ABC’s Find My Family: Is Reality TV Good For Our Rights, Or Adoption Exploitation?

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?


  1. Excellent commentary, Triona. I’ve linked it.

    About easy searches. When Ron Morgan appeared on The Dr. Laura Show with Bill Pierce and Troy Dunn, Troy told him that he never took a Gladney are because they were impossible to crack.

  2. Gladney cases impossible to crack! I find that ironic considering many of the cases that I have solved are Gladney’s. LOL. Troy Dunn does not do his homework very well now does he? He is so full of sheeeeet. He only solves the cases that are easy. I think he is just like the rest of the adoption industry. He is just looking to make a buck.

  3. Triona, I thought your comments regarding the new Find My Family show which aired on ABC were extremely well written.

    Personally, I have mixed feelings on the negatives and benefits of such a show. I guess I believe that there are some benefits to getting the subject of adoption and reunion out there, as it raises the level of public awareness. This is important as there are Bills pending in states such as NY, which if passed, would finally allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. However I also agree with you that there is way too little information getting out there that shows what adoptees endure and go through when they search, or are denied access to medical and basic family history information, or they cannot get common documents (e.g., passports), or the emotional toll it can take.

    The “happy happy” reality show endings are biased. We all dream of those endings, but we know it may not happen that way.

    What is needed is a very thorough documentary featuring adoptees and birth families searching, and what they go through, and the civil rights issues, and the absolute unfairness of it all. It should also feature the wonderful Search Angels who donate thousands of hours of their time to try and help others. Maybe PBS or CNN will take an interest someday. Maybe ABC will do a follow-up special covering the adoption issues that need more visibility. One can hope anyway.

    My adoption was a private one, and solving it is not easy. I also recently learned that I have a older sibling out there somewhere, but the gender and age are unknown. I didn’t submit my information for the show as I didn’t think ABC would be interested in my particular search and I just did not want to face yet another disappointment by not getting selected. Sadly, there are many, MANY others out there just like me, in their 50’s, with all people associated with the original adoption already deceased, who have very little information to go on, who have diminishing hope. My Amother is now 93, and she would like to see me find my birth family also, but that won’t happen if I cannot find answers soon.

    I am however happy for anyone who can have a successful reunion with their birth family, so for those individuals, the Find My Family show has a place, and it gives the rest of us still searching, a small glimmer of hope.

    10-01-1956 Binghamton, NY

  4. Exploitation!

  5. BD–Thanks for the link. I think a lot of these shows go with the easy-to-solve searches. It makes them look good with minimal effort. I would love to see them cover a demonstration or a legislative session so people can see what adoptees and mothers actually go through.

    Pennagal–That’s my feeling also. It just doesn’t feel right.

    Amyadoptee–I agree, these people are out to make a buck and we are the fodder. Personally, I find the idea of my personal tragedies feeding someone else’s profits nauseating.

    Judy–Thanks for your remarks. I have to wonder about the other side of the public awareness coin. Are there reunions that fail *because* reality TV got involved, that might otherwise have succeeded? For example, my mother was nervous enough being contacted by the state-sanctioned representatives. If she had been contacted by reality TV it could have made things much worse. A mother who is in denial or frightened of having her “secret” outed is not likely to want it outed by reality TV. BTW, I have seen such a documentary–DMC’s “My Adoption Journey” which is fantastic and offers a very good example of what adoptees go through to try to access records. I would like to see a documentary of the adoption reform movement, including our struggles against compromise legislation, disinterested legislators and a misinformed public.

  6. You probably know–since I wrote aobut it at that I have a different take on these shows because they bring to the forefront both the pain of adoption and the relief of reunion…of knowing the answers. Andwhile the format milks the emotional content, this is how we are going to change hearts and minds–through the public forum.

    Ask yourself, would you be against a show that featured, say, gay couples and the discrimination they faced and how their issues were resolved? Or a show about mentally challenged people? And if it made their issues more public, and led to change, would not that be a good thing? I think so.

    Look, I know that the aftermath of a reunion is quite different than the moment of reunion, but that is not the point, nor the focus of Find My Family. The point is that you, Triona, and BD, and others who are adopted can not legally get your original birth certificates.

    Anything that pushes that agenda is a good thing.

