Adoption of troubled children offers challenges

LISA DEMER
The Tampa Tribune
October 25, 1992

The 12-year-old Tampa girl lasted 11 days with her adoptive mother before landing in a psychiatric hospital after she wet her pants, hurled food at the wall, and attacked the woman's cats.

Still, the woman visited the child nightly in the hospital, invited her for holiday celebrations, and took her to Disney World on her birthday.

Only after the girl threatened to kill her, and the state cut off counseling for lack of money, did the woman give up.

"It just rips you apart," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "It's a thing you don't expect to fail at. And there is a lot of guilt associated with failure."

Every four days on average, it happens in Florida: A child is rejected by, or rejects, an adoptive family. In 1991-92, the state took back 88 of the 1,161 children it had placed with families. Most are older kids, or have special problems. Private agencies handle most adoptions of healthy babies.

Counselors say these children act horribly to find out whether their new family really wants them, or to prove they are as bad as they feel. Some try to provoke abuse because they have learned to expect abuse from parents. Many still have dreams of reuniting with their natural parents, and make that clear to their new family.

"The task of agreeing to parent a child that few others wanted takes some special combination of sainthood and sanity," said Jack Levine ,of the Florida Center for Children and Youth.

These children come out of foster care, where bad behavior can result in rejection and their being bounced among numerous families. They are so scarred from abuse, neglect and indifference, they don't believe that any family could love them.

If they detect even a hint of rejection, "they will do everything they can to make that other shoe drop," state adoptions counselor Susy Hromalik said.

The adoptive mother in Tampa still thinks about the girl she gave up more than a year ago. But most of the memories are painful: a temper tantrum in the grocery story that scattered shoppers from the cereal aisle; clean, folded sheets that the girl soiled with feces.

She said she wasn't prepared for a child who screamed all night, a child who psychiatrists said shouldn't live in a family home.

"The worst thing is that abandonment issue," the woman said. "They are afraid to make ties. As soon as they feel something for somebody, they have to fight it."

Most children adopted through the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) aren't so disturbed. But few emerge from foster care unscathed.

The problem of failed adoptions drew attention in September when a Dade County couple decided to give back two children whose behavior problems escalated after Hurricane Andrew.

Gary and Alma Knight knew there might be problems with the boy, 11, but hadn't been aware his sister, 7, also was troubled, said the couple's attorney. And, at first, both children did well despite four years in foster care.

But soon after the adoption was completed a year ago September, the boy began stealing, threatening his teacher, urinating on the carpet and smearing feces on the walls, according to state records. His sister tried to run away, threw temper tantrums and provoked fights.

The Knights stopped taking the children for counseling because it didn't seem to help.

On Aug. 24, everything crashed. The family huddled in fear as Hurricane Andrew tore the house down all around them and wrecked Alma Knight's health food store. The children temporarily moved in with friends, but the boy tried to set fire to that house. The Knights told HRS the children were unbearable, packed their bags and took them to a juvenile center.

HRS tried to get the Knights to try harder.

"We have tens of thousands of families that are buckling right now with what the hurricane has done to their family life. The solution is not to drop the kids on our doorstep," said Jim Towey, of HRS in Dade and Monroe counties. He urged a cooling-off period and counseling.

On Oct. 16, after the children also said they wanted out of the family, Dade Juvenile Judge Adele Faske dissolved their adoptions.

"What they've told me is they feel wanted and safe with their current [foster] family and that is where they want to live," said Karen Gievers, the children's attorney.

Gievers, who last year sued the state to force improvements in foster care, said it doesn't appear HRS failed the Knights.

That's not always the case. Consider one teen-ager, who Gievers said was severely emotionally disturbed after being sexually abused.

Psychiatrists said she needed in-patient treatment; HRS put her up for adoption and didn't tell the new family the severity of her problems, Gievers said. The adoptive parents ended up hospitalizing her, but when their insurance ran out, they asked HRS to help pay the bills. The state refused, and the parents had the adoption annulled, Gievers said.

Tampa HRS counselors said parents should always be told of a child's troubles.

It's crucial to present "the good, the bad and the ugly" about a particular child, said Hromalik, who has handled adoptions for HRS for seven years. Counselors tape-record their presentations for the parents to take home, and the state's 10-week training program for adoptive parents cover problem behaviors.

Still, it's not unusual for families - especially in the months before the adoption is final - to try to return the child to the state.

Hromalik said she has gotten used to outraged and frightened parents calling her at home and demanding the child be taken back immediately. But ending the relationship isn't easy. If the adoption has been completed, it's just like a parent trying to get rid of a natural child.

Often, the crisis erupts because the child tries to have sex with other children, or occasionally, even a pet, Hromalik said. Or the child might destroy toys, clothes, or something dear to the adoptive family.

"The child will find the button to push. But that's not unlike any other child," Hromalik said.

Counselors try to find out what's going wrong, help the parent deal with it, and, if needed, set up professional therapy. Sometimes children need treatment right away at a crisis unit. But some solutions are simple: an alarm on the door of a child who roams at night.

Steven Lyhne, who coordinates adoptions for The Children's Home, a treatment center in Tampa for troubled, abused children, said adoptive parents shouldn't expect these children to obey all the rules right away. A 12-year-old who grew up in foster care may have the emotional development of a 3-year-old. That child needs to be rocked just like a toddler, Lyhne said.

Once adopted children believe they are worthwhile and lovable, parents can begin teaching responsibilities, like chores, he said.

It'll take time, a year even, before the parents feel their love returned, he said.

"It can be frustrating, but will be very rewarding," Lyhne said. "These kids deserve to have families, too."

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