Adoption Exploitation And The Observer Effect

I was recently contacted by a representative of a television network. I assume they got my email address from my blog or one of the various letters I’ve written in support of adoption reform. This person asked me to post an announcement soliciting adoptees and birth families for the network’s upcoming show. Here is my response.

I’m afraid I must decline. My blog is a public service dedicated to helping adoptees and their relatives help themselves. No matter how tactfully shows like yours are done, in the end search and reunion is a very private matter and the participants are not necessarily benefitted by having it turned into a public affair. Also, such shows exist to turn a profit for the channel and its advertisers. What you are asking for is free marketing from me and a chance to target my readership.

I hope you will reconsider your idea. 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.

Thank you for your correspondence, and best of luck.

I’m sure some people truly believe promotions like this will help us. After all, isn’t it a positive thing to highlight reunions between adoptees and their birth families? Except there’s a fine line between help and exploitation, and I cannot help but think that most of the time things end up on the exploitation side.

For example, I hear around the adoption water cooler that this particular TV producer and others have been harvesting email addresses from online adoption search and support groups. This same tactic has been used by phony search firms trying to lure folks into spending thousands on their so-called “services,” and it is predation upon a vulnerable group of people who have already been exploited by the adoption industry. So no, I’m not going to advocate that adoptees or birth relatives put themselves into the hands of intermediaries, whether those intermediaries are state-based services or television producers.

The observer effect is when the act of observing affects the phenomenon being observed. Everyone not involved in adoption should step aside and let adoptees, birth mothers and their relatives interact without interference. Because any third party, no matter how benign the intent, will alter what is already a delicate process.

Over at FirstMotherForum there’s been a discussion about skewed statistics on the number of birth mothers who refuse contact, and whether intermediaries are doing more harm than good. If you’re searching, steer clear of anyone who asks for your cold hard cash. You are much better off with the generosity of a search angel–the ones who volunteer for the job because they’ve been through it themselves. And remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


  1. I have mixed feelings and it’s hard to know without having seen their request.

    What did they want? Just a reunion? Sometimes it is helpful for people who cannot afford to meet otherwise. Yes, it exploits a private moment, but I think the individuals should be able to make that choce relaizing that the free airfare is a swap for the privacy of the moment.

    I have had these contacts since the 1980’s. Many really wanted a freak show! They would request very specific things…drawf adoptee who needs kidny and finds deaf, blind mother…or, adoptees who discover they were concieved as a result of rape and thn married a sibling. These are obvious shock jocks using our pain and I wouldn’t give them the right time of day!


  2. Perhaps they would be interested in doing a reality show about subsidized adoptions. Now that’s a riveting real-life drama with all kinds of potential: abuse, neglect, murder.

    Highlights could include caging and withholding food from the adoptees.

    The season-ending cliffhanger could focus on those adoptive parents who store their charges in freezers to keep the subsidy checks rolling in.

    Paying to Parent is just plain immoral.

    [Sorry, I know this is off-topic, but I’m eat up with anti- adoption subsidy today.]

    P.S. Good for you, Triona!

  3. The request was polite, and read in part:

    “The series… will be a positive uplifting documentary that will focus on the real stories of real people separated from their birth family and their undying quest to find this missing person(s).”

    Aside from Excessive! Use! Of! Exclamation! Points! there was nothing offensive about the request per se. But we all know TV exists to make money. I would feel differently if it were, say, a low budget student-made film trying to get the word out about adoption search. But reality TV is not exactly a charity. I’m sure their rationale is that the “help” they offer the participants justifies their making a profit off it, but what is the ratio of their profit vs. the cost the participants save? Does sharing these stories in this manner exploit us, or is it a good way of getting the word out?

    I’m not sure of the answers, but it seems to me that further sensationalizing adoption is unlikely to do us any favors. Personally I’d rather see real journalism on the topic of adoption reform than have to wince through yet another made-for-Hollywood reunion story, most of which give the impression that reunion is the end of the story, not the beginning of a different (and equally difficult) adventure.

  4. http://maryanne says

    I believe CUB got this request as well. I would also be against getting involved in this sort of exploitation. Yes, these things often turn into freak shows, and even the more “tasteful” ones still make what should be a private family moment public. The element of voyeurism is always there. These shows are to entertain, amuse, manipulate sentimental emotions and to shock, not to enlighten or educate.

    Good for you for refusing to pimp for this show.

  5. Why wouldn’t you pass along the request and let other adoptees decide for themselves whether or not they want to be contacted by the TV network?

    I’ve never understood this “denied civil rights” thing. I haven’t had any problems getting a driver’s license or even a passport with my PA birth certificate.

