Reactions to Stuck

By now everyone involved in adoption has heard about Stuck, the documentary production of Both Ends Burning. Both Ends Burning is an organization founded by businessman Craig Juntenen, the mission of which is to promote “adoption as a solution for children without parents,” to create “a culture of adoption,” and to facilitate “changes in the current system.” Here’s how the film describes itself:
STUCK is a new award-winning documentary film, produced by Both Ends Burning that uncovers the personal, real-life stories of children and parents navigating a rollercoaster of bureaucracy on their journeys through the international adoption system, each filled with hope, elation – and sometimes heartbreak.
STUCK steps into the complex human experience of adoption, exploring the challenges faced by birth parents, prospective adoptive parents – and children.
Reaction has been swift from the mainstream (largely laudatory) and adoption reform community (largely critical).  I watched it yesterday with pen in hand, taking notes, doing my best to keep an open mind and heart. It was, at the end of the day, impossible for me to find much to recommend the film, in spite of its glitzy production and the soothing voice of Marissa Hargitay walking me through its premise.

Starting at the very beginning – that website blurb describing the film: there are virtually no “birth parents” to speak of in the film. One Ethopian mother, looking uncomfortable, is captured on camera saying she must surrender her child because she has nothing to feed her. The film does not respond to or comment on her situation.

The film raises a makes a number of points that I agree should be on the table in discussions of intercountry adoption:
  • The wait for a family should be as short as possible.
  • Stipends may not be sufficient for family preservation or reunification.
  • Institutions should only serve as short- term care providers.
  • Greed, ideology and politics corrupt intercountry adoption practices.
It does so, however, with a focus on adoption on the only solution, while downplaying the potentially negative outcomes of other approaches. The net result is that even where I agree with Stuck, I disagree.

Here are my reactions, which fell into a couple of groups that I think characterize the film as one that plays on emotions at the expense of reality and fact.

Stuck’s statistics are misleading or incomplete

Stuck points out repeatedly that there are 10 million orphans worldwide in need of homes stuck in intercountry adoption bureaucracy. The film doesn’t qualify the statistics in any way by country or age, and doesn’t indicate if it defines these orphans broadly (one parent dead or missing) or narrowly (both parents dead or missing). The film instead conveys the impression that every one of those 10 million children could get on a plane tomorrow if the red tape were eliminated. UNICEF, who are roundly criticized throughout the film but equally respected for their knowledge on international child welfare, notes in their orphan statistics that as of 2005 there were 132 million children missing one or both parents in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, 13 million of which have lost both parents. UNICEF goes on to clarify that the majority of orphans by the broad definition are living with a surviving parent grandparent, or other family member, and that 95% of all orphans are over the age of five (ergo unlikely to be adopted). In spite of these statistics, Stuck focuses on the adoption of young children, lamenting the fact that one child waited until just shy of his fourth birthday before being approved for adoption, and bringing in a medical expert to explain the negative effects of institutionalization for prolonged periods. The film makes virtually no verbal reference to the adoption of older children, but instead provides disturbing footage of empty-eyed teens and emotionally disturbed children in various orphanages – hardly encouragement to adopt those children, who have the greatest need of all.

Stuck notes the 60% decline in intercountry adoption and it is a result of greed, ideology and politics that prevent the adoption of large numbers of waiting children in the countries on which the film focuses (Haiti, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia). The 60% decline is pretty accurate based on statistics from the U.S. Department of State, but the reasons the State Department cites, noted in a recent NY Times article, are different: changes in adoption policies in China, Russia and South Korea, three sources of large numbers of adoptions in the past.

Stuck encourages an attitude of adoptive parent entitlement

I found many instances, some glaring and some subtle, in which Stuck makes it clear that American adoptive parents are intercountry adoption experts and should be allowed to call the shots. There is an overriding sense that intercountry adoption is an American right rather than a privilege granted to us by countries with children in need. Adoptive parent interviewees criticize the complexity of the process and its unnecessary requirements (for example, the USCIS 18-month re-fingerprinting). I was particularly struck by the indignation of the adoptive parents who showed up on the doorstep of their prospective son’s regional adoption agency presuming that their visit had been arranged. They thought (and were supported in this by their attorney) they would leave that very day with the child. I cannot imagine doing that to an agency here in the U.S., never mind in a rural region of a developing country.

I was also struck by attorney Kelly Ensslin’s referrals to “their daughters” or “their sons” when speaking to the prospective adopters, in spite of the fact that none of the adoptions had yet been finalized. Although I understand and shared the emotional connection very well, it sets the dangerous precedent that referral confers rights that it in fact does not.

