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Thursday, March 21, 2013

‘Once Upon a Time’ Foster Care and Adoption Were Horrible

An Accompaniment to My Tension Filled Relationship with 'Once Upon a Time'



No doubt about it, ‘Once Upon a Time’ portrays both adoption and foster care in a very negative light.

Much of the show's tension is derived from the triangle of Henry, his biological mother (Emma) and his adoptive mother (Regina). Regina is portrayed as evil throughout most of the first season, and regardless of whether she is or not, the worst thing is that she—and the viewers—are constantly reminded that she is not Henry's "real mother".

Regina is the only character who points out that she chose to adopt Henry, and continued to look after him during sickness and growing pains. She loves him as her child because he is her child, biology be damned. No other character seems to understand her perspective. Even Henry’s therapist neglects to recognize that Regina is an as important (if not a more important) part of Henry’s life than his biological mother who has suddenly reappeared.

In fact, the most "helpful" thing the therapist does is threaten Regina. He tells her that if she doesn't treat Henry the way that he sees fit then he'll side with Emma if there's ever a custody case. This is completely ridiculous because presumably Emma signed away her custodial rights and Regina is legally his mother. The whole point of adoption paperwork is that it provides stability for the child, and security for both the adoptive and birth parents. You can't just swoop in ten years after an adoption has been finalized and declare that you're taking back custody of the child.

Henry is torn between his biological and adoptive mothers
Despite this, Regina does see Emma as a threat. Instead of recognizing that it’s understandable that Henry might be interested in his biological mother, she declares that Emma chose to throw Henry away and that she is a bad person. While it might be helpful (particularly for Henry) for Regina to support Emma’s statement that she did what was best for Henry because she couldn’t look after him properly, Regina immediately goes on the defensive. Emma quickly fights back. Of course, the show is right…it’s highly unlikely that the two women would immediately come to terms with each other, particularly since this was a closed adoption and there has been no contact in the last ten years. In fact, although it is portrayed as an "evil" thing to do, and I assume we are supposed to side with Emma, Regina is within her full legal rights to refuse Emma access to Henry. This is perhaps the only “good” aspect of the portrayal of adoption on the show insofar as it is more realistic than the sugarcoated version of adoption that is sometimes portrayed in mainstream media.

The foster care system is also portrayed negatively. Emma grew up in the foster care system and repeatedly references the bad experiences she had. She even states that the families only do it for the money. While I recognize that the writers can say this was her character's experience, it still made me feel bad for the thousands of American families who welcome foster children into their homes and honestly do the best they can to look after those children.

In “The Stranger” (S1Ep20) we see a brief interaction between a foster father and Pinocchio; he is yelling at the child and doesn’t seem to care that he is scaring the boy. Pinocchio is clearly in some sort of a group home since we see him in a bedroom filled with beds and a crib. The crib contains the sleeping Emma; forget the fact that even twenty-eight years ago group homes were rare. Forget about the fact that a newborn infant would almost never have been sent to a group home. Forget about the fact that it’s highly unlikely that a group of little boys would successfully run away from a foster home and no one would go looking for them. Oh I’m sorry, it’s kind of hard to forget all of that, isn’t it?

“The Stranger” isn’t the only episode of ‘Once Upon a Time’ that portrays the foster system in a negative light. One of the worst episodes of the show focuses on Emma trying to "save" two children from being placed in foster care (S1Ep9, "True North"). When Emma discovers a pair of nine-year-old twins who have been living alone since their mother died she decides to intervene. Emma refuses to listen to Regina and call social services (remind me again why Regina—the “evil” one—always seems to be on the right side of the adoption/foster care debate?).

Emma is anti-foster care because of her own bad experiences within the system. She was bounced around from home to home (largely, by the sound of it, group homes) until she was eighteen. She then turned to a life of petty crime. While this is not unheard of, it frustrates me that the show focuses so exclusively on the negative aspects of foster care.