  6. Jason–Good question. Because these folks have an cadre of paid marketeers, and the person who wrote to me also was undoubtedly paid to do so. I don’t get paid to write 73adoptee, but as a freelance consultant and writer I know very well how how much money what they were asking for was worth. This way they get a ready-made target list (my readership) and all the authority of a Real Live Bastard (me) hawking their idea, with little time or money spent on their part. Which is how good advertising is done.

    Does a multi-million dollar national TV channel really need help advertising? Why should I volunteer my time to help them make a profit when I can directly help adoptees and birth families instead? Not to mention potentially annoying my readers who might wonder if I’m getting paid to shill the show. Someday I do hope to get paid for writing articles on adoption from the adoptee perspective, but getting a magazine or newspaper to pick one up is like trying to get Superman near kryptonite.

    Perhaps I should be glad they were reaching out to the adoption reform community. But I was also asked to target specific people I thought would be good candidates and bring them to the attention of the producers. That, the harvesting of email addresses from support groups, and their promise to “offer your site recognition on the show in the form of a special thanks or promotional consideration credit on the show!” left a bad taste in my mouth.

  7. Jason–Sorry, forgot to answer your second paragraph. Just because you have been fortunate enough not to run into problems doesn’t make it right for the legal documents of our births to be altered and sealed. Many adoptees have had problems and have nowhere to turn for solutions. I suggest you read about Chynna’s experience last October about being denied a driver’s license in Florida. There are plenty of comments from others who have had similar experiences.

  8. Jason, why don’t you do an internet search for the proposed series if you’re interested? Thanks to Triona’s post, you are at least aware of it.

    Last week, I tried to help a PA adoptee figure out how to get her non-identifying information from the State of Pennsylvania. Beyond petitioning the courts, I could not find a way for her to do this. What other adult citizen is required by law to obtain governmental permission to learn fundamental information about themselves?

    I sincerely believe that adoptees are given less than fair, full, and equal treatment under the laws of most states. Drivers licenses and passports aside, the closed adoption system is, by definition and by design, predicated on civil and human rights violations.

    What it seems to me is this:

    If you were immoral and stupid enough to get knocked-up before marriage, outside of marriage, or beyond your financial means, then you and your child deserved anything you got, including the denial of your civil liberties and anything else the State and society chose to impose upon you.

    Granted, I am only 46 years old and never gave any thought to this issue until May 2007. As such, I am not as experienced as most persons dealing with adoption searches and the right-to-know issue. However, I have attempted to make up for this lack of experience by reading personal and professional literature, as well as statutory and statistical publications on the subject.

    In the end, perhaps my point of view will prove to be much ado about nothing. [I will confess that all I have to hear is “no” or “you can’t” to get my determination and dander up.]

    In the meantime, I often feel as if I am lying to my grade school sons and their physicians about their true paternity, except that it is not by choice, but by statute, and it is their maternal information that is being withheld.

    Sorry for going on and on, but I just wanted you to realize that my opposing opinion is not just a knee-jerk reaction to your comment.

    With sincere respect,
    Lisa Kay

    p.s. I would appreciate any information and insight you have re: PA nonID.

  9. Hey, I got the same request, plus a telephone call–twice–asking for their support…and would I let everyone know about this cool show. From what I gather, it’s going to be the story of a girl who makes the painful/courageous/brave decision to give up a child to a wonderful/wealthy/loving family. I can’t want to blast them once they are on the air. If this is the same show, my call was from a representative of a production company doing a series of shows about real life situations. Reality TV in other words.

    Not that I’m against reality TV, as I am a longtime fan …. of Survivor. Maybe because I am one.

    lorraine from

  10. Opps, Triona, in reading the blog more carefully, it sounds as if it is a different show. I am in favor of all shows that portray reunions, no matter how tacky the format. Reunions lead to more reunions. lorraine from

  11. LisaKay–Every time I am asked for my maiden name I feel like I’m lying. It’s my adoptive name, but it has never been MY name. And I, too, am quick to assert myself when I am told I’m “not allowed” or the one that really sets my teeth on edge: “that’s confidential.”

    Lorraine–As I’ve said in a couple places today, I am all for publicizing our experiences as adoptees and first mothers. My concern is how easily things can go wrong when we allow our stories to be told by others. (And yes, this particular request was for reality TV, not exactly the journalistic pinnacle of the television world.) I would prefer to see adoptees, birth relatives and others telling our stories ourselves. Web sites, blogs, self publishing… today there are many ways we can speak about adoption without having to resort to Hollywood doing it for us. That way we can retain control of our stories while still sharing them with the public. Which is why I’m delighted to see you ladies over at FirstMotherForum writing about your experiences and opinions, like the other first moms and adoptee bloggers who are doing the same. The more voices that join in the discussion the better, because adoption has been hidden from sight for far too long.