Sunday, December 23, 2007

Workshop 1.4, Part II: Ensuring Ongoing Relationships--Practice That Opens the Door to Connections--Questions & Discussions

Ethics and Accountability Conference
Sponsored by Ethica and Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
October 15-16, 2007

Bullet points for discussion during Workshop 1.4:
  1. What key factors should assessments address regarding ongoing connections?
  2. What are characteristics of successful open adoptions? What factors undermine the success of open adoptions?
  3. How can families of origin be best educated on their importance to the children and the roles they can continue to play in their children’s lives?


Marilyn Panichi is the Executive Director of Adoptions Unlimited, Inc. She has more than 35 years of adoption and child welfare experience in administration, supervision and casework. Prior to establishing Adoptions Unlimited, Ms. Panichi was the Executive Director of the Adoption Information Center of Illinois under the auspices of the Child Care Association of Illinois. She began her career with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as a Child Welfare Worker and Adoption Coordinator. Ms. Panichi earned her Master of Social Work and Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Illinois. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and the Academy of Certified Social Workers. Ms Panichi is co-founder of the Adoption Exchange Association where she currently serves as board member and treasurer.

Susan Ogden is the Director of Domestic Adoption at Adoptions Together. She has worked in education and nonprofit program management for 25 years. When she adopted her daughter Sasha in 1992, Ms. Ogden became an advocate for better understanding of open adoption. Her daughter enjoys an open relationship with her birth mother, birth sister and birth father. Their experience was featured in a New York Times article (October, 1998: Secrecy and Stigma no longer clouding adoption.) Ms. Ogden has published in Adoptive Families magazine and the Washington Post. Celebrate Adoption, Inc., an organization of triad members co-founded by Ms. Ogden, published her An Educator’s Guide to Adoption, a booklet that adoptive parents may give to their children’s teachers. The Guide, now in its fifth printing, was featured USA Today and the subject of a segment of the Rosie O’Donnell show in November, 2000. Ms. Ogden worked closely with clients of Adoptions Together in open relationships in making a video about open adoption (Adoption …Real Stories) that is used in outreach to broaden the understanding and acceptance of adoption as an option in high schools, clinics, hospitals, churches and other community organizations that work with youth and women in crisis pregnancies.

Patricia Dudley serves as Director of the Long Island Region for You Gotta Believe! The Older Child Adoption & Permanency Movement. In this position, she has successfully supervised and completed one federal grant and is currently supervising a second federal grant “The Long Island Opening Adoption’s Door To Teens Project”. Over the past five years, under Ms. Dudley’s leadership, the Long Island Region of You Gotta Believe has successfully placed over 80 of Long Island’s hardest to place teenagers into permanent adoptive families. Under her supervision, staff educates potential prospective parents from the community about the importance of continuing to maintain teens’ past relationships with former foster families, birth families, and neighborhood connections. Ms. Dudley has over 20 years experience in the field of child welfare. She is also an experienced adoptive parent having adopted two older children of a different race from the New York foster care system.

Susan Soon-Keum Cox is Vice President of Policy and External Affairs for Holt International Children’s Services in Eugene, OR. She has worked with local, national and international media for more than 25 years. In 1988, Ms. Cox was appointed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in Korea to be responsible for media regarding adoption. She has managed media for a number of high profile situations, including the Dying Room stories from China in 1993. Ms. Cox was a member of the White House Vital Voices delegation to Montevideo as a media trainer for women in developing democracies. She also has been a guest media trainer for Women’s Campaign International’s for the Fels School of Government at the University of PA. Ms. Cox has appeared on numerous national television programs and featured in news articles. She has appeared on the NBC “Today Show,” “CNN News, CNBC News, and National Public Radio and Television, and has been featured in articles in the Washington Post, New York Times, Business Week, and Family Circle.

Workshop 1.4: Questions and Discussion:

Marilyn Panichi: In order to have some organization for our discussions, I thought we could first talk about the assessment of adoptive parents first. [Bullet point 1: What key factors should assessments address regarding ongoing connections?]. As each of the three panelists spoke, I jotted down what I thought were the important points each was making.

