Re-homing: Treating Adopted Children Like–No, Worse Than–Dogs

Source: Reuters article "The Child Exchange" Sept. 9, 2013

Source: Reuters article “The Child Exchange” Sept. 9, 2013

Have you heard of re-homing? It’s kind of nice-sounding, usually used for dogs and cats to find new homes.

Recently, though, “re-homing” has been used in the human adoption community, to describe moving an adopted child from one adoptive home to another. There may be good reasons for moving a child. But it should never be done lightly, never without exhausting all other resources (respite, therapy, counseling, etc.). Never via a Yahoo group.

That said, in too many places, post-adoption services (never mind high-quality post-adoption services) may not be available. While there are some parents who give up easily on children, there are many who struggle mightily, financially, physically, emotionally, for long periods of time, trying to find help for their children.

Surely though the transfer of a child shouldn’t  be arranged over the Internet, with no real legal, adoption agency, or government oversight, with children essentially being handed off to strangers in a parking lot. Right?

Read this Reuters/NBC News article: Americans Use The Internet to Abandon Children Adopted From Overseas.

If you ever wondered if the international adoption process needs more oversight–better screening and rigorous training prior to adoption, plus accessible, thorough post-adoption services, plus genuine legal protection for children–this article should convince you.

Send the article on to your state and federal elected officials, asking if they are okay with children being “exchanged” with no oversight, potentially to people who have been convicted of child pornography, to people who will tell a child to dig her own grave, to people who will disappear with the child, ending in who knows what fate.

Insist to our elected officials that (at a minimum) more legal oversight is needed for the safety of children.  Ask them to support increased funding for pre-adopt and post-adopt services.

If you have been moved by the horrific trial for homicide, manslaughter, and assault of the adoptive parents of Hana Alemu and her adopted Ethiopian brother, read the article, and send it on with your comments to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Information on contacting your federal elected officials is here for the House and here for the Senate.

You can also contact the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and the National Council on Adoption, both of which work with adoption agencies and with federal and state governments.

Ask the US State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues what public and comprehensive action they will take to protect children, since that’s their job in overseeing international adoptions. Here’s a quote from their web page:  “In this work, we are fully committed to protecting the welfare and interests of children.” That must include an oversight and enforcement role after the children arrive here. 

State Department contact information is available here.

As an adoptive parent of two sons from the US and two daughters from Ethiopia, I am deeply saddened and outraged by the information in the Reuters article–but not surprised. These tragic stories have been happening for far too long, though they haven’t received the attention they deserve.

We don’t want bad things happening to dogs. Surely these tragedies should not ever happen to children.

Case Study, Part 2: The Williamses’ Adoption Agency

In Case Study, Part 1, I reviewed some of the background facts about the agency used in the adoption of Hana Alemu and Immanuel Williams.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, we need to make changes in adoption policy, and engage in hard conversations that includes adoptive parents, adopted persons, and first parents. I challenge adoption agencies and licensing authorities in particular to step up.

Here are Case Study Questions that leap to my mind, questions that deserve to be discussed, considered, and answered, by adoption agency professionals, social workers, families, legislators, and more. Home studies and post-adoption services need to be examined closely to ensure they meet the needs of families, and especially of adopted children.

Why did the Williamses decide to adopt two older children from Ethiopia? What discussions did they have in the home study process with their agency, Adoption Advocates International (AAI), about the reasons?

(They wanted more children, in addition to their 7. Why older children? Why Ethiopia? Why 2 children?)

How did the family afford the adoption, which must have cost at least $20,000?

(People don’t have to be wealthy to adopt, though adoption can be an expensive process. The US government has prospective adoptive parents of internationally adopted children sign a form that they have sufficient income not to become a burden on the public system (welfare, food stamps, etc.). In the case of the Williamses, one modest income and 11 people (2 adults, 9 children) had to have been a challenge.

The role of money in adoption is often controversial. If Hana or Immanuel needed additional resources, could the Williamses afford them? Was financial strain a factor? Lots of big families do well, and children thrive in them, even if incomes are limited. Still, finances can be stressful for many families, and that potential stress should be carefully considered and discussed in the home study process.)

Did the Williamses use the adoption tax credit? Did AAI tell them about it? If so, did that influence their decision and ability to adopt?

