What happens when an adoption does not work out

Among pet owners, “re-homing” an unwanted dog or cat is a relatively straightforward process. The owner who is looking for an alternative home often places an ad on the Internet, and a private transaction occurs that moves the pet to a new family. But with the rise of foreign adoptions of children and the inability of some parents to handle troubled youths, more and more desperate families are taking that approach with adopted youngsters and re-homing the children with strangers. Often those re-homed children report gruesome tales of physical, sexual or emotional abuse in their new homes.

The process of re-homing has been largely unregulated—no federal laws prohibit the exchange of unwanted adopted kids. Most states allow private adoptions, but the processes vary widely and oversight is limited. In most cases, re-homing may be executed by a simple power-of-attorney letter or a notarized statement without government authorities or even any lawyers vetting the new parents, there’s no legal framework to address it. It’s mostly an underground affair.

By contrast, if adoption through a legal agency fails before it’s legally final, the child can be returned to the agency in what’s referred to as “disrupted adoption.”  The national rate of disruption is 10 to 20 percent. Since re-homing is done privately, there are no statistics monitoring the number of failed adoptions.

“Kids shouldn’t be in want ads like puppies. That is where people like the mentally ill and pedophiles go to get children. At best, it’s abandonment, and at worst, it’s human trafficking.”

Many parents of adopted children are desperate. Serious problems erupt when agencies don’t screen potential adoptive parents or the child’s special needs aren’t disclosed. Often, those needs result from neglect or mistreatment by birth parents or at overloaded orphanages. As a result, some kids may end up destroying property, becoming violent and resisting nurturing by their new parents.

Children adopted internationally face other problems: Those from institutional homes may have attachment disorders from prior neglect or have language differences that limit their understanding of expectations.

The remedy for re-homing to make it a crime and described as baby selling.  This would send a very clear message to the parents who find themselves in this type of situation.

Additionally, agencies must do a better job of screening kids and conducting home studies of parents and providing better post-adoption support.

In April, Wisconsin became the first state to make it illegal for anyone not licensed by the state to advertise a child older than age 1 for adoption or any other custody transfer, both in print and online. Parents who want to transfer custody of a child to someone other than a relative must seek permission from a judge. Violators face up to nine months in jail or as much as $10,000 in fines.

Last summer, Louisiana also banned nonlegal adoption, with offenders facing a penalty of $5,000 and up to five years in prison. Colorado, Florida and Ohio are considering similar laws.

The Hague Convention’s international treaty on intercountry adoptions requires that prospective parents receive counseling and home studies by agencies approved by the U.S. State Department before they’re eligible to adopt.  But the Hague treaty applies only to signatory countries, and many of those countries fail to enforce the requirements.

For its part, the Adoption Committee of the ABA Family Law Section has informally discussed re-homing, but it has no plans to take active steps such as drafting a model statute, says family lawyer Carl Gilmore, the committee’s chair.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Far From Home: States begin to crack down on parents ‘re-homing’ their adopted kids.”

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