Parents who give up their adopted children have been making the news with increasing frequency of late. There’s Torry Ann Hansen, the now-infamous Tennessee nurse who sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to his native Russia on a plane, alone. Then there’s Joyce Maynard, the writer who made headlines last year when she admitted to giving her two adopted Ethiopian daughters to a new family. And many have read the recent Reuters series on parents who send their problematic adoptees to live with online strangers offering free “re-homing.”
As it turns out, broken adoptions are far more common than one might imagine. According to statistics from the federal Children’s Bureau, as many as 10 percent of adoptions are “dissolved,” meaning the parent-child relationship is severed after the adoption is finalized. As countries such as Guatemala and China close their international adoption programs or implement strict new rules, the pool of adoptable babies has shrunk dramatically in recent years, leading to a rise in more challenging types of adoption of older or disabled children that are more likely to end in dissolution.
The problem is twofold, experts say. First, adoptive parents are often underprepared for the challenges of raising a child who has been in an orphanage or the foster care system. Second, once adoptive families encounter trouble, there are woefully few resources to help.
Tina Traster had no idea what she was getting into when, in 2003, she and her husband flew to Siberia to adopt an 8-month-old baby girl. They were told only that the baby might have some muscle weakness – airbrushing of a child’s true health status on the part of adoption agencies and orphanages is common, Traster would later learn. “Nobody gave us the heads up about what an institutionalized child might be subjected to, physically and emotionally,” Traster says.
Once Julia, as Traster and her husband named the baby, was home in New York, the extent of her problems became obvious. She was “feral” and “detached,” Traster says. She wouldn’t make eye contact or be held. As a toddler, she threw wild tantrums and hid in her room. Traster grew frantic and depressed, wondering why she couldn’t do anything to help, even questioning whether she was the right mother for the child.
Once Traster and her husband recognized that Julia’s issues were likely a result of institutional neglect, Traster read every book she could on adoption issues and worked extensively with Julia to help her bond and heal. While today Julia is a healthy and thriving 11-year-old, other families with fewer resources or more severe problems might have had a very different outcome, Traster says. As a blogger and author of an upcoming book on her experience, she frequently talks to parents on the verge of relinquishing their children.
Some parents describe horrific behavioral and psychological problems on the part of children who have been abused or neglected before their adoptions. “We have experienced multiple school expulsions, physical assaults, fires, psychiatric admissions, ER visits for self mutilation, sexual acting out, stolen credit cards, multiple police calls, etc.,” writes one Wisconsin father of an adopted son, commenting on a New York Times article. “We didn’t have the slightest idea of what we were getting ourselves into and every school or social service agency basically told us we were on our own.”
Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which studies adoption issues, says post-adoption support services are shamefully inadequate. “Unless we support the new family and provide them with services and resources and support and mental health facilities, we’re just setting them up for failure,” Pertman says.
Pertman believes that adoption agencies, which get paid $40,000 or more from parents for overseas adoptions, have a “moral responsibility” to provide post-adoption services. And while there are some supports in place for parents who adopt from the foster care system in the US, these need to be much stronger. Mental health professionals need to be trained in adoption and attachment issues – at present, few know how to deal with these problems, Pertman says.
Most families who break their adoptions have been trying for years to find the right kind of help for their children, says Julie Beem, the executive director of the Attachment and Trauma Network, a volunteer organization that offers online support to families dealing with difficult adoptions. Often, adoptions are broken when parents realize they simply can’t keep their children safe from physical self-harm, or can’t protect their other children from abuse by the troubled adoptee.
“The parents don’t want to give up on the child,” she says. “It’s an incredibly traumatic thing when that happens.”
Adoptions are far more likely to be broken when the child is adopted at an older age or has special needs. And since the number of infants available for adoption has fallen steadily over the years thanks to legalized abortion and a reduction of stigma against unwed mothers, many prospective adoptive families are adopting from a pool of children likelier to have preexisting problems.
“It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t adopt these kids, it means they need training and education and support to make it successful,” Pertman says. “If you think love conquers all, you’re not paying attention.”
Emily Matchar writes for publications such as The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Washington Post and others. She is the author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. The views expressed are solely her own.