Adoption appropriation is rearing it’s ugly head again— but what does this mean, and why is it a problem? In short, appropriating adoption means falsely claiming adoption for some personal benefit.

The problem is that such deception always runs counter to the actual best interests of any adoptee. The concept of adoption appropriation may seem new, but it’s not.

Still: who would even fake an adoption claim, and why?

Tales as Old as Time

In 1935, Hollywood star Loretta Young became pregnant out of wedlock. The baby’s father was Clark Gable, and illegitimate pregnancy would’ve been a career-ending scandal for them both. So Young hid her pregnancy. She gave birth in secret, and then raised her bio-daughter as an adoptee.

A similar scandal happened to New York news anchor Jodi Applegate, who was raised as an adoptee, only to learn as an adult after her “adoptive” mother’s death that she’d been raised by her bio-mom, all along. A relative finally broke the news, leaving Applegate to grieve her mother’s death and ponder her dishonesty all at the same tumultuous time. 

One might assume that with the increased numbers of unwed, single mothers in American society, false adoption claims would have decreased. Sadly, though, that is not necessarily the case,

Numerous mothers have claimed to have arranged adoptions after their babies or toddlers have inexplicably gone missing. Two baby boys have disappeared in San Antonio since 2009, in cases in which their mothers insisted they’d placed them for adoption: James Chairez, age one, was found dead in 2021, while the other, nine-month-old Gabriel Johnson, has been missing for fourteen years.

Claiming a child was adopted when they weren’t is a prime example of an adult using adoption to protect their own interests or enhance their own identity.  Whether this sin is committed by those claiming to be birthparents or adopters, they’re effectively using a child as a human shield, which is always wrong.

An Ethical Blindspot

The concept got widespread press early in 2023. That was when football player Michael Oher publicly disputed that he was ever actually adopted. The Tuohy family was made famous by the movie “Blind Side” (which arguably portrayed white saviorism at its finest.) Yet they eventually had to admit they never actually adopted Oher. They only took guardianship. Why? Because it gave them a fiduciary interest in his contract negotiations.

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson claimed as a newlywed to have adopted a black teenager. In October 2023, however. he had to explain why this “son” was pictured not in family photos? As it turns out, he and his wife never actually adopted the young man they reportedly mentored. 

Sociologists have a term for this: “fictive kin” (arguably, the flesh and blood family version of imaginary friends.) It begs the question, though: why do people claim to have “adopted” those they never did?  For financial gain? For political benefit? For ego gratification? The Tuohys and Johnsons each claimed the boy’s age and the complexity of the adoption process was behind their reasons for having never formally adopted, but that hardly rings true? A more plausible explanation is that pretend-adopters usually have/had something to hide, whether big or small. 

English preschooler Susan Preece-Gervaise was four years old in 1969 when she was stolen by an Australian couple who raised her believing she’d been legally adopted. (She hadn’t, and learned the truth only at the age of sixteen. Neither of her captors were ever charged.) Gervaise eventually reunited with her biological siblings at the age of 57. (Sadly, her real mother had died without ever knowing what had become of her child.)

Adult motives should never form the basis for anyone’s adoption– nor someone’s failure to get adopted. 

Adoption Appropriation as Identity Theft?

Scottish-American bassist Lindsey Ann Way (wife of My Chemical Romance rocker Gerard Way) created a social media dust-up in 2012 when she claimed to be an adoptee and posted a photo she claimed was her birthmom with her in the hospital after birth. (It wasn’t.) As one blogger succinctly wrote, when the ruse when discovered:

Adoption is NOT something to be taken lightly or to lie about. It is a long and drawn out process involving vetting, paperwork and a life-long commitment. For Lindsey to use it as something to make her seem interesting or to shun her family is disgusting. To sum it up, Lindsey lied about being adopted.

More recently, Oscar-winning musician Buffy Sainte-Marie is fighting allegations that she was not born Indigenous and was never adopted by the white Massachusetts family who birthed and raised her. Freelance writer Robert Jago helped break the story. He explained that being ceremonially adopted by a Cree family as an adult couldn’t grant Italian-born Sainte-Marie First Nation citizenship as an Indigenous Person. He referred to the problem of “pretendians.

That’s a pejorative colloquialism for those who fake Indigenous identity. The adoption community surely needs a similar way to label those who misappropriate adoption roles as a form of identity theft. Adoption appropriation is an act of counterfeiting the life experience of others, after all.

Here’s the deal…

You haven’t “placed a child for adoption” if you never faced the agony of signing legal relinquishment forms to make the surrender of your child to another home binding. Likewise, you never “adopted a child” if you didn’t undergo a homestudy, never signed placement documents, and were never granted an adoption decree in a court of law. And you aren’t an “adoptee” if a judge never issued a formal adoption ruling based on decisions made in your best interests (or what the judge perceived those to be, at that point in time.)

There are those who have lost children to adoption involuntarily. There are folks who foster or mentor other people’s kids and make a valuable impact by doing so. And there are many kids who benefit from having been nurtured or “taken in” by others who cared for them in a way or time their own families could not. Their life experiences are not meaningless, certainly. Yet theirs are not stories of adoption. 

Words matter. Truth matters. To make false adoption claims highjacks the sacred journeys of those who have placed, who have adopted, who have been adopted. 

Adoption appropriation cheapens what are intricate and complex life experiences. Te adoption community has a duty to call it out and put stop it, whenever and however it occurs. 



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