Unless you've been living under a rock, you've noticed adoption has taken center stage in American popular culture. It's in our theaters with films like the 2007 cult hit Juno, on our televisions with series like the award-winning 30 Rock, and in our celebrity magazines with photos of the ever-expanding brood of film actors, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Because popular culture and real life are bound in a sort of feedback loop, it's no wonder that interest in adoption has swelled in recent years. Governments abroad can't keep up with the flood of applications, clogging the international adoption pipeline for years in some countries, most notably China. Domestic adoption, especially in Oklahoma, has garnered attention as well. Oklahoma Department of Human Services saw a record number of children adopted in the state in 2007, with projections for fiscal year-end 2008 figures pointing even higher.
Though popular culture can be fun, and though it has done its part to put adoption in the limelight, pop culture doesn't always get the facts straight. Globetrotters Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt defy the laws of international adoption to which most non-celebrity couples are subject - speedily adopting three children born abroad sans any hitches a home study of such a transient lifestyle would presumably cause. 30 Rock devotees watched an adoption agency representative drop in on main character Liz Lemon, played by media darling and comedienne Tina Fey, at her office during the 2008 season premier of the show. It's a practice that, according to DHS, just doesn't happen -- at least, not around these parts.
Careful, though. Not everything we see on a big screen about adoption can be shrugged off as fiction. Remember when Juno had us all flipping through the PennySaver in search of the "Desperately Seeking Spawn" section? Keep looking; believe it or not, some adoptive parents really do advertise in newspapers and classifieds.
The Rich and Famous
In the movie Juno, the title character, a high school junior, looks for adoptive parents for her unborn baby, the product of an attempt to spice up a dull evening with her best friend/secret love. To follow up on an advertisement for a baby, she travels with her father to an upper-crust suburban neighborhood.
A montage shows a series of the split-level houses lining the streets of the neighborhood, all super-sized and seemingly identical. She arrives at the address in the ad, where a young couple answers the door. After pleasantries are exchanged, the adoptive mother, played by Jennifer Garner, offers the pregnant teen her choice between S. Pellegrino and Vitamin Water for refreshment.
The affluent couple, the only adoptive family portrayed in the film, endorses one of the most often encountered stereotypes about those seeking to adopt: because adoption costs money, then rich people must be first in line.
Sure, the wealthy may be better equipped for the adoption process, the cost of which can soar into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on the type of adoption. But the blue-blooded aren't the only ones adding to their families through adoption.
"If you want to meet the middle class, you ought to meet my clients. I don't have any of those rich ones in my files," said Phyllis Zimmerman, Tulsa adoption attorney with a 45-year track record in the field.
Zimmerman facilitates adoptions for international adoption agencies Dillon International and Holt International, as well as private and public domestic adoptions.
"A lot of people think that if they want a child, they can pay enough money and get one," she said. "Some of my clients have commented on that -- that they don't have enough money to compete with the rich and famous. It's a shame it takes a lot of money to adopt."
While families do have to show they have the means to care for a child, domestic adoption certainly isn't relegated to the rich, said Jane Eneff, adoption supervisor at OKDHS. About 80 percent of the couples that have adopted through DHS are relatives of the children or are foster parents, she said, and they represent a variety of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
Just as the term "adoptive parent" shouldn't imply whiteness, not every affluent Caucasian couple looks to adopt "the perfect, white baby," said Erin Remington, local adoptive mother.
Earlier this year, Erin and her husband, Steve, adopted a five-some sibling group through DHS. The kids represent a range of ethnicities, none of which appear to match that of their adoptive parents.
"The funny thing is, their biological mother is as white as I am," Erin said. "If she had been out in public with them and people had asked her like they do us, 'Oh, are the kids adopted?' she would have been like, 'No. Why are you asking me that?' People say a lot of insensitive things without thinking, and they don't mean it -- well, most of them don't."
Perfection Not Required
Many parent-hopefuls assume they need to be "perfect" to qualify as adoptive parents, losing sleep because of nightmares of numerous, deep-digging interviews. American primetime television does nothing to bring that perception back to reality.
In the season premier of 30 Rock, main character Liz Lemon goes to super-human lengths to appear as the model mother to a visiting agent from an adoption agency. She changes the green room in her television studio workplace into a temporary nursery and does her best to bribe her co-workers into putting in a good word for her during their interviews with the agent.
