Find My Family: Does Reality TV Create Assumptions About Adoption Search?

After I posted about Rose’s situation, I was inundated with replies that she should contact Find My Family. While I know these suggestions were made out of the goodness of people’s hearts, I’m wondering if the existence of shows like this make people think that all you need to do is contact reality TV and they will magically solve your adoption search for you.
My question is partially prompted by the fact that I’ve seen it now. And I’ll admit, Find My Family does show the emotions behind search and reunion–but there are too many things I don’t think it addresses. What about those who can’ t complete their searches? What about those left behind by compromise legislation? What about discrimination against adoptees and birth mothers and fathers? (I should point out that I normally find reality TV distasteful, doubly so when it’s on a topic I find triggering.)
Because the thing is, Rose HAS contacted Find My Family. They elected not to take on her case. Possibly because it’s too hard–they may not want to expend resources on a search they don’t think they can solve (and therefore film the happy ending). Possibly because Rose is already a member of the forum who is doing Find My Family’s legwork (a forum that, again, is not being compensated or even acknowledged as a resource–hello, ABC, I’m talking to you!). Possibly because ABC is concerned about legal liability given the gray/black market nature of Rose’s case. Or possibly because they’ve simply filled up for the year and don’t have room to take on more cases. Who knows? The point is, reality TV like Find My Family is not a panacea. It’s not a magic wand. It’s a resource like any other, and it doesn’t work for everyone. These shows don’t take on every case. They don’t always succeed. What we see is a carefully distilled montage of their best results.
I’m still pondering my original question: Is reality TV good for adoptee rights or a hindrance? Now I’m beginning to wonder if these reunion shows give people the impression that searching is easy. As in, you can have the most impossible search in the world–but along comes Find My Family or The Locator and shazam, miracles! Adoption search is not that simple, logistically or emotionally. Some people luck out and get a match right away. Some people search for decades and never succeed. There is no magic wand, just hard work, determination, the willingness to fight a system that would just as soon see us slink off with our tails between our legs… and heaping helpings of luck and prayer.
I also wonder if reality TV glosses over the fact that reunion, like marriage, is an ongoing process that involves hard work. I would feel more confidence in shows like Find My Family if they were to mention search resources like ISRR and devote some time to what happens after the honeymoon.
What do you think?


  1. We went through the exact same nonsense decades back- just contact Donahue, or Oprah, or whomever the celeb du jour happed to be- they’ll wave their magic wand and it’ll be all tearful airport reunions, teddy bears and balloons from there on in, right…. right?


    These emotion laden dramafests are tailored to the impressions of adoption and familiar narratives of adoption the external to adoption mass audience has come to expect of adoption stories on TV.

    Moreover our content is (particularly in the Find my Family case) utilized as details to tell a broader story the producers want told, stories that often have little to do with the personal interests of adopted people as individuals, or as a class.

    Which is not say those with a personal experience of adoption are not also sucked in, so desperate to see a representation of themselves, ANY representation of themselves reflected in popular media that they ultimately end up reinforcing the narrative and thus their voices are then utilized as a form of cultural validation thereof.

    I have my own critique brewing of this particularly corrosive latest reframing of the adoption mythos (and utilization of people affected by adoption) for popular consumption (and the fact that it takes place at this particular point in time) though I’ve not managed to work it into the form of a full blog post just yet.

    What do I think? I find it toxic.

    To say nothing of the way that yes, it does induce the assumption that adoption stories inevitably result in some form of a happy ending- thus adoption itself must be a societal good. After all, adoption is portrayed as nothing more than a pause in these relationships. Once the ‘play button’ is pushed, everyone comes back together and it’s all hugs and happiness from there on in, or so they’d have you believe.

    Adoption as an institution then is all too often viewed through that carefully crafted impression that ends ultimately justify the means, adoption ‘never harms anyone’, it just provides a form of joyful rejoining (assumedly in every case), only slightly delayed.

    Nothing could be further from the truth for many with direct personal experiences of adoption.

