As an adoptive mother, I have experienced both the incredible beauty and the profound heartbreak of the international adoption experience. My husband and I adopted three amazing children but now we are parents to only two of them.
Our first two adoptions are examples of all that is beautiful about adoption. Unfortunately, our story did not end there but became a study in contrasts when our third adoption ended in dissolution.
It is easy to share in the joys of a wonderful adoption experience; practically everyone wants to celebrate a storybook ending. Very few people want to be there when an adoption goes horribly wrong – sometimes not even the adoption agency.
I could start by telling you all the things I’m not. Or by telling you all the things we tried. Or by telling you all the things she deserved. But maybe I should just start from the beginning.
Several years after adopting our two young daughters from Ethiopia we received an unexpected call from our adoption agency. The adoption agency informed us of a case of desperate need—a 12-year-old girl in China given up by her family after her mother suffered a medical crisis.
“Very few people want to be there when an adoption goes horribly wrong.”
According to the verbal report given by our adoption agency, the child is healthy, has a stable family history, and shows no evidence of serious attachment issues but is desperate for a home. We deliberated about the wisdom of taking on additional responsibility in light of my recent health crisis and about adopting a child out of birth order.
After considerable soul searching and discussion, we decided to go forward with the adoption of Mei* because we had confidence we could manage her needs based on her background report. Almost immediately, we discovered that Mei’s medical history and family situation were not accurately reported to us. Although Chinese doctors had given Mei a clean bill of health, U.S. embassy doctors discovered evidence of TB.
In addition to physical health, Mei shared stories that revealed her family history had been anything but stable. As time passed, Mei became increasingly aggressive and volatile, both physically and verbally, her anger sometimes directed toward our younger daughters. As mental health professionals, we anticipated a period of adjustment filled with intense emotion. Yet without an accurate history, we did not know how to interpret her behavior. Was it simply adjustment to an unfamiliar situation or was it a symptom of something much more serious?
We knew in some cases just how bad that can get. We began to fear that our youngest children were no longer safe in their own home. We had not expected, as career mental health professionals, to be faced with a level of need we could not even begin to ameliorate.
Deeply concerned, I immediately contacted our adoption agency to ask for help. The agency worker rattled off the names of a few books to read and then sat silently. This is it? I thought to myself. This is all the help they can muster?
In disbelief, I attempted to clarify what pittance was being offered and said, “So basically it sounds like we are on our own now. Is that right?” Quickly and quietly she replied, “Yes.” Stunned, I hung up the phone.
Adoptive parents are held to a stringent process that requires FBI background checks, parenting education, letters of character recommendation, and in-home evaluations—hoops that biological parents never have to jump through. Yet each year a small number of international adoptions take a frightening turn when unsuspected past abuse or neglect in the child’s history begins to manifest in the child through violent or aggressive behavior.
“Adoptive parents are held to a stringent process… hoops that biological parents never have to jump through.”
In most cases, those parents find there are virtually no post-adoption support services available to them—in short, there is nowhere to turn. Too often, these families are effectively silenced by a force of inimitable power and reach—shame.
It is a well-substantiated fact that the level of support services available to families post-adoption is woefully inadequate and unregulated, and that the framework itself differs wildly from state to state. In the absence of structured services and with no current alternative to a one-size-fits-all legal process for problems arising post-adoption, the onus has fallen to grassroots movements and non-profit organizations such as the Donaldson Adoption Institute.
April Dinwoodie, DAI’s Chief Executive, provided a window into the Institute’s findings in a November 2016 address, reporting that only a handful of states actually require publicly funded post-adoption services. Looking at each state, Dinwoodie found that, “…at least 13 had absolutely no support at all.”
What are the stakes when neither policy nor public perception provide long-term resources for families who have adopted? Dinwoodie explains that when systems such as education and health care fail to have educated and informed support for adopted children, their “needs are left unmet, and children and families feel unsupported.
What also fuels this lack of knowledge are the stereotypes perpetuated in the media and popular culture, which often highlight the dramatic fairy tale or cautionary nightmare. The reality of this experience is many more shades of grey, yet the headlines and made-for-TV movie plots increase stigma and misunderstanding.
This makes it extremely difficult to advance the needed policy changes we know must happen, (the lack of which) ultimately hurt children and families.”
Because we are in the mental health field and have financial resources, we knew what needed to be done. We employed a team of therapists, social workers and adoption specialists, to work both with Mei and with us. Because Mei spoke only rudimentary English, we hired a Mandarin-speaking interpreter to ensure that there were no misunderstandings.
