Four Media Myths About Adoption
by Beth M. Waggenspack
As adoptive families, we are often confronted with insensitive and insulting remarks, rude questions, unsolicited advice, and general ignorance. We constantly face the challenge of getting others to see adoption as a desirable way to build a family. Unfortunately, many myths about adoption that we try to dispel are reinforced by the media. According to a survey, viewers and readers are more likely to encounter images and messages about adoption that reinforce misconceptions rather than dispel them.
Myth #1: Adopted children are troublemakers
Media misrepresentation fosters the myth that adopted children are troublesome. One movie Problem Child, depicts the adoption of a seven-year-old "devil" child whose behavior includes cruelty to animals, arson, and urinating in inappropriate places. The film, full of untrue stereotypes, equates adopted children with garbage and secondhand clothes.
A Time magazine article entitled "When the Lullaby Ends" reports that each year parents return about 1,000 children who were adopted in the United States. According to the article, these children are returned because they have severe emotional problems or because they failed to meet their parents' expectations. Although the magazine points out that only about 2% of all adoptions in the United States disrupt, it still gives readers (more than 4 million of them) the impression that adoptive children are second-rate commodities that come with implied warranties.
The image of adopted children as troublemakers is so pervasive that the media even uses it as a simile. Another article in Time likened modern Germany to "a child of doubtful lineage adopted into a loving family: The child has been good, obedient and industrious, but friends and neighbors are worried that evil genes may still lurk beneath a well-mannered surface - all the more so now that the child has become an adult."
When a person who was adopted commits a crime, the media is quick to focus on the fact. Cases like that of alleged serial killer Joel Rifkin spread the idea that adoption and violence are linked. Rifkin was adopted as an infant, and his lawyer claims that he suffers from a grab bag of criminal tendencies that he calls "adopted child syndrome."
In a longitudinal study of 624 children, some from adoptive homes and some from biological homes, researchers found no worse a tendency toward criminality or alcohol abuse among adopted children than among biological children. If the media always mentioned when a criminal had red hair, the public might develop prejudices about redheads.
Myth #2: All adoptees have traumatic birth histories
The media also promote the myth that every adoptee has a traumatic birth history. Story lines in television movies and soap operas - and the advertising copy that promotes them - unfairly accentuate the dangers of adopting a child whose genetic heritage is unknown. According to TV Guide, the made-for-television movie Family of Strangers is about an adult adoptee who, "facing surgery that requires her genetic history, seeks her biological parents in a desperate quest that unearths a dark mystery." (She discovers that her birth resulted from rape.)
The soap opera One Life to Live ran two long plots from 1988 to 1991 about "adoption lies." In the first story, a baby was taken from his mother to replace a child who had supposedly died in the South American jungle. Of course, the birthmother eventually returned for the child and the truth came out. In the second story, an adult woman had never been told that she was adopted. When she found out the truth and met her birthmother, the lies she'd been told created great upheaval.
Another soap, General Hospital, featured a story about an adoptive mother who bought her baby from a lawyer specializing in black-market adoptions. When she found out the child's birthmother was a former friend who'd been told her baby had died at birth, the adoptive mother turned to deceit that eventually cost her the child and members of her family.
Unfortunately, stories about the overwhelmingly positive aspects of adoption are apparently deemed not dramatic enough to attract viewers. Thus, the media perpetuates the view that there is something seamy and pitiful about adoption and its participants.
Myth #3: All adoptees search
Media coverage has greatly exaggerated the number of adopted persons who search for their birth parents, reinforcing the myth that all adoptees are constantly searching. Reunions are popular topics for news stories and talk shows.
