In March 2019, YouTuber Machelle Hackney and her two adult sons were arrested on charges of abuse.
Hackney was the creator of “Fantastic Adventures,” a YouTube channel with comedy sketches featuring her seven adopted children. The channel had about 800,000 followers and 250 million views.
While onscreen children participated in a “cookie capture mission” and a “superpower baby battle,” what was purportedly happening behind the scenes was sinister. Police alleged that Hackney would physically beat the children if they forgot their scripted lines.
Other times, she would allegedly pepper spray the children or deny them access to the bathroom or food.
Since Hackney’s arrest, there’s been scrutiny from advocates for adopted and foster youth of content creators who post information and videos online of children they’ve adopted or fostered.
As concern over online privacy grows, adoptees and foster children are especially vulnerable. Already experiencing high rates of mental illness and trauma, this population is at greater risk of being used for social and monetary gain at the expense of their autonomy and wellbeing, advocates argue.
With few legal protections in place to protect children online, adoptees and former foster youth are taking action to promote online privacy for these children.
Foster family content surge
TikTok and YouTube accounts by foster and adoptive parents have gained popularity in the last few years.
The Dougherty Dozen, a family with 11 biological and adopted children, as well as children in kinship placement—the placement of a child in the care of a relative or family friend as opposed to someone unrelated—have 6.2 million TikTok followers with an additional 1.47 million subscribers on YouTube, where they post vlogs and “What My 11 Kids Ate Today” videos.
Accounts such as Just the Bells, a family with eight biological and adopted children, post similar content and have 2.8 million TikTok followers among recipe videos and TikTok sound trends are videos sharing adoption stories, as well as the disclosure of certain physical and developmental disabilities some children have.
Other internet personalities have used their platforms to share stories of a child’s open adoption, where the adoptee is given information about their birth family, or vlog the experience of picking up a foster baby or saying goodbye to a foster child leaving their care.
Experiences of young foster parents are sometimes associated with stories of infertility or pregnancy loss and the espousal of Christianity. Fitness influencer Brittany Dawn Nelson posts blurred photos of children she fosters for her Instagram following of over 560,000, sandwiched between beach photoshoots and images of Bible verses.
Content of foster and adopted youth stems from the love of viral positive stories on the internet, which spur interest in the multi-billion dollar adoption industry, according to Melissa Guida-Richards, a transracial adoptee and adoption educator.
“People are really drawn to seeing kids being saved. It’s like feel-good stories, those heartwarming things that have always been the clickbait-y part of adoption,” she told the Daily Dot. “It’s natural to want to celebrate and want joy…But I think adopted children have always been a little bit of a mystery to mainstream society.”
The trauma of adoption and foster care
Adoption advocates assert that foster youth and adoptees are often victims of trauma.
Some of this trauma may occur during the adoption process, such as if an adoption falls through or a child is rehomed, according to Marcella Moslow, an interracial adoptee and licensed clinical social worker and trauma therapist for foster and adopted youth. Trauma can also occur before a child enters the system or goes through the adoption process, such as through abuse or neglect, or preverbal trauma if the pregnant parent experiences stress during pregnancy.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children & Families cites that about 80% of foster children have “significant mental health issues,” compared to 18-20% of the general population. Children in foster care are also four times as likely to have considered suicide than their non-foster peers, according to Youth.gov
Race plays a part in it, too: Children of color adopted by white parents must navigate adoptive families lacking education about their identities and cultural touchpoints, such as hair care and hygiene, Guida-Richards said. The proportion of transracial adoptees in the United States has increased in recent years, 21 to 33% for Black adoptees in particular. Children of color being adopted by parents of a different race make up 90% of all transracial adoptions.
Because of the attachment challenges many foster and adopted youth experience, posting content of them online without consent—especially content that shows them in emotionally vulnerable positions—can be a breach of trust and compromise children’s feelings of safety around their caregiver, Moslow explained.
“A lot of the people that I work with that are part of this population, some of the core beliefs, including by not limited to, ‘I have no voice,’ or ‘I have no control; decisions are being made for me, and I don’t have a say in that,’” she told the Daily Dot.
Kid content makes money
Many content creators who post about their adopted and/or foster children also include them in brand deals, which can be another way children feel they are robbed of their agency.
According to the Center of Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, moms make up about 30% of influencing the multi-billion dollar industry.
Lifestyle content creator Deanna Giulietti, who has 1.6 million followers on TikTok and about 375,000 Instagram followers, made $500,000 through brand deals across the two platforms. Accounts like the Dougherty Dozen have brand deals with companies like Tile and Bing, where products are used in videos of children traveling or going back-to-school shopping.
Adoptee, advocate, and TikToker Kirsta Bowman argued that these brand deals are dangerous for foster and adopted children not only because information about them is oftentimes put on social media without their consent, but also because there are no laws ensuring that these children will receive a cut of the revenue from the deals and sponsorships.
When Bowman was a child, her adoptive mother ran an adoption business and shared Bowman’s adoption story with many of her clients in hopes of growing the business.