In terms of infant placement...
  • Susan Ogden talked about embracing the birth family and having compassion for them
  • And that the agency then supports that relationship [between birthfamily, and adoptive family and child]
In terms of teenage placement...
  • Pat Dudley talked about involving birthfamily members and teens in the training of adoptive families.
In terms of international adoption...
  • Susan Soon-Keum Cox really talked about being prepared and what we can do to enhance that. Adoptive families need to be prepared for open adoption, even if it doesn't start out that way at the initial placement

Question 1: from an unidentified member of the audience: "When I saw the word "assessment" in the discussion questions, I was actually thinking about the assessment that the adoptive parent needs to make in regard to the birthfamily--how to structure ongoing relationships with the birthparents when you are considering what the birthparents bring to the situation. Afterall, when it comes to assessing, you have to assess, not only adoptive parents, but also what the birthparents bring to considering openness."

Susan Ogden:
  • Do you mean whether birthparents want openness or not--or whether they are capable of it?
    • Parents tell us often initially, that they don't want openness--but we always leave that door open for them.
    • Some parents are struggling with mental illness. Some are struggling with substance abuse. Many are struggling with lots of different challenges.
    • If they want an open adoption and they are struggling with these things, then the agency is very much involved in keeping that relationship going and in facilitating that relationship.
    • We're MORE involved when--when people are more challenged.

  • In our 18 year history, we've had a lot of success in these relationships even when there are significant challenges.
    • For example, we have a mom who has fetal alcohol syndrome. She has placed two children through our agency.
    • Every year she has a picnic with her two children and their families.
    • And she takes a bus to the agency every couple of months and writes a letter to her children.
    • And the [adoptive] families are very compassionate towards her and send photos.
    • So, from an objective standpoint, yes, she "looks" a little scary--because she is mentally compromised.
    • But there, what the families are really embracing is that their children are really becoming more compassionate towards people with differences. And so they're seeing their children's spiritual capacity enlarged by that relationship.
    • And a couple of years ago the families told us that they can handle the meeting on their own. That we didn't have to come.
    • So, we typically do set it up now because she (the birthmother) doesn't have a phone, so that everyone knows where and when it's going to be, but they--the families--are managing this.
    • Their maturity and their compassion is really managing this.

Patricia Dudley:
  • We work with older children. Most of the children who come to us have come to us because of deep loss--the termination of parental rights.
  • In working with the birthfamilies of these children, a lot of these families didn't understand that termination of parental rights meant, termination of parental rights only.
    • They thought this meant that they had to stop loving, they had to stop caring, they had to stop being in contact with their children.
    • That is typically something that a social worker at a country agency has told them.

  • Anecdotally, we placed a sibling group of four teenagers back with a birthfather who had done a surrender only because the county had threatened to bring charges against him.
    • The children had been with him and his wife--they were young, they were from a different country, they had different ideas of corporal punishment, his wife was a substance abuser. There were four children including a set of twins.
    • Dad had left. Mom's boyfriend had abused the girls. They went into care.
    • Dad had gone went and gotten his children back, but being a single dad and being very young, he used corporal punishment on them. He left marks on one of them. And the county walked in and took them and threatened to bring charges against him. He signed his rights away.
    • Within three months dad's brother and brother's wife were killed in a car accident, and so this dad ended up raising his brother's children. He went to parenting classes to learn what he needed to do and he raised his brother's children.
    • Again, another eight years later, his own kids are around sixteen and seventeen and had been in care all those years. His own children had been split up and were in two different residential treatment centers. The girls had been sexually abused; the boys had been sexually abused.
    • The oldest of his children found him through the internet.
    • The father was, by then, a productive member of society; he owned his own business, he had raised a family of children.
    • And he thought his own "babies" had been adopted and had been living happy, healthy lives. But they weren't
    • And we were able to go into court and get that surrender overturned.

  • Anecdotally again, we just recently--for the first time in the history of New York--were able to place a 12 year old girl back with her birthfather who was able to adopt her as his own child.
    • At least in the history of our agency, we have never been able to have a single man adopt a single girl, but actually we did this in having a birthdad adopt his own child.
    • And this story happened because the child went into care. The father knew nothing about the child.
    • All the child knew about her father was that her mother had said a man named "John Doe" was her dad. And so the child kept talking about "my dad 'John'."
    • She was adopted [by strangers] at eight, but the adoption failed and she was returned back to the system. The child then went before a judge for whom our agency had actually done one of our training sessions, and this judge ordered the caseworker to actually find out who this "John" guy was.
    • The previous caseworkers claimed that they could never find "dad" because they had no last name.
    • So now, the new caseworker said to the child, do you know what this John guy's last name is? And the child was able to say right away..."yes, John Doe was my father."
    • They went through the phone book and found a John Doe who admitted to having relations with the mother; did a DNA test, found out he was the dad, and placed her in the home, and she was actually just adopted two weeks ago by her own dad.

