Friday, March 21, 2008

Disrupted adoption from the adoptee's point of view

Currently in the United States, adoptions are being promoted as the “cure” for foster care, and a panacea to all permanency issues. And yet, across America, there are a growing number of adoptions that dissolve after finalization.

The highest disruption rate is for children who are adopted as teenagers.

Also at higher risk are:
- Children who are separated from their siblings.
- Children who have been sexually abused
- Children who have been adopted before and that adoption failed

The term ‘disrupted adoption’ sounds like it was coined in order to minimize the emotional impact. It brings to mind phrases like: “The television program was disrupted by a commercial break,” or a teacher saying to her class, “Be quiet. I will tolerate no more disruptions!”

Perhaps it’s a subtle way to assign blame to the child. Could it be a lingering accusation of insubordination? Does it imply that the child is an intruder, disrupting the customary order of their adoptive parents’ household?

A friend of mine who was adopted from foster care was recently reading a blog entry from an adoptive parent whose complaint was: “I guess we just thought that we would love him sooner. He is obviously crazy about us, but I just find myself coming home from a long day at work, and wishing he would calm down.”

My friend looked up from the article and commented, “It sounds like they were looking for a puppy.”

Prelude to a Loss
A series of stages have been identified by the University of South Maine that often lead to adoption disruption. First, the adoptive parents become frustrated with the child’s behavior and begin questioning their choice to adopt. They start complaining about the child to other people.

Hopefully the adoptive parents have surrounded themselves with a support group to both comfort and challenge them regarding their parenting skills. It is normal to feel overwhelmed after an adoption, just as many parents go through an adjustment after their child’s birth.

When I became a stepmother, I remember that the transition to ‘instant parent’ wasn’t easy. It took time to define the roles in our relationship, to build trust and to set limits. I knew that it wouldn’t always be easy, and it wasn’t. But I also knew that when I chose to marry my husband, I was making a lifelong commitment to his daughters as well.

Adoption needs to be perceived as a serious commitment. A child is not a defective product. A child cannot be taken out on a trial run. You can’t have buyers’ remorse, and then take that child back for a refund.

And yet, prior to adoption disruption, adoptive parents allow themselves to fantasize about what it would be like if this child were no longer a part of their family. Finally, they issue an ultimatum to the child.

The Aftermath
Most articles about disrupted adoption focus primarily on the emotions of the adoptive parent. But what does it feel like to be the child, undergoing that level of rejection?

For children and teenagers who have experienced disrupted adoptions, this experience impacts both their personal identity and long-term survival.

They often wind up in limbo:
1.) Their birth certificate has been permanently changed. It is now inaccurate, because it has been rewritten to state that their adoptive mother gave birth to them. They aren’t allowed to have a copy of their original birth certificate without approval from both parents. In fact, they aren’t allowed to have personal documents, such as their (doctored) birth certificate, until they are 21 years old.

2.) Not only can they not rely on their former adoptive families, they are no longer legally related to their biological siblings. An adoptee explained it to me like this: “We are brother and sister, but on paper, it looks like we aren’t even related. I can’t even be his next of kin.”

3.) As they transition to adulthood, they are often unsure of how to fill out their taxes or the federal student aid application for school. They are asked to “prove” that their adoption was legally disrupted. If their adoptive parents have simply abandoned them, as happens all too often with teenagers, they can’t.

These transitioning young adults are unable to receive benefits such as ETV funds, because they were adopted and the assumption is that their adoptive parents – who have been receiving adoption subsidies for their care – are financially providing for them.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the "limbo" that adoptees whose adoption has been "disrupted" can experience... Think about international adoptees who wind up in the United States foster care system.

Recommended Policy Changes
Adoption agencies should be held to the standard of full disclosure. Research has demonstrated that parents who understand beforehand about a child’s previous physical or sexual abuse are less likely to disrupt the adoption. Sometimes, such as in the case of international adoption, there might not be a lot of information available. However, inasmuch as it is possible for an agency to fully inform adoptive parents about a child’s background, they should do so.

Screen adoptive parents’ motivations and expectations. Is the adoption based primarily on the needs of the child or the adoptive parent? Many people adopt due to their inability to conceive. Sometimes disruptions occur because parents feel entitled to some wonder-child that they’ve been imagining and the child doesn’t meet those expectations.

Training for adoptive parents should include the “what if” scenarios. What if you adopt a child, and discover that child has been sexually abused? Adoptive parents should be prepared in advance, and encouraged to create a financial and emotion safety net in the event that a child might need residential care.

