WHEN ADOPTION DOESN'T WORK
WHEN ADOPTION DOESN'T WORK ADOPTION IS SUPPOSED TO LAST A LIFETIME. BUT IN A GROWING NUMBER OF CASES, ESPECIALLY THOSE INVOLVING EMOTIONALLY TROUBLED OLDER CHILDREN, PARENTS ARE CALLING IT QUITS.
Author: Daniel Golden, Globe Staff
For years after Sheila was born in 1968, Bob and Joan Gordon wanted another child, but the timing never seemed right. Even with two incomes -- he was a mechanic, she a lab technician -- they barely scraped by. They couldn't afford for Joan to take a maternity leave, never mind paying for day care.
By 1981, their hopes for a second baby had receded into the realm of daydreams. Then Joan heard that Rhode Island, like other states, was offering older children for adoption. Here, she thought, was a practical alternative. She would not have to quit her job, and Sheila's longing for a younger sister might be fulfilled at last.
The Gordons, whose names have been changed in this story to protect their privacy, were very specific when social workers from the Rhode Island Department of Children and Their Families visited their suburban home. They wanted a girl between the ages of 6 and 10 who would be in school while they worked. She could have a physical disability, they said, but not an emotional one. The Gordons knew their limits: A troubled girl would need more care than they felt ready to give.
The social workers pressed the Gordons to take two sisters, but they held firm. One child was enough. Finally it came down to a choice between one girl with a family history of blindness and another with diabetes.
The Gordons were introduced to the diabetic girl over lunch at a fast-food restaurant. "I had a few doubts," Sheila says. "But I ignored them. I didn't know if I'd get another chance."
When Joan saw blond, blue-eyed Lisa, the hard-headed attitude she had maintained throughout the adoption process yielded to her heart. "Something instinctively told me to go with this child," she says. "Her background was so traumatic. You wanted to just reach out and love this little girl."
Only 6 years old, Lisa had suffered a lifetime's worth of pain and separation. She never knew her father, and her mother abused her. Covered with bites and bruises, she was placed in a foster home. She was adored there, but her stay ended abruptly when her foster father died of a heart attack. She was removed from her next foster home after the family accused her of killing its cat and trying to smother a baby. She was then sent to a state-supervised group home. Along the way, she lost contact with her older brother and sister, who had been adopted.
Lisa's social worker assured the Gordons that Lisa had emerged from these upheavals emotionally intact. Admittedly, she was immature, but nothing else could be expected, given her history. "We were led to believe that once she was part of a good, secure home, she would be fine, and her problems would disappear," Joan says. Assuming they had been told all, the Gordons never asked to read Lisa's file.
About to switch jobs, the social worker hurried to place Lisa. After four short visits to the Gordons', where she rode the bike they had ready for her and played in the room they had furnished with toys and stuffed animals, Lisa was told one night at the group home that she was leaving the next day. Although she had lived at the group home for a year, she wasn't given a chance to say goodbye to her friends. When the social worker drove her to her new home on a June morning in 1982, Lisa had a fit of hysterics.
The Gordons soon began to realize that Lisa was a bigger challenge to their parenting skills than Sheila had ever been. The early incidents revolved around Lisa's diabetes. She knew she was not allowed to have sugar, but she craved it. Although she was supposed to urinate into a cup so that the Gordons could measure her sugar count with a dipstick, she sometimes sneaked candy and then sabotaged the test by substituting water for urine. When the Gordons reminded her of the importance of staying on her diet, she agreed, but her behavior did not improve.
Lisa was placed in a special-education class in school, but she complained that the boys in her class were picking on her. Because she seemed to get along better with younger children, she was switched to a mainstream class two years below her age level. Soon, though, desserts were missing from her classmates' lunch boxes. Then their lunch money began disappearing, too. One child brought in a pin for his teacher, only to lose it. It turned out that Lisa had stolen the pin and given it to her teacher.
"I was having a hard time," Joan Gordon says. "I thought if a child moves into your house, you'd automatically fall in love with her. I found out that wasn't the case. She wouldn't let you get too close to her. She'd crawl up in your lap and hug you, you'd get real close to her, and then she'd set off a bomb. Irritating and loving, irritating and loving. It would drive you crazy."
