When Adoptions Fail
Adoption dissolution has garnered national media attention in recent days in the wake of an announcement from YouTube influencers, Myka and James Stauffer that they had surrendered their son Huxley, adopted in 2017 from China, to another family. In their video announcement, the Stauffers state that Huxley is with a family better equipped to parent him in light of his special needs, which include a diagnosis of autism. According to the Stauffers, they knew before placement that Huxley had medical needs, but that after all efforts had been made to help him, and upon the counsel of medical and other professionals, they were counseled to consider a different family placement for him to “get his needs met.” The family and their attorney report that the family Huxley is with plans to adopt him.
The public response has been swift, loud, and heated. Shock, anger, disappointment, grief, and frustration has been expressed online, and even in the emails we’ve received here at NCFA. The couples’ motives for adoption have been questioned, while many others, including child welfare and adoption advocates, are demanding assurances that Huxley is currently safe and secure with this new family. Across the board, folks are asking how it can it be legal for adoptive parents to place their child with another family and end the relationship with their son.
These are important questions to ask, and critical issues to better understand. Parent preparation and support, family permanency, personal privacy, and the law are nuanced matters that merit our careful attention and ongoing commitment. We can learn from this case, and others like it, and together, do better for children and their families.
1. Understand the current legal framework for adoption dissolution and custody transfers.
Many are asking if it is legal for adoptive parents to end an adoption, and the answer is that it depends. Biological parents relinquish parental rights in many common family law circumstances (adoption and divorce, for example). Every state prescribes the legal process for relinquishing parental rights in a domestic adoption, and generally speaking, these steps must be closely followed. Although uncommon in proportion to the total number of adoptions, adoptive parents can also relinquish their parental rights through a similar process. What determines if it is legal or not is how the family goes about transferring custody. Some states specifically prohibit a practice called unregulated custody transfers (or the slang, “re-homing”). The term “re-homing” is borrowed from a practice in pet adoption when a pet adopted from a shelter is passed along to another family without permission of the shelter. Somehow, in recent years it has come to be associated with children who have previously been adopted. NCFA considers the term demeaning and inappropriate to associate with a child. The legal term is “unregulated custody transfers” (UCTs), and it refers to a family – usually an adoptive family – who circumvents the laws of their state, the child welfare system, and the courts and abandons their child to another “family” without adequate legal protections. This practice is illegal in many, but not all, states and is potentially very dangerous to the child. There have been real life examples where pedophiles and other individuals who are not qualified to adopt a child have received children into their homes. NCFA supports banning this practice nationally, and there is model state legislation being written that would prohibit this from happening and allow for criminal sanctions for both the person abandoning the child and the one receiving the child into their care illegally. Biological and adoptive parents may relinquish their parental rights, but they must follow the legally prescribed process to do so. It should be illegal, in every circumstance, for any parent to pass off their child to another family without benefit of legally ensuring the child is protected and safe in their new home. There are existing legal provisions for adoptive parents to dissolve the adoption of their child, and this is referred to as adoption dissolution. The adoptive parents contact the adoption agency or attorney who facilitated the adoption, preferably, to process the dissolution and conduct the custody transfer. If the original agency or attorney is unavailable, then the family should seek the help and services of a licensed adoption agency or attorney or, if these are not viable alternatives, seek out help from the public foster care system, as a last resort. Never, under any circumstances, should a family consider participating in an unregulated custody transfer. The process of relinquishing parental rights must always be done under supervision of the child welfare and judicial systems in place.