Most recently, The Jerry Springer Show featured a reunion of siblings who had been removed from their birthmother because of neglect and abuse. Guests on the Maury Povich Show included former child actress (and felon, it was noted) Dana Plato, of Different Strokes, who had found her birthmother after the death of her adoptive mother. Virgil Klunder, a so-called adoptive search expert, asserted that "adoptees are normally told several lies about their past, which make it difficult for them to find their real parents." Tabloid shows, such as Hard Copy and Unsolved Mysteries, have featured adoptees searching for birthparents or engaging in loving meetings with them. A short-lived sitcom called Flesh 'n' Blood was about an assistant district attorney who would "chuck it all to find the woman who gave her up for adoption."
Most adoptees join their families as infants and have no store of memories or experiences to share in a reunion. Some want to answer the big questions of Who? and Why? by finding the people who brought them into the world; others feel no need to obtain information about birthparents. Some want to know their medical histories, and others feel an urge to discover national or ethnic identities. However, contrary to dramatic reports in the media, many adoptees do not want to meet their birthparents.
According to Feigelman and Silverman, authors of Chosen Children, genealogical questioning and reunion-seeking is widespread among adoptees, yet actual searching and contact with birth relatives remain relatively rare. Determining the actual number of the adoptee population in the United States interested in searching is difficult. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, no national statistics have been compiled on the number of legally adopted persons in any age group who are searching.
Unfortunately, a few vocal adoptees and members of the media have assumed that all adopted persons are deeply committed to searching. They say those who are not actively searching at any given time simply haven't started yet or have repressed the desire. While this may be true of some adoptees, it is not true of all.
Myth #4: Adopted children are obtained illegally
Sensational stories have fostered the belief that adopted children are often obtained illegally or under questionable circumstances. The CBS news program 60 Minutes detailed the horror story of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, which placed hundreds of children for adoption in the 1940s. Many, it has recently been found, were taken illegally from their mothers. The show failed to point out, however, that incidents of illegal removal are few compared to the number of adoptions worldwide.
A 1990 Time magazine article, "Psst, Babies for Sale," asserted that the international trafficking in children was big business. The article reported that Wadduwa, a resort in Sri Lanka, was a baby farm where foreigners could buy children and that in Peru, mothers stopped foreigners in the street to barter away their children.
Similar sensationalized stories followed the 1989 fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania. The well-documented horrors of Romanian orphanages spurred many Americans search for adoptable children in Bucharest. Stateside newspapers, magazines, and news shows were also flooded with stories about Romanian baby brokers, scam artists, hucksters, and parents negotiating the sales of children to Americans. In her New York Times Magazine feature, "The Romanian Baby Bazaar," Kathleen Hunt told of parents who demanded 100,000 lei (about $2,800 in American currency) and a Turbo car in exchange for their children. A 60 Minutes episode featured film clips of Romanian baby brokers making similar negotiations with parents. Other stories told of bribes demanded by corrupt directors to get children out of institutionalized squalor.
A few children have been kidnapped from the families of political prisoners, whose attempts to escape East Germany resulted in the placement of their children with "good" citizens. In 1992, 60 Minutes detailed the difficulties of a birthmother and the son taken from her at age three who had been brought together by the reunification of Germany. Stories like this, however, are rare and representative of only a few adoptions.
In reality, an average of 20 Americans per day adopt babies from overseas, often from developing nations, where poor parents see adoption as a way to give their children decent lives. Though most of these international adoptions are stringently managed and rigorously policed, an avalanche of stories of systematic abuse in a few places has cast a shadow over the entire process and its participants.
Beth M. Waggenspack is an adoptive mother living in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Responding to the media
You don't have to feel helpless about what you see in the media. You can express your opinions. Here's how:
- Most publications have a letters column. Send a letter about your viewpoint to this department.
- Consider writing an opinion piece for the newspaper or magazine. The "op-ed" is longer than a letter to the editor, and you can often get a two- to three-page (double spaced) article published.
- Call the reporter or writer of a biased article and express your opinion. Sometime a publication will do a follow-up story based on your phone call.
- Write a television and radio stations. Call you local station for its address.
- Encourage others to write. Contact an adoptive parent and ask its members to contact the media with their reactions. The more people who respond, the sooner you'll see change.