A warning–this involves a disturbing subject, though I’ve tried to leave out the details, because it’s the ideas and questions about state and family authority that I’m trying to explore. I’m not sure if I have anything to add to this conversation, but I wanted to record the thought process that it’s led me through.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about “re-homing,” which is when a family cannot handle their adoptive child anymore and tries to find him a new home. Apparently this doesn’t need to happen through a government or adoption agency; all you need to do is sign over power of attorney to complete a legal, but completely unregulated, “transfer of custody.” The potential abuses inherent in this situation are obvious, as detailed in this heartbreaking investigation by a Reuters journalist. When I read up on the subject, though, I found out that it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.
First, consider the parents. Adopted children, especially the ones from other countries, often have many more physical and psychological problems than their adoptive families are told. Families can find themselves in situations where, as hard as they try, they cannot keep their biological children safe from an adopted child with a history of sexual abuse, or help a child with severe emotional problems regain stability. They may not have the money to pay for therapy or medical treatments they hadn’t anticipated, or their family life or marriage may be strained to the breaking point. (Here are a few examples.)
I also found out that there are often scant resources to help adoptive families in these situations, and there is usually no legal way to put a child back up for adoption without risking legal charges of abandonment and perhaps losing custody of your biological children. (I’m not well versed in the relevant laws, so I’m not sure if this is 100% accurate; but it seems that if there is help offered to these families, it is scarce enough and hard enough to find that families often feel they have no choice but to resort to some kind of under-the-table arrangement.) I am beginning to understand how a family can get desperate enough to leave their child with anyone who looks good.
Along with parents who didn’t know about the medical and psychological conditions of the children they adopted, I found that many parents did know, or at least knew it was a possibility, but tragically overestimated their ability to “handle it.” Towards the end of this article, a therapist describes parents who are in denial about the difficulties of adopting troubled children, who think they can cure severe psychological problems with ordinary family love. This part hit me hard, because I have often found myself with this mindset. When I read devastating accounts of abused children, I feel the urge to run right out and adopt them, and love them and make them better. In more sober moments, I realize that this is naive; I’m not even capable of giving my own children the 24/7 love, patience, and unselfish service that they deserve, so there is no way that I could handle a child with severe disabilities. That’s why I’ve never seriously considered adoption. But here I am, a happily married, fairly stable woman in the most prosperous country in the world, with a network of supportive family, friends, and church; if I can’t help these kids, who can?
At first glance, it seemed obvious where the blame lay in the tragic stories above. Now I’m really not sure what to think. (Well, except for the Justin Harris example; that one’s pretty obvious.) I have complete sympathy for these desperate adoptive families, but I’m not sure where help for them is supposed to come from. Obviously the government, the adoption agencies, and private organizations need to be there to fall back on; but that’s easier said than done. It’s not like there’s a lot of extra money floating around for these things, or hundreds of eager new social workers lining up to jump into this messy, depressing work. And I’m not sure where to draw the line on government involvement. At first it sounded shocking that “re-homing” is not illegal; but then I realized why it’s not. If we are to treat adoptive families the same as biological families, it would be dangerous to allow the government to have too much influence on their parenting decisions. What if my husband suddenly died, or developed a horrible disease, and I had to send my kids to live with one of my sisters; would I want the government to get involved, and require that a team of social workers investigate and prove that my sister is fit to have custody of my children? Would I want them constantly checking on me, or on my sister, to make sure that we were treating our kids well? But if I don’t want the government scrutinizing my parenting decisions, is it fair to require them to do it to adoptive parents? On the other hand, if we do make adoptive parents less independent than biological parents, what are we going to do in the case of biological children with severe disabilities, who are just as liable to drive their families into desperation?
No easy answers here. Just a good opportunity to remind myself that situations that look cut-and-dried always involve more human tragedy and shades of gray than you can see on the surface.