TV shows and media reports often create a big emotional response with calls to action. The recent Dan Rather show “Unwanted in America” is no exception. Since the show aired on December 2, there have been 3 Gofundme sites, dozens of Facebook posts, a Facebook page “Unwanted in America,” a big meeting at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle, and no doubt many other events. I wrote yesterday about the Convergence of Concern Around Seattle Adoptees. Per that post, Julie and Rich Hehn, the adoptive parents of the Seattle adoptees featured on the show, declined to comment regarding “Unwanted,” so their views are not available.
Beyond efforts to help the young people featured in the show, there has also been much outcry to reform international adoption policies. This interest is not new in itself. In recent years, there has been a huge demand for change, from many different quarters: adult adoptees, Congress, adoptive parents, governments around the world, adoption agencies, family preservation groups, first/original parents, and concerned advocates. The outcry has reached a critical mass as everyone shares many of the same concerns, but sees solutions very differently. The Children in Families First act (CHIFF) is just one example of legislation that sounded good but fell far short, for many reasons.
“Unwanted” is the latest media event to use the stories of various adoptees to shed light on several troubling occurrences in adoptive families. I will describe 4 practices here. All are happening with increasing frequency.
One is a practice called re-homing, where adopted children are moved from one family to another without a full legal and transparent process. A Reuters series detailed the problems with re-homing, and many state and federal legislators have begun looking at possible legislation.
It’s deeply troubling that a child could be transferred via a Yahoo group to strangers, with maybe a notarized letter about power of attorney. What sort of help did the adoptive parents seek and receive, before letting their children go? What legal protections does the child have in these circumstances?
Some states have already taken action. Louisiana and Wisconsin have passed laws already. Rhode Island, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, and other states are moving in that direction. The federal government has held at least one hearing on re-homing, and more will be happening next year. This is all good news. That said, any actions in response to re-homing will, I hope, insist on increased resources and services for struggling families and children.
Another area of concern to many involved in adoption is that far too many internationally adopted children are being re-placed into new adoptive homes. This process may be arranged by an adoption agency or through lawyers, and is essentially the same as the first adoption: the (first adoptive) parents’ legal rights are terminated, and new parents become the (second set of) legal parents. On the Dan Rather show, author Joyce Maynard spoke extensively about her decision to dissolve her adoption of two Ethiopian girls who now live with a new family. I have written about internationally adopted children who are now available for adoption through our US foster care system.
While this has legal transparency and protections, there is great concern about why these second adoptions are needed. Was there insufficient preparation of the first adoptive parents? Was information about the child incomplete or inaccurate? Were there resources provided to help the child and the parents? What is the responsibility of the adoption agencies?
A specific concern raised by the Dan Rather show was the size of the adoptive family. of which 3 children are homeless now. Seattle-area’s Julie and Rich Hehn have 25-30 children, depending on what news article you read. Most of the adopted children (20?) were from Ethiopia. Some of the children had/have special needs. Some were placed with the Hehns after having been adopted and then given up by other families.
Regardless of those realities, I don’t know anyone whose jaw hasn’t dropped in response to the number of children adopted. Common reactions I’ve heard are these: How were the Hehns able to adopt 20+ children? How does that fit with best practices of child welfare? Is that a family, or a group home? Children with defined special needs, with serious medical and/or developmental issues, and with histories of loss and trauma absolutely need families. These children might also especially need more individual parental time and attention, and lots of it. In terms of adoption practice, placements of 20+ children require many resources and supports to be successful.
Large families have of course always existed, and many thrive. A big family can be a positive situation for children who have spent time in an orphanage, used to the rigors and camaraderie of being surrounded by others. Still, one hopes that any family taking in dozens of children is adequately prepared and supported in raising adopted children.
A note: many people have wondered why adoption agencies don’t follow up with families after the placement. Here’s the reason: once the adoption is finalized, the adopted child is the family’s child just like any other child. The family has every right to ignore an agency’s inquiries after the child is legally with the family. Some families want nothing to do with the adoption agency after the placement. Some call on the agency for help and support. This is why pre-adoption preparation is so vital, so that families can anticipate challenges and feel comfortable in seeking help.
A fourth area of concern is adopted children who are thrown out of their adoptive families, and who sometimes end up homeless. That has been the case for at least 3 of the children adopted by the Hehns, according to the Dan Rather show. Among other heartbreaking parts of the show was the information about how many adoptees are at a homeless shelter in Minnesota. I have no doubts that additional research will show that this is true at other homeless shelters as well.
And, yes, I know that homeless shelters are filled with people from biological families. But there has been a definite uptick in adoptees being displaced from their families as minors or as legal adults. We need to understand why this is happening.
In response to some horrific cases of abuse and worse of foster and adopted children, in 2012 Washington state produced a powerful report with many excellent suggestions for reforms in adoption practice. Regrettably the state legislature has not yet approved the needed recommendations, but advocates are hopeful that there may be progress next year. Other states and the federal government are considering legislative improvements as well.
Bottom line: Let’s watch the TV shows and read the articles about tragedies happening in adoptive families. Then let’s put far greater energy, attention, and funding to pre-adoption screening and services for prospective families, to being open to the experiences and insights of adult adoptees, to including first/original parents in adoption policy discussions, and to providing viable, effective post-adoption resources.