Adoption Beat

June 11, 2008

Getting it right

Filed under: Improving media coverage of adoption — adoptionbeat @ 1:50 am

When presenting a workshop on publication design, I illustrated my points about design elements by using examples of newsletters that contained major design flaws. One wiseacre asked if I had any samples of newsletters that featured good design. I did, I had planned to unveil them a little later in the presentation as I showed how the problem designs could be fixed. But the point was well taken.

So let me applaud an example of good reporting:

Barbara Hollingsworth, reporting for The Examiner, tells a story of good intentions gone sadly awry. What makes it even sadder is that adoption reform activists predicted this result before the law was even passed.

Congress, with the best of intention, passed the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which allowed states to terminate parental rights of children who had been in foster care longer than 15 months. Child welfare officials have long been able to remove children from abusive homes and many of these children suffered the lack of a permanent home as a result. Although some parents were unable to get their act together and make a home for their children, they refused to sign away their parental rights so those children were sentenced to foster care until they aged out. While we know this is not in the best interests of the child, society has been reluctant to tear dysfunctional families apart as long as there was even a slim chance that they could be healed.

Foster care allowed, and encouraged, continued contact between children and their parents and their extended families. Most adoptees would probably advocate that child welfare locate blood relatives capable of stepping forward to provide that permanence. And only in the event that no such appropriate custodian could be found that placement with an adoptive family be considered.

The problem with that approach is that if you are truly committed to making every effort to heal families and reunite children with their family of origin is that you have to give the process time. And during that time, children grow quickly. Before you know it, they are not cuddly infants or cute toddlers but damaged and perhaps defiant adolescents. They are harder to place with an adoptive family. And they may also have sibling bonds that adoption could break

Unfortunately, Congress in its infinite wisdom felt that solution was to hurry this process and that money could solve the problem of long-term foster care. It is certainly helping to shorten the length of time that children spend in foster care but whether or not it is truly in the best interests of the child is debatable.

Because states receive a $4,000 cash bonus from the federal government for each child adopted from foster care (multiplied by the percentage that the state exceeds its adoption goal) it gives child welfare workers a powerful financial incentive to terminate parental rights.

According to the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) state child welfare agencies did so more than 79,000 times nationwide in 2006, legally separating children from their families of origin. “And since infants and toddlers are much easier to place in adoptive homes, they’re often targeted for removal by overzealous social workers based on flimsy or anonymous evidence of parental abuse or neglect,” Hollingsworth writes.

She reports that child welfare officials have a battery of tactics they can use to run out this 15-month clock that starts ticking as soon as a child goes into foster care. Among those are forced psychological testing, the filing of legal motions and other delaying tactics that give child welfare the clear advantage.

Bureaucrats have disproportionately more time and financial resources to wage a legal battle for custody against parents who “basically have to prove their own innocence.” She adds, “individuals and parents are considered guilty as charged by anonymous tipsters whose hidden motivations are never brought to light.”

They only have to outlast the natural parents by 15 months. That alone is sufficient legal justification to terminate parental rights.

Hollingsworth estimates child welfare agencies must lay out an average of $20,000 to keep a child in foster care compared to $8,000 to provide in-home services for troubled families. On the face of it, one wonders that the “bounty” paid to agencies that manage to wrest children away from their parents and place them for adoption manage to break even.

But the reality is that this process keeps a lot of professionals on the payroll – lawyers, social workers, therapists, psychologists – and they profit from families being torn apart. As anyone who has ever investigated adoption in any depth soon realizes, the way to report the phenomenon is to follow the money. It requires much more of an investment of time and money by the media to do that than to do the kind of reporting we so often see.

Hollingsworth concludes “although CPS’ stated goal is family reunification, the reality is that these agencies reap a second financial windfall when the forced separation between child and parent becomes permanent.”

I might add that although the stated goal of the media is to provide fair and balanced coverage of important societal issues, the reality is that one-sided stories about the trials and tribulations of couples longing to bring someone else’s child into their home or the occasional reunions of adoptees and birth relatives are easy to do, require few sources and if the media makes no attempt at providing balance, pretty cheap.





June 10, 2008

Is it relevant?

Filed under: Improving media coverage of adoption — adoptionbeat @ 11:01 pm

I read the Associated Press report on OregonLive:

The headline read “Man accused of killing adoptive mother brought back to Oregon on multiple charges.”

