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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Not-Quite-Forever Families: The Reuters Investigation Into "Re-homing" of Adopted Children (Part I)


There is a remarkable report at www.reuters.com/investigates/adoption/#article/about. This document describes an investigation into the ways some American adoptive parents seek informally or privately to disrupt the adoptions and place the children in others’ homes, permanently—a process they call “re-homing”.

The Reuters report is remarkable in more than one way. As an investigation of  adoption disruption, it moves beyond the limits of anecdotes and looks at one of a number of Internet bulletin boards that carry ads offering adoptees to new families. It provides an interactive graphic that allows the reader to examine over 200 such ads and to see at a glance how many boys and how many girls were “offered”, how many children had special needs, whether they were adopted from the U.S. or from abroad, and what their birthplaces were. (There are a number of other interesting questions to be asked about these ads, and I hope to be able to provide some information about these in the near future, as well as to suggest some conclusions that might be drawn from the information collected by the Reuters investigators.)

The Reuters report is also remarkable in terms of one of the responses it’s received. At http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/nation/july-dec13/adoption_09-11.html, Adam Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a leading U.S. adoption advocate, stated that he had never heard of this practice! (This reminds me of the advice to Alice that she should be able to believe six impossible things before breakfast.)

Perhaps Mr. Pertman was not paying attention when this issue came up in the past, but others of us had noticed it. For example, the USA Today reporter Wendy Koch described in 2006 the situation of the Schmitz family in Tennessee, a “megafamily” with 11 adopted children, many with special needs, whose mistreatment of the children led authorities to discover that most of the “adoptions” were informal. The children came from different states, which were paying for their care, and at least one child’s origins were not known (www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-01-18-swapping-children_x.htm). In a recent comment on the Reuters story, a member of the megafamily, now grown up, told how she was made to dig a large hole and told that it would be her grave. She had been re-homed to the Schmitzes after her original adoptive family decided to disrupt her adoption, but no legal formalities or investigations occurred (http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/09/09/20389254-adopted-girl-says-mother-forced-her-to-dig-her-own-grave?lite).

There are many anecdotes in circulation about adoptive families who “handed off” unwanted children to others at highway rest stops or in fast food restaurants. I can give more details of one case where I provided some testimony, but naturally I will conceal names and places. This story involves a couple in a Southern state who went to Russia seeking to adopt about seven years ago. They wanted to adopt a boy, and had decided on a specific boy who was about 8 years old at the time, but were then informed that if they took the boy, they must also take his 5-year-old sister, whom I’ll call Irina. The adopting couple agreed to do this (and, by the way, there was a similar situation in the adoption of Maxim Kuzmin, the Russian 3-year-old who died in Texas last winter.) They took both children home and cared for them for a couple of years, but in fact they did not like Irina and complained that she did not attach to them and they could not bond with her (what people mean by these terms is an issue that needs much discussion with respect to the Reuters report). They sought the help of two social workers who identified themselves as attachment therapists and who stated in court that they had received training paid for by the state. One of their recommendations was that Irina spend time in respite care, in the home of another family, leaving the adoptive parents and brother to relax on their own.

After several intervals of respite care, Irina’s adopters decided that they did not want her to return. They communicated their decision to the social workers, who told Irina that she was to stay at the respite home; the adoptive parents did not see her even to say goodbye. The respite family was licensed to do foster care, and after a while they agreed to adopt Irina. In the state where they lived, it was possible to do this by direct consent, with a notarized statement from the original adoptive parents, and because the respite family was licensed for foster care I would guess that a home study was waived. In any case, Irina stayed with the respite/adoptive family and did well in school for a couple of years, but at about age 10 she ran away. She was soon brought back by a sheriff’s deputy. After her second attempt to leave, the deputy who brought her home made an excuse to come into the house. He noticed some unusual things, for example that there were very few furnishings in Irina’s room and that there was an alarm on her bedroom door, and he reported these matters. A prosecutor who was aware of some of the unorthodox and potentially harmful parenting methods associated with Attachment Therapy began an investigation.

However, the respite/adoptive parents knew how to move quickly to get Irina out of that jurisdiction. They sent her to a boarding school run by their church in another state--  a school that had been investigated for abusive treatment in the form of physical restraint of children, but had argued successfully that guidelines about restraint and seclusion did not apply to schools. It was, and probably still is, a school where a number of Russian adoptees waited to be 18 without visits to their adoptive homes or even from their adoptive parents.