Still, the Gordons trusted Lisa's new social worker, who said that Lisa was undergoing normal transitional anxieties. They went ahead with finalizing the adoption in February 1983, and Lisa was issued a new birth certificate -- standard procedure in adoptions. To help her feel secure, Joan showed Lisa that her certificate had the same last name as Sheila's: The Gordons had two daughters now. At that proud moment, none of them anticipated that the emotional scars within this usually friendly, happy-go-lucky child would devastate the family, and that her adoption would become the first one ever reversed in the state of Rhode Island. Like so much in Lisa Gordon's life, her new surname was only temporary.
Adoption is supposed to last a lifetime. Like marriage, it is meant to be an unswerving commitment, for better or for worse.
Yet, while adoption has a far higher success rate than marriage, it too is plagued by divorce. Today, an increasing number of adoptive parents are relinquishing their children to the state, or even going to court to nullify the adoption. Most of these "disruptions," as they are termed, involve adoptions of older children with physical or emotional problems stemming from abuse by their natural parents. Infant adoptions are less prone to break up, although such disruptions are increasingly being recognized rather than swept under the carpet. These disruptions not only traumatize the families involved, but they also drain state budgets because a disproportionate number of children from broken adoptions end up in group homes and residential treatm ent centers, with the state footing the bill.
Beset by lawsuits from disenchanted parents, adoption agencies are reassessing their credo that all children can be adopted. "There is a split in the field," says Jeffrey Rosenberg, director of public policy for the National Committee for Adoption, an advocacy group in Washington. "Some people still say that there is no such thing as an unadoptable kid. Others, like myself, say that's unrealistic. There are some kids who have been so abused that they'll never attach or bond. It's so scary that they'll do whatever they can to prevent it."
The main reason for the surge in disruptions is a shift in the type of children being adopted. Until the 1970s, only infants were considered adoptable. Then an increase in abortions, coupled with greater social acceptance of single mothers, reduced the pool of available infants. At the same time, the number of abused and neglected older children was on the rise. Advocacy groups argued that these children, who were often warehoused in institutions or shunted from one foster home to another, needed adoptive homes. In 1980, a federal law enshrined "permanency planning" as a goal for children in state care; the law also expanded subsidies for adoptive parents. Like the deinstitutionalization of mental patients in the same era, this policy was both humanely intended and inexpensive, but it had the consequence of dumping some difficult people into a society that was not equipped to handle them.
The number of adoptions in the United States has steadily increased through the 1980s. Excluding adoptions by stepparents, it is estimated that 60,000 children will be adopted this year. About 35,000 will be infants, while another 15,000 will be children age 3 or older. (The other 10,000 are children adopted from overseas.) Massachusetts families adopt about 500 older children each year through the state Department of Social Services, and several hundred more through private agencies. Foster parents make up half of all adoptive parents of older children.
Some infant adoptions do crumble as the children grow up. No matter at what age it takes place, adoption is a delicate matter. Sometimes adoptive parents cannot come to terms with their own infertility and create tensions by regarding their children as a consolation prize, second best to the biological children they can never have. Or they go to the other extreme, acting as if their children were not adopted, repressing the children's curiosity about their biological parents.
"Adoptive children have a tougher time finding their identity," says Brookline District Court Judge Laurence Shubow, who has two adopted children. " 'Who am I? Where do I come from? Am I just a frog waiting for a prince?' "
But it is the adoptions of children age 3 or older that are most at risk. A recent study at the University of California at Berkeley found that one out of four adoptions of older children reaches the brink of disruption, and one out of 10 does rupture to the point where parents disown all responsibility for the children.
"It's a gamble for an older child to come into a family," says Richard Barth, a professor and co-author of the study. "But when it pays off, it pays off for a lifetime. Foster care ends at 18. At least with adoption, you've got the 20s, 30s, 40s to patch it all together."
The more physically or emotionally disabled the child, the more likely is the adoption to fall apart. For those children who are so damaged by abuse and rejection that they are unwilling or unable to bond with new families, adoption becomes just another way station on a shuttle that also stops at foster care and group homes -- and that, in the end, may leave them on the streets. Some children are adopted twice or even three times. That may still be preferable to living in an institution, but it' s a far cry from the government's hope of permanency.
