When I first began working with adoption in 2003, I was very happy to be part of helping find families for children. I believed, and still do, that adoption is the best option for for youth in the Child Welfare System.
Then one day I was talking to someone who had worked in the system for many years and had been an adoptive parent. I shared my excitement about the successful adoptions we had helped happen. She asked “are you sure it is a good thing for the families who adopt? She then shared her experiences. Then she shared what she had seen with other adoptive families when the adoptive child was a constant disruptive force. Her observations were very close to what I describe in this article.
When we recruit adoptive parents, we very seldom discuss the negative effects adoption could have on your marriage. We need to discuss this. Adopting children brings unique challenges to any couple, and family with existing children.
Adoption of children from the system is a much more complex commitment than our prospective parents realize. There are negative consequences we fail to discuss. One of those consequences for many families is increased risk of divorce .
One of the things we speak of very seldom within the adoption profession is the effect that it will have on a marriage relationship. We discuss that divorce rates among adoptive parents are higher than that of the general population. When I decided to do this article, I found no studies. Neither did the organizations I asked for help. I have read there is a 62% divorce rate among adoptive parents, but could not verify that number. There seems to be no study or the issue. The fact that we don’t even study this is telling for reasons we will explore later.
We who have worked with adoptive families know that adopting children out of Child Welfare does contribute to divorces. Some of the reasons have to do with the way Child Welfare recruits, trains, and supports adoptive families.
I do want to specify that many families adopt youth with less severe issues and are very successful in raising them to be thriving adults. Some of these couples may divorce for the same reasons other couples divorce. This article is focusing on divorce when the adoptive experience is overwhelming.
Every December, we experience adoption month. There are annual television shows featuring happy adoptive families. They tell about the joys of adoption. The first year I was part of adoption month, I was excited.
This is the United States, and we market. We extoll the virtues of our product, and we treat children as products and offer marketing campaigns to people who want children in their lives. We offer a means for them to apply to be adoptive parents. We do not tell people that, when things go wrong, families are sometimes destroyed by an adoption.
We put the people who apply through a thorough screening process. Most states require that experts review the results of the screening process. They want to insure that the families they choose have a good probability of succeeding if they if chosen for a child in the system. Procedures vary, but most states have processes much like the ones described.
We also put the applicants through a training process. But, since there is a need to keep them motivated, states usually offer a standard training for all the applicants. They present the best compromise they judge they can make between the true need and commitment to training. The hours required are integrated into Child Welfare Policy, state law, or both. There is no assessment of preexisting competence or targeted training for the specific youth they will adopt.
Most states do not train in the strategies for adopting youth who need specific trust development techniques. This is, perhaps, the greatest deficit in preparation.
States attempt to do the best they can within the time frames offered. They teach about trauma, and are usually teaching discipline techniques which may or may be brain-based and up to date. Usually, they teach about the kind of issues their children are likely to have. The better training programs stress the need for parents to develop skills of self care and managing their emotions.
After they go through this process of the training, screening they are matched with a child. Then they bring someone into their home with a commitment to be a “forever home”. And it works for many children and families. Yet, there is a percentage of placements that simply don’t work and are disrupted. This is traumatic for both children and families.
Relationship Development Issues
My wife and I have been a permanent connection with an adopted child for several years. Every time I would see her after she was adopted I would ask her a question. The question was “Do you trust them yet?” It was two years before she said yes. Several years later her trust alternates between parents.
This is not atypical. David Ziegler, in Raising Children Who Refuse to be Raised, outlines the stages of relationship development with traumatized youth. He points out that it takes at least two years, in most cases to go through the stages of relationship development with traumatized youth.
This key information is usually not given to adoptive parents. So they are likely to make some false assumptions during those first two years. This delays the relationship process and “triggers” youth to be insecure and reactive.
In spite of training received, adoptive parents frequently underestimate the challenges of adoption. Learning about youth who have experienced trauma is much different than living with those youth. I have heard comments like, “our family is different”, while training potential adoptive parents.
Post Adoptive Services are available in most states and usually last one to two years. They frequently consist of referring families to a series of providers, most of which aren’t trauma-competent. The level of training in trauma for providers is almost as sparse as that for adoptive parents. Also, providers are held to unrealistic performance standards. These result in harried, overworked, and unfocused service providers. Providers are asked to do too much, and the standards produce similar turnover issues as the state agencies experience.
The result of this is many family relationships that never reach a healthy level. If there are other children in the family, sometimes the children become a threat to each other. It is fairly common for adoptive children to be treated by residential programs for mental health issues.
Some younger children who, although they might not trust, adapt to the family until they reach their teens. Then they show new behaviors and become very disruptive to the family. They may also disrupt other environments. Mental health issues may start to surface years afterward and surprise the families. This often occurs long after the family has access to any post adoptive support.
If you talk to adoptive parents towards the end of the process, such as when youth are becoming adults or years after, you hear these kinds of stories:
- Families faced unexpected difficulties when adoptive youth became teens. This could be due to long term effects of being drug affected at birth or other mental health issues. The couple stayed together, but used all their life’s savings attempting to help adoptees. Some divorce and some don’t. We hear of couples staying together in a poor marriage because they can’t afford divorce.
- Couples who stay married, but support two households to maintain safety of all the children.
- Couples who divorce, with one having custody or other children and the other having custody of an adopted child. This is necessary to keep the other children safe.
- Couples who divorce later because the experience of dealing with a very troubled child destroyed the bond they shared.
- Family dynamics that not only lead to divorce, but lead to issues with other children, and isolation from extended family.
In summary, families live with unexpected constant or randomly occurring intense stress. These are partially a result of marginal training, unrealistic expectations, and inadequate supports. There may be violence, destruction of property and other results of frequent escalation of the adoptive children. Parents are challenged to maintain their own emotional regulation. They are overwhelmed while trying to help children with their emotions.
When adoptive children act out the family often finds itself isolated from extended family. Families often begin the adoptive process with commitments of support from families and friends. Over time , they find themselves isolated from extended family. There support people are overwhelmed by the tension and behaviors that evolve after the adoption.
In contrast, some families rise to the occasion, learn on their own, and become incredibly competent at dealing with adoptive youth. Some build stronger marriages and families and adopt again.
Another part of the issue stems from the nature of the Child Welfare System itself. The system is almost constantly overwhelmed. Caseloads are too large, turnover is rampant. The system has to find ways to move youth out of the system so they can serve the ones who are entering.
Child Welfare is part of the court system. This system has legal proceedings which respond to allegations and specify strategies for ending a case. Once a child is adopted, court involvement ends. Post Adopt Services occur after the case is ended and are time limited. Adoptive parents are THE parents, and the attitude of the system is often one that blames the adoptive parents .
So, when adoptive families start to experience their most difficult times and are most in need of support, there is often no support from the system. So when a 13-year-old starts to show delinquent behavior, have trouble in school, and even threaten violence, the family is on its own. If they have picked up adequate training, they may be able to navigate these issues with some success.
If not, they find themselves overwhelmed and often blamed by schools and others. They are the parents, after all. If they ask for help, in most states, that help isn’t available.
If they are fortunate enough to have Medicaid many of the costs associated with needed services are covered. If not, the medical bills can get expensive and have bankrupted many families. Most private coverage for mental health issues is woefully inadequate in the United States for the needs of these families.
For those families that divorce in the midst of the problems, there are new complications. The divorce itself will often increase anxiety for the adoptive child and result in problem behaviors. The child is further traumatized. He or she and experiences increased shame, along with whatever other feelings are beneath the behaviors.
So the parent who has custody of the adoptive child sees new behaviors. This is true, whether the adoption was a contributor to the divorce.
I believe Child Welfare Systems will rarely support adoptive parents for the length of time needed to keep families together. They will fail to produce quality outcomes for youth who have been adopted from care. We have a larger need to continue to rethink Child Welfare, but in the meantime, we need to improve support for adoptive families.
So what do we do? This is very complicated question. First, we need to be honest that adopting has a risk of being very stressful to marriages and families. This includes adopting babies from other countries. Systems need to stress that being able to parent children who have experienced trauma is the most critical skill set they need to learn. Then they need to make that training available, for free, at any time.
Second, we need to continue in the direction of increased post adoption services. These need to continue until the child is in their twenties, as most states do in foster care. Rather than treating adoptive families as dumping grounds, adoption needs to be a partnership. This needs to be between states, providers and adoptive families
We also need to offer a much wider range of training and support. States need to invest broadly in developing trauma competent providers. They need to adjust their contracts so that performance standards allow providers to take the time needed with families.
One very hopeful development is the work by the Texas Christian University Institute of Child Development. TCU has created Trust-Based Relational Interventions (TBRI). They teach, in detail, the mindsets and strategies that work with “children from hard places.” This brain-base and trauma-driven approach works. In addition, they are establishing a national network of peer support networks for both foster and adoptive parents. I have been very pleased with what I hear from those involved.
We need to provide support for families and marriages that addresses the real issues they face. We need to expand training in strategies like TBRI and encourage group support between adoptive families. need to expand. This training and support needs to be available at any time, at no cost, for years after the adoption is final.
Finally, as a society, we need to show gratitude for those who adopt children out of Child Welfare. We need to provide the support everyone involved needs to succeed.
Chief Operating Officer, The Lions Lead