The Dynamics of Disruption

By Nancy Spoolstra, DVM

Although there are several possible explanations for why an individual, a couple, or a family chooses to add an unrelated child to their home, in today’s modern society it usually boils down to one basic principle—the desire to parent a child or another child. Perhaps some are motivated more by altruistic feelings than others; still, the desire to parent is probably a core motivator. When the Orphan Trains of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century relocated thousands of children from cities in the northeast to waiting families in the west, some of those families “adopted” the orphans for the same reasons people adopt today. Others considered the children merely to be a source of cheap labor. These adoptive families expended very little effort and little or no money to facilitate these placements. Their “homestudies” were in most cases nonexistent. Post-placement services typically consisted of two visits the first year and yearly visits and/or reports from the families after that. Some of the children thrived. Some didn’t.

It has been over 150 years since the first Orphan Trains headed west with abused, neglected and abandoned children. Still, children come from all around the globe to find new homes with families in America. I have yet to meet one adoptive parent who chose to add a child merely for the labor that child could perform. (I have, however, met many parents who thought their new son or daughter would be grateful!) People adopt biologically unrelated children for the purpose of parenting those children—the opportunity to (hopefully) have a loving, reciprocal relationship while perpetuating your values and ideals. Unlike the Orphan Train era, people today pay great sums of money in most cases to facilitate these adoptions. Additionally, they invest significant amounts of time, energy and emotions into this experience. They are subjected to scrutiny in varying degrees before being allowed to adopt. Theoretically, their motives, expectations and parenting style are examined. Parenting classes are required. Their income level is evaluated. Lengthy explanations are provided to extended family and friends about the process. In some cases, a tiny, blurry photograph is mass reproduced and disseminated to anyone even remotely interested in their new “assignment”. A flurry of additional preparations is undertaken, hopefully culminating in a trip overseas, an exciting first meeting at a local airport, or perhaps even the opportunity to be at the hospital to witness a child’s birth.

So, how do the children of today differ from those who disembarked from the Orphan Trains years ago? In some ways, they don’t. Some Orphan Train children truly were orphans, or at least “half-orphans”, with one parent dead and the other unable to care for the child. Many of these children lived in squalor on the streets of major cities, stealing or prostituting themselves to survive. Some, however, had parents who did love them, but were temporarily unable to care for them. One can assume, therefore, that this program led to many children arriving out west with considerable emotional “baggage”, while others, although traumatized, were more able to adjust to their new lives and new families. If a family seeking another “laborer” were matched with a child who exhibited what we now call Reactive Attachment Disorder, the child’s considerable discomfort with emotional intimacy would not be such a problem for that family. An emotionally healthy child in that same family would clearly be unhappy, but unless they were also physically abused, they would probably grow up still healthy enough to lead a productive life. Presumably, some of the families who adopted emotionally healthy children as “farm hands” grew to love those children in spite of the original motives for adopting.

Those children who were not able to adjust to their new placements were taken back into the agency’s custody. According to an article dated January 13, 1911, in the Jefferson County (Kansas) Tribune, the Rev. J.W. Swan, state agent for the society for Missouri, stated: “We only have about 10 percent returned to the society.” Of course, little information is available to determine whether the issues causing the disruption were the child’s, the family’s, or both. It is likely that in some cases a child’s inability to form intimate relationships with other people was a significant factor in the family’s decision to discontinue the placement.

Since no one today is looking to adopt farm hands, most first-time adoptive families are looking to adopt emotionally healthy children who are capable of forming attachments. Sadly, however, in many cases that is not what they are getting. As just one person in the community of “adoption professionals”, I have been increasingly exposed to the realities of adoption disruption. Disruption, according to Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, is a noun, originating from the verb disrupt, meaning to break apart or rupture, to throw into disorder, to interrupt the normal course or unity of… That definition certainly applies to the devastation experienced by a family who disrupts the placement of a child.

On a personal note, my family attempted to adopt a teenage girl, back in the days before I had even heard about attachment disorder. Due to a lack of community support and services, and a total lack of agency support (both pre- and post-placement) we chose to disrupt the placement prior to finalization. We were already dealing with two other emotionally disturbed children and simply couldn’t take on one more given our lack of knowledge at that time. (I believe we could maintain that placement if it occurred now, over a decade later.) Ultimately, one of our two remaining adoptees became dangerous and abusive and did not live in our home for most of his adolescent years. Five years after disrupting the placement of the teen girl, we found ourselves on the other side of the fence when we adopted a three-year-old girl from China who disrupted from her first placement.

