Adoption disruptions and dissolutions* should be prevented through every service and support available. Innovative programs across the country are keeping adoptive families safely intact, and we know that, with increased commitment, even more families can be preserved. At the same time, however, we cannot ignore the devastating reality for adoptive families who break apart.
Too often adoption disruptions are tragic facts of life that we are reluctant to address honestly and openly. Still, the child welfare community owes children and parents involved in disrupted adoptions ongoing support during and after this deeply painful experience. Families and children desperately need help from many sources—including other parents, the agency responsible for placing the child, and trained mental health providers.
The Reality of Disruption
Without question, most adoptions succeed and adoptive families stay together. Adoptions that disrupt typically unravel for a complicated mix of reasons. Mental health issues, the child’s past history, and unrealistic parent expectations can all undermine adoptions. System barriers—poor matching, poor preparation, misinformation or incomplete disclosure about a child’s needs, inadequate post-adoption support—also contribute. Whatever the cause, parents whose adoptions are floundering soon find themselves becoming traumatized as they repeatedly try, and are unable, to parent successfully.
When Brady joined his new family, his dad and brothers tried hard to make him feel at home. “I accepted him 100 percent,” says one brother. “I learned to endure his rages and hoped to help him somehow.” After Brady tried to seriously injure his grandmother, the family knew he needed more help than they could offer. When Brady left, however, at least one of the remaining brothers (also an adoptee) suddenly felt insecure about his role in the family. As he explains:
Several months [after Brady’s disruption] I decided to leave home, to run away. Dad was being his firm self about my curfew and I just decided that I wasn’t going to take it. I don’t know if it was because of Brady or not, but I remember feeling unsure about my own place in the family when he was removed from the home. It seemed that I looked at Dad differently. Though I knew why he had to have Brady removed, I wondered if he would do the same thing to me.
Sammie, who was placed with a family at age seven, exhibited problems and behaviors that turned her family’s life upside down. Because Sammie rarely slept, her adoptive parents had to monitor her day and night. Her adoptive siblings grew to hate going out in public with her, and stopped inviting their friends to the house because she was so unpredictable. Family camping trips were disastrous. By the time Sammie left (three years after placement), the family was scarred and traumatized by the ongoing stress and the guilt they felt for ending the adoption.
Support for Disrupting Families
Disruptions are hard on everyone who is involved. Adoptive families are forever changed by the experiences that led to the disruption and the emotionally wrenching decision to end the adoption. Workers may feel sad, angry, guilty, or frustrated by what seems like a professional failure. The child who disrupts suffers yet another loss, and children left in the family must come to terms with their losses too.
During this difficult time, families and the child welfare system must see past differences and come together to achieve the necessary healing for all involved.
Families must find the strength to reach out for help. For parents, one crucial and difficult step toward healing is acknowledging that they need help. Overwhelming guilt may make conversations hard, but parents going through a disruption need validation that they have endured a traumatic experience. Parents must reach out to find resources for themselves and their children. Therapy may be necessary to help families to begin working through their grief, loss, and trauma.
Agency workers and administrators must embrace the philosophy of working with disrupting families and children. Agencies have a moral obligation to provide support to families who experience a disruption—those who stepped forward to adopt children with special needs. The agency should offer emotional support and help the family to access services that promote healing. If the relationship between parents and their worker has suffered due to the disruption, the agency should find another professional who can acknowledge the family’s pain and make support services available.
Children who leave an adoptive placement also require special consideration. They need services and support that can help them heal and learn to live successfully with another family. Sometimes disrupting families can help to smooth the transition to another placement. At the least, families can provide agency staff with helpful insight into the children, their problems, and support services that might be most beneficial for the child’s new family.
Agencies should support disrupting families and children because it is the right thing to do, but there is another incentive as well. Many families who experience a disruption have, or plan to have, other adopted children. The children still need a family. For both parties, though one adoptive placement did not work out, a future placement certainly may.
Policies should treat adoptive parents fairly. When life with a child becomes so horrific that the adoptive parents feel compelled to dissolve the adoption, social workers and judges should examine all the facts in the case and make available services needed to preserve the placement. If necessary services cannot be provided, the family should not be penalized (through child neglect or abandonment charges) if the adoption must still end. Current policies that force adoptive parents to relinquish their children or continue living in a dangerous, destructive environment are unacceptable.
Adoptive family support groups have an important role to play. Support groups should offer all the help they can to families who experience a disruption. Unfortunately, for adoptive families who are struggling, too much talk about another family’s disruption can be hard to take. To protect other members and support the disrupting family, group leaders may want to pair the disrupting family with a mentor family who has been through the same process and can offer empathy and advice outside group meetings. Full group meetings should continue to support the disrupting family as well as other members.
Family members must support one another. Within the family, parents must allow themselves and their other children the time and permission to grieve and rediscover their core life values. “We talked and cried together with our kids,” reports one couple. “[We] checked in with each child several times. We let them get their anger and disappointments out.” Couples may need counseling to help repair damage done to their relationship and must acknowledge each other’s individual pain over the loss of a child.
Families should remember the child who left, too. “We still pray for him as a couple,” reflects one adoptive father. “We encourage our children to not hate him but to hate what he did.”
Everyone who is intimately involved in a disruption or dissolution bears the weight of tremendous guilt, grief, loss, and trauma. Parents’, workers’, and children’s confidence in their abilities and even their intrinsic worth may be badly shaken. Even so, we must go on; the adoption community must keep working to promote successful adoptions. At the same time, we must talk openly and honestly about the realities of disruption. To achieve goals for placing more older children and preventing disruptions, we must learn all we can both from adoptions that succeed and those that come undone. And when an adoption disrupts, we must also accept our responsibilities for helping traumatized parents and children to heal.
* Disruptions occur before and dissolutions after finalization. In this article, the term disruption means either disruption or dissolution except in cases where the legal distinction is germane.