How True to the Foster Care & Adoption Experience is the New “Annie”?

AnnieLittle Orphan Annie, the spunky girl with the can-do spirit, has been part of American entertainment since the 1920s. Now audiences can experience a new spin on this rags-to-riches story – and its complex themes of race, class and culture – with the recent release of the new “Annie” movie. What can we learn from the movie about how our culture views adoption in the 21st century?
1. Having Annie’s eventual adoptive dad represented as a person of color is an aspirational and hopeful message – although still far from the norm.  
The new “Annie” is no longer an orphan, she is a foster kid.  While no one wants to see any children experiencing the child welfare system or foster care, it is an unfortunate reality for many. A 2008 Donaldson Adoption Institute report “Finding Families for African American Children: The Role of Race & Law in Adoption from Foster Care” (over 100,000 downloads since it launched), finds that African American children who come into contact with the child welfare system are disproportionately represented in foster care, and are less likely than children of other racial and ethnic groups to move to permanency in a timely way. The National Survey of Adoptive Parents conducted in 2007 found that 63 percent of children adopted from foster care have white parents, as do 71 percent of children adopted within the United States, and 92 percent of children adopted internationally.

The report did find that a substantial portion of adopted children have black parents, including 27 percent of children adopted from foster care and 19 percent of those adopted privately within the United States. The modern day version of “Annie” includes a more diverse group of players (“Annie” is played by Quvenzhane Wallis and the “Daddy Warbucks” character now known as “Mr. Sparks” is played by Jamie Foxx). While children of color do indeed get adopted by adults of color, it is not the norm.

2. Annie’s quest to find answers and a connection to her biological family is all too familiar to those within the foster care and adoption community.
In both feature films (the 1982 and 2014 versions) as well as in the musical, Annie is on a mission to find a connection to the family that she has been separated from. Her authentic longing for answers and a reunion with her biological parents comes to life in the poignant song lyrics of “Maybe” where she fantasizes about her parents: “Betcha they’re good, why shouldn’t they be? Their one mistake was giving up me!”

Today, with fierce advocacy and activism, states are opening birth records and there is a movement towards more openness in adoption, which can ultimately benefit all members of the adoption community. A DAI report, “Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Openness,” found that the primary benefit of openness is access by adopted persons – as children and continuing later in life – to birth relatives, as well as to their own medical, genealogical and family histories. Adolescents with ongoing contact are more satisfied with the level of openness in their own adoptions than are those without such contact, and they identify the following benefits: coming to terms with the reasons for their adoption, physical touchstones to identify where personal traits came from, information that aids in identity formation, and positive feelings toward their birthmother.  Ultimately, everyone benefits from more openness and ethics in adoption.

3. Annie’s first/birth parents remain a mystery.
One thing is certain: Annie is deeply curious about her beginnings and committed to the dream of one day being reunited with her parents. We see Annie as she hangs on to tiny bits of her narrative and holds out hope for a reunion with her biological parents. What we don’t see are her actual parents. A couple pretending to be her parents surfaces to claim a payoff, but soon their motives are revealed, and Annie and the audience are left without answers.

In the movies and in real life, first/birth parents are often invisible or misrepresented. Advocacy and activism from first/birth parents and the wider adoption community — as well as more openness during the foster care and adoption process — are gradually lifting the secrecy, shame and stigma that have surrounded adoption for far too long. Resources like The Lynn Franklin Fund enable DAI to further its mission with a focus on positively impacting the lives of existing and future first/birth parents, as well as expectant parents who are considering their options.

4. In the end Annie gets adopted. How can we make sure there are more happy endings for youth in foster care?
While we are left to wonder if Annie ever connects with her biological family, in the final scene of the movie we see she and Mr. Sparks singing, “Together at last…nothing on earth will ever divide us.” This makes for a beautiful Hollywood happy ending, and while adoptions from foster care don’t usually end with a big musical number, many are indeed happy endings. Sometimes the happiest ending means reunification with the biological family.

Whether a family is reunited or an adoption is finalized, the key to happy endings for youth in foster care begin with sound laws, policies and best practices that are carried out by professionals that have resources to train and prepare parents. For many years, DAI’s national “Keeping the Promise” initiative has provided extensive examination of what post-adoption services states are providing, who is eligible to receive them and how they are being funded. This is just one piece of the puzzle in helping to move adoption and foster care from transaction to transformation.

Foster care and adoption narratives make for compelling Hollywood scripts, but the reality of the experience is often very different from the fantasy portrayed on the big screen. The new “Annie” offers us all an opportunity to take a look at how we can narrow that gap — and tackle the real-world obstacles standing in the way of real-world happy endings.