The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart
There is an excellent article in Brain Child Magazine about how some adoptions fail. While most are successful, it’s important that we acknowledge that there are times when sometimes they just don’t work.
By Dawn Friedman
When we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—“a forever family.”
That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.
In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.
But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.
The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.
Like many adoptive parents, Carol fell in love with a picture first. Henry was a chubby-cheeked, brown-skinned boy with a crooked grin and closely cropped hair. In the photo he is sitting on some sort of a wooden bench wearing a striped polo shirt and khaki pants. He is undeniably adorable. While Carol knew very little about him, there was nothing in his orphanage record that made her feel concerned. She knew that he lived at the orphanage with both an older and younger biological sibling and she knew that for some reason he was the target of teasing by the other orphans. Her heart went out to him.
Carol and her husband, already parents to a six-year-old biological child, knew what conditions in his Caribbean orphanage were like because they were already in the process of adopting a special-needs child from the same program, a toddler girl named Lily. Gazing at Henry’s picture online in the photo listings for the orphanage, Carol felt led. Despite their small house, modest lifestyle, and single income, she felt like God was calling her to be Henry’s mother, too.
“The orphanage was so overcrowded,” Carol says, recalling her visit to complete the adoption of Lily. “The children there are so starved for affection and you think, my house is so big! I could afford to take care of more children.”
That’s how she found herself back in less than two years, bringing home five-year-old Henry and his siblings, Isobel and Matthew.
Carol told me that all of her adopted children have histories of trauma. Her newest children raged and fought and struggled to learn how to live in a family. Henry was easier. He was a good kid, anxious for approval and able to show affection. She wasn’t worried about him. Not when her time was taken up in helping the other children who were having a much more difficult time adjusting. Then, one month into their new family configuration, things changed.
“We caught him sexually acting out,” Carol says simply. She and her husband reacted by establishing house rules. Supervision got tighter. No child could be in the bathroom with another child. They talked good touch and bad touch in the children’s native language and stopped having sleepovers. They looked into getting Henry counseling. He didn’t speak English yet, however, so they did their best to create a safe environment for all of the kids. They thought it was working until one of the older children caught Henry in another child’s room and his story didn’t quite add up. Carol sat him down and asked, “Hey buddy, do you have a secret?”
Henry had lots of secrets. He told her that he had been molesting his siblings for the past year. He described his behavior in detail and then told her about the orphanage, about the way he and his crib mate used to play this way. He told her about incidents that happened when she was in the room, when her back was turned. He told her how he got the other children to give in.
“It was extensive,” Carol says. “It was stuff I didn’t even know that a six-year-old was capable of.”
Carol called her state’s child protective services (CPS) department. They told her that unless the children were more than two years apart, it wasn’t considered abuse. At first she was relieved because she had been afraid that CPS would take her children away. She and her husband put the house on lockdown and kept Henry in their line of sight at all times. That is when he became “the angriest boy alive,” Carol says. Without the psychological outlet of the sexual abuse, her son became increasingly violent, raging two to four hours a day and threatening to kill the other children. They hid the knives and bought locks for all the doors. The behavior continued to escalate. Henry would threaten to force Carol to crash the car. He said he would bash her head in with a rock. The other children were terrified. Henry was scared, too. He knew he was out of control but didn’t know how to stop.
Carol looked for services to help Henry stay in their home and took him to experts in adoption and attachment across the state. Her days were taken up with phone calls, paperwork, and more phone calls. She worked their insurance for referrals, begged the school for resources and read up online. She took Henry to see a leading child neuropsychologist specializing in treating adopted children with severe issues. The consensus was that in order to get the long-term treatment he needed, Henry would have to leave.
Carol went back to working the phones until she found a residential treatment center with the ability to work with a six-year-old sex offender. A year and a half ago, Henry went to live at the facility, two thousand miles away. He will likely be there for at least another nine months. No one has told Henry this yet (his therapists say it’s not the right time to explain), but when he’s ready to leave the center, he won’t get to come home. Instead Carol has found another family who will take him, who will adopt him. He will become their son. “He can’t come home again,” Carol says.
As a mom both biologically and by adoption, I know that adoption is different. It isn’t less than, it isn’t second best, but it’s different. Although we brought our daughter home when she was just three days old, falling in love with her was not the same as falling in love with our son. When the doctor handed my son to me for the first time, there was an immediate recognition that he was of me and that I was of him. With Madison, on the other hand, I felt like a fraud for her first month of life. It took more time to get to know her, and it took more time to trust myself to know how to be her mother.
