More about adoption disruptions and adoption dissolutions

Okay, I’m going to start off being blunt. When a person adopts a child and then disrupts or dissolves that adoption, they are re-traumatizing the child and they should accept full responsibility for that.

Now, I’m not saying that I always blame the parent for deciding to disrupt or dissolve an adoption.

Sometimes, overall, it is to the child’s best interest that the adoption is dissolved or disrupted. There certainly are instances when the child is a danger to himself or to others in the family and need to be removed from the home. And agencies sometimes lie or misrepresent children to prospective families and should be sanctioned for such unethical practice. But again, the child is the one who has no power and no choice in this whole matter and to be uprooted from a life and to have to adjust to a new home and new parents – much less new country and language in the case of international adoptions –  only to be kicked out of said home and end up in foster care?

I was told that around 10-15% of children adopted internationally to my state dissolve and the child ends up in foster care. I’ve heard the stories and all I can say is, when one births a child biologically who ends up having major problems the child may  end up in some out of home care (sometimes it’s foster homes or residential treatment centers or group homes) but it’s rare that a parent voluntarily terminates their parental rights to a biologically born child. Most of the youth I see in foster care are there because the courts have ordered a termination of parental rights.

Do I think a parent has the right to decide not to adopt a child who was misrepresented to them and has needs greater than what the parents think they can handle? Yes. Do it before the child is finalized. I absolutely think the parents have a right to accurate information. And I agree that it’s not in the child’s best interest to be placed in a home where the parents do not have the desire or ability to care for those needs. And that’s what I detest about this whole exchange.

Because we want to place children in good safe homes, we allow for disruptions. We have to. And that creates a practice that caters more to the needs of the secondary client (parents) over the needs of the primary client (the child).

Let me give you another example. Many prospective adoptive parents want to adopt infants. There is a high demand for *healthy infants.*

Agencies often make it known that there is no guarantee that any infant won’t develop medical, cognitive or developmental delays in the future, but who wants to hear that? Sure, we hear it and tuck that information in to the back of the mental file. At our agency, we tell parents that adopting an infant means that you know less about the child’s future. With older children, you tend to have more information. At least you likely have some history and some sense of potential risks for behaviors that the child may exhibit later on. With an infant, what you don’t know can be risky.

But as many other adoptees have said before, we’re not a tabula rasa and even as an infant with little or no information, there are risks. There are risks for children birthed biologically to parents too.

There is a high correlation between children in my state who end up using county or state mental health services and adoption status (note, correlation not causation). I’ve been told by several workers that "over half" of the cases involves children who have had at least one adoption disruption or dissolution and that includes children adopted internationally. It’s interesting to me, that many in the mental health field have negative feelings about adoption partly as a result of that.

I think a lot of adoptive parents "talk the talk" about how they love and treat their adopted children "the same as" a biological child. In terms of adoption disruptions and dissolutions, I would like to see more in terms of "walking the walk." Once a parent adopts a child and it is legally finalized, they are the considered the same as a biological child in the eyes of the law. Adoptive parents who abandon their adopted child should be treated the same as any other parent who abandons their child.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

20 thoughts

  1. I agree 100%. My daughter became my daughter the minute I accepted her referral. I knew there were no guarantees. We’ve been very lucky, but I know that doesn’t mean we won’t have our challenges in the future. Between my personal experiences as a high school teacher in an urban school and through my in-laws, I’ve seen first-hand the effects on a child when they’ve been given the message they’re unwanted or worse. It’s very, very sad.

  2. I’m very interested in this topic… the thing that bothers me is that no one is keeping track of international adoption disruptions. How can you work on lowering the rate if you don’t know what the rate is in the first place?
    I have heard one story of what sounded like a international disruption that was for the best… a woman who realized she was in over her head with attachment disorder and two other young children, took responsibility for the situation and did a private relinquishment and adoption to a Chinese-American family she networked and found. I have also heard other horror stories where parents have disrupted for the slimmest of reasons and then demand that they not be judged. If you take such a huge step you should be prepared to take moral responsibility for it!
    I notice that in the international adoption community disruption is treated as a taboo subject, something that will never ever happen, or else people tend to flip into “YOU CAN’T JUDGE” mode. No in between.
    In our foster care training there was a fair amount of realistic talk about disruption. One anonymous case history really stuck in my mind as very sad. An example of an older child who was adopted by a single father. The single father was caring but very strict. The adoption disrupted at the age of 14 when the teenage hormones started spiking up. The trainer presented it as a case where the boy was determined to leave and there was really no way to prevent him… then in therapy, the boy talks about missing the former adoptive father all the time; the boundaries were good for him.

