubt, as in the past. Further proof of bias.

  6. I believe that although the blogger said over and over again that she does not know the ins and outs of this saga, she proceeded to judge Rosie based upon her own filter as a woman who placed her child for adoption. We don’t walk in any of these women’s shoes and I would love for women to cease and desist from judging one another so harshly. Plus, it is none of any of our business what Rosie, her daughter nor her daughter’s birth mother do in their relationship to one another. I would like to think that we could have some compassion for all of them as they muddle through this situation out in the public eye. Choosing up sides and claiming what we would do if it were us (reminder: it is NOT us) does not help anyone. Let’s hold our judgment and our disdain for any and all of these folks. And for those who might want to judge me – please don’t. I am doing the best I can with my current understanding of life and myself as an imperfect human. I will do the same for you. I promise.

    1. The problem with your “keep your mouth shut and let everyone do what they’re doing” suggestion is that when the media discusses adoption, those who aren’t touched by adoption form their opinions. They hear other adoptive parents freaking out about birth parents “stealing” their children, first at birth and then, with this famous person scenario, again when the the child turns 18. Society then gets to keep painting birth parents with the same brush as always: bad people.

      Refusing to look at the issues the media chooses to put out there for human consumption, whether in celebrity stories or television and movie portrayal, perpetuates the stereotypes and myths of all participants of the adoption triad. If no one is brave enough to say, “Nope. Maybe consider this,” then no one will ever grow in their understanding of what adoption is in 2015 nor will we move toward ethical adoption reform.

      I will continue to take a look at adoption issues shared by the media with a critical eye and provide thoughtful—and yep, sometimes downright judgmental—commentary when I see fit. If you’re allowed to come here and tell me that I’m doing it wrong, I’m allowed to keep doing it “wrong.”

      Have a lovely day.

  7. Rosie doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to adoption. It was Rosie who proudly told the world that she tells her adopted kids that God put them in the wrong mother’s body. So whether or not I know the details, Rosie is not someone whose judgement I give a lot of credit. She’s an embrassment to adoptive parents and to lesbians moms.
    But hey that’s colored through my lens as an adoptive lesbian mom so unlike the non judger here, I guess I am biased.

  8. I was one of those people, Jenna. I had zero experience with adoption. I thought birth mothers were all unfit and the babies needed to be rescued from them. Fortunately, I find the plethora of opinions and perspectives freely available today refreshing rather than stifling. It’s unfortunate that a different perspective is terrifying to most people. Those who see the world in black and white are missing out on so much.

    We all need to be made a little uncomfortable now and then.
    Keep sharing your perspective. People need to hear it. I know I did.

  9. This was an excellent post that needed to be written precisely because of these prevalent preconceptions about birth-mothers. I’m sorry you’ve been criticized in the comment section and elsewhere online for speaking so directly, coherently and passionately about these issues.

    I will say again and again that you, Dawn, and also AmFam & Kateri are the people I learned the most from about various facets of adoption (including international adoption & reunion). Thank you so so much for having blogged at length about these issues and educating me. And I’m thankful when you find the strength to once in a while bring up this subject again into your blog. I imagine it’s not easy, but you really do have all the clout and experience that is necessary to tackle the issue. BRAVA!

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