Failed adoptions traumatic

By Will Drabold
September 7, 2014 / The Columbus Dispatch

Nautica Carter knows a life of painful and repeated rejection.

She was adopted shortly after birth, but her parents gave her up when she was 6 years old.

Another adoption fell apart when she was 13.

At 17, she was adopted again, but, she said, her adoptive father beat and sexually abused her. She left home at 19. Now 24 and living in Urbana in Champaign County, she is no longer in contact with the family.

“When the adoption was going on, I wanted it,” she said. “I felt like I had finally found my ‘ forever family.’ But if I could do things over, I would’ve never wanted to be adopted.”

Throughout her childhood, Carter lived in 40 foster homes. The older she became, “the more angry, aggressive and defiant I became,” she said. “It became difficult for people to deal with me."

Between 1990 and last October, more than 34,000 children were adopted from foster care in Ohio. Most of the adoptions succeeded, but 2,368 — about 7 percent — didn’t work out.

Some of the children who were returned to foster care had been abused or neglected, before or after their adoptions. Others had medical or emotional problems too severe for their parents to handle.

In many of the cases, the parents remained the parents, sometimes regaining custody. But in other cases, the legal bond was broken, leaving the child — once again — with a government agency to assume the role of family.

The rejection a child suffers from a failed adoption can be nearly unbearable, adoption experts and advocates say.

Children sometimes enter foster care under “horrific circumstances,” said Anne

O’Leary, the chief attorney for Franklin County Children Services. “Then they go and become adopted. Then they’re rejected again. The most heartbreaking thing, besides a child dying, is when an adoption didn’t work out.”

The fallout from a failed adoption that returns a child to foster care affects taxpayers as well. In Ohio, the average annual government-paid cost of providing for a child in foster care is $30,334, more than five times the average annual adoption-assistance payment for one child, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

National studies have found that children of failed adoptions are 3 1/2 times more likely to require group-home or residential treatment, which can top $100,000 in costs a year.

Barbara Van Slyck worked as a foster-care agency’s post-adoption-services director for 22 years. Ask her why adoptions fail, and she’ll respond, “It’s hard to know where to start.”

Prospective parents typically envision a “dream child,” Van Slyck said. “When the child doesn’t turn out to be what they dreamed about and has a lot of emotional and behavioral problems, to the point that it is disrupting their families ... they give up.”

The truth is, some children are nearly impossible to adopt, Van Slyck said. Parents are often unprepared for what a child might need.

“This actually happened with the last daughter that I adopted,” she said. “A family that had never parented before (adopted her). ... There were behaviors they couldn’t deal with. She was placed in a treatment facility, and they decided not to take her back.”

Details of why adoptions fail are sealed in case files, but a few numbers were available from Job and Family Services: More than half of the children who returned to foster care in Ohio in the past two decades had lived in their adoptive homes for five or more years. Nearly 83?percent were teenagers when they returned to the foster-care system.

Adoption advocates agree that abusive or ill-equipped parents or a child with severe problems can be reasons an adoption fails. But they also say there is not enough post-adoption financial support to help the new families adjust and thrive.

In Ohio, “families adopting children from foster care receive financial support that’s about half of what they would receive for supporting that child in foster care,” said Joe Kroll, the executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, which studies state support for adoption. “That rank is near the bottom in the country.”

Ohio ranks last in the nation for the proportion of state funding for county child-welfare agencies, at 10 cents on the dollar, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. That money is not just for adoptive parents but is spread across each agency’s entire budget.

“To spend some money ... to keep that child from coming back into the system, not only are you going to have a healthier adult when that child grows up, you’re going to save money,” said Betsie Norris, the executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland.

The process of adopting a child from foster care is long and complex, but once it’s over, the county’s child-welfare agency, such as Children Services, no longer has legal access to the child or family.

Only when parents receive monthly post-adoption funding — usually from the state or federal government — are agencies mandated to follow up. That is often through a paper survey, mailed annually to verify a family’s income and need for a subsidy and to confirm that they still have the child.

About 90 percent of children adopted out of foster care are eligible for a subsidy, although not all receive one, said Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Some advocates say the county agencies should be more involved.

Violet Ramunni wonders how her life might have been different if anyone had checked on her.

Now 20, Ramunni was born in Canton, in Stark County. By age 2, she was living in Medina County with foster parents who eventually adopted her when she was 6 years old. Her adoptive parents gave her up when she was 14.

“My adopted dad molested me,” she said. “My mom would grab my hair and beat me. I wasn’t allowed to mature in any way. I wasn’t allowed to really grow.”

Her three siblings, also adopted, had disabilities, which brought outsiders into the house to help care for them, but no one paid attention to her, she said.

Follow-ups from a children-services caseworker might have meant “a chance to get out of there a lot sooner ... instead of starting my life again at 14,” she said. After leaving her adoptive home, she lived in foster homes until she was 19.

“It speaks to the fact that we need to be doing all the screening we can at the time of assessing the adoptive family,” Matthew Kurtz, the director of Knox County Job and Family Services, said of Ramunni’s case. “But you can’t always know those things.