(For information about the adoption tax credit, read my post here.)

How did the home study address the discipline techniques of Larry and Carri Williams? Were there any red flags? What agreements did they sign regarding discipline and punishment? Did they violate any of those agreements?

(Washington state allows spanking of children, as long as it doesn’t leave a mark.) 

Carri Williams apparently expected/wanted a little girl through the adoption. How did the AAI social worker address Carri’s wishes in the home study? What age child/children were the Williamses approved for by the home study, which also had to have the approval of the US State Department?

(A primary goal in adoption is supposed to be finding family for a child, not a child for a family. How was this fundamental goal addressed in the home study?)

Did Carri Williams realize, prior to Hana’s arrival in the US, that Hana was at least 10 years old? If not, why not? What sort of conversations and discussion did the home study actually involve? Was this conflict discussed in post-placement agency work? If not, why not?

In the home study process, did the adoption agency suggest that the Williamses connect with the Ethiopian community in Seattle and elsewhere? Did Larry and Carri know any Ethiopians, any Ethiopian-Americans? Did they know any people of color?

(Ask adult Ethiopian adoptees, and other transracially adopted adults, if this matters in parenting adopted children.)

In the home study, what resources did the Williamses indicate they had as a support system for the post-adoption needs of 2 older, Ethiopian children, and of the family as a whole? Did AAI feel these were sufficient?

Did the Williamses complete their mandated 10 hours of pre-adoption preparation on-line, as is allowed by the Hague Convention?

(Ten hours. That’s it. That’s all that is mandated for pre-adoption counseling for two, older, transracial, international adoptions. Did AAI suggest any further preparation? ) 

How did the social worker prepare and include the 7 Williamses’ children in the discussions about how their lives would change with the addition of two children?

The Williamses did not ever travel to Ethiopia, though in 2008 this was standard practice for families adopting from Ethiopia. Why didn’t one or both travel? The travel could have involved their meeting birth family members of both Hana and Immanuel, as well as seeing the country. Might that have made a difference in their approach to the children?

In terms of information provided to the Williamses by AAI, did that information include resources for post-adopt services, such as counseling, therapists, respite care, adoptive families, adult adoptees, the Ethiopian Community Center, etc?

Did the Williamses sign any agreements regarding their knowledge of post-adopt resources? Did they sign any agreements that they would contact AAI if they needed assistance and/or support?

How hard did AAI press the Williamses’ to send in the Post-Placement Reports?

(Ethiopia requests all adoptive parents to send post-placement reports annually until the child is 18. They want to know that the children are alive, safe, and cared for, in terms of health, schooling, and overall well-being. Once an adoption is finalized, it is up to the adoptive parents to comply; there is no enforcement mechanism.

These reports are different from the reports required by the US to finalize the adoption. These are reports based on the agency social worker’s visits and/or conversations, plus information on adjustment, medical evaluations, and so on. These generally take place 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months after a child’s arrival. 

My understanding, based on Gay Knutson’s testimony, is that the Williamses completed all the US requirements for finalization with AAI. It is less clear that they sent in the annual reports to Ethiopia.)

Final thoughts

Regardless of the outcome of this case, these questions about the home study process and about post-placement resources all deserve further consideration by international adoption agency staff, not just AAI but all agencies, as well as the Council on Accreditation, Joint Council on International Children’s Services, the US State Department–Office of Children’s Issues, and state licensing agencies.

Most international adoptions do not have these publicized, horrific outcomes. We don’t know, though, how many international adoptees, Ethiopian or otherwise, are suffering under the radar, because of insufficient preparation and post-placement services.

We do know that hundreds, if not thousands, of adoptive parents seek advice and support on-line, and not from their agencies. The parents have many questions and they need lots of help, which they seek out from strangers on-line. Post-adoption services are vitally needed. What is the adoption agency response to this? What is the State Department’s? COA’s? What are their responsibilities?

it doesn’t lessen the horrific tragedy, but perhaps one positive legacy could be an overhaul of the adoption process, in a way that ensures safety, transparency, and integrity. I hope for this, and for justice for Hana.

Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community

One week from today, on July 22, the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, accused of the murder of Hana Alemu (Hannah Williams), is scheduled to start in Skagit County, Washington State. Hana did not deserve or cause the suffering she went through. May Hana receive justice, and may those who made her suffer and caused her death receive the punishment they deserve. I pray that no other children will suffer so at the hands of adoptive parents. May all children be safe and loved. 