In a period of less than two months, I received calls from three separate families looking to disrupt one or more of their placements. Two of the three families had adopted two children at one time. All three families had children from Eastern Europe—the families with two children each had adopted from Russia, and the single child was from Romania. All five children had been diagnosed with serious attachment problems. One “sibling pair” (neither pair was biologically related) had FAS/FAE diagnoses as well. Two of the moms were dangerously depressed. At least two families were encountering extreme opposition and undermining from their own extended families.

I spent considerable time on the phone with all three families, trying to help them evaluate their options and make decisions they could live with in the future. All three families continued to pursue disruption. One family with two children planned to keep the girl and disrupt the boy. The other family with two children initially planned on disrupting both, but decided to continue trying to parent the girl. It has been my experience that once a family starts talking about disruption, the cards are essentially on the table. Some studies even list “going public” as an identifiable stage of disruption. Through the wonders of the Internet I assisted all three families in their search for new homes for these children.

I am a member of several adoption specific Internet list serves, and it was by posting information about these disruptions that new families were identified. The posts generated some interesting discussions in addition to prospective new families. One good friend of mine wanted to know why these families came to me instead of seeking assistance from their placing agencies? Another person suggested there were agencies that “specialized” in re-placing disrupted kids, such as the now defunct Tressler Lutheran Services in Pennsylvania. (It merged with another agency and became Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries.) Someone else said, “There are resources out there. The parents need to use the resources. It may not be easy but a child isn’t a puppy going back to the pound.” Lastly, another person stated families should “hang tough and deal with it, even if it means placing them in a residential facility or in and out of psychiatric hospitals and/or respite care in desperate situations.”

Why don’t some families approach their original placing agency if a disruption is looming? I clearly remember the reaction my family received when we made the decision to disrupt the teenage girl. We had not even finalized yet, so the legalities of it were much simpler. We were treated like we had failed. Perhaps we had, but many, many factors contributed to that. We were actually dealing with two agencies, the local placing agency and the international agency. The international agency still retained some legal standing in terms of the custodial care of the girl. She was flown to their main office in another state, and that is the last we “officially” heard about her. We were “persona non grata.” It was as if we had ceased to exist. The local social worker informed me there was no way I could have three emotionally damaged kids; therefore, the problem was clearly mine. In my opinion, if she represented a responsible placing agency (at the time she was a one-woman operation) she would never have approved us to adopt a teenage girl in the first place. In retrospect, I realize we were truly in over our heads already, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know! Not only did this local social worker not provide any support, but she also contributed considerably to the emotional damage I suffered as a result of the disruption. Ironically, this same social worker’s agency was used by one of my three recent disrupting families. It isn’t difficult for me to understand why this particular family did not want to seek much assistance from their original agency, especially since while their child was in the temporary care of the agency he was so badly hurt he ended up in the hospital for six days.

When Barb Holtan was Director of Tressler Lutheran Services in the ‘90’s, she wrote an article that appeared in the March/April 1999 Tressler Family Connections newsletter. In that article she described her distress over the increasingly frequent calls from parents who were disrupting Eastern European kids. The calls began in February of 1994, and by March of 1999 Tressler had been asked to re-place 78 children—more than one request per month for a steady five years. The ages ranged from 8 months to 15 years, with equal gender distribution, and the calls came from 27 different states. Barb noted the following about the callers, “The families who call are sad, angry, scared, disappointed. The behaviors of the children have brought them to their knees. The behaviors they describe are all so similar and pretty much can be found on the checklists for Reactive Attachment Disorder.” That article was written twelve years ago! Has the situation improved? I think not! Are there agencies currently “actively” seeking to provide “re-homing” services to imploding families? Not to my knowledge.

“It may not be easy but a child isn’t a puppy going back to the pound.” Of course a child isn’t a puppy. Any dedicated child welfare worker or adoption professional would agree with this. Any responsible placing agency or person involved in placing a child would cringe and immediately disqualify any prospective adoptive parent who appeared to have this mentality. It goes without saying that prospective adoptive parents should be totally committed to their as-yet-unidentified, totally unknown future sons and/or daughters. In my opinion, this is, unfortunately, terribly idealistic. This type of “forever commitment” isn’t even a guarantee in biological families, much less adoptive ones. And to expect every family to make a lifetime emotional, physical and financial commitment to an extremely difficult, non-reciprocal, possibly dangerous child, especially a child whose behaviors disrupt the safety of the family from the very beginning is unfair. Most people who develop serious relationship problems with a child at least have an opportunity to feel love for the child before the problems become unmanageable. And these new adoptive parents DO want to love their children! They didn’t casually decide to be a benefactor to an Orphan Train rider—they actively pursued the opportunity to parent this child. They WANT to be parents. They certainly didn’t ask to be in a situation where they find themselves unable to love their much-sought-after son or daughter or provide for their specialized care.

