exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Liberia: What happens to the Child When Adoption Fails?

Heather Cannon-Winkelman

Do we truly value all children regardless of their situation or condition? For several years, I have pondered this question listening to the highly publicized debate of pro-life versus pro-choice, and wondered why there is no public attention for the large number of children that have been aborted from human society. Well, recently I have noticed that this form of abortion is occurring more and more with children whose adoptions have been disrupted. In these cases, the children are being rejected because of violent behavioral problems—typically labeled as “Reactive Attachment Disorder”—from often untreated emotional traumas. These abandoned children, who are usually older and from another ethnicity or nation, are placed into the already overburdened U.S. foster care system; or as for intercountry adoption, they are returned to their home country with no proper system to ensure they are safe or properly cared for.

I write this post to share about a growing problem that is occurring without any real oversight or monitoring system to track the number of adoptions that have been disrupted and to ensure that the children’s basic human rights are being met. This post will focus on the question “What happens to the child when adoptions fails?” by using a factual story to illustrate how an already traumatized Liberian child was harmed more from his disruptive adoption. However, before I begin with the purpose of this post, I wanted to share my experience with adoptions that has caused me to write about this very important issue.

Since an early age, I have seen and experienced the dark side of adoption too many times. As a child, I discovered how two preschool brothers went from a physically abusive home to emotionally neglectful one. They were adopted to a childless couple, who later were able to bore two children of their own. After the birth of their biological children, these two brothers were often locked outside and I can remember hearing them knock on the door of their house asking “Mom, can I come in now.” The oldest brother, who seemed to suffer the most trauma, finally relieved his pain by committing suicide in his mid-twenties.

As an adult, I witnessed the emotional pain of an adoptee identity crisis from the person that I had committed almost 20 years of my life to. He had to live with the fact that he was adopted twice during his first nine days of life, because the first adoptive family rejected him for not fitting into their community. This rejection was mostly because he is part Native America. He was further stigmatized with adoption when he was denied the right to obtain his actual birth certificate or even see his adoption records to learn more about his natural parents [1].

Since 2005, I have observed and experienced the ugly side of intercountry adoption out of Liberia. This country is part of a long list of developing war-torn and impoverished nations that have been vulnerable to proven abusive adoption practices causing too many children to suffer in this often unregulated multi-billion dollar industry. In fact, Liberia imposed a moratorium on intercountry adoptions on January 26, 2009 due to allegations of mismanagement and corruption. This countrywide ban will be in effect until a new national law [2]—The Child Act—is approved by the government for intercountry adoptions, and also the ratification of international laws such as The Hague on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption and Optional Protocol to Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (OP-CRC).
I could go on and on about the broader issues of intercountry adoption from the ongoing research I have conducted since July 2008. However, this post is focusing on how children are adversely affected by adoption failures. This is a concern that needs attention from all those involved with adoption, because it is a reality for children who have experienced disruption. This post is not intended as anti-adoption forum, but instead is centered on what is best for these sadly forgotten and forsaken children.

To better understand the impact that a disruptive adoption has on a child, I will begin with an actual story of now teenage Liberian boy who was not only a casualty of the Liberia’s civil war, but also a casualty of intercountry adoption. I have chosen to omit any identifying information, because the attention here is on what can be done to solve this ever growing problem. Then I will end this post with some analysis of why this problem is happening and how it goes unnoticed.

A Liberian Boy: a casualty of the war and a casualty of adoption.

This is a story about a preteen boy who was adopted from Liberia in 2007 to a U.S. family and how his adoption was disrupted within six months of bringing him home to the U.S. This boy was born into a nation experiencing a brutal civil war that lasted 14 years until it finally ended in 2003.

During Liberia’s civil war, a child’s chance for survival was grim at best because access to food, medicine and safety were often not assessable. And for this particular boy, his life tragically came close to being a “killed” statistic of Liberia’s war. It was on one fateful day, this then baby boy was seriously wounded when a bullet fired from a gun rapidly propelled towards him before piercing through his still developing skull and brain. This bullet remained lodged in his head because the medical services were no longer capable of performing such a delicate surgery. It was a miracle that this boy survived at all, and to even walk and talk after experiencing such a life-threatening and life-altering injury.

