Tanya doesn't remember when she was separated from her biological parents. For her first few years of conscious memory, Tanya thought her foster family was her "real" family. At age 5, that reality was shattered when her foster mother began saying that Tanya's real mom looked like Aunt Jemima, the woman on the pancake box. At 5 1/2, Tanya lost her foster father—the one adult she loved—when his wife took Tanya and her sister from New York to Puerto Rico to leave behind the troubled relationship. "It didn't hurt me. I was able to let go of him because I knew he loved me and I loved him," recalls Tanya.
When Tanya was 6, her foster mother decided she could no longer manage the strong-willed girl, and closed the first chapter in Tanya's life for good. (She wanted to keep Tanya's sister, with whom she had a close bond, but the agency insisted that the sisters stay together.) "Then it came that day when our [foster] mother took us to the agency," Tanya recalls. "She was crying, and she kept telling my sister that she's coming back. I was so angry at my sister for crying. I wanted to say, ‘She's not coming back. Just get over it.' It was like hearing a baby cry and cry and cry."
By the time Tanya met Sylvia, the woman who took her into her home at age 6 and adopted her at age 7, Tanya knew she was the "difficult one." She also knew she wasn't going to accept a new mother just because someone wanted to be her mom.
Still, Tanya believes Sylvia intended to provide her a loving home. Early on, when Sylvia saw how Tanya took out her rage by attacking her sister, she sent her to therapy. When they diagnosed Tanya with hyperactivity, Sylvia tried to find ways to help her, taking her to karate and ballet and to the park to hit a ball. In first grade, Tanya went to a friend's house after school one day without telling Sylvia. When Sylvia finally found her, Tanya recalls, she had tears in her eyes. "I just never had someone cry for me before," Tanya says. Tanya's sister continued to live in Sylvia' house for the rest of her childhood, and found enough stability there to finish college and start a career.
But Tanya also felt controlled and misunderstood in Sylvia's home. At the time she was adopted, she says, she didn't even know what adoption was. "It seemed like I had no control of anything that was happening," Tanya says. Later, when Tanya told the therapist that she wanted to kill herself, Tanya says Sylvia told her: "‘Don't tell them that kind of stuff. They'll think you're crazy and you're not crazy.'" Tanya says Sylvia was afraid she might be institutionalized. But Tanya just felt like nobody was willing to hear all the pain she was in, and that her past remained sealed up tight inside her.
Tanya says she felt angry all the time, so angry that at times she wanted to pull her own hair out. She acted out, too, destroying the things Sylvia gave her, "especially the jewelry, because I knew it was expensive." By the time she was 8, Tanya says, Sylvia had started to hit her on a regular basis, a charge Sylvia denies and that no court has verified.
By the time Tanya was 13, the conflicts between her and Sylvia had escalated. After one terrible blowup, Sylvia took Tanya to court and had her put back into the system as a juvenile delinquent. Tanya's permanent home had come to a permanent end, though ten years later, the pain clearly endures for both of them.
A national push toward adoption
Tanya was adopted in 1996, one year before Congress passed the national Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).
At the time, children were spending years in the foster care system moving from home to home. Under ASFA, the idea was that children would return to their families of origin in a timely fashion. But if they didn't—if they remained in foster care 15 out of 22 months—foster care agencies were required to begin the process of terminating parental rights and looking for adoptive homes.
The law extended subsidies for adoptive children, required states to document efforts to move children toward adoption, and provided funding to states for promoting adoption. Today, states receive bonuses of between $4,000 and $12,000 for each adoption finalized. No similar bonuses are paid for permanency of any other kind.
There were good reasons for wanting to shorten the time children stayed in foster care. When parents are struggling with domestic violence, mental illness or addiction, it can sometimes take them years to stabilize. Before ASFA, until parents were deemed fit guardians, the plan for their children was usually foster care. But too many children never went home, and research showed that the outcomes for these children were particularly bleak. While everybody knew that foster care was a terribly messy affair, adoption seemed to offer the dream of simplicity: one child, one home, where healing could begin.
What nobody knew for certain in the first years after ASFA's passage—what some critics suggest nobody wanted to know—was how well those adoptions worked out. Would the dream of adoption prove to be a viable reality? A full answer wasn't possible, because the government didn't track adoption outcomes long-term. Congress had made adoption a lynchpin of its vision for child welfare reform without taking steps to determine whether the move worked.
*The names of the adoptive mother and daughter in this piece have been changed.
This is the first chapter in our series about broken adoptions—cases in which a child adopted out of the foster-care system returns to that system or otherwise leaves the family that adopted them. To read chapter 2, please click here.
City Limits coverage of child welfare issues is generously supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.