Documentary: The unclear family secret

We Are Family C5 Modern Times BBC2 Witness C4
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The Independent Culture
It seems that we are more concerned today with how people come by their children than how they raise them. Perhaps as a result of our reluctance to tackle the latter, we seem to be re-examining our ideas about conception and adoption, and looking for trouble. Channel 5's We Are Family series tonight takes a fairly tame look at sperm donation in "Secret Dads". It sets out to make the case that children born thanks to donor insemination should have the right to know who the donor is. It is not clear why. One boy wants to know who his biological father is so he will know who to support in the World Cup. It does not seem the best reason to violate the agreement of anonymity under which the donor collected his pounds 15.

Modern Times (Tuesday BBC2) examined the issue of homosexuals raising children in "Pink Parents", although again there was a preoccupation with how they were conceived. Another sperm donor was pressed into service to impregnate lesbian couple Brenda and Buzz, in order to provide their daughter Molly with a sibling. He got pounds 20 a time. Brenda and Buzz were unconcerned about his identity, although they made a point of getting the same one both times. Neither were they worried by the absence of a father. "We don't live on Planet Lesbian", says Brenda, "that means Molly meets boys and men. She sees men in cars".

Lesbians Hazel and Flis also used artificial insemination for their two kids, but the sperm came from a gay man who played an active role as the children's father. This method obviously won't work for everyone - at two lesbian mums per gay dad, you'd soon run out of lesbians - but in practice it seems a very minor variation on the nuclear family. Dad comes from work, bathes the kids and puts them to bed, and then goes home. Even homosexuals, it seems, are made conservative by parenthood. This was nevertheless a programme which seemed to expect me to take issue with it, and was always trying to head me off at the pass. The children were uniformly adorable and well-adjusted, the parents competent, loving and dedicated. I haven't the least objections to lesbians raising children, but I do resent them making it look easy.

It is hard to imagine a more desperate day out than "The Picnic" (Witness, C4, Monday), an annual outdoor audition for Mississippi children seeking to be adopted, where 45 kids of varying ages (mostly older) and backgrounds (mostly troubled) are dressed in bright yellow t-shirts and made to mingle with prospective parents over hot dogs. It is also hard to imagine an alternative. The children's case histories would scare off most potential parents, but it is hoped that a chance to meet the children in an informal atmosphere will melt their hearts before they can shrink from the daunting challenge.

If the aggressive match-making from Sylvia, the head of the adoption programme, and the sometimes grotesque cattle-market atmosphere of the picnic itself were off-putting, they did seem justified by the event's success. Geoffrey, a troubled nine year old, was singled out by a couple who had seen his picture. If they seemed naive and wholly unprepared for the task ahead of them, their commitment only seems strengthened by the initial shock. Lacy, a self-contained 14 year old who has had to leave her foster home of five years to go back into "the system", was spotted at the picnic and given a home, and with it a chance to achieve a semblance of stability. Shedrick desperately wanted to stay with his foster family, who had decided they could not adopt him. After seeing the interest he drew at the picnic, they changed their minds. You could see this last one coming, but it was no less gratifying for that.

The power of Joanna Head's film lay in her ability to see past the blasted picaresque of Mississippi life. A less thoughtful film-maker might have asked us only to marvel at the strangeness of the place, with its double- wide trailer homes, dodgy haircuts and terrible country music. Behind the backwoods accents, the bug-eyed optimism, the in-your-face Christianity, and the alarming realisation that Geoffrey would soon be taught how to shoot by his new Dad, were people who brought enormous dedication to the difficult task of raising the children no one else wanted. We also glimpsed in Sylvia, for all her estate-agent bonhomie, an adoption service with a surprisingly pro-active attitude. We don't know how things will turn out, but after the heart-rending day at the Picnic, even a modestly happy ending would have done.