In the first season of NBC’s new hit drama, “This Is Us,” patriarch Jack Pearson and his son Randall finally talk about the elephant in the room: How Randall, as an African-American child, feels about being a different race from his adoptive family.
“We don’t talk about that enough,” Jack says of the adoption. “Because to me, you are every part my son.”
Lonnie Chavis, left, as 9-year-old Randall and Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson in NBC's "This Is Us." | NBC, Ron Batzdorff
With this storyline, adoption professionals say “This Is Us,” “The Fosters” and the Oscar-nominated film “Lion” explore uncharted territory in the entertainment world — the complicated, sometimes messy world of adoption far removed from the oversimplified and outdated stereotypes of “Annie,” “Oliver Twist” or a gamut of orphaned Disney princesses.
“Now that adoption is portrayed much more positively, it can become something people are more comfortable talking about,” said Gloria Hochman of the National Adoption Center.
“Shows like ‘This Is Us,’ they’re promising ways to look at this, and that’s critically important because entertainment doesn’t always help us see the issues that make us all look at family differently,” said April Dinwoodie, chief executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. “The fairy tale never gets to the truth, and it puts pressure on everybody — it relinquishes the birth parents to shame, it makes the adopted parents into saviors and at the center of it are the children.”
Yet adoption in entertainment is still overwhelmingly portrayed as “closed” — that is, when birth records are sealed and issued anew to adoptive parents, expunging any connection or information about the child’s past. Today, many adoptions conducted in the U.S. are considered “open,” or with information about biological parents, optional contact with biological parents and medical history available to the adopted children should they want it later.
According to the Donaldson Adoption Institute, more than 95 percent of adoption agencies in the U.S. offer some kind of open adoption, and 28 states have laws enforcing adoption openness agreements to ensure birth parents’ rights.
Yet Dinwoodie and other experts recognize that flaws in the open adoption system can greatly complicate an adopted child’s life. As open adoption has become more common, so have instances of birth parents fighting to have adoptions overturned when the birth parents either regret their earlier decision or, as in some cases, the birth fathers find out about the adoption after the fact and object to it.
The introduction of open adoption and the presence of birth parents in a child’s life after adoption can be challenging for any potential adoptive parent — but it can also be a blessing, says Georgia parenting expert and Foster Care Institute founder John DeGarmo. DeGarmo wishes more people understood that opening their home to an adopted child means opening their hearts to the birth parents — something he and his wife did when they adopted their three African-American daughters.
The DeGarmo family, John, Kelly, Brody, Kolby, Jace, Cassie, Brailey, Gracie on the front porch of their Monticello, Georgia home pictured Tuesday Feb. 28, 2016. | Darrell Roaden, For the Deseret News
“You have to think of it in terms of, you’re adding on to the family, with the children and their birth parents,” DeGarmo said. “You’re bringing more joy to the house. What greater gift is there?”
While the portrayals of adoption in entertainment have changed for the better, experts say there’s still a lot to be done to show the nuances of real-life adoption and dispense with stereotypes that still persist.
“We have to have these deep, hard conversations, because the fantasy is that once the child is adopted, everyone goes home happy,” Dinwoodie said. “But the reality is that adopted children are overrepresented in suicide, in learning challenges and in counseling. This can impact children in a negative way.”
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California-based writer Kathryn Atkins never met her biological parents — a situation she feels was best for everyone. Atkins was adopted in the 1950s, when adoptions were closed as a rule. Now a married mother of two grown sons, Atkins questions how fair open adoption is. It’s not that Atkins thinks adopted children shouldn’t have access to information about their past if they want it, it’s that she doesn’t think it’s always fair to have biological family involved in the child’s life.
Kathryn Atkins shortly after she was adopted at age 18 months. | Kathryn Atkins
“Where people think it’s easier, I think it must be really hard. I feel like (closed adoption) is better,” Atkins said. “I just can’t believe it’s easy for the adopting parents to have the bio mom flit in and out like a big sister.“
Yet even as she describes her childhood after her adoption as “idyllic,” Atkins is still curious about her past, penning published letters to her parents on Mother's Day and Father’s Day, wondering, “Would you have named me Kathryn?”