Facilitate an atmosphere of trust, by allowing the child contact with loved ones. An adoptee shared with me her experiences on the day of her “Goodbye Visits” prior to her adoption.

During the course of one day, she had to say goodbye to her birth family, the foster family with whom she had been staying for years and her brother. That day was the most horrific day of her life.

Three months later, her new adoptive parents were upset that she didn’t want to call them “Mom” and “Dad.”

The term Reactive Attachment Disorder makes me nervous because I believe it is a diagnosis that is given too quickly. This label makes it easier to underestimate the resilience of an adoptee and to magnify their problems. It makes it easier to blame the adoptee when things go wrong.

Imagine if someone came to you and said, “You are going to enter the witness protection program. You need to go and say goodbye to all the people that you have ever loved. You can no longer have any contact with them. It is for their safety.”

In a witness protection scenario, national security might be at stake. But whose needs are being met when an adopted child is denied contact with loved ones from their past?

When I asked my friend why her adoption meant that she was denied contact with every person that she had ever loved, her explanation was, “Adoptive parents are insecure, especially with older kids. That’s why the government allows them to cut all ties.”

I believe that if her former foster family was safe enough to place her with during the interim, she should have been allowed to maintain contact with them. If she was allowed sibling visits prior to the adoption, they should have been continued afterwards as well.

I would like to invite readers to weigh in on this issue…

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A couple thoughts...

I agree this is a terrible issue that is not given enough weight from the point of view of the adoptee. I am especially disturbed by some parents that say disruptions "cannot be judged". But I think most parents DO "judge"; by this I mean thinking critically, not blanket condemnation. The "you can't judge me" defense is just no good.

That being said I wasn't aware the figures were growing, at least in the foster care system. I think they have gone down in my state. I think states track them for foster care, but NO ONE is tracking international adoption disruptions, which is very worrying.

Parents are sometimes inadequately prepared, and I have heard that kids can be inadequately prepared too. In other words, workers may "sell" adoption to a teenager, when adoption is not really their best option, or what they want at heart. They agree to be adopted but soon realize it isn't what they want, and assert their independence to make sure they go back to long-term foster placement or other status...

One problem with the concept of "a child cannot be taken on a trial run" is that the "trial run" idea is embedded in the very idea of fostering. I think a lot of foster parents open their homes to children they know nothing about, with almost no disclosure. The ones who fit in the family, and end up in TPR, stay and get adopted, others eventually move on to other families. To really enforce the idea of permanence in adoption would take a major paradigm shift in the entire system.
I don't disagree with anything you have to say here, but there is something I want to add two things -- something that I have wanted to add to every single discussion about disruption/dissolution I have ever read.

Please don't confuse people about disruptions v. dissolutions. Both are tragic. We need to understand why they happen so that we can prevent them, but they are not the same thing. Some of the consequences you discuss are the consequences of a dissolution,not a disruption.

Second, it bothers me greatly that the discussions never seem to mention the relationship of mulitiple children. I don't know what percentage it is, in fact it makes me very sad that no one seems to know, but at least some of these disruptions have to do with violent or unhealthy relationships between children.

But I don't disagree with what you have said.
I definitely agree with this article. Many parents go out with the hopes of adopting this "perfect" child, and not taking into consideration the life they may have had before they were adopted. The important people in their lives, or the events that may have shaped who they are.

Some parents are lucky and have children who can instantly bond with their adoptive families. But some children will need time to adjust to their new life, family and surroundings. I think that it is reasonable for children to take months to get used to the idea of a new life.

Just because a parent is having a hard time with a child, that doesnt mean it will not get better, you just have to be patient.

But to disrupt an adoption because the child isn't what you expected is not fair. You wouldn't give away your biological children if they were not what you expected, and adoption should not be any different. Adoption should be takin more seriously. A family should make every possoble effort to fix an issues they have with a child.

If it is an issue of safety with an sdoptive child then that I could see how in extreme cases you would disrupt an adoption. But people need to understand that these children will be forever hurt. being adopted may have been the best thing in their life, and now you are taking that away.

All I ask is that parents really take the time to think about what they are doing. I hope hope that families wanting to adopt is in it for the long run, and does not consider disruoptions an aoption.
Hi Lisa, great article on a subject that tends to be ignored. Adoption is rarely, if ever in the best interest of the child. Many will disagree with that statement. Many, being mainly adoptive parents. I have no doubt that APs have good intentions and want nothing more than the process to result in a happy family. Often once the adoption has been made final feelings ownership take over. The child is removed of any past life and given a new life and identity that fits in with the AP expectations and ideas. You cant however remove inherited family traits or future feelings of 'a need to know'. The idea of being a 'real' family leaves no room for 'ghosts' of the past. The higher the expectations are the more harsh the realities seem. Long term foster care and Legal Guardianship don't have the preconceived ideas of ownership allowing a child acceptance without expectations.

I have experienced adoption (illegal) children's home, short term and long term fostering.

Yondalla, I agree, many of the disruptions I hear about from foster care are where the child is abusing a younger child and the parents don't have the resources to keep them separate.

In real-life experience, I know parents who disrupted. They were going to adopt a 16-year-old (who was also their biological niece). But she tried to kill them. They way they expressed it, they realized a family (any family) was not the right environment for her, and she would have a better chance in an intensive therapeutic environment.

I have read about parents disrupting for really trivial reasons and it makes me very upset... but I think there is a real range involved as well.
As a waiting parent in the China program, I agree with most of what you wrote. But I think there is more screening of "adoptive parents’ motivations and expectations" than you think.

We had extensive social worker interviews. We also had to read a number of books on the challenges of being adoptive parents. One question always sticks out in my mind. When our SW asked us what we would feel the day we first held our daughter, we said it would be the happiest day of our life. The SW then immediately asked, "What do you think she'll be feeling."

You are right that "many people adopt due to their inability to conceive," but I don't see anything wrong with that. People want a family. That's normal and healthy.

Yes, some adoptive parents "feel entitled to some wonder-child that they’ve been imagining and the child doesn’t meet those expectations," but all too many parents raising their biological kids make the same mistake. I have not seen any evidence that adoptive parents are any more flawed than biological parents.

As to disruptions, they are looked on as failures on the adoption boards I am on. We AP's can be very tough on each other, and we expect each other to be work hard to make it through the hard parts. And we expect hard parts. Casual disruptions cause anger among AP's. Other disruptions might be prevented if all PAP's were questioned as thoroughly as we were.

Unfortunately, all too many parents abandon their biological kids, too. Again, I haven't seen any evidence that parents abandon their adopted kids at a higher rate than they abandon their biological kids. That doesn't excuse an unwarranted disruption, but I do think that AP's get somewhat of a bad rap as a group.

You rightly criticize some adoptive parents who want the "wonder child." But some adoptees seem to want the "wonder parents."

Of course, every child deserves "wonder parents," but, alas, adoptive parents are chosen from the ranks of imperfect human beings. We are have the capacity for enormous selfishness and enormous selflessness. Again, I don't think the problems you suggest are unique to AP's.

For most adoptive parents, when we bring a child into our homes, she becomes our child. Not as a possession, but as a loving and solemn responsibility to help her grow into herself.

I know Jeff Gammage comes into criticism by some adoptees, but I don't see why. He emphasizes over and over and over again that his daughters owe him nothing; he owes them everything. That's how I will feel when our daughter is finally put into our arms.
RAD labels also get used to discredit children who report abuse that really happened.
Howdy Lisa
All adoptees don't like the disruptions. I think if adoptive parents take up the challenge of raising an adoptee, then they should follow through. I do know that there are situations where that child poses threats to the family. We need to put into place options for adoptive parents to get the treatment that they need. Without these adoptive parents having to relinquish their rights as parents. They can still care for their distressed children without furthering crippling the children and their families.

I do agree whole heartedly about the adoption agencies being held accountable to full disclosure. I have been reading the TX DFPS which is the inspecting and liscensing entity of Texas. These agencies get a truckload of money from the state and federal governments. Texas by the way has privatized its foster care. One agency had received over $60 million. Why isn't that money spent on these adoptive families and these adoptees. Each state also gets $5,000 for each foster care placed into adoption. That again is money that should be spent on children who have special needs. Foster care and infant adoption have become lucrative businesses for these agencies. These agencies are living high while these families are suffering.

I think these foster care parents need to be further screened. One of my fellow bloggers has recommended psychological testing and counseling before they have children placed with them. After what I read on the previously mentioned website, it needs it badly.
Hi Lisa, better late than never.
We are so busy we forgot to publish your comment on our site
My friend Tina (with much2say) has already commented on your article.
I find your article excellent and your reaserch is great.
Thank you for your insight and for sharing it.
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