2. How common are adoption dissolutions and UCTs?
This is not something that is readily tracked or regularly reported on by government agencies or private entities. Although we don’t have precise numbers, adoption dissolutions are not common. Estimates of adoption dissolution range widely, with some studies showing a 1-5% dissolution rate1 and others indicating the rate could be as high as 9%.2 Most of the research on adoption dissolution focuses on adoptions from foster care; and the limited data and research on private domestic adoption and intercountry adoption indicate a lower rate of adoption dissolution compared to foster care. Although dissolution and UCT rates are quite low compared to the overall number of adoptions, they may increase as the profile of the internationally adopted child is increasingly older and primarily special needs, two factors that correlate with higher risks of dissolution. However, it remains that the likelihood of a child experiencing a dissolution is very small in comparison to successful adoptions. As adoption professionals and advocates, it’s painful to hear of any adoption not working out in a child’s best interest. In an adoption dissolution, the child experiences another loss, another traumatic event, and the added disappointment that all the hope embedded in the adoption wasn’t accomplished. At NCFA, we believe that the likelihood of dissolution can be reduced through better preparation of the prospective adoptive parents to the realities of adopting children exposed to trauma and loss, enhanced support services to families after adoption, particularly to those struggling, and better matching children’s needs with the ability of the prospective adoptive parents to parent them. We also believe that there should be more support offered to vulnerable and struggling families – and that this should be true for all families, regardless of what type of adoption (public vs. private; intercountry vs. domestic) or whether the child is biological or adopted.
3. Why do adoption dissolutions happen and what can be done to prevent them?
There are multiple factors that research shows is related to adoption dissolutions, including the age of a child at the time of placement, pre-placement abuse/neglect, more moves while in child welfare system, the parents’ willingness to seek assistance, and unrealistic parental expectations. Over the last few decades, changes in adoption practice and public policy have contributed to the trend of a larger percentage of adoptive placements being older children, children with medical and cognitive special needs, sibling group placements, and children who have experienced trauma. Preparation and training of prospective adoptive parents is a key factor in ensuring they have realistic expectations and are equipped to meet the challenges that may arise when they become parents. Working to ensure parents and professionals have accurate information about the child’s social and medical history will allow for better matching, preparation, and meeting children’s needs. Ongoing post adoption support and education are also crucial ways of ensuring that the parents are informed as to how to meet the needs of their children as they develop. It is necessary that pre- and post adoption training include an understanding of trauma-informed parenting, issues pertaining to grief and loss, and issues pertaining to attachment. While there may at times be child-related factors that contribute toward a dissolution, NCFA believes that dissolutions are never the result or blame of a child. Instead, negative child-related behaviors ought to be viewed as the coping mechanisms or results of a child’s previous adverse experiences which are the responsibility of adults. While many people and factors can contribute to vulnerability of an adoption dissolution, the final responsibility lies with the adoptive parents.
4. What about the child’s privacy and future? Where do they go from here?
Child privacy and protecting the adopted child’s story merit an entirely separate post and ongoing education for prospective and current adoptive parents. But it is clear that parents – all parents – have an obligation to protect their child’s privacy. We strongly urge adoptive parents in particular, to consider the weight and risk of sharing your child’s story with the general public. Many of our agency members have policies and guidelines about what should or should not be posted online prior to the family completing the adoption. We would go a step further and caution parents to exercise great discretion and discernment when considering whether and how to share their child’s adoption story, details of any medical or other special needs, or ongoing struggles related to loss and trauma. Remember, just like we tell teenagers today – “what you share now can live on the internet forever”. Please consider how your child would feel reading or watching what you said about them when they are a teenager or adult. Consider how you would feel if your parents had shared the details of your childhood, especially the hard parts, with the general public. Respecting the child’s privacy should take precedent.
It’s important to keep in mind that while the Stauffer story may be the face of headlines at the moment, their experience is not that of most families created through adoption. There are over two million children currently in the US who came to their families through domestic, intercountry, and familial adoption. The vast majority of these children are loved unconditionally and thriving in their families and very few of them or their families are recognized in a public way, although most Americans probably know someone who was adopted and know them to be doing well and living productive lives. NCFA will continue to champion best practices, necessary reforms, and public policies that cultivate successful adoptions, and long-term permanency for children to thrive in loving families.
1Child Welfare Information Gateway, https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/s-disrup/
2 Palacios, J., Rolock, N., Selwyn, J., & Barbosa-Ducharne, M. (2019). Adoption breakdown: concept, research, and implications. Research on Social Work Practice, 29(2), 130-142.