Some people, understandably, don’t want to even read the details about what happened to Hana Alemu after she arrived here in the United States from Ethiopia for adoption. It’s too wrenching, infuriating, horribly sad. As an adoptive mother, I look at my own children, especially my twin daughters from Ethiopia, and wonder how things went so wrong for Hana.

Whatever happens in the upcoming trial of Hana’s adoptive parents, I believe we need to reflect on how we in the international adoption community (I include myself) failed Hana and other children who have suffered abuse or worse in the course of adoption. We cannot change the past, but perhaps we can improve the future for other adopted children.

Hana was placed for adoption through a Washington State licensed agency, Adoption Advocates International. AAI is a member of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and also accredited for Hague Convention Services through April 2016 by the Council on Accreditation (COA).

So that may well be the first failure: Is accreditation truly meaningful, especially with regard to both pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption services? In February I wrote an Open Letter to COA posted on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. In the letter, I ask several questions about the value of accreditation, including how a COA-accredited agency, Christian World Adoption, could suddenly declare bankruptcy, given the ostensible rigors of accreditation.

In full disclosure, I worked for JCICS from 1995-2000. I worked for two adoption agencies between 2000 and 2006. I’m generally familiar with how US and international adoption agencies work, though I’m out of current loops. I have no insider knowledge about AAI or about Hana’s adoption or her adoptive family, the Williamses. What I am writing about here is publicly available in multiple forums.

AAI commented on Hana’s death and on significant revisions to its policies in a letter to adoptive families, according to this website, in October 2011.

I believe most (though not all) adoption agencies operate in good faith, with decent motives. I have no doubts that some have lost track of the most important focus in adoption: the best interest of the child. Some just view adoptive parents exclusively as the client, as if only their needs matter: they are, after all, the only ones getting billed for services.

Given the large amounts of money, and thus the power also held in their hands, prospective adoptive parents often (not always) go to adoption agencies with a sense of entitlement: looking for the youngest, healthiest child, through an agency with the least waiting time and the lowest price. Some parents retain a strong sense of entitlement as they go through the process; some lose it as they begin to understand the realities of international adoption. We can only hope that prospective parents, as they decide what route to take, will listen and learn about trauma, loss, grief, attachment, as well as the value of racial identity, retention of language and culture, and the establishment of trust.

And here’s the challenge, the balancing act for adoption agencies: preparing parents well and thoroughly for adoption, without scaring them off completely. That said, some should be scared off, and that may well be the best outcome, as they may not have been good adoptive parents. People who just want to “give an orphan a loving home” are often rattled by hearing about the long-term impact of neglect and abuse, Reactive Attachment Disorder, food hoarding, sensory integration problems, sleeping disorders, failure to thrive, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and all the other conditions that cause some children to end up being adopted, or that some children display upon arrival in the US.

That’s another failure: Some agencies do not prepare their families well at all. Some parents do not hear what is being told to them. We adoptive parents, especially those with both good and hard experiences, need to do a better job at sharing what we’ve learned. For Pre-Adoption Groups, It’s not enough for new adoptive parents just back from Korea to bring in their cute toddler. Far better for adult adoptees to speak to prospective parents, as well as adoptive parents who have brought their kids to multiple therapists, who have struggled to figure out what’s adoption-related and what’s just being a kid, who have listened deeply as their beloved children grieve the loss of their first family.

The home study process is a critical element of the adoption journey. Here is a link to the detailed requirements of the home study. I have no idea what the home study looked like for Larry and Carri Williams. The US State Department provides a handy tip sheet with lots of examples of what a good home study should look like, so maybe it followed this formula. By the way, to say that the home study process needs overhaul is an epic understatement.

It’s absurd and shameful that the international treaty governing adoption, the Hague Convention, mandates an abysmally small number of hours for adoption preparation: ten. And parents can take the classes on-line.

The adoption community fails adopted children in requiring that prospective parents receive such a tiny amount of preparation. We adoptive parents and professionals in adoption need to speak up much more loudly about why extensive training and preparation truly matters.