It’s not something I like to admit; I am still a little ashamed of our challenged beginning. Part of the adoption myth is that you see your baby and you fall in love. Other adoptive mothers tell this story; it led me to wonder what was wrong with me. I went through the motions, staring at her face while I fed her, carrying her everywhere in the sling. Then one day I woke up and she felt like a part of me. It had taken longer but eventually it clicked, just the way it did with my son.
Jean Mercer is a psychologist and president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health, as well as an author of several books on attachment. Healthy infants are hard-wired to encourage their parents to attach to them, she said in an e-mail interview. This is why falling in love with Madison was nearly inevitable. A healthy mother and a healthy child are primed to bond to each other.
“When babies show obvious responses—crying or not crying, taking the nipple enthusiastically, calming when soothed—parents feel that personal communications and responses have been made,” she says. “This encourages the parents to do more caregiving and playing.”
But many children raised in orphanages stop responding to adult attention because they learn that their efforts don’t work. Overwhelmed caregivers may not have time to make eye contact or talk to their charges. Locked into survival mode, the children do not always know how to connect with their new adoptive parents. “We like people who like us,” explains Mercer. “If children don’t look at us much we figure they don’t like us so maybe we don’t like them.”
This is why it can be harder to build attachment with children who are adopted past early infancy. It’s certainly not impossible, of course; most parents are able to get past the bumpy beginnings and forge bonds with their children.
Sometimes things go horribly awry, however. Children who have experienced very difficult beginnings—drug or alcohol exposure in utero, abuse or neglect, a multitude of caregivers—sometimes develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which is a daunting diagnosis. Kids with RAD seem to have no conscience and are unable to appreciate the consequences of their harmful behavior. Because they struggle to trust that other people will care for them, they live in a permanent state of fight or flight. Many of these children constantly lash out at caregivers and rage violently at perceived threats. Their deprived beginnings and need for control can cause them to gorge on food until they vomit, go on campaigns of destruction where they destroy entire rooms, and physically attack other members of the family.
Kids with RAD can be hard to like, let alone love. Caring for them is exhausting and demoralizing. Parents tell me that their children with RAD have more energy than the rest of the family combined and need very little sleep. Raising them is counterintuitive; open affection can feel terrifying for such children and can set off a large-scale tantrum. Most of the parents I spoke with have a story that involves waking up and finding their child standing over them, sometimes with a knife. This is one reason many of them install locks on all the doors and alarms on all of the windows.
Paradoxically, sometimes the safer they feel, the more the children act out. Parents sometimes have a honeymoon period during the first trial visit or at the beginning of a placement. These quiet times can last a day or a year, but if the child has underlying issues, the behavior problems will eventually surface.
Patty, who recently adopted an eight-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl from Columbia with her husband, Wyatt, met her children through an agency that sponsors summer foster-care programs. Children come to the United States and are placed in potential adoptive homes for five weeks. Patty and Wyatt’s experience with the kids was such a good one that Patty went to their country to start the adoption process. The children came home right around Christmas; in hindsight, Patty says, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“We thought they wouldn’t be here until January or February,” she says. “We were totally unprepared, but our friends set up their rooms and there were tons of presents. In retrospect it was not ideal because it was just too much for the kids to handle.”
The children spiraled out of control, and the house felt under siege. The children were too angry, too violent. After one attack, Patty had a black eye and scratches on her throat. The police had to be called when one of the children came at her with a belt. Desperate, Patty called the agency that had done their home study to tell them they had to end the placement, meaning that she wanted to legally disrupt the adoption (disruption is the term for ending an adoption before it is finalized; dissolution is the term for an adoption that is terminated after finalization). They would need to send the children back to their orphanage. During the call, however, Patty learned that the program had an adoption preservation counselor on staff. The counselor came over the next day and set them up with a “family preservation team.”
“They said these kids might not have it in them [to be adopted] because they were just that crazy,” Patty said. To qualify for services, Patty and Wyatt had to check off a list of problem behaviors such as lighting fires in the home and wielding knives. “We could check off every single one with our kids.”