Of course, all hell breaks loose. Only after the agent is accidentally knocked unconscious by Lemon's co-workers and suffers delusions does she deem Lemon ready for motherhood.
A home study is certainly a rigorous process, Zimmerman said. While the study doesn't go so far as to infiltrate an adoptive parent's workplace, it does include a complete background check, a health statement from a doctor, income tax returns for the past couple of years and inspections of the home where the adopted child would live.
"They do use some pretty rigid standards, but that's to keep people from adopting a child and then not being able to be a good parent for him or her," she said. "But, the home study facilitators don't go in with white gloves and run their hands over your furniture."
"I've never met a family that didn't think that they have to be the perfect family," said Deniese Dillon, executive director of the Tulsa-based Dillon International Inc. "Even after they have received their child and everything is finished, they still want to appear to us as the perfect family. Then, when something happens in their lives -- if divorce comes, or a child has problems in school -- sometimes they disconnect from us."
"We want to continue to be around and help. They're human, and they can't be the perfect family all the time. Divorce happens, problems come and people lose their jobs. That doesn't make you 'bad' -- that just makes you human," Dillon said.
Adoptive parents can feel second-class when they hear the term, 'real parents' in movies or on TV, or when kids are referred to as 'real,' or 'adopted,' Eneff said.
"I think most people aren't other than well-meaning. They just use those terms because those are the only ones they've heard."
Eneff doesn't get to leave worries about those not-so-positive terms at work. She's an adoptive mother herself. When Eneff's Korean-born, college-age daughter was asked by a classmate what it's like to be adopted - a question she would have expected on a playground rather than in a university classroom - "She said something back to the effect of, 'Well, what's it like having bio-parents -- how's that going?'
"She was so amazed that she'd be asked that question," Eneff said.
The best way to combat ideas about what defines a "real" family is to talk openly about adoption -- "to get to where we use terms that are more positive," she said.
Dillon International has worked with media representatives to bring balance and sensitivity to how adopted persons are portrayed in the news.
"The media has given us wonderful exposure, which has encouraged families to consider adoption. That's how a lot of our families have found us, is because of the newspaper or TV coverage," Dillon said.
"But, if someone robs a bank or kills someone, many times, if the person was adopted, they'll say so on the news. They point it out. How fair is that, that the adoption had something to do with the crime?"
Dillon has also worked to replace such phrases as "give up for adoption," "real kids" and "real parents" that occur in the media with more positive terms.
"It's important to think about how we talk about these things and what it means to the person hearing it," she said. "For example, the phrase, 'give up for adoption' is not a very positive phrase, as opposed to 'make an adoption plan.' We also help our families to say, 'birth parents' and 'adoptive parents' rather than 'real parents.' The real parent is, of course, the one taking care of the child."
All About Love
The marriage of the adoptive couple depicted in Juno is troubled by denial and unfulfilled dreams. Juno is blinded by her wish that a perfect couple, which she believes she has found on the other end of an ad in PennySaver, will raise her baby and fails to see that the marriage is in hot water. Near the end of the film, the couple splits, nearly derailing the adoption process as a divorce ensues.
"There was obviously something wrong with their marriage before the adoption process even started," Erin Remington said. "They were going to try to fill this void with a baby, and that's not really what adoption is about. You're not filling a void; you're adding to your life."
Erin and her husband are often lauded for adopting a set of five elementary-school-aged siblings, and members of the community often thank them for "the wonderful thing we did," she said.
"I know they mean it in a nice way, but people get really hung up on what a 'great' thing we did. We don't pat ourselves on the backs and say, 'We're such fantastic people because we took these hard-to-place kids.'"
To boot, Erin's adoption story is often compared to that of Angelina Jolie's. While she understands the basis for the comparison, "We didn't adopt to make a point or for charity," she said.
"Those are such unrealistic portrayals of the process. You don't just drop in and pick up an attractive child and then your life is so happy and glamorous. Those children need stability so badly."
"People should adopt because they love a child and they want that child to be part of their family," Zimmerman said. "If it just happens to save them from a very bad life, then that's a plus."
"To say, 'I want to adopt this child because he is so pitiful,' that's not a solid reason for adopting."
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