Everyone in the adoption community is talking about ABC's new show Find My Family. My question to you: Is reality TV good for adoptee and birth parent rights, or is it exploitation?
Many are wondering who is actually doing the searching for Find My Family. I may be stirring up a hornet's nest, but here's what little I know about it. ABC approached the moderator of a forum (of which I happen to be a member) and asked if the staff of what later became Find My Family could solicit on the forum. (Disclaimer: I am not speaking for ABC or for the forum itself. I'm simply sharing my observations.) I don't know if any monetary compensation was offered for this, but I don't believe so. This particular forum links volunteer (e.g. not paid) search angels with searchers. It's a compassionate community of people who all found themselves flung into the deep end of adoption without a paddle. I expressed in private email to the moderators my reservations about this arrangement with ABC, because it seemed to me inappropriate for a reality TV show to be trolling a search-and-support forum for adoptees and birth relatives. However, the moderators and most of the other members were delighted, and they also appear to be generally pleased with the first episode of Find My Family.
My reservations remain. In my blog post "Adoption Exploitation And The Observer Effect", I quoted my response to ABC, when they approached me directly and asked me to post an announcement on my blog soliciting adoptees and birth families for the network's upcoming show. This was prior to their arrangement with the forum I mentioned.
Adoption is not a reality TV show. It is painfully real for those of us who experience it. I suggest you revise the show to highlight the denial of adult adoptees' civil rights. This is a different matter than search and reunion, although the two are often conflated by the adoption industry and, in turn, the media and the public. Every day adult adoptees are denied driver's licenses, passports, and other basics of citizenship because our original birth certificates are sealed in most states. We are forced to pay excessive fees only to find information is missing or mysteriously unavailable. Post-adoption "services" like registries and intermediaries have become yet another way for agencies and individuals to profit from adoption. That would be a far better topic upon which to shine your cameras than someone's private reunion.
Admittedly, I haven't watched Find My Family, so perhaps I shouldn't remark upon it unless I do. But I didn't like the way they came trolling a private forum looking for participants. Maybe I'm wrong, but it felt like they were letting the search angels do all the work while they make money filming the results. And believe me, these search angels work hard and don't get paid a thin dime except maybe expenses. They're doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. I don't think reality TV, however well-meaning, can be doing anything out of sheer goodness because, at the end of the day, it's about the advertising dollars they make. Also, it made me feel on display, a zoo animal in a cage, like I was being studied for some kind of reality-TV experiment. I've been exploited enough by adoption that this did not sit comfortably with me.
I also think we can draw some overall conclusions, not about this show in particular, but about reality-based adoption fodder in general. Most shows gloss over the difficulties in accessing records and focus instead on the happy-happy reunion stuff. There are those who say the happy-happy reunion stuff will help others understand our plight. I'd like to believe that, but then again I believed that a state-based confidential intermedary was in my best interests when they turned out to be incompetent money-grubbers.
From what I understand, Find My Family only accepted searches they thought would succeed. That's similar to state-based intermediaries who only take on searches they think they can solve, because it skews their statistics to show more successful matches. In the case of a reality TV show, obviously there's no show if the search doesn't succeed. But what about those who don't luck out with getting their search done by a reality TV show? How many searches don't succeed? How many people become stuck for years if not decades? How many can't afford the fees for state-based services, or attorneys to assert their rights, or private investigators when the state services fail? What about reunions that don't turn out happy-happy?
More importantly, what about the civil rights of adoptees and birth mothers to access the records that pertain to them? What about the discrimination faced by adoptees and birth mothers? What about the empty promises of open adoption, disclosure vetoes and compromise legislation? What about those left behind?
Search and reunion is already far too conflated with the civil rights of records access, and I don't think reality TV helps that. What we need are some shows that follow the demonstrations for our rights, the late nights writing letters to legislators and the media, the indignity of trying to say your piece while those same legislators are walking out on your testimony. Why weren't the cameras on my friend Chynna when she was goose-stepped out the door by a Florida cop in attempting to obtain her driver's license, because all she had was her amended (falsified) birth certificate? Where were the cameras when "Donna" was threatened with legal action for contacting a birth relative who wanted that contact? There's a lot more going on in adoptionland besides happy-happy reunions. Maybe ABC's Find My Family is going to address that. I hope somebody does.
Back to my original question: Is this good for our civil rights, or is it exploitation? I can't decide. What do you think?