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'Re-homing' After Adoption: Teasing Out the Problem

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Did you know that you can give your child to a stranger without alerting anyone but a notary public? Do you know that people actually do give away children without notifying anyone but a notary public?

Megan Twohey of Reuters investigated under-the-radar child trafficking (which is technically not trafficking because no money changes hands) and NBC News shares its findings this week about Yahoo and Facebook groups that help "re-home" adopted children. According to Reuter's analysis of the Yahoo bulletin board group Adopting-from-Disruption, at least 70 percent of the 261 children mentioned on this board -- about a child a week over 5 years -- were advertised as foreign-born.

The revelations are heartbreaking.

But this is really two stories, each heartbreaking in its own way. We should avoid conflating these two very different problems, for we must deal with them in very different ways.

One aspect of this story, arguably the ugliest, stems from the demand side of re-homing, of nefarious people having an easy loophole through which to get access to untracked children. Desperate adoptive parents are documented using coded language to wash their hands of a child they cannot handle ("This attractive Russian girl has been in the US for about 3 years...."), which is to a predator like the smell of feces is to a fly. While this facet needs to be addressed and law enforcement involved, my purview is on the other story.

As an adoptive mom and author of a guide to openness in adoption, I'd like focus instead on the supply side of re-homing, an aspect that is ugly in a different way. Let's assume that a majority of the 261 quests to re-home originated with people like Judy, like Jessica, like Kari -- decent, honest people who yearn to be parents to a child who needs a home, who fully intend to give their all to their child. But diverging from Judy's, Jessica's and Kari's experiences, something goes terribly wrong for some families. What could bring such people from such an intention to such a chat room? How can a situation deteriorate so badly that it culminates in handing off a child to strangers in a parking lot and driving away?

I shared my thoughts with a Denver Post site in 2010 about the boy, Artyom, whose mother, Torrey Hansen, put him on a plane with a note that said, "I no longer wish to parent this child." I highlighted possible factors in this systemic breakdown, seeking to understand rather than to localize the blame:
  • There are the boy's biological parents. We do not know their circumstances, other than that the biological mother was an alcoholic. Why were they not able to care for him? Was Artyom exposed to any damaging substances in utero?
  • What was life like for him in the orphanage? Were his physical and emotional needs met? Was he hurt? How forthcoming was the orphanage in revealing what they knew about Artyom to the adoption agency?
  • How well did that agency and its Tennessee-based partner prepare Ms. Hansen for parenting this particular boy? Did the agency do its due diligence regarding both Mr. Hansen and Artyom?
  • And what did Ms. Hansen do to facilitate attachment with her new son? What resources from her community were available to her once she realized that she was in crisis?
I said then, "Even if we can pinpoint the problems, solutions don't automatically follow. Perhaps the biological parents lacked the emotional or financial resources to parent. The orphanage likely lacked resources to care adequately for all its charges. Where could Ms Hansen go for help once she realized she was in over her head?"

These are the same issues that affected many of the children in the Reuters reports -- just further upstream from Megan Twohey's reporting.

Tina Traster, author of the upcoming memoir Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother's Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder, tells me, "Nowhere along the way on the adoption mill, not the homestudy social worker, not the agency we used in North Carolina, not the agency in Siberia -- no one prepared us for Reactive Attachment Disorder. No one prepared us for a bonding issue. We lost a lot of time because at first, I was convinced it was me, that I simply didn't have any maternal instinct."

Tina continues: "What compounds the delay in seeking help is that the newly adoptive mother is so confused by what's happening when the child doesn't bond, that rather than seeking help, she becomes overwhelmed with feelings of shame and defeat. She ends up feeling isolated because she doesn't feel supported in what I call MotherWorld."

"Ironically," says Tina, " it was my mother instincts -- which I was convinced I didn't have -- that turned things around. I learned everything I could about RAD and changed the way I parented my daughter. Not everyone will be able to overcome the effects of RAD, but our daughter, who was quite young when we adopted her, is now completely and totally attached."

Upstream, we must acknowledge that love may not always be enough to heal the wounds caused by maternal separation, institutionalization, in utero substance exposure. Downstream, we see that there are no easy solutions to the horrors uncovered by Reuters. After all, the re-homing issue involves the bureaucracies of two countries, agencies and attorneys that tend to work for the transaction rather than the child, and state and local governments that may not yet have clear definitions and laws about re-homing -- not to mention people who are directly affected by policies and laws, the children who start this journey already too acquainted with loss and their adoptive parents.

Some may claim that the Reuters report is sensational journalism, that most parents who adopt internationally cannot even form a thought about re-homing their child. And put in perspective, re-homing is likely considered in only a fraction of adoptions. But that's cold comfort for the 261 children depicted in Reuter's interactive graphic.

Some will want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and propose sweeping moves like shutting down all international adoptions. Such a plan may prevent future re-homing situations, but it also would block successful homings for children in dire need of parents, for children who are languishing in institutions right this minute.

While I understand the desire to just Make-It-Stop!, the work that must be done here is not with a sledgehammer, but with tweezers, working on this tangled mess strand by strand. Instead, we need to examine the hows. How can we better prepare prospective adoptive parents for the challenges that come with RAD? How can we ensure that prospective parents get an accurate assessment on the child that will become theirs so that they can better match their abilities to the particular challenges of a specific child? How can we better support these newly made families prior to the desperation stage? And what is a more humane and above-board way of handling a disruption, should it become necessary?

Concurrent to addressing the prevention of the re-homing problem upstream, we also must ask all the downstream Hows about re-homing that have come to light from this report.

Just yesterday The Donaldson Adoption Institute called on "law enforcement officials, policymakers and adoption professionals nationwide to investigate and put a stop to activities such as "re-homing."" Kudos to investigative journalist Megan Twohey for bringing such horrors into the open. May we now get to work with our tweezers.