For the last 10 years, I have worked with families who sought to dissolve their adoptions. When I tell other people about the work, they are astonished adoptive parents would place their child for adoption. Often desperate parents think about such a decision but then wait months to years to actually put anything into action. These are parents who often have saved and spent tens of thousands of dollars, traveled overseas, stayed in flimsy hotels, left other children behind –often for weeks at a time–to adopt a child in a desperate situation. Parents have said to me, “We both prayed about this adoption, felt it was God’s call on our lives to do this, and now we cannot parent this child. Did we not hear the voice of God?”
No one sets out to dissolve an adoption—just as no one sets out to enter marriage with the goal of divorcing. Yet there are circumstances that may lead to a dissolution of a marriage as well as to the dissolution of an adoption.
So where do adoptive couples go when they consider a dissolution? Finding literature on the topic is not easy. What agency wants to say to their clients, “If this does not work out, here is how we can help you end the adoption” Of course, agencies provide resources and counseling to help preserve the placement of a child. Likewise, churches provide pastoral counselor or other resources to help struggling couples reach a healthy marriage. Yet for those who do find themselves divorced, there is open support through such times. Yet, in the adoption or faith community, there is little to no support for those whose lives are so fragmented that they see no way out except to find another family for the child.
There are essentially two broad reasons for a dissolution: the family does not like the child or the child’s behavior is so destructive that anyone would have to find another place for the child. Of course, these reasons overlap.
For children and parents who have a difficult time attaching, the children can do well in the next home. What causes the parents and children not to attach? The first adoptive parents often get into a cycle with their child in which the child’s negative behavior leads to the parents’ shutting down. This is natural. Some of these children have experienced so much trauma that they give nothing back. A parent can pour an incredible amount of love and attention into the child, yet the child shows little response. Parents can only do this for so long.
Other times, the parents’ dismissive attachment style leads the child to act out and, in turn, the child then behaves even more poorly. Once the cycle is broken, the child can begin to heal from trauma and attach to a caregiver. Only then can the child’s negative emotions and behaviors begin to diminish.
The next typical scenario of children who are placed for adoption, is one in which the child’s behavior is dangerous and could lead to injury of others in the home. These adopted children usually need to be placed with well-experienced and trained foster parents.
Regardless of the reason, parents often delay making the decision to relinquish a child. Of course, this is a serious decision, and unlike a birth parent, who almost always place a child at birth, the point at which a parent makes the decision to place a child for adoption has no exact timeframe. With this in mind, the parents must also realize that the younger the child, the easier it is, in general, to find a new family for the child.
Parents often delay the placement of a child into a new home, knowing the embarrassment and shame they and their other children may face. How do you explain this to your neighbors, people at church, or your other kids? Just as people continue in a marriage for the same reasons, when there are clear sins and grounds for divorce.
When anyone experiences such an extreme loss of a child, there must be a healthy way to grieve. As with so many hurting people who have experienced loss, many do not talk about it. The more shame involved in a loss, the more people are prone to hide their grief. Because we as a society are given permission to end a job or a marriage, there are obvious resources to help cope with these losses or transitions. However, there is no “permission” to end a relationship with our own children. So special measures must be taken to grieve this loss.
Have people on your team. To expect everyone around you to agree with your decision, is hoping for the impossible. Share your burden with a few close family members and friends who are supportive. They may not understand all of your reasons, but they should be there for you.
Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page. Making such a life-changing decision means you must grieve together. There may be ways you each could have parented the child differently yet recognize this is not about blaming each other—or even blaming the child. Make sure that you give each other time to talk about the topic. If one spouse finds it difficult to talk, set a time limit such as 30 minutes, four times a week.
Recognize that biological parents make the decision also to place their children in other homes, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles. In adoption circles, we applaud birth mothers who place their babies for adoption. Most birth mothers are not teenagers but women in their 20s. They often make the decision because they have limited resources or it is not a good time in their lives to be parenting. We judge not but rather support such a woman for this decision.
Get some personal counseling. There are probably other losses in your life that compound the pain. Learn how you can grow through this.
Understand the reasons why you are dissolving the adoption. Everyone reaches capacity. If your spouse dies and you have three other children with medical needs, most likely the sibling group, whom you just adopted, would do better in a family that can provide the nurture they need. While this is an extreme example, the needs of the adopted children and the adoptive family all factor into an adoptive family ‘s “reaching capacity.” One mom said she had a personal history of trauma and the child triggered her own issues. Granted the child’s behavior was very negative at times. However, this is a mom who was able to share her own history with grace and demonstrated tenderness toward the child and his history as well.
Create what is called a story or a “narrative.” This story needs to make sense to you and give you a framework in which to tell yourself and others about your decision. Such a narrative will take time to develop.
Find an online support of others who have also placed a child for adoption.
Recognize that there will be what Denalee Chapman calls “trauma-verseries “ after the child leaves your home. Allow yourself to have many emotions and feelings. One such feeling is that the child will fail in the next home. While very few parents want the child to come back after such a circumstance, it is understandable how parents feel this way.
Talk with someone who understands what you have gone through. Carrie O’Toole provides such services through phone coaching and retreats. She has written a book, Relinquished, in which she tells her own story of placing her adopted son for adoption. Three other children from the same orphanage in Viet Nam, where her son had resided, also dissolved from their adoptions.
Recognize you could have been truly in the middle of God’s plan for your and the child’s life when you made the decision to adopt. Your bringing the child into your home is what can lead the child into another family. Many times I have seen children adopted by families who never could have adopted from a specific country due to the country’s restrictions or the next family’s own life circumstances. While none of us sign up to be the conduit to bring a child into another family, this may be part of your child’s life plan. Recognize that you were faithful to God’s call and you will continue to be in His will.
Once a child is placed, give the next family and your relinquished child space for at least at six months. If appropriate, send the child a letter or small gifts. Maintaining some level of openness allows the child know you still care. This balance of allowing the child to attach to the next family while having limited ties with you is a delicate balance that varies by each case. Counseling would be best for such decisions.
Laura Jean Beauvais is the Director of Counseling for Nightlight and provides services to families struggling with a variety of adoption –related issues.
The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart