Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Addison Cooper
I didn’t even know what social work was when I headed off to college. As a freshman at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, MA, I knew that I wanted my career to be helpful to young people, but that was the extent of the direction I had. As a senior in high school, I had an English teacher that I admired, and so I intended to be a teacher.
During my first couple weeks at college, I interviewed to be a part of a campus club called “Best Buddies,” which paired college students up with individuals in the community who had developmental disabilities.
While interviewing for the club, I casually asked the upperclassman interviewing me what major she was pursuing; she said it was social work. I had to ask what that was, and she very briefly described it as “helping people.” And so I switched my major.
I didn’t even know (much) about what foster care was when I finished college. As a young college graduate, I was committed to the idea of working to serve homeless individuals. Instead of finding work right away, I went to Rochester, New York and enrolled in a master of social work program.
My MSW internship took place after my coursework was completed, and I was placed at a Salvation Army residential drug rehab for teens in Costa Rica. I learned about drug rehabilitation, and also learned some Spanish. Then, my wife and I moved out to Los Angeles so she could attend Fuller Seminary’s school of psychology.
I pursued my desire of serving the homeless community by interviewing for positions on or near Skid Row, but ended up getting hired at (get this…) a residential drug rehab for teens (who nearly all spoke Spanish). I am still amazed at how providentially my graduate internship prepared me for my unexpected first professional position.
I didn’t know much about adoption as a young professional. I left the rehab because I wanted to work for an agency with faith-based roots, and found Koinonia Family Services through a job posting board on the site for the North American Association of Christians in Social Work.
I’ve been there since 2006, with the exception of one sabbatical year in which I started Adoption at the Movies. At Koinonia, I’ve been a foster care social worker, an adoption social worker, an interim administrator and a clinical supervisor.
I’ve been able to journey with hundreds of children as they’ve reunified with their families of origin, and I’ve been able to journey with hundreds more who were finally able to find a permanent home. I’ve met resilient kids and servant-hearted people along the way, and I tried to make adoption a healthier experience by writing a training segment on openness in adoption.
I thought I knew a lot about adoption when I left Koinonia in 2012, but I soon realized that there was a wide range that I didn’t know. We moved to Missouri for my wife’s doctoral internship, and I intended to write a book about the intersection of adoption and film.
I learned pretty quickly that starting a website was an important first step in creating a non-fiction book, and so Adoption at the Movies met the world as a website rather than a book; this was another unexpected twist of my path, for which I am so grateful.
By becoming engaged in the online adoption community, I met and interacted with open-minded folks with a range of connections to adoption. Adult adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents all were approachable, and by reading their websites and corresponding with them, I realized that my knowledge of adoption was basically limited to foster care adoption, and my perspective was limited to the professional role I had filled in each case.
Through my online friends, I began to explore, read, and learn more about the experience of adoption from multiple people in multiple types of adoption, in multiple countries, and in different decades. I have gained so much from the folks who have graciously shared their life stories online.
When I review films on Adoption at the Movies, I try to be mindful of the range of experiences and sensitivities that kids and adults might have. I praise films that are respectful to first families, and challenge films that portray unhelpfully oversimplified or caricaturized versions of adoption.
I encourage adoptive families to use each newly-released mainstream film as a way to invite their children to openly and healthily express their thoughts, feelings, and questions about adoption. A couple years after Adoption at the Movies started as a website, I had decided in my heart to accept that I would not write a book, but to be joyful that I was able to provide a website that helps families touched by adoption move towards healthier conversations about adoption.
I didn’t know much about what would happen next. After a year in Missouri, my wife and I moved back to California. I was rehired at Koinonia as a supervising social worker and clinical supervisor for a staff of dedicated, talented social workers.
Instead of going out to foster homes or writing home studies, I have been able to follow at a distance the stories of many more families, and I’ve had the great privilege of watching social workers develop into confident, excellent, conscientious practitioners. I infuse my practice with what I’ve learned from the online adoption community – empathy for the child, the value of the birth family, and the importance of openness.
I didn’t know much about how adoption was portrayed in movies when I started writing. I knew that some movies had direct, overt adoption connections, but I didn’t grasp the scope of how many films included issues that are relevant to adoptive families; parental loss and questions of identity seem almost omnipresent in the recent batch of superhero movies and Disney films.
Before I started writing, I envisioned pointing out some movies that families could use as touchpoints for conversations about adoption. Over time, I learned that films often have scenes or dialogue that serve as triggers for people touched by adoption. Sometimes this happens in films that have been insensitive or careless with their portrayal of adoption or adopted characters; other times, a film is thoughtful but the scenes are still traumatic for some viewers.
I’ve realized that often, but not usually, parental loss is used as a lazy storytelling device for why a youth must go through some challenging, growing experiences. At the same time, I’ve been impressed at many films that do a pretty good job of capturing some of the emotional complexity involved in adoption or foster care. Martian Child, Despicable Me 2, Lion, and Kung Fu Panda 3 are among many films that have captured a beautifully polychromatic picture of the bitter and sweet and happy and sad experiences of adoption.
A couple years ago, I was at an adoption conference and met a representative of Jessica Kingsley Publishers. This meeting led to an offer to publish the book that I had hoped to publish years before. I didn’t know much about writing a book when I signed the contract.
It took about a year, and a couple hundred hours of re-watching movies, writing, and revising, but Adoption at the Movies — the book — was published in January 2017, and debuted as the #1 selling new release film guide on Amazon.
I don’t know much about the future. I feel committed to the foster care and adoption community, and I want my impact to be a positive one. I believe each person has value, and that adoption and foster care have unique aspects that need to be navigated with intentionality and care.
As a direct-service worker, I was honored to travel along with families as they navigated these roads. Now, I hope to be one of the voices that shapes the culture to be more understanding of the uniquenesses of adoption, to equip social workers as they help adoptive and foster families serve their kids with understanding, and to help adoptive families have healthy conversations with their kids about adoption.
Addison Cooper is a husband, social worker and the author of Adoption At The Movies.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter.