It is hard not to admire Noel Anaya. The 22-year-old narrator of the short documentary film Unadopted, which was released last week on YouTube, aged out of the foster-care system in California a few years ago. So many of the young adults who are not reunited with their biological parents and are never adopted into a new family have been destroyed by the experience. Of the 22,000 young adults who age out of foster care each year, a fifth will become homeless, only half will be gainfully employed by the age of 24, and less than 3 percent will earn a college degree.
Anaya, who decides to go read all of the court records to reconstruct his childhood, notes that “there are holes” in his family tree. “Lots of them.” He asks: “If you don’t have parents, how do you find out how you grew up?”
Every so often films like Unadopted are released. Last year HBO offered one called Foster. Earlier this year there was a Netflix series called “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.” These programs tug at our heartstrings with the tragic details of the child-welfare system they present. But if you watch closely, you see that they also reveal important policy errors in the system and that they give the public a window into just how things have gone so wrong.
Anaya, for instance, learns that he was taken into foster care at the age of one as a result of domestic violence, separated from his brother and sister. At one point Anaya’s biological father got into a fight with his mother and held a gun to his child’s head as leverage. He spent most of his childhood with one foster family, people he still keeps in touch with, but they would never adopt him. In what may be the most heartbreaking scene in the movie, Anaya describes how he learned at the same time both that this family was not his flesh and blood and that they had no interest in welcoming him into their home permanently.
If there is some explanation for this, Anaya does not share it. One possibility is that they would not have been compensated at the same rate if they adopted him. Many states, including California, now have policies that equalize payments to foster families and families that adopt out of foster care. The truth is that money motivates a surprisingly large number of foster families.
Regardless of the reason, it is distressing to realize that a foster family that had no intention of adopting Anaya were permitted to keep him for long as they did. Especially for children who are placed in the system at a young age, the idea should be that they find a potentially permanent placement as soon as possible. Once Anaya’s parental rights were terminated, leaving him in this endless state of limbo was unconscionable.
Many judges and child-welfare workers assume that everything is basically fine if a child is in a long-term foster home, and they worry about more-urgent matters. But for a child, the knowledge that it is not permanent will continue to haunt them. Anna Palmer, an adoptive mother I interviewed outside New Orleans, described to me how her son’s final adoption hearing kept getting put off.
The boy’s attorney told her, “It’s no big deal. He’s with you all. He’s fine. He’s safe.” And Palmer explained, “No, he’s five years old, and he’s known nothing for the last two years but bouncing from home to home, and he thinks he’s gonna move at any time. And we can’t tell him he’s gonna be here forever until we know he’s gonna be here forever.” Children know the difference between forever and not forever, but our system doesn’t seem concerned with that.
Anaya has also reconnected with his biological mother in recent years. At the end of the film, through a translator she describes how Anaya and his siblings were taken away. Tearfully she explained that she did everything the caseworker told her that she had to do to regain custody of her children, but it didn’t work. She describes attending a year of parenting classes and bringing the social worker a certificate showing her completion of the course.
If anything demonstrates the kabuki-like nature of our child-welfare system, it is this anecdote. Whenever we substantiate a report that a child has been abused or neglected, the first reaction is to offer parents “services.” Even though an astonishingly small percentage of these parenting classes or anger-management classes have been demonstrated to have any effect on families, we continue to prescribe them.
In this instance one wonders what Anaya’s mother was supposed to learn. Does the class teach that you are not supposed to let your husband hold a gun to your child’s head? I don’t mean to be flip, and surely there are remedies — probably legal ones — that would help this woman separate herself from this dangerous man. But parenting classes don’t really seem like the answer.5
Noel Anaya’s story is worth watching — his complaints about how he was treated are heart-wrenching. But one hopes Unadopted serves not only as a tragic drama but also as a call to arms.