A 1986 study by the University of Southern Maine found that 86 percent of older children involved in disruptions had been abused prior to being adopted. The study concluded, "It is truly a system in which those who have suffered the most are the most likely to continue to suffer."
Many adoptive parents of older children bring a missionary fervor to a task that others might consider a drain of time and energy. But some find themselves policing a child who does not share their commitment to the adoption, and who lies, steals, sets fires, or falsely alleges abuse -- just to escape the family.
If the adoption falls apart, it can mean for the child yet another rejection, another uprooting, another reason to be wary of family life. For the parents, hailed as saints by their friends and relatives at the time of the adoption, it can mean a pervasive sense of guilt. Although they know that their child's troubles started long before the adoption, they are left wondering: Could we have done more? Could we have loved more?
"If you have a child biologically, you don't need anyone's approval," says Richard Casey, a clinical social worker who runs therapy groups in Newton for adoptive parents and adolescents. "But if you adopt, you get the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. That makes it harder to admit you've got trouble. By the time the parents get to our group, they feel a lot of guilt."
That feeling of guilt nearly overwhelmed a Woburn social worker and her husband. After they adopted an 8-year-old boy in 1981, he stole food and money, smeared feces on the bathroom walls, and stood by and watched while their biological son was beaten in the schoolyard. The mother eventually developed a stress-related heart ailment. In 1984, the couple asked the state to take custody of their adopted son. Since then, the mother has led several workshops for adoptive families in crisis.
"We tried like hell, but he just didn't want to be adopted," she says. "If you can distance yourself enough and say, 'This kid is here, he's going to grow up here, and we're not going to be emotionally involved,' you can probably do it. We aren't that kind of family.
"A lot of people stay in the commitment after it doesn't work out. And, to me, that's really unhealthy, because it affects the rest of the family. I've seen so many marriages break up over it. All we were doing was talk, talk, talk about the boy's problems.
"We're guilty to a lot of our friends and relatives. They say, 'How could you give your kid up?' And a lot of people won't give that kid up, no matter how unhappy they are. I say to parents, 'Social workers and therapists will make you feel guilty. But you have nothing to feel guilty about. You did the best you could.' "
In the days when adoption was almost exclusively limited to infants, it was considered a kind of rebirth. On the grounds that it was best to start afresh, adoption agencies provided a minimum of information about infants to the new parents. When one Massachusetts couple adopted a 5-week-old boy in 1970, they were told that he was part American Indian. "Which tribe?" the new mother asked the adoption agency director.
"You're an intelligent woman," the director said. "Pick a tribe."
As more older children began to be offered for adoption, many agencies withheld information about them, too, with damaging results. Unaware of prior abuse, adoptive parents could not understand their children's promiscuity or violence. Even if parents eventually learned the truth, it was often too late; the family was beyond repair.
Nowadays, most adoption agencies say they share all information with their clients except for the names of the biological parents. Several states, including Massachusetts, require agencies to be frank about the children's medical history, mental health history, and physical or emotional traumas. Both the "Wednesday's Child" segment on WBZ-TV and the "Sunday's Child" column in the Globe tell their audiences if children have been abused.
"We don't go on the air and put on soft music and show the kid running through flowers," says WBZ-TV news anchor man Jack Williams, who has helped to place 165 children in the past eight years. (Not all of the adoptions have worked out: One child has been advertised three times and adopted twice.) "We could generate thousands of calls. But we don't do it that way. The children I deal with have been in the system a long time. The last thing they need is to have their hopes raised, spend six months with someone, and then be tossed out."
Nevertheless, many adoptive parents are denied key information. More than half of the families that adopted sexually abused children in the Berkeley study did not know about the abuse before the children were placed with them. The same was true of nearly one-third of the families that adopted physically abused children. Families that discover problems only after placement, the study found, are more likely to fall apart.
In some of these cases, the full extent of abuse may never have been revealed. In others, the child may have had so many foster homes and social workers that nobody knows the entire history. But there are also occasions when social workers who feel pressured to place a child downplay the effects of abuse.
