UN-ADOPTED
Marie Claire Australia|December 2020
When YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer adopted a child from China, they shared every step of the journey with their followers. Now, their story has become a warning of what can happen when influencer and adoption cultures collide.
Caitlin Moscatello

The video started like so many others. YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer, in the glow of camera-friendly lighting, staring into the lens. But this time, instead of updating their roughly one million subscribers on their “kiddos” or Myka’s “mommy morning routine”, the couple had somber expressions. “This is by far the hardest video James and I have ever publicly had to make,” said Myka. Wearing white shirts that matched the linen on the bed where they sat, the Stauffers revealed they had placed Huxley, their then almost-five-year-old autistic son from China – whose adoption process and the life they had documented for more than three years – with “his now new forever family”. Myka and James tearfully explained that the extent of Huxley’s needs had not been clear when they’d adopted him, that it was never supposed to happen this way, and that they loved him.

Some viewers were sympathetic, but the video, which was posted in late May, also fuelled outrage. The Stauffers lost thousands of subscribers, and Facebook and Instagram account sprung up demanding “Justice for Huxley” and “Cancel Myka & James Stauffer”. Brands that had worked with Myka to promote their products distanced themselves. They were even investigated by police after detractors suggested their other children might be endangered. In the kindest light, Myka, now 33, and James, 35, were painted as well-meaning but naive parents who’d got in over their heads. But viewed in the harshest light, they were fame-hungry narcissists who’d exploited a child for clicks and profit only to discard him when caring for him proved too difficult.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, up to five per cent of the more than 100,000 adoptions in the US each year are legally terminated in what’s called a “dissolution” – making the Stauffers’ decision to relinquish custody rare but not unheard of. Had they not shared Huxley’s adoption with the world, building an audience from videos about everything from his medical diagnoses to his behavioral issues, they would be dealing with a private family tragedy rather than a public scandal. Instead, the Stauffers have been held up as examples of what is wrong with both influencer and adoption culture – and what can happen when a child is caught at the intersection.

In 2012, Myka Bellisari, a nurse and single mother, met James Stauffer, an engineer, on OkCupid. After they moved in together and got pregnant, the couple started a website and YouTube channel, The Stauffer Life, where they vlogged about their relationship and growing family. They married in 2014, and Myka launched her own channel.

Back then, much of their most viewed content centred on the couple’s quest to get pregnant again. Myka and James, who declined to be interviewed for this story but whose digital footprint spans countless hours of testimonials, showed an early willingness to share deeply personal moments. They were rewarded for it. Clips titled “MY MISCARRIAGE STORY AT 6 WEEKS PREGNANT!!!” and “LIVE PREGNANCY TEST! AM I PREGNANT?!!!” received hundreds of thousands of views. The couple studied YouTube analytics – Myka has called James “an SEO god” – and leaned further into family vlogging.

They came off as a young, attractive couple dedicated to their kids and to each other. Myka poured herself into decorating, cooking, and child-rearing. James was Super Dad, the devoted partner with endless energy for work and family, who Myka described as “the man of my dreams”. They seemed equally ambitious, with Myka happily oversharing details of their life and James willing to hold the camera when he wasn’t in front of the lens.

By 2016, Myka was homeschooling – a trend among top family vloggers –and James had started a car-detailing channel, Stauffer Garage. With their three kids, the family moved to Ohio. They remained on the lower rung of influencers. Other YouTubers had grown their audiences by sharing family milestones and, in a 2019 interview, James acknowledged “peak moments” could increase viewership. New homes play well, as do pregnancy and babies (many successful family vloggers have four kids or more).

Myka said she’d long wanted to adopt; James was more reluctant. But he ultimately agreed and, in 2016, the couple posted a video announcing their plans to adopt and their intent to take viewers with them on their “journey”.

Sharing information about a child’s adoption before he or she is in the home is frowned upon by experts. “We ask them specifically not to do it,” says Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice-president of policy and external affairs for Holt International Children’s Services, the agency that has since merged with the World Association for Children and Parents, which the Stauffers used to adopt Huxley. Not only can publicizing an adoption jeopardize it, but it’s seen as playing into the stereotype of white families “saving” foreign children.

The Stauffers decided to focus their search on China, which accounts for more adoptions to the US than any other country. Protocols for international adoption have been revised in the past decade, so now almost all adoptees from China to the US are toddler age or older, and many have existing health conditions. If the Stauffers adopted from China, they would almost certainly be choosing a child with special needs.

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