The family preservation team spent every waking moment for the first week with Patty, Wyatt, and the children, watching their interactions and interviewing the parents and the kids. In order to help the children be successful in the family, Patty and Wyatt needed to radically change their parenting plans and expectations, the team leader said. Patty used to picture cozy family reading times and romps in the park, but the kids aren’t ready for that level of intimacy. Even a recent quick game of soccer between Patty and her son had to be cut short since the children desperately need her to be the authority figure. They are unable to handle her presence as a playmate.
“I had to grieve—I’m still grieving—the family that I pictured three months ago [when the children first arrived],” she says. “I mean, you think you’re supposed to attach to these people and they have real feelings and real personalities and some parts you’re going to love and some parts you’re not going to love so much. But the objective thing is that I committed to do this, and I wouldn’t give up until I’ve tried everything because that wouldn’t be fair to them. It wouldn’t be right.”
Patty is clear that without the family preservation team’s guidance, she would not be able to parent her kids. Their support is what allowed her children to stay home.
Adoption termination is the industry’s dirty little secret. It’s especially secretive in international adoption. Studies of adoption termination, as reported by the Child Welfare Information Gateway report, “Adoption Disruption and Dissolution” (2004), usually focus on foster-care cases. This research, done by child welfare academics and advocates, estimates that ten percent to twenty-five percent of all adoptions terminate either before finalization (disruption) or after (dissolution). It’s hard to say whether or not the numbers in international adoptions are similar, but the kinds of challenges that terminate domestic adoptions are certainly present in many international ones. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, in their 2004 research review, “Adoption Stability & Termination,” adoptions fall apart when kids have behavioral and emotional problems that overwhelm parents and when appropriate supports and services are not accessible. There are specific indicators of an adoption that runs a higher risk of failure, such as those in which children have been in foster care for more than three years, have experienced sexual abuse, arrive in a sibling group or have had prenatal drug or alcohol exposure.
Katie Valentino, a licensed professional clinical counselor, worked as an adoption preservation specialist for a federally sponsored program until it lost funding. She is now in private practice in Bloomingdale, Illinois.
“People think it can’t be the child’s fault; it has to be the parent’s fault,” Valentino said. “But I think the commonalities [in adoption terminations] are more the lack of support and the extreme nature of the child’s background. Social workers have to really identify and speak the truth about how difficult these kids might be. If we have the supports in place, these families and these kids could do so much better.”
The other challenge is fitting the right kids to the right parents. Matching families is an elusive art, and hard-pressed social workers in the foster-care system don’t always have the time or the ability to focus on choosing the best placements.
In international adoptions, the matching process varies. Parents may get placed with the child at the top of a list. Other programs match kids to parents who orphanage program administrators think resemble them. Then, too, parents often fall in love with photo listings, like Carol did with Henry’s. It’s one reason agencies use such photos. In many international adoptions, there is little to no history on any given child, yet parents are expected to commit to a specific boy or girl based on a picture (one that’s sometimes months or even years old) and scanty records that are often poorly translated.
“With a lot of kids, especially the foreign adoptions, parents fall in love with a videotape,” says Valentino. “They don’t know they’re falling in love with a child who has been horribly sexually abused.”
Carol says the agency she worked with is a typical “do-gooder” agency whose best intentions for the child sometimes run roughshod over the families who adopt them. She understands their imperative to get families for needy kids.
“[The agency] thinks it’s better to get the child out of the country and then you can deal with whatever the child’s problems are. But they are so unrealistic,” she says. “You get the child, but you can’t get services for the child. I know of at least five disruptions that have happened from this agency in a three-year time span because the kids are traumatized and the orphanage is crap. But the agency doesn’t care. Their intention is good, but they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.”
In many international adoptions, the legal adoption happens in the child’s country of origin. By the time the new family gets on the plane, they are irrevocably tied to each other. Valentino said many parents who wind up in trouble have doubts in the orphanage,, but they don’t speak up because they have already come so far. They have already been through the home study, written the checks, waited for their referral, and now they are here. They are told this is their child. How could they back out now?
