The Rift That Will Not Mend–When Adoptions Fail

Broken Ice.jpgThis week the news networks were filled with stories of the “mother” who sent her adopted son back to Russia, unaccompanied by anybody except flight attendants and the child’s own distress and sense of failure.  Her action was wrong, plain and simple.  No child deserves that treatment.  No flight attendant deserves or should accept that kind of responsibility.  And yet, what do we really know, other than what the news media has told us?

I am the mother of an adopted child, adopted from an orphanage in another country when she was six.  Now my daughter is a well-adjusted, happy, and beautiful adult with a daughter of her own.  My daughter and her family hold such special places in my heart, that there aren’t words to express them, and clearly we have the happy ending all parents, adopted or not, pray for.  But as I watched this latest news story unfold, I wondered about the unhappy ending in Tennessee.  I’m still wondering.

It’s so easy to place blame.  Even when we only have a few of the facts. As an adoptive parent, I was furious.  Then, I sobered.  Because so many questions are unanswered.

How was this single woman prepared for the adoption of a boy who had been raised in an orphanage, a child who almost certainly would suffer from extreme attachment disorder, a child who would, without a doubt, test and act out, even commit violent actions in his confusion and pain?  Did the agency who facilitated this adoption make an attempt to explain this to her, then explain it again when they realized she had decided, in all her radiant innocence, that “love” would be enough?  Because, no matter what the movies and novels assure us, even for the best and most experienced parents, very often love is not enough.  Love sometimes doesn’t even touch the problem.  Patience must take over with the help of trained professionals.  Even with those resources, not all adoption stories have happy endings.

So what happened when the woman in Tennessee began to sense failure, began to see that she was not cut out to raise this little boy, that her personal resources were not up to the task, and that she could not provide what was needed?  Was there somebody she could call?  Was a social worker checking on her, reading signs, worrying?  Perhaps the one who had overseen the adoption?  Perhaps even two, one from the agency that facilitated it, and one from an agency that did the necessary home study?

Yesterday I watched an adoption specialist on a morning show insist that, of course, all adoptions are closely monitored and followed.  To that I say all adoptions are supposed to be monitored and followed.  That’s the gold standard.  Our adoption was the paper towel standard.  We had a home study done by our local child welfare department, written up after one short visit.  I saw the study later, and most of the facts were wrong.  After our daughter came to live with us, nobody checked on us.  I didn’t see the caseworker again until we went to court to have the adoption finalized.   It was the only time she ever saw my daughter. 

Paper towel standard.  We were left to clean up the normal messes of an older child adoption, all by ourselves.

I hope in that respect we are among the rarest of adoptive parents, made rarer by the fact that despite these circumstances, somehow we all muddled through, held on to each other, made mistakes, tried hard to adjust, prayed we would all fall in love, and one day, simply did.  But did we have help along the way?  Never.  For us, things turned out wonderfully without it.  But what if they hadn’t?

Social workers in many agencies are terribly overburdened.  There’s a fierce public outcry when something goes wrong, yet when it’s time to fund agencies with responsibility for children and families, the public goes silent or worse, screams about their tax burden.  Perhaps the caseworkers in Tennessee were simply fooled by this family.  Perhaps they were untrained and overly optimistic.  Perhaps they were so overworked they couldn’t respond adequately to calls for help.  Or perhaps,  there was no supervision or faulty supervision to begin with.  Perhaps, as with us, the family just slipped through the cracks, because they looked so good on the outside.

None of us will ever know exactly went wrong in Tennessee, whether a mom with no resources, so out of her league that she sensed a catastrophe in the making, simply made a terrible decision and sent this child back, before something worse happened to him.  But before we point fingers only at her, let’s ask ourselves whether we value children enough to fund the necessary services to keep them safe, to assist the families who want them, to help them through crises, to give them the start they need to be fully functioning, productive human beings. And do we, as a society, value children enough that we’re willing to ask the hard questions of agencies doing international adoptions, to accredit them carefully, to be certain that their staffs are trained, competent and available to help when needed?  Good intentions are never enough. 

Today there’s a little boy in Russia caught up in an international scandal that will almost certainly guarantee that he, at least, will get the help and support he needs to make a new start.  There’s a woman in Tennessee who’ll never again be able to hold up her head in her hometown.  There’s an agency somewhere, perhaps with overburdened case workers, who wish they had done more.

I wish they had.  I hope all of us will.


  1. Julie Compton on April 14, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for a well-thought post about this issue. I’m a guardian ad litem, and I’m very aware of how overburdened the system is. When time comes to trim budgets, the programs that get cut first always seem to be the ones that are supposed to benefit children and families. I don’t get it. It seems to me these programs should be FUNDED first, not cut first. Solve the problems early on and then we wouldn’t have to spend so much money at the back end on Band-Aids.
    I’ve actually had someone say to me (about being a guardian ad litem), “Why do you do that? It can’t possibly make a difference.” Well, if it makes a difference to even one child, that’s enough for me. And think what would happen if everyone helped just one child. . .

  2. Emilie Richards on April 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Good for you, Julie. And amen.

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