Some families DO manage to acquire affection for their child, even in the face of constant negative behaviors. They don’t want to disrupt the placement, although they begin to realize they may not always be able to “share space” with their child. The concept of residential placement—“parenting from afar” and still feeling like a parent—is difficult when one is considering a pre-teen or teenage child. It is nearly inconceivable to realize a family may be unable to live with a child who isn’t even old enough to be potty trained. So when someone tells me, “There are resources out there. The parents need to use the resources,” I want to know what I am missing? The Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN) was founded because when my family needed those resources, they were mighty difficult to find. After I was emotionally beaten and physically ill, I was fortunate enough to be referred to the one local therapist who understood attachment issues and who actually introduced me to the “big picture.” ATN is not the only resource out there. There is a myriad of wonderful folks who support adoptive families before, during and after their placements … usually on a local or regional level. But the post-adoptive support system currently in place in the United States is nowhere near adequate to handle the escalating crises of disrupting families.

For those families who have managed to develop a relationship with their child, and who do want to “hang tough and deal with it”, are there really resources for them as well? Is a round-robin of residential facilities, psych wards and respite care (which is exceedingly difficult to find and fund) really an adequate solution for these children and their families? In the late ‘90s, there still existed a program in Georgia called MATCH. Families faced with placing a child in a residential treatment facility (RTC) could apply for the state to pay a portion of the cost, based on the family’s income. In 1999, a Georgia caseworker told me two children on her caseload qualified. One family was indigent, and they paid very little towards the child’s placement. The other family had an income around $60,000, and they were paying $500 per month! Nearly 10% of their gross income! Most families who adopt internationally have fairly decent incomes, and often both parents work. Typically families have mortgages and lifestyles that somewhat match their income. That is not to say adjustments can’t be made, but how many families are in a position to pay $750 or $1000 or more to support a child every month, and not get resentful, angry, bitter, and look for other options? If a child appears to be so badly disturbed that any type of functional future is in question, how motivated can families be to pay month after month for treatment when the outcome is unknown?

Now before I am accused of being incredibly pessimistic, negative or doom-and-gloom, let me say up front I absolutely believe in giving kids every possible chance! But I don’t think it should be at the total expense of their adoptive families, and all the other healthy kids in those families. The best way to approach this dilemma is to prevent it from ever occurring in the first place. When Barb Holtan wrote her article in 1999, she cited four principles practiced at Tressler for all adoptions. She believed those four principles significantly reduced their risk of disruptions, and her agency had statistics at that time from nearly 30 years of placing kids with special needs to prove it.

Solid, Realistic, Educational pre-adoption Family Preparation (and no, this can’t be achieved in a weekend or a couple of hours) comprised of lots of information, hard questions and a practice of parent SELF-ASSESSMENT as opposed to agency investigation of parents.

Meticulous review of background information on the child by the family and the agency worker—asking questions, pointing out red flags.

Supportive and nurturing post-placement services by the agency that did the Home Study.

Ongoing post-finalization services as needed over time over the life of the family. I.e.—the agency responds whenever and for whatever is needed. EVERY child coming from an orphanage is a Special Needs child—whether s/he is one month old or twelve years old. The sooner placing agencies start leveling with interested families about this fact and prepare families for this, the more likely it will be that (agencies) will experience a decline in the numbers of disruption calls coming (their) way.


Since ATN is a supportive entity and not involved in placing children directly, our staff has little experience in assessing families before their adoptions. My workshops often included prospective adoptive parents, but I suspected many of them discounted my message, believing their experience would be different. Besides, I was trying to describe life with a zebra, and they were thinking of the sweet little Shetland pony down the street. Studies have shown the likelihood of adoption disruption decreases the closer adoptive parents’ expectations are to the reality of life with their child. I have personally given “both barrels” to a family who was considering adopting an identified child with special needs, only to have them say to me 6 months after placement, “Remind me again who is financially responsible for this child?” Some of my agency friends tell me some parents seeking to adopt prefer the agencies that require very little preparation and very little scrutiny into the parents’ motives for adopting. Some people will refuse to listen and learn and will studiously avoid self-assessment or probing questions. In those situations, I suspect those placements are at greater risk of disrupting.

Many of the families who contacted me about disrupting had adopted two children at one time. Over and over I have seen how the likelihood of major problems increases exponentially for every additional child adopted simultaneously. Most of the cases of multiple adoptions with which I am familiar did not involve biologically related children. Certainly no one likes to break up true sibling groups, but some professionals believe seriously emotionally disturbed children have such poor attachments to their sibs it is not as devastating as one might think. I strongly discourage families from taking two or more unrelated children at the same time. Not only are they doubling their risk of getting one child with serious issues, but they may also find themselves with two very troubled kids. Or what if they get one reasonably healthy child and one very challenging one? Can they meet the needs of the latter without seriously impacting the healthy one?