  • So sometimes birthparents don't even know that they have rights. They don't know that they CAN be in contact.
  • They literally live in this assumption that they lost everything.
  • You know we do have parents who were substance abusers when they were teenagers or young adults. But now they are in their thirties or forties, having productive lives, having their own families.....and their kids are still in foster care.
  • We have failed them. The system has failed those kids.
  • We are now able to reconnect them. They are able to have brothers and sisters and parents again. And to be able to be back in contact with these brothers and sisters and parents. And sometimes we are even able to place them back in their families.

    Question 2: from an unidentified director of New York agency placing infants for domestic adoption: "As Pat was talking I realized that, in a way, you are at an advantage because you are building on existing relationships--you are reviving them or strengthening them--there is at least, a relationship there. Our big problem really is engaging birthparents to be involved in an open adoption. I wish that we had to do an assessment on birthparents to see which ones are capable! We just--we don't need to do that because our major issue is encouraging them, involving them, and helping them understand the value to their children of staying involved. And I just wondered if anybody has real practical tips--are there any things that you do or say or build into your practice to encourage birthparents? One thing that we try to do is to set up a post placement visit within three months--my feeling is that if we can do it early, then at least we can build on that. If you wait more than three months, it becomes scarier and scarier for these folks to reconnect. But I just wonder if you have any practical ideas..."

    Susan Ogden:
    • We see a real movement in birthparents wanting more open adoptions.
      • My hunch really is that many of them are connecting on the internet and learning there what is available.
      • That is now a new support community for parents that are thinking about adoption.
      • And so they're seeing more of what is available in terms of open adoption.
      • I would say that 9 out of 10 birthmothers coming to our agency are asking for some kind of openness.
      • So we don't have to encourage them so much because they are already asking for a level of openness.

    • The vast majority of birthparents/adoptive parents are meeting shortly after placement.
    • Most of the [birth]mothers that we get are calling us from the hospital--they've already given birth--and they are saying that they want to make an adoption plan and that they want to see an agency.
      • So at that very moment we say...we have lots of families that we can show you--what are you looking for, what are you thinking about, what are you wanting in terms of an open relationship?
      • Those are the [adoptive] families then, that we are bringing to the hospital in order to show them [the birthmothers], to think about.
      • Several weeks later as we continue to work with them [the birthmothers] we ask them to continue to think about what level of openness they want--that's where we begin--What level of openness do you want?

    Unidentified director who had asked Question 2:

    We do too. Maybe in New York City we work with such a diverse population of birth parents--a lot of birthparents are newly arrived immigrants to New York City--that this is different. A lot of our birthparents don't have a good support system, don't have access to the internet, don't have the kind of knowledge about adoption that some of our birthparents that have been raised here perhaps do.

    All of our adoptive parents are prepped on open adoption. You know, we almost beat them up with it! By the time they have a baby, they very much want this.

    Our problem is on the other side.

    Our adoptive parents are eager. They understand the value, and then they really aren't able to have an open adoption because our birthparents really--for their own particular reasons--aren't able to enter into that kind of relationship.

    Susan Soon-Keum Cox:
    • I think this is something that can happen internationally too.
      • One solution is to provide training to the social workers who have traditionally been so protective of birthmothers--and rightfully so--but who have not encouraged them to think about having a longterm, or any kind of a relationship.
      • In most programs that I'm familiar with they are now encouraging birthmothers to at least anonymously write a letter. I think that begins to help them think about, at least dimly, a relationship with their child.
      • But then social workers can begin to give examples of adoptees who have been able to reconnect with birthfamily and talk about it in a way that isn't so fearful.