The rest of the story, a sad one, to be sure, is an example of news reporting that fails the “relevance” test. Matricide is a horrendous crime. For a person to kill the woman who gave him life or helped him to create a place for himself within her family through adoption is unthinkable. To distinguish this episode by emphasizing that the perpetrator was adopted seems, at this point, to be irrelevant.

The reporter mentions the fact of Gabriel Scott Riley’s adoption in the third graph, rather than the lede, but a headline writer chose to make it the most significant fact of the story. While it may turn out to be significant, the story does not make the case for that headline.

Compare that to another similar story that also describes matricide. In this case Rebecca D’Aoust was attacked and killed by her 14-year-old adopted daughter.

The headline reads: “Mother recalled as dedicated to children.” Yet, in this story, the fact of adoption is demonstrated to be relevant because the report says that D’Aoust and her husband “knew from the start that the youngest, Heather, came from a family with mental illness.”

Both mothers were school counselors. The D’Aoust’s, we learn, wanted a big family but nature did not cooperate so they adopted three girls, two of who are now in college. 

Riley, it appears, attempted to kill both his parents by setting fire to their home. Heather D’Aoust attacked her mother with a claw hammer.

What we know at this point is that both murderers were adopted and we might be excused for thinking that both were troubled psychologically but we only have evidence of that in one case. Based on the evidence offered, in only one case do we have any reason to link that psychological malfunction to the murderer’s biological family. But careless or insensitive reporting convicts adoption in both stories.


June 8, 2008

Points of View?

Filed under: Improving media coverage of adoption — adoptionbeat @ 6:21 am

I want to salute a colleague’s blog post!

73Adoptee (there’s a link to her blog at right) did an abbreviated content analysis of adoption coverage comparing three major media using their own on-line search engines. Granted this methodology has some limits because the paper content and the on-line content differ, and search engines are only as accurate as the programming is consistent. She noted that her search parameters failed to turn up at least one article that she was aware of — this is something that I have often encountered when trying to find an article that someone told me about or find a second time something I realized I SHOULD have saved. I have often had trouble finding an article even when I had the exact headline and or author’s name and date of publication. But her quick survey only confirms something triad members already know — media coverage is skewed. A more extensive content analysis would no doubt produce similar results.

She writes:

“The vast majority of media coverage about adoption completely ignores the viewpoints of those most affected by it: adult adoptees and their birth kin.”

She’s absolutely right.

I have another colleague who, a few weeks ago, suggested that this is largely our own fault. She said that we should call the media on the mistakes they make. Her major concern was the media’s use of insensitive language. And while she has a point, language — specifically adoption terminology — is something that we don’t all agree on within the adoption reform community and we are sometimes guilty of applying pejorative terms to other members of the triad ourselves. At the height of the age of political correctness, it surprizes me that the media is not more sensitive. But what really bothers me is that too many of the news media’s stories are not fair because they are not balanced.

While this is not our fault, there may be something we can do about it. One thing we can do is to call the media on what is missing from stories that give disproportionate weight to the viewpoint of the adoption industry. But be prepared to put it in writing. In fact, one of the ways to make your point is a letter to the editor or news director. Point out, politely and succinctly, what is missing.

I have to admit that when I read a news story from Utah that referred to my ilk as “birth children” I just about choked. What is the alternative to being a birth child, a death child? But the reporter also went on to describe the limitations of a proposed confidential intermediary plan (this is the adoption industry’s proposed alternative to simply giving adult adoptees their original birth certificate upon request). She wrote that the adopted “child” had to be 35 to request his OBC under this proposal. And THAT reference, I really did object to.

Would you believe it, she did not see the humor when I wrote asking her how many 35-year-old children there were in Utah?

I’m sure that, upon reflection, she realized how inappropriate it was to refer to a 35-year-old adoptee as a child, but she did not have the grace or professional maturity to admit she erred. And I think it’s quite possible that she did not realize how condescending the reference was. However, because she relied primarily on one source (the lawmaker’s dog-and-pony show about her own bill) for her story, she came away with a skewed view of the topic and didn’t even know it. Adoptees are kept in perpetual childhood by present laws because we never reach an age that will allow us to ask and have answered certain fundamental questions about our own origins. I wonder if the editor of her newspaper referred to her as a “girl” if she would find her feathers ruffled. I bet she’d go to human resources and complain of sexual harassment.





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