In the report that came out last spring examining the phenomenon of broken adoptions in New York City, one of the most damning sections is the description of the way adoption mandates take on a life of their own, with agency workers and children's lawyers encouraging potential adoptive parents to look past ambivalences they may have even before the adoption in order to just make it happen.
"Caseworkers, social workers, and attorneys for children are all guilty of asking foster parents when they take older and special needs children into their home to ‘try it, to see how it works out,'" Dawn Post and Brian Zimmerman, two lawyers representing children and parents in New York City's child welfare system, wrote in the report. "When the adoptive parents say that it is not working out and the commitment to adopt is waning, child welfare professionals ask them to ‘just hang in there.'"
This may be because there are many more children whose parental rights have been terminated than there are adoptive parents for them, and the longer a child spends in care, the less likely he or she is ever to be adopted.
Difficult math for foster children
Still, Post and Zimmerman argue, "If adoptive parents question their commitment prior to the adoption finalization, there is no reason they would remain committed after, particularly when issues arise."
Sarah Gerstenzang, executive director of New York State Citizens' Committee for Children, a foster- and adoptive-parent advocacy organization, says both children and parents suffer when the system inadequately prepares them for adoption and inadequately supports them after.
"These are tragic situations," Gerstenzang says. "Children have experienced abuse and neglect, and that early trauma sometimes makes them behave in ways that are very difficult to manage. Even if children have just been taken away from their birth families and there's no abuse or neglect, that's traumatic. A lot of adoptive families don't have the training or support to deal with that."
A dearth of services
A 2010 report by NYSCCC that looked at the 13 post-adoption programs funded by New York using Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF, the main federal welfare program), found those programs helped adoptive parents keep their children in their homes even when children were at imminent risk of placement. But the report also found that many families were not served by the programs because they were not TANF eligible or because they were not in a program's geographic area.
Gerstenzang says adoptive parents call their organization all the time who are overwhelmed, searching for help, and don't know where to turn.
But Pat O'Brien, who runs You Gotta Believe!, a program that places teenagers in adoptive homes (many of whom have been adopted before), says the problem goes beyond support. He says too often workers and lawyers "don't want to upset the apple cart," so they don't help adoptive parents understand how difficult the job in front of them might be, or insist that adoption is a lifelong commitment, no matter what. As a result, he says, the system allows too many parents to adopt who have a vision of "conditional parenting, meaning on condition of the kid's good behavior."
Post and Zimmerman’s report also raises the uncomfortable question of whether, for some adoptive parents, adoption is just a pay check. (The median adoption subsidy across the country is $485 a month, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.)
In 2003, Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights Inc., testified before Congress that, "along with the genuinely committed, loving families," far too many states raise their adoption numbers "by including many clearly inadequate families… just to ‘succeed' by boosting their numbers."
Now 26, Pauline Gordon recalls the first time a foster parent asked to adopt her, when she was in her late teens. "I was shocked that she asked me," recalls Gordon. "I suspected that she asked me so she could claim me on her taxes, because we didn't have a good relationship. I was there only a couple of months, and we hardly spoke. She had already adopted several other children that were her foster children and they were not really close to her."
The pull of biology
At the same time, the report focuses its lens on children's own resistance to being adopted—often because of the ongoing presence of biological families in their lives, as well as in their hearts and minds.
Alongside their survey of judges and lawyers, Post and Zimmerman also tracked 15 cases of broken adoptions over a six-month period. In approximately three-quarters of them, a biological parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent remained an active part of the child's life. The teens in these cases reported that "no matter how young they may have been when they were adopted, they always knew who their biological family members were and where to find them."
For adoption advocates, the continued presence of biological family in adoptive children's lives is the new face of adoption, presenting difficult but exciting new challenges. How much contact should adopted children have with their biological families? When does that contact support healthy development, and when might those ties be destructive? How can we help adopted children embrace the gifts given to them by both families without feeling torn in two directions?
Gerstenzang, who has been at the forefront of efforts to forge bonds between adoptive and biological parents in New York state, acknowledges that this is a hugely complex task, that caseworkers often "have a hard time supporting foster families and birth families at the same time," and that very often, those relationships are not worked out ahead of time.
For critics, however, the ongoing presence of biological family in adoptive children's lives suggests that adoption is the wrong answer for many children who are currently being adopted. Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), a self-help and advocacy organization of parents who have had contact with the New York City child welfare system, says, "What we see at CWOP are a lot of families that just don't buy into this construction of permanency. 'OK, you've reached your time limits, we're terminating your rights and you're no longer a mother. '" While a court may decide that, it doesn't necessarily change the way kids live their lives. "Kids are aging out of the system and going back to the families they were removed from, whether those families have received any help to improve their functioning or not. So how necessary was it to terminate their rights in the first place?" asks Arsham.