Perhaps this story will help flesh out some of the statistics of the Reuters report. But those statistics, and some further analysis, are worth looking at, and we’ll come back to them.
    


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7 comments:

  1. Half the posts seem to admit they just don't like the kid and didn't "bond" to them. It's always treated as the kid's fault.

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    1. I still don't really know what most of these people mean by "bond" or "attach", and I'm not sure how to find out.

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  2. Dear Dr. Mercer,

    I have recently discovered your blog, and while I don’t always agree with some of the things you say, I always appreciate reading the opinions of others as I attempt to gather any information that might help me to learn.

    Regarding your question about what most people mean by “bond” or “attach”, while I cannot speak for “most people”, as a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, I would like to offer my own personal views. I apologize in advance as I am sure what follows will be somewhat disjointed and may jump around a bit.

    Bonding to me, means that there is some positive emotional state that exists between a parent and a child. The child enjoys the company of the parent and vice versa. The child is willing on some level, any level to let the parent care for them. The child is willing to accept love and nurturing from the parent. The child seeks on some level to please the parent – what I’m getting at here is a feeling of “hey, I kinda like this guy/lady and I think it would make them happy if I did what they said and that would make me feel good too”. The child will interact with the parent in a positive manner. The child feels secure enough to be truthful when speaking to the parent. A child certainly does not have to have all or even most of these, but some level of anything is a start.

    Now, I know I probably didn’t do a very good job of explaining that but as I’m sure you know, it’s not the easiest thing to put into words and I did the best I could. I’m sure that some of what I said or how I said it will make me vilified by some of your readers, which is why I will make the ever popular choice of posting anonymously.

    To give a quick but vague background on my situation before anyone decides to flame me for not know what I am talking about, I have adopted 4 children over a 10 year period, all from outside the US, and all at different times. Three were approximately 1 year in age at the time of adoption, the fourth, about 6. The third had some bonding issues but we got through it with lots of time and work. Prior to getting the fourth one, we took special private classes with our home study agency to learn how to deal with an older child that might have issues. Unfortunately, the fourth one hated us for everything from the food we served to the room we provided. He lied, was violent to himself, and others. He often said he knew that if he hurt one or killed of his adopted siblings we would send him back. He was diagnosed with RAD (amongst other things) by 5 different professionals ranging from Family Therapists, to Psychologists and I believe even one Psychiatrist, and each one without having the benefit of the previous diagnosis just for good measure. We have traveled over 8 hours away just to see specialists and hired a therapist to work with him and us in the home, who by the way, after 8 months eventually recommended that he be removed from the home before he killed or seriously injured one of his siblings. So unfortunately, it has all been spectacularly unsuccessful and the adoption is being legally disrupted.

    Sincerely,

    An apparently not quite forever Dad

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    1. Dear not-quite--

      I'm sorry that the last adoption was disappointing for everyone involved. If you have a chance, I would be very interested in hearing what was the content of the private classes you took.

      Your description of bonding seems clear to me. (You may be aware that technically the term "bonding" refers to the adult's feelings, not the child's, but that doesn't really matter as long as you are defining your term.) I don't understand, however, whether you would consider that kind of "bonding" to be unique to the relationship with a parent. It sounds to me as if a teacher or a baby-sitter could fit into the relationship you describe. Again, I'm not arguing about this point, but just wondering whether you intended to describe bonding in this way, when many people seem to think of "bonding" or "attachment" as a unique and almost magical emotional connection. I wonder, too, whether it's the last point that makes you think (probably realistically) that you might be vilified.

      Thank you very much for your comments. I hope you will tell more about your experiences, and that you may try to answer the questions I've put.

      You seem to be one of the rare people who can consider how a word might be used without losing your temper!

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  3. Dear Dr. Mercer,

    Thank you for your reply and for not “lighting me up” as so many people would have. Being viewed as someone who quit on a child or gave up on someone is not an easy thing and we have been estranged from a number of our friends and family since this all took place.

