Reporters: How Not To Write A Story About an International Adoption Tragedy

Today’s example (and it’s an excellent one) is from NBC affiliate WHO-TV in Iowa. Here’s the headline:

Recent Child Abuse and Neglect Allegations Hurting International Adoption

It’s a horrific story about allegations against a couple who a few years ago adopted two children, one 8 and one 9 years old now, from Ghana. Court documents reveal the children were sleeping on plastic mats, using buckets in their rooms as toilets, and were forced to stay in their room otherwise an alarm would sound and they would be punished. Somehow they got out and begged a neighbor for help, and were then removed from the home. There are apparently five biological children as well. neighbors saw the bio kids playing outside, and one neighbor wasn’t even aware that the parents had adopted children from Ghana. The children were homeschooled.

That headline, and the article, focuses not on the abused, endangered, traumatized children, but on the damage the allegations cause to international adoption.

That’s the first way this report went awry: a bizarre, heartlessly skewed headline.

But headlines are written to draw readers in, and this one fits the traditional narrative of leaving out any even vaguely nuanced sense of balance in adoption.

So let’s move on to the article itself. Who is interviewed? Why, an adoptive parent of three children from Ghana. He is a white man who does missionary work in Africa, according to the article. A quick look at Sullivan’s Acts 2 Collective shows he works primarily in Ghana and Chad. Africa is a continent, not a country: why do reporters so often fail to note specific countries?

Is an actual Ghanaian interviewed? No. Is an actual adult adoptee interviewed? No. Is an actual Ghanaian adoptee interviewed? No. Is an actual expert in transracial adoption interviewed? No. This is another significant way the article failed badly.

Jake Sullivan, the missionary parent who is the only person cited in the article, did not have any involvement in the abusive family’s adoption, and his group does not handle adoptions. He is correct in saying the international adoption process is long and complicated.

He goes on to say, and this where your eyebrows and hackles should be raised, that “Kids in Africa have a lot more freedom to move about, then you get into the United States and we have a lot of rules, restrictions. Our parenting style is much different than the African parenting style, so then you get those conflicts because you don’t understand the culture.”

Ah. So, sad as it is, the kids came from Africa, couldn’t adjust to the “parenting styles” here, and wound up being locked in grotesque, inhumane conditions.

This can be boiled down to an example of blaming the victims, a subjective view that should not be in a news article. The impression left with readers is this: The American adoptive parents imposed rules and restrictions on the African kids, and the kids apparently just weren’t able to adjust. Tsk tsk.

NO. Far more likely is that the adoptive parents were not well prepared to parent older children of color from another country. The children had experienced trauma before, during, or after being adopted (perhaps all three): such is the nature of adoption. The adoptive parents had five other children who no doubt took up their time, and the adopted children likely took a lot of time and attention as they adjusted to a startling new life in Iowa.

For a sense of perspective on demographics: Osceola, Iowa, has under 5000 residents, of whom 0.6% are black. So, pretty much no racial mentors or role models for these little kids, though that may well prove to be the least of their worries, given the disgusting and horrifying conditions they lived in with their new “family.”

All that said, the focus in the article is on how these allegations are “hurting international adoption.”

International adoptions have declined significantly, but there are many reasons: reports of abuse anddeaths, fraud, corruption, increased in-country adoptions, changing policies within countries of origin (China’s one child policy, for example), and sending countries’ overall concerns for the fate of their children sent abroad, and more. Do allegations of abuse (and actual convictions thereof) have an impact in sending countries? Sure.

Sullivan “does not condone the allegations against the abusive adoptive family.” He says “it’s something others looking to adopt can learn from.” The focus is, as is all too often the case in articles like this, on adoptive parents—not on the children, the victims.

Those little kids from Ghana have been through a lot: trauma, abuse, neglect. They will now likely be re-adopted by a new family, another huge transition. They will, hopefully, have therapy and other resources available to them for the damage that has been done, and one can hope they are resilient.

I don’t know what adoption agency the family used, what social workers did the home study, or who did follow up for post-adoption services.

It’s long overdue for reporters to look at adoption with more information and perspective. There are plenty of adult adoptees, transracially adopted adults, and adoptee-therapists who can provide insightful, helpful responses to tragedies like this one.

Here’s a better possible headline:

Internationally Adopted Children Hurt By Abuse and Neglect of Adoptive Parents

Then the article would have interviews with experts such as Ghanaian adoptees and adoptee therapists. The adoption agency would be identified.

May these children, and all children, be safe and loved.

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Reporters: How Not To Write A Story About an International Adoption Tragedy

  1. Exactly right. I hope you send a copy of this to the paper. Journalists need to up their games and stop trying to write clickbait articles.

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