Review of Dan Rather's Unwanted in America Documentary

My first thought when I heard that Dan Rather had produced a documentary on adoption dissolution (also called “adoption disruption” or “rehoming”) my fist thought was “here we go again”. My second thought was that I hoped he would dig deeper and go beyond the sensational. Unwanted In America: The Shameful Side Of International Adoption proved both thoughts correct.

Before I talk about the documentary, let me give a word of warning to others, like me, who care deeply about the institution of adoption and believe it is a life giving and life affirming choice for many children and many families. It is tempting to become defensive at sensationalizing and negative focus of much of the media coverage, but if we truly care about this institution, we have to believe that it, and we, are strong enough to withstand a fair but critical look, for how else can we improve.

What I Liked

In many ways Unwanted In America: The Shameful Side Of International Adoption is a rehashing of last year’s NBC News/Reuters reports on adoption re-homing, but I found it to be a deeper and more nuanced investigation.

Adoption of older kids is hard work. These kids come with a history of neglect, abuse, and poverty, and this history leaves its mark. Children adopted internationally have the additional burden of changing cultures and language, and often are ill prepared in advance for these changes and for our western understanding of adoption. This is not a scenario that lends itself to images of hearts, rainbows, and harmonious family life. A lot of good comes from older child adoption for both kids and families, but it is seldom without challenges, and challenges are often messy.

The Challenges of Older Child Adoption

Unwanted In America exposed some of the challenges of adopting older kids from abroad, but these are no surprise to those of us involved in adoption.

Lack of Understanding about Adoption

The western concept of adoption is alien to many cultures leading to misunderstanding in birth families considering relinquishing their children.

My mom thought if I come to America, I would send them money, like every month or couple months I will help them with money. But I didn’t know that’s impossible. She would not let me to be in this position if she knew that no contact, no cell phone call, I thought that’s possible too. If I knew that stuff, I wouldn’t come here either. I really wouldn’t ‘cause, I don’t know, I just–I just love my family too much to just come all the way here or without no connection. ~ Abby, adopted from Ethiopia in an adoption that later dissolved.

Lack of Adequate Pre-Adoption Education for Adoptive Parents

As the Director of the national adoption and infertility education and support organization (Creating a Family) adoption education is my soapbox. Although I preach it every chance I get, the amount of pre-adoption education many parents receive is embarrassing. One of the mothers interviewed in Unwanted In America, author Joyce Maynard, was referred two older children from Ethiopia three days after contacting an adoption agency. THREE DAYS. Really?!? I ask you: how much preparation could she possibly have received in three days? Not surprisingly, the adoption dissolved after one year.

This is not an isolated incident. I was contacted last week by someone who was given two days to decide on whether to accept a referral of a 7-year-old boy from China. They had been given no specific training in older child adoption. None. Let me repeat this to make sure you really heard me. They were being asked to decide on adopting a seven-year-old that had lived in a Chinese orphanage for his entire life without first receiving specific training on the realities of adopting an older institutionalized child. If this isn’t a formula for an adoption dissolution, I don’t know what is. The email from the adoption agency began with “Congratulations on your sweet little boy! We have attached your child’s match information.”

My friends we have a problem.

Lack of Pre-Adoption Education for Kids Being Adopted

Children being adopted from abroad very often have no clue about what is happening and what adoption means. Creating a Family has some resources on what parents and agencies can do to try to better prepare their kids pre-adoption, but the education must really begin with the adoption agency in-country employees.

Lack of Post Adoption Education and Support

As passionate as I am about pre-adoption education, I am even more passionate about the need for post adoption education and support. It is darn near impossible to really be prepared for the realities of older child adoption. Once living it, however, most families are ripe for education. We, as a community, do a poor job of reaching, educating, and supporting families once they are home. That is our mission at Creating a Family, and daily I see both the need and ways we are failing. (Our online support group is a great place to start, by the way.)

Multiple Adopters

One of the children Unwanted In America focused on was adopted into a family with 30 adopted kids. He was adopted as part of a sibling group of five. Some families might be able to parent 30 children well, but this should be a red flag for agencies, especially if most of the children live at home, and especially if there is not much time between each adoption.

What I Didn’t Like

On the whole, I thought Unwanted In America was fair, but they did stray into the sensational at times with mentions of Craigslist and McDonald’s parking lots. It is true that not all families work with an agency to find a new home for their child when they decide to dissolve the adoption, and not all adoption agencies are receptive to helping, but we have no way of knowing how common it is for families to go online and “dump” their children. As much as I shudder at what I consider media hyperbole, I admit that it was probably fair to include because simply not knowing how common it is doesn’t make it off limits to include in a documentary. As oppose to the NBC News/Reuters reporting, they were not overly sensational.

How Common is Adoption Disruption/Dissolution/Re-Homing

Unwanted in America continually stated that 10% of international adoptions disrupt. I’d love to know where they found that statistic. We did a Creating a Family show on this exact topic a year ago with a really superb expert panel.* They concluded that the percentage was low and certainly lower than 10%. The truth is that no one knows how often adoptions disrupt/dissolve, and the research on this topic really stinks. I blogged on the problems with the research and trying to find out how many adoptions fall apart in How Common are Adoption Disruptions/Dissolutions.

While no one knows how many international adoptions dissolve after the families are home, I do know that it happens way too often, so I won’t quibble with their 10% statistic, even though I find it questionable journalism.

The Solution

I don’t have the perfect solution to the problems in older child international adoption. Some will watch this documentary and conclude that we should shut down international adoptions. Negative publicity is doing a good job of slowly shutting down international adoptions on its own without us having to do anything. I continue to believe that international adoptions, of which the majority are of children over three, is a good option for many children who would otherwise grow up without families.

International adoptions are far far from perfect. The challenge remains of how to provide homes for children who truly need it, without pulling children away from families that can parent. Just because it is hard to do well doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Hard problems resist easy solutions. I believe to my very soul that at least part of the answer is better pre and post adoption education, and I’ve devoted my life’s work to trying to help in that one little area. I agree with Michael Monroe of Tapesty Ministry when he said in Unwanted in America:

I don’t think anybody in the adoption community has probably done a good enough job, at helping to paint a realistic picture and to prepare families to be able to love not just any child but these kids with these histories well. I just don’t think that. And I think that falls not only on the shoulder of agencies, I think it falls on the shoulder of social workers and social service organizations. I think it falls on the shoulder of churches and movements to promote adoption. I think it falls on the shoulders of moms and dads who walk the adoption journey and who tell their stories less than honestly, less than fully. Because the stories are filled with hope and reality and–and there’s a tension in there; blessing and joy as well as challenges and pain. And I think that everybody in the community of adoption needs to take inventory about how we can better serve those who are going to walk behind us.

What Can You Do

One small step you can do to help solve the problem is to spread the word about Creating a Family and our free resources for pre and post adoptive families, our Online Adoption Education courses, and our online support group. We can use everyone’s help in getting the word out that help and education is available. Tell your adoption agency and share with any adoption groups. Every little bit helps.

Did you see Unwanted In America: The Shameful Side Of International Adoption? What did you think?

Unwanted in America aired last night (Dec. 2, 2014) but will re-air at various times over the next several days. You can also read the transcript.

* Our expert panel included: Dr. Trudy Festinger, professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University, and leading national researcher on adoption, including adoption dissolutions disruptions; Stephen Hayes, adoption attorney who has handled over 3,500 adoption cases, including many adoption dissolutions, and a fellow and past Vice President of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys; and Regina Kupecky, therapist specializing in adoption and attachment, and co-author of Adopting The Hurt Child and Parenting the Hurt Child.


Image credit: @TheDanRather