How The Media Gets Adoption Wrong

We cannot forget all the incredible and good people in the adoption community.

Susan Kuligowski April 03, 2017
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It’s long been a thorn in the side of many that the media seems to serve up a plethora of negative adoption stories featuring corrupt facilitators, deadbeat birth families, troubled children, abusive foster/adoptive parents, and an overall broken foster/adoption system. Crime stories with any tie to foster or adoption are sure to emphasize a possible link in bold black print (the Troubled Adopted Son or the Abusive Foster Parents)–in an attempt to justify portraying adopted children and adoptive parents as potential bad apples or at the very least somehow different than the rest society. Because we all know there is no such thing as a Troubled Biological Son or Abusive Biological Parents and yet, you’ll never see either so blatantly spelled out in bold black print.

Meanwhile, movies often portray orphanages as scary fortresses submerged in dark and stormy nights surrounded by thick black iron gates (think the 2007 Spanish horror film The Orphanage or the 2016 animated film BFG and so on and so on) run by inhumane or uncaring staff that loathe the very children they serve. Made-for-TV movies involving foster care often present a hopeless picture of abuse and despair (think Annie), where cruel caregivers mistreat children.  Birth mothers are often portrayed as being drug-addicted, broken, and incapable of love. While foster and adoptive parents are often deemed desperate, selfish, and dismissive.

The world is a big place and unfortunately there are plenty of troublemakers mixed in with those trying to be the difference to make a difference–no matter what the cause. There do exist facilities and orphanages that could stand to be modernized and programs that could be updated to better meet children’s needs. There are laws that seem to work against birth parents, adoptive parents, and the children caught in the middle. There is corruption in foster and adoption just as there is in every other social and/or other section of society. As such, it’s easy for the media to capitalize on these problems. Unfortunately, the resulting bad press and “entertainment” only fuels the belief that adoption is a dirty word–that there is something amiss with anyone involved with it. Historically, the impact this had on foster/adopted children was that their life path was something to be ashamed of. Birth parents were left to quietly bury their guilt or grief. While foster and adoptive parents were left feeling the need to justify their decision by proving wary family and friends wrong–that their child was not damaged and that it wasn’t about a paycheck at all.

What was, and is often still, left missing from these movies and articles are the stories of the incredible people who have been touched by adoption that have made good decisions despite the bad decisions leading up to foster care or adoption in the first place. The often understaffed and underpaid staff in underfunded institutions that work so hard to provide safe and nurturing environments for children in need. The advocates who work tirelessly in courtrooms, social welfare offices, schools, and on home computers who fight to improve laws and resources meant to benefit birth parents, adoptive parents, and the children.

Caught in the middle of all of this media, be it pro and con, remain the children…

Caught in the middle of all of this media, be it pro and con, remain the children–thousands in the United States and millions across the globe–oftentimes presented in the media in different ways at the mercy of whatever group and/or whatever government or social movement is in control at the moment. It’s easy to see how uninformed viewers and readers can and do subconsciously label these children and oftentimes unknowingly form an opinion, pick a side, join a cause, or take action based on a fraction of the whole.

Birth families, adoptees, and adopters are unique and no two stories are alike. To broad-brush adoption is to negate the individual and his or her experience, as well as everyone else (and there are many) involved in that experience. And what I’ve learned through reading the headlines, watching the movies, and living my life as an adoptive mom is that when you dig a bit deeper, there is always more to the story. Go picking and you will find that there are both good and bad apples on a tree throughout the life of the tree and on every other tree in the orchard.

Celebrity adoptions, instead of catching public scorn, are now being publicly celebrated…

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a more level playing field developing where adoption is concerned. In the late 90s, adoption facilitators and advocates struggled to provide a more comprehensive overview of the adoption triad using language that is meant to educate and empower rather than to label or offend. And with the advent of social media, you’ll now find both pro and anti adoption websites and blogs–written by facilitators, adoptive parents, and adoptees. Through these personal accounts and from all angles, a bigger picture has been made available and with more fact-based messages and less shock value headlines. You begin to see the members of the adoption triad for who they are–your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers–rather than one-dimensional characters in a movie or the Troubled Adopted Son in a two-paragraph news story. The Dave Thomas Foundation, for example, is very much aware of the social media vehicle and you’ll find its Facebook updates constantly reminding us of the positive side of foster care adoption and the many children who depend upon this important service.

Another factor to consider is that of celebrity adoption. Love them or hate them, the explosion of celebrity and high-profile adoptions forced a public conversation on the subject (You might think of Madonna, not that she was the first by any means, and moving on up to Brangelina as well as so many more less circus-like, yet still in the public eye adoptions–think America’s sweetheart Sandra Bullock). Celebrity adoptions, instead of catching public scorn, are now being publicly celebrated (think Today’ Show Host Hoda Kotb). Imagine that. Or don’t. You can read all about it here.

Perhaps because of the push for education, social media, and celebrity “darlings,” the headlines slowly seem to be swinging in a new direction–with a better understanding and acceptance of fostering and adoption rather than ridiculing it. In the same way, media now seems to use more positive language–careful to take into consideration everything from birth family circumstance (it turns out not all birth moms are addicts nor are all adoptive moms selfish) to transracial issues and the growing acceptance of transracial families, to foster parents maybe not being about a paycheck after all, but rather going the distance to open their homes to children in need of families simply because they care about children.

For the record, I’m not anti-free press, opinion, or creativity in movies. And I understand the pull to sensationalize a story to sell a paper–it’s nothing personal toward adoption. My hope, though, is that the media will continue the trend to give the same time to those who work to improve a self-recognized imperfect system. Portray adoptees as people first–doctors, lawyers, Olympians, business owners, factory workers, and that nice boy down the street who shovels his elderly neighbor’s driveway–who strive for the same things in life as the rest of everyone else. Acknowledge the majority of foster and adoptive parents as people who love children and are not working to somehow scam the system rather than working simply to provide forever families to children whom they call sons and daughters, sans the sensationalized adoption stereotypes.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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