"Otherwise, the kid won't get adopted," says the Woburn social worker. "I had a 3-year-old in my caseload who needed a psychiatric hospital. You know how hard it is to find a psychiatric hospital for a 3-year-old? It's a lot easier to find an adoptive parent." Only the sensitivity she gained from the breakup with her own adopted son kept her from offering the 3-year-old for adoption.
Bitter at being left in the dark, parents are beginning to sue adoption agencies for unforeseen medical expenses and, in some cases, to seek reversals of adoptions.
A breakthrough case in this new legal genre of "wrongful adoption" involved a California couple who took a boy into their home as a foster child in 1977 and adopted him in 1979, when he was 7. Tom and Janice Colella ended up paying more than $55,000 for Tommy's psychiatric care after he killed his hamster and mutilated the ear of the family dog.
The Colellas sued the county adoption agency, contending that it never told them that Tommy, as a toddler, had abused animals, set fires, and been evicted from two foster homes. In 1984, a judge granted the Colellas one of the first severances of an adoption in the United States, and they settled out of court three years later for $70,000 in damages.
An Ohio verdict also encouraged adoptive parents to seek redress. In 1986, the Ohio Supreme Court sustained a $125,000 verdict for a couple that adopted an infant son in 1964 after a county agency assured them that he was a "nice, big, healthy baby boy." The agency's records, it turned out, revealed that the child showed signs of being retarded and had a high risk of disease. Similar suits followed in other states. Last year, seven Texas couples sued the state's Department of Human Services for access to its files on their children, whom they had adopted in the early 1980s. They contended that the state's caseworkers had soft-pedaled the youngsters' histories of abuse in order to find them homes. Although the case was widely publicized -- two parents described their children's sexual obsessions and homicidal tendencies on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show -- it was dismissed by a federal court on technical grounds.
In a suit pending in Maryland, Anthony and Dona Ricci want to rescind their 1987 adoption of a 12-year-old girl. They say they were never told about a 1985 evaluation that found that she was depressed and angry at being rejected by her biological parents and several sets of foster parents. Although the report advised against adoption, the state matched her with the Riccis anyway, whereupon she broke household items and sent hate mail to her new parents.
Linda and John Murphy, of Abington, adopted a 5-year-old girl in 1975 after a social worker from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Human Services allegedly told them that Mary Beth's slight learning disability would be corrected in school. It was not until 10 years had passed -- a decade in which Mary Beth proved to be severely mentally handicapped -- that the state provided records showing that her mother, brother, sister, and grandmother were mentally handicapped. Today, Mary Beth is institutionalized.
The Murphys are asking for $4.1 million in damages -- but not for a nullification of the adoption. "You just don't do that," says Linda Murphy. "We love her. She's ours."
Once Lisa Gordon's adoption was finalized in 1983, the Department of Children and Their Families closed her case. Soon afterward, Joan Gordon decided that her daughter needed psychotherapy, and she asked the department to pay for it. Although such subsidies are often given to adoptive parents of emotionally disturbed children, Joan's request was rejected. In the department's view, she was told, Lisa did not have emotional problems.
Whatever Lisa's problems were, they persisted. Late in 1984, Joan finally obtained medical insurance that covered therapy, and the family began seeing a psychologist. Instead of helping, Joan says, "the therapy was a catalyst for her to get worse."
When Lisa misbehaved, the Gordons made her do household chores. The task she hated most was fetching wood from the woodpile in the back yard. One afternoon, when her parents were away and Sheila was upstairs, Lisa took some matches from the cellar, pushed some dry leaves against the woodpile, and set it on fire. The flames leaped to a nearby stockade fence. As the blaze raged out of control, Lisa screamed for her sister. Only quick work by the neighbors, who came running with hoses, saved the house.
When the Gordons rushed home, Lisa denied starting the fire. Finally, at the therapist's suggestion, Joan told Lisa that she was scared. "If you didn't set it, someone is out there trying to burn the house down," Joan said. The tactic worked: Without any sign of remorse, Lisa said she had wanted to get rid of the woodpile.
