Reuters recently released an investigative report on the practice of “re-homing” adopted children. The five-part series reverberated throughout media outlets exposing a dirty little secret within the adoption community. The articles describe adoptive parents, who – sometimes within months, even days, of adopting – become disenchanted or overwhelmed and turn to Internet websites, social media, and discussion boards where they place ads offering up their unwanted sons and daughters to total strangers willing to take them off their hands.
Within hours or days of meeting online, trade-offs occur in hotel and MacDonald’s parking lots. Terrified, innocent children are dropped off with people their parents know nothing about. “I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate,” one mother wrote in an online post. An adoptive father said in hindsight the people he gave his adopted son to could have Hannibal Lecter for all he knew of them.
The term “re-homing” originated in animal rescue programs to describe finding care for previously owned pets purchased on a whim or those whose owners had to move where they were no longer permitted, etc. In child adoption, it’s a euphemism for discarding and recycling children by those who were entrusted with their care and committed to being “forever parents.” Like used furniture traded in the freebie section of Craigslist, children are disposed of by adopters who sought them out.
Re-homing is a solution or escape hatch for adopters who find themselves in over their heads. It’s a way to divorce themselves of their permanent obligation, to un-adopt. Despite adoption being the same “as if” children were born into their families, with adopters granted all the same moral and legal responsibilities as all other parents, re-homing of children is a practice uniquely engaged in by adoptive parents.
Dump and Run: A New Phenomenon?
While the term re-homing is relatively new, the practice is not. And this is not the first time it has been exposed. In 2000, a CBS news magazine show 48 Hours episode followed a Georgia couple as they took their nine-year-old adopted daughter back to Russia, saying they couldn’t find the psychological help that she needed in the United States.
That same year, and again in 2003, Russia insisted foreign adoptions be handled only by accredited agencies that would be required to provide Russia with reports including at-home visits by social workers at six months and one, two, and three years post-placement. Russian authorities subsequently investigated The Ranch for Kids in Missouri, which acts as an unregistered group home housing cast away adoptees. Adoption from Russia to the US remains banned because of the high rate of abuse of Russian adopted children and the lack of follow-up.
In 2007 two pages (34-36) of my book, THE STORK MARKET: America’s Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry, detailed: “an underground network of families that take in [adopted] children others do not want.” And, in 2010 Tory Hansen sent her seven-year-old adopted son Artyim on a plane alone back to Russia. The shocking, yet classic, case of a failed adoption made global headlines, making it clear that not every adoption was happily-ever-after. Hansen was eventually made to pay lifetime support for Artyim.
Dr. Ronald Federici is a neuropsychologist in Alexandria, Virginia. Author of Help for the Hopeless Children, father of seven adopted children, and a controversial figure in adoption communities, Federici calls re-homing “dump and run” and says it happens all the time. The Reuters investigation, which analyzed more than 5,000 posts about re-homing on a Yahoo message board over a five-year period, saw children placed once a week.
In USA Today in 2006 Federici said there are hundreds of email chat rooms in which people who adopted children are trying to find new homes for them. “They don’t want to sell the kids. They just want to get rid of them…. It’s not the merchandise they bought.”
“Most agencies in the U.S. won’t take [back] a child from overseas, so families are stuck on their own,” says Susan Meyer, a Florida adoptive mother of twenty-eight children and founder of the Foundation for Large Families. Meyer adopted an autistic girl from the Ukraine, who she found “through friends” after the child had moved from family to family following a disrupted adoption.
Tina Traster, an adoptive mother who has written about the difficulties of adopting a child with attachment and behavioral issues, described the Reuters reports as: “a ghastly account of how parents of children adopted from abroad have been ‘unloading’ or ‘giving away’ their children to strangers without any intervention from state agencies, counselors or even lawyers. The article” she concludes, “reads like a horror movie.” But these horrors are all too real for children who are abandoned, their lives shattered.
The dangers the children face are unimaginable. The profiles of these vulnerable youngsters make them prime targets for pedophiles and other unsavory characters for whom the do-it-yourself, under-the-radar, method is ideal. The only people vetting the new parents are the people eager to get rid of the child or teen.
Many of the children are placed multiple times, each terminated placement another rejection leaving irreparable emotional scars. Reuters found a 9-year-old Liberian girl who had been passed among four families in a year and a Russian girl who was re-homed three times and was sexually abused. Some endure unthinkable abuse and there is no way to know how many die at the hands of their abusers. One has to wonder if these children would not be safer remaining in orphanages.
For the adults, however, it’s a win-win. Parents who no longer want a child get the problem taken off their hands free of charge avoiding child support they’d be subjected to if they went through child protective services and had the child placed in an approved foster home. On the receiving end are some do-gooders; those seeking a child without having to pay thousands of dollars in fees to adopt; and those who would not pass a routine home study or criminal background check. The parties agree not to involve any authorities or attorneys.