Troll online adoption support groups, and you’ll find the stories. Alongside more benign message boards where adoptive parents chat about creating “lifebooks” (adoption-centric baby books) and answering their kids’ questions, there are websites of home-study-ready families willing to take in children who have already failed with one family. The website CHASK.org (Christian Homes and Special Kids) has a page on their site with photo listings and short descriptions of children whose parents no longer feel they can care for them. On the day I checked, there were two children listed, both with severe issues. One was a foster-to-adopt placement whose parents had split up, and the other was an international adoption from an Eastern European country. The text of that one reads, in part:
The main reason we have decided to find a new home for Nick is that he is an expert liar and manipulator, and he acts out. He tells lies about us to others (hurtful) and is very convincing. He is also hostile toward me (Mom). His therapists believe he has RAD, and maybe ADHD. He needs constant supervision when he is around young children. This has been traumatic to us and combined with his acting out, is more then we can handle.
When I read that paragraph, I wondered about the details the mother is not sharing. I wondered about her frustration and disappointment. I wondered what dreams she had about motherhood that this child could not fulfill. Valentino notes that in families struggling with attachment issues, mothers are usually the targets of their children’s anger and abuse. They are also usually the ones to give up their jobs and social lives to make parenting their troubled children their full-time occupation.
Laura (not her real name) is a licensed professional counselor in the Midwest working with a legal practice that specializes in adoption. The practice gets a lot of criticism, Laura says, because their services include helping parents terminate adoptions and supervise “re-placements”; she asked that I not use her real name or identify the practice.
While Laura and her husband make their living in part because some adoptive families fall apart, she is sharply critical of the parents who use their services. Laura told me in an e-mail interview, “There should be nothing a child does that would cause a parent to ‘get rid of them.’ There are millions of biological kids out there making bad choices and their parents never get rid of them.”
Laura is making the same assumptions that most of us laypeople make. In fact, some parents do “get rid of” their biological children and for the same reasons that they send their adopted kids away. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (the GAO is the investigative arm of Congress), in 2001, more than 12,700 children were deliberately placed in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Most of them have a diagnosed mental illness. While the GAO report didn’t differentiate between adopted kids and kids living with their biological parents, it’s clear that parents who can’t help their children sometimes give them away to someone that they hope will. Addressing the report, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a grass-roots advocacy organization based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote that families are forced to give up custody of their children when they cannot handle their behavior and when they have run out of resources.
While Laura is critical of families who seek her practice’s services, she does agree that support and education is vital for success. “Sadly, love and commitment can be conditional with adoptive parents,” she says. “Many of the families were not prepared properly, or did not receive accurate information about the child to make an educated decision to adopt. Also, they may not have had the right motivations to adopt or they do not have realistic expectations of the child.”
Arleta James, a professional clinical counselor, is on staff at the Attachment and Bonding Center, a therapy center in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of Brothers and Sisters in Adoption (2009) and has done research about disruption.
“Expectations seem to be endless in adoption,” she says. “And psychological fit plays a role in disruption and dissolution. The parents just can’t seem to connect to the child in any way.”
James describes one family who planned to adopt a little girl from an Eastern European country. “They had all girl’s clothing, decorated the bedroom for a girl,” but after arriving at the orphanage discovered they had been matched with a boy.
“They never seemed to recover from their expectation of a girl,” she says. Within two years the family split. The parents divorced, and the family discovered that their son had many sexual and aggressive behaviors. James helped the family through the dissolution process. Eventually, the family placed the child in an open adoption, where his behavior is improving. “The mom now views herself as the vehicle through which the child arrived in this country,” James notes. “So as time goes on, you can see the healing.”
James said that having one parent who feels more committed to the adoption than the other is not uncommon, but in already challenging adoptions, this difference in dedication can be too much.
“I had a case in which the child was adopted ten years ago,” she recalls. “One of the first things the dad said at the assessment was that he never wanted his daughter in the first place but his wife wanted to adopt. The wife has taken this child to more therapy and evaluations than can be counted. She was so tired that she also wanted the child out of the home. The assessment at our office was the first time this dad had gone to any of his child’s services and he was very angry at our office that his presence was required. Ultimately he left the room to talk on his cell phone.”
It’s easy to condemn this man. But then I think about how many women I know who wanted a baby more than their partners did. My own husband let me lead the way when it came to our family planning, both for our biological son and our adoptive daughter. I’m sure that this woman had the same faith I did—that her spouse would fall in love eventually. That worked for us, but whose fault is it when that doesn’t happen? And how do we best serve the kids when it all falls apart?
