Reporting on Child Welfare and Adoption Policies

By Bartholet, Elizabeth | Nieman Reports, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Reporting on Child Welfare and Adoption Policies


Bartholet, Elizabeth, Nieman Reports


An author and advocate contends that journalists are missing the story.

As an academic interested in social reform, I appreciate both the media's power to influence change and the complexity of their role in reporting on tough policy issues. This appreciation is something I've gained during the past decade as I've talked with a lot of members of the print and broadcast press in my efforts to promote changes in child welfare policy. Reporters often call me for comment when stories relevant to my work emerge in the news, and I have chosen to respond to their inquiries and to engage in ongoing public debates about the issues I care about. Despite the occasional frustration I experience when I read, see or hear the product of our conversations, it's important to me to continue to work with members of the media. I know that significant changes in public policy occur only when there are fundamental shifts in the mindset of policymakers and the broader public. I also recognize the unique and critical capacity of the press to inform and educate each of these audiences.

In general, I have been impressed by the commitment of many of the reporters I have dealt with over the years to delve deeply into the issues and to wield responsibly their considerable power to shape public opinion. I am fully aware that reporters should not "take sides," but instead should gather the facts and report them fairly, giving those in their audience the opportunity to assess for themselves the interpretations of the facts and different advocacy positions. But I have been frustrated by the tendency of some reporters to reduce the multifaceted and complex reality of policy debate to a thin two-sided coin. Too often, reporters assume that once advocates of "both sides" of a particular issue have been identified and quoted, the full story will have been told. The risk in this all-too-familiar reporting technique is not only of undue simplification but also of distortion: The two-sided story may not simply omit some of the richness of the full picture, but may project a false image.

I have two books coming out this fall dealing with issues that illustrate these problems. "Nobody's Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative," and "Family Bonds: Adoption, Infertility, and the New World of Child Production" (originally published in 1993 and now being re-issued with a new preface), will be released by Beacon Press in October. My interactions with members of the press regarding the issues I write about show how difficult it can be to communicate information about new policy perspectives, particularly when the facts are complex and the ideas run against the tide of conventional thought.

"Nobody's Children" constitutes a challenge to the orthodox views that undergird today's child welfare policy. In this book I question whether it is appropriate to think of and treat children as belonging essentially and exclusively to their kinship and racial groups and as a result to lock them into what are often inadequate biological and foster homes, where they suffer harmful abuse and neglect. I call for the elimination of racial and other barriers that prevent children from being placed in appropriate adoptive homes. I contend that our policies should be changed to encourage child welfare workers to look not only to the local "village" but also to the broader community to share responsibility for child rearing. I envision a society in which abused and neglected children who are born to biological and racial "others"--those now seen as "nobody's children"--are embraced as belonging to each of us.

The politics of these issues are complex. During the past decade, those identifying with the left (including many liberal advocacy groups) have tended to promote family preservation policies--policies that place an extremely high priority on keeping a child with his or her original family. They have tended to regard the parents accused of child maltreatment as the primary "victims," at risk of further victimization by having their children removed and their parental rights terminated. …

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