Inept Laws Easily Diverted
No law explicitly covers re-homing. The primary safeguard is the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC), which is intended to control custody transfers of minors across state lines. Reuters describes it as a “feeble deterrent” and rightly so. It relies on the voluntary reporting of children being taken to, or received from, another state – something people operating nefariously are not wont to do. Neither federal nor state governments enforce the ICPC in these cases, the Reuters investigation found.
Some state statutes attach no penalties to violations of the ICPC. In other states violations are considered misdemeanors “but even then officials almost never prosecute offenders” according to Reuters, which found that police are often “unfamiliar with the ICPC. Authorities who do understand the Compact say they are focused on helping children rather than enforcing the law.” None of the parents named in the Reuters investigation who “re-homed” their adopted children, nor those who received them, were ever charged with any crime and spoke about it openly with no fear of retribution.
Even when money is exchanged, the laws are lax. In 2000, Denise Thomas of Littleton, Colorado turned to the Internet to find a new home for the eight-year-old Russian-born girl the Thomas’s had adopted just four-and-a-half months prior. Thomas tried to recoup $12,500 of the costs of the girl’s adoption and medical care. She was charged with felony solicitation and attempted trafficking of children, but pleaded guilty to drastically reduced charges. Thomas was sentenced to one year unsupervised probation and placed on a registry for child abusers.
A few “re-homers” were, however, brought to justice as a result of abuse charges. Diana Groves of Bloomington, Indiana, was a single mother of thirteen unrelated children in a four bedroom house, most adopted, some by “loose word-of-mouth.” The Indianapolis Star reported that adopted “children born in [Mexico,] Russia and Ethiopia by Americans desperate for children, wound up in her custody without any government oversight.” Groves, who had three unrelated felony charges, was charged with duct-taping some of the children to a wall and hitting them with a tennis racket. One child reported being placed in a clothes dryer and having it turned on. A nanny supported some of the accusations. Groves was charged with three counts of felony child neglect.
Debra and Tom Schmitz were charged with abusing some of their 18 children, most of them disabled. The state say the Schmitzes lacked legal custody of at least seven of the 18 kids in their care, who ranged in age from 1 to 17 and accused Debra Schmitz of throwing a knife at one child, holding two children underwater for punishment, and forcing five to dig what would be their graves. The couple was also charged with child trafficking for moving a girl to Arizona without permission from state child-welfare officials.
While Reuters reports one adopter was seeking to a get rid of a child because the “4-year-old’s feet were too big and his ears looked funny,” most report the children they adopted were so difficult they presented a threat to other family members. Some struggle for years and try various therapies, but others give the children only months or days in a new country with a new language before giving up on them, some citing the high costs of therapy and private schools. Some adopters interviewed by Reuters seemed to regret or be ashamed of what they had done.
Adoptive parents who blog about terminating adoptions take a somewhat different approach. Many describe feeling deceived and even victimized by agencies that were not forthcoming about medical and psychological records. Adopters who renege on their promises describe parenting impossible children with problems they were not prepared for. “I didn’t sign up for this” or “I never would have adopted him had I known.”
They plead for sympathy for the stress they were put through; the agony, the tears, and the painful decision to cut the child loose. Many get the compassion they seek or at least empathy from others who are going through similar struggles. Traster, for instance, writes on the NY Times blog Motherlode of the need for these distraught adopters “to be better understood” and “feel less judged.”
Joyce Maynard is an author who adopted two older girls from Ethiopia in 2010 at the age of 55, proudly announcing the adoptions in a More magazine article. Fourteen months later, she revealed online that the adoptions failed. Despite criticism, Maynard is again speaking about it publically without any remorse saying, “it was a great move” for her. She justifies it saying that she found “the right family” for the girls and is “very clear that I made the right decision.” The only pain she sees in abandoning the girls yet again is her own. “It was absolutely the hardest thing in my life to do what I did…. hardest day of my life…” It was the hardest day in her life but, she plays down the effect on the children, calling it “one of the 10 hardest things that happened in their [lives]. They were already girls who had lived through a lot of losses. And they needed to get on with building a new life…”
One mother in the Reuters series complained to Congress that it is a consumer rights issue when adoption agencies do not disclose full and accurate information. Others have sued adoption agencies for “wrongful adoption” and some have won. Viewing adoption as a transaction with consumer rights turns the human beings being adopted into mere commodities like TV sets that one expects a warranty on and the ability to return when dissatisfied or not as advertised.
It’s reasonable to ask understanding of what drives people to commit atrocities against defenseless children, but acting upon such impulses outside legal recourses and with seemingly no regard for the devastating effects on one’s child, is unacceptable and cannot be condoned within any conscionable society.
