Love at First Byte: Film Director Captures Harrowing Online Adoption Story

A Brief Note from the Author (6/12/16): I was very much looking forward to publishing my first story on The Chronicle of Social Change and happy to share this story with those who were involved.

However, I now publish this story with a heavy heart.

Yesterday, I was contacted by Amy Meador, director of the  film, with some tragic news. I was told that Michael (pictured below), the inspiration for the film, had been killed in a car accident the night before.

I was shocked. I had never met Michael but a sudden sadness had overtaken me for the loss that his new loving family would be experiencing. He was only 19 years old with so much more life to live, despite the fact that he had already experienced more life than most. I didn’t know what to say or how to respond other than I was sorry and that out of respect I would hold off on publishing Michael’s story.

This was, however, not the wishes of Michael’s family. With that, I would like to publish this story in honor of Michael and his life. His life was an inspiration for Amy’s movie, this story and much more. For Amy, he inspired her to look deeper into the failures of the foster care system and turn it into a film.

For me, Michael’s story inspired me with his courage and strength to endure despite the many challenges he faced along his journey. This propelled me to look deeper as well into a foster care system that desperately needs reforms to protect children like him.

Thank you, Michael. You will not be forgotten. Your memory will live on forever to inspire and to create positive change in the foster care system that it deserves.

After experiencing numerous tumultuous years in the foster care system, Michael stared proudly into director Amy Meador’s rolling camera as he proclaimed that he went “From zero to family.”

Author, actor, and now director Meador was moved by the experience of her childhood friend, Rachel Dueker, who, along with her spouse, Tyson, became a foster parent to Michael. Dueker’s story led Meador to make her first documentary film, Kindred. The film focuses on the struggles children and youth face in the foster care system around the United States, such as misinformed foster placements, discrimination based on sexuality, and the over-use of psychotropic drugs to calm “non-compliant” foster youth.

Michael, a former foster youth whose story is told in the documentary film, Kindred. Photo: Tyson VanWoert

When Dueker first found Michael through an online photo gallery and read his bio, she knew immediately that he was her son-to-be. Michael, then 15 years old, had been born in Lebanon, Oregon, to a mother who struggled with meth addiction and turned to prostitution as a means to her addiction.

“Then it got worse,” Meador said. Michael was sexually abused at his home. Later, when Michael was 8, he experienced a “drug related incident” around his biological mother and the police removed him and placed him under the supervision of his birth father in North Dakota. Michael’s father already had two kids with his new wife. All were forced to work on the farm where they lived, keeping them from attending school, and improving their lives.

There, Michael was subjected to serious abuse. His father would “beat the kids horribly and did drugs.” According to Michael, on one occasion he was almost run down by a car and then nearly strangled to death. After two turbulent years, Michael was removed from his father’s home after his father was arrested on a gun charge.

Without family to take him in Michael moved from home to home, not lasting long in each placement.

“As soon as the caregivers realized he was gay he was ostracized and kicked out,” Meador explained.

Michael became angry, disillusioned and non-compliant, but never violent. Michael was placed in a psychiatric hospital and treated him with psychotropic drugs – some of which are known to contribute to adolescent suicide.

“He was put on drugs whether he needed them or not,” Meador said. “The system is not equipped for trauma and abuse. They turned him into a zombie induced by psychotropic drugs and anti-depressants with no therapy.”

Michael then bounced back and forth between group homes and the psychiatric hospital. Michael was actively suicidal. To him it seemed the only way anybody listened was when he threatened to hurt himself.

Michael’s new family. Photo: Tyson VanWoert.

Rachel and her spouse, Tyson, heeded Michael’s calls in their struggle to adopt him despite the odds being against them. To begin with, this was an out-of-state adoption with Michael’s father in jail and mother nowhere to be found.

“It took a while to locate them,” Meador said. Once found, the father contested the adoption from proceeding. Moreover, Deuker and her partner are gay. “Being gay didn’t help. They were scrutinized doubly because they were gay,” Meador said. They were also unmarried. Despite these hurdles the determined pair pushed through.

In early 2015, after two years, Michael was successfully adopted by Deuker’s spouse with the help of organizations such as Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and A Family For Every Child. A Family For Every Child Heart Gallery is an online photo gallery and platform for children who are waiting to be matched with prospective adoptive families. Since the organization was founded, “more than 500 foster children have been featured in Heart Galleries, and more than 250 have found their forever families” according to its website. Michael is one of those who has found his forever family thanks to his new loving parents and an online platform that made the connection possible.

Lessons Learned

Meador took some important lessons away from the filmmaking process.

“The children in foster care are not to blame,” she said. “What’s needed is growth and awareness. People presume something is wrong if they are still in foster care. They did nothing wrong to end up there.

“What we are trying to do with Kindred is to give people options and venues to get involved. Not just screaming ‘fire’ but give people a fire extinguisher; to provide solutions for more viewers to get involved on a local level,” Meador said. “Not everyone is able to adopt a child, but there are a million ways anyone can get involved.”

Getting Involved

Currently the film is in the early stages of post-production. Even though the film has already been storyboarded, “We are having a hard time paying an editor,” Meador said. “We are actively seeking editors as well anybody who wishes to support us.”

Using an IndieGoGo campaign the film raised about $11,000. After IndieGoGo fees, the film took in about $9,000.

This was enough to pay for equipment and travel but not for editing. Once the film is edited Meador hopes to submit it to the festival circuit and solicit independent distribution platforms such as Netflix, PBS or straight to video or online.

Correction: Michael was 19 when he passed away, not 18. His family requested that we clarify some details about his history, including his place of birth and reason for removal from his birth mother’s home. 

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Bryan Curiel
About Bryan Curiel 2 Articles
Bryan is a graduate of Occidental College with a degree in Film and Media Studies and German. Trilingual, a musician, and a filmmaker.