THE BLOG
10/30/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Impermanence: When Adoptions Fail

Is adoption a permanent legal commitment, or can it be dissolved like a marriage, absolving a parent of responsibility for a child?

An unnamed Long Island couple has asked Nassau County Surrogate's Court Judge Edward McCarty III to vacate the adoption of their two Russian-born children who were six and eight years old when adopted. The couple claim the children were described to them as "healthy and socially well-adjusted" and that both children have "serious medical and psychiatric problems" and have made multiple threats to kill their adoptive parents. Now 12 and 14, the children are in state mental-health facilities. If the adoption is vacated the children would become wards of the state, remaining in the mental hospital or being placed in foster care.

It's a case many will be watching. Judge McCarty, while protecting the anonymity of the adoptive parents, is hearing the case in open court citing public interest in the "disturbing facts" surrounding the adoption including the allegation that the adoption agencies "pulled a bait and switch."

Civil suits for financial remuneration filed by adoptive parents against adoption agencies for violating contract law by willfully withholding information or knowingly giving false or misleading information are not new and many have been successful. Courts have upheld wrongful adoption torts since the Appellate Court of Illinois recognized fraud in a case involving three sets of adoptive parents who adopted from Catholic Charities of Springfield in 1978. In 1986, the Supreme Court of Ohio awarded $125,000 to adoptive parents who were deliberately misinformed about the risk of their adopted child to develop a hereditary disease. Other wrongful adoption torts have resulted in settlements as high as $780,000 against The Cradle Society in Evanston, IL.

This is not, however, a suit for damages. Adoption terminations after finalization are known as "dissolutions" as opposed to adoptions which fall apart prior to being finalized (disruptions). Accurate data are difficult to obtain because of sealed adoption records and numbers are misleading as they do not include informal rehoming and other forms of abandonment that go unreported. Adoptive parents seeking to have a court annul, reverse, void or vacate an adoption is uncommon and generally requires that it is in the child's best interest or that the adoptive parents are no longer able to care for the child. Courts do not, however, grant petitions for reversal simply to free the adoptive parents of the responsibilities of taking care of a child.

Torry Hansen, for instance, who abandoned her seven-year-old Russian-born son by putting him on an airplane alone back to Russia, was ordered to pay lifetime support for his care and damages. This seems reasonable to Elizabeth Jurenovich, Executive Director of Abrazo Adoption Associates, San Antonio, Texas who believes that "the promises made [by adopters] at placement are sacred vows that must be honored forever."

This case will not only be watched here, but also in Russia. Once the third largest source of children adopted by Americans, Russia banned adoptions to the U.S. in 2012 after threatening such a ban since 2006 when Peggy Sue Hilt admitted killing her adopted Russian daughter by punching and kicking the two-year-old. In 2010 Russia suspended adoptions to the U.S. and attempted to negotiate terms to resume adoptions between the nations including post-adoption follow-up reports. The conditions were unacceptable and the suspension became a ban.

Nineteen Russia adoptions have ended with the conviction of an American citizen for the death of a Russian child they committed to care for. The 19 children murdered do not include children who died at the hands of their American adopters in which there was no conviction nor the ones whose adoptive parents were convicted of lesser offenses. Nor does it include the untold number of Russian adopted children who survive unspeakable abuses. It also does not include children adopted and abandoned, or sent back to Russia as was done by Torry Hansen, or those sent to the Ranch for Children in Montana that Russian officials tried in vain to see firsthand, or the untold numbers re-homed as reported by Reuters, many of whom were Russian born.

Some adoption practitioners are concerned that the current case will incite Russian "propaganda" that American adoptive parents are violent and incapable. However, the abuse and murder convictions as well as re-homing are well-documented and known.

Adoption attorney Irene Steffas fears this case could set a dangerous precedent. While adopters are entitled to all medical records possible, if Spence-Chapin of New York or Cradle of Hope in Maryland, both named in this action, are found responsible to "warranty" the mental and physical health of children they place for adoption, "agencies would shut down" according to Steffas.

Adoption reformists focus their concern not on potential loss of revenue for adoption businesses, but on reducing the number of vulnerable children who are abandoned because they fall short of expectations of their "forever" family (as adoptive parents are fond of referring to themselves). Grassroots activists site secrecy in adoption as the problem and full disclosure critical for prospective adopters who need to make fully, accurate and honestly-informed decisions in order to reduce potential failed adoptions. Fewer but more realistic adoptions is seen as preferable by those not vested in earning a fee for placements. If fears of potential problems reduce international adoptions, they say, it might result in more Americans choosing to adopt from American foster care instead, which would be a good thing for children who cannot be reunited with family.

Adoptive parent bloggers commiserate and support one another when they find themselves in over their heads with children who they describe as not what they "bargained for." Certainly we cannot and should not force any parent -- adoptive or not -- to continue to care for a child they feel incapable of living with. Nor would we want to leave children in harm's way. But the parents in this case have already removed the children so the question is: Are parents -- adoptive or not -- financially responsible for their minor children or can they simply ask to be relieved of that responsibility when the going gets tough?