Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Find My Family - A Social Worker's Perspective

So, I doubt that, if you are in the foster/adopt community, you haven't heard about ABC's new reality show - Find My Family. And you have probably already formed an opinion of it - even if you haven't watched it. I know I had! From the very first commercial I knew two things - 1) It would make me cry and 2) I was against it.

I did not plan to watch it - I felt that it was exploitive and was sure I wouldn't like the sure-to-be cheesy way it would all be presented. However, my VCR had a mind of its own the night of the premiere (okay, it was set to tape DWTS) and once I realized it, I couldn't stop myself from watching.

Well, I was right about one thing - I HATE THE CHEESE FACTOR.

The whole thing feels incredibly contrived and I find myself wanting to slap at least one of the cohosts every week. Both hosts, Lisa Joyner and Tim Green, were adopted - and in some cases that might make them ideal people to support the participants through this process. But in this case, not so much. They both insert themselves into the scenarios WAY too much and project their own feelings, past and present, onto the adoptees and birth families. I believe that a professional (social worker, counselor, therapist, etc) should be the one facilitating these discussions. I think that the show would be more honest if the participants were allowed to have their own feelings - instead of Tim and Lisa's being injected into each discussion. And I simply cringe each and every time one of them asks someone for a hug - which they do, constantly, and at the most inappropriate time.

The "searcher" is also instructed to write a letter to the person they are looking for - which is then read OUT LOUD by that person in front of whichever host has come to tell them that their family is looking for them. How nerve wreaking to have to read that letter and feel all those feelings in front a virtual stranger (and a camera crew).

I also hate the "Family Tree" that all the participants are flown to in order to meet each other - how would the hosts like it if they'd been forced to wait to find their family until they were under some stupid tree? The hosts and the tree make the whole thing feel...I don't know... icky... to me. It feels exactly how I was afraid it would feel - like these people are being manipulated and taken advantage of at one of the most desperate times in their lives.

But I was wrong about completely hating it.

Its hard to hate the show when you see the reunions - as cheesy and contrived as they are, these are people who may not have found each other if not for this show. And if only for them, I am glad it exists despite its flaws. Also, I hope that when people watch it, they are given a better understanding of the experience of adoption from all sides. I know that it has already helped me to understand somethings that I have wondered about and helped me tap into some ugly realities about adoption that I've never quite believed. Here are some of the situations that have played out so far and some of my thoughts:

Ashley/David/Danielle - Siblings. This seems so obvious, but I know first hand that some adoptive parents don't think that biological siblings are important. Well, it certainly was for Ashley - she'd been thinking about and searching for her brother since she'd first discovered she was adopted (by accident no less!) when she was 10 years old. David hadn't been searching for quite as long - because he'd been told his baby sister died at birth. He only discovered the truth after his (2nd) younger sister, Danielle, was told that their parents had given Ashley up for adoption. Along with the obvious storyline pull - siblings searching for each other - I was struck by the lies that both families had told surrounding this adoption. Both Ashley and David express that they felt betrayed by their parents (adoptive and birth) when they discovered the truth. This is a grave lesson that I hope parents take note of - honesty is the best policy.

Judith/June - The first example of a transracial adoption - but that is mostly glossed over with a "race didn't matter in my family". I'm not knocking that its Judith's perogative to be fine with being the only black child in a white family - I just hope that FMF does address the other side of the coin at some point. What was interesting was the feelings expressed by Judith's daughters - "It makes me feel kinda sad, that you don't know your mom". Out of the mouths of babes - of course a child would understand the loss of a parent, much more so that us adults who can rationalize some of the "loss" of adoption. June was a foster child, living with a foster family when she got pregnant - she was given no choice but to give her daughter up for adoption. She tells a tragic story of sneaking out of her hospital bed in an attempt to see her child just one time - but the nurses caught her and she left the hospital without even getting to say goodbye. Listening to her read the letter from Judith was heartbreaking.

Kari/Vickey -  Kari is the first example of an "angry adoptee", someone who didn't insist that everything was peaches and cream in her adoptive family. This is what Kari said about her adoptive family, "I never doubted that I was loved, but acceptance I went back and forth with", despite the insistance of her adoptive mother that there was no difference between Kari and her sister (biological child of adoptive parents). And why wouldn't she have issues feeling accepted? The only information that she has about her adoption state that "the child, a girl was given to the [state agency] by her mother who refused to care for and did abandon her". She felt "trashed" - simply discarded without feeling - Kari couldn't understand how "you could carry a child for 9 months and then handing that child over to someone you'd never even met".