  7. Lorraine–That’s why I’m not sure how I feel about this whole thing. On the one hand I want to scream that it’s exploitative, but on the other hand it gives people who are not touched by adoption an insight into how it feels.

    I just wish there was more of a focus on the civil rights aspect and the difficulty of gaining information. Maybe future episodes will address that. I hope so.

  8. Hmmmm…i too have always had very mixed feelings bout these types of shows or episodes of shows…

    I see what Lorraine is saying, and of cour ethere is good in showing no one kills one anothe r- no one’s life ends bcause they were found…YET! It concerns me that producers who are USERS will want that to crank up rating at some point!

    More importantly it seems to me that focusing on the reunion perpetuates the general public’s impression such searches are easy for anyone to do if they want to.

    I think the issue of adoption separated people being denied equal access is obliterated – though I have not watched this particular show.

    So, no, I would not be against a show that showed the struggle – does this one??

  9. AdoptAuthor–I feel the same as you, that it perpetuates the idea that searching is easy and reunions always have happy endings. I would rather see focus on the difficulties, the civil rights issues, the struggle for equality. Maybe they will do that. I hope so but I am not holding my breath.

  10. I am a birth mother. I watched this show with trepidation in my heart but I have to say that it made me feel great to hear the birth family (Mom AND Dad) and the adoptee telling it like it is for so many of us.

    I also liked the short piece about the welcoming attitude of the adoptive parents.

    Some adoptive families out there need to see and possibly adopt (sorry) the generousity of spirit the adoptive family showed.

    I understand what you’re feeling but to me the raising of awareness won out.

  11. Hi UM, thanks for chiming in. Like I said I haven’t seen the show but I hope it will be better than some of the more salacious ones we’ve seen in the past.

  12. Hey Triona:
    I have not watched the show either and am also a member of the triad group that the producers were trolling through to find candidates.

    I have to say when the trolling was announced on the group site I was definitely taken a-back. I felt as you do. Like wow, this is a little crazy isn’t it? It seemed so down and dirty to me and had us so exposed. We are all very open on that forum and here are a group of people reading through our most challenging and heart-breaking moments in life. Only to exploit those moments for the entire country to sit back and be entertained. All the while the station makes a ton of money. As we all know that shows that pluck major heart strings SELLS!

    So now the show is being aired. I have not seen it and thus far have decided I will not watch it. I roll my eyes every time I see the trailer for the show. I think it is complete trash. A tv show based upon the tragedy that we all know goes hand in hand with adoption. The heartache all sides of triad experience is just out there being aired as entertainment on a Saturday night. I turn on the tv and think, hmmmm…..should I watch the tragdy of someone’s life on this new show or “Fred Clause” for the 10th time!?!? I just can’t bring myself to see it any other way than that. Just exploitive filth.

    I do understand that I as an adult adoptee whom has experienced such crazy humiliations like when I was denied my FL driver’s license and when I was detained for 24 hours in Ireland as again both times I was told I basically didn’t exist as my amended BC was not recognized as a legal document. And there are many more obliterating experinces I have had as an adult adoptee. So yes, I do grasp those of you whom think it is a positive this show as it gets the word out.

    To me it just simply isn’t the right word. The message it is sending is a totally skewed angle of what we face each and every day. Each and every day we are denied basic rights, we are still the dirty family secret all these years later, we are still locked in the closet of shame. Each and every day I wake up along with every other adoptee and lead my life with a 1 ton rock of degredation resting comfortably upon my shoulders. It has absoulute molded the people we are today and the life we are leading.

    So if they want to deliver the message of truth, heartache and tragedy that triad members experience daily, alongside of the HAPPY DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN ADOPTEE than I am in and all supportive. But, until then I am out.

    Thanks for Listening,

  13. Chynna said: “To me it just simply isn’t the right word. The message it is sending is a totally skewed angle of what we face each and every day. Each and every day we are denied basic rights, we are still the dirty family secret all these years later, we are still locked in the closet of shame.”

    Hi Chynna, thanks for your remarks. I thought what you said above summarizes my feelings as well. I’m all for getting the word out, but I don’t think shows like this truly illustrate what we actually go through. Like you, unless they start showing more than the happy-happy, I am really not interested.

