09.18.134:45 AM ET

When Adoption Goes Awry

When most parents adopt a child, they think love and care will be enough to erase a traumatic past. But what happens when it's not?

Last week, Reuters published a disturbing exposé that detailed, among other stories, the sad plight of a 16-year-old Liberian girl named Quita. Recently adopted by an American couple, the teen had severe health and behavioral problems. Fearing she was too violent and unpredictable to handle, her adoptive parents, Melissa and Todd Puchalla, handed her off to another family from another state. No attorneys or welfare officials were involved in the exchange. The Puchallas found the new family though a Yahoo! message board. Then, they simply signed a notarized statement declaring the strangers to be Quita’s new guardians.

While the Puchallas may not have broken any laws, Quita’s story broke hearts as a desperate tale of international adoption gone awry. The five-part Reuters series was packed with similar stories that revealed desperate parents “rehoming” their adopted children—that is, giving away the kids to strangers without any intervention from authorities. Often the families, like the Puchallas, believe they are cornered and have no other options.

For its exposé, Reuters analyzed more than 5,000 posts about rehoming over a five-year period from a Yahoo! message board (now shut down). Most of the children in question had been adopted from overseas, from countries like Russia, China, Ethiopia, and Ukraine. The kids were mostly between the ages of 6 and 14, and the youngest was 10 months old. One ad reportedly read: “We adopted an eight-year-old girl from China … unfortunately we are now struggling have been home for five days.”

Five. Whole. Days. And they were ready to give up.

Adoptive parents reach out to me constantly because I often write about the difficulties that my husband and I had raising our daughter, who was adopted from Russia. They know I have a book focused on adoption and attachment disorder coming out next year. Ironically, the day the Reuters piece appeared, I received an email from a bereft mother telling me how she had adopted a Russian orphan 13 years ago and how the experience went terribly wrong. She traveled twice to Siberia to bring her adopted son home. Now, at 16, her son has been in and out of juvenile prison. He’s currently in state custody and wants nothing to do with his adopted mother. This woman is devastated. She can hardly make sense of what has happened to her. She says that after investing everything she had—emotionally and financially—in her son, she’s been left with nothing and no one.

She asked me to call her. We talked about how my husband and I worked with my daughter in her early years when she wouldn’t bond, when we were scared to death she’d never be able to attach to us or to love others. The woman was happy to hear that things had worked out well for our family. Mostly, she just needed to unleash her feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and despair. She wanted to unpack her burden. Maybe I could make it a bit lighter just by relating to her.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories like hers. Many parents share deeply personal details about how they’ve been unable to bond with their adopted children. How they had no idea of the severity of their child’s disabilities when they took him or her home from an orphanage. How no one told them the child had fetal alcohol syndrome or other medical problems. They relate stories about children who kill animals, harm siblings, set fires. Many seek help from therapists, adoption agencies, or state agencies, but nothing works. They don’t know what to do—they are financially depleted, their marriages are rocky or broken. These children have turned their lives upside down. One man recently wrote: “I just want my life back.”

So while so many people reacted to the Reuters exposé with disbelief, I was not one of them.

My daughter was 8 months old when we brought her home from a Siberian orphanage. In those early years, I changed her diapers, fed her, and sang to her—but it was like no one was there. Her eyes were empty. She resisted me—she thwarted intimacy and closeness—at every turn. Finally, when she was nearly 4, I broke down. I had to rescue her. My husband and I made it our life's work to understand reactive attachment disorder. We read everything: research, Internet studies, and books. Over time, we were able to crack open her heart, to make room for love and trust. Today, we are a bonded family.

I imagine most people have trouble wrapping their brains around these rehoming scenarios. How does a parent dump a child? Even if the child is not responding to love or seems heartless, how do you hand her off to a stranger?

As an adoptive parent, I have an insider's understanding. I don't think people travel to China, Russia, and Ethiopia with bad intentions. In fact, people wanting to parent an orphan likely begin with a heart full of love and optimism. But when they return home with their child and the excitement dies down and the troubles begin, they cannot handle the child and their dreams turn to muck. They find themselves alone, frightened, bereft, and full of regret. How they may behave might not only surprise the world, it may also shock the parents themselves. One woman with an 11-year-old adopted son from Guatemala, whose post on the message board was cited in the Reuters article, wrote: “I am totally ashamed to say it but we truly do hate this boy!”

There is no quick fix to this, but here's what I think people should be talking about: Many—maybe even most—adoptive parents are not really prepared for the ramifications of parenting a child who begins life in an institution or orphanage. We're ill-equipped to handle reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, or violent, self-injurious children. My husband and I, for example, had no education on the subject before we brought our baby daughter home a decade ago from Siberia. I'm told adoptive parents these days must take workshops or read up on the issues, but I'm pretty sure like most of us, we truly believe in our hearts we will be able to love away the hurt, and that enough care, nurturing, good food, and trinkets will erase the past.

The one good thing that could emerge from these tragedies is a societal effort to be more involved in the lives of families with internationally adopted children. We need more understanding, support, and dialogue about what our parenting experience is like. We need to be better understood and to feel less judged. While everybody talks about adoption agencies adding more robust post-adoption services, more needs to be done. Ideally, those who work, teach, and care for young children—from teachers to pediatricians to therapists—should be educated about institutionalized children who are adopted. They should be trained to recognize and treat their symptoms. In my case, if we had professionals around us who understood reactive attachment disorder, we would have caught Julia's maladies earlier.


Tina Traster is the author of the forthcoming memoir Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother's Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder. Her web site is