Famous moms like Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Charlize Theron have brought adoption into the limelight, and perhaps even made it look easy. But what happens, and who's to blame, when an adoption doesn’t work?
In as many as a quarter of adoptions of teens, and a significant number of younger child adoptions, the parents ultimately decide they don’t want to keep the child, experts say.
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In the adoption world, failed adoptions are called “disruptions.” But while a disruption may seem stone-hearted from the outside, these final anguished acts are complex, soul-crushing for all concerned and perhaps more common than you'd think.
"It's heartbreaking when disruption occurs and I want to prevent it as much as possible," says Zia Freeman, a Seattle-area adoption counselor who in her 20 years in the field has dealt with at least two dozen disruptions. "We [give parents] a huge list of behaviors to expect and they're not fun. But I'll have parents come back and say to me, 'I sat through those classes and heard you say that, but I still believed it wouldn't happen to me. That I wouldn't get a kid that wouldn't respond to my love.'"
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Although statistics on disruption vary, a 2010 study of U.S. adoption practices conducted by the University of Minnesota and Hennepin County, Minn., found that between 6 percent and 11 percent of all adoptions are disrupted before they are finalized. For children older than 3, disruption rates range between 10 percent to 16 percent; for teens, it may be as high as 24 percent, or one in four adoptions.
Adoptions can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years to become final – and that window is when most disruptions occur, experts say. While some families do choose to end an adoption after that, those cases are rarer (ranging from 1 percent to 7 percent, according to the study).
"Disruption rarely occurs with infants," says Freeman, the Seattle-area adoption counselor. "But if you're talking about older children, it can be anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. It's significantly higher because of the complexities of parenting a child who already has life experiences and certain behaviors. When we're rejected and traumatized early in our development, it changes the way we function and respond to people."
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According to the study, the older the child, the more likely the adoption is to fail. Children with special needs also face greater risk of disruption, particularly those who demonstrate emotional difficulties and sexual acting out.
Certain types of parents are more likely to end up giving up adopted children, as well. Younger adoptive parents, inexperienced parents, and parents who both work outside the home are linked with higher levels of disruption. Wealthier parents and more educated mothers, in particular, are also more likely to disrupt an adoption.
"I understand where that might seem odd, but I think there's a potential for less tolerance if someone's more educated or they make more money," says Brooke Randolph, director of adoption preparation and support services at an Indianapolis adoption agency.
It Takes More Than Love
From the Today Show, a story about adoption disruption: