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It takes more than love: What happens when adoption fails

Famous moms like Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Charlize Theron have brought adoption into the limelight, and perhaps even made it look easy. But what happens, and who's to blame, when an adoption doesn’t work?In as many as a quarter of adoptions of teens, and a significant number of younger child adoptions, the parents ultimately decide they don’t want to keep the child, experts say.Writer Joyce
Happier times: Joyce Maynard with the two Ethiopian daughters, ages 6 and 11, she adopted in 2010. This spring, she announced that she had given them up.
Happier times: Joyce Maynard with the two Ethiopian daughters, ages 6 and 11, she adopted in 2010. This spring, she announced that she had given them up.Today

Famous moms like Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Charlize Theron have brought adoption into the limelight, and perhaps even made it look easy. But what happens, and who's to blame, when an adoption doesn’t work?

In as many as a quarter of adoptions of teens, and a significant number of younger child adoptions, the parents ultimately decide they don’t want to keep the child, experts say.

Writer Joyce Maynard revealed on her blog that that she'd given up her two daughters, adopted from Ethiopia in 2010 at the ages of 6 and 11, because she was "not able to give them what they needed."

Other cases have been more outrageous, like the Tennessee woman who put her 7-year-old adopted son on a plane bound for Russia in 2010 when things went south. Recently she was ordered by a judge to pay $150,000 in child support.

In the adoption world, failed adoptions are called “disruptions.” But while a disruption may seem stone-hearted from the outside, these final anguished acts are complex, soul-crushing for all concerned and perhaps more common than you'd think.

"It's heartbreaking when disruption occurs and I want to prevent it as much as possible," says Zia Freeman, a Seattle-area adoption counselor who in her 20 years in the field has dealt with at least two dozen disruptions. "We [give parents] a huge list of behaviors to expect and they're not fun. But I'll have parents come back and say to me, 'I sat through those classes and heard you say that, but I still believed it wouldn't happen to me. That I wouldn't get a kid that wouldn't respond to my love.'"

On her blog, Maynard wrote that giving up her two adoptive daughters was "the hardest thing I ever lived through" but goes on to say it was absolutely the right decision for her – and the children.

She has been "severely judged by some, yes," she told TODAY Moms in an email interview. "But I have also received well over a hundred letters of a very different sort from other adoptive parents – those who have disrupted and those who did not, but struggle greatly. The main thing those letters tell me is that many, many adoptive parents (and children) struggle in ways we seldom hear about."

Drama and trauma
Sage, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom from Salt Lake City, gave up the Ethiopian daughter she adopted in February 2009 after a year and a half. She declined to give her full name in order to protect her family’s privacy.

"We submitted our paperwork for an older child and were open to [adopting a child with] HIV," says Sage, who in addition to having four biological children, has an adopted African-American daughter and has been a foster parent multiple times. "And we got this picture of a 4-year-old who absolutely melted our hearts. We were told that her grandmother gave her to the orphanage because her birth mother died of AIDS and we felt like HIV was going to be our biggest concern. But we sorely, sorely misjudged things. HIV was the least of our concerns."

Trouble started even during her first visit with the girl in Ethiopia.

"She'd sit on my lap when the nannies were around, but the minute they'd walk away, she'd spit in my face," Sage says. "And whenever I'd get in the shower, she'd tear the room apart. She even ripped up the documents that I had to give to INS. I came home with PTSD."

Sage says she told herself that things would get better as soon as she brought her newly adopted daughter back to the U.S. (the adoption was finalized in Ethiopia), but unfortunately, the behavior escalated. In addition to the spitting and name-calling, the little girl was defiant, manipulative and soon became sexually precocious.

"I'd be washing dishes and she'd stick her hand into my crotch," says Sage. "Or I'd have her on my lap and she'd stick her hands down my shirt. And once she learned English, she started telling my 18-month-old daughter 'Your mommy doesn't love you' and pushing her into walls. I watched my little one's behavior completely change. She went from loving me to being scared of me."

Sage sought therapy for her daughter and eventually discovered the little girl suffered from reactive attachment disorder, a condition where children don't establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers and display a host of symptoms such as aggression towards peers, withdrawal or attention-seeking behavior. She also discovered the 4-year-old was sexually abusing her 18-month-old, which was when she and her husband decided to find a new home for the girl.

"Making the decision was awful," she says. "I didn't bring a child into my life to let her go. But after I found out what she was doing, I realized the best plan of action was to put her in a home that didn't have younger children. She needed a special kind of parent, one who could be detached and not let her stuff affect them. Now she's with a great family with no younger children and thriving."

Jessica, a 31-year-old small business owner from Kent, Wash., who has a daughter she adopted at age 7, says older children can definitely be difficult.

"Often kids adopted at older ages don't have age-appropriate coping mechanisms and some are violent, dramatic or act out in various ways," says Jessica, who also asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family’s privacy. "Our daughter certainly was. I don't think her placement would have worked out if we had younger kids in the family at the time. That kid broke furniture and parts of our house for sport. She also did things like running directly into traffic or screaming that she was being kidnapped in public places. Not every family can handle that level of drama."