  3. atlasien, you bring up some great points. I agree that the “stats” for international adoption disruptions are frustrating because of such a lack of official records or statistics. And I also have seen such responses that you mention regarding IA.
    In terms of domestic adoptions, I agree that there is little you can do as a parent if your child decides they don’t want to be in the home any more or reject the adoptive parents. I would argue again that the parents, however, should treat this the same as a biological child. If a parent could not imagine voluntarily relinquishing rights to a birth child then to do the different to an adopted child is making a distinction. I have known adoptive parents who had to send their children to correctional facilities, mental health instutitions, foster care etc. while still maintaining their parental rights. I’ve also known some who relinquish.
    It’s difficult for me to see it differently than “when the going gets tough, I’m giving up.” Dissolving an adoption that’s been finalized, no matter what the reason, sets up that child to receive the message that having a “forever family” is only conditional.
    As an adoptee myself, I can honestly say that I often worried about whether my parents would “give up” on me. There were times as a teenager when I said hurtful things to them, implying that their love was conditional. They knew better – that my behaviors were about my testing them to see whether they would let me down. And to their credit, they wouldn’t let me give up on our relationship. They also did not give me, a kid, the control over the relationship.

  4. Great post, Jae Ran.
    I’m on a listserv of APs (of course, what adoptive parent isn’t?) and just today there was a discussion about how prospective adoptive parents, or those in process, really don’t want to hear the realities from adoptive parents. They focus on the easy transitions, the good stories.
    And I wonder if sharing tough stories (like the one about the mom who told her neighbors not to worry if they heard a lot of screaming when her daughter first came home or about when a five year old pees in his pants on purpose and tantrums in walmart) would help this. But it’s always so easy to dismiss these stories.
    I’ve heard a lot of disruptions have to do with expectations of adoptive parents. Do you agree?

  5. I agree with egypt4 – I wish adoptive parents were given a greater dose of potential reality. However, when they aren’t, I think there are circumstances under which it may be better for the child for the adoption to be disrupted. I traveled to China to adopt my daughter in a group of 12 prospective families. About a year after we returned, one of the families we traveled with disrupted, after much effort on the part of their social worker to convince them to do so. We’ve been able to stay in touch with their adopted daughter and get to know her new family. The new family is SO much better for her, and she is so much happier. Yes, she now has yet another layer of trauma to work through, but now she has parents who will work through it with her.

  6. Two of my five daughters came from disrupted adoptions. In spite of how glad I am to be their mother, the disruptions made everything so much harder. On the surface, it appeared to the social workers that my daughters didn’t care about the disruptions, or may even have sought them. In a sense that is true. But deep down, both my children wanted their families to fight harder, to refuse to give up. By the time I came along, my daughters no longer believed in “forever families,” forever having lasted about a year for each.
    The biggest problem is that most adoptive families have a picture of how parenting is supposed to be. If it turns out they have a child who cannot be reared at home (whether due to the danger posed to other children, or the emotional needs of the child), they throw in the towel rather than learning to parent from a distance.

  7. PAPs absolutely MUST be better educated prior to placement. Sadly it has been my experience that very few care to hear the possible realities they may face. At least from adult adoptees. After all there is no better authority on the subject than the subject itself right? You would think.
    This leaves the agency to do the educating and you won’t catch many private agencies doing THAT any time soon. It’s bad for business.

  8. Jae Ran, I am so glad you brought this subject up. It needs discussing, the victims of all this lack of education prior to adoption, are the children. Parents need to educate themselves, do not go ahead with an adoption before you do. Happily ever after is a fantasy, this is not a toy, this is a human being. Please, educate yourselves. Here are two links a blogger friend passed on that are very informative:

  9. I completely agree with you and I am SHOCKED that the number of disrupted IAs in your state is 10-15%. I never new it was that high anywhere. How devastating. I thought it was actually a rare occurrence.