Since the war collapsed Liberia’s medical care system, it was hard for anyone to evaluate the extent of his injuries relating to his physical, mental and emotional state; however, there were a few noticeable differences that became apparent while others were yet to be revealed. Physically, one side of his body the muscles had slightly atrophied. Mentally, there were signs that his learning development would be delayed or limited. Emotionally, at first he appeared as a quiet and reserved boy, but later many hidden traumas would soon rise to the surface and occasionally erupt into a fiery volcano.

As the nation began to sort out the devastation after its civil war completely destroyed the infrastructure leaving many Liberians in extreme poverty, this boy’s chances for survival were still critical. His father’s [3] post-war impoverished condition left him unable to provide or care for a son with special needs. This father was likely overwhelmed with worry for his son’s welfare and despair for there was no hope for his future. However, he would soon find relief when he learned about adoption. His son was eventually placed with a U.S. family that seemed eager and willing to help this special boy.

After completing the in-country paperwork and court documentation, it was now time for this boy to be united with his new family. The adoptive father arrived alone in Liberia July 2007, to complete his new son’s travel visa before bringing him home to the rest of the eagerly waiting U.S. family. The first moments that the parent and child meet one another are filled with both excitement and anxiety. And like so many other new adoptive parents, this father was overjoyed with emotion as it became clear that this was his new son.

For the next two weeks while the travel visa was being processed, this new father-son bond had time to become more cohesive. It was during this time that the adoptive father could also assess his adopted son’s condition. This adoptive father, who was fully aware of his son’s injury, would share his reasons for adopting this boy by saying to the likes that “God placed it in my heart to adopt and help this child.” He also openly talked about having his new son evaluated by surgeons to see if the bullet could be removed and some resources to help him overcome his developmental issues. He seemed ready to face the many challenges—known and unknown—for this physically and emotionally traumatized child as he and his adopted son prepared to embark on their journey home to the U.S.

Sometime after arriving to the U.S., this boy was evaluated and found to be eligible to receive the reparative surgery that successfully removed the bullet from his head. From this moment, it seemed that this child’s tragic past was over and a new life was about to begin. Nevertheless, on one tragic day this boy would become grievously agitated and subsequently threatened the life of his family and his own. It is unknown if this occurred more than once, or if this was caused by probable brain damage and emotional trauma from his injury. Regardless of these unknowns, the family was ready to disrupt his adoption within six months of receiving him.

At first there were attempts to readopt him to other adoptive families of Liberian children in the U.S., but they were unsuccessful. So instead of putting him into the U.S. foster care system, he was returned to Liberia in late 2008 or early 2009. Currently, he is living at the compound of the agency that placed him for adoption, and the environment there is not conducive to living in caring home with loving and nurturing parents. Additionally, he is not receiving any emotional counseling to overcome what is most likely post traumatic stress syndrome.

His future is unknown and his chance for re-adoption is unlikely with Liberia’s moratorium still in place. However, even when that is lifted the outlook of him being placed with a new family is highly doubtful due to two reasons. First, there is a growing trend of older Liberian adoptees' being returned to Liberia or placed in U.S. foster care because the parents could not cope with the child's disruptive behavior. Secondly, adoptive parents in their blog posts are advising others not to adopt older Liberian children, because they are struggling with their adopted child’s emotional outbursts that can turn violent or behavioral problems that include lying and stealing.

It is very likely that his father is aware of his return, and yet it is unknown why this child is not living with him. It seems after everything this boy has been through that his only hope is to be reunited with his natural father. Also, his father could receive financial assistance to care for his son through child support payments, because the adoptive family is still obligated to this child, regardless of the disruption.

