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News Focus: Adoption Disruption

Within a few weeks of welcoming home their 10-year-old son, Toni Heitzmann and her husband, Jeff, began noticing changes in his behavior. “He was bright, but he had a dark side,” says Heitzmann. The couple knew that the transition would require time, and lots of give-and-take. So they sought therapy for the little boy, and they reached out to their social worker. But as time passed, she explains, “He had regressed to the developmental level of a three-year-old, and we couldn’t stop it.” After a year and two months, the couple made the painful decision to end the adoption.

“Nobody adopts thinking that they’re not going to raise that child,” says Sarah Gerstenzang, director of New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children, an organization that supports foster and adoptive parents and professionals. But the hard truth is that, sometimes, family and child fail to develop a bond. And when every effort to make the adoption work has been exhausted, disruption becomes an option.

How can we ensure a better outcome for all involved—without condemning those families who relinquish children? Focusing on the child’s needs is a good start, say parents and experts.

The abandonment of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev, of Russia, by his U.S. adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, continues to spark outrage in both countries, long after the story was made public on April 9. The scandal has led to talks regarding new policies (see, and has thrown a spotlight on what happens when adoption is not forever. Although disruption is not unheard of, it’s important to keep in mind that the Hansen case is in no way typical of what happens when disrupting, nor of what should happen.

When adoption is not forever
Parents need to realize that procedures exist for disrupting. (A “disruption” is an adoption that fails before finalization, while “dissolution” is an adoption that fails after it is completed. In practice, the word “disruption” is used to describe any adoption that is ended.) When the decision to disrupt has been made, the child is usually placed into foster care, or the family notifies their agency, which will try to find an alternative placement. It’s estimated that up to 10 percent of adoptions disrupt—most of those involving older children, who have suffered neglect, abuse, and trauma while in foster or institutional care.

Although every family is different, there are several common causes that lead to disruption. Sometimes a child is placed with an inadequately prepared family that lacks the resources to meet the child’s needs. Attachment problems and other disorders, which can sometimes be traced to prenatal exposure to alcohol, also affect a child’s ability to thrive in a new home. Often, a child develops challenging behaviors that were not anticipated by the parents, or the child may be so traumatized that he can’t safely live with them without therapeutic—often long-term—intervention.

Adoption advocates say that more specific, early parent training and education, especially concerning behavioral problems, is needed. Jayne Schooler, international adoption educator and advocate, recommends that all parents receive trauma-competency training before they adopt. “It is vital that these deeply wounded children walk into homes where their need for emotional and psychological safety is recognized, and personal hopes and expectations of parents are set aside.”

“Some parents have unrealistic expectations of how a child will adapt, how long it takes. They underestimate the trauma the child has been through,” adds Gerstenzang. “It’s the role of professionals to make sure that parents understand why the child behaves the way he does, and how to help him.”

Agencies should, and usually do, help prospective adopters prepare as much as possible, but families must also seek out available resources. Centers specializing in attachment and trauma may be able to recommend books. There are support groups whose members are fellow parents raising difficult children.

Moving on
Disruption is heartbreaking, but it can be the start of a better life for all involved. That seems to be the case for Toni Heitzmann. “The experience helped us bond as a couple, and it made us more confident in our ability to be parents,” she says.

“When disruption occurs, the blaming begins,” says Schooler. “Instead of blame, we need to focus on restoration. How can this child be restored, emotionally and psychologically, and be introduced to a better situation?” As many parents and professionals find, a child who is unable to thrive in one family may blossom in another.

Julie and Brett Ziegler’s two children, adopted from Russia, joined their family after a brief disruption five years ago. The couple that had brought them to the U.S. quickly discovered that they could not parent. “The kids came to us exhausted, scared, angry, and frustrated,” recalls Ziegler. In addition to teaching the kids English, she and her husband taught them proper behavior, and how to be a family. “Those six months were hard, but the kids are now healthy and happy. That ‘interrupted’ adoption was the best thing that ever happened to all of us.”

-- By the editors of Adoptive Families

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