We hoped that one of these professionals would be able to reach Mei, to help her, to ease her pain. After several months, it was the consensus of the team that because of the potential danger to our younger daughters, and because of a recent health scare of my own, the needs of everyone in the family, including Mei, would be best addressed if a home could be found for her where her needs could be fully addressed. At this point, we made the painful decision to dissolve our adoption.
“We made a painful decision to dissolve our adoption.”
In the language of law, a “disruption” occurs when the adoptive relationship fails before the adoption has been formally legalized. When that failure happens after an adoption is formally legal, it is called a “dissolution.” For many people, the only fact that matters is that we were unable to safely parent a child we had adopted.
There are countless individuals, from adoption activists to members of parenting forums who are resolute in their belief that no circumstances exist that could ever justify the dissolution (legal termination) of an adoption. Even if they were told the details leading up to the dissolution and our efforts to engage private assistance for our child, many of these individuals would insist that the truth is clear-cut: the failure was not one of the legal system, or of the adoption agency, but rather a failing of me and me alone.
Looking back, I don’t think we were naive to have believed our team of therapists and social workers would be able to help, nor were we wrong to assume all would be well as long as we followed the law and kept the process above-boards.
But there it is—we could not have been more wrong. And as agonizing as it was, we nonetheless believed we could do it compassionately, morally, and legally, galvanized by a deeply rooted intent to find the solution that would be most beneficial to Mei herself.
Together with our team of mental health professionals, we looked for a private placement for Mei with – among other things – a family without small children. Unfortunately, no suitable family could be identified.
One potential family pulled out at the last minute. In the end, Mei went into the foster care system following a lengthy legal battle with the State to secure assistance.
Because of our educational background, we were able to navigate the system to get the support we needed for Mei but other adoptive families are not so fortunate. With virtually no options, adoptive parents in crisis often turn to the internet’s blogs and message boards for support and advice, or to share their painful adoption failures. Sadly, all too often these same parents are bullied by other posters, who offer no advice, only accusations, and invective.
“With virtually no options, adoptive parents in crisis often turn to the internet’s blogs and message boards for support and advice.”
Several years ago, a series of high-profile media stories shone a spotlight on the prevalence of parents “re-homing” their adopted children, primarily because of issues beyond their capability to manage—an illegal process in which parents using blogs or chat-rooms on the internet locate individuals willing to permanently take that child into their own home. This practice is highly illegal, and because of the anonymity and absence of any regulatory factors, can result in horrific situations in which children are re-homed with abusive or exploitative parents, or worse.
The percentage of adoptive families who seek to transfer custody of a child is very small, and the percentage of those who either do not know or do not care what kind of environment they are sending the child into is even smaller. Unfortunately, those are the stories that make headlines, and the public outcry that ensued has increased the stigmatization of this issue enormously. As a result, families in crisis are less likely than ever to seek professional help, which forces more and more of them to covertly explore their options via the internet.
The concept of “rehoming” garners an overwhelmingly negative public response. In an XO Jane article by an adoptee, the writer forcefully communicated her repugnance of rehoming, stating that, “It’s brazenly preying on troubled, disadvantaged kids who are often considered disposable; children forced to endure the trauma of bouncing from home to home due to sheer adult selfishness and ineptitude.”
In her view, adoptive parents who had reached a point at which they might feel ready to “jump ship and dump their children is a clear indicator of the way so many in America currently view adoption: like it’s “second best” to having biological kids; like the commitment and the connection involved is somehow less real or less legit; like it’s … “Parenting Lite.”
Unfortunately, opinions like this one are common, but in reality, they are formed in response to aberrant instances of genuine neglect and abuse. No one will deny that such abuse happens. But the majority of families who find themselves at the breaking point have arrived there exhausted, heartbroken and terrified after adopting a child whose history and physical and emotional health were hidden by their adoptive agency.
Faced with a special needs child with severe attachment disorder behaviors such as defiance, violence, deliberate cruelty to other children in the home, and unmitigable volatility, these families find themselves unable to keep themselves or their children safe. They find themselves subjected to verbal or physical abuse that they cannot stop. They find themselves without any formal supervision, no agency that provides follow-up in the home, no means to have the situation assessed and mediated.
“Families in crisis are less likely than ever to seek professional help.”
