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How much to tell? by Catherine Winter


American RadioWorks Producer Catherine Winter interviews Shannon and Eric just after they adopted Amanda. - Photo by Stephen Smith

I liked Chris and Amanda from the moment I met them. They're smart, personable kids, and they're both very funny. Their obvious affection for each other is touching. When we met them, they weren't living in the same house, but they had lunch together at school every day.

They wanted to tell their story, and we wanted to help them do it. But we also wanted to make sure that the story we told was true, and that led to repeated rounds of journalistic soul-searching with my co-producer, Ellen Guettler, and our editor, Mary Beth Kirchner.

Documentary journalism always involves balancing the needs of sources with the needs of listeners or readers. These needs conflict. We want to protect sources' dignity and privacy as much as possible, but we also want to tell listeners and readers a whole, true story.

This balance becomes particularly tricky when the sources of your story are kids.

News people regularly choose not to disclose information about kids. Most news organizations, including mine, have a policy that we won't release the names of juveniles who commit crimes except under extraordinary circumstances. I think the idea is that, as a society, we're hoping kids can get their acts together and go on to be okay, so we don't want to burden them with a record that follows them around forever.

But in this documentary, we told some stories about unpleasant and even illegal things Chris and Amanda had done. We did this in consultation with their guardians, and with Chris and Amanda themselves. We didn't disclose everything we knew. But we did tell about Amanda's past struggles with stealing. And we did tell how Chris smashed the window of his foster brother's car.

We also had to balance our desire to document key moments in their lives with their need to have some peace and privacy. There were events we missed because our presence would have been too intrusive. The day Amanda first met the family that wanted to adopt her, she didn't want us there with our big microphone.

But overall, the kids and their families were amazingly open to having us around. Chris and his new family all agreed to let us record their first meeting. Both kids also allowed us to sit in on meetings with their "treatment team" - their social workers and therapists and foster parents - where intimate details of their lives were discussed.

Again, we decided not to broadcast some of the things we learned about the abuse and neglect the kids went through. But we did include some information that we know is painful to them. We asked them to tell the story of being abandoned by their mother. We asked Amanda to tell us about the woman who agreed to adopt her and then backed out. Tears poured down her face as she told this story. We put it in the documentary.

We believed these details were crucial. Without them, the picture of teen adoption is too rosy, like a heart-warming children's book. The reality of teen adoption is that it's hard. A kid without a family is a kid who's been through something very bad. Forming a new family is hard for the kids and for the families that take them in.

I wanted to make clear what the kids and the people who adopt them are up against, because once listeners and readers know that, I think it's impossible not to be struck by their courage. I was moved by Chris and Amanda's bravery in trusting someone to love them after what they'd been through. And I was awed by the courage and faith of the family that offered to take them - sight unseen - knowing that these kids have not always been easy to live with.

In the end, I think the difficult details about their lives allowed us to tell an enormously important story. I think it's a story of human resilience. Chris and Amanda show us that people can come back from devastating betrayals and still love and trust other people. People can have their lives shattered and still go on to live with humor and optimism and even a measure of joy.

I think that's a story worth telling. I'm grateful to Chris and Amanda and to their foster families, their social workers, and their adoptive family for helping us to tell it.

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