“All you can do is that balance of trying to be engaged ... but if (adoptive parents) want you to go away, you have to go away, by law.”

“It’s a mess for the child, and that’s the scandalous part,” said Rita Soronen, the CEO and director of the Columbus-based Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. “Children are the victims in this process of us not being able to get our acts together and knowing what families need, both in pre-training and in post-support.”

Mary’s biological children were growing up. She didn’t want to become an empty nester, and she wanted to help, so she and her husband became foster parents in Fairfield County.

“We went into it thinking we’re temporary parents,” but they ended up adopting three of their foster children, Mary said. She asked that only her first name be published, for her children’s safety.

Her experience with one of the children, Jordan, now 9, illustrates how adoption-support programs can change lives.

Jordan is the biological son of a drug addict. He entered the foster-care system when he was 2 months old, was briefly reunited with his mother and then returned to Mary’s family at 16 months. The family adopted him when he was 3 years old.

He has physical and emotional problems, “the alphabet soup of disorders,” Mary said. After five years of escalating problems that included violence toward family members, caring for him became too much.

Jordan was placed in a residential-treatment center that cost $250 a day, most of which was covered by state and federal adoption subsidies. He was there for 10 months before the state money maxed out in 2013. The federal subsidy had no maximum but was “a drop in the bucket,” Mary said, and she and her husband temporarily signed over custody to the Fairfield County Department of Job and Family Services.

“We either mortgage our house, or we say, ‘We can’t afford the care this child needs,’ and you sign over custody,” Mary said between sobs.

Jordan was moved to a place that offered more-intense and more-expensive treatment. The Family Adult and Children First Council of Fairfield County, a group supported by the county levy, stepped in to pick up the tab. Mary and her husband continued to visit their son and remained involved in his treatment.

Jordan returned home in July after 18 months in residential care. His behavior, language and demeanor are vastly improved, Mary said, and “we don’t fear for the safety of our other children."

In a different county, Jordan might have remained in foster care.

Because state support for child-welfare agencies is insufficient, counties must persuade voters to pass property-tax levies or make do with the resources they have. A levy can mean that a county can be proactive in sponsoring programs or monitoring cases to reduce adoption-related problems and providing funds to help a troubled child, such as Jordan, if other coverage isn’t available.

On average, counties with a local levy have budgets three times higher than those without, according to the Public Children Services Association, which advocates for county children-services agencies.

Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 43 do not have a levy.

“This is a source of great inequity across county lines in Ohio,” said Scott Britton, interim director of the association. For child-welfare agencies without levies, county funding might not allow them “to do much beyond their mandates,” he said.

Cassandra Holtzmann, the director of Ashland County Job and Family Services, knows the difficulties of helping children in a county without a local levy.

“What we’re lacking is the ability to recruit adoptive homes and prepare them prior to the adoption, resources to help those families assimilate the child into their home,” she said. Agencies need to be “front-loading” adoptive parents with education on how to be parents and how to handle the challenges they can expect to face, Holtzmann said. But that’s difficult in Ashland County, which has no levy and one adoption caseworker.

State law requires counties to make post-adoption services such as counseling, medical treatment and residential care available to families. Franklin, Licking, Fairfield and Delaware counties refer families to private agencies.

Parents are financially responsible but sometimes can get help with payments.

A national study released this year by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute found that nearly half of children adopted from foster care used mental-health services, but many couldn’t find services tailored to their needs. “What we’re advocating for is that there’s services in place that parents can find that will help them address the child’s problems … at any point after adoption that they need help,” said Susan Smith, who worked on the study for the Donaldson institute, based in New York City.

Other adoption advocates cite a need for counselors who are trained in problems children might have faced before they were adopted, such as grief, loss, trauma, abuse and neglect.

In Knox County, Kurtz, the Job and Family Services director, is trying to make mental-health services relevant to kids.

His agency receives substantial local support, and that has allowed him to create partnerships with doctors to provide trauma-informed therapy.

The need for post-adoption services might not surface right away, said Sandy Andrist, an adoption coordinator with UMCH Family Services, formerly the United Methodist Children’s Home in Worthington.

“We have children that come with unknown issues, or issues that don’t surface until the child gets into an environment where they’re starting to feel safe,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s a (national) critical shortage of post-adoption services for children and families.”

Tatiana McCormick was adopted by a Cincinnati couple from an orphanage in Russia when she was 4. Her parents knew of the abuse and neglect she had endured at the orphanage, she said, but in the end, her problems were too much for them to handle.

“They wanted to adopt the perfect child,” said McCormick, now 25 and a resident of Cincinnati.

“They put me in therapy right (away). It took me two years to learn English,” she said. But she wasn’t what her parents expected, and by the time she was 13, they had given her up and she was in the foster-care system. She never returned home.

“I belonged to the system when I was 13, permanently,” she said. “I was in 12 homes from (age) 13 to 18.

“My third foster family requested to adopt me, but I refused. I didn’t want to have to go through a failed adoption again.”


Pound Pup Legacy