    • I predict that in the next decade or so, as the secrecy in adoption in other parts of the world, diminishes in the same way that it has been slow to happen in the US--but it is happening--that there will be more birthfamilies coming forward, seeking information, and wanting to know about their children.
      • Therefore, it is SO incredibly important that information be preserved. Both in the sending country, but also in the records of the US agency.
      • Because that's the only way that you can really have any hope of bringing folks together.
      • And I have to say that the internet has been a huge resource for this as well.

    Question 3: from Ellen Singer, a therapist and educator with The Center for Adoption Support and Education in Maryland and Virginia: "I want to say first that these are really good problems--in terms of my practice. I say good problems, because I still see birthparents that don't get preparation and don't know that openness is an option for them. It is always heartbreaking for me.

    What is also heartbreaking is when I see adoptive parents that have not gotten preparation and who are "freaked out" and so upset when birthparents contact them--maybe because it was a private adoption or through an agency--and want contact, but the adoptive parents are so unprepared for that because they thought they weren't ever going to have to deal with that.

    But my question has to do with what I see in my practice--and that is, that while preparation for the adoptive parents and birthparents is crucial, it is also crucial for the extended family members. I have situations where it is the grandparents of the birthparent who are going to be remaining in contact. And they have had no preparation from the agencies or from other people so that when we talk about factors that undermine the success, that lack of education, that lack of preparation, around boundaries, around relationships--on both sides--is problematic.

    I just had one situation where the family was out of contact for several years because there was so much conflict that had ensued. Fortunately the adoptive parents had contacted us and we were able to mediate and facilitate those relationships and get things back on track.

    So I just want to say that I'm assuming that you see this as well. There is so much lack of education, so much lack of support. In the extended family members of adoptive family members and friends and in the community, openness is still so foreign to them, that they get the message of--"What are you doing?! This is crazy! Why would you do THAT?!"

    I guess I have a lot to say, but if I have to put it in the form of a question, I guess I'd say, what practices do you have to help adoptive families in open adoptions and birthparents in open adoptions, not feel so alone in the context of their families and communities?"

    Marilyn Panichi
    • One of the things that we have done in our Federal grant, is that we have developed a videotape that is available to anybody. It is a 15 minute video of three adoptive families that have open adoptions. Their children are teens and they talk about why it's really important.
      • One mom talks about a point that one of you here made, and that is, that the children can hear directly from their family, what the truth is so that they don't ever have to think that she [the adoptive mom] may have misrepresented issues.
      • In this case, the birthmom has ongoing contact with the adoptive daughter--she came to the daughter's high school graduation just recently.
      • Another family has ongoing contact with the grandmother. They see her all the time and the video shows that relationship.
      • And the third family, which was actually a foster family adoption, had taken the young man to visit his mom in prison for six years. She's now out of prison and she comes to the family home for all holidays. And they all talk about the fact that they have just expanded their family. They are now all one much bigger family.
      • So it really shows life--people who are living this.
      • And there is also one family of children who exited the foster care system and they have no contact with their own siblings.

    • It's a Family Connections project. We use it in training court personnel, social workers, adoptive families, the youth themselves.
    • It's a very powerful tape.

    • And you...have a film about open adoption yourself?

    Ellen Singer, a therapist and educator with The Center for Adoption Support and Education in Maryland and Virginia:

    Yes, we do. We have a film in which we have two birthmothers talk about their open adoptions and their relationships.

    Susan Ogden:
    • But you know, Ellen, I think that one of the challenges is that many times the birthgrandparents aren't involved at all.
      • Sometimes the biological parents keep it [their adoption plan] from their family.
      • They don't want their family to know.
      • They don't want their family to weigh in on it.
      • Should [the birthparents' extended family] call us and demand to know, confidentiality demands that we can't even say that this person was even a client.
      • So, if they're involved from the beginning, yes.
      • Anecdotally, recently a birthgrandmother came to a placement and was a part of the placement.
        • Her daughter-- the birthmother--and the birthfather, did not want to be a part of the placement.
        • They were both teens and I think they were just feeling very raw from the experience, but the birth grandmother asked to be a part of placement, and the adoptive family was delighted.
        • And so, all of those updates will be shared with her [the birth grandmother] and she will be in on the visits. Even though she is not in the post adoption agreement, it has already been established that she will be a part of the visits.
        • It's really case-by-case in terms of what people are willing and want to do.