Bonding and baggage
Although statistics on disruption vary, a 2010 study of U.S. adoption practices conducted by the University of Minnesota and Hennepin County, Minn., found that between 6 percent and 11 percent of all adoptions are disrupted before they are finalized. For children older than 3, disruption rates range between 10 percent to 16 percent; for teens, it may be as high as 24 percent, or one in four adoptions.

Adoptions can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years to become final – and that window is when most disruptions occur, experts say. While some families do choose to end an adoption after that, those cases are rarer (ranging from 1 percent to 7 percent, according to the study).

"Disruption rarely occurs with infants," says Freeman, the Seattle-area adoption counselor. "But if you're talking about older children, it can be anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. It's significantly higher because of the complexities of parenting a child who already has life experiences and certain behaviors. When we're rejected and traumatized early in our development, it changes the way we function and respond to people."

Older children – especially ones who have been neglected, rejected and abused -- distance themselves from others and become "a bit hard-shelled," says Freeman.

"It's like marrying someone who's been married three or four times," she says. "Do you think they're going to go into the next marriage without any suspicions or ghosts from the past?"

According to the study, the older the child, the more likely the adoption is to fail. Children with special needs also face greater risk of disruption, particularly those who demonstrate emotional difficulties and sexual acting out.          

Certain types of parents are more likely to end up giving up adopted children, as well. Younger adoptive parents, inexperienced parents, and parents who both work outside the home are linked with higher levels of disruption. Wealthier parents and more educated mothers, in particular, are also more likely to disrupt an adoption.

"I understand where that might seem odd, but I think there's a potential for less tolerance if someone's more educated or they make more money," says Brooke Randolph, director of adoption preparation and support services at an Indianapolis adoption agency.

Dismantling a family
What happens when a parent decides to give up an adopted child?

It depends on whether the adoption has been legally finalized or not.

"If a child has been adopted legally, then it's like giving up a birth child," Freeman says. "The parents who adopted the child have to find a home for the child. Or find some resources."

Those resources might include the adoption agency or the state, which would most likely put the child in foster care. If the parents decide to end the process before the child has been legally adopted, the child would then likely go into foster care, she says.

International adoptions follow the same rules, except the adoption agency usually notifies the country that the adoption has failed.

"Returning the child to their country is never an option," says Freeman.

If an adoption fails before the parents become the formal, legal parents of the child, the courts usually aren’t involved. If the adoption has been finalized, however, then the parents must go to court.

"A dissolution – or annulment – takes place after a child is formally adopted by a set of parents," says Jacoba Urist, a lawyer and TODAY Moms contributor. "As you can imagine, the law treats this very seriously, and while states can vary on how they handle these types of situations, in general, a parent must petition the court where they adopted the child to in effect 'unadopt’ them."

Freeman says adoption agencies will do everything in their power to keep a family together, including encouraging the family to get counseling, providing them with classes and support groups and going into the home to see what's going on. 

"We absolutely recommend that they go to a family therapist and we recommend they do that long before they get to the point of disruption," she says. "As soon as we sense families are having any type of challenge, we recommend they get assistance."

While different families have different breaking points, the process is never easy for the child.

"It takes an extreme toll," says Freeman. "It can cause lifelong issues of distrust, depression, anxiety, extreme control issues and very rigid behavior. They don't trust anyone; they have very low self-esteem. They'll push away teachers and friends and potential parents and if you put them in another placement and they have to reattach again and then if they lose that placement, it gets tougher and tougher."

Preparation is everything
Randolph, whose job it is to pull the rose-colored glasses off prospective parents, says education and preparation are the best tools against disruption or disillusion.

"I tell them, 'I'm here to bring you the bad news,'" she says. "I want their expectations low. I want them to think it's really hard because for some people – for a lot of people – it really is."

Freeman agrees.

"The more research a parent does before adopting an older child, the better," she says. "You've got to be open to educating yourself and being honest with yourself. Ask yourself, 'Can I live with someone who doesn't like me for a few weeks or months or years?'"

Jessica, whose adopted daughter (now 13) put her family through the paces, says adoptive parents have to let go of their "ideal child" expectations while the child adapts and learns to navigate the new family structure, expectations, values and opportunities.

"Most families we know struggled for a couple of years, and once their child or children felt secure, things evened out," she says.

"We had growing pains but now things have settled in very well. Most of our sticking points are less about 'adoption struggles' and more normal adolescent struggles that all of our peers' biological kids are going through."

For those parents who can’t make adoption work, even with support, public judgment can be harsh.

Maynard, who wrote about her decision to adopt for More magazine but has declined to go into detail about what made the adoption fail, has been pilloried as selfish and heartless. Sage says she lost friends over her decision to find a new home for her Ethiopian daughter and received emails from strangers "telling me I'm a horrible person."

Freeman says rather than go into "blame mode," people need to understand the complexities of the issue.

"The parents are not hideous people and the children are not demons," she says. "This is just how you are when you've been abused and you're a child. We believe we can help and change someone if we love them enough, but it takes so much more than love."

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