  14. Triona-I agree with almost everything you have said, although I too have not seen this show yet-it’s funny because I was going to write a blog about Find My Family after I saw the trailor for it, but Lorraine beat me to it :)I am planning on seeing it on Monday-the one good thing I can see about a show like this though, it the importance it places on how much Adoptees and Real Mothers WANT to find each other, want to know each other, which does rightful damage to the power of The Birth Mother Privacy lie-it also dispels the Chruch’s other crock o’ crap mindset that Real Mother’s will just forget about us and go on with their lives-we do SO need to have the dark reality of Closed Adoption discussed though, over an over again on live tv and on the radio about all the manure the Church and the Adoption Industry has spewed out that Adoptees who are upset about being told they could not know their own Mother’s name are “dysfunctional” and “unstable”(and need to go to a psychiatrist)and that we are treated as badly as the African Americans were when they were told, no you can’t have this job because you are black, or no you can’t drink out of the same water fountain, or no you can’t sit in the front of the bus….I am glad you wrote about your concerns about this show on your blog-you did us all a service.

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. Hi Improper–Thanks! If nothing else, at least this show is raising some issues and generating discussion.

  17. P.S. Improper, can you email me private? I don’t have your email address. Thanks!

  18. Hey Triona:

    Okay, so I decided how could I really criticize this show if I was refusing to watch it? So…I watched it.

    I feel 95% the same as pre-watching. Many think that getting any word out about adoption is good. I just don’t agree. I will still say even after watching it isn’t the right word.

    I am giving a 5% of pro as the young lady whom was an adult adoptee searching for B.Mom did say she felt like she didn’t have a legacy. She conveyed a little bit more about what adult adoptees experience other than “Are You My Mother”.

    95% of me still feels exactly the same post-watch. It is a super dramatic, cry me a river, break out your violin show that simply conveys not much more other than Finding fixes all. Wah-lah, they found your B.Mom or B.Fam and now all in life is lovely.

    For me it isn’t about finding or not finding. It is about being denied what is basic rights for others. A falsified birth certificate and concealing information on ME that should belong only to ME.

    I am no longer that child that needs someone to speak out for their best interests. I am now an adult whom can think and decide for myself.

    So….the show for me is rubbish.

    Thanks For Listening,

  19. Hi Chynna, thanks for writing. I think what you said here (quoted below) is really important and gets to the heart of why I don’t like reality TV reunion shows.

    “For me it isn’t about finding or not finding. It is about being denied what is basic rights for others. A falsified birth certificate and concealing information on ME that should belong only to ME. I am no longer that child that needs someone to speak out for their best interests. I am now an adult whom can think and decide for myself.”

    I’d love to see Find My Family or some other show address this denial of our adulthood.

  20. http://Anonymous says

    I would agree with the aspect of having access to records. I had an older sister and younger brother given up for adoption. The outcome the show can bring isn’t just for the birth parents but for us siblings as well. I know have a daily relationship with my brother and I am thankfull for that. The one thing I don’t understand is how you can critize a show that you haven’t watched. If you watch it then you can give your opinion otherwise how can you have an informed opinion?

  21. Hi Anonymous–That’s why I made sure to disclosure that I haven’t watched the show. I wanted to take the opportunity that the premiere of this show offered and use it to discuss adoption-related reality TV in general, not just this show in particular.

  22. Anon said:
    “The one thing I don’t understand is how you can critize a show that you haven’t watched. If you watch it then you can give your opinion otherwise how can you have an informed opinion?”

    It’s called Adoption Dogma Crap dear….

  23. I will add too Anon, that we Adoptees have been so burned by the media, and our truths hidden so deeply that most of us are exhausted, cynical, skeptical, and do not trust what information about Adoption that is put out there, because in the end it seems to always benefit only our oppressors……

  24. http://Anonymous says

    I was going back and forth about the show until I watched an episode (third one, I think). There was a scene in the episode in which the male host tells the searcher, who believes she has a brother, “you don’t have a brother” Then he waits for her agonized reaction and THEN finally tells her “you have a sister”. It was just cruel. The show may do some good but its heart is NOT in the right place. For someone who claims to understand her pain because he himself was adopted…

  25. Anonymous, what strikes me is that the hosts, while they may be adoptees, are also presumably being paid to do this. I agree that was cruel. I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and watch the damn thing.