The Other Side of Adoption

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mother and adopted baby daughter hands

By Maggie Vink

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International adoption is rife with hurry-up-and-wait moments. Hurry up and get your paperwork ready. Then wait for it to be accepted by the country you’re adopting from. The wait times killed me. So while I was attempting to adopt from Russia, I joined an Internet group of other waiting parents.

One family posted that they were looking for a new home because their daughter didn’t “fit” in their family. I was horrified. Adoption is permanent in my mind, and I couldn’t comprehend how any family could sever that tie. I called my agency and they calmly responded, “It happens more often than you’d think.”

I didn’t know anything about that family’s situation, but I firmly decided that they were unequivocally evil. Without having enough information to make a real judgment call, I judged them.

Months later, my Russian adoption attempt had fallen apart, and I switched to adopting from the U.S. foster care system. I was glad that I had learned about disruption once before, because in trying to adopt an older child from foster care, I heard about disruptions almost daily.

In time, my negative stance on disruption became less like a firmly planted stake and more like a cork bobbing on water. The thought of it still sickened me, but I read about disruptions where, had I been in the family’s shoes, I don’t know what I would have done. There were circumstances where a child’s anger and violence were resulting in serious injuries to the parents. Circumstances where children who had previously been sexually abused were now being sexually reactive with other children in the family. I would like to think that I would help my child through anything. But what if I wasn’t good enough? What if I couldn’t help my future adopted child? What would I do then? I didn’t have an answer … and that scared me.

Eventually I was matched with a spirited, energetic and gregarious boy. He has now been in my life for nearly three years. He is my son, my light and my joy, and I couldn’t love him more if I tried. Though he is a challenge, I would no sooner give up on him than I would rip my heart from my own chest. But once upon a time, someone else gave up on him.

My son was adopted by another family when he was 7. The adoption lasted less than two years, and then the family placed him back in foster care. I can’t claim to understand it. All I know is that the disruption destroyed my son’s already shaky ability to trust.

Sandy Schreffler is the Adoption Program Manager at KidsPeace, a Pennsylvania-based agency that serves the mental-health needs of children and families. Schreffler says, “Disruption can have very long-term, devastating effects on a child. To be rejected by a family that said, ‘We’re going to love you and care for you’ … not every child has the resiliency to deal with the loss.”

In my son’s case, there was a silver lining. My son is better off with me. He is happier with me. In my home, he has a more solid base for a successful future. In his previous home, he never felt like he could do anything right. There were happy moments there, but for the most part that home was filled with stress, inadequacy and a general lack of love. My son and I have higher hurdles to jump because of that disruption, but they are hurdles we will jump together. So in a backwards way, I’m grateful for that disruption … and so is my son. While disruption certainly doesn’t guarantee that a better home will be found for the child, in my son’s case that’s exactly what happened.

It’s important for families to enter the adoption process educated and with eyes wide open. “So often families’ expectations are so different than reality,” says Schreffler. “They think, ‘I’m going to save this child.’” Adoption is not about saving children, nor is it about charity. Adoption is a beautiful and wonderful way to build a family, but it is not all sunshine and roses. Traumatized children often have a bevy of emotional issues that can’t be solved with a simple hug or two—and those issues aren’t always accurately reported in the child’s paperwork. In addition to taking classes, reading books and speaking to adoption professionals, Schreffler recommends that families in the adoption process speak to other parents. “I think talking with other families that have been through the adoption process is very helpful,” she says. “What happens when a child wets the bed every night? What happens when a child is getting in trouble in school and you’re getting the fifth call and it’s only Tuesday? You have to live through it to be able to understand it completely.”

After my son moved home with me, I spoke to our social workers almost weekly (sometimes more), and they visited our home once a month. I think many adoptive families feel pressure to be perfect. But social workers don’t want perfect—they want to see what’s real. “I think it’s always a positive for families to have continued contact with professionals,” Schreffler says. “Families often wait to call for help until it’s almost too late.”

It’s also vital that adoptive parents keep a healthy perspective on their child’s issues. I know that I’m guilty of becoming hyper-focused on my son’s special needs. When I take a step back, however, I can usually see how my responses are affecting his behavior. Schreffler agrees. “Families often see the issues as the child’s issue, but it’s more of a family-system issue,” she says. “How you respond to your child’s issues matters.” If a family is struggling to meet their child’s needs, she recommends seeking out mental-health agencies, adoption support groups and family-based counseling, as well as individual counseling.

The recent Hansen case is a loud and glaring example of how disruption—a difficult and destructive process even when handled with care—can go terribly wrong. Hansen has claimed that she was misled by the Russian orphanage. In my opinion, any educated pre-adoptive parent should be well aware that there may be inaccuracies in the paperwork. That alone is not a reason for disruption. I don’t know what steps, if any, Hansen took to help her son work through his issues. I don’t know if she sought help. Regardless of who recommended it, in my opinion, putting a child on a plane back to his home country isn’t disruption—it’s cruel and hurtful treatment tantamount to abandonment. Even if a family and a child cannot healthfully make a go of it, the child’s needs and emotional well-being need to be respected.

If, after exploring every avenue, disruption is sadly necessary, then it’s important to work closely with professionals who are in the know. As much as possible, the child must be cared for and protected from further emotional harm. While the proper procedures vary from state to state, Schreffler recommends getting in touch with your local child welfare office. Disruption should obviously only be used as an absolute last resort. Disruption is emotionally damaging even when handled as sensitively as possible. But keeping a child in a family where they cannot be properly cared for is emotionally damaging, too. And occasionally—as in my son’s case—disruption opens the door for the right family to be found.

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What happens when the adoption is “disrupted.”

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