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A new film that captures the joy and poignancy of adoption through the eyes of 10 families served by the Cradle will be the centerpiece of the Evanston institution’s 99th anniversary celebration at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26. Created by Hollywood film producer Dan Lanigan, “Stories from the Red Couch” explores the tumultuous emotional journey for adoptive and expectant parents as powerful new bonds are forged and unimaginable sacrifices are made.
Lanigan, who is best known for his work on projects like the Disney+ series “Prop Culture” and” Mystery Science Theater 3000,” gained first-hand knowledge of the Cradle when he and his wife adopted two children through the agency, selecting it after doing extensive research on similar organizations throughout Illinois and beyond.
“They are the gold standard, the platinum standard of adoption services,” said Lanigan.
He recalled being immediately impressed by the honesty and dedication of the team at the Cradle. “First of all, they don’t lie to you,” he said. “They are very open about the challenges of adoption. But at the same time, they are very empathetic throughout the process. They educate you.” Lanigan said his exceptional experiences with the Cradle and devotion to his children were motivating factors in the decision to produce the film. “I have skin in the game. I want to do whatever I can to bring attention to adoption in a very positive way.”
The red velvet couch
Through a series of intimate interviews, Lanigan introduces viewers to some of the extraordinary families who have been shaped by adoption and the dedicated counselors who accompany them on their chosen path. Adoptive parents tell their stories while perched on the Cradle’s iconic red couch, a worn velvet settee where newly formed families sit for their first official portrait. We meet single moms, same-sex couples, families enriched through cross-cultural adoption and families who are welcoming special needs children.
“The Cradle was really always on the forefront of defining family in a different way,” says Simone Wheeler, the agency’s Vice President of Development.
Heather Dumas, one of the single moms featured in the film, explains that her lifelong dream of motherhood was fulfilled five years ago when she brought home her daughter, Isabella. Dumas said during a recent interview that she was drawn to the Cradle because of its openness and diversity, but it was the on-site nursery that really sold her.
“I knew that if and when it happened for me that my child [would have] a safe place to go in the process.” The Cradle is the only adoption agency in the country that maintains an on-site nursery.
Natasha Brown Love, another parent profiled in the movie, also began the adoption process on her own. “I really knew it was something I wanted to do,” she says. “I thought, I’m going to go for this and whoever I meet I’m going to let him know, I’m going to adopt so you can either stay or go.” The wheels were already in motion when she began dating Anthony Love, and when Natasha learned she would soon be a mother, he happily chose to stay. The Brown Love family includes Anthony’s mother, who also had adopted years ago through the Cradle. Viewers witness her wonder at the miracle of a new granddaughter.
While much of the film focuses on the happiness surrounding the formation of new families, it also grapples with the reality of loss for birth families. Some of the movie’s most heart-wrenching moments come as viewers hear from the counselors charged with informing and supporting parents who are considering placing their children out for adoption. As Expectant Parent Counselor Arletta Barbel reflects on the enormity of their anguish, she breaks down and the pain seems almost to overwhelm her. “There’s usually an announcement that’s made when a placement is about to happen,” she says. “People within the Cradle will come down and congratulate that family and they are taking pictures and sitting on this couch and it’s a beautiful moment. But I’m upstairs and I’m standing with my client and their grief and I’m walking them out of the building, and they are devastated.”
Throughout the film, adoptive families acknowledge that their good fortune is born of another family’s sorrow. That specter of grief seems to loom large in many of their minds. Adoptive father Jason Maslanka recalls a first meeting with his child’s birth parents. “There was a distinct transition in my emotions from feeling nervous and scared and excited about becoming a parent to feeling terrified and petrified for what they were going through in that moment.”
Lanigan, the film’s producer, noted that the movie takes viewers to some painful places. “There are some tough moments there,” he said, “but ultimately there are happy stories and that’s what adoption is about. It’s to bring families together, bring people together and help make families when there are challenges.”
“Stories from the Red Couch” will air at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26. The Cradle invites anyone with a connection to or interest in adoption to register for the free live screening at redcouch.cradle.org.