A Reflection on the State Department’s Report on Intercountry Adoption
This guest blog post was written by clinical social worker Marie Dolfi. Marie specializes in counseling prospective adoptive parents, adopted people, adoptive families and first/birth parents. Learn more about Marie’s services, work and upcoming events on her website. If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at firstname.lastname@example.org with one writing sample, resume or bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.
There has been a lot of discussion about the decline of intercountry adoptions following the latest U.S. State Department’s FY 2015 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption. A fact of the report that has not been widely discussed is that 59 children that had been adopted from other countries have entered state care in the U.S. Unfortunately, this number does not tell us what went wrong and how children who were promised forever families have now lost another family. Sometimes people avoid conversations about adoption dissolution fearing an open discussion may scare off potential adoptive parents and with over 107,000 children in foster care with a permanency goal of adoption, we cannot afford to scare off potential adoptive parents. However, we have an obligation to the children who have been adopted and those waiting to be adopted to do everything we can to decrease the number of future dissolutions by discussing risk factors and ensuring needed supports to minimize adoption dissolution.
With the majority of new international adoptions being older children with special needs, prospective adoptive parents need to have a clear understanding of the needs of the child they are hoping to adopt prior to placement. Countries that have ratified the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption must provide prospective adoptive parents with the child’s medical records but things can get lost in translation, and there are times that information may be inaccurate or incomplete. Additionally, non-Hague counties do not have to provide medical records to the prospective adoptive parents. Eight of the top 15 sending countries for 2015 were non-Hague countries.
Research has already shown us what we can do to decrease adoption dissolutions. We know specialized post-adoption services (respite, training, parent support groups and attachment-focused family therapy) decreases adoption dissolutions and admissions to residential treatment programs. We know intensive pre-adoptive training helps to increase more solid matches for special needs adoption. Training like MAPP (Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting) includes educating the prospective adoptive parents on the types of medical and mental health issues of waiting children and encourages prospective adoptive parents to reflect on their capabilities to parent a child with special needs. This is a very different type of pre-adoptive training that is required of prospective adoptive parents applying to adopt internationally.
There are additional reasons adoptions dissolve. According to “The Revolving Door of Family Court: Confronting Broken Adoptions” (Post & Zimmerman, 2012), some children are entering foster care after adoption because their parents were elderly and passed away with no guardianship plans for their child. Hague home study guidelines do not require a guardianship statement for prospective parents and only one U.S. state requires a guardianship statement as an element of the home study. Asking prospective adoptive parents to designate a guardian for their child during the home study process would help to decrease the number of children entering foster care after adoption. Some children are abused or neglected after adoption resulting in the child entering foster care. Home study preparers have an obligation to evaluate a child’s risk for being abused or neglected that goes beyond examining criminal and child abuse background checks. Applicants need to be screened for anger management issues, substance abuse and mental health problems that could potentially lead to neglect or abuse of a child.
Research has also shown that adoption dissolutions can be a result of a lack of extended family support (Child Welfare Information Gateway Fact Sheet, 2012). While the adoptive parents may have welcomed the child into their family, the extended family, in some cases, might have preferred that there was not a special needs child in the family. The home study process should include talking to prospective adoptive parents about extended family support and how it will impact them if they do not have the support of their family.
Some of these children may have entered foster care because their states’ regulations require a parent to give up custody for their children to be in a residential treatment facility (Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law). Our society never requires a parent to give up custody for a child to receive nursing home care, but many states mandate a loss of parental custody for a child to be treated in a residential treatment facility. While some would say this is not an adoption dissolution since the parents could regain custody upon discharge, the parents must still sign away their parental rights for the child to be in treatment, and while their child is in treatment, their parental rights to have a voice in their child’s treatment are limited.
There are things that can be done to decrease the number of adoption dissolutions both intercountry and domestically — many of which would cost little to no money. One very transformational element to help prevent dissolution could be a national standard on adoption home studies as well as working towards an improved Hague home study process and report. Improved home study standards could address issues around: 1) required training for applicants where the prospective parents need to reflect on their capabilities, skills and knowledge and requires the pre-adoptive parents to identify resources in their community prior to adopting; 2) guardianship; 3) applicant’s discussion with their extended family on their desire to adopt a special needs child; 4) improved screening around an applicant’s ability to handle anger, substance abuse and other issues related to abuse and neglect. An April 2013 policy brief, the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, recommended a singular home study tool to increase the timeliness of children from one state to another. The newly introduced National Adoption and Foster Care Home Study Act (HR5810) speaks to the need of a national home study standard and training of home study providers, which is a really amazing step forward but does not address the need for guardianship plans, training for prospective adoptive parents, extended family support for adoption and other additional screening of prospective adoptive parents. The federal government needs to increase funding for comprehensive post-adoption services. Traditional parenting is often not enough for children who have been neglected, abused, traumatized, lived in foster care or an orphanage. Post-adoption services that provide respite, support groups, training and counseling by adoption-competent professionals are crucial for adoptive families with special needs children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken the position that states can provide residential treatment for children with mental health issues without the parent’s losing custody of their child, but unfortunately, it has not taken a stand to stop states from requiring parents to give up custody of their child to receive treatment in a residential program.
This is the first year that the AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System) will have a statistic for the number of children entering foster care with a history of adoption. Once we have this number, the question is will the number of dissolutions be ignored like the intercountry adoption statistics or will it be part of a discussion to make meaningful changes in the system so children remain and do well in their forever families?
Post, Dawn J. & Zimmerman, Brian (2012). The Revolving Doors of Family Court: Confronting Broken Adoptions. Capital University Law Review, 40, 437-515.
Child Welfare Information Gateway (2012). Adoption Disruption & Dissolution Fact Sheet. Available online at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/s_disrup.pdf#page=5&view=Dissolutions.
Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Available online at http://www.bazelon.org/Where-We-Stand/Success-for-All-Children/Custody-Relinquishment/Custody-Relinquishment-Policy-Documents.aspx.