A therapist friend of mine often comments on how much difference a “good fit” makes between a parent and a child. My Chinese daughter who disrupted from her first placement two weeks before her third birthday was not a good fit for her first family. No one could have predicted this, of course—it’s just one of the risks a family assumes when they pursue parenthood. In my daughter’s case, her anger and attachment issues just compounded her first family’s difficulty in adjusting to her intense nature. Additionally, they had other young children and were too overwhelmed to provide the therapeutic environment my daughter required. My own intensity allows me to better understand my daughter’s approach to life. That synchronicity combined with my knowledge of her attachment behaviors allows me to be very comfortable with my responses to her.

It is unrealistic to expect that every adoptive parent will be able to become a therapeutic adoptive parent. Some just don’t have the disposition, skills, opportunity or desire to handle an emotionally disturbed child. Frankly, some probably have too much of their own baggage to ever be able to raise healthy kids from any source—biological or adopted. One doesn’t have to have a homestudy to produce biological kids, and even the best agency can’t ferret out all of the prospective adopters who might have unresolved issues that interfere with healthy parenting.

The families that contact ATN have children from all over the world, including many domestically adopted kids. But there is no doubt that Eastern European kids comprise a population in and of themselves. The conditions in EE orphanages, and the prevalence of alcohol use and abuses have dramatically increased the likelihood that children will arrive in their new homes with significant issues. Perhaps this is a function of country requirements, but all of the multiple adoptions I have seen have been EE kids. Some agencies and adoption professionals declare that the Chinese children arrive with “no problems”, but that has not been my experience. I personally believe every adoptee has attachment issues at the very least. I don’t believe it is possible for a child not to be traumatized when they are separated from their birth parents. I am also well aware of the typical response I receive when I share that opinion with most adoptive parents. It is difficult for parents to hear that the child they have longed so desperately for, the child they worked so hard to acquire will arrive wounded to any degree. How much more devastating it is to those families to realize their child is severely wounded. Most disrupting parents feel they have no other option or they would never disrupt. Even if they ducked pre-placement scrutiny as best they could, they committed as best they could, at least in most cases. I don’t think people wade through the quagmire of adoption with an attitude of “no big deal if it doesn’t work out.” Unquestionably, some people have more tenacity and flexibility than others, and those are good qualities to have in order to maintain a commitment. But even the most tenacious of families are often pushed into the decision to disrupt because of adjustment, medical or financial burdens which they could not have foreseen. It is not a question of blame—it is a tragedy.

I would love to see domestic special needs adoptions supported by states willing to share financial responsibility with adoptive parents. More of a shared guardianship than “OK, she’s yours now, have a great life!” I think children originating from the foster care/child welfare system should continue to be partly the state’s responsibility, rather than shifting the entire burden over to parents who played no role in creating the child’s pathology. Some would argue that is what subsidies are for, but there are many, many families who receive little or no money to raise very difficult children. In a perfect world, states would have a provision whereby families facing a disruption could have fairly uncomplicated access to good residential facilities that addressed the child’s issues while maintaining the familial connection. In a significant number of cases, parents are forced to relinquish custody or allow themselves to be charged with abandonment in order to have their child placed in a state residential facility. Of course, this seriously negates any bonds they may have managed to create with their child, plus the facilities often reinforce the concept that the parents “gave up” on the child or “threw him away.” Everybody loses.

Federal legislation that promotes moving kids out of foster care and into permanent homes is a wonderful step towards creating permanency for children. However, it appears to me the placements would have a much better chance of surviving if the necessary pre- and post-adoptive services were readily available. This seems like such an obvious statement. So why is it so difficult to get state placing agencies to understand the dynamics of attachment issues, and the reality of living with these very disturbed kids? Why are so many people so ready to blame the family when they apparently appeared normal enough before the placement? Given the explosion of recent awareness about the effects of traumatic and chaotic early beginnings in childhood and the impact on later life, why do so many social workers, school staff, and mental health personnel refuse to believe it to be true?

As Barb Holtan stated in her article, “As long as there are adoptions, there will be disruptions.” But there has to be some awareness of the reasons these children disrupt, and some effort made to correct the problems. Blaming the parents for not being committed or unwilling to completely alter their lifestyle is totally unfair. We are presently working within a system that was designed to deal with different issues than we are facing now. It is more complicated than it used to be. And unfortunately, society as a whole is moving away from accountability, making life even more difficult for those of us who try to “rewire” a traumatized, non-trusting child. America’s adoptive families need support and understanding, not judgment. They deserve no less.



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