    • I know that when I took my daughter to Florida a few years ago in order for her to see her birthmother--my daughter was 10. Her birthgrandparents did not want to see her. They had seen her earlier, at a couple of different junctures, and they just did not want to participate.
    • My interpretation was that it was just too painful for them. They had lost so many years with her that seeing her for just a weekend was not going to be helpful. That's my interpretation. Maybe they were just feeling too sad about not watching her grow up.

    Patricia Dudley:
    • I think one of the most horrific cases that I had to work on happened when I was working with another agency. We were working with children from New York City. I had a young man who was being raised by his grandmother and she refused to adopt her grandson.
      • She had had her grandson since infancy and she refused to adopt him.
      • She could in no way fathom why she should have to adopt her grandson.
      • He was referred to us from a NYCity caseworker and they wanted us to find an adoptive family for him.
      • At that point I had just become a grandmother and I knew that I was going to be raising my daughters' children. I could see it from both sides. On the one hand I couldn't understand why I as a grandmother I would have had to adopt my own grandchildren if my daughter's children had been ordered out of her home--and the other part of it--how I would have felt if my grandchildren had been pulled from me.
      • The only thing I could do for this young man was to definitely find a family that would accept grandmother's involvement. And I did.
      • But what I couldn't understand was why this caseworker somehow and someway couldn't facilitate that this child could change his code [coat?? This word is not clear from the tape???]. He was only 9, but he was with grandma.
      • And it was hard--it was one of the hardest things I've had to do.
      • Knowing that I was going to be raising my grandchildren, how was I taking a grandchild from a woman who was an older African American woman who did not and could not understand why she had to legally adopt her grandson.
      • And she cried and wailed when they pulled him.
      • And he cried and wailed when they pulled him. It was horrible.
      • The only thing I could do was make sure that grandma stayed grandma.

    Question 4: from an unidentified member of the audience: "My question is about international adoption, but the question would also apply to domestic adoption. When do you begin to present the idea of openness to the adoptee and how do you manage expectations?"

    Susan Soon-Keum Cox:
    • Well, if they're already adopted and it's obviously probably a closed adoption, one of the things that we encourage is that adoptive families continue with writing letters, sending little school pictures, keeping in touch, and sending these things to the agency overseas.
      • This is so that if a birthmother ever comes forward, there is the possibility [for the birthmom] to know that we [the adoptive family] would like to have contact--there's the information about her child.
      • I think another thing that it does for the adoptee is that it demonstrates the tangible connections that the parents have.
      • Anecdotally, when I went back to Korea for the first time and I saw my files, even though I had seen my records before in Oregon, it's very different from seeing them overseas in your birthcountry.
        • And to have them opened up and to see that, over the years, my mother had been sending letters and little pictures--I had no idea she had been doing that.
        • That was incredibly important to me that [my adoptive mother] had taken the time to do that.

    • I certainly think that it's important--as early as children can understand--to talk about birthfamily. There are some wonderful resources in terms of books for children from the time they are very small up through the developmental process.
    • I think they should always know that it [birth parent contact] is a possibility. How do you prepare them for it? I don't specifically know that you can do that...without knowing that it's happening right now or could happen.

    Question 5: from an unidentified member of the audience: "My question is about children who are a little bit older and have been placed through the foster care system, where their parents might have some scary behavior during contact. I've recently had a couple of cases like that with my families where they've had phone calls where the parents were inappropriate and a little scary with the kids. Maybe things will be better later as they get used to things, but I wonder if there's a resource that I could use to put some "bumpers" on it to protect the child during telephone contact."

    Susan Ogden:
    • As children have been getting older in our agency--at any point we can go back to mediation and try to put some structures on it.
    • Anecdotally, with one 15 year old adoptee, her birthfather visited her recently and she had a fantasy that her birthfather was going to be younger, hipper, and cooler than her adoptive parents.
      • And it turned out that he wasn't-at least in her assessment at 15 (LOL--hardly any adult is young or hip or cool!).
      • And he kept saying to her things know, when you get older, I'd really like for you to come and live with me.
      • He thought he was being very expansive in reaching out, but she found she was shrinking back.
      • She was really having a lot of guilt about it and having difficulty processing it.
      • It took a lot of therapy with her afterwards. She really needed help to her give up the fantasy.
        • We can live on fantasies for months and they are delightful and delicious and giving them up is really difficult.
        • It is important to get the adoptee to talk and to help her--to lend support and help her process. That is the role of a mediator.