Kari's story enraged me more one single reason: she was told she was 'abandoned' by her birth mother. But she wasn't. When FMF located Vickey she told a completely different story - she'd not abandoned her daughter, she'd made a conscious decision to give her child a better life because she already had a child, didn't have a job and was living with friends. Despite her original request that she not see her baby - she did, and held her for four hours. She wrote her a letter, told her she loved her that she hoped that they would find each other one day. And she even tried to regain custody of Kari three months after her birth when her financial circumstances changed dramatically. Can you imagine how she felt when she was told that her daughter never got that letter? That her baby was told that she was abandoned? Thrown away? Made to believe she was never wanted or loved? Horrible. And for that, I blame the person (some type of social worker, I presume) in charge of Kari's adoption. As I watched this episode, I thought about the way I talk about birth parents to their children and how important for children to know that their parents care about them. Even if their parents have hurt them, even if their parents neglected them, even if their parents did not do the things that were neccesary to have them returned to them - does not mean they were not wanted, or cared about or loved.  And these things are important - for the mother and the child. Kari lived for years with pain surrounding her adoption - some of it could have been spared if someone had been diligent about making sure a simple letter followed that baby girl.

Sean/ - The first father, searching for the son that he wasn't given the option to raise. I have often felt like this is the biggest travesty in adoption. That fathers are brushed aside - their names not even required on a birth certificate nor is there any recourse for a woman claiming she doesn't "know who the father is" when signing away her rights to that child.  searched for his child for almost 30 years - and Sean never knew that his father hadn't consented to his adoption. Sad. Tragic.

For these reasons, and I'm sure there will be many more - I am glad that the show exists. One of the reoccuring themes that surprised me was even when the child had their birth parents' name(s) and sometimes even the names of relatives - they could not find them, even with a private investigator. Even though adoptive parents were "open" with their children about their adoptions - it didn't make finding their biological family any easier. It was a stark reminder of how hard it can be to find someone - even if you know who you are looking for. I certainly hope that we are moving in a direction (albeit much too slowly) with adoption that will mean this kind of show won't be neccesary in the future.

Have you seen the show? What are your thouhts? If you haven't, you can watch the last few episodes here and form your own opinions.

Oh, and I was right about one more thing... It makes me cry every week!


  1. hmmm. I've shied away from it because I really don't like shows about adoption. But after reading your comments, I'm more interested in it and maybe I'll watch it!

    Shows like this do give a good case for open adoption though. I've often considered adopting, and for sure it would be open because I would want my child to know where they came from, and know why they couldn't stay with their families. Also I wouldn't want to end up on a reality TV show.

  2. I don't have any harsh feelings about it because I love the sole reason it exists: to reunite. I do find it a tad cheesy and the silly hosts cry more than the families! It's all worth it when the reunited family members embrace under that family tree - that is what I wait for during each show, and that is when my tears flow.

  3. I must lead a very sheltered life! I didn't even know this show existed! I'll have to check it out!

  4. I have the unique perspective of 3 separate angles- an adoptee, an adoptive mother and a social worker. The main thing that bothers me about this show? The name. Find my Family. I'm someone who happens to strongly believe that biology does make a family. I'm not discounting the importance of biology and/or knowing where you come from. However, MY family includes the parents who adopted me as an infant, the brothers who tortured me for years before becoming my greatest supporters and my sister who is still one of my best friends. That is my family. The 15 year old girl who got pregnant by her 21 year old boyfriend? They are my biology and genetic heritage. That's not to say that I don't value them, I do. I'm grateful that they chose life for me, I'm grateful that they gave me up so I could have a better life than they could provide at that time. But that doesn't make them my family. My parents were incredibly supportive when I found my biological parents by accident. They have never been anything but open, honest and supportive since I was a mere baby. I've always known I was adopted, it was never a secret or a shameful thing in our home. My brothers and sister are not biological children of my parents either. Doesn't make them any less my family. I have met my bio parents and my bio siblings that they have together. They were gung-ho on folding me right back into the family like I had been stolen away from them instead of willingly surrendered for adoption. It was awkward at best. The relationship never developed and I'm fine with that.

    As an adoptive parent, I would love to encourage my boys to know their birth parents. Unfortunately, that isn't possible for safety reasons. But if one day, as an adult, my son wants to find his bio mother I will support him. I will encourage him to read the case file that I have kept for him so he is fully informed before jumping feet first into a situation that might be less than ideal. I would never try and prevent him from knowing his heritage. I would never try and stop him from meeting his birth mother. After all, I owe her a great debt of gratitude for giving birth to one of the funniest, smartest, most loving children I've ever met. We pray for her every single night, and my son has a picture of the two of them together on his nightstand. I will never say a negative word about her. She gave him life.

    Sorry, I wrote a book. This show just rubs me the wrong way. I'm all for reunion shows, I love The Locator. But the premise that biology makes a family just bugs me to death, as you can probably tell. Ha!

  5. There's one episode you didn't mention, the one about Scott & Sandy Steinpas, a couple searching for the daughter they "gave up" (I hate this term) when they were just teenagers. This was the very first episode, and the only one I truly liked. It showed the deep love they felt when they made the difficult decision of making an adoption plan for their daughter. Some people don't understand that this is a loving decision, not a selfish one. I'm glad the show made this episode so special.

