The Cycle of Harm in Celebrity Adoptions

Adoption is not heroism.  It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.

Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.

Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.

In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.

Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.

Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.

As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).

But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.

I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.

In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.

This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.

The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?

The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate.  In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.

If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.

Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.

Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!

4 Replies to “The Cycle of Harm in Celebrity Adoptions”

  1. As an adopter I agree with a lot in your blog – but what about the children taken into care for abuse and neglect, whose first families are unable to change within the timescales for the child? If there are no close relatives to provide kinship care, should they remain in foster care or children’s homes with moves and sometimes lack of stability and love? Adoption could and should be a more open process – I feel my children should have had direct contact with their first families who they have now met as adults.

    1. Legal Guardianship fits this situation, Mair.

      When it comes to adoption there is rarely not a, “what about” expression in reply. “What about, what about….. what about!”

      Today is my 52 b day. Just last year I discovered my family. Sadly both my parents are already passed away.

      What about us! All my life I was told how lucky I was to be adopted, how grateful I should be just to be alive, how my mother loved me so much she gave me away.

      Just once, I would love to hear from society and the not adopted people “what about the adopted person’s rights”.

      1. Kim I’m so sorry to hear about how your search has turned out. On your birthday I celebrate your voice here bringing us back to the point, “what about the adopted person?”

    2. Hi Mair

      This question reminds me of a classic one liner from comedian Caroline Aherne when she interviewed his wife Debbie McGee. “What first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?”

      There are hidden assumptions within the question that are deeply held in society. This is the reason adoptee voices need to be heard.

      The assumptions adoptees come across frequently are:

      1. Abuse, neglect, poverty and personality defaults lie only on the side of birth families (and therefore in our DNA so adoptees are faulty too)
      2. Adoptive families are superior and trauma free
      3. Risks of emotional and physical abuse are negligible in adoptive families
      4. Addiction doesn’t exist in adoptive parents
      5. Adoptive families have immunity to financial problems
      6. Adoption trauma is negligible compared to the alternative

      There’s so much confidence that these things are true that there is very little data on success measures in adoption. Adoptive parents aren’t audited, aren’t required to have trauma-informed support or ongoing facilitation, and there’s no follow up for adoptees and for the families who must learn to parent adoptees.

      The only data lies in the voices of adoptees, whose stories are frequently sidelined and misrepresented.

      In fact, from my time in the adoptive community it seems to me that not only does emotional and physical abuse exist just as much in adoptive families, but adoptees are especially vulnerable to it due to their isolation, search for belonging, sensitivity to rejection, and trouble forming friendships (with females in particular), all of which makes adoptees a predators dream. In addition, adoption trauma and isolation are a gateway to addiction and depression, with adoptees over represented in these areas.

      Saviorism in adoption mythology is a highly effective marketing campaign for narcisists, a type of abuser for which there is very little remedy except escape in adulthood.

      Infertility – a significant driver of adoption – is itself often a disenfranchised grief; the adoptee bears the weight of healing this and providing comfort with gratitude and silence about their true feelings and desires.

      So in answer to your question, and the call to action in my post, is that if adopters want to help, start to raise the voice of adoptees. I look forward to the day when adoptee voices are fully embedded at the table of adoption reform. Only once the adoptee voice is prioritised can a proper diagnosis of the issues be done, and real solutions be created to drive effective reform.

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