“She used my story for money. And I will always always hate that. It was about her and fulfilling the needs of adults…” Bowman said. “Adoption should be about the child.”
The social clout of being a foster parent
While monetary profit is an objective way to assess exploitation, more often, foster and adoptive parents gain social capital from posting stories about their children, warned Aleceeya, an adoptee and adoption educator.
“We need to look at what profit is for the person adopting them,” Aleceeya said. “Are they profiting by feeling better about themselves? Are they profiting by having others around them look at them favorably?”
Aleceeya was fostered and later adopted by a large family that’s part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was one of 21 foster, adopted, and biological children. In 2008, the family was featured on Oprah’s Big Give and was gifted a full home renovation, including a dining room extension that would fit a long table to seat the entire family.
Aleceeya’s family had a high social standing in their tight-knit church community—plus Oprah’s Big Give brought the family a lot of positive attention.
“At home they seem[ed] happiest when they were surrounded by other people who were praising them,” Aleceeya said.
The experience was reflective of how Aleceeya believes most foster and adoptive parents benefit by making family matters public.
“I have seen celebrities get more attention just because they adopt kids from other countries,” she said. “Whether or not they have good intentions, they are benefiting from this positive image they are portraying.”
Because of the likelihood of foster or adoptive parents gaining some form of clout by sharing content about their children, Aleceeya warns parents to be cautious.
“We draw the line that the child first, and I truly believe no child, whether biological, adoptive, foster, should be put online,” she said.
That belief is shared by some momfluencers who have chosen to take the content of their children offline, worrying that followers have developed parasocial relationships with the children, or that posting vulnerable moments such as tantrums and doctor’s visits may cause embarrassment for the children down the line.
Few legal protections
State regulations and laws have been put into place to protect the well-being of foster youth, including some that mandate privacy for children in the system.
“We really want to be mindful and protective … Even when we have events, we’re not taking pictures of their faces and identifying them in any sort of posting that we’re going to put on our own social media pages,” Clinton Page, deputy director for the Office of Adoption Operations at New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families, told the Daily Dot.
New Jersey’s guidelines for social media confidentiality outline that not only should parents avoid posting photos of their foster children online, but they should also avoid disclosing any sensitive information to others, such as giving advice to other parents with specific examples or notifying a teacher about a child’s behavioral issues.
Privacy laws and regulations differ from state to state and many make broad recommendations about how foster children can be more safe online. There are few explicit guidelines on how foster parents should behave online when it pertains to posting content of their children.
In Arizona, for example, where “Fantastic Adventures” creator and adoptive mother Machelle Hackney was arrested on abuse charges, Arizona Administrative Rule R21-6-322 states that foster parents should educate their children on “safe and appropriate” practices for using the app and supervise as necessary. It does dictate, however, that, “At no time is the child to be identified as a foster child unless it is a self-disclosure by the child.”
Because of the broad rules and sheer amount of online content, monitoring the online presence of foster parents is difficult.
“Even our staff are limited through our own policies about how they use social media,” Page said. “And so then the idea is, how does this stuff come to our attention, and when it does, how does it get addressed?”
Advocates for child welfare believe that efforts to protect the privacy of children both in and out of the foster and adoption systems should be centering the agency of the child.
In January, Washington state legislators introduced HB 1627 to “protect the interests of minor children featured on for-profit family vlogs,” arguing that many vloggers post content of their children for revenue-producing content, but because these children are not actors, they lack legal protections and control over their personal property rights. At the time of publication, the bill is in committee.
Finding cathartic community
Former foster youth and adoptees have started to build their own online communities to connect and share experiences.
Emilia Wright is the moderator of a subreddit of over 7,300 users, all of whom are adoptees. The group distances itself from r/Adoption, a subreddit for anyone with general questions or comments about foster and adoptive care, as moderators and users believed it was misrepresenting the experiences of foster and adopted youth. (Wright shared only her birth name, not her legal name, for this article.)
“[r/Adoption] really seems to have the idea that adoption is a great thing. It doesn’t allow for alternate voices. In [the group I moderate], it’s the exact opposite,” Wright explained. “It’s a place for people who are struggling to come to terms with their adoption to figure out how to understand the adopted experience.”
Wright said the group is a place for adoptees to explore both the positive and negative feelings associated with the identity of adoptees. The subreddit “opened [her] eyes to adoption trauma.”
While the subreddit’s members have different opinions on adoption policy and philosophies, as well as vastly different adoption stories, there’s also a commiseration on the shared experience of being adopted.
“My experiences are not strange, but it is very strange, it’s very emotional, to grow up with people that don’t look like you….” Wright said. “Those are unique adopted kid and foster kid experiences.”
Wright’s own experience as an adoptee has impacted how she plans to put information about a future child online, such as avoiding putting any photos on a public social media account. Instead, she said, she’d be more likely to set up a private digital photo album for friends and family.
But more important to her than the specific choices she will make about putting her child online is obtaining consent about what gets posted.
“I would want my child to have a choice,” Wright said. “That’s what it comes back to: having a choice.”