The Real Reasons Adoptions Fail from the Perspective of a Parent of a Failed Adoption

Updated: 6 days ago



On May 19, 2022, USA TODAY published an article on broken adoptions: “Far from the fairy tale: Broken adoptions shatter promises to 66,000 kids in the US.” This statistic—66,000 failed adoptions in a 12-year period—is acknowledged as an undercount. I think we can all agree, this is tragic for the kids and their adoptive parents.


As the adoptive mother in a failed adoption myself, reading the article came with mixed emotions. I’m glad a major news network is covering the issue and lack of post-support for adoptive families. And the authors tried to include many perspectives.


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But did it get to the root of why adoptions fail and how we can improve outcomes? In my opinion, we have some more digging to do as a society in that regard. I am grateful that RAD Advocates gives parents a voice and platform to work toward solutions. Few others invite us to the table.


Adoption Permanency Obstacle #1: Poor Education and Support for Reactive Attachment Disorder and Other Complex Issues


As pre-adoptive parents, we’re sold the narrative that all kids in care need is love … and stability, and maybe some basic therapy. While this may be the case for certain children, parents of children with reactive attachment disorder and other complex disorders learn the hard way that it’s just not that simple.


The USA TODAY article does scratch the surface of the more complex mental health issues many foster children are dealing with: “Children labeled in federal records as ‘emotionally disturbed’ are nearly 40% more likely to reenter foster care, according to the USA TODAY analysis. The data does not specify what diagnosis the child was given; the emotionally disturbed category combines conditions such as anxiety and bulimia with schizophrenia, which makes it difficult to pinpoint specific problems caseworkers should watch for to head off adoption failures.” This would have been the ideal place to talk about reactive attachment disorder and the big role it plays in many broken adoptions.


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The article only mentions attachment once and doesn’t mention reactive attachment disorder at all. This reflects the fact RAD isn’t well taught to prospective parents or professionals. There are also many misconceptions around reactive attachment disorder, and there are professionals who outright refuse to acknowledge the condition. As I wrote in these previous blogs, it’s a spectrum and is not rare.


The article states that “young people from failed adoptions fared worse than others from the foster care system.” To me, this is like the age-old question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Did these youth fare worse because their adoption failed or because of their extensive issues and the lack of quality treatment? Or both?


As pre-adoptive parents, we’re sold the narrative that all kids in care need is love … and stability, and maybe some basic therapy. While this may be the case for certain children, parents of children with reactive attachment disorder and other complex disorders learn the hard way that it’s just not that simple.

In my opinion, we need correct diagnoses and treatment of children in foster care, full disclosures to adoptive parents, a better understanding of attachment and reactive attachment disorder among all parties, and better post-adoption support for the entire family, including effective treatment options that are fully covered by the child’s insurance or the state.


Adoption Permanency Obstacle #2: Lack of Disclosure


The article does touch on disclosure—surprisingly calling it controversial. A social worker quoted says full disclosure is rare in any interpersonal relationship, so why should adoption be any different? This surprised me. When we adopt, we are taking full legal and financial responsibility for a dependent minor. This is not the same as an adult friend or even a significant other not fully disclosing something. If you are asking families to take full legal and financial responsibility for a dependent, then of course they need the full picture before they agree to it.


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The article states that 21 states require that a child’s mental health history be disclosed, and just 11 states require that parents be informed whether a child suffered abuse or neglect.

We were our children’s second adoption, but they had never received psychological evaluations and were not currently being treated by a therapist or psychiatrist at the time of placement into our home. The social workers hadn’t even requested records from the kids’ first removal and adoption in a neighboring state, so they had very little information to give us. It wasn’t that they were purposefully not disclosing, it was that they hadn’t done the leg work to give us key information, which resulted in the same issues as if they hadn’t disclosed: We were flying blind.


How can we, as adoptive parents, determine if we can meet a child’s needs if we don’t even know the full extent of those needs? How can we have realistic expectations if we have no idea what to expect?


Adoption Permanency Obstacle #3: The Parent Blame Game


As a society, we tend to blame parents for the “bad” things kids do—whether it’s a tantrum in the grocery store or early delinquency. I blamed myself for not being able to get our son on track until I read book “Before It's Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble--and What Parents Can Do About It” by famed psychologist and writer Stanton Samenow. He devotes the beginning of the book to explaining the faulty logic of assuming parents are completely responsible for their children’s actions. For example, many parents raise siblings; one turns out “successful” while the other struggles with crime and drugs or other issues. They were raised the same, but we are all individuals with individual tendencies and genetics. In the case of adopted children, there’s the added complexity of layer upon layer of trauma. Adoptive parents are expected to deal with very complicated issues that even experts have trouble addressing.


You truly can’t understand what an adoptive family dealing with reactive attachment disorder is facing unless you’ve walked in our shoes. It’s important we don’t oversimplify what adoptive parents face or what’s in our control.


The article noted: “Experts told USA TODAY adoptions may fail if parents haven’t dealt with their own histories and traumas, or if they are too rigid, unable to adapt.” I agree that dealing with our own histories and traumas is important and should be better emphasized in the home study and foster care/adoption training process. As for being rigid, many adoptive parents are forced to become highly structured to manage difficult behaviors. Kids with complex developmental trauma may act younger than their chronological age or make unsafe decisions. All of this can lead adoptive parents to appear rigid or be judged by outsiders as overly strict.


Adoptive parents are expected to deal with very complicated issues that even experts have trouble addressing.

Of course children are not to blame for the abuse, neglect and in-utero exposures they have faced. Adoptive parents did not inflict those injuries, but are left to try and pick up the pieces. Both deserve much better than they’re currently getting.


Adoption Isn’t Always the Answer


If children in foster care cannot be reunited with their birth parents, adoption is seen as “the answer.” However, adoption isn’t right for every child. For example, for children with severe reactive attachment disorder—who see caregivers as enemies—they need effective treatment outside the home before they have any chance of success in a home.


In addition, not all children want to be adopted. A couple of the adoptees interviewed for the article stated they didn’t want to be adopted but were talked into it. If a child’s concerns can be addressed and worked through, that’s one thing. But a child shouldn’t be forced or “talked into” a placement. That’s a recipe for failure. For older children who don’t wish to be part of a new family, they should be given other options.


What Now?


There’s no easy solution to any of this, which is why RAD Advocates takes a multifaceted approach, including education, support and advocacy.


As a society, we need to do more to support birth families and prevent abuse and neglect. We need better foster care/adoption training. We need to correctly diagnose and treat children who have suffered trauma, including recognizing reactive attachment disorder. We need to have multiple options for kids in care to best meet their needs—for some, this will not be an adoptive family. And for those situations where adoption is the best option, we need much better post-adoption support and services.


Don't miss #NavRAD22, the conference for parents of kids with RAD. Buy tickets now.


About the Author:


Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. She was a member and is a supporter of RAD Advocates. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.


Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash


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