We call it a "Forever Family". Adoption is a permanent plan for parenting a child. But what if the plan is not...permanent? What happens when adoption fails? It's a difficult subject and there is little research. It is painful when parents cannot or do not want to continue their commitment to a child. The child feels rejected and lost. The parents feel guilt and shame. But how often does it happen?
If you consider adoption to be a legal arrangement whereby an adult agrees to take on the rights and responsibilities of parenting a specific child, it's like a one-sided marriage. Children cannot consent to be adopted but at 12 they can legally veto the idea. Despite the law, a child does not have the cognitive capacity to consent to adoption anymore than he or she can make a mature decision about marriage. That does not mean, however, that a child cannot make his or her feelings known.
Strictly speaking, adoptions do not generally fail. When an adoptive placement fails before legal finalization, it's called disruption. The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System surveys completed by state adoption workers and compiled by the U.S. Department of Human Services show 10-25% of adoptive placements failed before finalization between the 1980's and 2000's. When a finalized adoption is legally reversed, it's called dissolution. The AFCARS show .5-3% of finalized adoptions are nullified. This number is small because courts do not dissolve a legal adoption unless adoption workers can identify another family to adopt the child. The AFCARS indicate if a child has been previously adopted. The dissolution is like a divorce.
Examples of adoptive placements that failed before finalization include a military family placed with a teenager; empty nesters placed with a severely neglected nine year old; and a couple who asked the boy be removed after nearly a year in placement. Examples of children placed out of the adoptive home include a foreign born girl adopted after several failed placements; a teenager adopted as a small child; and two teenagers who became aggressive or abusive with siblings.
More often, and here the research is lacking, the legal adoption is not dissolved but parents or child welfare workers place the child outside the home, with relatives, in foster homes, or group homes. Parents may place their children if they cannot safely maintain or do not want to parent the child. Child welfare workers may place the child if abuse or neglect is happening in the adoptive home. Sometimes adopted children re-enter the child welfare system only to be adopted again.
Why does adoption fail before or after finalization? The research indicates that adoptive families and children are inadequately assessed and prepared for adoption. Adoptive parent assessments or home studies may identify the issues that mostly commonly interfere with a successful adoption but without a specific plan to address them or a decision to prevent an adoption. Those issues are unresolved infertility and personality traits that make it difficult for an adoptive parent to commit to a child or to tolerate trauma-related behaviors. Despite the requirement for full disclosure adoptive social histories or tellings often have missing information about the child's early trauma exposure that can impact their ability to attach to new parents. The research also shows a lack of sufficient post-adoption support. Just as impactfull is the willingness of adoptive families to seek and use services.
The military family sought support parenting a 14-year-old girl abandoned by her parents and left in foster care with multiple placements. However, the girl began to act out and make allegations against the parents, which is common for children who fear commitment. The father's security clearance was red-flagged during the investigation, and the family was not able or willing to risk their livelihood to care for the child. The girl went to a group home. The empty nesters had successfully raised three children in a conservative religious home. But their beliefs could not tolerate or help a boy who lied and stole due to severe early neglect. They could not suspend their right/wrong black and white thinking to empathize and supervise the boy who went into a group home. For almost a year the last couple celebrated holidays and birthdays, decorated his room, and signed him up for little league. But when the boy began to test their commitment by rejecting their direction and care, they saw it as disrespectful. Each parent had substantial unresolved child trauma and took it personally. The boy returned to foster care and subsequently lost another rushed adoptive placement before it even began.
The single mother was the third adoptive placement for a three year old brought from a Central Asian country to the United States by a foreign adoption agency. As her 12th birthday approached the connection to her mother began to fray. She ran away from home, tore up her room, broke a window, and threatened to kill everybody in the home. Her mother sought help from all sources until she had to ask a judge to take the girl into custody and place her in a group home for everyone's safety. An older couple was completely committed to an intelligent boy they raised since his mother left him at three. Nobody believed them when they said he felt no remorse and could look them in the eye and lie. He charmed or conned professionals into believing his parents were too harsh until he took up a knife and pushed past his mother in their home. They visit him in a group home. Two other couples who faced infertility but had big dreams for big families took in one then a second traumatized child. When the first one began to attack the second one because of neglect-based trauma, they sent the first child to a county-funded group home. One couple tried to participate in treatment but were not included and decided to bring the boy home anyway. The second couple refused to participate in treatment and the group home placement became their preferred solution.
The information about why adoptions fail also tells us what helps them stick or succeed. Parents who have processed their own traumatic experiences and are aware of their triggers are better able to tolerate and respond effectively to a child's trauma-based behaviors. Parents who have grieved their infertility and buried their ideal child can be open to a different path with a unique child born in another family. Adoption workers will dig deeper for more information and not spare potential adoptive parents any of the unpleasant details so the child does not experience another rejection. Intelligent effective people will accept help and support for the lifelong adventure that is adoption. This also applies to private planned adoptions in which birth parents place their child for adoption with a waiting family at birth and maintain contact. Adoption involves loss; for the child, for the birth parents, and for the adoptive parents. That fact requires attention for all adoption to succeed.