A baby is placed with a beaming adoptive couple. Their dreams have come true. Life is wonderful. Everyone will live happily ever after, right? Not necessarily. An adoptive placement may be the beginning of an adoption story, but it is by no means the end. Sadly, issues can arise post-placement which preclude the anticipated storybook ending. These issues include but are certainly not limited to the divorce of the adoptive couple, the drama between adoptive parents and the birth parents in open adoptions, and disruption or dissolution of the adoption. Let’s take a look at these “D” problems which can derail an adoption’s happy ending post-placement.

Divorce of Adoptive Couple Post-Placement

Today marriage is not always “until death do us part.” The parting is often a result of a court judgment of divorce. 

In the 1980s, the divorce rate sat at a shocking 50% in the U.S., although succeeding years have seen that rate decline. Researcher Paul Amato, who published his findings in the Journal of Marriage and Family, determined that a couple’s lifetime risk of divorce in this country is now around 42 to 45%. 

Compounding the typical stressors on marriage in 2021 is the coronavirus pandemic. Spiking divorce rates have ensued from lockdowns and being stuck at home for months. The number of divorces being sought was 34% higher from March through June 2020 than in 2019. 

Adoptive couples are not immune to failed marriages. And when they divorce, there are added dimensions for them to deal with beyond the termination of their marital relationship. For example, divorcing adoptive parents may feel an added sense of guilt. Have they let the birth parents down since they promised a stable and loving two-parent home for the adoptee? Are they held to a higher standard since they sought to take on the responsibility of parenting that child? 

A divorce of adoptive parents also has negative repercussions for the adoptee. While all children of a divorce deal with confusion, sadness, loss, and anger, the reaction of adoptees may be compounded by attachment issues. Having their forever family split up by divorce can cause an adopted child to regress and experience feelings of loss and grief related to the adoption. The adoptee may already be struggling as to whether they truly belong in their adoptive family. This question of belonging is heightened and more complicated when the adoptive parents divorce and establish two separate households post-placement. 

On the bright side, studies indicate that adoptive parents have a lower divorce rate than nonadoptive parents. Specifically, they have characteristics connected with a lower risk of divorce such as higher education and being older at the time of adoption.

Drama with the Birth Parents in Open Adoptions

Around 60 to 70% of domestic adoptions today are open adoptions. Thus, there is some degree of openness and disclosure of information between the adoptive parents and the birth parents. The openness may span interaction ranging from in-person meetings to electronic communication (e-mail, texts, etc.) to information passed between the parties by a third person such as the adoption entity. 

During the adoption process itself, the issue of what contact the birth parents will have with the child post-placement should be addressed. But merely outlining what future involvement the parties anticipate does not guarantee smooth sailing ahead. 

Three general areas are the most fertile for the drama to arise. The first situation is where the birth parents become needy and demanding. They are constantly communicating with the adoptive parents and requesting pictures on an all too frequent basis. The adoptive parents may be focused on transitioning into having a new family member in the household and learning to care for him or her post-placement; thus, they do not have enough hours in the day to accomplish parental duties and satisfy the desires of a birth parent for continuous pictures and updates. 

This scenario may arise when a birth mother interacts directly with the prospective adoptive parents during the pregnancy. Communication is likely to be regular and frequent to provide updates on the progress of the pregnancy, pass along results of doctor’s appointments, and hammer out specific plans for the hospital. Once the placement is made, the adoptive parents are caught up in the day-to-day demands of parenting; the birth parent is likely to be less busy and has become accustomed to steady communication.

The best defense is a good offense to deal with this type of issue. The parties should discuss the realities of time demands on a new parent and set a specific framework as to how often communication with the birth parent is anticipated and how often pictures and updates are to be provided post-placement. Another suggestion is to set up a dedicated private social media group where pictures and information can be posted at a party’s convenience, reducing the need to have contact for specific requests. 

A second issue touches on the other extreme—irregular communication and interaction from the birth parent. If the birth parent has been interacting with the adoptive family and then suddenly drops out of sight or stops communicating, the adoptive parents may be concerned. This concern extends not only to the birth parent’s welfare but also to the impact on the adoptee who could be confused about why the birth parent is not involved in his or her life anymore. 

Adoptive parents need to be aware of the possibility of spotty or intermittent interaction when agreeing to open adoption. A frank discussion between the parties as to how communication is to be maintained if it is begun is a prudent idea.

A disturbing situation that may occur post-placement in an open adoption is a birth parent who later begins or returns to substance abuse. That problem may, of course, be the very reason which led to the adoptive placement in the first place. But if this issue arises, the adoptive parents should re-evaluate if continued interaction or contact with the birth parent is or could be a threat to the child’s well-being.