If adoptive parents are well-prepared, they are better able to handle transition and adjustment issues of adopted children, at the time of placement and for years after. Some children adjust smoothly, and have very few bumps along the way.  Some have occasional struggles, manifesting more during teenage years. Some have significant troubles throughout their lives.

Children who are placed for adoption have experienced trauma. That’s true whether they were placed at birth or at age 12. Serious research shows that children separated from their mothers experience trauma: really, how could it be otherwise? We are biologically hard-wired for survival to depend on our mothers. Separation is significant. And some children are less resilient than others.

Here’s an excellent article from a Bay Area Adoption Services newsletter about the powerful impact of trauma,  Attachment 101: A Primer for Parents. A quote:

“I believe that adoptive parents need a more informed understanding of attachment, especially those who assume that attachment just happens more or less naturally. Sometimes what comes naturally, instead, are maladaptive responses, crystallized during a period of critical brain development and traumatic experience. Adopted children come to us with largely unknown, often difficult histories that can impact their emotional health, cognition, social competence, and ability to form healthy and happy relationships throughout their lifetimes.”

Hana arrived here as a 10-year-old, and 10 years is plenty of time to have had plenty of life experiences during periods of critical brain development. Older children who are placed for adoption, whether internationally or through US foster care, have experienced deep loss. At a minimum, they’ve gone through separation from their first family, who may have loved them deeply. There are children who end up being adopted solely because of their first family’s poverty, for example, or because of social stigma. Other children may have also dealt with neglect and abuse, and neglect can be more detrimental than abuse.

One area where the child’s past and the parents’ expectations can collide disastrously is discipline and punishment. Treating an older, adopted child “just like” one’s biological children, or even like one’s other adopted children, using the same disciplinary strategies, may be a recipe for failure, not for equality. Traumatized children can learn to trust. They can adapt and adjust. But it can take time, and new strategies, and patience, and one step forward, three steps back. Abuse is never acceptable. Never.

Empowering social workers during the home study process to ask about disciplinary approaches of prospective parents, and to be comfortable discussing why some punishment strategies are not appropriate for adopted children, is critical. Finding a balance of respect for religious beliefs about discipline and for recognition that those beliefs may further traumatize children is a fine line to walk. But damn it, we need to do a better job of it.

Finally, we fail as a community to impress upon adoptive families that they need to reach out for post-adoption services and resources. This unfortunately is a double-fail: the community does not provide sufficient post-adoption services and resources.

In September 2012, the Washington State’s Office of Children Issues prepared an excellent report, tragically prompted by the severe abuse of 17 adopted children, including Hana and her adoptive brother, also from Ethiopia. The report includes powerful, pragmatic, much-needed recommendations. In the section on post-adoption needs, they note:

“Lack of support services for adoptive families was identified as a contributing factor to failed adoptions. In one study almost 57 percent of families with an adopted child said that they needed child guidance and mental health services, but only 26 percent reported actually receiving these services. Issues that are not addressed early in the adoption can become significant problems later and lead to involvement with the juvenile offender or dependency systems. As previously discussed in this report, other agencies, both public and private, are leading efforts to address unmet support needs of adopted families and improve access to mental health services. These efforts should be expanded.

Adoption support services should include a range of services including education and referral, respite, advocacy, therapeutic counseling, academic tutoring and preservation of families in crisis. Services must be coordinated across systems such as schools and medical or mental health providers and connect families with a range of resources…The range of support services must also be designed to provide ongoing assistance and be able meet the family’s needs as their situation changes.

To effectively work with adoptive families, service providers must have specialized knowledge related to adoption and foster care. Adoptive parents must be educated about the benefit and range of post-adoption services available. Services must also be offered in a in a non-judgmental empathic manner. A parent’s willingness to recognize challenges and seek assistance should be viewed as a parental strength and not a weakness. Families should perceive these services as beneficial support and not as needless oversight or supervision.”

As of next year, international adoption agencies will have new requirements: the Uniform Accreditation Act. Information from the State Department is available here. I’m skeptical. Will it just be more bureaucracy and more expense, or will it truly meet the needs of children, first parents, and adoptive parents? Let’s see in July of 2014, when the law takes effect.

In the meantime, let’s have the courage to look at our failures, to work genuinely together in the adoption community to keep children safe, and to speak out about the need for change.