When Mary-Margaret points out that not all foster care experiences are that bad, Emma merely scoffs and says that hers was. Because one experience so clearly makes the sum of the whole. Emma then goes so far as to explain that foster parents only see the children as meal tickets and an easy payday. Great ‘Once Upon a Time’, let’s perpetuate that and forget about the thousands of families trying to genuinely help the 400,000+ children in foster care in the United States.

The most frustrating aspect of this conversation isn’t what Emma says—because it’s easy to believe that her own bad experience has colored her worldview—but rather that Mary-Margaret so quickly acquiesces.

As the episode continues it’s evident that Emma will do whatever it takes to keep the children out of foster care. She believes that foisting the children on their uninterested father is a better idea. He’s a mechanic who probably doesn’t make a great deal of money, was completely unaware that he had nine-year-old twins (because their mother never told him…hmm, I wonder why?), and repeatedly tells Emma he does not want the responsibility. Luckily Emma forces him to feel guilty about his decision, because the children are so clearly better off with him then a trained foster family [sarcasm implied].  

Emma tells the children’s biological father that if he doesn’t take the children home then they will definitely be split up (something which social workers actually try to avoid at all costs) and sent to separate group homes. Bizarrely, it's implied that Emma herself spent most of her childhood in a group home. Since approximately 15% of all foster children live in group homes, and many of these are therapeutic homes for children with special needs, it seems highly unlikely that all three of them would end up in group homes.

On a separate note, it's also ridiculous that the children are being taken from their hometown in Maine to a group home in Boston. I can only assume that the writers of 'Once Upon a Time' were confused about what state Boston is located in, since foster children rarely (if ever) cross state lines.

I am not complaining about the writers’ decision to give Emma a back-story that involves foster care. I am not complaining about the fact that she had a negative experience. There are many children who have bad foster families or bad experiences in the system in general. There are children who are failed by the system. Emma was one of them and it was an understandable choice by the writers in so far as it helps explain her character’s motivation. But to repeatedly portray foster care and adoption in a negative light is not a necessary part of the plot. Someone viewing ‘Once Upon a Time’ who is uneducated about foster care and adoption could easily take its lessons to heart: biological parents are the only “real parents” and foster care is the worst place for a child to be.

We need foster care in the United States because for some children it is not the worst place they could be. For children who are neglected and abused in their homes by their biological parents foster care isn’t a necessary evil, it’s a lifeline. And while many of these children are hoping for reunification with their biological families, thousands are waiting for an adoptive family to come forward. Perpetuating the myth that biology is stronger than love isn’t just a frustration for the millions of viewers of ‘Once Upon a Time’ who are involved in the foster care and adoption communities, it could actually negatively impact the chances that foster children have of being adopted.

If you’re interested in learning more about adopting children from foster care check out: www.adoptuskids.com

2 comments:

  1. It seems lately I am constantly seeing plots and things like this. It is really awful the way this is being handled.

    One, Emma is not exactly a knight in shining armor herself, she's done more then her own fair share of bad stuff. I also can't believe that no one in the town is pointing out that, regardless of anyone's desire, Regina is and always will be Henry's 'real' mother, Emma is the intruder here, she gave him up out of her own desire, he is Regina's child. He is not being abused or mistreated but instead has constantly displayed behavior you would only see in a well treated child secure in his safety and place at home.

    I'm sorry, but I am more and more seeing Emma as bad and Regina as the one good one who's been used and manipulated. Shame on ABC

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  2. Cayln, I think I see your point. But what if ABC is really pointing that out? What if ABC is revealing the hidden message and past life of Emma Swan? I mean Emma Swan is the birth mother of Henry but as put through a "closed" adoption on her own desire, there shouldn't be any connection between the child and the mother. Regina is officially Henry's mother. So all in all, although Regina has been a bad person in another world, she is a different person in this world and she is being manipulated and used.

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