A Different Perspective on Disruption
When I began working in the field of adoption, I brought with me my experience as a father of two adopted children. That experience told me adoption is forever. In fact, I swore this to the judge. I had difficulty with my children adopted from the foster care system, but I never wavered in my family-forever mindset. With that mindset I began leading an adoption agency and heard about families who were disrupting, dissolving, or re-homing. My understanding of the matter was simple…it’s wrong. My adoption was forever, my promise to the judge was forever, and my definition of adoption means forever. I harbored only judgment and resentment for families who would disrupt. It was not a complicated issue.
I am a pretty opinionated person, and I can’t recall many issues where I have reversed my thinking. But I heard Jon Bergeron speak at a conference about disruption. His words etched in my memory, “there are times when the needs of the child are not a good fit for the abilities of the parents.” Jon reversed my thinking on disruption.
You see, I not only entered the field of adoption as an adoptive father, but with a Ph.D. in pastoral counseling. Jon’s words matched with my experience in family counseling. In our democratic society we would like to think that all couples have equal parenting abilities. But this is simply not the case. We speak of people having “their plate full.” But the truth is, people have different size plates. Some parents are simply more skilled than others. Some children present more difficult than others. Not every couple is skilled enough to meet the needs of every child.
Now some may object that “biological families don’t dissolve just because the needs of the child aren’t a good fit for the skills of the parents.” But this is not the case. The instance of international adoptions dissolving is lower than dissolutions of other types of families. Every foster placement involves the dissolution of a biological family…where the biological parents are not prepared to parent. Every voluntary domestic adoption involves a birthmother and birthfather, who recognize that they are not prepared to parent and make a decision regarded as heroic. Parents often foster children with the complete intent of adoption, but as the adoption progresses over the next year they decide the placement is not a good fit. This is a disruption.
Some may say that Jon’s statement that “the needs of the child are not a good fit for the abilities of the parents” is a euphemism. Perhaps a euphemism for “horrible parents” or “horrible kid.” But in our work with dissolution, we have made a surprising observation. Dissolution often causes children to thrive. It is a tragedy, but it is not the type of tragedy people think or assume. There is a tragedy in a family’s hopes and expectations being shattered. There is a tragedy in a child failing to find permanence. But in EVERY case where Nightlight has participated in dissolution, the child has found a better placement. We wouldn’t participate if this were not the case. In other words, dissolution can be in the best interest of the child. Who would want a child to remain in a situation where they are despised, or misunderstood, or unable to have their needs met?
A simple observation illustrates that dissolution can be not only a “comparative good,” (the lesser of two evils) but a great improvement for children. Many dissolutions begin with an adoptive family who has no other children at home, whereas the new adoptive family has four, six, or more children in the home. A typical dissolution involves an older couple who becomes accustomed to living alone, but grieve over being childless. The presentation of a child in their home comes with a “reality check” that their expectations about parenting were unrealistic. Having children turns out not to be what they envisioned. The typical replacement family has several children, often by adoption, and finds parenting the child to be less challenging than the previous family. This is for several reasons: the second family is more experienced, they have “a larger plate,” (more parenting skills), a distinct calling, more realistic expectations about children, and a lifestyle adapted to having children.
At Nightlight, we have a dissolution prevention plan. We believe dissolution should be prevented. This plan includes actions before the adoption occurs, such as extensive education requirement, creation of a post-adoption support plan, discussion of realistic expectations, and gaining knowledge about the specific child to be adopted. The dissolution prevention plan also includes actions after the family begins to struggle, such as offering respite care, connection with doctors, counselors, and special educators, offering free counseling with our social workers, connection with other experienced adoptive parents, adoption support group, and provision of other educational materials.
But at times it becomes clear that a child is far more likely to thrive in a replacement family. For this reason, we do not have a conviction that dissolution is always wrong, or that it should never occur. If people assume that “the child is the problem,” then they also mistakenly assume that the dissolution could have been prevented if the family had more preparation or more information about the child in advance (and perhaps weeded out the child from eligibility for adoption). And if people assume “the couple is the problem” then they mistakenly assume the dissolution could have been prevented if the home study weeded them out. But what if the FIT is the problem? What if the child is likely to thrive with one couple, but not with another? In rare instances it will only become clear after the placement that the skills of the parents are not a good match with the particular needs of that child. In these cases, surprisingly, you will see social workers who advocate FOR dissolution. Tragic in one, regard, but a great opportunity for the child and improvement in their welfare.
Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D. | President