At 67, Atkins said she never sought her biological parents out mostly because she was simply happy with the family she got. Atkins’ story is more or less a textbook example of how closed adoption was supposed to spell a happy ending for an adopted child.
“People think adopted kids aren’t happy, but there are a whole bunch of people who were born into families that didn’t want them and they kept them,” Atkins said. “I was wanted, and that’s always been important to me. I was picked out. They didn’t just want any baby, they wanted me.”
But the 1960s and 1970s changed adoption forever, said Hochman.
“Adoption used to only be for babies. There were no foster adoptions or special needs adoptions, it was for married, heterosexual couples who couldn’t have their own children and children were matched to a child who looked as much like them as possible,” Hochman said. “It was often a secret.”
Then, sweeping societal changes — particularly the civil rights movement — made people think differently about adoption. Hochman said pop culture references to interracial adoption like “Different Strokes” also helped change people’s minds about adoption.
The DeGarmo family, clockwise from bottom left: Gracie, Jace, Kelly, Brailey, John, friend of the family Matthew Updike, Brody and Cassie at the dinner table for pancakes Tuesday Feb. 28, 2016. | Darrell Roaden, For the Deseret News
“The civil rights movement changed how many people thought about adoption in that they began to see it as the right thing to do,” Hochman said. “Adoption used to only be same race adoptions, but civil rights movement became cemented in people’s minds, people thought, why not?”
Then, in 1971, the Adoptee’s Liberty Movement Association was founded for adopted children who objected to their origins being hidden (today, the association functions as a registry to aid adoptees in finding blood relatives). At the same time, Hochman said the laws surrounding foster care changed in many states, allowing for children to be adopted out of foster care after 15-22 months.
“Before that happened, the reality was that the children lived and grew up in foster care,” Hochman said. “Originally, the idea was that foster care was temporary until the birth parents could come back for them.”
Today, closed adoption would nearly be impossible, Hochman and Dinwoodie added, because social media and DNA tracking makes it easy to find and identify almost anyone.
“Our ability to know who we are biologically has dramatically changed versus how it used to be,” Dinwoodie said. “We’re just now coming out of that to say, it’s not OK to just amputate a kid from one family and graft it onto another, especially now that we know that the technology exists for people to stay connected through DNA and social media sites where they can reconnect.”
While closed adoption might no longer be the industry ideal, Hochman has no illusions that open adoption is easier — or necessarily better — for everyone.
“It can be a Pandora’s Box. On the one hand, is it fair to biological parents who were perhaps promised anonymity or for adopted parents who may feel threatened when their children want to reconnect with their birth parents?” Hochman said. “On the other hand, if nothing allows a child to seek out their family of origin, is it fair for them to go through life haunted by this?”
And as hard as those questions are to answer, DeGarmo says it’s important for adoptive parents to accept them as part of the adoption journey, rather than trying to erase the past. Open adoption eliminates any need for secrets.
“At some point, (my daughters) are going to want to know more. It’s natural and it’s part of their heritage and it’s not their whole identity,” DeGarmo said. “And we will be there for them in every step of that process.” Even children who are happy in their adoptions grow up with questions, and Atkins is no exception. For her birthday recently, she bought herself a genetics testing kit from biotechnology firm 23andMe.
She knows there are some things it won’t answer, but after her adopted mother died at the age of 104, she decided she wanted to know more.
“I do wonder where some things come from, like I’m musical and my son majored in piano performance at Northwestern,” Atkins said. “I like to think I gave that to him.”