Unable to leave their families and homes unattended, they often have to choose between their marriages and the safety of their other children. This is the reality for the majority of parents who turn to illegal rehoming as a last desperate measure. And because of the heavy mantle of shame attached to rehoming, these parents usually do not speak up themselves.
To those who evince outrage at the circumvention of the legal system in rehoming, our case might logically stand as a positive contrast.
What happens when a family can afford to stay at home, and arrange for extensive therapy for the adopted child? What happens when a family retains the services of an adoption assistance program, an adoption therapist, an adoption specialist? What happens when a family is determined to ensure their adopted child will never end up in the foster care system, and so employ the services of a social care worker and adoption assistance team to manage the situation? What happens when all of the foregoing does not affect or modify the unsafe home conditions and a family does choose to operate within the legal system in placing the child elsewhere?
I can tell you what did not happen to us under all of those circumstances. We were not treated differently in the eyes of the law than parents who physically abused and neglected their children. We were not provided legal protection of guardianship for our other children. We were not afforded the opportunity to have our case adjudicated without having neglect charges made against us. (Families must be charged with neglect in order to receive residential care in some states. This requires the family both to give up custody and to be charged.) We were not provided with any support or assistance from the adoption agency. And we were not viewed favorably by the DCF by virtue of our well-documented efforts to help our child, or by virtue of our decision to seek a new home for her in accordance with the law.
In short, both in our legal predicament and in the public view of our struggle, we were viewed with as much suspicion, negativity and misinformation as a family who attempted to privately rehome under the legal radar.
Whether I speak up or remain silent, I will risk a Pyrrhic victory of conscience where the desire to do the right thing comes at an uncomfortable cost. I’m painfully aware how easy it is for people to write me off as a veritable poster-child of privilege. I’m a white woman, financially secure and well educated, who adopted inter-racially from abroad. By most accounts, I have no arena for complaint, nor am I entitled to anything simply for wanting to do what’s right. I accept that.
But I am speaking up anyway because, while I know that the story of our bringing Mei into our family has for somewhat is an unthinkable ending, I also know that the unthinkable happens frequently to families in international adoption. Slowly and quietly some of those families are beginning to come forward. Now, mine is one of them.
“I know that the unthinkable happens frequently to families in international adoption.”
This is, in part, the story of how an adoption went terribly wrong. It is the story of a young girl who traveled halfway across the world because she believed she would be cared for in every way that she needed. It is the story of how I continued to mother my young daughters when I was battling in court for services for Mei and knowing they all could be snatched from me at any time. It is the story of living the ambiguous grief of a mother who is presumed to have no entitlement to grieve a child she tried to help, could not parent. It is also the story of a legal system that is so bizarrely antiquated it cannot accommodate the needs of a family living with a child suffering with mental health issues and requiring residential care, without initiating the process by pressing criminal charges against the parents. It is the untold story of countless families who, by doggedly insisting to do the right thing in the eyes of the law, never make the headlines and never receive the help that they need. And most importantly, this is the story of an innocent child, abandoned by her family and by the officials into whose care she was placed—a child whose physical and emotional health issues were hidden from all official records—a child with mental health issues who left everything she knew to be shipped around the world to a foreign land—a child who through no fault of her own was not equipped to function in that environment and found herself in the center of a maelstrom. It is the story of something that should never have happened, and yet it did, and it’s happening to other families right now, and it’s going to keep happening until the system is changed.
I write it to give a clear demonstration of the urgent need for legal change, to shine a spotlight on the widespread stigmatization and the social groups that leverage guilt and shame to undermine families like my own (who desperately need to hear from others who have weathered this storm). I write it to defend the practice of adoption and to defend the rights of all three of my adopted children to prosper in this country. I write it to defend Mei, and yes—I write it to defend myself from the assumption that I imbued so little value in my daughter that I simply decided to dispose of her when the going got tough because I was selfish or ignorant or pathological.
That court battle was a hell from which I don’t think we’ll ever fully recover. I certainly don’t imagine Mei will be able to shed the wounds she acquired during that time. So the question arises—if parents with an abundance of time, with a combined total of 4 graduate degrees in family therapy and human development, with a decade of experience in international adoption, with the financial resources to hire therapists and specialists, and with determination and integrity to both find a safe and healthy environment for their adopted child and to do so through strictly legal procedures—if those parents can experience such a spectacular failure in their efforts, then what are families without these resources to do?
- Mei is not her real name. Her name is changed to protect her privacy.