“From one point of view, I’d say that if a parent has seriously considered disrupting the adoption of a young child, perhaps she ought to go ahead and do it,” says Mercer, the psychologist who specializes in infant attachment. “A disengaged adoptive parent is probably not giving the child what he or she needs. I don’t mean to suggest rushing out to disrupt the minute you feel things are going badly.”
Mercer goes on to say that families considering disruption need to be sure that they have exhausted all of their resources and sought professional help.
She admits that help can be hard to find. “Most parenting coaches and LMFTs [Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists] working with families have had little or no useful training in this area and although they may want very much to help they may not have the skills to do so,” she says. “The mere fact that a practitioner has a professional license does not necessarily mean that they have the right training.”
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway website—a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—some of the same factors that put a family at risk for adoption termination also put children at risk for abuse, such as the presence of physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities in a child. In their report “A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice” the HHS Office on Child Abuse and Neglect says that “parents who maltreat their children report experiencing greater isolation, more loneliness, and less social support.”
“Is it really realistic to think that every adoption will work out?” asks James, of the Attachment and Bonding Center. “People go to a foreign country and come home with a virtual stranger. And, on the child’s part, they are moved so abruptly from one country to another. There are going to be cases in which the parents or the adoptee simply cannot adjust.”
In April of this year, Torry Hansen, of Shelbyville, Tennessee, put her unaccompanied seven-year old son, Artyem Savelyev, on a plane back to his native country of Russia. She sent him with a note saying she was returning him because he was mentally unstable and she was not prepared to parent him any longer. Russian officials cited the incident as just the latest in a series of adoption tragedies for Russian children. They put the United States’ adoption program on hold.
This is not the first time an official has proposed ceasing American adoptions. After Nanette and Michael Craver were accused of killing their adopted seven-year-old, Nathaniel in 2009, a senator in Russia argued for a ban on foreign adoptions. Speaking to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-News, Andrei Sitov, bureau chief for Russia’s ITAR-TASS wire service said, “Obviously, the biggest concern here is that it keeps happening. The latest figures we’ve seen is fifteen or sixteen [children killed] in the last several years.”
Artyem’s plight brought disruption to the forefront of the media. While officials pointed fingers, Hansen was alternately vilified and celebrated in comments on blogs and news reports. While her decision to put Artyem on the plane alone is inarguably indefensible, adoption activists debate who is ultimately responsible. Is it the Russian government for failing to provide adequate care in the orphanages? American agencies for doing a poor job of screening prospective families and supervising them once the children are home? Is it the adoptive parents who expect things to be easy? Or are the children themselves too damaged to parent? Most importantly, how can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?
Jae Ran Kim is a social worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was born in Taegu, South Korea, and was adopted by her family in 1971. She has worked in child welfare for several years and is working toward a doctoral degree in social work with a focus on adoption at the University of Minnesota. Her blog, Harlow’s Monkey, takes a critical look at adoption practices and adoptee rights. She says that Artyem’s case highlights the weaknesses in the adoption process, particularly the subjectivity of home studies and the dearth of services.
“I am in no way at all condoning what [Torry Hansen] did,” says Kim. “There were a million better options, but I think that she felt that she was desperate.”
The agency Hansen worked with, World Association of Children and Parents (WACAP), based in Renton, Washington, has posted a document on their website answering some of the questions they’re fielding from the media and worried waiting families.
According to the document, only one percent of adoptions managed by the agency end in dissolution. According to the document—titled “Child Returned to Russia FAQ’s—only one percent of adoptions managed by the agency end in dissolution. The document further states that the agency does provide “older child training opportunities” for families waiting to adopt, maintains an online chat board monitored by a social worker, facilitates post-placement visits (as required by Russia), and is willing to come out for additional visits if requested. In the case of out-of-state adoptions like Artyem’s, these visits, training opportunities and follow-up may be subcontracted through a partnering agency.
“[WACAP] weren’t at her home doing the interview; the agency was entrusting another local agency to do the legwork for them,” says Kim. “My guess was that there was miscommunication, missteps and mistakes. Standards among different agencies can be very different.”
I asked Karen Valentino if she thought of her at-risk families when she read stories about abusive parents who abandon or kill their adoptive children.
“Oh yes, of course,” she says. “We had one case where the adoptive parents actually locked two of their children in a shed outside. No food, no water, no bathroom. They had no idea what to do with the kids. This family had something like nineteen adopted children and they needed help. But they never called DCFS to come in because they were so afraid the other children would be removed. Those siblings had such severe trauma [before the adoption], the worst trauma I’ve ever heard about, and they had no idea how to function in a family, and the family had no idea to handle them.”