    As for my rather simplistic description of bonding, yes, I would agree that mine was a very base level of bonding and could be afforded to any sort of long term caregiver. And yes, I am aware that bonding is the adult’s side of that equation but since the terms are usually lumped together by most, I went with that. We would have been happy to have seen even that minimal level of bonding/attachment which one would expect a child to have for a teacher or babysitter. We felt we were, and many of the families that we have met who have been through support groups expressed the same, viewed as nothing more than a source for food and clothes in the eyes of our child. That spark, that magical emotional attachment that I would call love, I feel that comes about as a result of boding and attachment and is therefore different in my eyes. Instead we were greeted with ambivalence, then defiance, then outright hatred.

    As for the additional classes we took prior to the adoption, we met with a representative from our home study agency, 3 or 4 times for a total of about 10 hours, to speak specifically about what to expect from our soon to be son. We talked about his culture and what his experience was probably like in the orphanage. We spoke about the possibility of him being abused, malnourished, and possibly developmentally delayed. We spoke a lot about attachment issues, which had already been covered (or should I say glossed over) in our Hague required classes. She told us things to watch for as signs of attachment issues as well as other possible mental issues. We spoke about the possibilities of aggression, regression, and toileting issues. We talked about raising boys and how it would be different than our experiences in raising girls. We talked about issues with him being older and being adopted out of birth order. We talked about things to do help him fit in and feel like part of the family. We talked about language issues and what we should expect there and ways to handle the language barrier. I’m sure there was a lot more but my point is that we tried to be prepared by asking for all this extra training specifically tailored to him, and yet still fell miserably short when faced with the reality of his problems.

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  4. Sorry but apparently I had more to say than the system would let me post in one comment.

    I hope everyone realizes that I said we fell short. No, we were not able to handle his issues despite our best intentions and efforts. While we were as prepared as I feel anyone could have been, we, and I’ll throw our home study agency in the sinking ship with us, we all missed the mark. As his parents, we probably spent too much time with individual behaviors without realizing the totality of his problems. In other words, we dealt with many problems almost as stand-alone problems because many of them seemed so unrelated. No one ever says, hey, if you have 6 or 7 or 8 of the items on the checklist, get some professional help immediately because it’s going south. At our six month check in with the home study agency rep (not the same one who taught our private classes), we told her everything because by that point, we has a sense it was not working or at least not progressing as we hoped. Her response was to sit on our loveseat and to simply smile and say “Well, thank you for sharing” and “I appreciate your honesty”. No help, no offers of advice. Absolutely nothing. Looking back, I know to some extent we felt, as many parents likely do, that they could handle it all on our own. We fooled ourselves by saying, he’s too young for a therapist to help, he still doesn’t speak much of our language. Like most, that pride went along with the fall.

    For those keeping score, here comes another inflammatory statement. Like it or not, adopting, especially an older child, is somewhat like an arranged marriage. People are thrown together, for better or worse, and everyone hopes it works out and ends with everyone loving one another and all living happily ever after. Most adoptions do, because I believe it is our nature to care for one another and by caring, love eventually happens. But for those parents who expect a new child, especially an older child to love them from the start (and we all know that many blindly expect this), you are sadly mistaken. You just showed up, took them away from everyone and everything they ever knew in their life, and whisked them away to your new magical fantasyland, which they may view as a living hell because they had no choice in the matter. You can love them all you want, but there are no guarantees they will ever love you back. Our son once told me he would rather go back to his orphanage and be beaten by the nannies, than sit and watch TV with the family. It’s hard to argue with someone who feels that strongly about you.

    Sincerely,

    The apparently not quite forever dad

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  5. Dear not-quite--

    Thank you so much for giving this very candid and realistic description of your experiences and of the help,or lack thereof, available to you. You have talked about these events without demonizing the child, the caseworkers, or yourself, and this is a lot more than most people ever manage! To use the expression a bit differently, you are lighting things up as they should be lit.

    I would like very much to discuss this further, and I would be very pleased to have you do a "guest post", anonymously if you like. You could send it to me at jean.mercer@stockton.edu.

    However, I am just packing to go to Europe,where I will be for two weeks having discussions of issues related to adoption and child mental health, so I can't really do anything until I get back. Sorry-- and thanks again for your thoughts, which I think could help to balance some of the highly- charged emotions that make discussion of adoption so difficult.

    Best regards,
    Jean

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