When there is an issue in the adoption world that is getting ready to rumble up to the surface and explode, my first clue almost always comes on facebook. That happened yesterday as the recent NBC investigative series on adoption explored the nefarious practice they term “re-homing” children outside of any law. The stories are gut wrenching and heart breaking as internationally adopted children are basically posted and traded on the Internet within the USA. My initial and appropriate reaction was one of deep sadness for the children and disgust for the adults participating. I also thought, “here we go again – another story that makes adoption look horrible”. Yet on further reflection, I believe that this story could lead to more honest and open talk about the highly complex decisions that confront a family when a child with serious behaviors enters in. Here is an attempt to explore that side of the story.
The technical word for when an adoption is dissolved is disruption. If the things that I read and know of are any indication, this is on the rise. My heart and mind almost always first empathize with the child involved in these stories. The pain and suffering that is being acted out within the family context is immeasurable. Traumatized children don’t become a physical threat to themselves and others by happenstance. There is always a very difficult and often dark backstory. And though sometimes these children have words for what has happened to them, often it is pre-verbal and they only have behaviors to express the depth of pain and suffering in their lives. Children are exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero and this almost always harms the brain, learning abilities, emotional maturity and behaviors of a child for life. Yet each and every one of these abused and neglected children, whether coming to a home after foster care in the US or from a country somewhere across the globe, desperately needs a safe and loving place to land. Ask any social worker – there aren’t a lot of “qualified” people lining up to do the job.
Sometimes the troublesome behaviors and issues are known, communicated, prepared for and the parents embark on a committed relationship with all of the needed support systems in place. But I think this is a rarity. Child welfare workers are often desperate to place children and know if they tell the whole story, it won’t happen. Full disclosure needs to happen, as it is the best hope for a child to get what they need to heal as fully as possible. And often, there is no way to know or predict how complex any one child’s needs will turn out to be. Just as with many biological children, they unfold in time. Many open hearted people go into adopting children from hard places with great intentions and an expectation that this child will fit right into the family. Depending on many factors (ex. parenting style, child resiliency, parent resiliency, temperaments, resources to name just a few) that may or may not happen.
Social workers have an obligation to fully educate and support adoptive parents. Adoptive parents have a responsibility to be educated on and as prepared as possible for “worst case scenarios”. But the truth is that if we as a parent truly believed that the worst case would become reality, we probably wouldn’t take the risk. Imagine if you adopted a hurting child into your family and then this child became a physical threat to other children in your home. Or if you found that they had sexually abused another child in your home. These things are happening. Sometimes when all needs are visible and known, the best hope for an individual child is to be an only child or placed with parents highly trained in therapeutic parenting. Some situations are highly complex and have to take multiple perspectives with no clear best path. This is a far different decision than the ones being made in the NBC series. It is a universe away from posting a child on the Internet, an open invitation to any and all sexual predators, and dropping them off in an unknown place.
There is another aspect to this story. I want to say this gently to any reader who is already actively parenting a great number of children from hard places. Dr. Karyn Purvis of TCU who does research based interventions for at-risk children has begun to speak powerfully and directly about the incredible amount of family energy and resources needed to parent many of these children. Her advice is to adopt no more than two and to adopt them several years apart (our family busted on that one!). We must be realistic and count the cost. It is very difficult for those who see the need and the long lines of children needing a home but the short lines of parents prepared to walk alongside them. And while it may not be two children, there is definitely a tipping point in each of our families and we need to be honest and realistic about such things.
I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that have struggled on a much more deep and profound level than our family – friends who have paid a very high price to parent their precious, hurting children. Family, friends and faith communities have often grown weary or judgmental and turned their backs on them. Some have made the painful decision to let their children more fully heal in residential treatment centers. Some have lost their career or marriage over the stress of parenting deeply injured children. Not to mention the physical, emotional and spiritual toll on them as human beings. They desperately need others to come alongside and help.
We as a society must care more deeply about these hurting children and the family that is often doing the best they can to raise them. The interventions necessary have a tremendous energy, time, emotional and financial cost. Our laws need to care about education, mental health services and ultimately when things just can’t work out in a given family, the placement of children into safe and prepared homes. This line struck me in one of the NBC articles:
“No law explicitly covers the practice of private “re-homing”. The primary safeguard that does exist is a feeble deterrent – an agreement between the U.S. states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). Although the ICPC has been adopted as law by each state, some states attach no penalties to violations of the pact. In others, violations are considered misdemeanors, but even then officials almost never prosecute offenders. For parents who know about the compact but choose to ignore it, any legal risk is outweighed by the need to remove a troublesome child. When the underground network is used, a transfer will likely go unnoticed by authorities, minimizing the chance of getting caught.”
As a society, we can’t even be remotely ok with that.
The NBC families highlighted are extreme cases and in my opinion, the parents have no business parenting hurting children. I have seen this kind of situation up close – it is utterly devastating. But in our rush to judge and be on the moral high ground, sometimes we throw all disruptions into the same category. I can’t even imagine the pain and agony that some have lived through before coming to that decision. Before we categorize all as same, we need to ask some really hard questions of ourselves as a person and as a society. Some situations are extremely complex and heart rending, yet still those parents are the target of disdain and shame. We live in a broken world. We are broken people parenting broken children. Sometimes outrage is appropriate and sometimes a shattered heart and utter compassion are the best response. All adoption nightmares are not the same story.