    But then no one can imagine purchasing a mystery novel where the mystery is never resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.

    The ‘hard cases’ don’t make for gratifying (for the audience) TV.

  2. I can’t wait to read your post, BLC.

  3. I’m inclined to agree with you.

    I think we consequentially write off the negative aspects of it because we appreciate the bit of good that the show does.

    On one hand, the show reunites people. It has the potential to make reunions and the desire to know more socially common-place.

    On the other hand, it’s just another big corporation making big money off of adoption. The more intriguiting and tear-jerking the story, the higher the ratings. Just as profit offers a reason other than benevolence to provide adoption services, ratings (and therefore profit) are the driving force behind helping people reunite on shows like this. I do think it paints an unrealistic picture of reunion relationships and search and also doesn’t acknowledge the true searchers or the movements behind fighting for change so that people can find their heritages and/or reunite to begin with.

    I was one of the stories FMF didn’t want. They found ME and contacted ME. They offered to help so convincingly that I even had the “we might be on TV talk” with my adoptive parents and sent the producers personal documentation and information. I exchanged emails with them and spoke with Ed Ellington on the phone. The more info they got, the less they responded until they stopped responding at all. FMF effectively made me look and feel like a complete a**.

    It’s about ratings and providing the viewers what they’re looking for FIRST. I’m betting that Rose’s story is not going to be up FMF’s alley.


  4. Excellent. This puts the issue in perspective.

  5. I spent 20 years and many hours and dollars searching for my birth family. I am still searching for my sister who was born in December 1950 in Syracuse, NY. Like Rose, I contacted “Find My Family” and spoke to someone there who felt my search was too difficult because I didn’t have my sister’s name. The person I spoke to was going to call me back but never did. I would like to see a TV show that depicts this sort of searching- getting non ID, having to petition the Court, finding many dead ends, etc. but in the end finally finding some members of the birth family. I am probably one of the few who isn’t fond of “Find My Family”. I think the “family tree” where the people are reunited is very silly and makes the reunion look staged.

    Why not a show with families who have been separated by adoption and reunited, telling their stories. Wouldn’t this make for more realistic reality TV?

  6. http://Anonymous says

    I’m one of the ones contacted by a producer for FMF.

    I find it annoying, possibly immoral, that they left several of us hanging for months and didn’t make a single attempt to let us know they weren’t doing our stories – especially since they told us to


    [Yes, that would be you, Ed, but it was also the female producer working on Trish’s search & reunion.]

    No, you don’t “owe” us anything, but that’s just wrong to do.

    The show is making adoption searches look like a simple matter of making a phone call or sending an e-mail. [OK, the single episode I watched, and I really have no intention of watching again.]

  7. Hi Anonymous–Yes, I heard about that also, that Find My Family asked participants to stop searching while they did their thing. I also heard they withheld information from participants and/or asked them not to contact their found relatives until Find My Family was ready.

    I think that’s totally unfair. The show should bend to the needs of the participants, not vice versa.

  8. All of the above criticisms are well taken, but everyone has to undertand that a TV show can not solve the real problem–that the damn birth records of adopted people are still sealed in most states and not enough legislators understand the depth of suffering that costs. The original sealing of the records inflicts unnecessary sorrow and grief, lives are put on hold, adoptees feel lost and alienated, and that is the real crime. Find My Family cannot fix all that by itself.

    After being involved in this for more than three decades, I am at a loss as to what it will take–thousands and thousands of first mothers and adoptees lobbying their legislataors to unseal the original birth certificates is the place to start, but that does not happen.

    So while the producers of FMF have left people in the lurch, we need to understand that they are not a magic wand that can be the answer for more than a handful of people. FMF is merely a TV show, a business proposition; the producers are probably over worked and not able to be as considerate as we would like. The show is not designed to depict the rocky aftermath of many a reunion.
    But in the end, by bringing the pain of separation by adoption into the public eye, it is yet another chink in the wall that surrounds sealed records. And that, by itself, is a good thing.