Adoption's Dirty Secret

Stop blaming the mom who sent her adopted son back to Russia, says Susan Scarf Merrell. The untold story of adoptions is that they fail a lot more often than we'd like to admit.

Now that Russia has suspended all adoptions to the United States after a Tennessee mother made the unfortunate choice to send back her adopted son, everyone’s looking for someone to blame.

But if this boy had been released into the foster care or juvenile justice systems in this country—“returned” in the quiet manner in which such situations like this are normally resolved—we would never have heard a peep about this boy, or his mother. It’s a dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about: Adoptions fail. More of them than we’d like to admit. And because we don’t talk about it, when they do fail, we look for someone to blame instead of looking at the problem.

For older children adopted after infancy, like the 7-year-old Russian boy, the adoption failure rate shoots all the way up to 15 percent or more.

Exactly how often adoptions fail is poorly tracked data. A 2003 study by the Government Accounting Office found that about 5 percent of all planned adoptions from foster care “disrupt”—that is, fail after the child was placed with its new parents, but before the adoption is legally finalized. But even legally complete adoptions dissolve at a rate of up to 10 percent. And for older children adopted after infancy, like the 7-year-old Russian boy who came not from foster care but from institutionalized care in an orphanage, the failure rate shoots up to a disturbing 15 percent or more.

Yet despite the fact that adoption failure happens with relative frequency, it remains one of our great unspoken taboos. Instead of acknowledging the systemic problem, we blame the individuals involved.

Just look at the comments section of any blog post on the Russian incident. Whoever you think is at fault, you’ll find a dozen fellow travelers—people blaming everyone from the mother to the Russian government to the airlines to the boy himself. But perhaps the question we should be asking is, why do we demand there be a bad guy in this sad story? Why don’t we see “adoption failure” as an unfortunate—but inevitable—part of the adoption system itself?

Catherine Arnst: Tennessee’s Adoption OutrageWhen I set out to write my 2001 novel, A Member of the Family, I wanted to find an answer to one simple question: What kind of mother could give back a child she had sworn to love? In researching the novel, I met many families struggling to do better than survive, families that wanted to compensate for the early life tragedies that had beset the children they now called their own. Whether the child’s scars were psychological or physical, a question of malnutrition or attachment disorder or serious mental illness, these families were committed, no matter the cost of endurance to their other members.

Through these conversations, I did eventually construct a portrait of a fictional family that adopted a child, did their best to raise him, but ultimately sank under the pressure and released him into the foster care system. I let my characters live out their tale. Like any novelist, I had done my homework and built my fictional case.

Because I was publishing a piece of fiction, I was unprepared for what followed. After the book was released, I was shocked to open my local paper to find a letter from a neighbor, an adoptive parent, stating that she would never read a book like mine and hoped nobody else would either. I was accused of a variety of odd things in the months following publication, of constructing a damning portrait of a fellow villager—someone I had never heard of, or met—and of fictionalizing and justifying my own behavior with my own children. (Not that it matters, but my children are biological, and have never had any dealings with the foster care system.) These kinds of reactions to the novel were surprising. I wasn’t writing about rapists and cannibals and child molesters; I was writing about a failure to parent. And it turns out that nothing makes people madder.

Not so oddly, I have been approached countless times in the last decade by people who told me quietly that they, like the character Deborah Latham in my novel, had given up a child. Often their reasons were similar to the ones I had imagined: The children had managed to strain the limits of what was possible to endure, even when love and understanding and compassion were involved. In Deborah Latham’s case, her desire to be a perfect mother to one needy child led her to downplay the danger to another. Some people thanked me for telling the other side of the story, for trying to understand how awful it was to fail. Nobody’s life goes back to its original rhythms after a failed adoption. Nobody forgets. Nobody celebrates.

It’s worthy of our empathy to imagine how ill-equipped that Tennessee mother must have been to handle the little boy she received. No, she should not have put him on a plane back to Russia alone. Yes, she should have used and exhausted the counseling resources afforded her. And yes, we have to realize that though each of us can imagine the precise reasons this family failed, none of us can ever know.

Many things could be done to improve the system. There are great discrepancies from state to state in how adoption successes and failures are tracked; these could be synchronized and streamlined. Also, once a child’s name has been legally changed it is easier for the system to lose touch; this needs to be accounted for and improved as well. And the data show that intensive support and training can do a great deal to prevent adoption dissolution in the first, most vulnerable year.

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What we ourselves can do is keep a kinder eye on one another, and hope that we—each of us—can hold back from joining the crowd that castigates on impulse. Instead, let’s push for an earnest, systematic examination of why adoptions do fail. Let’s stop blaming the individuals and try to help them. Help them and all the other children out there who need and deserve the love of families, not by pretending problems don’t exist but by facing them with frankness and courage.

Susan Scarf Merrell is the author of the novel A Member of the Family, about a difficult adoption, and The Accidental Bond: How Sibling Connections Influence Adult Relationships. She is at work on a book about the early marriage of the novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.