Giving Adopted Kids Back

“We heard you were going to send her back.” The school social worker looked at me over her glasses, raising an eyebrow in disapproval. Where had she heard that? Those words had never been spoken, at least not by me. Was she clairvoyant?

Yes, I’d had the thought but but only fleetingly. It was preposterous to think anyone would send a child from a middle class life in Wisconsin back to an orphanage in Central America because she was irksome and difficult. It made me think. How irksome and difficult would she have to be before I really would send her back? Would she have to threaten me with a knife? Smear feces on the walls? Torture the dog? And if she did those things (which she didn’t), wouldn’t I try to find her psychiatric help? Take parenting classes? Search for answers? Wouldn’t I just soldier through it? Wasn’t that my job now that I agreed to be her mother? I didn’t have the option of an easy return or exchange for store credit. Adoption is a lifetime commitment.

Called failed adoptions, the bottom line is that anywhere from 10-25% of adoptions are disrupted (pre-finalization) or dissolved (equivalent of a termination of parental rights after an adoption is finalized). Most frequently this happens with older children, kids who have been sexually abused and are likely to be showing sexualized behaviors, those with physical, emotional or behavioral problems, and children who came into the foster care system because of lack of supervision or neglect. (Children’s Bureau/ACYF 2012) What happens to disrupted adoptees? Children go back into the system or they enter the disappointing world of the secondary market. Products that didn’t work out.

What does this mean in real terms? Picture this: A six-year old girl who was removed from her biological parents when she was two due to gross neglect, who then was placed in a succession of over-crowded foster homes where she experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by older children, who then developed behavioral problems that created great difficulties at home and at school is handed a balloon and told she is about to go live with her forever family. She is puzzled but used to moves.

Her forever family brings her home, situates her in a beautifully decorated room, gathers all the aunts and uncles, and tells her she’s now one of them. The other kids (biological) move over on the couch and mom starts snapping those pictures that will be put in the Target frames and hung throughout the house. People couldn’t be happier. The mom tells all the old ladies at the grocery store, “Oh no! I’m the lucky one.”

The little girl is quiet at first and then starts to get happy. Then, checking herself, knowing subconsciously that the situation is too good to be true, she goes to what’s known and comfortable – her behavior in the foster homes. The experts like to see this as testing behavior, as in the adopted child is testing the new parent to see if s/he really loves them. I think it’s kids doing what they feel at home with, what feels familiar to them. Being happy is foreign, being upset or angry feels about right.

So then, she becomes not so cute anymore. The adoptive family is feeling not so lucky. It’s not long before the parents, especially Mom, is feeling beleaguered and inadequate. This is as predictable in the adoption process as the sun rising everyday. That doesn’t make it less hard.

Truth be told, the adoption of a child can take years to take hold. The trauma of being orphaned is extreme and long-lasting. Deciding to be an orphan’s parent requires a deep recognition of the damage that has already been done to a child.

So, when I see adoptive parents tearfully explaining their decision to disrupt after a year or two or three, when I read stories about how an adopted child’s behavior threatened the well-being of other children in the house, or worst of all, when I hear that an adoptive child wasn’t ‘a good fit for our family,’ I cannot abide. That’s all. I just cannot abide that.

I want to scream like the orphaned child with the balloon in my little hand — You promised! You promised!

The older I get, the less time I spend judging other people. My inclination is to find the explanation for bad behavior, to often be too indulgent of poor decision-making and terrible blunders. But this may be one thing on a very short list that I judge harshly. If you agree to be the mother of an orphaned child, it’s as great a commitment as if you had watched the baby delivered from your own body.

I believe that. I wish all adoptive parents did.

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