Both the birth parents and the adoptive parents need to understand upfront that the adoptive parents will be allowed to alter the agreed-upon interaction or visitation if it is in the best interest of the child. For example, if a birth parent shows up for a child’s birthday party intoxicated, the adoptive parents are within their rights not only to ask the birth parent to leave but to cease future contact until it can be established that such behavior will not occur in the child’s presence.

Disruption and Dissolution Post-Placement

Situations in which the adoptive parents later divorce or encounter issues in interacting with birth parents presume that the adoption has been finalized. But in some cases, post-placement issues arise which cause the adoption to fail before finalization. No happily ever after will occur because no forever family was ever legally created.

Disruption is the term used to describe an adoption process that ends after the child is placed in a prospective adoptive home but before the legal finalization of the adoption. In such a case, the child is removed from the prospective adoptive home and either placed with new prospective adoptive parents, returned to a birth parent, or sent back to foster care. In common language, these situations are what is known as failed adoptions. 

Adoptions can also fall apart post-finalization. Dissolution occurs when an adoption ends after it has been finalized. The legal relationship between parent and child is severed either voluntarily or involuntarily. A dissolution is like a divorce because the family relationship is legally terminated.

Although disruptions and dissolutions are two distinct scenarios, the term dissolution has fallen out of common use. Disruption is now typically viewed to be a broad term to include both adoptions which fail before finalization as well as adoptions that are terminated after finalization.

No national studies have been conducted on disruptions or dissolutions. The research that has been done has focused on adoptions from public agencies and narrowly defined populations. While dissolutions are rare, disruption rates are thought to range around 25% depending on the population in question. 

The largest disruption rates tend to occur when older children, as opposed to infants, are adopted. With each additional year of age, the likelihood of disruption increases by six percent. There is a lower risk of disruption if a child is placed with relatives for adoption or placed through a private agency as opposed to through the state. Children placed for adoption who have experienced sexual or emotional abuse before placement suffer a high rate of disruption.

Certain factors have been identified as leading to disruption. As relates to the child, these factors include an older age, the presence of emotional and behavioral issues, being the victim of prior sexual abuse, and a strong attachment to the birth mother. The factors for adoptive parents include the lack of social support, particularly from relatives, unrealistic expectations, and being a new or matched parent rather than a foster parent who adopts. For an adoption agency, the factors noted are staff discontinuities, inadequate or insufficient information on the child, the involvement of more caseworkers, and inadequate parental preparation, training, and support. 

Once a child has been adopted, a strong social stigma exists about dissolution; such a step is viewed as abandoning the child. Nevertheless, its occurrence has been more widespread in recent years, especially among parents who have adopted children from Eastern European countries, particularly Russia and Romania. These children were found to have suffered far more from pre-placement institutionalization than their adoptive parents were led to believe. 

When an adoptive placement does not work out, re-homing may occur. In this process, adopted children are given to a different adoptive family, perhaps one even identified by the original adoptive parents. International adoptees are more susceptible to re-homing than children adopted domestically. The practice has caused great concern in the foreign countries of the adopted children who originated from them.

Because of the social stigma attached, stories of dissolution are less likely to be reported. In 2000, a high-profile dissolution case was, however, featured on the CBS news program “48 Hours.” The adoptive parents, Jesse and Crystal Money, an Atlanta area couple, returned their 9-year-old adopted daughter to the orphanage in Moscow where she had previously lived. The child suffered from severe Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), and her increasingly violent behavior caused the adoptive parents to fear for their physical safety. The lack of ability to get the child the help she needed led the couple to take such drastic action.

In another case a decade later in 2010, a 33-year-old Tennessee nurse returned a 7-year-old boy whom she had adopted from a Russian orphanage. After having the child in her home for six months, she put the child alone on a plane bound for Moscow. She placed a note in the boy’s pocket that read, “I no longer wish to parent this child.” The adoptive mother went on to explain that the child suffered from severe psychological problems and was violent; additionally, she stated that the orphanage had lied to her and misled her about his condition.

While these dissolution situations are heartbreaking, they do emphasize the need for prospective adoptive parents to be fully informed about the background of the child they intend to adopt. Lack of such information and the consequent lack of preparation to deal with the child’s issues is merely setting the stage for the adoption to fail. It behooves adoptive parents to ask questions and push for answers before placement; this advice is especially important where the potential adoptee is an older child or a child who was born in another country. 

Placement of a child in an adoptive home may initially be a joyous development. But the building of a forever family is just the beginning of the forever family’s story. A happily ever after is not guaranteed in any case. The adoptive parents divorcing, issues arising about interacting with a birth parent in an open adoption, and failure of the adoption before or after finalization may cause a detour off the road to happily ever after.