In other words, sometimes disruption is better than the alternative. The more I talked to the families and the counselors that work with families at risk, the more I began to see disruption as a parenting decision rather than an abdication. Sometimes, perhaps, being a good parent means knowing that you can no longer be this particular child’s parent.
Tiruba and her family are a success story. The pseudonymous blogger at Tubaville, Tiruba, is mom to three children who have all been through disrupted adoptions. Her oldest daughter’s blog name is TTops. TTops, who just turned fifteen, was born drug- and alcohol-affected, and was placed in the foster-care system at birth. She is developmentally delayed and has been diagnosed with RAD.
Tiruba and her husband fell in love with TTops at her therapeutic foster home when the girl was ten years old. They were at the home to visit another child, but TTops charmed them. Like many children with attachment disorders, she was indiscriminately affectionate, climbing into Tiruba’s lap and offering hugs right away. When the adoption of the other child fell through, Tiruba and her husband started the paperwork to adopt TTops.
“We were head over heels in love with her from the second we saw her. It was like love at first sight,” Tiruba tells me. “She’s got this spark in her personality that just sucks you in. You couldn’t see that shining light in her paperwork. If anyone had read it before meeting her, she wouldn’t have had a chance really.”
For six months, Tiruba and her husband visited TTops in the foster home. Before they brought her home, they knew about her rages and her inability to understand the consequences of her behavior. But living with her was different. Six months into their lives together, Tiruba found TTops trying to strangle one of their dogs.
“We went into this with no parenting experience and so we had no expectations. We were completely enamored with our daughter and we just rolled with it,” Tiruba says. “We were really nice to her at first and she would scream for four to five hours at a time. At mealtime she would swallow her food halfway and then vomit it up because family food time was too stressful.
“I thought I’d be all hung up on education and sending my kids to college and doing all that fun stuff that you see on TV,” she says. “I’ve had to readjust my own expectations on a daily basis, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of guilt and feelings that I’m a failure as a parent. I have to remind myself that I didn’t cause this. I didn’t make her what she is. It’s maternal alcohol consumption and brain damage and cognitive disability.”
The family celebrates TTops’s progress even though change sometimes seems glacially slow.
“She has come so far in the last four years that we’ve had her, and for me that’s so satisfying,” says Tiruba. “She’ll never be completely there and it’s been a journey for us to learn how to accept that she’ll never be completely attached to us. But she actually says she misses us when she’s away, and there’s a glimmer. That’s what’s satisfying.”
James, from the Attachment and Bonding Center, sees this ability to find joy in small steps in other successful families, too. “These parents are able to see the ‘good child’ behind all the behavior. They strive to bring that ‘good child,’ as they say, out more often. They enjoy small positive moments and appreciate small gains. They can reflect backwards and see the progress they have made, rather than always looking at how far they have to go.”
Tiruba says she does not condemn the people who tried to parent her daughter and two sons first, who brought them home and then gave them back to the system. For one thing, she says, if she didn’t have the health benefits they do, then they wouldn’t be able to afford to parent them in part because of the medications the children need.
TTop’s first parents had no support and quickly became overwhelmed by her behavior. Three months into the placement, they were already done. They disrupted the placement the day the social worker arrived at their house to start the adoption paperwork.
Tiruba, on the other hand, quickly worked to put together a team of people to help her parent TTops and TTops’s younger adoptive brothers. The team consists of a disability worker, who helps them connect with community resources; a school support team, including a full-time aide and school psychologist who helps with TTops’s individualized education plan; and in-home family services workers, who give them respite care and everyday parenting support. In addition, one or two weekends a month, TTops goes to a therapeutic foster home so that her parents can focus on the boys.
“If you haven’t lived with an attachment disordered kid, how can you judge anyone who can’t do it?” she says. “I don’t judge the people who couldn’t take care of my kids before me. I honestly believe that they didn’t get what they needed for the kids. It’s not always there and it would be impossible to do this without it.”
I asked Tiruba if she grieves for the people her children might have been if their histories had been different.
“Of course I do,” she says. “TTops grieves, too, for the person she could have been. She wonders what her brain would have been like if her mom hadn’t been drinking when she was pregnant. It’s a lifelong struggle for her.”