By 1985, the Gordons' house simmered with antagonism. Sensing the tension, Sheila's friends stopped coming over. One episode symbolized Lisa's increasing isolation from her parents and sister: Suspecting her of stealing gum at the grocery store, Joan and Sheila responded to Lisa's denials by following her into the bathroom and wrestling her to the floor. They found the gum in her waistband, but the last elusive sense of family seemed to have been lost. "I absolutely couldn't stand her," Sheila says. "I couldn't stand being in the same room with her. She did everything she could to get me mad at her."
Holidays were always hard for Lisa, because she felt excluded from the warmth and intimacy of family celebrations. Her next rebellion came just before Christmas, and it was precipitated by a mink coat. The coat belonged to Joan's mother, who let Joan and Sheila wear it to Christmas parties. Lisa wanted to borrow it, too, but her parents thought she was too young.
Then the principal of Lisa's school called Joan at work one day. A teacher had spotted Lisa carrying a mink coat over her arm. "Does Lisa have a mink?" the principal asked.
Joan called Sheila at home. The coat was not hanging in the closet. So she instructed Sheila to watch for the mink when Lisa got off the school bus. Sheila did as she was told, and reported back that the mink was nowhere to be seen.
After her mother had interrogated her for the better part of two hours, Lisa admitted that she had worn the mink to school -- and left it in a rolled- up ball under her bus seat. A police officer retrieved the coat and brought it to the Gordons' house. At Bob Gordon's request, the officer reprimanded Lisa, trying to put the fear of God in her. Bob's relationship with Lisa was, by turns, more antagonistic and more affectionate than Joan's. Lisa could goad her father into angry outbursts one minute and cuddle up to him the next. So Joan was not surprised one morning in April 1986 when Lisa said that she wanted to do something nice for her father. She volunteered to fix the soup that Bob, as was his custom, would take to work. When Lisa gave him the thermos on his way out the door, he opened the lid and smelled something unusual. It was the disinfectant Lysol, which is poisonous to ingest. As usual, Lisa took her time before admitting she had filled the thermos with Lysol the night before while she was doing the dishes. "I wanted to ruin his lunch," she said.
Outraged, Joan called the state and asked for Lisa to be taken away. Told she would have to file criminal charges against Lisa first, she relented. "I thought, 'I don't want to give this child a record. God, that's awful,' " she says.
It took one more incident for Joan to make up her mind. Lisa came home from school one day bruised from a fall in gym class. That night, the sugar count in her urine was sky-high, and Bob spanked her. The next morning, Lisa showed her bruises to the school nurse and said that her father had hit her with a board. Obeying the law, the nurse reported the allegation to the state. After an investigation, the charges were dropped, and Joan went to the office of the state Department of Children and The ir Families, saying she wouldn't leave until Lisa was removed from her house. State officials gave in and arranged for Lisa to be evaluated at Bradley Hospital, a psychiatric facility for children in Rhode Island.
Three members of the hospital's staff listened to Lisa describe the Lysol episode in a passionless monotone. One of them asked, "Did you want to kill him?" She said, simply, "Yes." She was admitted to the hospital immediately.
Debbie has to be coaxed to tell her story. The 18-year-old is wearing a jean jacket and a blue baseball cap turned backwards, catcher-style. She has curly brown hair and large eyes with a trace of impudence in their stare. "You'll all laugh," she says. "It's funny. My father knocked all my teeth out with a hammer."
She was beaten again in a foster home, she says, before being adopted. "My parents felt sorry for me, so they adopted me. My father was Mr. High-and- Mighty. He expected me to be the perfect child, and I couldn't be. My parents used to say, 'This is your real family.' I said, 'No, you're not.' "
Hospitalized after attempting suicide, she lied to a nurse that her adoptive father had abused her. "It was because I didn't want to live at home," she says. "The other kids told me that was the way to get out." Back home, she attacked her mother with a knife.
Perhaps compensating for his lisp, George acts macho. Leaning back in his chair, his feet on the table, he delivers a gruff, obscenity-laden autobiography. He bounced from one foster home to another until he was featured on Boston television. Two social workers adopted him, but fighting landed him in a juvenile detention center two years later.
"I love them," he says. "Sometimes shit doesn't work out. I'm glad they love me and they care about me. They wanted me to be like their daughter and son. They were all famous in high school."