Disruptions: why they occur and why they are unreported.
This story illustrates how disruptive adoption can fail children and also cause them additional harm. Unfortunately, many preteen and teenage children from developing and post-war nations have similar stories. Many of these children have unforeseen trauma-related anxieties from experiencing war, being institutionalized or separated from their birth parents. If these children are not given proper mental health care for their emotional wounds, they express their anxiety in violent rages either by verbal threats or physical assault. Many times the adoptive parents are unprepared or incapable to tend to their children’s emotional needs, and this is how children are placed in foster care or returned to their birth nation. And in some notable cases, these traumatized children have been violently abused or murdered by their adoptive parents who were unable to cope with their emotional problems [4].

In the U.S. there have been over 200 reported cases of children adopted domestically or internationally that were abused or killed by their adoptive parents. The children who survived this violence have suffered from physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and deprivation. Also, from these recorded cases, several of the children were homeschooled and this helped hide the abuse from the authorities [5].

Unfortunately, children adopted from other nations have experienced the brutality of war, the cruelty of poverty and the travesty of being institutionalized. Adding to these devastating traumas, the adopted children must also adapt to a new culture, language or religion. Most of these children are not properly evaluated or treated by a mental health expert. Instead these children are often diagnosed or labeled by so-called attachment therapists [6] or their adoptive parents as suffering from “Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD),” because the child is unable to bond with the parent. It is usually when this child-parent bond fails that the adoption ends in disruption, and RAD is used as the primary excuse. However, according to the following definition from the Mayo Clinic, it is unlikely that most of these children have suffered from RAD since it is deemed a “rare” condition:

Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which infants and young children don't establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers.

A child with reactive attachment disorder is typically neglected, abused, or moved multiple times from one caregiver to another. Because the child's basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren't met, he or she never establishes loving and caring attachments with others. This may permanently alter the child's growing brain and hurt their ability to establish future relationships.

Reactive attachment disorder is a lifelong condition, but with treatment children can develop more stable and healthy relationships with caregivers and others. Safe and proven treatments for reactive attachment disorder include psychological counseling and parent or caregiver education.

What is most startling is that many of these disruptions occur under the radar. Currently, there is no universal tracking or monitoring system to determine how many children have experienced failed adoptions and where they are placed. Also, there is no system that ensures these children are receiving the quality care they deserve and the necessary counseling or therapy to treat their mental health issues causing their displacement. This lack of an oversight mechanism has caused many children to become lost in the system and eventually forgotten. For right now many children are being processed through underground networks in attempt to re-adopt them without going through proper or legal channels [7]. These attempts to cover up the disruptions are often from the efforts of adoptive parents or placement agencies who are avoiding to disclose this unfavorable fact. This is probably how so many children adopted outside the U.S. are put on planes and returned to their birth nations to languish in uncertainty.

There are some organizations that provide help for distressed adoptive parents and adopted children. They can find solace from a few adoption disruption resource providers that can help with counseling, re-adoption, disruption prevention, and respite care for the children or parents. However, these providers either specialize in children with special needs, up to age three, certain nationalities and various states [8]. This is why there needs to be a global system that helps children of all ages and from all nations with or without special needs, that oversees all aspects of the pre- and post-disruption process to guarantee the rights of the child. 

As the issue of disruptive adoption continues to go unmonitored, there has been little attention given to this real concern in the many online forums or blogs of adoption advocacy groups who seek to gain from this highly profitable industry. However, there are several adult adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents and concerned individuals or groups who are advocating ethical adoption reforms to protect children from being further harmed by abusive and fraudulent practices or traumatized by failed adoptions.

These ethical reforms need to ensure that these forgotten children are not returned to uncaring institutions; are not lost in an overstretched foster care system; are not roaming homeless on the streets; are not locked away in juvenile detention centers or work camps; are not being over medicated for hyperactivity or labeled with a learning disability; are not being exploited for prostitution and as child laborers; are not growing up in physically, emotionally and sexually abusive homes; and are not taking their own lives because they can no longer stand the pain of being invisible.