  10. Mia, you’d think adult adoptees are the best to educate adoptive parents, but I don’t think that’s always the case. First off, not many adult adoptees really want to have these conversations with naive adoptive parents. Doesn’t it get old to say this stuff over and over again? Next, when adoptive parents stumble onto blogs of adoptees, they may see such anger or resentment that they feel defensive and either argue or just leave. Those blogs aren’t intended for APs; APs aren’t the audience. And often our naive questions filled with good intentions come across as really ignorant or maybe even racist.
    For example, Resist Racism is a great blog but super offputting to some APs because sometimes it’s just outright hostile to APs. Perhaps fairly so, but when you’re new, you can only take that stuff in small doses and it’s hard to see past APs being dismissed in one fell swoop. I stopped reading it when some of my comments (which were pefectly nice, I thought) were deleted. The post was about how an adult adoptee couldn’t speak Spanish with her first family and how that was entirely the APs’ fault. When I suggested a 26 year old woman could have taken responsibility and learned Spanish on her own, the hackles were raised, my comments were removed, and I decided my thoughts weren’t really welcome there, so I stopped reading. If I was considered a troll, why bother? That’s fine–I’m not the audience for that blog even though some posts are really great and really made me laugh and learn all at the same time–but I can tell you many APs just get scared off by that level of hostility.
    I did read some adoptee memoirs while in process, including one by Jaiya John about being the first black kid adopted by a white family in the US (or something like that). It was insightful, but the world is a different place now, and it’s SO easy as an AP to say, “Yes, those mistakes happened, but we know now not to do that.” I used to be the one who said stuff like that.
    Jane Jeong Trenka’s memoir was the first one I read (after I adopted my first child) that really helped me GET IT. Even though I could still say, “Well I wouldn’t do that ever to my kid” (ie live in an all white town, never talk about race), I finally started to understand, in huge part because she’s such a great writer. But also because by that time, I was really ready to learn more. I was hungry for it.
    SOME agencies do do a decent job with education. I think my agency did, actually. They created a CD that APs are required to use. My local homestudy agency required me to read a book about toddler adoption before they’d approve us to adopt a slightly older than infant child. This started me on a good path, and I may be unusual in my desire for information.
    But, honestly, I think it’s partly up to agencies but also partly up to adoptive parents to educate PAPs. We talk the same language, you know?
    This is moving off-topic, though not completely, and I would be very interested to hear folks’ responses to it. Please call me on any BS you see!

  11. “Okay, I’m going to start off being blunt. When a person adopts a child and then disrupts or dissolves that adoption, they are re-traumatizing the child and they should accept full responsibility for that.”
    Absolutely, 100% agreed. This was such a strong and articulate post. I came across a couple of different disrupted adoptions a while ago and I was confused, dismayed, upset and shocked to see how much support and positive affirmation was given to the parents who dissolved the adoption. Yes, there were expressed concerns for the child, but it was clear that the majority agreed that the couple had to do what was “best for them” and their family.
    While I agree that it’s best for a child not to remain in a particular family that cannot or will not provide for the child in the manner that he/she deserves, it’s devastating to see that the child will again be undergoing such a traumatic event of another loss and separation – when perhaps in some cases, it could have been prevented if people (agencies and PAPs alike) were being completely honest with themselves from the start and truly putting the child’s best interests first and foremost, above their own wishes.

  12. I don’t think it’s primarily about PAP education. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the state of Oregon’s pre-adopt classes addressed issues of race, attachment, drug and alcohol-affected children, all of that. But I was less pleasantly surprised to see how little most of the PAPs were listening–they were all convinced it would never happen to them.
    In the end, I think disruptions happen because of attachment issues and how the PAPs handle them. Daniel Hughes said once at a training that he could often tell in advance whether or not a “difficult” adoption would disrupt based upon whether the PAPs themselves had attachment issues in their childhood and whether or not those issues had ever been sufficiently addressed. I find that fascinating–in my own life, I had a great childhood (well, except that I wasn’t tall nor blond nor skinny, so I had major doses of teen angst, but no attachment issues!)and I think that has helped me weather my own five daughters’ significant attachment problems. Another friend of mine, an adoptee who went on to adopt older children, was seriously abused in her bio home. She’s had years of therapy and can honestly say that she has addressed all of her personal attachment issues over the years. She’s been a fine and consistent parent to some REALLY tough kids, with no threat of disruption.