Leslie's hand is up. Polite and articulate, she's eager for attention. An Air Force officer adopted her when she was 8 years old, but she never felt part of the family. Four years later, she reentered foster care. "It was hard to stay with one family for a long time," she says. "I was old enough to know they weren't my parents. They didn't like the people I was hanging around with.
"Both of my parents were adopted, and they were just trying to do a good deed," continues Leslie, who is 16. "I don't think I'd go back there. I don't want to be adopted. I want to be my own person and make my own decisions."
Debbie, George, and Leslie attend the Harbor Schools, a Newburyport-based residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed and behaviorally troubled adolescents. Refugees from broken adoptions make up nearly 10 percent of the Harbor Schools' population. Tuition is $49,000 a year, paid primarily by the state Department of Social Services. Most children spend about 18 months there; if they progress, they move on to less restrictive environments, such as group homes.
Since less than 2 percent of Americans are adopted, the proportion of adopted teen-agers at the Harbor Schools seems startlingly high. But, in fact, it is low compared with other treatment programs. Last year, 21 adopted children and adolescents entered Belmont's McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility; they represented 15 percent of all admissions to the child and adolescent unit. National studies show that adopted people make up 10 to 15 percent of mental health inpatients, 5 percent of ment al health outpatients, and 6 to 9 percent of children classified for special education as emotionally disturbed, perceptually impaired, or neurologically impaired. Up to 70 percent of these people were adopted as older children.
Clearly, most of these teen-agers do not need psychiatric help because they were adopted. Their troubles stem primarily from the abuse or abandonment they suffered prior to adoption. But the overrepresentation of adopted adolescents in mental health settings does suggest that adoption was not what they needed. By placing these disturbed children with adoptive parents without providing enough support, society delayed their access to treatment and perhaps lost the chance to cure them. As so oft en happens, the government temporarily avoided picking up the tab -- only to pay a bigger bill later.
No one can predict for certain whether an adoption will endure. But studies show that adoptions self-destruct most often when children with backgrounds of severe abuse and multiple foster placements are matched with educated parents with high expectations and high-achieving biological children.
That profile fits several teen-agers at the Harbor Schools. As they chat at the schools' headquarters, they express stronger feelings for their biological parents and siblings than for their adoptive families.
Of the many adults she has lived with, Brenda can no longer remember which were her foster parents and which ones adopted her. But she's still bitter at the state for separating her from her biological brother. "A lot of people like being with their regular parents, even though they know the people who adopted them are trying to be nice," she says softly, between coughs. "My life's over. My whole family's gone."
After two years in Harbor Schools, Debbie is returning to her adoptive family. But she remains ambivalent. Asked if she's happy to go home, she says, "Sorta. I can see my dogs."
Later she adds, "I don't like getting attached to places, because then I'd have to leave."
Rueful laughter and voices quivering with unwept tears emanate one Monday evening from the basement of the Newton office of the state Department of Social Services, where seven adoptive parents are trading war stories. They include three couples, along with one woman whose husband refused to come because he doesn't like support groups. In turn, they describe the latest episodes in their daily soap operas -- their daughter is dropping out of school, their son is in limbo between a residential treatment program that expelled him because he's psychotic and a psychiatric hospital that insists he's sane -- as the rest of the group advises and sympathizes.
"It's terrible," confides one mother, who adopted her son as an infant, only to watch him grow up into a juvenile delinquent. "Every single day, you wait for something to happen. When the phone rings, is it the police? You're in a state of mental chaos. You cherish the good times, because they're few and far between."
One couple can report some progress. They had eight adoptive children, and all of them turned out fine except one daughter. At 14, she announced that she would no longer obey their rules. She placed herself in more and more dangerous situations until she was robbed in Roxbury at midnight. Her parents then enrolled her in a treatment program. Discharged three years later, she refused to come home. She stayed with friends and slept in abandoned cars.
Now she's drifted to North Carolina, out of school and out of a job. But she's back in contact with her adoptive parents. "I've had 35 hours of phone calls with her from North Carolina this week," her mother says. "We feel we're the only connection with reality she has at this moment. Ultimately, she knows we love her, and that's why she keeps reconnecting."
