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.

First part:

Second part:

Third part:

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

9 thoughts

  1. In trying to work with our state to try to be matched with an older (8-15ish) black or multiracial boy, my partner and I have been frustrated by all the options. There was one boy with some severe problems that scared my partner, but we both agree that if she’d been able to actually meet him she probably would have been interested. (I don’t know if it’s a better thing, though, that we said we couldn’t handle raising him which decision would have been right. I know it was the hardest choice we’ve ever made.) And we’re not interested in adoption fairs because the consumer-ish ickiness factor is just more than we can handle. However we’ve gone to a picnic for foster and adoptive families, which means we are seeing some kids who could potentially be free for adoption.
    What I would like is since were legal with the state to have some sort of access to a database with information about children’s actual strengths and needs, more than a public photolisting offers. It’s been so frustrating to wait weeks to hear back that a certain child only wants white parents and so we’re not appropriate or that another should stay in his part of the state to be near siblings. If there were a way to get that information without it being mediated through a worker, we’d be saving workers time and be able to make better choices about who could be a match. Instead, though, we’re starting to look at interstate matching rather than staying close to home.
    I’m really conflicted about this choice, because it does seem like maybe we’re getting too far into the “consumer” mindset if we’re being too demanding, wanting to find people who meet the characteristics we’re looking for rather than just waiting around as long as it takes for someone to decide we’re the right match for a child. In not being foster parents before adopting, we’re not doing what the state wants, and so the state doesn’t want to work with us. That just doesn’t seem like it should be the right answer either. All of this is so messy and problematic.

  2. My husband and I did NOT want to choose a child. We adopted from Korea and did receive photos of our daughter in our referral, but this was not so we could accept or reject her; more for us to start becoming familiar with her. The idea of picking out a kid just felt wrong to us, especially wondering if we might someday ask ourselves “what if we’d chosen that other one?” The only “choosing” in our process was the listing of medical conditions that we would be willing to consider. That said, having parents look through photos does seem different than the adoption fairs, in that the child does not have to experience the rejection directly from the photo listings, the way they do at the fairs. I don’t have experience with older-child adoptions, but I would guess that an adoption fair might just be a more economical way of introducing prospective parents to prospective adoptees, rather than organizing dozens of one-on-one meetings. Jae Ran, from your own experience, do you feel that the fairs lead to more successful placements than a more random system would produce?

  3. Just to add to/clarify my post above: In thinking more about this, I realize it’s easy for me to say we didn’t want to choose a child, since we knew we wanted to adopt a baby (not an older child). Obviously babies can have their “issues” too, but (generally) less so than older kids, so random matches are more likely to work. Also, I realize that we DID choose in a broader sense, by choosing to adopt from Korea rather than anywhere else. We knew what experiences were typical of Korean babies placed for adoption, and we felt comfortable with the likelihood of our child having had those experiences. So, in a sense, we did choose, although not our specific child.

  4. We were invited to several adoption fairs but chose not to go. In our state they also have adoption fair videoconferencing where parents and kids can chat from remote locations.
    It’s an incredibly messed-up concept. I don’t think there’s a single person who LIKES the idea, or cares to defend it: parent, child, or social worker. So it’s not like a real debate, because I’ve never heard the opposing side.
    But what are the alternatives? That’s why they keep happening. No one can think of anything better.
    Especially with older children/teenagers who have a say in the matter, and want to interview their potential new parents, strangers shouldn’t commit to forming a lifelong bond based on a few paragraphs and a picture. I mean, it can be done, but the possibility of things going wrong and the bond breaking apart increases dramatically.
    We found our son through a photolisting. We sent off inquiries on more than 100 kids in the photolistings. That system is really messed up as well, and also inefficient… some of the kids we sent inquiries on I eventually found out had been already been adopted long ago, but no one bothered to take their pictures down.
    We had to commit to him without meeting him, based on some paperwork and an interview with his workers. In other words, there wasn’t any fostering or trial period. That was a pretty scary moment. Our son didn’t have any choice in the matter, since it had been decided he was too young for that (6) and his social workers would be making the choice for him.
    The only better alternative I can think of is to have some type of camp where potential parents and children can spend a weekend or a week together doing activities. Of course that’s expensive, and budgets for this type of stuff are thin.
    Matching is inherently unethical because there are parties with such vastly different amounts of power. As a parent, I’ve experienced and heard of terrible abuse of power by social workers, so that I certainly would not trust the institution to be 100% in charge of all matching with no parent choice involved; you’ve experienced the opposite side and wouldn’t want the entire process to be just catering to parents (and I agree with that). And then of course the children have no power at all, or almost none.
    I think sometimes that hoping for the most pure, ethical process can be detrimental to the goal of getting older kids into a permanent family. I know a lot of parents start off on the older child foster care adoption path with the best of intentions, but then when they realize how dirty your hands have to get, they freak out and drop out. In general, social workers simply do not give potential parents realistic information on the emotional and ethical aspects of the matching process. Thank goodness I was able to get that from peer groups… that’s the only place you really get it.

