ADOPTION NEARS REALITY TV ("Be My Baby")

Date: 2004-04-29

Akron Beacon Journal (OH)

'20/20' WATCHES AS PREGNANT TEEN PICKS AMONG 5 N.E. OHIO COUPLES TO GET HER BABY

Author: R.D. Heldenfels

ABC is calling a 20/20 report about a local adoption "a unique television event."

For television viewers, it is also a weird one, a combination of reality show and tear-jerking drama.

At its center is a 16-year-old girl whose skin has not yet cleared up. She must determine not only the fate of her new son but also that of five families who hope to adopt him.

Airing in the hotly contested May sweeps, it is one of ABC's attempts to draw high ratings. Barbara Walters, the dowager empress of the network's news, is hosting. It is, in sum, a big deal.

But that's not the same as being honest or true. Sight unseen, the program has caused controversy. Even participants in the show have differing views of how television cameras affected their experience, as well as different reasons for taking part.

And this has all happened before the show -- on 20/20 at 10 p.m. Friday -- has even aired.

Called Be My Baby, the report followed Jessica Bohne of Cleveland last fall as she chose adoptive parents for her soon-to-be-born son.

Jessica, now 17 and an 11th-grader at John Marshall High School, was "pregnant by a boy her parents didn't approve of," Be My Baby notes. But her decision to give up her son for adoption was based more on what she might be able to provide him.

"I wasn't financially ready," she told Walters in the interview. "I don't want him to be lacking anything that he wants or needs. I want him to have basically the perfect life."

At the same time, she wanted to be part of that life, to have an ongoing, open relationship with him and the family who would take him in. That put her in the position of being "judge and jury in an extraordinary competition," the special declared. "Kind of playing God," Jessica herself said.

At her mercy in the show are five couples: Karen and Tab Brown of Canton, Kathy and Steve Fellinger of Kirtland, Daniel and Tina McKeen of Hinckley Township, Steve and Joyce Strasser of Akron and Matt and Beth Trnka of Brunswick.

The program shows each couple being interviewed by representatives of A Child's Waiting, the Fairlawn agency that handled the adoption, with Jessica present. Three couples are eliminated in the first round, one for simply using the wrong words to describe Jessica's role in the post-adoption family.

Then comes a second round of interviews and, at last, the McKeens are chosen. Once that drama is done, the program maintains the tension as Jessica gives birth and must decide finally whether to turn over the child to the McKeens.

Finally, there are follow-up segments showing how Jessica and the McKeens are dealing with the adoption.

It is hard not to be moved by the moment when Jessica signs the adoption papers. The show even finds happy endings for the other couples. The Trnkas, for example, were chosen as adoptive parents by another mother on the same day they were turned down by Jessica.

But there are still all the disturbing trappings of reality TV, even game-show jargon.

One would-be parent likens the selection process to The Bachelor. Part of the decision is based on what the show calls "a lightning round."

There has already been criticism aimed at ABC and A Child's Waiting for a show that one online critic summed up as "a contest." The McKeens have a similar concern about the way the show is being promoted.

"We aren't happy with the way they make it seem like a competition," Tina McKeen said Tuesday.

Beth Trnka also saw similarities to a reality show as the adoption interviews were going on, and felt that this was "definitely not the normal process."

At the same time, she said that when an adoption involves more than one couple, there are aspects of a reality game. "You are trying to sell yourself," she said. "There is a competition, and there is a prize at the end."

Jennifer Bessemer-Marando, co-founder of A Child's Waiting, said some children attract more adoption interest than others.

"It is not hard for us to find a family to adopt a healthy white child," she said. "But it is difficult for us to find families who will take African-American or minority children, or special-needs children."

One of the things that bothered her about the 20/20 segment was that "what they've shown is more like a competition for a white baby."

A DIFFERENT GOAL

A Child's Waiting went into the program with good intentions, said Bessemer-Marando, who founded the agency with her sister, Crissy Bessemer-Kolarik.

After being approached by 20/20, they agreed to take part in the show "to educate the community about what open adoption is," Bessemer-Marando said. She said the agency was not compensated for taking part in the show. Jessica also said she was not paid.

Open adoption is "basically just continued contact between the birth parent and the adoptive families," Bessemer-Marando said. But she said many people "have this misconception that it's like co-parenting, or that the birth mom is going to take control of the child's life."