    Now, about the cheese factor... You're absolutely right. The tree. Ugh... And the cohosts cry every time! I think the they are controlling the show, projecting their feelings and manipulating the reactions of these people. I also think a social worker or therapist should facilitate the discussions. But this is a reality show - reality is usually manipulated.

    I don't like the fact that the cohosts don't use respectful adoption language. However, I've seen the adoptees use the appropriate terms - they say birth family, birth mom, etc.

    I don't really like the show 100%, but it brings a lot of insight. I can only wonder about the things that will go through my daughter's mind once she's old enough and wants to know more, or meet her birth parents. I wonder if she'll have the same feelings of the adoptees that have been on the show.

    Great post!

  6. Yep, we can agree to disagree on this one. I like the sappy. The good news is do agree on all the important stuff so that's a good thing. :o)

    I think it's funny how so many people say, "The show makes me cry" but diss the hosts for crying. They are THERE giving the news.. it's momentous and they understand because of personal experience. Genuinely happy and digging their jobs.. Lucky ducks..

    Speaking of Ducks, Lisa is cool (I couldn't help myself).

    I think everyone is over thinking the whole thing. It's gotta have a cheese factor (it's TV, right?) but it accomplishes something amazing. I've searched for a decade with hardly any info to show for it. I am delighted for everyone on the show. The End.


  7. I've never heard of the show but I might look into it after reading your post.

    You make a great point about biological fathers. I think everyone makes assumptions about "deadbeat dads." Sure there are some of those out there, but there are also women who refuse to let their children's fathers be involved in their lives or who don't even tell them they have a child.

  8. I quite by accident made the comment that I find the "Family Tree" sappy. Which I do. I think it is unnecessary and artificial.

    My biggest hate of foster care has been the "requirement" that we have no contact whatsoever with the birth family. Of course I realize that there are issues of safety in some cases, although with 20 + kids having gone through our home, I have only been concerned about 1 bio dad and not because he felt one way or another about the kids, but they were a tool to control their mother.

    Me and Mama were kept apart for two years, then of course there was another year of resentment when we did meet, finally the last two years have been friendly and eye opening. It is ONLY because of that relationship that the kids have some hope of getting out of foster care.

    I do believe that both of us are a necessary part of the childrens lives. They would NOT be here had she not made the choice to bring them into the world. Now that I've "won" that doesn't change. And "winning" is the vibe that I get from the social workers at our agency.

    However, they weren't sitting in a 8x10 room watching a girl sign over her rights to her children while 1/2 a dozen lawyers and witnesses crowded around. Trying to reassure her that we were also a victim of this process. That regardless of what the official paperwork said she would have to trust us to do the right thing for our children.

    It was not a win. For anyone.

    We will keep in contact with her. We will allow her as much access as she wants as long as there is no physical danger to the children. We hope that she wants to be involved, there are times she is and times she isn't, which we understand.

    My husband and I are actually older than Mama's mother so technically I could be old enough to be her mother. I have recently realized that not only are we adopting the littles, but Mama as well. She will be a part of our family forever.

    I will go back to posting on my own blog now. :)

  9. Thank you for this "review" of FMF. I have been hesitant to watch for many of the same reasons you stated. Now I think I will give it a chance.

    I am also social worker, who worked in adoptions (foster care adoptions) before going back to graduate school, and I am also a person who was adopted as a child.

    I have a different opinion as snarkymom, in the sense that while I value my adoptive family relationship, I very much consider it a loss that I do not know my biological family. I have spent the last 10 years searching for them.

    While some, like snarkymom, may have "reunited" with their bio family and decided or felt that it didn't mean much, I know of many who have had the opposite experience.

    I don't want adoptive parents to read only perspectives like those of snarkymom, because they might think that her situation is the only one and feel a sense of "relief" because then they don't have to support a birth family search for their child (I'm not saying this is what snarkymom is saying, but I have known adoptive parents who look for any reason at all to not have to support birth family search/contact).

    Adoptive parents will never know if their adopted child will be the one who feels a deep need to be connected to their birth family; and if if s/he does, it does not mean that the adoptive parents somehow failed or that the child doesn't love his/her adoptive parents. Some adopted persons just have have that desire to know their birth family.

    I often hear others say, "well, it didn't matter to me" and think that somehow there is something wrong with me or other adoptees who want to make that connection. But, there is nothing wrong with me for wanting to make that connection. I hope that those adoptees who want to be reunited with their birth families don't become "pathologized" for this desire, especially by social workers.

  10. annieology - I'm so surprised that you are required not to have contact with the birth parents. In Michigan it is all about "connection" with whatever people the children have had connection with before....which, of course, is sometimes good, sometimes awful.

    How is the REAL family treated? Are the adoptive parents ever included in the "reunion"? My adopted children's mothers are all dead, but I picture myself being present if we are ever able to get them together with their biological families. I'd feel like being left out of that would kill me, somehow.

    I don't have a TV, but don't think I could stand watching it. Too much emotion!

  11. I totally agree! Haaaate the family tree.....

  12. I totally agree. I haaaaate the 'family tree'....


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