  5. Probably should clarify… peer groups are currently the only way to get a sense of the emotional and ethical aspects of matching from the parent perspective. In other words, knowing in advance what matching really means and how hard it’s going to get.
    We did go through some exercises in training that were geared to give us some slight idea of what the children felt, which, I’m sure, is intense on a level that I will never experience or fully understand.
    But I think it’s just assumed about the matching process from our end, “you’re adults, you can handle it.” I don’t think that approach takes into account the huge weaknesses and insecurities and fears that parents really have.

  6. What a great post. I feel very conflicted about this issue and it is ethically sticky. We adopted internationally, but older children whose background more closely resembles that of a foster/adopt situation. I watched several DVDs of waiting children from Ethiopia and it was absolutely heartwrenching, seeing child after child looking into the camera with pleading eyes and dutifully showing off their English skills and reciting their age and interests. Some of the kids appeared on more than one DVD and I’m sure it was very hard for them to know that other (younger, cuter, more photogenic, etc.) kids had been picked over them.
    I think that kids who are old enough to decide should absolutely have a say in whether or not they are photographed, filmed, showed off at picnics or meet-and-greets, or otherwise marketed to prospective parents. To me, that’s the most important ethical aspect of these events.
    That being said…we did see our kids and express interest in adopting them after seeing them on one of these DVDs. It is very hard to forge an emotional connection with a description of a child; a photograph or video- whether it truly represents the child as they appear in real life or not- brings a child to life in the heart of the adoptive parents in a way that a written description cannot.
    It’s important especially for kids who have background issues that will require hard work on both sides to make the relationship work, because without a picture of a real kid, those issues can seem insurmountable. In a sense, photos or videos or face-to-face meetings with a child remind people that the child’s problems are not the whole child, if that makes sense. It’s important not to forget about or try to downplay a child’s issues, but at the same time, a child’s identity can become inextricably linked to their history of abuse or neglect, and it’s important for prospective parents to know that there IS more to a child than that. If an adoption fair can help a parent “see” a child for more than just their problems, then I think they are serving an important purpose.
    I’ve seen more than once a comparison of adoption to an arranged marriage (particularly of the mail-order variety), and I think in terms of the power/privilege/financial resources differential between the parties in both scenarios, that comparison rings true. Most adults wouldn’t want to be forced into a marriage with someone they’ve never seen in person, and it makes sense that most children and adults wouldn’t want to be forced into a family together without having met each other, either.
    With that in mind, I think that Atlasien’s suggestion of a camp would be ideal, since it could be more child-centered with fun activities and in-depth interaction between the adults and children available for adoption. I wonder if this type of event exists in the US foster system anywhere…?

  7. Hmmmm…great post. This makes me think. What about reversing the process…for older kids of course. They need ownership. All too often, it is the placement worker who is playing matchmaker based on assumptions of the child’s needs and biases they may not even realize that they have. In MN, there is SUPPOSED to be a database of both families with approved homestudies and kids (yet I am told that hardly anyone actually uses the family listings). All too often, permanency is given a backseat to emergency and safety issues. Let’s give the kids some keys and let them shop for US. Let them talk to other kids that have been adopted when they were older and give advice on what they wish they had been able to have a voice in. A fifteen year old, if given access to the state database of homestudies, has a lot more freetime and vested interest to look through homestudies than his caseworker. It is his life after all.
    Personally, I have inquired on many, many kids via photolistings…but mostly because this is my only option unless a worker presents kids who are not photolisted, which is rare. Ironically, only 20% of kids available for adoption not being adopted by their foster parents are listed in our state. Who is advocating for the other 500 kids??? Who knows about them?
    Ironically, I did not know what any of my kids that I adopted looked like before I met them. I also didn’t know much about any of them. Finding out about any of them was pure coincidence and I’ve been told that none of them would have ever been listed or adopted had I not come along because of their “issues”. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

  8. And in terms of “adoption fairs” in history, don’t forget the Orphan Trains in the late 1800s-early 1900s. Kids from the city where taken west by train, and herded onto the platform for rural families to pick which kids they wanted to take home. Imagine getting back on that train to the next stop because no one picked you . . . .

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