Why did Jessica agree to be followed by cameras during a difficult and wrenching decision?

"My first thought was to help other people, to let girls in my situation know there was an alternative to abortion," she said Tuesday.

As for the McKeens, they said they agreed in part because they could not be part of the adoption otherwise. But they already knew that Jessica was interested in them -- and they trusted Walters, who is also an adoptive parent.

One couple saw the cameras as potentially helpful. The Trnkas decided that, even if they were rejected by Jessica, another mother might see the show and like them.

"If we weren't picked, this was a national advertisement for us as a family," Beth Trnka said.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Then what was it like to have cameras following them?

"Kind of weird," Jessica said. "I've never had anything like that happen to me before."

And neither she nor the McKeens forgot they were on camera. While Jessica said, "I just acted naturally," Tina McKeen was a bit warier.

"I was definitely always aware that the cameras were there," she said. "I was aware that my answers might be seen by other people."

The McKeens were also annoyed by occasional small concessions to the TV crews, such as having to walk into a building more than once.

At Christmas, the McKeens were asked to keep Jessica from seeing the baby until a camera crew arrived -- but when the crew was running two hours late, they went ahead with the meeting.

Still, Daniel McKeen said, "We got the sense that overall the process was what it would have been." Bessemer-Marando said the adoption process was "what we normally did."

Beth Trnka disagreed.

The first interview "was very staged, very brief," she said. In other adoption interviews, she said, she and her husband had much more time with the birth mothers.

The McKeens also felt as if the interviews were artificially formal. But, Tina McKeen added, "That's just the way they (at the agency) run the interviews normally."

Other questions have arisen since the cameras stopped.

After screening a rough copy of the show with a reporter, Bessemer-Marando disliked the way the show dramatized the selection of the adoptive parents and Jessica's final decision to have her child adopted.

"Adoption is really dramatic . . . but I think they built up the reality-show kind of aspect," Bessemer-Marando said.

"I don't think they explained what open adoption is. We had actually done this big huge interview process with my sister and I explaining everything. . . . None of it made it in there."

But some of Bessemer-Marando's objections were disputed by other participants.

In a televised interview after the adoption, Jessica said she considered changing her mind shortly after her son was born.

Bessemer-Marando insisted that Jessica "never wavered at all." But Jessica said Tuesday that "I did waver a little bit."

After the baby is born but before the adoption is done, the program says: "Worried that she'll decide to keep her baby, the McKeens ask Jessica to meet with them once more."

"That is, like, not even true," Bessemer-Marando said. The show "made it sound like they want to go in there to convince her to place the baby. . . . Jessica asked them to come and see the baby."

But the McKeens said that they went to the hospital earlier than planned after getting a call from Bessemer-Marando -- one that Daniel McKeen summed up as "Jessica wanted to see us to help her."

Now the participants have to see how viewers, including their friends and family, will react to the show itself. They know they may face criticism. Some viewers with a strong emotional involvement in open adoption or adoption generally will be looking very closely. Bessemer-Marando, for one, seemed very concerned about anything that might reflect badly on open adoption.

Other viewers will simply be judging the people the way they judge anyone else on TV, including reality-show contestants. The McKeens are very concerned about how they came across on the show. (They seem like nice people in a very difficult situation.) And when they were asked whether they would have preferred to go through this without the cameras, Daniel McKeen said: "Definitely."

After Bessemer-Marando saw the show, she was asked what she'd say to someone curious about the program.

"I would probably say, you go ahead and watch it," she said. "It would probably educate you somewhat about what open adoption is. But just try to remember that it is on TV, and they're trying to make good ratings."

Caption:
1) Barbara Walters hosts the ABC 20/20 report Be My Baby, in which Jessica Bohne, 17, of Cleveland picks a couple to adopt her son.2) Five Northeast Ohio couples sought to adopt the baby teen-ager Jessica Bohne holds beside Barbara Walters (front). The couples are (left to right): Daniel and Tina McKeen, Beth and Matt Trnka, Joyce and Steve Strasser, Steve and Kathy Fellinger, and Karen and Tab Brown. The McKeens were chosen.

R.D. Heldenfels writes about television for the Beacon Journal. Contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

0

Pound Pup Legacy