Adoption film hurls questions at charity

  • A scene from the new documentary “Three Identical Strangers.” Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Washington Post
Monday, February 05, 2018

A Sundance movie has taken aim at a prominent East Coast charity, putting the group on the defensive over allegations of stealth experiments on humans.

The documentary Three Identical Strangers says the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services has not made amends for a defunct adoption agency under its auspices that separated identical siblings and conducted a secret study on them in the 1960s and 1970s.

The subjects of the film have demanded the release of records from the study, an apology and even compensation, all of which they say have not been offered.

“It was cruel; it was wrong,” David Kellman, a triplet separated at birth from his brothers Bobby Shafran and Eddie Galland, told the Washington Post at the festival last week.

Added Shafran, sitting next to him: “I think the first thing (the Jewish Board) should have done once they became aware of this movie is reunite any twins still surviving and advise those who’ve been deceased, just so they can know who they are,” Shafran said. “And (the board) still never admitted what they did, never said, ‘I’m sorry,’ let alone offered any recompense.”

As the country’s most prominent film festival winds down Sunday, it leaves behind a number of films that will make a lasting cultural impression. But one of the movies that might have the biggest news impact is the British director Timothy Wardle’s Strangers, which on Saturday night won a special jury prize for storytelling.

The documentary, which had its final showing at the festival this past weekend, tells the story of New York triplets born in 1961 and placed with three local families by the now-defunct Louise Wise Agency, which was financed and came under the umbrella of the Jewish Board, also in New York.

The boys never knew of one another’s existence until they were 19, when a coincidence at a college in rural Sullivan County reunited two of them, Galland and Shafran. Kellman was reconnected with them soon after when he and his adoptive mother saw news coverage and realized that he was their identical sibling.

“It was the first day of many days in the Twilight Zone,” Kellman said.

“I know a lot of people feel different or strange,” Shafran said. “But for me it was like I had something missing all my life. And when I finally got to school that day (at 19), it was like I was given the instruction manual.”

The three would dine out on the events, making appearances on The Phil Donahue Show and in the Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan. They would eventually even open a restaurant together named Triplets.

But the story would take a more sinister turn. It turns out that the brothers weren’t split up because the adoption agency wanted to ensure that more families received babies, as representatives at Louise Wise first suggested to the parents after the boys’ reunion.

Instead, they were part of a secret study conducted by the Austrian-born psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer. As part of Neubauer’s research, the triplets, along with as many as a dozen more sets of identical siblings, were surreptitiously split up and placed with families of different socioeconomic backgrounds, then raised separately so that Neubauer’s team could study the effects of nature and nurture. No one told the adoptive parents that their children had identical siblings.

Researchers over the following years were then regularly sent to adopted children’s homes to test and observe the children, then report back to the psychoanalyst, never revealing to their parents the true purpose of their visit or that their child’s identical sibling was living just a few miles away.

Learning as adults what had happened to them, the brothers said, shook them; Shafran in the movie compares it to the Nazis’ social experiments.

The long-term toll the separation took on all three was potentially deep, they said. Galland would commit suicide in the 1990s, a possible victim of a hereditary mental illness the two other brothers say was withheld from them.

Although many of the people involved with Louise Wise are long gone, Shafran and Kellman allege that there haven’t been nearly enough efforts made by the Jewish Board’s current administration to take responsibility for the organization’s history.

“It’s not like it happened a long time ago – it happened in modern times,” Kellman said.

“And it’s not like we didn’t have great parents – we did,” Shafran said when told that if all three were placed together, two of them would have had different parents. “But they can’t play God and they did. And for that they should do something,” he said, underscoring that the brothers hoped for an apology and monetary compensation.

The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, commonly known as the Jewish Board, employs more than 3,000 people and provides services in areas including mental health, early childhood development and domestic violence. The nonprofit organization is nearly 150 years old, and as of 2014 had a budget in excess of $200 million.

Louise Wise ceased operations in 2004 and its records were transferred to a New York resource center known as Spence-Chapin.