The Elephant in the Room: Adoption Disruption
Apr 16, 2015
Disruption. I’ve always hated that word when referring to adoption. A movie might be disrupted by a noisy patron; a bus service line might be disrupted by a mechanical failure; sleep might be disrupted by a thunderstorm.
But to ‘disrupt’ an adoption signifies something much greater.
The child and family’s lives are not simply briefly interrupted or bothered – they are changed forever. Perhaps it should be referred to as adoption catastrophe, or devastation, or casualty; because it is that significant to all involved. But since I cannot change the term now, for the purposes of this article, we will stick with disruption.
When speaking of ‘disruption’ in terms of adoption, it is most simply when an adoption does not work, and the child is moved from the adoptive family’s care (typically at the request of the adoptive parents). It can happen one hour after the adoption, one day, one week, one month, one year, five years – there is no time limit on when a disruption can or cannot occur. Unfortunately, adoption disruption has become ‘the elephant in the room’ of the adoption community. From the families experiencing it, to the children living it, to other adoptive families, to the ‘new’ family of the child, to the agency workers, everyone has an opinion on the matter, but many are nervous to share that opinion. I am not here to give you ‘the agency’s’ opinion, as I cannot speak for all agencies – but I can speak for myself – one adoption social worker who has experienced her fair share of disruptions (and by ‘fair share,’ even one is too many).
My first disruption involved a family adopting from the foster system. I conducted the family’s pre-adoptive training, did their home study, supervised visits with the adoptive child, counseled them on her placement history and needs, talked them through her behaviors, equipped them with parenting techniques to handle her behaviors, and brought her to them on the day of placement. I KNEW this family…I KNEW this would work…it was the PERFECT match. Everything was lining up just as it should. One week goes by – all are doing well. Two weeks – Mom is not answering all of my phone calls/emails as fast as she usually does…but still reports all is fine. Three weeks – Mom starting to seem ‘distant’ when answering questions, and keeps responses brief. At a home visit, family gives a positive report. They decline extra support because they don’t feel they need any. Four weeks – Can’t reach the family at all. Alarm bells start going off. Make an unannounced home visit. Mom is in tears. She ¨can’t keep this girl in her house for one more day.¨ Ok, let’s re-group. You have to fill me in. I cannot help you unless you tell me. Mom goes back to the first week when she started noticing behaviors that were troubling to her (cruelty to animals, inappropriate comments to/about the men in the family, extreme behaviors). Re-visit the pre-adoption training with Mom and Dad. ¨I understand these behaviors are troubling to you, but they are normal based on her history.¨ Mom and Dad understand in their heads, but I can tell they are at the ends of their ropes. They are willing to try counseling and respite. They cannot imagine giving up on their daughter. They know how much she has been through, and they do not want to be another cause of trauma for her. Start counseling and child goes on respite care for a weekend. Two weeks go by, and progress is being made. After three weeks of counseling I get the call. ¨We can’t do this. Come and get her.¨ Talk it through some more. The decision has been made. The family is emotionally spent and unable to try any other avenues to better the relationship with their daughter. I can hear it in their voices. I know the best thing for them, and the child, is to move her. Mom and Dad cried, child cried, I cried. As I drive the hour and a half to pick her up, I am going over everything in my head. What did I do wrong? What did I miss? How did this happen? What could I have done differently? I have failed this wonderful family. I have failed this child.
I pick her up. Hug the family. Child says her goodbyes. Family packs my car with the slew of things that they have gotten for the child over the course of the past few months. During the drive to her next family, I do my best to talk about what she is feeling. ¨I don’t know. I thought they liked me. I guess I shouldn’t have broken the DVD player, and I should have cleaned the table when she asked me.¨ No. This was NOT your fault. In my head I was thinking
This is my fault. I am the one whose job it is to find you a forever family. I am the one whose job it is to protect you. I am the one who should have taught them more. I am the one who should have picked a different family for you. I am at fault.
But, you can’t say that to an 8 year old. I stuck with, ¨You did everything right Maddie. What do you feel like doing right now? Don’t think about it. Just tell me.¨ ¨I feel like screaming.¨ ¨So let’s scream then.¨ And for the next hour, we both screamed and cried at the top of our lungs. She was adopted by the next family and will be turning 18 in the fall.
Fast forward ten years. I have countless successful adoptions under my belt (and a few more disruptions), more professional training, and ten years in the field. It should get easier, right? Nope. My most recent disruption. Again, I train the family, do their home study, talk at length about the Chinese adoption process and the effects of institutionalization on children. They have already adopted two children with special needs from China and Ukraine! They GET it. I match them with a three year old boy diagnosed with cleft lip and palate. They already have medical professionals lined up and have consulted with specialists about his case specifically. They understand the best case and the worst case scenarios. His room is ready and their bags are packed. I follow their adoption blog. They have him! Next day. I get the call. ¨We can’t keep him. He can’t walk or talk. He is not potty trained.¨ Ok. Let’s re-group. Let’s re-visit training and all that we have been over. Remember your other two kiddos were significantly delayed? He has been in an orphanage for three years. These could be institutional delays. He could be shutting down due to stress. ¨We can’t.” Again, they cry, I cry. What did I do wrong? What did I miss? How did this happen? What could I have done differently? I have failed this wonderful family. I have failed this child. I don’t know whatever happened to him. The family went on to adopt two more children – one from China and one from Ethiopia.
As an Adoption Social Worker, each and every disruption has a significant impact on me. I take each and every case to heart. I go over and over the events in my head and think of how this could have been avoided. And ultimately, that is the impact that disruption has on agencies – well, on Living Hope at least. We do not blame the family, and of course we do not blame the child – we blame ourselves. We use each and every case as a learning tool. Where did we fail? Where was the breakdown? What could we have done differently? What can we do differently in the future? There is that feeling of defeat – that feeling that we have caused a child yet another rejection – another trauma. These kids that we have dedicated our careers to protect – we have failed. But we have not only failed the children – we have failed you, the adoptive family. You, who have not dedicated careers to these children, but your lives. You, who have gone through countless hours of training, paperwork, home studies, wait times, letdowns, etc. We have failed you. And we are forever apologetic. We know you would never come to the decision of disruption in vain. But remember this when we ask you to complete ‘one more training course’ or we recommend a Psychological Evaluation or we encourage you to connect with a family who has already adopted or we require a book to read – while we are doing these things to best prepare you, we are ultimately doing them for the children, because each day I hope and pray that I never get ‘that call’ again.