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When April Dinwoodie was growing up in her interracial adopted family, she used to fantasize that her birth parents were singer Harry Belafonte and “Bewitched” star Elizabeth Montgomery. She says it’s an example of why closed adoption is problematic. It wasn’t until adulthood that she found out the truth: That her mother had had a crisis pregnancy and that no one in her extended birth family knew Dinwoodie existed. It surprised her to learn that her birth family wasn’t that different from her adopted family — they were stable and, Dinwoodie thinks, would likely have taken care of her if they’d only known. That "what if" puts Dinwoodie and other children of closed adoption in a tough position of figuring out who they are and where they belong.
April Dinwoodie, chief executive of The Donaldson Adoption Institute, Inc. | April Dinwoodie
“In the absence of a narrative, you will make it up and spend so much time trying to figure out where you fit,” Dinwoodie said. “It didn’t retard my development, but it has affected my relationships and my ability to do more because of that distraction about who I am. That’s a hard question to answer when you have to piece it together and there are missing pieces of the puzzle.”
Dinwoodie, 45, vehemently loves and appreciates her adopted parents. But she points to the questions in her own story as evidence that the adoption system needs to be re-examined to put the child’s needs first. She questions how money has influenced adoption.
“When I look back, (my adoption) seems like just a series of transactions,” Dinwoodie said.
She pointed to the trend of crowdfunding for adoption fees as an example.
“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with leveraging technology, but there has to be more education about what it means to adopt a child so that the child’s best interests are at the center,” Dinwoodie said. “It can’t just be, here’s the money, now you can have a baby.”
Hochman said that no matter what, there will always be a transaction at the center of any adoption because of the legal and other exhaustive services involved in the process of adopting a child. In a journey that can take years, parents hoping to adopt undergo a gauntlet of screening, interviewing, home inspections and more before even being matched with a child.
"Adoptions do sometimes involve money — agency fees, legal fees," Hochman said. "If you want to adopt a healthy baby, there's going to be a fee involved."
While there may be no way to take transaction out of adoption completely, Dinwoodie says the element of transaction in adoptions today impacts the children involved in ways it shouldn't. Her work at the Donaldson Institute is partially dedicated to exploring policy changes that make adoption less of a transaction, which include more openness in adoption and resources for children and both of their families.
“I’ve heard these kids ask, how much did you pay for my adoption? Why can’t they just give the monthly stipend (in the case of foster children) to my mom to begin with? I can’t think of a worse way for a child to feel,” Dinwoodie said. “I’ve spoken to women (who gave their children up for adoption) who have said if they’d just had parental leave, that would’ve been a game-changer.”
Cassie and Brailey playing with their dollhouse in their home their Monticello, Georgia home on Feb. 28, 2016. | Darrell Roaden, For the Deseret News
DeGarmo and Atkins also recognize the stigma surrounding birth parents who give their children up for adoption.
“If you can have a relationship, it can be healing for the biological family as well as everyone else,” DeGarmo said. “You have to understand that there are reasons they had to give up their child for adoption and those reasons are likely trauma-based.”
“After I realized how important my kids are to me, I learned how much courage it took for my bio mom to give me up, and I’m glad she did,” Atkins said. “It was incredibly brave. She made a much better decision than a lot of people who can’t afford their children and keep them anyway.”
The transactional nature of adoption can also make the system lose sight of what matters most for the children — even if it’s incredibly challenging, like having a very open adoption with regular contact with biological relatives, as DeGarmo has done.
Dinwoodie said more education and better policy is key to better preparing all families involved in an adoption for the reality that adopting a child openly means being connected to their biological families for the rest of their lives.
“On our best day, a family is challenging and family secrets don’t stay secret for long,” Dinwoodie said. “If a family isn’t equipped to be open for their kid and put their issues aside, then they shouldn’t be thinking about adoption. The family of adoption is bigger than we think it is.”
For DeGarmo, open adoption is a challenge he hopes more people will accept.
“Adoptions shouldn’t be a deep, dark secret. They should be celebrated,” DeGarmo said. “It’s such a blessing to know that your family grows through adoption — not just by the children, but by the people connected to the children.”