I must add, however, that I have tremendous respect for the tenacity of these parents for demonstrating real commitment to their children when some might have jumped to an "easier" or quicker program. Prospective adoptive parents are often characterized as so greedy for a child that they would snap at the first and easiest opportunity to find one. These parents demonstrated that many stay the course to a particular child in spite of the challenges and delays.

Stuck is hypocritical and lacks balance

Stuck makes no mention of the over 100,000 children waiting for families here in the U.S. It does not acknowledge the citizenship issues, including deportation, that adult intercountry adoptees face, nor does it encourage any legislative action to correct this. Stuck also does not acknowledge a single documented case of intercountry adoption corruption. Only one adopted adult was interviewed, and she was an agency worker; no adopted adults were interviewed for their personal experiences. One surrendering mother speaks briefly in the film to say she had nothing to feed her child, after which she is out of the picture.

Stuck lacks respect for the culture and autonomy of placing countries

There is throughout this film a general attitude of criticism and dismissal of the placing countries who have chosen to stop intercountry adoptions. In-country agency failures are criticized (although never considered to be evidence of corruption). The film makes it clear that the goal should always be to get children out of these countries, which demonstrates a lack of cultural respect and understanding. One message came across particularly loud and clear to me, although I suspect it was totally unintended: the shot of the parents playing cards while they waited. I was also disturbed by the choice of words in the comment made following the 60-day advertisement for one little boy: “No one from Vietnam showed an interest in adopting Nate.” Such a statement should never have been made, and demonstrates a decided sense of cultural and moral superiority, hardly attitudes with which to approach the country from which you intend to adopt a child.

Stuck criticizes without providing solutions

Stuck is loud in its criticism of the US Department of State, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and Special Advisor to the Secretary for Children's Issues Ambassador Susan Jacobs are criticized for not resolving the political issues (in spite of the fact that, as Ambassador Jacobs says herself, the U.S. has no agency in the decisions of a placing country). UNICEF, who have done more good for the children of the world than Both Ends Burning will do in its lifetime, is criticized for focusing on family reunification rather than promoting adoption. The Hague Convention on the Rights of the Child gets special punishment, and is characterized simply as a failure. Although loud and fast with these criticisms, Stuck offers no alternatives or solutions to their actions.

Stuck demonstrates American colonialism

Stuck is primarily a film about poor children of color being saved by Americans. Poverty is portrayed in emotional terms: scenes of dirty streets, squalid conditions in orphanages, sick children, working children (the little boy carrying the water jug, the children washing each other) fade to the idyllic American back yards, comfortable neighborhoods and cozy backyards to which the children can be brought, if only the bureaucrats and politicians give them free rein.

There is, however, no questioning of our responsibility to the adults who experience those conditions: in this, Stuck strikes me as exploitative. It is like they don’t exist anymore after referral. Although I would not expect a film that promotes intercountry adoption to attempt to solve world hunger, I would expect it to acknowledge what we leave behind when we adopt children.

There is a real need for books, films and studies to delve into the complexities of intercountry adoption without promoting or decrying it. Although Stuck raises issues we need to discuss, it is really a film on a mission. As such, it falls prey to one of the behaviors it set out to decry: ideology. That’s a shame, because with its resources, Both Ends Burning could have made a film that accurately portrayed the good and the bad in intercountry adoption rather than one that distorts reality. That, in my opinion, would have been a real service to poor children and their families around the world.

Comments

Mark Riley said…
Really excellent review and I concur with your thoughts on Stuck. I decided NOT to do a review and cheekily linked yours... there may have been too much 'salty' language in mine ;)
Thanks, Mark, for the comment and the link.

I had to bite my tongue a bit throughout ;)

It's hard when you have a particular perspective to be unbiased, so I can't say that I was. But I didn't want to bash the film without reason either.

I can say honestly that there are issues Stuck raised that we need to talk about. Hopefully it will do that much.
Sara Manns said…
Thank you for thi sensible, sensitive description of what was up with Stuck! Stumbled my way to your review, while searching for another perspective on this disturbing film. As an adoptive parent I was troubled by it, but for reasons different from what I perceived to be the agenda of the makers.
Thanks for your comment, Sara. It's a frustrating film, that's for sure. I'm heartened, though, by the fact that a good number of adoptive parents are critiquing the film. The support isn't universal in our community, and that's a step in the right direction.

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