    Patricia Dudley:
    • Working with the older teens--most of our teens--know what their families are. They know what their families can do. And they do look to us for protection and for supervision.
      • So we can definitely say--being in open communication with that teen--how did you feel about that, what would you like us to do, etc.

    • Technically we're into approval and we want an open relationship, but if that relationship is going to hurt or damage the teenager or the relationship with the adoptive family, then there are times when things need to be taken back.
    • Speaking with the therapist, getting the therapist's input.
    • Putting restraints in place. Maybe they can only meet where there's another adult who can say, for example--"that's inappropriate" or "it's time to cut this conversation--and you can call back later after we've had a conversation."
    • Again, our teens are still children. They need protection.
    • And you know, we do sometimes have to be the adults in that area.
      • We may need to say, "you know this is not working right now."
      • We need more counseling maybe. We need more therapy maybe. On the parent's part. On the teen's part.
      • We have to facilitate.
      • Sometimes, we can't let this go on any longer. There are times when we just have to be the adult and say, "This just isn't going to work right now."

    Susan Soon-Keum Cox:
    • In international adoption, in a reunion, it's important to make sure that you have someone that can help with this process.
      • Anecdotally, for example, my conversations with my birth family have all been through the filter of someone else because we don't speak the same language. And it's complicated.
      • I would love to be able to have a real conversation where it's just us in the room. But since my Korean is not good and their English is not good, I don't know that that will really happen.
      • It's been so critical to have someone who I trust who can really give the information,to interpret my thoughts to them, and theirs to me.
      • And if you can have constancy, if it can be the same person over time, that's really helpful.

    Question 6: from Darlene Denton: If we are talking about open adoptions, is this legally binding? Are you doing this before the birthparents sign their termination of parental rights?

    Susan Ogden:
    • In Maryland, the post adoption agreement which is legally binding, is attached to the consent.
      • It's filed in court.
      • But it might be several months later after parental rights are terminated that a birthparent might ask for contact--and that could still be contracted. There's lots of different options.
      • If they go into it not wanting contact, we can still leave that door open in case they change their minds.

    Darlene Denton:

    Are there other states that have these provisions?

    Susan Ogden:

    Yes, I believe that there are other states that have this. Yes.

    Unidentified member of the audience:

    I know that Annette Appell from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is speaking at the conference as well. This is an area of expertise of hers. I know that there are a number of states--they differ--but a number of states that have enforceable contracts--nobody's going to come and get the kid. But the court will intervene. Yes, there are several states, although I don't know what they are. I think it's growing, yes.[ Fleasbiting's notes from Annette Appell's session about legally enforceable post adoption contracts]

    Susan Ogden:
    • In my own work I have found that there is still a reluctance particularly in foster care to consider openness.

    • I think the message that we've gotten from everyone on the panel is that we need to start with the assumption that openness is a good thing, and only exclude when its in the best interests of the child--rather than the opposite assumption, which has always guided us--which is that it's not a good thing except in these exceptional cases--these exceptions. We need to reverse that paradigm I think.

    • One of the things that we didn't touch on, that I think is a little scary, is what happens in private adoptions when there's nobody to mediate, when there's nobody to explain, when there's nobody to pick up the pieces later, when there's nobody...when there's just nobody.
      • So that is just one of the frightening things that came into my mind as we were talking about how to manage these relationships and do what's best for the kids. For private adoption, for these kids, there just is no such option.

    • Finally, I wanted to ask this question, although there's no time left to discuss it. I'll ask it anyway just so we can think about it.... :

      What is responsibility do the agencies have in an international adoption placement, to help sending countries understand the importance of--not openness necessarily or in terms of relationship--but in terms of gathering those stories and those things that Susan Soon-Keum Cox talked about. In terms of keeping that information. In terms of storing or archiving letters that come from whatever country is the receiving country so that archive is maintained?

    The preceding are detailed notes. They do not constitute the exact words of the speakers, but a--hopefully accurate--summary of the ideas of these presentations and questions. If any of the panelists or attendees take issue with any of these summaries, please let me know so that I can correct them.


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