One-Sided Reality

Just when I think the adoption industry can't get any more one-sided than it already is, I read the 2004 news article, Adoption Nears Reality TV that features the adoption agency, A Child's Waiting.

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.

Newborns from young healthy white mothers who have parents who don't want to help raise a child.

Is there anything more desirable these days?

Some might call this a contest, some might call this coercion, some might call this the potential for good television ratings, I call this type of "adoption promotion" or agency advertising absolutely sickening.

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