TTops will never be able to live independently. Tiruba’s goal had been to keep TTops at home until she turned sixteen, when she would need to find a group home. As she’s gotten older and stronger, however, it has become harder to keep her younger brothers protected from her violent outbursts so she will likely move earlier than her mother would like. Tiruba and her husband found a group home that’s nearby, close to their weekly routines so they can visit often and pick up TTops to join them when they’re running errands.
It’s easy to pathologize children who have experienced trauma and loss, to focus on the stories of Russian children gone bad and foster-care kids who become violent. Social worker Kim, however, says it’s vital to understand that a deprived environment shapes children. Like Tiruba, the parents who are able to successfully parent challenging kids can see the person behind the behaviors and are able to adjust their expectations.
“We do have to recognize that for most kids who have had multiple placements there is tremendous loss and there are tremendous survival skills that these children have developed. They wouldn’t have survived without these,” she says. “Unfortunately when we try to place them in an adoptive home and their parents have this expectation that they can relax and be normal, well, we need to reconceptualize this idea of what a normal child is.”
Citing her work with parents adopting from foster care, Kim says that parents need to be given a “safety plan” before their children come home detailing who they will call if they need help and what services exist in their area. She also recommends that parents connect with a knowledgeable therapist ahead of time so they aren’t searching for an appropriate counselor post-placement when they may already be overwhelmed.
Astrid Dabbeni is the executive director of Adoption Mosaic, an adoption education organization in Portland, Oregon. She is also an adult adoptee who came to her family from Columbia along with her biological sister when she was four years old. She agrees with Kim about the need for parents to let go of their fantasies about what their families “ought” to look like.
“We need to be looking at adoption through the lens of the child. It is a normal human reaction to have some serious attachment issues when you are taken from your birth mother and placed in an orphanage,” says Dabbeni. “We need to honor and recognize that adoption is different and not a replacement for birth children we never had. Not until then can we really embrace how adoption really is different and how we need to go about parenting differently. Social workers have to speak the truth about that.”
Through her networks, Henry’s mother, Carol, found a family who has experience working with boys with histories and behaviors that mirror his. He will be the youngest in the family by several years so there are not other children to prey on. Carol said they will have an open adoption. They will continue contact with Henry, in part because his biological siblings remain in Carol’s home and also because they love him and remain committed to him.
“It sucks, it really does,” Carol says. “There is no other way around it. I don’t see one; I really do not. Nobody worked harder for their kid than we did. But in some ways bringing him home would be like asking an alcoholic to live in a bar. It would not be healthy to ask him to live here.”
Her husband did not want to disrupt the adoption. The experience has been hard on their marriage but they—and their other kids—are healing. Carol told me that recently she pulled out video from the couple’s visit to Henry’s orphanage and this time she saw the scene differently.
“We walked into this room, and there were ten cribs with two babies in each crib. It was mealtime, and about half of the babies were screaming and the other half were totally silent,” she recalls. “The babies that were screaming, they were also rocking, self-soothing and you could see that they were kind of tuning out, you know, dissociating. My husband, he was running the video camera and you see him caressing one baby’s head, a baby that was not crying, and the baby didn’t react. I remember thinking, oh the nannies must be in the back room getting the food ready. What was I thinking? There was no back room. Those babies were hungry. They were hungry every single day.”
Carol is silent a moment.
“How did I not see it? I didn’t see that it was a disaster waiting to happen, a whole brewing ground for attachment disorder waiting to happen.”
As I worked on this piece I became increasingly frustrated and saddened by the lack of information and support both for pre-adoptive and post-adoptive families. Adoption agency websites usually have glowing stories of new families and pictures of adorable children cradled in their new parents’ arms, but very few have concrete information about preparing for children who have suffered the tremendous loss and trauma that most of these kids suffer. I feel like we’re setting families up. Adoption can be a wonderful thing but unless prospective parents go into it with their eyes open and post-adoption services at the ready, how can we blame those families that fall apart?
Finally I want to thank the mothers who trusted me enough to speak with me. Their stories are difficult, and they are used to condemnation. Trust me, no one is harder on Carol than she is on herself. While I was editing this piece, I discovered that Carol is known for sending gift baskets to other RAD families who she knows are having a hard time. She’s a pretty amazing person.