Only the group, the couple say, helped them to cope with their daughter. Without its support, they would have continued the cycle of kicking her out and taking her back until the whole family was devastated. The group and its two leaders, both DSS social workers, advised them to work toward an intermediate relationship with theirdaughter that took the pressure off without severing ties altogether.
Groups like the Newton one not only benefit the adoptive parents, they also preserve a home base for troubled children. Sadly, such support is rare. In the 1989-90 fiscal year, for the first time, DSS plans to allocate funds for postplacement counseling for adoptive parents, following the lead of Illinois and New Jersey. But, as yet, the Newton group, begun 2 1/2 years ago by the local DSS office, is one of only a handful of its kind in the state.
Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange, a clearinghouse that matches parents with older children with special needs, occasionally holds "disruption meetings" after an adoption fails. The parents, former foster parents, social workers, and others analyze what went wrong and plan the child's future. But by their very nature these meetings only happen after it's too late. "Maybe these meetings should take place before the disruption," says MARE director Carolyn Smith.
Few DSS social workers on the front lines are well versed in adoption issues. They pull out all the stops to save biological families. But, according to some adoption specialists, DSS is often quicker to split up adoptive families. "The people that ought to help families stay together wind up blaming the parents," says Steven Nickman, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "They say, 'You screwed up.' Most of the time, the parents just want help."
Private adoption agencies -- even those that place older children -- don't offer much counseling for adoptive parents, either. "We've knelt for a long time with our heads in the sand, thinking when we place kids with problems that they won't need services down the road," says Mary Byrne, assistant executive director of Boston Children's Services, an agency that primarily places older children.
Boston's Project Impact is one of the few adoption agencies that offer a crisis intervention service. A staff member virtually moves in with the faltering family and tries to reopen communication and revive commitment to the adoption. Such postplacement support has reduced the disruption rate. Unfortunately, Project Impact can only provide crisis service to one family at a time. "We're not prepared to write any child off," says Robert Lewis, Impact's director.
Often, the only resort for adoptive families is a private therapist. But few professional schools have courses on the psychology of adoption. Without specialized training, some therapists may adhere to either of two myths that prevail in American society. One is that adoptive families are no different from other families; the other is that they are different -- and inferior.
"Some therapists think you're peculiar for ever adopting a child," says one psychiatrist who has adopted eight children. "They start questioning your motives. You need help managing the kid, and they're saying, 'Why did you do this?' "
Of the psychiatrist's eight children, five were adopted as infants, while three others came as older children from Vietnam. Most of them adjusted easily. But two boys from a Vietnamese orphanage got into trouble and shied away from trusting their new parents. In the end the psychiatrist sent them to "the ultimate residential placement" -- the US military. Now he proudly displays photos of them in uniform.
The South Korean hospital for disabled children where Sally Clemons found her adoptive son, Jacob, in 1980 provided a scant 1 1/2-page summary about him. It told her little other than that he was 6 years old, suffered from cerebral palsy, and had been separated from his biological parents in infancy.
When she brought Jacob home to Maryland, where she is the director of an adoption agency, she soon recognized from his behavior that he had been sexually and physically abused. He remained detached from his parents and their 14 other adopted children, and had to be ordered to join in family outings. After Clemons helped several of her other Korean-born children to locate their biological parents, he became jealous and depressed. Unable to reach him, the Clemonses eventually placed Jacob in a foster home.
"There are two types of kids: apples and onions," Sally Clemons says. "The apple has a core, and you can build on that. The onion, you can peel and peel away and never find a core." Jacob, she says, is an onion.
No one knows for sure how many international adoptions crumble. But the same inadequacies of information and counseling that undermine many domestic adoptions are often magnified when the children come from overseas. South Korea, the largest source of children for the United States, rarely acknowledges that children have been sexually abused there: "There is just a nationalistic attitude that this doesn't happen," Sally Clemons says.
When one couple in the Newton group adopted a 9-year-old boy from Central America, the government agency there only allowed them to riffle through his file for a moment. When their son became a heavy drug user several years later, they consulted a therapist and a bilingual specialist. But the therapist was unfamiliar with Central America, and the bilingual specialist was untrained in adoption. Now their son is wanted by the police, and they are burdened with guilt.
