Is celebrity adopter Willie Garson right about adoption fairs?

I came home from a weekend away visiting family to several emails about a People article about Sex and the City star Willie Garson and his story about adopting a older child. Most of the commenters expressed outrage over his comments, especially the part where he mentions an adoption fair.

It's like a pet fair – as horrifying as you can imagine," he recalls. "It was really hard. The 16-year-old fat, ugly kid, who has probably been to 30 of these, knows he's not going to get adopted. Like everything, cute wins."

To that end, Garson was shocked that his son was still in the system. "I couldn't believe my kid was actually available for adoption," says the doting dad. "He's so cute and sweet."

Some readers asked me whether adoption fairs existed. The answer is, yes. And I think that most people who are unaware of the public foster care adoption program/system might be shocked to learn about what these "adoption fairs" are truly like.

Personally, I don't criticize Garson for comparing it to a pet adoption fair, because that is exactly what it is like. It is a reality that our society loosely organizes our management of children like we do for animals and the animal humane society. Which came first? Well, the first case of a child being removed from an abusive home happened back in New York in 1874 with the Mary Ellen case, when animal abuse laws were used to remove Mary Ellen because no child protection laws existed. As a result of the case, the American Humane Society was formed and child protection laws were created.

A longer interview was published in TV Guide in which Garson elaborates a little more about the adoption including that his son will have an open adoption. He states, "For many reasons, she
couldn't care for him, but I will never let her not see him."

So, I looked at the story and thought, 1) he adopted from foster care in the United States and 2) he adopted an older child and 3) he is open to his son's first mother. Three things I typically do NOT see in the typical adoption story and certainly not for a celebrity adopter.

As for adoption fairs they do seem, well, unseemly. They are one of the ways public child welfare agencies find matches for "hard-to-place" children in foster care. It's not like people are lining up outside the agency doors to adopt older kids or kids from foster care. And very few adoptive parents are open to all the perceived "issues" that foster care children might bring to a family.

I don't think it's fair to criticize this aspect of "matching" without also casting a critical analysis of the other tools agencies use – such as photolistings (used in domestic, foster and international adoptions).

A while ago, I wrote about watching an episode of A Different World one night as I was flipping channels during a bout of insomnia. I was watching BET's re-run of "A Different World," the spin-off of The Cosby Show that takes place at the fictional "Hillman College" (modeled after a historical Black college). In that post, I wrote:

In the particular episode I was watching that night, Blues for Nobody's Child,
Freddie befriends a young boy named Alex who turns out to be living in
foster care. She follows him to a "meet and greet" event – for those
who aren't familiar with this, it's where kids and prospective parents
interact with the hopes that a "match" will be made. If you think this
is like speed dating, you'd be right. In this episode, Freddie is
outraged when she sees this boy walking up to families, trying his best
to get their attention, only to have the prospective parents fall in
love with a younger kid.

When I worked for the County we often facilitated these kinds of
"matching events" where kids and prospective parents interact (let me
add as an aside that the kids are almost always teenagers). On the one
hand, I have a huge ethical problem with them. As much as you prepare
prospective adoptive parents that the focus of these events is to get
to know kids beyond a piece of paper and a photograph and that the idea
is to get to know who the kinds of kids in foster care are, inevitably
there is always a PAP who blurts out to a kid, "Would you like me to
adopt you?" And there is always at least one kid who goes up to a PAP
and asks, "Would you adopt me?" There is no way to honestly and
compassionately prepare these kids for the kind of rejection they are
likely to face.

It's heart-wrenching and yet, there are almost always at least a few
adoptions that happen because of these events. Because for many PAP's,
they look at the kid's profiles and can't really get a sense of who
these kids are. Because some have opened their hearts up to tough,
tough kids after spending an afternoon getting to know them. In fact,
last week I attended an adoption move-in ceremony for one of my former
kids, who met his adoptive father at one of these events.

Ethically, I really struggle with these things – the photographs and
descriptions of kids on web sites and flyers; the "matching events,"
and all the ways in which children are marketed for adoption. One of my
youth on my case load told me, after watching his "Thursday's Child"
segment, "I feel like I'm being sold to the highest bidder, like I'm
for sale." (You can read the entire post here.)

As a former foster care adoption worker for a public county, I hated these events. It's on the continuum of ways that children are marketed for adoption. I think that most if not all of these ways of marketing children are ethically problematic.

So, readers, you tell me. What do you think is the most ethical way of presenting children to prospective adoptive parents? How many of you wanted to see a photo of "your" child or of potential children when you were in the matching phase? How many of you thought about or wanted to meet the child to get a sense of who they were outside a few paragraphs and a social/medical history?

In my experience, all the above reactions are pretty common. I've sat in meetings with prospective adoptive parents where they flip through a book of 8×11's with photos and descriptions of kids, discussing the reasons why they're rejecting each one (too old, wrong race, too many problems, etc.). I've been assigned the task of writing descriptions that present the very best of a child while not trying to cover up whatever "problems" they might have had. I've had adoptive parents tell me that they just couldn't imaging considering adopting a child until they'd had a chance to meet them "on a trial basis." I've had adoptive parents tell me that they didn't truly feel a child was theirs until they'd seen a picture or met them in person.

I don't have the answers for this one – and so far, it seems no one else does either. Oh, and that child I mentioned in the earlier post who met his adoptive father during an "adoption fair?" He was a teenager, with significant mental health history and because of that he had been rejected by prospective adoptive parents for the two years he was on my case load. I still keep in touch with the case worker who took over for me when my position was eliminated. After spending about nine months in the home, his adoption was finalized earlier this summer. Both dad and son are doing great.

Edited to Add: I found YouTube videos of the show, see after the jump.

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