In adoptions, as in the rest of life, mistakes and even disasters happen, but this is a field in which the media should be especially careful not to sensationalise. The happiness of tens of thousands of children and would-parents is at stake.
Did news accounts about weapons of mass destruction help set the stage for the war in Iraq? Do television reports about earthquakes or genocide stir Americans to action? The bottom line: Are the media as influential as they sometimes appear to be?
As the new year dawns, I’d like to offer a few examples from the mountains of evidence in my world that the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” And I’d like to suggest that the consequences – especially when the power of the press is exercised without sufficient knowledge or context – can be painful and profound.
The clearest current example is a white-hot, albeit little-reported, debate in Russia about whether to halt all international adoptions from that country. The stakes in the outcome are huge, potentially affecting tens of thousands of institutionalized children for whom adoption abroad represents the best hope of enjoying normal, fulfilling lives.
The genesis of the Russians’ concern is legitimate and understandable. About a dozen children adopted from their orphanages in the last decade have died at the hands of new American parents; one such parent was convicted of involuntary manslaughter just a few months ago.
A mother killing her son is undeniably news, and lots of reporters have written about it – primarily in breathless articles containing few insights. That’s no surprise; generations of secrecy have left most of us, including journalists, without a solid understanding of adoption or its participants. One result is that stories relating to the subject too often are ill-informed and lack critical perspective, while the consumers of those stories too often don’t have the experience or information to put events into context for themselves.
So, when the biological parent of a child does something heinous, like throwing her kids off a pier in San Francisco (which recently happened), no one thinks, “Oh, my God, we can’t allow families to be formed the old-fashioned way – look what the mothers do!” Moreover, no one suggests placing a moratorium on childbirth until parents stop hurting their children; rather, we focus on identifying the problems that cause such behavior and on how to remedy them.
Sweeping, wrong-headed generalizations are commonplace in the coverage of adoption-related stories, however, whether they involve a New Jersey couple who allegedly starved their children adopted from foster care or an Illinois mother who killed her Russian son. And the effects are significant – from stigmatizing adoptive families, to making would-be parents wonder if adoption is a reasonable option, to fueling questions in other countries about whether it is better to keep children institutionalized than allow them to be adopted.
The fact is that the vast majority of the 22,000-plus annual international adoptions by Americans – including the preponderance of the 5,865 from Russia last year – are highly successful, and the resulting families are as fulfilled as those formed in any other way. You might not know it, though, from reading the newspaper or watching television.
The latest player in this momentous game was ABC’s “Primetime,” which aired a show in December in which it told the tale of an American who abused his daughter and placed pornographic pictures of her on the Internet. Had she been born to him, it would have been a salacious story that would have provoked us to ask, “What’s wrong with monsters like this and what can we do about them?” Instead, since she was adopted from Russia, the questions were broader and bigger – and, thankfully, ABC took its responsibility seriously to do more than just provide the revolting, sensational details.
Not everything about the program was perfect, to be sure. But it offered important insights that might lead to progress rather than retrenchment and, in doing so, made it clear that it’s possible to thoughtfully tell a difficult adoption story in a compelling way.
I would never suggest that anyone take the abuse or killing of children as anything less than extremely serious. Indeed, it is incumbent on Russian and American authorities, along with adoption professionals and anyone else who has relevant expertise, to make a concerted effort to identify and close any loopholes in vetting and educating prospective parents; to provide pre- and post-placement services to help parents deal with any challenges their children might face as a result of their institutionalization; and to ensure that all the practitioners who place children for adoption are trained and licensed to do so.
It undoubtedly will be tough, and maybe expensive, to accomplish all those tasks. But this story is about the lives of children, about the dreams of parents, even about the aspirations of nations to conscientiously serve the people who inhabit them.
The press, knowing that responsibility comes with power, needs to get this one right.
Adam Pertman is Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America.