The Roots of Re-Homing
Adoption is big business; a mega billion dollar industry. Within America, the redistribution of children via adoption is entrepreneurial with virtually no government regulation or oversight. It is protected by layers of secrets and lies including state committed fraud in falsifying birth certificates to change not only names but, in many cases the place and date of birth. Once an adoption is finalized, there are no state or federal agency follows ups. Adopted children are considered in every way the legal children and responsibility of their adopters with birth certificates amended to list adopters as the parents of birth confirming their status as the same as had they been born into their families. Adopters are admired and adoption is so sacrosanct and beyond reproach that the US State Department ignored pleas from Guatemala to return a child identified as a kidnap victim. No DNA test was even ordered to confirm or deny the allegations.
Within this hands-off process, under the umbrella that protects adoption from scrutiny, lies re-homing – a practice as off the grid as what goes on in the bedrooms of those who willingly take children described as incorrigible and violent. At the root of re-homing are failed adoptions.
The official terms for failed or dissolved adoptions are “disrupted” when the adoption ends before finalization and “dissolved” if terminated after finalization. Guesstemates of disrupted adoptions range between 10-25%; however, the Child Welfare Information Gateway states:
Accurate data on dissolutions are more difficult to obtain because, at the time of legal adoption, a child’s records may be closed, first and last names and Social Security numbers may be changed, and other identifying information may be modified.
The highest percentage of failed adoptions – at least 70% – is of children who were adopted internationally, and a large percentage of those are children adopted from Eastern Europe. Some 60 percent of internationally adopted children have health problems, according to Dr. Nancy Curtis, who heads Children’s Hospital of Oakland’s International Adoption Clinic. Those who have been institutionalized are at risk for attachment disorders, educational delays, behavioral issues, as well as serious psychological and physical disabilities including high percentages of fetal alcohol syndrome especially in children coming from Eastern Europe. Yet international adoptions (IA) are highly sought by adopters willing to pay the high fees instead of taking one of the 100,000 plus children from foster care who they deem as “damaged.”
In the wake of the Reuters exposé, there have been calls for more transparency in medical and psychological reports of children placed for adoption and more preparedness classes for adopters. US adoption agencies claim they are often left in the dark by overseas orphanages that do not fully disclose and downplay the risks. Agencies also say they prepare adopters for difficulties but those eager for a child hear what they want to hear.
Closing down chat room, email lists, forums and Internet sites that serve as conduits to facilitate the recycling of children is all but futile as desperate people will find ways to achieve their goals. The Yahoo bulletin board Adopting-from-Disruption where many of the horror stories detailed by Reuters originated was taken down as a result of their investigation. It was replaced, however, with a members-only Facebook page called Way Stations of Love, which has an estimated 275 members.
Prosecuting all of the players for endangering the welfare of these children – when they become known – might make some think a bit more before averting child support or home studies. But we will never stem the tide of this vile form of human trafficking without reducing the cause – adoption terminations.
In order to accomplish that, anyone considering adopting, and all who promote adoption, needs to recognize the hype perpetrated by the adoption industry. Adoption practitioners – agency owners and employees, attorneys and untrained adoption facilitators – have one goal: collecting a fee for relocating children. They intentionally inflate numbers of orphans and have a vested interest in downplaying problems and assuring eager wanna-be parents that love will cure everything. Celebrities, clergy, legislators, and ordinary people wanting to help, easily get caught up in the pro-adoption rhetoric and lies.
Ninety percent of children in orphanages worldwide are not orphans but have families who rely on such institutions for temporary assistance with medical care and education but have no desire for their children to be taken permanently. If there were as many orphans needing adoption as we are led to believe, why are children being stolen, kidnapped and trafficked to meet a demand? Why are countries closing their international adoption programs because of widespread corruption?
Adoption is a lifetime commitment – not a trial or practice run – and needs to be based not on romanticized rose-colored views but rather on the brutal truth of each child’s situation and one’s own. Raising a child with special needs – as is every older child and those who have been institutionalized – is challenging in unimaginable ways and very expensive.
Children need stability and permanence of caretakers. Every change in custody – including an initial adoption – is a trauma. There are far more sustainable ways of helping families and children in crisis both at home and abroad other than removing children from their kin.
Globally, we need to work to prevent the underlying tragedies that place families and children at risk, such as poverty and lack of education. Every nation has a moral obligation for the well-being of its most vulnerable children, which means helping families in need including providing rehabilitative programs for substance abuse while keeping families intact whenever possible, providing adequate affordable day care and affordable housing.
The second step is to seek extended family who might provide safe care for those children whose parents cannot or will not even with assistance. The third option is domestic guardianship or adoption that does not eradicate a child’s original identity.
Finally, according to child welfare experts from Save the Children, SOS Children’s Village, UNICEF and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child International Adoption should be a last resort, used only after exhausting all efforts to keep children with their extended kin, local community, or within the their country, language and culture.
Reducing international adoption prevents the high rate of adoptions that are most at risk for failure, and allows each nation to track their own children.