"We have a moral responsibility," says his mother. "We brought him to this country."
As adolescents, many children from overseas struggle with divided loyalties. Joyce Pavao, program director of the adoptive consulting team at the Family Center counseling service, in Somerville, recalls that a Dover couple contacted her after their 13-year-old son tried to kill himself. They had adopted him at the age of 5 in Colombia and changed his name from Jose to Trevor. Shortly before the suicide attempt, they told Pavao, they had asked Trevor to sign some naturalization papers.
When Pavao spoke to Trevor privately, he said that he had lost his country, his language, and his name. When he realized that he was going to lose his Colombian citizenship, too, he decided on suicide. Pavao persuaded his parents to restore his name to Jose and let him choose his citizenship. When she saw him again, recently, his spirits had improved, and he was about to leave with his father for a bicycling trip through Colombia.
Jacob Clemons, the Korean boy with cerebral palsy, was not so fortunate. Abused in his foster home, he moved back with the Clemons family. Last October 30, in an apparent suicide attempt, he set fire to the mattress in his downstairs bedroom, killing two of his younger adoptive brothers. Later, his parents urged a judge to try the 15-year-old as an adult. Their request was denied, and Jacob is now institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital for juveniles.
"I wonder if it was our belief that adoption is forever that made us stick it out so long," David Clemons told the court.
When Joan Gordon brought her daughter to Bradley Hospital in East Providence, she was surprised to hear that it already had a file on Lisa. She was shocked when she learned what it contained.
After Lisa had been accused of killing a cat in a foster home in 1981, she had been evaluated at Bradley. The report concluded that she needed long-term psychiatric help and that it was better to spend the money now than later. It recommended admitting her to Bradley.
Nevertheless, the state had placed Lisa in a group home. Then, without telling the Gordons about the evaluation, it had given her to them. "There were enough indications so that the state knew she had a bad problem," Joan says. "They kept her in a confined environment until they found two suckers out there and palmed her off on them. What I want people to be aware of is that you can't rely on the state. You have to ask for the file and read it from cover to cover."
Thomas Bohan, chief counsel for the Department of Children and Their Families, acknowledges that the Gordons should have been told about the evaluation. He says that the "unintentional failure" to inform them resulted from a lack of communication among the social workers who handled Lisa's case around the time of the adoption. "One worker thought that another worker had discussed it with them in detail," he says.
With Lisa back in Bradley Hospital, the state offered to terminate the Gordons' parental rights and take custody. But that route would leave the Gordons liable for Lisa's medical expenses. They thought that the state should pay her bills, since they would not have adopted Lisa if the state had not deceived them, as they put it, about her need for psychiatric treatment. The Gordons decided to seek a reversal of the adoption on the grounds that they had been defrauded.
In 1987, they filed suit in the family court that had granted the adoption, but it ruled that it lacked jurisdiction. They appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling in February 1988 and ordered the family court to hear the case. Five months later, the state agreed to a consent order setting aside the adoption.
Despite the victory, the Gordons did not feel triumphant. They were deeply in debt, having rejected the urgings of their relatives to seek damages for mental anguish. "Our family kept saying, 'With everything you've been through, go for the bucks,' " Joan says. "It was tempting, but I didn't want to use Lisa for my own personal gain."
Shortly afterward, the Gordons separated, with Joan moving into an apartment. The agony of the adoption had taken an irreversible toll on their marriage. "It brought out the worst in all of us," Joan says. "It brought out sides of us we didn't know were there." Sheila is now living with her father.
The Gordons had already said goodbye to Lisa in her hospital room. Joan was the last one in the family to see her. When she walked in, Lisa was crying. "I was very tranquilized," Joan says. "It was like having a child die. I was in a grieving period over her. I told her, 'It isn't because we don't love you. It's because we love you and we tried to get help for you.' "
As she left the room, Joan took two identical lapel pins of tiny metal mice out of her pocket. She gave one to her ex-daughter, saying, "When I wear mine, I'll think of you. When you wear yours, think of me.