However, for this Liberian boy and so many other adopted children, there are no reforms that will ensure their rights are protected after disruption or guarantee their emotional and physical needs are met. Therefore there is an urgency to explore and examine this issue to create ethical policies that recognize these often forgotten and forsaken children. As a global community, we must prevent these children from being aborted from society or devalued as “damaged beyond repair” or “too difficult to manage.” Instead, we must attend to their mental health care needs to ease their suffering from overwhelming emotional traumas. By ensuring that all children are valued as precious living humans, we can guarantee their undeniable right to be recognized, loved and protected.


[1] Confidentiality and Seal Records. “Anonymity and new birth certificates were both consistent with matching, which set out to make new families “as if” they had been made naturally. Confidentiality was converted into secrecy only after World War II. Secrecy meant that even adult adoptees, to their great surprise and frustration, could not obtain information about their births and backgrounds. The intentions behind confidentiality were benevolent, but sealed records created an oppressive adoption closet. Even though sealed records were recent inventions, rather than enduring features of adoption history, they were largely responsible for the adoption reform movement that gathered steam in the 1970s.” The Adoption History Project.

[2] Liberia has been operating with no adoption law pertaining to international adoptions. The government has been using an archaic law, an article within the Domestic Relations Act, for domestic adoptions and it was lacking clear oversight and regulation of the process.

[3] The mother’s fate is unknown.

[4] New adoption death alarms Russian. In this 2005 BBC News article, it cites how 14 adopted children have been murdered abroad and mandates the need for adoptive parents to “undergo mandatory parenting courses and psychological testing.” This comes after another reported case of a 2-year-old Russian girl being killed by her adoptive U.S. mother. BBC News 15 Jul 2005. According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) at least 12 Russian children have been killed by U.S. adoptive parents.

[5] Pound Pup Legacy, an advocacy for child safety within the foster care and adoption system, has compiled all known cases of children who have been abused or killed by their adoptive parents.

[6] According to the American Psychological Association, the terms ‘attachment disorder,’ ‘attachment problems’ and ‘attachment therapy’ are increasingly being used; but have no clear, specific, or consensus definitions (APSAC, 2). Though attachment therapy is a young and diverse field, the benefits and risks of many attachment related treatments remain scientifically undetermined. Controversies have arisen over certain attachment therapy techniques such as “rebirthing” or other types of coercive restraining methods have been implicated in several child deaths and other harmful effects (APSAC, 3). According to proponents, attachment disordered children crave power, control and authority, are dishonest, and have ulterior motives for ostensibly normal social behaviors (APSAC, 6). They are labeled within some treatment or parent communities as simply “RAD’s,” “RAD-kids” or “RADishes.” Thus, the conceptual focus for understanding the child’s behavior emphasizes the child’s individual internal pathology and past caregivers, rather than current parent-child relationships or current environment (APSAC, 7). Report of the Apsac/Apa Division 37 Task Force On Attachment Therapy, Reactive Attachment Disorder and Attachment Problems 2006.

[7] Underground Network moves children from home to home. This 2006 USA Today article investigates the issue of Tennessee couple running an underground network for a disrupted adoptions and also being charged with abuse of their own adopted children. Ronald Federici, a neuropsychologist in Alexandria, Va., and author of Help for the Hopeless Children who has adopted seven children was cited saying "Dump and run — it happens all the time." says Ronald Federici, a neuropsychologist in Alexandria, Va., and author of Help for the Hopeless Children who has adopted seven children…. He says there are hundreds of e-mail chat rooms in which people who adopted children are trying to find new homes for them outside the public system…. "They don't want to sell the kids. They just want to get rid of them," he says, explaining the children may have health problems the adoptive parents never expected. "It's not the merchandise they bought." He says many of these parents are looking for the cheapest and fastest placement. USA Today 18 Jan 2006 by Wendy Koch.

[8] The Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) website lists eight adoption disruption resources offering a range of services.
2009 Aug 17