This is a sidebar to 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 the rest of the series, please click here.

Brian Zimmerman was a practicing attorney for children in the late 1980s and '90s, when crack cocaine was sending more and more children into foster care. Before ASFA, the 1996 federal law that pushed states to facilitate more and faster adoptions, Zimmerman recalls, "parents were getting their kids back in the fourth or fifth year. That's when they got tired of the drug, and they took it upon themselves to get better."

Even though recovery from addiction could take years, Zimmerman says that when he interviewed children, they almost always wanted to go home to their parents. "They may have wanted their parents to be well. They may have wanted their parents not to be doing bad things. But they weren't saying, ‘I've been in care for 15 months, so why aren't I being [adopted]?'"

Zimmerman understood that sometimes his clients idealized parents who very well might not live up to their fantasies if given a chance. He knew that some children would be disappointed again and again, and that that disappointment could impact them for the rest of their lives.

Still, an important moment in Zimmerman's thinking about adoption came while representing a child whom the report refers to as S.D. S.D. was 12 when her agency began to encourage her to be adopted. Children in foster care don't have the legal right to accept or reject adoption until they turn 14. But at 12, S.D. was clear: She didn't want to be adopted. It wasn't because she didn't appreciate all that the foster family that had raised her since she was 5 years old had done for her, or because she wanted to leave their home.

But after S.D.'s parents had gotten caught up with crack cocaine, she'd continued to have regular visits with them. By the time she was 12, her parents had overcome their addiction.

In her heart, S.D. held out hope that her parents might come through for her one day with a real home, though they also had seven or eight other children, and no stable place to live. Zimmerman doubted that it would ever happen—and it never did. Even if that were the case, S.D. didn't want to be adopted by another family, she said, because she already had a family.

That's when Zimmerman did something for S.D. that many children don't have done for them—he hired a psychologist to evaluate whether adoption would be in her best interest.

In her report, the psychologist wrote: S.D. "maintains an internalized idealized connection to her mother, and cannot give voice to profound feelings of abandonment and loss." Forcing S.D. to accept adoption—with all the real and symbolic loss and divided loyalty that could entail—might make it harder for her to resolve the difference between her idealized fantasy of her mother and the reality of her. The psychologist concluded that because S.D. did not embrace adoption, to push it on her might "cause even further upheaval in the formation of her identity."

When Zimmerman went to court to argue against adoption for S.D., he had no fantasy of a happily ever after. "It was not a slam dunk," he recalls. Still, Zimmerman says, when he convinced the judge to let S.D. remain in foster care for the remainder of her childhood, he felt that he had done the best he could for his client as an individual, not as a permanency statistic.

City Limits coverage of child welfare issues is generously supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.