Adoption Language: Promoting a Positive Image

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Poor adoption language can really hurt a child and a family. Adoption affects so many Americans. At least 6 million people in the U.S. were adopted into their families, and the number of Americans touched by adoption exceeds 100 million. Journalists need to describe adoption accurately and objectively.

Regrettably, news and feature stories have often employed inaccurate, even sensationalized, language about adoption. We need to consider this issue as an important one in our every day life and continued involvement in adoption.

Adoption agencies and authorities, support groups and families need to encourage everyone involved in this process to advocate for and live by a few simple style guidelines that would foster more accurate, objective and respectful coverage of adoptive families in the media and in society at large.

The problem is widespread. Think back to recent media coverage. For example, many obituaries of Maureen Reagan mentioned that her brother Michael was adopted. The fact that he was adopted 50 years ago was as relevant as information that someone else was born prematurely or by C-section. Coverage of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman divorce has typically described the couple as having "two adopted children."

Again, the fact they were adopted is irrelevant. A spokesman for Cruise and Kidman said this kind of language is insulting. Through their word choices, even well-meaning journalists can and have inadvertently conveyed the misconception that adoptive families are somehow less genuine and permanent, and that people who were adopted --and their role in a family -- remain somehow different. The reality is that adoption is as valid a way of joining a family as birth.

I would urge that we reanalyze the way we speak and think about adoption and that we "encourage" journalists to use language that conveys the fact that adoptive families are just like any other, both in law and in loving relationships.

It would be easy to update journalistic language regarding adoption, much in the way that journalists eliminated unnecessary qualifiers for race or gender.

Specific suggestions for change as it relates to the media:

1) As in the case of race or gender, the fact a person was adopted should be mentioned only if it is absolutely essential to the story. If it is mentioned, the relevance must be clear in the context of the story.

2) Mentioning adoption when it is not relevant wrongly implies a separate category of family relationship. Adoption is a legal event, not an immutable personal trait.

3) An adopted person's parents (those who are raising the child) should be referred to simply as father, mother or parents. The man and woman who shared in the child's conception can be referred to as the birth, genetic or biological parents (not "real" or "natural" parents, etc.) We are the child's parents.

4) The media should avoid terms such as "abandoned" or "given up," both for accuracy and sensitivity reasons. It usually is inaccurate to refer to children available for adoption as orphans. In many cases, the birth parents are alive.

5) Children also should not be referred to as abandoned or unwanted, unless they were actually found abandoned. Sociological or legal factors often force birth parents to relinquish their parental rights and make a child available for adoption; that is very different from abandoning them or "giving them up." In the interest of accuracy, birth parents can be said to have placed the child for adoption, made an adoption plan, made them available for adoption, or transferred parental rights.

6)The reason why people adopt is not usually relevant to a story. Infertility often plays a role, but so do other factors, and many adopt simply because this is a joyful way to make a family. Language suggesting that parents "couldn't have a baby of their own" is inaccurate. These children are our own by law and by love. Such language suggests adoption is second best, and that can be hurtful.

7) The phrase "a child of their own" is an inappropriate reference to birth children.

8) Adoption stories should never imply that adoptive parents are unusually selfless or otherwise saintly. In most cases, we adopted simply because we want to parent children. We are no more saintly or selfless than any other parent.

Realizing that these suggestions are not a panacea, they would however, certainly improve the climate in which adoptive families now reside.

Credits: Sandra Hayden-Dowling, MSW

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