  13. I hate the term ‘disruption’. To me the correct term is ‘abandonment’. Now, I also think there are ‘interrupted adoptions’ when before the adoption is final the parents realize they don’t have the skills to properly parent the child. But they need to accept responsibility for even this. It is their lack, not the child’s, that caused the interruption. However, once the adoption is done it is unimaginable to me to ever leave that child. I am always amazed at the infertiles who claim they have always wanted to have a child who never spend any time with children before their adoption trip. Please. If you really like kids you would want to spend as much time as possible with them. If what you want is to be a mother, you need to realize that is a lot different than parenting a child. One is all about you, the other is all about the child. And I believe that self centered attitude contributes to the secondary abandonments we read about. Adoption is a selfish act by adults. Parenting/Raising a child requires total selflessness. One of the best statements I have read about ‘disruption’ was on Ask Jane in China – “A PARENT never abandons a child…” All children deserve parents. Not all adults deserve children. But as it says in Unforgiven – “It aint about deserving”.

  14. Just wondered where the 10-15% stat came from. Do state agencies or courts keep track of what percentage of the adoptions are from disruptions? Is there a difference in the number of disruptions from domestic vs international adoptions? Or is this not tracked?
    You’d think with the detailed statistics that the governemnt has on soo many things, someone would be concerned about how our most vulnerable citizens are being cared for.

  15. Shannon, that figure 10-15% is not an “official” statistical number, as there is no system of tracking international adoption disruptions. In this case it would actually be dissolution, which is when the parent terminates their rights after the adoption has been finalized.
    The number was an estimate by an official who would know and who works in the department that handles adoptions in our state.
    I have worked within two counties and DHS (Department of Human Services) for our state and I have been amazed how many “stats” are NOT recorded or tracked.
    Likewise, there has never been an official figure for the “over 50%” of children’s mental health clients have been adopted or had a disrupted/dissolved adoption – this has just been the figure that several people who work in this department have estimated.
    We (social workers, researchers, psychologists, politicians) tend to pay a lot more attention to foster care and foster care adoptions. What we don’t know as much of, because there are such fewer regulations, are what happens after finalizations with domestic infant and international adoptions.

  16. “I was told that around 10-15% of children adopted internationally to my state dissolve and the child ends up in foster care.” Wow, that seems so high!
    We are starting a children’s home for international children…i.e. bring the children here then adopting them out instead of parents having to go to another country to adopt.
    We have been praying about this for 3 years now and things are finally starting to move forward.
    Please keep our project in your prayers. We have been given some land but want to purchase more. We will also have a school… I could go on and on but what I really want to ask is for your prayers.
    Thanks for the post. It was very informative and yes, adoptive parents need to see all sides of the issue before deciding to adopt.

  17. Kathleen Marie, I’m very curious about your idea for a children’s home. Do you mean that you plan to bring children from other countries to the US and then have them adopted? And why do you think that would be preferable “instead of parents having to go to another country to adopt”?
    It has long been my opinion that adoptive parents MUST travel to the child’s country. First, because it gives the parents an understanding and knowledge of the country their child came from; second, to give them time to spend together on their home turf rather than transitioning them to new parents and new country all at once; and third, so the child knows that they were worth the effort on the part of the adoptive parents to get to know where they came from.
    I have one youth on my caseload who told me that if she were to agree to be adopted, the adoptive parents would “have to visit me and not make me do all the work.”
    I think this youth’s words were profound and wise.

  18. Jae Ran,
    I also worked in the foster care system in your state (I moved out of state 2 years ago) and heard the same unofficial figures you did, including horror stories of how the system was unequipped to deal with all of the IA kids that started “showing up” in the 80s-whether they ran away or were outright relinquished. ~lmc

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